Interview: Q&A with The Sorcerers – Reimagining Ethio-Jazz In A Yorkshire Garage (March 2024)

Words by Marco Canepari / Photo by Ciaran Wilson

Leeds-based band The Sorcerers are back in action with their latest album, I Too Am A Stranger. Released in early February via ATA Records after a 4-year hiatus, the LP is another vibrant journey, the band’s third, through cinematic, funky, and Ethio-groove-infused soundscapes.

Since their inception in 2015, this trio has been a standout on the jazzy ATA Records roster, becoming an integral part of the lively and innovative music scene in the West Yorkshire city.

Recently, we had the opportunity to reach drummer Joost Hendrickx and bassist Neil Innes for a Q&A in which we discussed their decade-long musical journey, their connections to Leeds, the influences that shape their sound, and the creative process behind I Too Am A Stranger.

We left you at the beginning of 2020 with one of the best albums of the year, and now we find you back in early 2024, ready to release another LP that’s likely to land on many ‘best of the year’ lists. Can you briefly retrace and tell us what happened over these four years?

Joost: That’s very kind, thank you! We have been working on various other projects on the label since the release of the last Sorcerers record. The core members of The Sorcerers are also the driving force behind several other projects/releases on ATA Records, such as The Library Archive, Work Money Death and The United Disco Organisation, so that has been keeping us pretty busy!

Obviously Covid happened when the last record was released and this made it pretty difficult to keep recording music at ATA. Neil took this time to almost completely rebuild the studio in Leeds (I’m not sure if that was the plan originally!) and improved it considerably, which I think has made our experience of making records far more enjoyable. At the start of 2023 Neil and I finally got into the new space and began writing the bones of I Too Am A Stranger.

Let’s go back to 2015 when you launched the project. What was the spark that led to the formation of The Sorcerers, and how did each of your musical backgrounds influence the band’s direction?

Joost: When the label was first formed, we didn’t have that many releases and were trying to find ways to build the ATA brand. All the releases on ATA are recorded in house and often by the same group of about 5-10 people in different formations so we decided to record several tracks under various different names to create a compilation album.

We all shared a love for Ethio-jazz – Mulatu Astatke and Tilahun Gessesse in particular – and wanted to explore what would happen if we combined that sound with our own brand of library/film music. It quickly became clear that we’d found something pretty interesting and ended up making a full-length album.

I Too Am A Stranger marks your third full-length album. How does this album build on or diverge from the sounds and themes of your previous works?

Joost: With this album we were really keen to make something that sounded more raw and stripped back, focusing a lot on the drums and percussion, which felt like a natural progression from our approach to In Search of the Lost City of the Monkey God, but basically making it heavier and grittier. When Neil and I started demoing the tracks just bass and drums it felt as though we had been backed up with ideas and they just flooded out very organically. We also recorded A LOT of ideas through just improvising and then selecting the best parts to work on, which gives the record perhaps a slightly different feel to the previous albums.

Ethiopian music has been a significant influence on your sound. Can you discuss a particular track on the new album that exemplifies this influence and how you approached its creation?

Neil: I think it’s better to mention the over arching sound of the album rather than one track really, which was massively influence by a Mulatu Astake album called Mulatu of Ethiopia. We listened to that album a lot and incorporated our take on the sounds that comprise this album, the keyboard sound in particular, as a bed from which to write upon.

Collaboration seems to be a key aspect of your music-making process. How did trumpeter Olivia Cuttill and percussionist Danny Templeman contribute to the new album’s sound?

Joost: Most of the instruments on the record are played by either Neil, Richard or myself but early on we knew we wanted that muted trumpet sound to augment the horn lines. Olivia completely understood the brief when it came to The Sorcerers and her sound is totally built into this record, I couldn’t imagine it without! Danny has contributed to several releases on ATA over the years and he’s particularly revered for his Shekere and shaker playing. Danny is the “glue” sitting underneath everything – it’s hard to overstate how important that is!

The album title I Too Am A Stranger suggests themes of exploration and identity. Can you elaborate on how these themes are woven into the album?

Joost: It’s really important to us to make music that is honest and coming from a place of respect for it’s roots. We are not Ethiopian – we live in Yorkshire (!) – however this music resonated with us especially. I Too Am A Stranger refers to the fact that we are, in a way, strangers to this music and we are experiencing it through our own lens. In this age we have the ability to access so much art and take new inspiration at every turn, which can at times feel quite overwhelming. However, at the same time it is like everyone is holding up a mirror to each other and allowing us to see how ideas travel and evolve and act like a language across cultures and generations, which is fascinating.

Recording in an analogue style gives your music a distinctive warmth and authenticity. How does this recording philosophy impact the creative process and the final sound of your albums?

