Interview: Binker & Moses let loose \\ “There’s nothing worse than a bad sounding jazz album”
London-based duo Binker & Moses have just released their second album, Journey to the Mountain of Forever. It’s a distinctive departure from their debut album, featuring prog-influenced cover art and collaborators that include Sarathy Korwar on tabla and free jazz legend Evan Parker. Drummer Moses Boyd and saxophonist Binker Golding talk candidly about bad genre crossovers, the politics of album covers and being paired with the grime scene.
\\ What’s the philosophy behind Journey to the Mountain of Forever?
Moses: Soon after Dem Ones, we wanted to record and start working on something to follow it up. We both agreed mutually that we wanted it to be bigger, to supersede expectations. People were maybe expecting a Dem Ones: Part 2 or a Dem Twos. And it’s like no, there’s more to it. At that time we were experimenting with people. We had a strong idea of who we wanted to collaborate with long before we recorded. Once the material had taken shape on the road, we knew the sound we were going for. There were lots of words batted around on the road; mythical, sci-fi, prog. I wouldn’t say we were trying to do a prog album, but we definitely thought about how we’re going to brand it and paint a picture, so to speak.
“The biggest set of disagreements we ever had was about the artwork for Dem Ones – it almost came to blows with the record label” – Binker
The plan was formulated a long time before we got into the studio; to take listeners on this journey across four sides of disc, and out of their ‘normal listening practices’. When was the last time you heard sax and tabla and drums together? We wanted to do something different that is still very much us. But also taking influences and ideas and concepts from literature, like JR Tolkien, bands like Soft Machine or Yes or King Crimson. As well as Miles and Wayne, trying to throw that into a mish-mash all together.
\\ Are there different themes across the disks?
Binker: The first one was really strict. The beginnings and ends of the tunes were composed. The second disc; we just came into the studio and just got everybody there. Moses and I knew in our head what we wanted to achieve sonically. And we just directed the musicians on the day, we didn’t really tell them much before. Some of them were a bit worried. I won’t say who. But we weren’t worried at all, we had a strong idea that it would work, because we knew them as musicians. I think we were right. Almost everyone we’d worked with in some capacity beforehand, apart from Evan Parker.
\\ Did you just call him up and ask him?
Binker: Basically, yes. We emailed him some of the music off the first album, and he sent us a very nice email back. He seemed quite happy to be asked by us. We were shocked really, stunned. To me, that was the biggest accolade of all, that he was willing to do it. I was like, MOBO award, Jazz FM, you can have ‘em mate. At the end of the day, if Evan Parker wants to do something, that says a lot more to me than anything else.
\\ It’s great that you guys share the same ideas about music, about what you want to achieve.
Binker: Yeah yeah, we do. Occasionally we disagree. Usually if one of us thinks something’s a bad idea, we can usually justify it to the other one. By the end of the conversation, they’ll be like “yeah, that is a bad idea, you were right”. The biggest set of disagreements we ever had was about the artwork for Dem Ones, no one could agree on it. It almost came to blows with the record label.
\\ Speaking of Gearbox Records, do you share their principles of how vinyl is an important way of listening to music?
Moses: Yes. What happened is we’d just done a gig at Mau Mau Bar on Portobello Road, one of our first gigs. The crowd wasn’t that big, but it was a good gig. And Jazz Re:freshed had recorded it and put it up. Not long after we got an email from the label saying they loved it. Thinking now, nobody was really into what we were doing back then. We went and met with them, and it was only then.
Moses: I’m massively into vinyl, ever since I’ve been playing really. I like the immediacy of having a product, something tangible. If you have an album like Dark Side of the Moon, I think the artwork is just as important as the recording. It imprints on me. I’m always geeking out over there at the label. They’ve always got a new piece of vintage gear from the 40s or 50s. Their ethos is to have as little digital signal in the chain to keep it pure. Both albums were recorded with no overdubs. Literally a few microphones straight to a tape machine. Trying to echo Rudy Van Gelder, Impulse!, or Blue Note.
