Tickling Our Fancy: Aziza Brahim, Mraz & Viklický and Tapeheads
Interviews: Ian Gittins and Rod McKee
Aziza Brahim ‘Soutak’ (Glitterbeat Records) – 10th February 2014
Bringing the distant desert song and atavistic blues of sub-Saharan Africa to a wider audience, the much venerated (especially at the Monolith; with three of their releases making last years ‘choice list’) world music label, Glitterbeat, once again unearth another stunning talent.
Born in the hardened landscape of a Saharawi refugee camp on the boarder of Algeria and the Western Sahara, beguiled vocalist Aziza Brahim embodies the wandering spirit of her people; their settled, though often borderless and disputed lands, previously claimed by Spain, were invaded in 1975 by Morocco. Though made up of many tribes with many different goals the Saharawi people did mount a fight back. It was in this climate that Brahim was hewed.
Her travails have extended to Cuba – where she was educated as a teenager – and Barcelona – where she now resides. Absorbing on route the sounds of French North Africa and her new Spanish home, Brahim’s first album for Glitterbeat is still unmistakably rooted in the heritage and soul of the desert. Much of the material on this album is intrinsically linked to it; either in protestation or in tribute – the sauntered rhythm rich ‘Julud’ is dedicated to Brahim’s mother.
Soutak, or ‘your voice’, is cantered on just that. The backing is striped to a degree, so the poetic reverberated vocals can echo and warble soulfully without interruption. Though there is no mistaking that strong, robust and primal Saharan spirit, the congruous accompaniment is a mix of both Balearic and folk rock styles – especially the deep sleek, bass guitar notes, which slide and weave under Brahim’s distinctive voice.
Produced by Chris Eckman (of Dirtmusic fame), whose assiduous talents have done wonders with Malian blues rockers, Tamikrest and Bamako Afrobeat artist Ben Zabo, Soutak was recorded live in Barcelona: the fluid lilting cosmopolitan sound of that city is unmistakable.
Mraz & Viklický ‘Together Again’ (ACT) – 10th March 2014
Active since 1992, the purest adroit German jazz label, ACT, has continued to release a litany of understated projects by some of the genres most accomplished players and composers. Through sagacious ‘choice’, the intuitive label has collected and then showcased an envious rooster of modern jazz from around Europe: from the Sweden to the Czech Republic.
Introduced to its charming, and impressively tentative, nature a couple of years back, I’ve been inundated with one erudite release after another to review or feature. Last week it was the nuanced classical imbued fusion of Gwilym Simcock & Yuri Goloubev’s Reverie At Schloss Elmau this week it’s the turn of the understated, Emil Viklický and his fellow Czech countryman, bassist supremo, George Mraz.
Stalwarts and instigators of the Czech scene, during the iron curtain years and post, Emil Viklický and George Mraz not only both studied at the esteemed Berklee Collage of Music in Boston, but also earned their chops with another celebrated Czech jazz titan, Karel Velebny (of the famed SHQ Ensemble). Though following different pathways to their goals, they first crossed paths at a 1976 festival in Yugoslavia, and reunited years later in Prague.
Attracting accolades and prizes over a forty plus year career, mathematician student turn prodigal pianist, film composer and teacher, Viklický, and his natural bedfellow of similar poised panache and skill, Mraz – credited with playing on almost a 1000 records by a worthy litany of jazz greats – have synchronized perfectly on their debut release for ACT, Together Again.
Enjoying the stately years, with both men now well into in their late sixties; their genteelly caressed and romantic alluded performances on this collection of eleven instrumentals prove undoubtedly reflective. But this is in part a lively if subtle spread inspired by a desire to transduce the heritage and ‘modal’ qualities of the Moravian folk music they’d both grown up with and held so dear.