Joost: As the label name suggests, it is “All Things Analogue”, and it really is. Everything is tracked to tape in real time with hardly any edits. We are fortunate to have worked together in this way for over 15 years so we are used to the challenges that can arise when using old and temperamental equipment. In terms of the music, it puts a huge emphasis on commitment and conviction because we won’t be splicing the best bits together or “fixing it in post”. It needs to be right going into the tape machine and we all need to make peace with any bum notes if the take is the right one for the music on the whole. Personally I find absolute perfection (in music, but also in general) to be quite unnerving and cold. I love to hear the imperfect humanity in the music and then become attached to those little moments. Having said that, we try to hold ourselves to high standards when we’re making the music and we will often do several takes to capture a certain mood or energy – it’s a labour of love!

With your sound deeply rooted in ’60s and ’70s Ethiopian music, how do you keep your music fresh and innovative while paying homage to this tradition?

Joost: Ethiopian Jazz has always been a huge part of our sound but we are all constantly listening to and absorbing other music all the time, as well as playing in other projects. This naturally has an impact on the music when we come back together after a couple of years and share ideas. We’re also always looking for patterns between different artists and genres to see where those influences may have come from – did they influence each other in some way? The Ethio-jazz tradition is front and centre of what we are doing but we have never felt limited to that so other influences always managed to creep in. Neil and I were both listening to plenty of Moondog and Hermeto Pascoal around the time of making the new album and I can hear those influences in there too.

The cover art for “I Too Am A Stranger” is quite distinctive. How does the artwork reflect and connect with the music and themes of the album?

Joost: The artwork here is kind of a continuation of the mask/face theme of the last two records. We wanted something that didn’t feel like it belonged to any particular culture but still had a distinctively human feel in the sense that we tend to want to see and recreate faces in everything. The result was a mask, courtesy of our friends at Endless Studio, that was made using mostly rubbish/found items as well as things like tape reel, which has an obvious connection to the philosophy of the label.

Across your albums, including I Too Am A Stranger, you’ve woven in diverse musical influences. Can you discuss a specific influence that might surprise your listeners?

Neil: I guess one influence which is quite far from the world of Ethio-jazz is American composer/musician Moondog and in particular the sounds of his percussion instruments, many of which he built himself.

Joost: One record that was definitely on my mind was The World of Harry Partch from 1969. Similarly to Moondog, he created a lot of his own instruments and I love the hypnotic percussion textures on this record.

Your band is a part of the ATA Records family, known for its commitment to soul and jazz. How does being under this label shape your music and creative freedom?

Joost: The label sort of is us so we get to set our own goals and decide what we focus on and put out. There’s no one between us and our audience telling us how to make the music, which means we can take it wherever we want. It’s a great feeling to know that the only requirement is to make high quality music that we are proud of.

Just like ATA Records, you are also Leeds-based. What can you tell us about the city’s music scene? Is there any up-and-coming act you would like to mention and suggest we listen to?

Joost: Leeds has always been a creative hot bed with loads of musicians making original music. We also have incredibly committed people, such as DJ and promoter Lubi, working within that scene to elevate these artists and reach more and more people. Olivia Cuttill, who played trumpet for our record, is one of the latest rising stars on the Leeds scene and she is doing great things with her own quintet currently, having released a new album and some really creative music videos.

What music are you listening to, and what is influencing you at the moment? Any artist/band or album that you would like to highlight from your current listenings?

Joost: It would be hard to narrow it down but I’ve really been digging a record called Ndigal by a Sene-Gambian group called Karantamba – just so heavy, it’s incredible. I’m also really enjoying a group from Baltimore called Horse Lords, they create incredibly hypnotic music and use a lot of unusual composition and improvisation techniques that evolve over long periods of time.

Looking to the future, apart from releasing I Too Am A Stranger in a few weeks’ time, what are your other plans? Any upcoming tour or shows already planned?

Joost: We are preparing to take the band out and do some shows, hopefully towards the second half of 2024. This is pretty exciting as we’ve never gigged the project – for one reason or another it has always been a studio project – and we’re really keen to get out and meet fans for the first time. The studio is also never closed so we’ll be getting in there as much as we can to see what direction we’ll be going next.

We usually close our interviews with a tricky question, which is… How would you introduce and describe your music to someone who has never listened to it before?

Neil: Ethiopian jazz re-imagined through the creative lens of 3 people who love 60’s film and library music, in a garage with some tape machines in Yorkshire!



I Too Am Stranger, The Sorcerer's brand-new album, is out now via ATA Records.
You can listen to and get your copy of the LP HERE





Photo ©: Ciaran Wilson