Ten years ago Incognito's first LP heralded a new British jazz funk movement; today their second celebrates a world-wide dance movement. Tim Goodyer asks Bluey Maunick if the song remains the same.
Let the funk be with you - and the jazz, and the house, and the Latin... This is the message from Incognito.
WHEN PUNK CHALLENGED POPULAR music ideals in the late 70s, it was the accomplished "muso" who bore the brunt of its anger. Musicians who had dedicated years of their lives to the understanding of music and mastery of their instruments were suddenly the enemies of pop music. "Progressive" or "techno" rock bands who once seemed to represent pop's ultimate achievement, were not just old news, but bad news. Although short-lived itself, punk was to have an unmistakable effect on the music that followed: gone were the instrumental excesses of the 70s, and with them much of the instrumental expertise that was the muso's calling card. But as the "new wave" rolled in and power pop stamped its utilitarian footmark on the charts, another, less spectacular movement was enjoying its own success. It was a wave of British funk music, or Britfunk - and it was breaking without incurring the displeasure of the punk revolutionaries.
Bands such as Light of the World, Lynx, Freeze and Incognito were fusing jazz virtuosity with driving funk rhythms and getting away with it. And while punk seems unlikely to be about to enjoy a renaissance in '91, one of the Britfunk names is back selling records and filling concert halls as I write. Back in 1981 Incognito released an LP appropriately entitled Jazz Funk. Their follow-up has taken a decade to arrive, but it's here in the form of an album called Inside Life.
Looking more closely at the heyday of British Funk, one man's name seems to crop up more than any other: that of multi-instrumentalist Jean Paul "Bluey" Maunick. Not only was he the driving force behind Incognito but also took a large hand in forming Light of the World, Freeze and Lynx. In fact it was above a record shop run by the cousin of Lynx' Sketch that Maunick first extended invitations to musicians buying records to jam together. The first band to emerge from above the record shop were Light of the World.
"I did the first album with Light of the World and then we had an accident on the motorway", recalls the affable Maunick, seated with current Incognito keyboard player Gary Sanctuary in London's Swan Yard Studios, where he's in the middle of a remix. "I lost my best friend so I thought it was time for me to get out of music and check myself out. But music was firmly installed in my system by then. I was working in a factory in the West End and in the evening I'd go down to the record shop and meet Johnny Rocca, and together we formed Freeze. Then again my mind began to wander off into this dance-based jazz thing I wanted to do - but not being a trained musician, I wanted to work with really good jazz musicians and my input would be as a producer and songwriter and also to bring the funk to it. And that's been my music ever since...
Coincidentally, Rocca himself has recently reappeared on the scene with a project called MIDI Rain. His second single, 'Eyes', is due for imminent release on Vinyl Solution.
"I went on to form Dante with Stephen Dante - who had a hit with Jellybean", continues Maunick. "Then I worked with Total Contrast, Maxi Priest, Marcus Miller, George Duke... Now I'm back with Incognito because the music climate is just right for it."
Having started classical piano lessons aged nine, Sanctuary is no newcomer to music, but his involvement in popular music dates back to a chance meeting with three instrument demonstrators while working in a local music shop some five years ago. The chance meeting brought him from the relative obscurity of Tunbridge Wells to London and onto the session scene and into the employ of artists such as the Pet Shop Boys, Terence Trent D'arby and Womack and Womack via a stint in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. While Sanctuary is technically a paid member of Incognito (he's currently also working with Aztec Camera), the fact that Maunick has invited him to participate in this interview is an indication of the open-mindedness with which he approaches both music and technology.
Inside Life itself provides a fairly explicit guide to what Incognito are currently about - production values fit neatly into the current dance movement, songwriting styles encompass house, jazz, funk, and Latin, and the level of musicianship displayed by Sanctuary and the other musicians (there are presently 13 in the live lineup) is second to none. Yet suggest to Maunick that there's more than a passing relationship between the success of Incognito's current single, 'Always There' and the current dance movement, and you quickly get an insight into his musical perspectives.
"I hope it's not just some kind of trend because trends always come in with a bang and go out fairly quickly", he comments. "Hopefully we're not trendy because we did an album fen years ago and nowhere we are again. And I haven't stopped playing our music in between. It may be a trend to some people, but I hope it won't be seen as such by the majority.
"Sometimes the media take trends and ruin people's lives with them. For instance, you say we've got a resurgence of jazz at the moment but only a year or so ago people were talking about a big resurgence of jazz with Courtney Pine. All those guys believed the hype and started putting on the jazz suits and seemed to think they were back in the Blue Note days. I'm not about that, man, we are today and I've got to deal with my life and I ain't about to go back in time for no-one. I'll listen to that, appreciate that, see what I can take from that and go on to make the music I want to make. But we had those cats up as 'the future of British jazz' and now they're struggling to get gigs. I really don't want Incognito to become a trend because I'm gonna be playing my kind of music when I'm 90 and you better be ready to listen to it, man."