Coupled with peaceable and dreamy interplay, the duo flows rather than probe a melodic landscape of ‘swinging post-bop’ serendipity (‘In Holomóc Town’) and eloquent delightful balladry (‘Moon, Sleeping In The Cradle’). Another of those lyrically meditative ballads, ‘Poem’ – accredited to 19th century Czech composer, Zdenĕk Fibich – skips along like a ponderous Slavic version of Bill Taylor & Richard Lamb’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free’. Sadly mournful, ‘Austerlitz’ is either a meditation on the famous Napoleonic battle (one of Napoleon’s most famous turned-around victories) or the W.G. Sebald novel of the same name. It is however a simmering soundtrack of ebbing sustained bass notes and sleek tinkling piano; contemplatively moving along at a perfectly held pace. A more relaxed return to the archetypal jazz of the cocktail and smoky valeted club of the late 50s is in evidence on ‘Thank You, Laca’ (another adaptation and re-arrangement of the old Czech guard, accredited to ‘folklorist’ composer, Leoš Janáček) and ‘A Bird Flew By’.
Tapeheads ‘Bricolage I & II’ (Jeunesse Cosmique/ Acid Zebra) – Now
Featured a while back on the Monolith Cocktail (read here), the lo-fi and low-rent Canadian bedroom musician, know as Tapeheads, sent us the minor cassette meanderings, Bricolage II. It prompted this quizzical proposition from us: ‘…the less produced and amorphous musings of the madcap Quebec musician and cassette tape complier, Theirry Larose’s music comes across as either the deluded clumsy sound collages of a lone gunman, or inspired outsider art: you choose!’
Originally a moiety of EPs, both this volume and its predecessor, Bricolage I, have been congruously united under the banner of Larose’s first ever album proper and released in a joint operation by Zebra Records and Montreal-based label, Jeunesse Cosmique.
An album of two halves, with the second showing off – if indolently and masked in a haze of snatched dialogue and vapourous slacker lament – our bedroom troubadours attempts at songwriting. Homely and distantly lost in a vortex of lilting fuzz, these songs seem more like sketches than thrashed out ideas. Though the interesting, and at times evocative, presence of a good melody, riff or tune always comes through, even if it’s only for a few seconds.
Part one (that’s the part we’ve not reviewed before) is even more curious; a tripp-y trail through Cajun swamp funk (‘Acouphène’), echo-y haunted environments (‘Teniamos’) and Mogadon induced ambient kick drum passages (‘Viens içi mon ami’).
Without doubt his own man, Larose evokes – distant, as they might be – cursory moments of the less lumbered and lo-fi Mercury Rev, Beck and TV On The Radio – more like TV on the blink! Again, this may all be too deep for what is essentially the daubing’s, meanderings and passing interests of an outsider artist. But then again, again! We could be witnessing the lost tape testaments of a genius.
Our guest contributor – Sean BW Parker: The Interviews
More or less a regular contributor to the Monolith, Englishman abroad in Istanbul, critic, philosopher (so he tells us) and professional haranguer, Sean BW Parker continues to furnish us with his inimitable interviews.
Steadily making progress through a checklist of fabled, revered and also, at times, reviled cultural critics, Sean draws his sights on ex-Melody Maker, Independent, Time Out, Guardian writer, editor, freelancer, Ian Gittins. From those halcyon days at the MM, through an editorship of music at Virgin Books commissioning bios on Bowie, Creation Records, Blur, to writing them himself, Gittins is a well-heeled and well-travelled critic. Lovelorn dalliances in Russia, interviewing Bjork, hanging out with Ike Turner, Gittins’ has his fair share of anecdotes to share.
Continuing to also interview every musician who passes through, or has made, Turkey their home, Sean catches up with Wingman front man, Rod McKee – one of Istanbul’s indie ‘steadfast pillars’ we’re told! No discussion in these troubled times, can omit the turbulent landscape that dogs Turkey today. McKee speaks candidly about the ongoing Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and remonstrates with the current ‘apathetic’ mood that prevails in the west. An interesting insight.
Ian Gittins Interview
What is your best, or at least strongest, memory of your Melody Maker years?