Binker: Do you know what, it’s sort of hard to match the enthusiasm for vinyl with the people at the label. The guy who owns it, I swear to God, he goes to sleep in a bed full of records, wakes up and talks to his records. But that’s a good thing. If you’re working with somebody, you need them to be pro at their specialist area. So I don’t care about what else is going on in his life, who he votes for, anything like that. The point is, Moses and I knew how the record was meant to sound, and that was the right equipment to do it with.
“Probably the worst part of 90s jazz was Branford Marsalis doing Buckshot LeFonque” – Binker
There’s nothing worse than a bad sounding jazz album. In this country the equipment that people cut jazz records with usually don’t suit the style of the music. There’s something different about the way the Americans cut the albums which I prefer, and I think Gearbox does that. It’s about the only part of the album that I want to be typical, the recording sound. The presentation and everything is wildly important as well. You can have great music on a record, but if it doesn’t inspire people to pick it up and want to buy it, then you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot.
\\ Reading about you guys, there’s a lot of reference to crossover into grime and hip hop. Do you agree, is this conscious?
Moses: For me I wouldn’t say it’s conscious. I just see it as a product of my environment. I was born in the 90s in South London, so I grew up alongside grime. I’ve never felt like I looked back and discovered grime, like I did with jazz. Grime was just happening. Before this huge resurgence took place, I was still banging Roll Deep and Dizzee. They kind of formed the soundtrack to my teenage years. I think it’s good that people are seeing it as a crossover. Within the industry there is definitely a sort of manufactured crossover, but I don’t believe that’s happening here.
Binker: I would say it’s one hundred per cent not conscious. It was just us being normal basically. A lot of people have put the grime tag on us, which I don’t mind really, because it’s a form of music that I admire greatly. People put the tag on us because of Dem Ones. The most grime part of Dem Ones was basically the title. In that album, there’s not really anything that’s overtly grime. The presentation of it was just us being normal. It’s the same with the second album, it’s just a different side to us.
“I don’t even want to wear a suit on the best of days, so why am I gonna make my music like this?” – Moses
To be honest I’m sceptical of crossovers. This is me speaking for me; If you look at the jazz-hip hop crossover that happened in the 1990s, it failed miserably. Probably the worst part of 90s jazz was Branford Marsalis doing Buckshot LeFonque (Moses laughs).
See, Moses loves that album! I’m like, “that album’s shit”! That album is like the worst thing he ever did. There you go, you’ve witnessed a Binker and Moses disagreement first hand. The Jazzmatazz stuff with Guru, some of it kind of worked and some of it was wack. I just think some of it ages really badly, it can sound so dated. And that was a conscious crossover. When crossover comes in a really forced fashion I think you’re setting yourself up to date really badly. If you look back to the 1950s and 60s when people were trying to create third stream jazz, combining it with classical music; That shit is just completely put under the rug now, because it just didn’t work. Amazing composers, but it just didn’t quite come off the right way.
\\ Maybe ‘crossover’ is the wrong term for it?
Binker: No it’s an apt term. It’s just in this day and age, everyone’s really big on the crossover thing. But when everyone starts doing something and saying something, my instinct is to do the opposite. Now, I think some sort of purity in music is good actually. And I’m not just saying this to be adverse, I honestly believe this. I think tribalism in music is healthy. I think it actually gives the consumer more variety. If you look back to the charts of the 1970s and you look at the top ten of any given week, there’s so much variety of stuff. And now, post-2000 everything’s been homogenised to the point of some weird musical soup. Especially with pop music, it’s become an example of how it’s irrelevant who’s making it, because so much of it is just bare similar. But do you know what, I’m just going on a tirade.
Moses: I was just going to add something. To go back to the crossover thing, we were very aware of how we branded. Not saying it was over conscious, we were just kind of aware of how jazz looked, particularly in the UK, and we didn’t want to do that.
\\ People are getting more excited about jazz and you guys are a part of that. Are you feeling optimistic about jazz in the UK?
