Interview: Shabaka Hutchings – Sons of Kemet (August 2016)

Sons of Kemet are no longer a fresh faced new group on the London music scene. After five years and two successful albums, their name has spread far-and-wide becoming a sought after act. Their music is more eclectic and harder to define than ever, but that doesn’t prevent it is enthralling. In fact, their fanbase grows after every performance.

We had the chance to enjoy the band’s latest gig in London at Battersea Arts Centre during Borderless Festival and we seized the moment to have a chat with Shabaka Hutchings, founder member of the project and one of the most inventive saxophonists of the UK jazz community.

After five years of Sons of Kemet, we asked Shabaka to take stock of the experience. How has the band’s approach to music changed?

Our approach to music has deeply changed, because I think that we, as individuals, have all grown in term of our musical sensibility. That’s surely shown by our music. There is still a lot of energy in it, but we feel that it is energetic in a different way than three years ago. In the beginning it was much stronger. We can say that it was also more physically stronger: we felt stronger and we played in that way for a wide amount of time. So, this means that instead of focussing our shows on the struggle to get to the end and how we battered our energy down, today they are more about controlling our energy and where it goes. That’s our musical process at the moment. Then, our music is less genre-specific. Actually, our music has never been related to a specific genre, but now it’s becoming even less of that”.

Since we are in the realm of the indefinable, we challenged Shabaka to find a few words to explain how Sons of Kemet sound…

I don’t think there’s anything that can define our sound at the moment. That’s one of the things a lot of bands in London at the moment have: the fact that their sound is not easily definable between the parameters of a genre. Maybe we need a new vocabulary to talk about this music. So, yes that’s not something you can say, that it’s this or that kind of music”.

To understand where the band’s sound was coming from, we made a step back and asked the saxophonist to reveal to us some of the Sons of Kemet influences.

I can speak for myself, but I think now it’s less about taking influences from things. We have already been influenced: influences are already there and now we just have to play. In the past, our music might have been influenced by Count Ossy and the Mystic Revelation or certain bashment, dancehall or jazz artists. Whereas now, it’s like we’ve got away with that and we have finally got a set of influences to play with. So, it’s more about trying to realise that set, rather than trying to be someone else or show that we have assimilated something from someone else. It’s like those influences have been settled and are taking hold in the way we play, so we don’t need to show them too much: we can just be ourselves”.

They were indeed themselves in their second release: Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, released a year ago, which achieved considerable success.

We started to play the material from the second album maybe one year before the release of the record, so it’s already two years that we’ve been playing those songs. That’s the kind of time we need to start again with a new project. If you judge the success on playing bigger and bigger shows in London and how many people come to our gigs, we saw a really good reaction. People keep on supporting us and coming to our gigs. So, I guess the only thing for us to do is to keep on developing our new material”.

In fact, Sons of Kemet are already thinking about their third album:

I’m already writing new material for the next album and even if we’re not playing it in our shows at the moment, the way that we play reflects the direction we have taken and we are going for our next work. It’s a slower development of that material, which we’ll hopefully have ready before the end of September. Then we have to start to integrate it and see what works and what doesn’t”.

Shabaka also explained us how the Sons of Kemet creative process works:

In some ways, we work in a kind of old-style jazz band. I write the music, then I give it to the guys, but once I give it to them, it obviously changes. I don’t give any very detailed drum part: I just give sketches of what they need to do. Then, we develop those sketches when we play. This is why we tend to play stuff a lot before we record it”.

Another important feature and influence which has an impact on Sons of Kemet’s music is the fact that the musicians play in several side-projects.

It’s a process of osmosis, whatever anyone does outside of the band obviously influences what they play in the band. We’re not the kind of ensemble in which everything is too strict. So I may go out and play with the Comet is Coming and the kind of thing I need to do to make that gig successful may influence how I come back and play in Sons of Kemet. The same happens with the other members of the band. All these projects are adding vitality to our music, which is what you need. This is the thing that keeps our music going, we are definitely not getting bored of it”.

Since Shabaka and his music partners are so deeply involved with the London music scene, we asked him about his thoughts and perspective over it.

I think there’s a really great scene at the moment. There’s a lot going on: a lot of ideas and bands are kind of fermenting, growing and developing. All of a sudden, they finally have the things they need to express themselves and they’ve been recognised outside London and England, which is always a great thing. So yes, the spotlight seems to be on London at the moment, a lot of bands are being pushed to solidify what they’re doing and they’ve done for a long period of time. It’s good because I can see a lot of enthusiasm, which is what you need to go on in the music industry”.

The musician also suggested us some names who are enriching the British music scene:

You’d try to listen to guys like Moses Boyd, Yussef Kamal Trio, United Vibrations and Nerija who’re all doing amazing stuff”.

At the same time, Sons of Kemet are more and more expanding their following outside the UK. We tried to understand what they feel when they play their music abroad.

I always feel great! First of all, because it’s good to know that our music is spreading and in the UK, it’s very seldom that we play in a place where no one has ever listened to us. Then, it’s also good to see the different reactions of the audience. Everyone perceives the music in different ways. Some of them are more like ‘pass the vibes’, while others are very receptive but they don’t necessarily show it, which is also great”.

Finally, we closed asking Shabaka to introduce his band to those in and outside the UK who have never listened to Sons of Kemet music.

I’d say we’ve got elements of jazz, energy and improvisation, but also a roots feeling in terms of like roots-reggae even if we don’t sound like that. It’s about the atmosphere. For example, we also got some dancehall elements without sounding dancehall. Our sound takes its energy from different styles of music, but we try to distil it into whatever happens when you play with two drums and tuba”.