I remember so many things. Writing my first ever live review – Float Up CP, Neneh Cherry’s post-Rip, Rig & Panic band – in Coventry in 1985, then buying the next week’s paper and not daring to open it for five minutes, being irrationally convinced they would have misspelt my surname (I often get Gittings, or Gittens). Then a year as a regional stringer in Birmingham, during which time I also had a full-time job selling toilet paper, and was so naive that I used to buy tickets for the gigs I was sent to review: I had never heard of guest lists. Next, moving to London, and knowing that I had pretty much the best job in the world: I remember walking from Piccadilly Circus tube en route to seeing INXS at the old Marquee, looking up at the neon signs and internally hugging myself with joy at it all (well, not at INXS – they were rotten). Then there were the glory years, hanging out and vanishing off on the road for days with musicians that I used to idolise from afar (I’m not sure they were quite so keen, I had the earnest, annoying propensity in those days of attempting to turn every interview into a quest for the meaning of life). I also became aware that I was working with some preternaturally talented writers – forensic, diligent critics like Simon Reynolds and David Stubbs, and capricious, gifted stylists such as Chris Roberts and the much-missed Paul Mathur – and it often felt a privilege (and as if I was chancing it) even to sneak onto the same page as them. From being an obsessive teenage NME reader, I became fiercely loyal and tribal about MM. It was a fantastic time.
Can you expand upon the love affair that took you to Siberia for a while?
In April 1992, I got sent to Siberia on the road with Nitzer Ebb, a Mute Records hardcore electro duo and sort-of protégés of Depeche Mode. On the first night in Akademgorodok, a small town and science research centre built as part of a Soviet five-year plan, I gatecrashed a party and met the love of my life: a university lecturer and translator named Nadia Khvorostova. After that, Nitzer Ebb didn’t get much of a look-in. On my return, London felt very empty and pointless and a few months later I moved to Akademgorodok to live with Nadia and her daughter, Olga. We returned to the UK a year later and, eventually, married. It didn’t work out for many reasons, the rock & roll lifestyle of a music journalist included, but our time together was incredibly intense and special. Even 20 years and two further marriages on, and the father of a young son, Nadia’s death from cancer this year devastated me and left me in pieces. I will never fully recover, and nor would I want to.
You survived a week in the company of Ike Turner. What was that like?
When I was an editor of music books at Virgin Publishing in the late 90s, I bought the UK rights to Ike’s autobiography – a great read – and he came over to promote it. The PR woman who usually handled my books used to work in a refuge for battered women and declined the project, so I stood in and spent a week going to interviews with him. Ike wasn’t what you would term a nice guy, but I developed a grudging, unexpected respect for him. Every TV, radio and newspaper journalist inevitably grilled him about beating Tina, and rather than giving an easy-option, soft-soap mea culpa – “I am so sorry, I was on drugs, I treated her so badly”, etc – he favoured a deeply un-PC but probably very honest account: “Sure, I hit her but she hit me and beat me too – that’s how things were back then!” It was morally gruesome but deeply entertaining.
And the interviewer who gave him the hardest time, and took the most sanctimonious moral stand against him? John Leslie, on GMTV. Go figure, as they say.
Russell Brand: successful working-class truth-sayer or manipulative, uninformed media-whore?
His ubiquity gets a bit wearisome but I have recently come to quite like and even admire Russell Brand. Strip away the froth, the self-regard and the florid over-erudition and he normally has something resembling a point. Some of his recent diatribes – the anti-Hugo Boss rant at the GQ Awards, the verbal mugging of the anodyne US TV news anchors and, especially, his broadsides at the revolting scumbags setting the editorial agenda at the Sun and the Daily Mail – have been masterful.
How do you feel about the steady toppling of BBC and other entertainment figures due to immoral acts, so important to a certain generation’s childhood memories?
It’s just very sad, really. Bizarrely, I used to work with Jimmy Savile in a hospital in Leeds 30 years ago, when I was a university student, and the full-time staff weren’t backwards in telling me that he was a nasty piece of work and a dirty old man. I guess all you can really say is that society was very different back then and so much has changed, overwhelmingly for the better. Banal, but true.
In terms of personal satisfaction, who in rock music has been your favourite subject, or interview? And who has been the least?