More than any other aspect of his music, Maunick believes its value is in the mixture of musical styles contained within it.
"It's like the racial thing", he elaborates, "you can say it's getting better but to our childrens' eyes the issue isn't a problem. If they didn't have grown ups around them, black and white would live quite happily. In the same way jazz and all these fusions are living quite happily. I'd rather not make an issue of it, I'd rather it was down to musical merit."
"I think that there's so much music now that has its roots in jazz", adds Sanctuary. "I love jazz - I play a fair amount of it - but at the same time, most of the sessions I do don't call for jazz at all. But my roots in jazz are going into those sessions all the same - so maybe the harmonic content or a solo is jazz-orientated."
"Most of the time I'm at home I listen to Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa", continues Maunick, "and I can see it all down the line. Joni Mitchell's not jazz music but it's got elements of jazz, the Blue Nile's got elements of jazz but you wouldn't call it a jazz record. In the music of Kate Bush I hear folk, I hear jazz, commercial synthesiser music. Peter Gabriel uses elements of soul and jazz. Sting...
"There will always be hardcore followings for music, but it's getting so that you can't really put the finger on a lot of music. Hip hop has done a lot for that. Because of the way we've been brought up we have to categorise things, but I'm finding it very hard to categorise a lot of music now. I'll hear something and think 'it's great; what is it?'.
"I'm hoping that, in the future, all music will get a fair chance. I'm hoping that people will be on the lookout for talent and for good music. If everything was based on merit, I think the music scene would be so healthy - live, on radio and in terms of the musicians that would be around. Also, it would elevate our minds because people would be back into playing and thinking and writing rather than 'I'm on the mic, I'm on the mic and I'm back on the mic. I've got somebody else's beats, somebody elses's tune but I'm on the mic and it's me'. Just like the old Vanilla Quiff - it's music to crap to, you don't really need it, y'know?"
Listening to Maunick talk, you learn quickly that his easy-going manner belies the importance he attaches to music. But music isn't simply a passion with him, he treats it with the respect usually associated with more "important" issues than art. And it's not only the artistic aspects of making music that he's capable of intellectualising about. There's the small matter of technology - it's popularly regarded as either a means to an end or an all-consuming passion in its own right.
"People would be back into playing and thinking and writing rather than 'I'm on the mic, I'm back on the mic, I've got somebody else's beats, somebody elses's tune but I'm on the mic'."
"I don't think we've done anything that other people haven't done", he comments. "There's a lot of people using technology and using it well, not saying it's the be-all and end-all. Gary here is a tremendous keyboard player. On a couple of the solos he did while we were writing the songs we thought "why replace 'em?'. Sure they were done in the sequencer, they were done on the M1 piano, but it's what feels right. We could have gone back and said 'let's mic up the grand' but it's what you're looking for in music. Are you looking for the purest sound or are you looking for what feels good? If it feels good, what you doin' messin' with it?
"With technology you have to see the limitations - don't think you've really copied a piano break here because you haven't. What you've done is created something you like, that's all. A lot of guys using sequencing are really only using it to masturbate their egos, y'know? There's so much stuff that's released now that's all sequenced when they really should have got real people in to play some of it - or at least got someone who knows how to play it to sequence it properly. It's a joke - some of the timing errors and things that you hear. I'd rather think of it in terms of the help it's given me - it's allowed me to write songs and work out production ideas. But it's nice to see technology in the hands of somebody like Gary."
Checking out the credits on the sleeve of Inside Life it's evident that, while Sanctuary's Minimoog work on 'Metropolis', for example, demonstrates his considerable playing talent, Maunick's own musical talents shouldn't be underestimated. 'Sketches in the Dark' sees him taking responsibility for all the keyboard, guitar, drum, percussion and programming work and enlisting help only for brass work and additional percussion.
"I'm a bit of a jack of all trades, master of farts really", he says. "I never set out to be a virtuoso player of any instrument. From the moment I first picked up the guitar, I wanted to write a song with it. I didn't want to baffle you with it, it was just a means to an end. I see all the instruments I play in that way. I'm not a keyboard player but I'm not going to say to you 'you don't have to be, these days', that's a load of bollocks. It's good that you have guys that specialise in playing well, but where playing has helped me is in getting my ideas out.
