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Interview: Soothsayers

Interview: Soothsayers

Interview: Soothsayers

By on - Photos by Will Rogers - Comment

"People have been telling us to do our own vocals for a long time"


In the 1960s when Jamaican and West African music first reached out to the world it was commonplace for a band to be led by horn players. By the 80s the decline of the influence of jazz and the rise of the synthesiser left the brass component of a touring reggae ensemble most likely to be dropped for budgetary reasons (the continued prominence of Dean Fraser being the exception to the norm).

South London’s Soothsayers, who fuse reggae, Afrobeat, and many other styles as they see fit, were founded and led by their horn section, using a variety of more traditional elements like guitarists, drummers and keyboardists as the situation and track demands. They have been similarly collaborative when it comes to guest vocalists on their albums: the third, 'One More Reason', including appearances from Linval Thompson, Michael Prophet and Johnny Clarke.

But for their fifth long playing release, 'Human Nature', chosen as one of United Reggae’s Favourite Albums of 2012, the group have elected to do all the singing themselves (although they have an album with recent tour-mate Cornell Campbell in the works for 2013). Angus Taylor met up with trumpeter Robin Hopcraft and saxophonist Idris Rahman in a London watering hole for a chat about their refusal to be categorised, their increasingly political lyrics, and what the title of their record really means…


Your new album has no guests and you've brought your own voices to the forefront - how did this come to fruition? Was it something you always wanted to do?

ROBIN: Idris was the one who was convinced it was going to be a good idea. Idris is very positive and a lot of singing is about that. Most musicians can sing but it's about having the confidence. Singing is a very personal thing - if you're an instrumentalist you can actually hide slightly behind your instrument because every instrument is a voice. So that jump from being an instrumentalist to a singer is quite significant and quite hard - especially if you've been playing for a long time.

IDRIS: We've always done backing vocals but it's more enjoyable doing music if you're more involved in singing as well as playing - and it became an increasingly enjoyable thing to do. It's nice to be able to work as a unit without having to invite any guests to help us out. It is a difficult leap to make and it does require a bit of confidence to do that. Even after we had finished the album we didn't really know how people were going to react to it - until we got a few comments.

ROBIN: People have been telling us to do our own vocals for a long time. But part of our process has been working with guest vocalists like Johnny Clarke, Cornell Campbell, Keziah Jones, Linval Thompson. I've really enjoyed that process because these are people I've always wanted to work with and producing music with them has been a completely enjoyable, positive experience.

Which harmony groups do you get inspiration from?

ROBIN: Gladiators, Mighty Diamonds, Culture...

IDRIS: Abyssinians...

ROBIN: Simon and Garfunkel. (laughs)

IDRIS: Beatles.

ROBIN: Dodgy.

IDRIS: (laughs)

ROBIN: I've played with Dodgy for years and they're wicked. They've got their own thing. Their new album is brilliant. It's probably better than all the stuff they were doing when I was playing with them. Who else? The Band. Pet S...

IDRIS: The Beach Boys.

I thought you were going to say Pet Shop Boys.

IDRIS: (laughing)

ROBIN: I nearly did - but I meant the Beach Boys!

The name of your group has changed across the last three albums - one More Reason it was "Soothsayers meets Red Earth Collective", on the dub album it was "Red Earth Collective meets Soothsayers" - and now it's just "Soothsayers".

ROBIN: There is a logic to it. Soothsayers meets Red Earth Collective was because there were a lot of musicians on that album and a lot of guest singers so that umbrella was Red Earth Collective. Then on the dub album it was more of a horns feature so we called it Red Earth Collective meets Soothsayers Horns. And this album is neither because it's mostly us singing so we called it Soothsayers. On this album there are a lot of musicians - we've got three different drummers, three or four different guitar players and a couple of keyboard players. But they all play with us so it's kind of that umbrella. But because our vocals are featured we called it Soothsayers.

We just make the music we feel like making and we have to suffer the consequences of that

This is a more serious album in tone than One More Reason - are we living in more serious times?

IDRIS: The songs are written about things that we get emotional about, I suppose. It's quite a lot of stuff that's happening in the news that some of these songs are about. We do want to write about serious things and not just frivolous things. The songs mean a lot to us.

What’s the meaning to the lyrics of We’re Not Leaving? It sounds like it could mean anything from leaving a country to leaving the earth?

ROBIN: We’re Not Leaving is about people having to leave where they’re living. Maybe they’re living on a Pacific island that’s being flooded or maybe they’re living in a country where they can’t make enough money to survive so they have to move to another country to work – like loads of people come to this country for that. The idea was that it could be applicable to anybody in any situation really.

Another interpretation could be that you as a band aren’t leaving the strange place where you dwell musically at the nexus of reggae, jazz, Afrobeat, funk and other “record store” categories.

