Monday 18 May 2015

"The Eternal Hustle": The Soul Immigrants [Interview]

If the name ‘The Soul Immigrants’ rings a bell, you were probably fortunate enough to have stumbled upon some of the band’s terrific music or live performances (which include Glastonbury, Craig Charles' Funk & Soul Show and London’s Jazz Café) over a career spanning more than 20 years.  Now in 2015, The Soul Immigrants return to assert themselves for an entirely new generation of funk devotees with their brand new album, ‘The Hustle Is On!’.

Reformed in 2011, with a new lineup including Emrys Baird (vocals and guitar), David Bouet (drums), Ian Bailey (sax), Dee Byrne (sax), Stu Ross (keys) and Al Gibson (bass), the band had actually issued stellar previews on what they were now capable of back in 2012 with their singles ‘The Ghetto (There’s No Way Out)’ and ‘Sunk Without The Funk’.  The singles served as excellent (re)introductions to South London’s musical veterans on the thriving and, dare I say, highly competitive UK funk and soul music scene.

‘Highly competitive’ is probably a fairly apt way to describe the genre of music in this country: bands like The Baker Brothers, Nick Pride & The Pimptones, Crowd Company, The Impellers, Hannah Williams & The Tastemakers… it’s a long list of indelible talent; to find a way to stand tall among them, and garner noteworthy praise from luminaries like Craig Charles, Charles Bradley, Carleen Anderson and the phenomenal Angeline Morrison is nothing short of extraordinary.

The Soul Immigrants were initially formed back in the 1990s by front-man, Emrys Baird, along with Nitin Sawhney, now an established solo artist and producer in his own right.  Baird however has continued to roll out the brand of old-school funk with the distinctly contemporary twist that was always envisioned for the band – having played with The Funk Ambassadors in his teen years, and backed the iconic JBs on their first UK tour in the late-1980s, Baird’s credentials, knowledge and experience speak for themselves.

Now signed to Dry Rooti Records, the 6-piece – initially named due to the diverse backgrounds comprising the band’s members – have comfortably created their own lane.  Not only does the album feature Fred Wesley on two of the tracks (‘Yard of Hard’ and ‘Why Don’t You Funk Me?’), we have the pleasure of sweet soul songs like ‘Golden Summer Rays’ (perfectly-timed for the summer) and grittier funk numbers like ‘Sweet Beat’ and ‘Pressure Point’.  There’s also the additional benefit of the aforementioned 2012 singles as bonus tracks at the album’s close.

With the imminent release of ‘The Hustle Is On!’, founder and front man, Emrys Baird, took time out to chat with us about the band’s past, present and unstoppable funk-filled future…

IMRAN MIRZA: Who have been the strongest influences in developing your style of funk music?
EMRYS BAIRD: Three albums come to mind which I have listened to endlessly and they have obviously had an effect: Sly Stone’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ and Gil Scott-Heron‘s ‘Pieces Of A Man’.  And let's not forget The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Isaac Hayes, James Brown and, later on, Stevie Wonder!  As the sixties turned into the seventies, soul, like rock, got heavier, edgier and darker.  They were also raising their socio/conscious levels too! The subject of love was sidelined as their music was going deeper, more complex and hardcore.  As you will notice, there are no love songs on ‘The Hustle Is On’.

How did you initially meet the other artists to form The Soul Immigrants?
When The Funk Ambassadors ended, I was knocking around with Nitin Sawhney.  As I had an eight-track recorder in my squat, he’d come round to record his weird jazzy demos; we became friends… To where one day he was like “Let’s form a band together – what shall we call it?”... So I thought about the band names that were around at the time – Young Disciples, Jazz Warriors, Jazz Defectors – and basically said “How about The Soul Immigrants”?  We had Nitin on keyboards, an Italian rhythm section, a Trinidadian lead-singer… You know, it was quite an exotic blend!  So we became The Soul Immigrants and, over the many years of the band's existence, many fine players have come and gone: Andy Kremer, Liran Donin, Steve Taylor, and many more besides all great musicians who you will still see lighting up stages all over the place.
Currently, we have a very stable crew, we’ve got a great keyboard-player from Australia, Stu Ross, who started out in little bands at home but has settled over here now.  And the fact that he’s brought in the Hammond has really consolidated our sound.  Then we also have a great horn-section with Ian Bailey – a fantastic baritone/tenor sax-player, who plays with people like The Boom Yeh, and Dee Byrne an alto sax-player who has a very sharp and raw sound – a bit like a female jazzy Maceo!  Plus we have Al Gibson on bass, who helps with some of the arrangements, and a great French drummer, David Bouet, who I call  “Bam-Bam” because I’m always encouraging him to play the funkiest of break-beats!