Moses: It’s a good thing for sure. It’s funny when you’re on the inside of something. Me and Binker watched it before it was popular. The fact that you’re even interviewing me for Jazz Standard, the fact that Jazz Standard exists. It’s quite interesting. It’s a good thing. I feel it’s almost as if it’s at a place where it should have been a long time ago. Jazz always felt like a kind of weird step brother that nobody likes. The illegitimate child that no one wanted to talk about. It’s now a bit more part of the conversation. It has joined the family a bit more. When I was starting to learn jazz, it was like ‘everything else and jazz’. Now I feel like the lines are being blurred, which I think is quite positive. Not like the actual music we’re recording, but the scene so to speak.
Moses: That’s not to say that good music hadn’t been coming out of the UK, people like Shabaka Hutchings and Polar Bear. I just think the branding of it was very wrong, people couldn’t relate to it, because they were trying to be this kind of archetype of what they thought jazz was in the 1950s. Or ECM in the 70s, like some sort of weird photo of a band in a park that looks like it’s in the middle of Norway. Or wearing suits like you’re in a Blue Note. That’s what we were really conscious about with Dem Ones. I don’t even want to wear a suit on the best of days, so why am I gonna make my music like this? I think it’s had a lot of success because of that, because people see the honesty of ‘this is us’. Yes, we happen to make music that sounds very similar to Coltrane, or Elvin Jones, or Pharoah Sanders. But it doesn’t look like that.
Binker: It’s kind of to do with visual honesty. The music was always honest but there just came a time where we sort of decided as a community that even though a club like Ronnie Scott’s is a great place to play and they do a really nice job, it’s not the be all and end all. People started thinking, there’s a venue that puts on rock groups, why don’t we play there? Or there’s a venue that puts on hip hop groups, why don’t we just try and do a gig there? As Moses said, good music was always being made in London, it’s just people were just a little bit confused about how to package it. I think it just got to the point where it was just like, we don’t fucking care anymore, and we go on stage as we actually dress.
And when people say there’s a resurgence, the first thing that comes to my mind is like being at a bad wedding; how long will it last? This is my theory; I’m 31 now, I was born in 1985, and I was born into a jazz resurgence in this country. One happened 15 years later on the nail, and now we’re living through one another 15 years later. Happens like clockwork. The one I was born into was off the back of Wynton Marsalis in the States, and people like Courtney Pine and Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes got a lot of press over here off the back off Wynton’s success in a way. And 15 years later it was all about Brad Mehldau in the States and EST in Europe, and then people over here started getting attention. People like Gwilym Simcock and other characters.
Binker: If I’m to tell you the truth and give it to you straight up, I reckon right now we’re sort of seeing it again, off the back of Kamasi Washington in the states. He’s the new Wynton now, even though the music is completely different. But he’s the one who’s sold over a 100,000 records deservedly. Just a hunch. I have absolutely no real figures to back that up. But you can’t complain about those things man, you’ve got to run with it. There ain’t no shame in the scenario. We met Kamasi a couple of times, he’s a really nice guy. It’s just funny how it takes people fifteen years to fucking get round to looking at it. Kamasi was doing great thing before The Epic. It’s just funny how the world turns.
\\ What are you listening to outside of UK music?
Moses: You know what man, my mind always goes blank when people ask me that question. It’s kind of the usual suspects. Not even just in the jazz scenes, but in the beat-making community. People like Dibiase or Knxwledge, as well as people like Thundercat and Flying Lotus and Anderson Paak. Just generally what’s happening in LA is quite similar to what’s going on here really. Which is interesting, because a lot of my blinkers are usually focused on what’s happening in New York.
Moses: But if I’m honest, I’m not as aware as maybe you are about what’s going on. I just find it hard to create and keep track of what’s going on. I guess my brain is just very simple, I can’t do two tasks at once. I’m either really checking stuff out and then I go make something, or I’m just making something and I’m really in my own hyperbolic jazz bubble.
Binker: I’ll keep it really simple rather than go on on one of my rants. I think the most interesting musician working today is a guy called Eric Wubbles who’s a New York classical composer. You can check out his piece Katachi, which is probably one of the most interesting pieces of music I’ve heard in the past ten years. I think that guy is making some of the most interesting music today.
JS | Gail Tasker