Björk has been one of my favourite artists for 20 years, and whenever I’ve met her, she’s given the lie to the old line about never meeting your heroes by being hyper-intelligent, entertaining and hilarious. I’ve also had a lot of fun interviewing, hanging out with and publishing books by Shaun Ryder over the years. I don’t really have a worst, but Cliff Richard was comically insecure and ‘chippy’ for a man of his venerable status.
The music and print industries are in the doldrums, mostly due to the internet. However vinyl sales are on the up. How do you explain all this?
You know what? I don’t know – but vinyl is less than one per cent of album sales, so I guess it is just a really dedicated, evangelical niche market.
Spotify: rip-off, the future or both?
It is the future because it is a spectacularly convenient and exhaustive way of listening to music and keeping on top of new artists. It probably is a rip-off, but there again, major record labels have never exactly been known for their philanthropy and largesse, either.
What is the biggest challenge facing the World in 2014?
Well, the intrinsic failings of Globalisation are a bit of a bugger.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just finishing co-writing the autobiography of Carmine Appice, the very rock & roll former drummer with Vanilla Fudge, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Ozzy, who has partied his way through five wives and 4,000 groupies along the way. It’s extremely old school and, I think it’s fair to say, a page-turner.
Fancy a drink?
Rod McKee Interview
An air of mystery surrounds you, something akin to a Celtic-Michael Stipe-in Istanbul vibe. Is this designed, or accidental?
We’ll that’s an interesting statement. I’m not quite sure what you mean about this ‘air of mystery’ surrounding me. Are you referring to my millionaire philandering lifestyle by day coupled with my clandestine nocturnal life as a crime fighting caped crusader? Or is it the fact that I’m just quite a reserved individual by nature and serious about performing well? I guess it’s the latter unfortunately.
Wingmen have an incredibly strong work ethic – the band plays and records like most people phone their mothers. Is this simply love of playing, or is there a broader plan?
In reality, we aren’t able to have a particularly strong work ethic as we only get to practice once a week for a couple of hours. This is more due to real world needs and time constraints, such as work, family, relationships etc. rather than our desires. So the band has to play second fiddle to those things. But where we are strong is in putting work into the musical thought process. Since Marat joined the band, we’ve been recording practices and developing new musical ideas on our own time, then bringing the ideas to table at practice. We also decided long ago, not to play live every week. Not because we don’t love playing. Rather, taking the ‘less is more approach,’ so people won’t get sick of us.
Wingmen constitute an Irishman, and Englishman, a Turk and a new guitarist of no currently determined origin. How important is ethnic identity to the Wingmen?
I suppose we are all refugees in our own way, but I can only speak for myself regarding my own ethnic identity. So to be honest, it’s a personal thing. It doesn’t really influence what we do as a band. I think we are bigger than individual ethnic identities, because we have become family after being together for 8 years, and that happened because of friendship and having similar mindsets that go beyond borders and culture and ethnicity. Our new addition is already a certified brother, wherever he is from-We don’t know either.
Was it hard when original guitarist Nate Fackler had to leave the band?
Of course it was hard. We lost a member of the family. But Nate had to go to save his own sanity. The romance with Istanbul soured many years ago for him, and the band was the only real thing that kept him in the city for so long, until even that wasn’t enough. So it was very tough for him also.
Your song ‘Pointy Shoes’ alludes to traditional, stereotyped ideas of certain (male) behaviour. Could you expand on your feelings about playing indie rock in a city such as Istanbul, in 2014, with all the cultural baggage that implies?
Well, in a way we are isolated from a lot of the themes in ‘Pointy Shoes’. That’s just social commentary from an observer’s point of view. We are part of a little sub-culture of sorts along with other mainly expat bands like yourselves (referring to Sean BW Parker’s own band, Scorpio Rising) playing original music in English. We also play in places that are conducive to our likes, needs and music, such as Pendor Corner where the clientele are very secular, educated, and bilingual.
You commented on how liberating the absence of police from Gezi Park in summer 2013 ‘refreshed’ you. How do you see the immediate future for Turkey?