How would you say the creative process in writing, producing and recording new music usually work for you as a group?
Ah yes, the best part is definitely putting it all together.  The main thrust comes from myself, David Bouet and Al Gibson.  In reggae terms so to speak, we are the carpet, the heart of the band!  The three of us pretty much determined the outcome and we worked together really well and focused a lot on the initial grooves (which I had initially sketched up on iPad) and the direction we were trying to take everything went really, really smoothly. I couldn’t be more happier with the choices to go on this CD.  The real test was to make these brand new tracks sound 'played in' and as live sounding as possible.  It's also a remit of ours to keep our artistic integrity intact.  A very important thing to me. Making records that represent who you are as opposed to attempting to satisfy some niche.  If you are making a thrash album, or whatever, and you really feel it, then great, yeah.  Whatever it is, be sincere about it.  We had a mental motto in the studio "If it's fresh and tough then it will be good enough".

You must have been thrilled with the success of the singles 'Ghetto' and 'Sunk Without The Funk'?
Yes, we got lucky with that single! Snowboy got behind it, as did Pete from Sticky Records and, of course, Craig Charles, and with a stroke of good fortune, it soon came to the attention of legendary funk label P-Vine Records Japan, who signed us up resulting in ‘The Hustle Is On’ being born!  I really didn't think we'd ever record an album again, I was just content with releasing 45's.  So we have them to thank for making us go that extra mile.

How did you come to the attention of Dry Rooti Records?
That's simple, it's our own label, primarily set up as a 45's release label.  We have also joined up with Saxology Ents (management) and to help us promote our music, band and label, we are working with QG Enterprise, our agent.

How did Fred Wesley come to be a part of 'The Hustle Is On'?
Being a massive JBs fan, I had always dreamed of having the likes of Fred Wesley on a track or two – you must remember James Brown himself said [Wesley] was without doubt the best musician he'd ever played with!  Although I had some past connection, I had lost touch until I noticed Fred had guested on The HornDogz new album – a French hip-hop band I was friends with.  I asked sax player, Eric Roehner, for Fred's manager's email and thus a two-year chase began.  Eventually, I saw Fred was playing in London, he agreed to a session but it had to be near his hotel and 2 hours max including travel!  So we hired the basement of a pub in Soho but we were already pushed for time as Fred had been stuck in a taxi and time was ebbing away.  We needn't have worried, he's a quick worker and with the session over, we stuck him in a rickshaw and bid him farewell as he went back to his hotel for his afternoon nap.

Who would be a dream collaborator for The Soul Immigrants?
Prince! His talent is boundless and his work ethic is manically despotic! Wake me up if it becomes a reality.  Actually you've given me an idea I'll send a CD to Paisley Park just as a wild punt – why the hell not?  Thanks! With this dream collaborator you are asking me to dream big!

How does your music transfer to a live stage?
Good question!  This new material has only been tested on two gigs which went well but that was before Christmas [2014].  When we opened for Steve Cropper and Osaka Monaurail, the guys in the band have other music projects to attend to, so hopefully  we can roll out the new stuff and do it credit soon.  Conversely, where a lot of bands fail is transferring their music to tape, so to speak, you have to work hard to capture that energy and vitality, and watch out for a bland production!

If you were introducing your music to a prospective new fan, which song from the album would you recommend they listen to?
Blimey, another good question!  I think 'Golden Summer Rays'.  It’s our anthem – full of positive energy.  I wanted to write something really catchy but also say something lyrically.  It's dark times we live in so let the music lift your spirits, gather every man, woman and child and open your heart sunwards, let some light in.  It’s hard to write socially conscious tunes that you can whistle too so I would definitely play this to them with a glowing sense of pride inside!

‘The Hustle Is On!’ is released 1st June 2015 and available through Dry Rooti Records.

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