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Interview: Alpheus and Roberto Sanchez at Garance 2014

Interview: Alpheus and Roberto Sanchez at Garance 2014

Interview: Alpheus and Roberto Sanchez at Garance 2014

By on - Photos by Franck Blanquin - Comment

"When it's football we are not friends!"

Sampler

At first it might seem an unlikely partnership. Alpheus: the outgoing globetrotting London singer with a mysterious past; one of the last people to attend the musical school of the late great Coxsone Dodd. And Roberto Sanchez: the quiet-mannered Spanish production prodigy who absorbed the teachings of original foundation Jamaican music in his secluded studio in Santander.

But the association of Alpheus and Sanchez is one of the warmest and strongest in an industry where alliances are often temporary, fickle and volatile. It is a bond that has produced two albums – 2011’s From Creation and 2014’s Good Prevails - paying homage to the Jamaican sounds of the sixties and early seventies without a hint of hubris or pastiche.

Listening to Good Prevails, it’s easy to be captivated by the interplay between Alpheus’ soulful, sincere voice and Sanchez’ meticulous musical excavations. However, these can distract from the quality of the songwriting – a skill Alpheus claims he learned from the Crown Prince of Reggae, Dennis Emmanuel Brown.

United Reggae has interviewed both men individually – and this year the chance arose to speak to them together. Angus Taylor met the duo backstage after a triumphant opening performance on the final day of Garance Reggae Festival – where they had also been filming their latest video for Good Prevails’ second single Look In The Mirror.

Anyone who has met Alpheus will know he is a big personality with plenty to say. Yet his deep respect for Sanchez is clear in the way he frequently defers to the softly spoken Roberto to answer. Here’s what they had to share about their working processes, their love of music and food, their rivalry over football and why there is a version of their second album you will never hear…

Alpheus

How did you two meet?

ROBERTO: We first met in 2007 I think?

ALPHEUS: 2006.

ROBERTO: 2006. It was a gig in Bilbao and we played for a guy in Valencia who was a friend of mine and a friend of Alpheus too.

ALPHEUS: His name was Nano Bravo.

ROBERTO: He put a band together, I was part of that band, and after the show Alpheus had to take the flight from Santander. So he came home and we just stayed there hanging out waiting for the airport time. I was taking a shower before driving him to the airport and I was playing a Phil Pratt album of rocksteady and when I came out of the bathroom he was singing a song on one of those rhythms. I think he was singing Ultimate. I told him “Wow, what a good song you are singing on that rhythm” and he said “It’s just a vibe. I’m just vibing on the rhythm”. I said “I think I could build something close to that rhythm” and he said “You should” so I tried it. He came back for a different show, I think it was 3 months later…

ALPHEUS: It was in Bilbao again, with Boom Bass HiFi.

ROBERTO: But we were in the band and he was with sound system. When he heard my rhythm and I can still remember his face – it was one of the brighter faces from Alpheus. He loved the rhythm straight. He couldn’t believe it in fact! He was like “Huh?” (laughs)

ALPHEUS: Really authentic.

ROBERTO: We enjoyed that session a lot. And since then he is my brother in my personal life and musically he is more than a brother.

ALPHEUS: Yes man.

He is my brother in my personal life and musically he is more than a brother

Alpheus, when you decided a few years ago that you were turning your back on modern reggae rhythms to only sing rocksteady and ska - was Roberto a part of this decision? Did you discuss it? Or did you decide independently?

ALPHEUS: No, it was my decision. Some time ago I had a discussion with Sugar Minott and he said to me “Look man, just stick to your rocksteady and your ska, it really suits you”. Then I met Roberto at the right moment. I think it naturally evolved. On the first album I loved rocksteady and ska and because he made a great job of the Dirty Dozen rhythm from Phil Pratt and the Family rhythm we just kept going. We made the From Creation album and we decided to make the Good Prevails album. We wanted to test and go a little bit deeper so then we got the early reggae thing going too.

One of the reasons you gave at the time for that decision was that the one drop rhythms of the day were “not long-lasting”. Is there ever going to be a new music that is long-lasting enough for you to return?