"The good thing about a band like this is the musical interplay. A lot of music these days doesn't allow people to interact with each other. You've got a guy with a sequencer - sure we've used sequencing on this album - and he's done the writing so it's all like looking through a very narrow lens. Now, you've got to allow people to come in and change the shit. This is where people are scared. They're afraid that people are going to come in and put personalities on what they've created. Musical interplay has to have personality. We say 'you're goin' to come in and do the brass arrangements? Great!' And I've got to sit back and let that magical thing come through. Obviously as a producer my job is to steer it in a way that feels comfortable, but most of the time, because you've chosen the personalities, you don't have to say nothin'. Because you've chosen the characters, you know you're goin' to enjoy it. It's a meeting of heads; it's a conversation, an interesting conversation. That's what the music is. If you've got one guy going yap, yap, yap, everybody's going to get bored."
TRACING THE RECORDING OF INSIDE LIFE you first have to appreciate that the project was never meant to be a big-budget, high-profile project like too many dance acts at the moment. Instrumental in the release of the album was jazz DJ Gilles Peterson and his Talkin Loud label.
"When I did the first Incognito album in 1981, Gilles was a pirate radio DJ at the front of getting dance music played", recalls Maunick. "Obviously he has an affinity for the people he's worked with in the past. He didn't want to step into A&R and sign everything that was thrown at him or because it was someone else's idea of a commercial success, he wanted to work with things he understood and because he understood them he'd be able to sell them. That's exactly what's happened to the Young Disciples, Omar and ourselves. Although we've had our differences and our clashes, we've found solutions to all the problems, which is something you can't often do with a record company. They don't see your music the way you see it. At the same time I realise that the record company is a business - if you don't want to be a part of a business you can stay at home and make music and sell it on street corners. But I'm really relishing the opportunity of getting people to hear the music. That's what it's all about: you make music for yourself, but like any artist that paints a picture you want people to see it.
"There's also the money side. Half the people that have been with me on and off for the last ten years have been doing it for the love of music. If they come to one of my sessions the bottom line is that it's musically enjoyable. But that has to change - you're not making music in the tradition where you have to suffer for your art, there's a balance that can be achieved where you're earning and playing. Since the success of the single I've been trying to raise the guys' earnings at the gigs and pay them more for rehearsals and look after them a little bit better."
So Maunick found himself with a second album deal ten years after the first - and a small budget to work on. The first demos were put down on his own Fostex E16 (now upgraded to a G16) and on the BBC-based UMI sequencing system. Then Sanctuary came in, bringing with him his Atari/Notator sequencer.
"There was just enough equipment to get a basic idea down", comments Maunick. "He'd do stuff on the C-Lab, I'd do stuff on UMI. But it's just what you know.
"Then we went off to Belgium to record. We got some really decent studio time there at a price that, if it had been in London, we wouldn't have been able to afford it. It was 48-track digital, Neve desk with flying faders and the nicest atmosphere of any studio I've been in. It really had style. We flew the horn section over and we did some percussion with a Belgian percussionist called Chris Joris. Gary did a lot of live playing."
Live playing was something Maunick was eager to make a part of Inside Life, to the extent that a couple of the tracks were recorded almost completely live back at Swan Yard.
"We did 'Always There' here", Maunick elaborates. "We used the people we thought were right for the project, some of my old mates like Peter Hinds from Light of the World. We just tried to get a nice chemistry happening in a short space of time. I think if you crammed it all together, the whole album was written, recorded and mixed in a month and a half. Hopefully that energy comes over on the record."
Given Maunick's pride in the playing talents of the band, why did he feel the need to involve sequencing or sampling?
"We used the sequencer as a notepad at first", explains Sanctuary, "for rhythm, bass, pads or whatever. From there we decided whether or not it felt better with a real bass or a real piano but, essentially, the computer was there as a notepad."
"It's a meeting of heads; it's a conversation, an interesting conversation, that's what the music is - if you've got one guy going yap, yap, yap, everybody's going to get bored."
"The stuff we kept from the sequencer was stuff like quirky synth lines that had a rigidity to them that you wouldn't get playing them live", continues Maunick. "Other stuff we kept would be like a piano solo that we'd put down but not quantised and Gary'd have played it thinking he'd do the 'proper' solo later. He'd have put something down just to fill the space but in doing so he will have done it without any red lights. He was just lettin' go and that's what a solo should be. It's part of the life of the album; it's that moment in that room, that fifth beer or five o'clock in the morning 'should we be doin' this or should we go home?'.
