Interview: Steve Pretty, Hackney Colliery Band – Collaboration Is Key (July 2019)

If you are looking for a 360° musician, look up the name Steve Pretty. The trumpet player, orchestra director, composer, arranger, producer and much, much more is a true all-round artist. However, for the chat we had with him a few days ago, we decided to focus our attention on his “loudest” and most eclectic project, Hackney Colliery Band.

The unorthodox London-based colliery band is in the midst of no less than a Globe Theatre residency, being the official orchestra for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Next to the Shakespearean commitment, HCB have recently released a new album entirely dedicated to collaborations, and on 23rd July, Steve will join us at the Amersham Arms in New Cross for a listening party to present the album and allow you to enjoy it. To introduce you to the event, we met Steve at the Globe, where we spoke about HCB, Collaborations Vol.1, and his new solo project On the Origins of the Pieces.

Like its straightforward title suggests, Collaboration Vol.1 is based on an unequivocal concept – collaboration. But it’s the way the project started and developed that was everything but ordinary.

“Collaboration Vol.1 sort of does what it says. It’s an album of collaborations with different people, and it’s the first volume of the plan. It’s a kind of project for the band. We’re using collaboration in quite a broad sense. Some of the collaborations on this record were writing collaborations; someone has written a track for us for the first time. That’s the first time that’s happened, and that’s really been great so far because we would normally write everything ourselves, while most of the collaborations on the record are with other performers.

 We’ve always had quite broad tastes in what we do. Obviously, we are known as being a brass band, but for a long time, we’ve been moving away from the funky party brass band vibe. That’s not really been our main thing for quite a long time. And so, with this album, we’ve really doubled down with that and said that we want to work with really interesting people and to redefine what people’s concept of a brass band might be. That’s why we’re working with people like Angelique Kidjo, Mulatu Astatke, Bugge Wesseltoft… So, it’s been really, really exciting, because we’ve always collaborated with artists, but never in a record. This is the first time we’ve put that together, and we’ve got a lot of other tracks for future releases. It was also a big challenge to put it together and find out the best way of packaging it to release it.”

As Steve mentioned, Collaboration Vol.1 is populated by some remarkable musicians, like Angelique Kidjo and Mulatu Astatke. What’s even more remarkable is the organic way in which those collaborations took shape.

“Angelique Kidjo came about because I worked with her on a project that I directed at the Roundhouse. I did a project called On Mass a couple of times, and in the second of those, she was the guest artist. I got on really well with her, and we were talking, and she was interested about the band. So, when we were looking at doing something together, it came about through that. Mulatu Astatke came about because we’ve always been big fans of his music. He has been a big influence in our sound really since day one. And one of our musicians, our sax player James Arben, is his musical director and has been working with Mulatu for a long time, which is basically how the collaboration came about. Then, other people, like Bugge Wesseltoft; I worked in Norway and played with him a few times there. So, a lot of the time, I work with someone, and then, if we get on really well, I’ll hang around after the event and have a chat or reach them via email and say, ‘Do you fancy doing a track together?’ and normally, if they like what we do, you know…

Sometimes it’s hard to pin them down though, so it’s been quite a lot of work. Some of the tracks have taken longer than others. Some of them came together very quickly, but others have taken several years. Actually, the collaborative project was supposed to form the backbone of our last album, Sharpener, that we published in 2016. Then, for one reason or another, a couple of them weren’t ready, and we felt like we had enough non-collaborative tracks. We also wanted to make a slightly different statement with that album, being a bit more electronic. So, we ended up not doing that, and we parked them. We set apart those collaborations, so some of them are from that period, while others came together really just in the last few weeks before we recorded it. So, it’s a real mix, and others we’ve got for the future volumes.”

Even if Collaboration Vol.1 has only been released a few months ago, there’s already a Vol.2 in the making, so we tried to pilfer some leaks about it.

“For the first volume, we wanted to put a stamp on the world music and jazz scenes and flag up some of those amazing musicians who are working in that world. While, for the second one, it’s still early days, but we might be slightly different again. The idea is, we follow up with Volume 2, probably next year or quite soon, with different guests and probably quite a different flavour. I can’t really reveal who will be the next guests because they might change, but I think it’s very fair to say there’ll probably be more vocalists. It’s going to be, very broadly speaking, slightly “soulier”, and more hip-hop and soul flavours will get in the mix. It will still be quite unusual, because what we don’t want to become is an accompaniment band for singers, so it’s always going to be our project.

I think it’s really interesting and tricky for a band like us, because the right thing to do in any conventional industry way would be to choose one thing and just go with that. In our case, that’d be what we get known for; I mean the funky party brassy band… We’ve been going for 10 years now, and we’ve never really done that. The only resemblance we have to brass bands is in the line-up, but we have very different backgrounds. HCB is about celebrating the variety of music that we like, and that might be post rock or African music, Indian music or music from New Orleans. Also, there’s three writers in the band (myself and the two drummers), and we’ve always thought that we have lots of different tastes. So, we decided to celebrate that with this album, rather than pretending to be something that we are not.”

To boast three ‘writing’ minds in a single band is a gift, but it might also be a nightmare, having to let them coexist when it comes to assembling new tracks. We tried to understand how the band’s creative process works.

“HCB’s writing process is different for every track. This album is the first one that we’ve actually collaborated on between ourselves as well. Normally, myself and the two drummers bring in a track that we’ve written, and then the rest of us interpret it, while for this album, we had writing sessions together. Actually, there’s only one track that ended up in this album, while more will be in future albums. So, it’s been really good working together like that in a more inclusive way from the early stages. Obviously, we work together after the ideas are there, but also generating those ideas together has been really good. Otherwise, some of the tracks have been written with other people, so the collaboration has been in the writing as well as performance. So, yes, it’s been really varied. There’s not really a go-to way of writing for this band.”