ALPHEUS: Yes. There’s always a possibility. Because there are very creative people around the world who are always creating these new sounds. So yeah, of course.

What modern music are you hearing these days and saying “That’s long-lasting, that’s going to stand the test”?

ROBERTO: For me, music made with the heart. I was really into the 70s thing but I realised that whatever is coming from the heart will last long. That’s important because that’s the music you will leave for the next generation so if it is coming from the heart…

ALPHEUS: It will always stand a chance. Because music from the heart is clear.

Sugar Minott said "Look man, just stick to your rocksteady and your ska, it really suits you"

I guess I’m asking if you can say “There’s this tune out at the moment that’s going to stand the test of time”. It doesn’t have to be in reggae – in any kind of music.

ALPHEUS: I’m going to be honest, some of the dubstep stuff. There are some long-lasting sounds in there. I can’t name them but, yeah.

When you two sat down to make the second album you had a meeting to discuss which rhythms you are going to lick over and which new ones you will use. What do you each bring to the table in that meeting?

ROBERTO: I think for the first album it was a natural evolution because we started doing rhythms as we were feeling it. But Alpheus has always had a really good sense of choosing rhythms for himself when it comes to rocksteady and ska in that nice major soulful style. Because I’m coming more from the 70s more rootsy style my decisions are to go more for the minor key, the Phil Pratt minor rhythms and my own compositions too. So for Good Prevails it was more like we made this kind of meeting.

ALPHEUS: We had different mutual meetings from email with some ideas.

ROBERTO: Alpheus always sends the proper rhythms before we start working and once I received those rhythms…

ALPHEUS: Then he starts to create his own style that can mesh with what we have chosen.

Roberto you have been very busy at Garance festival playing with Rockers Disciples, Blackboard Jungle Sound and the Producers. Alpheus do you enjoy the deep roots music Roberto plays when he is not performing with you?

ALPHEUS: I think it’s brilliant – especially because a lot of it is like the UK stuff. I think it’s brilliant because there is a real long lasting sound in that. It’s very 80s but kind of nowadays and I think there’s something there in that. I’m starting to like it a lot.

I’ve interviewed you both separately and each time food has come up in the conversation. Both of you like to cook. Alpheus, is Roberto a good cook?

Alpheus and Roberto SanchezALPHEUS: He’s a wicked cook. He’s a tortilla chef. He cooks damn good. And so do I. I’m wicked cook.

Roberto, is he as good a cook as he says?

ALPHEUS: You should know I am!

I’m asking him.

ALPHEUS: (laughing)

ROBERTO: He is better than me. I’m good in my Spanish style and beautiful food we eat there. But when it’s time to be together for an album I prefer to go to go his place where he stays in my town and he cooks on the first day – amazing things. The rice grains are crisp.

ALPHEUS: The chicken, white meat, vegetables and sometimes fish because he likes fish…

ROBERTO: The marinade.

ALPHEUS: Yeah, we eat good.

Are there any parallels to be drawn between cooking and music?

ALPHEUS: Yes. There is soul. You have to have soul. When you have good food you feel good man. It really works. When we work at the studio we only really eat the food that we have cooked.

Do you have any bad habits when recording that get on each other’s nerves?

(laughter)

ALPHEUS: Musically, no. Listen, it’s only when it’s football we are not friends!

ROBERTO: We’ve discovered that through the years!

ALPHEUS: When we were making the new album I had a Chelsea shirt on because I’m a Chelsea guy. I walked into the studio with a brand new big blue Chelsea shirt.

ROBERTO: The day before I was wearing my Barcelona shirt. That’s what really hurt!

ALPHEUS: That’s what made me do it! I hurt me! It hurt me! (laughs) He watched me come in the studio and I was in there for three hours and he never said anything about the shirt! He never acknowledged the shirt and said “Hey, you’re Chelsea?” He ignored it! And I said “Hey man, I’m wearing a Chelsea shirt here! Say something!” He said “Fuck that, man!”

ROBERTO: I used to smoke at the studio! Not at the control room but I know he doesn’t like that. Apart from that, no.

ALPHEUS: Just football and the smoke!