"In the future sequencing is something that's just going to be part of music and it's going to become transparent. People won't be listening for what you've sequenced and what you haven't. It's just like the music thing we were talking about - it's all about getting the job done, the musician getting through ideas. Let's look beyond the fingers, let's look beyond all the physicalities and let's get into the tonal thing. At the end of the day, there are so many people that don't play who are going to enjoy that music. We should approach our instruments so that they become transparent. Sure, we're going to be into having a new piece of equipment for a while, but then let's see what we can get out of it, what inspiration it can bring and what effect it can have musically. I'd like to think the sequencer is going to help music out rather than bring about its downfall."
"There are lots of sampled sounds on the album", Maunick admits. "Again, I don't wanna take somebody's record and abuse it or abuse my position as a producer to lift vocals from the multitracks I have available to me. Those things don't interest me. What does interest me are the possibilities that you sometimes get from the fusion of music you've created and a whole section of things that have been created by somebody else. The only time I use a sample is if there's something there that's really interesting.
"The only conscious thing I've done is to use the 'Funky Drummer' loop. I slowed it right down so it's been completely taken out of context. It's so slow you can hear the surface noise on the record. But it works for me - the sound of the horn really reminds me of the city and 'Funky Drummer' is the beat of the city in the '90s. The two together give a really Metropolis-type feel and I called one of the tracks 'Metropolis'. It gave me the concept for the album, actually: the Inside Life, Metropolis, living in the city, that kind of vibe. It came from the use of that sample.
"Another way we use sampling is tonally - in the same way as you might use a synth to get a particular sort of sound for a solo we'd maybe take an attack section of a flute and use it with a synth sound. You're not gonna get a flute solo, but it's gonna have its own identity."
One of the most appealing aspects of the sound of Inside Life is the mixture of acoustic instruments and technology - but not necessarily the latest technology. Alongside the Minimoog and new Akai samplers the sleeve notes read like a history of keyboard technology - there's the Minimoog we've already mentioned, then there's the Clavinet, the Rhodes and CS80 we haven't...
"Reading your magazine has cost me a lot of money", taunts Maunick. "You guys should stop that kind of behaviour. At least you could review one piece of gear each year and give us a chance to keep our gear for a while.
"Seriously, I try to pick up bits of gear as I go. The new Rhodes, for example, is good because it sounds like the old Rhodes but it's got its own spirit and it stays in tune. I love the sound of the CS80 but it's a bugger - you can't carry it around.
"I'm glad people are beginning to make all the old analogue
"I think I played a Minimoog when I was 12 or 13", recalls Sanctuary, "and then I used Bluey's for the album. And to discover the characteristics and the touches you could get was absolutely mind-blowing. There's no velocity, no aftertouch, but it makes up for that. It was a pain in the arse too because if you moved the pitch wheel, you couldn't get it back in tune, you had to start again, but that didn't stop us."
"I'm not a technical man", continues Maunick, "but, tonally, these instruments are so strong. If you take acoustic instruments - you cut two pieces of wood from a tree and they're different, but you build a microchip and it's identical to the next microchip. You build a piano and it's that piece of wood with those strings across it and there's the weight of the keys... With electronic stuff, especially modern electronic stuff, it's replicas each time. You're not going to have those nuances, so you've got to electronically create them. I'm not here to knock modern stuff - if it sounds right, use it."
"It couldn't be better, could it?" asks Sanctuary. "You've got all the old stuff out there, you've got all the new stuff - you've just got to use it."
"What could be better is getting rid of the greedy people who put a Prophet 5 in a rack and charge a grand more for it", responds Maunick. "I wish Sequential could bring back the Prophet 5 and shut these people up. The people who put these old instruments out first should be the first to see the benefits. That's the unfortunate thing about the major manufacturers: they're so caught up in it all that sometimes you get 'we built this thing and it's a piece of shite, but we're goin' to sell it anyway'. They've spent so much money developing it and putting it in peoples' faces that they've got to sell it. You don't always have to go forward to achieve, sometimes they should take a little step back and make a few revisions and they'd find they'd achieved a lot more. If somebody's got to learn all these new things all the time it's gonna mash up their head.
"Manufacturers have to realise that everybody's mentality isn't the same. I like all those knobs and switches now but that's changed over the years. When I was young I wouldn't eat that stuff that Popeye eats - what is it, spinach? Now you can't keep me away from it, it even looks good to me! And it's the same with musical instruments, you know? I used to love the Strat but I used to hate the Gibson 335. Now I look at that 335 and I think 'man, what a shape!'. Sometimes I think that if it had hair, I'd love it."
Maunick's endless enthusiasm for his music and the gear that helps him make it almost leaves you believing this threat. But as we listen to the remix he's working on after the interview is over, it's one of his earlier comments that ring most true - I wonder who will be doing the Incognito interview on his 90th birthday?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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