ROBIN: That kind of thread probably runs through the whole thing! (laughs) Because we’ve always been a bit like that – probably to our own disadvantage in the commercial sense. We don’t sit down and think “What are people going to like?” We just make the music we feel like making and we have to suffer the consequences of that – whatever they are! (laughs)

On the one hand that’s good but the music industry does like to segregate and push things into categories. Like “world music” – whatever that means.

ROBIN: World music is weird because reggae doesn’t get classed as world music – and I think “why is that?” The reason is probably because it sold quite a lot of records at one point so therefore it’s not world music anymore.

IDRIS: It’s more pop.

ROBIN: It’s too big to be world music or something. I mean how can it not be world music? It’s a ridiculous and strange concept. If you’re a guy who plays one string guitar from somewhere in North Africa you are going to get classed as world music when what you’re doing is just music. It’s what you know and that is music. It’s the music from the village you’re from and it’s what you know.

Charlie Gillet once said he helped come up with the concept of “world music” because “African music” confused record store owners and they didn’t know which section to put it in. Today I don’t see so many record shops around so is there any need for the concept?


IDRIS: It’s not relevant.

ROBIN: Yeah, how can you like “world music”? Because world music covers so many genres and sounds. Maybe you can – if you like every music ever that’s fine. But why would you at the same time?

Another interpretation of “We’re Not Leaving” could be about how you haven’t left the reggae direction you took with One More Reason. I’ve read jazz publication reviews that expressed disappointment that you play so much reggae – as if it’s a lower form…


ROBIN: It’s like when you say “reggae” some people just go “Oh, reggae” as if to say “Surely anybody can play reggae?”

IDRIS: We know that reggae is one of the hardest musics to play. Some of the best virtuoso jazz musicians don’t have a clue how to play reggae at all. It’s a very specialist kind of thing that takes a long time to get.

ROBIN: It’s a very subtle thing as well.

Reggae is one of the hardest musics to play. Some of the best virtuoso jazz musicians don't have a clue how to play reggae at all

IDRIS: It’s very subtle and it takes years to work out why it works and how a groove works. How to play reggae in an authentic way is a lifelong journey that we are on – and it’s extremely enjoyable, which is why we do it!

ROBIN: As a songwriting format for us it just seems to work really well. Because although we love Afrobeat, and there are a couple of tracks that have that influence on the album, the way songs kind of work in reggae music suits our vocals better. The three part harmony thing is something that for me personally I’ve been involved in since I was 16 years old.

The flipside of people being disappointed if you leave the lofty heights of jazz for reggae – is people who are purely into roots reggae moaning if you do something different. As if reggae isn’t a fusion anyway.

SoothsayersROBIN: Yeah you do get a bit of that as well! (laughs) We’ve put ourselves in a right situation, haven’t we!

IDRIS: I think we’ve got a lot of fans who are pure reggae fans. Because we’re doing something that’s honest to ourselves. We’re not trying to be anything – we’re not trying to be the Wailers or anything specific. We’re just trying to be something that’s true to ourselves and people can see that, I think, and appreciate it for what it is.

ROBIN: Sometimes I think you get a narrow-mindedness in the reggae scene a little bit. There’s that thing about authenticity which is quite boring, I find. Because the authenticity thing means you’ve got to sound like someone else. You’ve got to sound like somebody who could be from Jamaica. We’re not trying to do that. Because, what’s the point? We’re not. We’re trying to represent who we are – and our journey as musicians has taken in a lot of things from a lot of different places in trying to be true to ourselves. If we were playing a reggae festival in Europe somewhere – and they’re expecting reggae reggae reggae all the time – if they are expecting us to start trying to pretend that we could be from Jamaica – I mean if you look at us we’re not! So we’re trying to be honest to what we are and it’s important for us to represent that and bring in different aspects of music. If people start saying “You’ve got to be this. You’ve got to do one thing” the interest is going to be diminished. That’s the good thing about being independent – we can do what we like. Whether people actually buy the records or not is another matter!

You play the rhythms of the reggae veterans like Johnny Clarke, Michael Prophet, Cornell, as respectfully as the most studious backing bands I’ve seen in Europe. But where some bands struggle when they have to step beyond saying “What would the Abyssinians or the Roots Radics or Cedric Brooks do here?” you seem happy doing your own thing.

ROBIN: We never backed or played with a guest artist until 2007. Me and Idris have been playing together since 1998 and before that doing our own things. So when we work with guest artists – we never wanted to be a backing band as such. We don’t see ourselves as a backing band because if we did that it would basically be the end of our projects. It’s more a thing of collaboration. So when we do a tour with Johnny Clarke we call it “Soothsayers meets Johnny Clarke”, “Soothsayers featuring Cornell Campbell”. The “meeting” thing is a really important word because it’s more of a thing where we want to do something creative with the artists. We’ve done something with Michael Prophet live and Johnny and Cornell but we’ve also made tracks with them. We’ve recorded an album with Cornell and idea is that when we next do live stuff it’s going to be Cornell’s classics, Soothsayers’ material and stuff we’ve done with Cornell because that’s so much more interesting, isn’t it? I remember talking to one of the musicians in the Investigators or was it the Instigators and they said “We were a band in our own right and then we became a backing band. That was the beginning of the end for that band”, because they became jobbing musicians. It’s a good thing because you can get better more high profile gigs and maybe get paid a bit more but at the end of the day you’re just going into the background and becoming fairly faceless.

