Filed under: Interview
Forming in the late 80s, via London’s rare groove scene, funk soul brothers The Brand New Heavies have enjoyed an illustrious career via worldwide hits like Midnight At The Oasis and ‘Never Stop’ and a relentless touring schedule that’s seem them headline many of the world’s top events. 20 plus years on, they remain productive, recently releasing brand new single Surrender, featuring brand new vocalist Nicole Levy. They’re also unusually enthusiastic, admitting they feel like they’re entering a new chapter for the band.
“We all like the music and we all like what we’re doing and as long as that continues then things will be cool,” says band drummer Jan Kincaid.
Also chatting to Skrufff simultaneously are fellow founder members Simon Bartholomew (guitars) and Andy Levy (bass) as well as Nicole via a telephone conference call (they’re speaking from a studio at London’s Jazz FM).
Interview by Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)
Jonty Skrufff : Starting with you Nicole, the band have had a whole series of singers before, including Carleen Anderson and N’Dea Davenport, how did you end up becoming the new singer?
Nicole Levy : It was actually quite simple, I met the guys through their management, at the time I was signed to a record company that Craig David was on, who put me in touch with his management, who in turn hooked me up with these guys for writing. We started writing together then before we knew it we were making an album. That was about two years ago.
Skrufff : How long were you, the group, seeking a new singer?
Simon Bartholomew (Guitar) : Not long either, we had an album out in Japan with a variety of American singers on it and we needed a singer to play the record live with us on tour. Somebody mentioned Nicole to me, I heard some of her stuff and I invited her into the studio to meet the band. We’d just been offered some gigs in the Far East, we asked Nicole if she’d like to do them, which she did. From then we started collaborating together and it was all quite an organic process. Organic is a word we like to use a lot.
Skrufff : You guys have been around since the late 80s, how do you view today’s musical landscape with the likes of Simon Cowell talent shows and R&B lite everywhere?
Simon : We tried to get Simon Cowell in the group but he was just a little too old (joking). The business is constantly changing and you always need to concentrate on what you’re doing yourself. It’s a combination of being aware enough and also blinkered enough at the same time because if you freak yourself out too much with what’s going on in the business you draw yourself away from the music. We work within the industry but also within the band as a unit and we have our own goals, which don’t change. You press on regardless. Being aware of what you want to achieve is really important.
Andrew Levey (Bass) : In some ways we still live in a world of funky, acidy jazz which exists and will always be around. If you look at the commercial music of the 60s and 60s the commercial music of today is much cooler too. If R&B is now the biggest selling stuff like the Bay City Rollers was in the 70s, then J Lo is effectively the new Bay City Rollers in some ways. And J Lo is quite good quality too.
Jan Kincaid (Ds) : I prefer the Bay City Rollers personally. Shang A Lang was a classic.
Andrew : They were huge, they sold 100 million records.
Simon : The interesting thing about music now is how easy it is to make it, how accessible it is. A lot of these changes are for the better, the less control record companies have compared to the artists is a good thing.
Skrufff : I visualise you making the record in some massive studio with a huge mixing desk, is that right?
Simon : Not at all, we specialise in small studios without windows.
Skrufff : I was thinking you’d be Earth, Wind & Fire style, with about 20 musicians playing in a circle . . .
Simon : We have done that. We do whatever we have to do to get the result and in the past we have made incredibly expensive albums, doing things that way, but the fact is, you don’t actually have to. You can achieve what you want to achieve much more economically. We have to work in studios but you can do lots of stuff at home beforehand, on computers.
Skrufff : Very few groups last for more than ten years, have you developed a formula for your song-writing over the years?
Jan : We get together and jam and that’s always been one of our fundamental ways of making music. But that’s not really song-writing that’s about groove which we’re more into initially. That’s always how we start, with beats and groove, even before we ever imagined us doing a gig and that’s a massive part of the Heavies sound. The song writing comes later, it’s a tribal folk communal thing.
Skrufff : So you’re recording jam sessions then picking out the good bits?
Andrew : Exactly, and Surrender started like that. We started with a bassline, Nicole went away with a loop of that then we all got together in a room with drums and everything and worked it out from there, then recorded it.
Skrufff : Diving into your past one of my old reference books talks of you suffering a failed contract with Acid Jazz before you broke through, when they tried to market you as a rare groove group . .
Jan : That was Chrysalis we were signed to them very briefly in the late 80s for one single, they signed us very late in the day. They actually signed us just after the Pasedenas’ record had gone to number one, literally the week before, but unfortunately just round the corner was the Summer Of Love. We were signed then a month later everybody was talking about music of 140bpm (acid house). We were dropped and from there we went to Acid Jazz.
Simon : Acid Jazz at the time was also a dance group and fortunately there was quite a thriving club scene which was where the term acid jazz came from because it was the opposite of acid house. We were able to survive through that era because of it. Though ironically the rare groove scene we came from was the template for the big raves. We used to play at rare groove parties in warehouses and later on the raves were like that.
Skrufff : Were you ever tempted to dive into the rave scene?
Jan : No, that was never what we were about. We’re musicians, in a band, there would have been no point in us trying to be like the KLF because we were the total opposite. People would never buy our records if we were like that because we’d come across as completely fake.
Simon : And at the age we were at then, we were really dedicated to the scene we were in. When you’re in your late teens you choose something to get involved in and stick with that identity and follow your dream. To switch from jazz funk, R&B and soul to rave music would have been such a massive jump.
Jan : The scene we were in also included people like the Duffer of Saint George, who were creating fashions alongside the music. The rave scene was more about pub-goers whereas I think we were more sophisticated. Not many people played live funky music at that point, most live bands were rock.
Skrufff : When did you get your first serious success?
Jan : We were well known on the scene we came from for a long time, we were almost notorious in fact (laughing) , what happened was , our first album came out on a small UK label Acid Jazz and it was exported to America where we were signed to a US label. We started getting great press there and did a live show in New York which also got great press. Word got back to the UK and suddenly there was this massive buzz around what was going on in the States for us. From then on, the public and press perception really took off for us.
Skrufff : How important is America for you these days, as a market?
Jan : It’s always important but everywhere is important, wherever you can sell records and your fans are.
Skrufff : so few groups do last for more than 10 years, how close have you come to splitting up and becoming enemies?
Andrew : Very close!
Jan : I don’t think we’ll ever be enemies, you always have arguments like in every family, that’s normal, things happen. We all like the music and we all like what we’re doing and as long as that continues then things will be cool.
Skrufff : Is sustaining success harder than achieving it, 20 years on?
Jan : What we have now that’s different from then, is experience, which gives you insights into how things work. When you start the job you’re naive and very hopeful and enthusiastic about stuff, we’re still positive but we’ve got awareness now of how the business is. Sometimes it’s not so great to know how the business works because it’s a pretty crap business really. Sometimes it has nothing to do with music which is hard when you’re a musician. Anyone who’s in the music business needs to handle the other side of it, that’s how it is.
Skrufff : You’ve had a number of worldwide hits over the years, are you all living in massive mansions these days?
Jan : Several:)
Skrufff : What cars do you drive?
Jan : That’s a trick question.
Simon : We share a smart car.
End of the interview
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