The future is bleak as I see it. The only real opposition to the current government happens to be some exiled fire and brimstone Ayatollah-esque recluse cleric living in Pennsylvania. How fucked up is that?
The whole Gezi experience certainly was refreshing. Marginalised people who had no political representation finally found their voice. But since then, they have been forcefully gagged and only have social media now to voice their opinions-concerns and share their experience. Given the recent scandal and more importantly how the government reacted-with sweeping overnight changes to legislation and changes to the police and judiciary, what little was left of ‘democracy’ (lower case ‘d’) was significantly diluted to serve the agenda and power of this ruling elite.
That Gezi spirit lives on of course, but the problem with this country is the lack of political debate and the ridiculous respect culture (that’s embedded in the constitution) of not being able to offend those in power. I’m from a part of the world where we have a tradition of being politicised and our artists, actors and comedians aren’t afraid to speak out. Political satire is a tradition and top politicians are regularly grilled by the Paxmans, Montagues, and Sebastians of the media, not to mention TV programs like ‘Question Time’, where the general public can also do the grilling. There is none of this public accountability as far as I can see in the media here, and comedy is unfortunately slapstick and theatrical. In Turkey, the pop stars and TV personalities young people look up to are too busy making outrageous fortunes doing bank/credit card commercials- (Murat Boz, Hülya Avşar, Cem Yılmaz, Beyazıd ‘Beyaz’ Öztürk, Acun Ilıcalıi, Okan Bayülgen) as well as representing other large corporations etc. That’s embarrassing, not just because these ‘celebs’ are selling their souls for dollar signs, but also because young people don’t seem to be aware of this lack of self-respect/ethics. It’s also depressing because these celebs are the only people who have the stage/platform to actually say something on behalf of the voiceless (their fans) and about the lack of human rights and the abuse of government power. They have a lot less to lose than the ordinary çapulcu, or the lawyers, doctors and hoteliers who gave a human helping hand during the summer protests. The only real heroes are the faceless cartoonists from publications like Uykusuz, Penguen.etc. Mass consumerism is a new phenomenon in Turkey, and that’s understandable given its recent history, but it means very little without the higher liberties. Yes. Bleak indeed!
With you being married, and Wingmen bass player Aaron recently having a baby, how great is the scope for outrageous rock and roll behaviour from the band these days?
We’re not really that type of band so it’s of no importance. For me personally, being happily married gives me a sense of freedom, where I don’t have to waste time in the chasing game.
How do you feel about the difference between how music was listened to in your younger days and now? When was the last time you bought a CD?
If you mean the actual listening, then I don’t have a problem with the difference between now and yesteryear. It’s alright people being trendily nostalgic about the sound of vinyl. But I actually buy a lot more albums now than before, even though they are downloaded straight onto my phone. Music is much more accessible now. Hard copies are basically a thing of the past. That’s technology. Get over it.
Your last album ‘Look At You’ was full of acerbic, observant guitar rock classics. Which track was your personal favourite, and why?
It’s actually a bad question. I’d expect better from you Mr. Parker. To be honest, I’m bored with the lot of them. The whole album experience was quite a long, difficult process as we had so many time constraints and didn’t put enough work into pre-production or have enough variety of tempo in our selection. We also tried to emulate what we do live, without really capturing it. We are in essence a live band, not recording artists. So I like playing all them live rather than hearing the CD. But it was a relief just to finally get it out there into the stratosphere, and finally have a product to offer the general public and close the first chapter.
What’s on the horizon for the band?
The second chapter of course! We are thinking about a second album. We have the material and it ticks the boxes regarding variety. We are moving out of our comfort zone a bit and writing different songs that we are all excited about. It will be more of a studio album. However, as we are skint, it will be realistically next year before an album is completed. But we’ll probably record one tune at a time and get it out there periodically.
Is the name of the band ‘Wingmen’ or ‘The Wingmen’?
Well it was The Wingmen, but we changed it for the album release as there was a The Wingmen name out there for something else, but only to find that there was also a German Wingmen group with an album. Both are fine as far as I’m concerned-but officially, now it’s ‘Wingmen’.
Fancy a bevvy?