Doing a project like Collaborations inevitably enriched HCB and shaped the way it’s growing. Every guest brought her/his personal style and way of making music to the table, which ended up influencing the band itself.

“The band is very much still the band. I mean, we’re really enjoying working with other people, and I think the sort of shows that we’re looking to do in the future are concert hall shows. For example, the next show will be at the Barbican, and quite a lot of the musicians from the record are going to be there and playing with us. But, we will certainly make more music on our own again, and we will obviously be touring as HCB. It’s just that, after 10 years, we wanted to do something new with it and work with interesting musicians.  

I have to say that, going through the Collaborations project process has been really interesting, because sometimes people bring something to the table that you don’t really expect. For me, the best example is Bugge Wesseltoft. He’s on the track called ‘Snowfire’. When I wrote it, I had a couple of different people in mind, but he was basically top of the list. So, it was amazing that he was able to do that. When I’ve worked with him in Norway, sometimes he does a lot of his crazy synth stuff. He uses percussion beats and mics on stage and goes mad processing things, which is something I’m really into, and I envisioned that for the track. But, since I wasn’t with him when he recorded his track, he just simply sent back the tape with his recording, and it was on piano; something that I wasn’t expecting at all. He wrote to me, ‘Oh, I heard it more on piano,’ and actually, he was totally right. He was completely right; spot on.

That’s why we were trying not to be too prescriptive about it. We’ve always been saying to our guests, ‘This is the kind of thinking, but it’s up to you what you wanna do,’ trying to make it properly collaborative. So, the collaboration with Bugge Wesseltoft is a really good example of what we were looking for, because it was able to change the approach we had to our own track.

Also, Mulatu is another good example. I wasn’t in the studio with him when he recorded, and his way of playing is so unexpected. Even if you know his music, when he plays over your music, so many times it’s like, ‘Wow, that was unexpected!’ because he has such a clear vision of music. For him, it’s all about creating the mood. It’s not really about a conventional jazz solo; it’s much more about the texture. We originally envisaged it like a feature from Mulatu, but in the end, he’s all over the tracks. He’s just worked incredibly well in creating those moods and creating those textures, which is far better than if he’d just done a flashy solo in the middle of it. So, it was also about changing our perspective on our own tracks.”

Since Steve couldn’t reveal to us the names of Volume 2’s guests, we wanted at least to know HCB’s dream collaborations.

“I don’t know about the other guys, but for me, the dream collaboration is with Sufjan Stevens. I have a massive amount of respect for his vision. For me, he and Bjork would be my number one. While, more into the world music point of view, there are so many incredible people we’d love to work with. I was partly involved in some of the Africa Express stuff years ago, and what Damon Albarn did, putting all those people together, was amazing. So yes, considering world music, someone like Jupiter would be amazing to work with.”

And, because he mentioned the HCB show at the Barbican, happening in October, we also wanted to know the plans for the future of the band and a bit more about his solo project.

“The upcoming gig at the Barbican is really the next big thing for us, and we are really excited, because that’s the biggest show we’ll have ever done. It will indeed be at the Barbican Hall with a lot of guests from the album, and that’s going to be a really spectacular gig. I think that’s probably what we’re going to try to do in the future; organise a couple more of those bigger shows around the country in more concert hall venues with some of the artists that we’ve been working with, and just create a bit more of an event. Also, because you can take people to quite interesting places and set up a sort of micro-HCB festival.

Then, I’m doing a solo project titled On the Origin of the Pieces, which is about what music is, where it comes from and why it’s important. It’s partly music and partly a theatre show. It is being billed as a theatre show, but it’s not a story of what music is and where it comes from. It’s me as me. It has a lot of music in it, and I have a very complicated and mad series of instruments. I’m trying to create all the sound music live. So, I’m trying to use a lot of contemporary techniques. It’s a one-man show, but with live instruments. I’ve basically got robots essentially controlling acoustic instruments to create those mad soundscapes. With it, I’m trying to reach audiences who really love music, but don’t really know why, or they don’t know much about it. They might study it at school a little bit, but they’ve forgotten. I’m really excited about that. It’s only one night for now, but hopefully, there’ll be more, because it is a major new project for me.”

To close our interview with Steve and leave him setting A Midsummer Night’s Dream to music, we asked him our fatidic question, to introduce his band and music to someone who has never listened to it.

“To me, one of the things that I always loved to do with this band from the very first gig 10 years ago was surprise people. In the early days, and still now sometimes, it’s about people looking at our line-up and going, ‘They are a brass band, but they seem to be playing hip-hop’. Maybe now, it’s more like, ‘I thought they did funk covers, but here they are working with Mulatu Astatke’. But, it’s still about surprising people. Then, another crucial thing for me is being able to do that in an accessible way. Being part of the jazz and world music worlds, I notice that they can be quite exclusive and quite difficult to access for a lot of people. So, what I like is the fact that a lot of people who come to our gigs wouldn’t go to jazz gigs normally, and maybe they realize afterwards that we did a 90-minute jazz show, and fairly far out too; sometimes quite free with a lot of mad electronics. So, I really like being able to present quite challenging music to a more general audience. For me, a big part of that is not taking the music very seriously, but also being quite light-hearted with this idea of chatting to the audience, and I like making it accessible.”


No better way to experience that than by attending Steve and HCB’s next shows, starting at Wilton Music Hall with On the Origin of the Pieces, followed by Amersham Arms and the Collaboration Vol.1 listening party, then ending up in October at the Barbican for HCB’s biggest show to date.