I said "Can we do another one that's as good?" and he said "Come on my friend, it's going to be better!"

How would you say Good Prevails has built on what you did with From Creation?

ALPHEUS: You explain it.

ROBERTO: What I saw with From Creation was there was a time when it became bigger than us for a while. You know, when you create something and it’s so good for people and for ourselves that it became something even bigger than us. And we were, to be honest, a little bit afraid when we started the second album because we created a level of expectation that was so big. But I told him, and we knew from each other, that it was we who created that so it was only us who can improve it. So we entered the studio with a lot of energy and also the knowledge coming from the first album which made the new Good Prevails album even better. I told him when it was not even mixed.

ALPHEUS: I was really afraid and was saying “Can we do another one that’s as good?” and he was going “Come on my friend, come on, it’s going to be better!” So I said “Alright”. Because I didn’t want to disappoint the fans. I didn’t want to disappoint the people. You know how you sometimes see a part two of something and it’s never as good as part one. Roberto gave the confidence like, “Look man, it’s going to be OK”.

Were you able to make the album at your own pace or did you have a deadline to work to?

ALPHEUS: We were working to a deadline. Because there were some different interests from different labels to release it. We wanted to have it released to a timescale.

How hard was it to get finance for the album?

ROBERTO: It was really hard. Because now the sales do not support the efforts economically and in terms of the time that recording an album takes so it is quite difficult. In fact, all the work we do, we produce it…

ALPHEUS: We use our money and we sacrifice so much of our time. It is very difficult. You have to love it and understand how abnormal it can be and also understand how nice it can be once you deal with the abnormal positively.

The sales do not support the efforts economically

You mentioned on stage that the song The Right One was co-written in here at Garance with the late Prince Jazzbo. Can you elaborate?

ALPHEUS: When I was here in 2011 I was thinking about a lady who I liked a lot and we really had a vibe that was so good. I had a friend of mine in the United States called Michael L who is a radio DJ in Boston and a connoisseur who knows the rhythms. He sent me the Sweet Soul rhythm with some other rhythms and said “Hey man, why don’t you try to remake that one and sing something?” I came to Garance and started to write the song about this girl when Prince Jazzbo was in the room next to me and heard me writing it. He said [puts on deep Jazzbo voice] “No man. Don’t use that word” and we had an argument where I said “No, the word is ok”. It was just one word that he changed. I wrote the song but it was one word where he said “Don’t use that” and he was right.

What was the word?

ALPHEUS: The song says [sings] “Oh there she is” but I wrote it [sings] “Oh there she goes… the one that I need… the one that is real…” He said “Don’t say ‘goes’ man, if you say ‘goes’ then she’s gone! She’s gone! Say something else” and we had an argument and then I said “OK, alright” and then I changed it over some days and he said “That’s better. That’s better”. (laughs)

You’ve told me in a previous interview that Dennis Brown gave you the formula for writing a song. Prince Jazzbo has given you some advice on lyrics. Has anyone else given you some important advice that has stayed with you?

ALPHEUS: Two people. Ray Phipps, the main engineer in New York at Studio 1 who had excellent knowledge of formatting lyrics and making the lyrics tell the stories in one minute. That was a technique he taught me. And Clement Dodd, he wanted us to use more soul when we sang.

And you’re not going to tell us what the Dennis Brown formula was are you?

ALPHEUS: Never will I tell you. Not even Roberto would I tell!

(laughter)

Likewise, Roberto, has anyone imparted important advice and opened your eyes or ears to something in music?

ROBERTO: Not really, technically. It’s sad but because I’m living in Spain and as a Spanish guy I’m not really close to any other artist or studio based on reggae so all I learned was from records. I’ve got to thank some people in Bilbao, who were older than me and loved reggae before me who introduced me to reggae.

Like Inyaki from Basque Dub Foundation?

ROBERTO: Inyaki and Jaime those two guys are the people I would like to give thanks to. But not really like artists advice on how to mix or how to create a song or chords. They were giving me the tools for learning – the records.

Alpheus

Roberto, since I first interviewed Alpheus for United Reggae I’ve been hearing about this ongoing controversy about you wanting Alpheus to learn to play a musical instrument. What’s the latest development?