We don't see ourselves as a backing band

You become a musical conveyor belt.

ROBIN: Yeah, because you end up backing hundreds of artists – but what is to be gained out of that? Like you were saying, you can sit down and study the music and if you’re reasonably decent musicians you’re all going to sound very authentic - but when you’ve got to do your own thing, that’s a different thing.

Tell me about the decision to cover Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London. A pretty daunting song to tackle, surely?

IDRIS: It was almost kind of a joke to start with. We drew up a list of tunes to do and from the list we couldn’t decide on one that really jumped out us. I knew Streets Of London from teaching primary school so I knew it really well, so I could sort of imagine it and thought I’d give it a go. We just tried it and it’s got its own vibe – the lyrics are quite good and soulful and meaningful and it seems to work with the three part harmony thing really well so it came together. But it just started off as a joke “Will this actually work?” kind of thing. But it’s got some depth to it that song, so it seems to work.

Recent statistics have suggested that homelessness is rising rapidly in London. Do you think your cover of the song has resonated because of that – and were you conscious of it?

IDRIS: There probably are and there will probably be more with the government benefit cuts. Probably we were a little because this track was recorded to coincide with the Olympics and when we were doing it there was this thing in the news about turfing people out of their houses in order to put the Olympics on. There were also councils moving people from their flats to totally different parts of the country in order to save money.

ROBIN: It also kind of works with We’re Not Leaving as well in terms of what you’re saying about the subject matter. People having to move and people being homeless. We didn’t have to put it on the album but it just seemed to fit the vibes and the lyrics on the other tracks.

Finally, at the risk of turning this into a philosophy seminar and not an interview, I don’t really believe in human nature as a concept. Do you believe in the concept of Human Nature? And if so, convince me…

Soothsayers - Human NatureROBIN: I think the line “Human Nature, Nature’s Curse” for me means that if there’s one aspect of human nature that could be nature’s curse, it’s that people always want to improve their standard of living. And maybe that to me is true. It seems it’s a pretty common thing. If people know there’s a way of being more comfortable and having a higher standard of living, they usually find it difficult to resist trying to attain that. If there was a guy chopping down forests and using a machete to clear an area the size of this pub to plant stuff, and if he found there was a machine that could do it in 20 minutes instead of taking a week… it would be very hard for him to say “I’ll be fine as I am. I’ll just do it with my knife”. Once he’s aware of the fact that he can do it much quicker then it’s natural for a human being to think “I want to do it like that”. But then the effect on the environment might be a negative thing.

But isn’t that the human condition, not human nature? Life is uncertain so people give in to short term desires – is there any evidence that we are made or fixed that way?

IDRIS: It’s the natural human way of reacting to the human condition.

But by calling it “human nature” doesn’t that sound a bit negative - like we’re saying we’re stuck with it? If one day the human condition could be improved to become less uncertain then this problem could go away?

IDRIS: That’s true.

ROBIN: Maybe it should have a question mark.

IDRIS: Yes, it is a question.

ROBIN: Yeah, “Human Nature, Nature’s Curse? Can we find a way to save our mother earth?” It’s a question, isn’t it?

Streets Of London just started off as a joke "Will this actually work?"

Apologies if this was all explained on the album’s press release.

IDRIS: No, this wasn’t on the press release! (laughs)

ROBIN: It’s just an idea.

IDRIS: Really we’re hopeful that it’s possible that humans actually have a nature that wants to make the world a bit better than we are doing at the moment. So it’s written with that intention really.

ROBIN: I think this album is kind of positive. Do you think it’s a negative album?

It’s a musically positive album but the title made me want to ask you if you have a pessimistic view of the world (until I realized you were singing in questioning intonation!)

ROBIN: There are moments when I do feel pessimistic.

IDRIS: Totally.

ROBIN: But it’s not an overriding thing because people have moods. Most of the lyrics are passing thoughts. We write lyrics about what we think at the time and then listen again in a week and it makes sense – even if we might not feel like that today. When you’re performing the music you get back into that space when you wrote the song. But you don’t always feel exactly the same as when you wrote it. Some days you feel more optimistic than others depending on what’s going on in your life and what’s going on in the world.

Well if there’s a question mark to the end of that line I guess it doesn’t matter.

IDRIS: Yeah, the question mark lets us off the hook! (laughs)

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