ALPHEUS: Oh Jesus Christ!

ROBERTO: No.

ALPHEUS: Nothing.

ROBERTO: Zero.

ALPHEUS: I’m going to try. I’m going to try.

ROBERTO: You have to try. This guy has a great instrument within himself and a great knowledge of music without knowing the techniques and the rudiments.

ALPHEUS: I have a great knowledge of how the instrument should sound but I can’t play it.

ROBERTO: His ear is good. He knows everything you have to know to do music. All he needs is to have an instrument. I told him to learn keyboards or guitar because it’s going to improve his skills in composing.

ALPHEUS: Of course it will but my fingers are too big man.

ROBERTO: Learn the piano!

ALPHEUS: I hate it man!

Maybe you need a special big piano built for your big fingers.

ALPHEUS: Yeah man! (laughing)

Roberto, you’ve talked recently about how your production style is moving away from recreating your favourite old studio sounds into a more individual style – how is that going?

ROBERTO: It’s going so well. Before, when I was trying to create a new song or a new rhythm, it came from my heart but technically I was looking at some others’ work. Like, for example, I look a lot to Lee Scratch Perry, all the works coming from Channel One, Treasure Isle, I love Studio 1, and this was always my guide for doing certain things technically at the studio. So it was about four years ago I started thinking about my own style of the mix…

ALPHEUS: And your own feeling.

ROBERTO: My own feeling. It’s good because it’s not so far from what I was doing before in a way but I think it creates some more personal atmosphere.

When will we hear the results of this?

ROBERTO: I think the next albums are going to have this new touch. But, for example, the Milton Henry album was one of those new things I am trying to do. As you saw, it is quite similar to what I have been doing but there is a change.

You’ve been making some videos. You shot the video for second single Look In The Mirror on site here at Garance with volunteer performances from many of the artists.

ALPHEUS: Yeah, I’ve been turning into a bit of a movie director. We made Rudie No More which was very good and a nice vibe. I must say thank you to Ras P who was the star of that video and who played Rudie. Enough respect to Ras P who is a Jamaican living in Geneva. I enjoy film-making, it seems. So now we’re making the new video for Look In The Mirror, with the great ska Jailhouse rhythm that Roberto made again for the current album Good Prevails right here at Garance.

Roberto, how much part do you have in the video making process?

ROBERTO: It’s really something that Alpheus directs. I’m just a part of it as long as he wants me to be. (laughs) He has really nice ideas. This guy could be a director. The scripts he writes for the videos are really amazing.

Do you just watch the footage at the end and say whether you like it or not? Or do you have no vote at all?

ROBERTO: I just leave him to it.

ALPHEUS: But he always has input. He reads it and if he wants to change it – we will.

Finally, will you continue to work together?

ROBERTO: Of course.

ALPHEUS: Me and Roberto will always work together and want to work together. But it is up to the people if we get to work together properly again because we need them to support the music and obtain the music legally and help us make the sacrifice we give to the music worth it. If we can recoup our investment both materially and spiritually then we can continue. It’s up to the massive. And that goes for every music. If you don’t re-invest in the music that you like you cannot expect the music to continue with quality. We just want that support from the massive.

Me and Roberto will always work together and want to work together

Would you consider something like crowdfunding to raise the backing for a new album? Many artists are doing it for some or all of the money they need.

ALPHEUS: For me, no.

ROBERTO: It’s something we are not really thinking of.

ALPHEUS: I do think it’s good. It’s a good way. But we’re not thinking that way.

ROBERTO: There might be but maybe not for the project we are trying to build. We found a great label, Liquidator music and it seems we can get some more support from him for the next albums but it depends on sales.

ALPHEUS: It depends on the recoupment.

ROBERTO: Of course, we have something in mind for the next album. We’ve been talking about it.

So you might just make your next album for yourselves and listen to it yourselves?

ALPHEUS: We actually have a separate album of Good Prevails which is a completely different mix. It’s a completely different mix and it’s just fantastic. It was a gift that we made for each other’s birthdays. We call it the birthday mix. There are only two copies – one for him and one for me. We promised we’d never give it out.

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