Continuing our focus on UK artists in 2018, we catch up with one of our favourite soul boys, and purveyor of funky beats. Can it really be five years since the Cocoa Diaries caught up with London’s Jan Kincaid? Well it’s been four and half to be precise. The former singer, drummer, collaborator and founding father of the Brand New Heavies, is embarking on a new creative journey with a group he calls the ‘MF Robots’. A lot has changed, but musically it seems the world keeps on spinning for Jan. School’s in.
So where did the name MF Robots come from?
Music for Robots was really a tongue in cheek and ironic name we came up with, to hold a mirror up to the music business, being what it is now.
Well too often everything is generic sounding, whether that’s song-writing, singers or production. To me, bands don’t have a distinct sound anymore. The other issue is that whenever a semi-interesting act comes along, all the A&R departments jump on it immediately and then suddenly there are 100 Ed Sheeran sound-a-likes out there. We like to do things a bit more organically.
What’s the reaction been from BNH fans, who previously followed you in that band?
Generally, they love it, everybody I’ve either spoken to or who’s seen it live. It’s been really good because they hear elements of the Heavies in what we’re doing now.
What was the first song you worked on with Dawn Joseph? (Co-collaborator and former BNH lead vocalist)
Come on With The Good Thing – our second single – that was the one where we knew we could do something good, and as time went by each tune took on a life of its own.”
The horns on The Night is Calling are incredibly infectious – how do you write a lick like that?
Our creative process just stems from knowledge really. I’m a sponge for music as is Dawn, and over time you have a telepathy for stuff. You have an instinct for licks and riffs, which means that bits are just added as and when they come to you. I’ve played the keys on this record, while Graham Flowers and Andy Ross – trumpet and sax – have worked on the horn parts. They also feel similar music to Dawn and I, so once we had the groove, the horn line just kind of wrote itself. Some people have said they can hear Michael Jackson in this, and to some degree we are conscious of something having, say a Rod Temperton feel to it, but the key is to just be yourself and embrace the sounds you like, without trying to rip them off.
More specifically on the horn parts, if you have a great groove already, you probably know you want to make the horn parts quite staccato, and quite dramatic. To me it’s the combination of writing with the right kind of people, who know what you’re trying to achieve. To avoid it being hit and miss you put a team around you that gets results. Experience counts for a lot.
As a kid I had a real affinity with music, for all sorts, even TV themes – for instance, Starsky and Hutch sticks in my head. It’s the same as painting a work of art, once you’ve absorbed a certain amount, stuff just comes out of you and you have to translate your feelings. That kind of freedom of expression used to cause problems in the Brand New Heavies, because it would freak out the A&R people. Everyone wants to put you in a box.”
How difficult is the editing process when you’ve written a lot of new material?
Sometimes half a song is good, or there’s a great chorus or a bridge that changes into something else. Myself and Dawn had the benefit of time with this project. We didn’t set out to make an album, we were just writing together and one song turned into five, then ten songs became fourteen. We’ve ended up using everything that we wrote for our first album.
You mentioned having the luxury of time, why was that?
I’d made the decision to leave the Brand New Heavies after 25 years with the group, because the atmosphere was such that I couldn’t really stay. It was no longer conducive to making music or moving forward. We didn’t have a manager at the time and it felt as if everything was counterproductive to making music, which is what I care about most. At a certain point in life you only want so much drama, or you just take a bold decision to remove it completely so that you can invest your energy into something else, something more positive. MF Robots wasn’t a challenge for me really, everyone thought I was crazy initially to break away, but we knew what we were working towards.
Dawn is clearly your creative foil and musical partner – how do you scale it up from duo to full band for the live scene?
Well we made a rod for our own back when we made the record! There are horns all over this album so we’d already set ourselves up to go out on the road like that. People like your music because they hear those elements though, so it’s an exciting thing. Just getting everyone together, percussionists, horns and all the different elements, that can be the challenge. We work with a core group of musicians as much we can, and good musicians are always busy, but so far, we’ve been quite lucky. People enjoy playing in this band, and we run it like a family. I think that works in our favour in terms of the organisational side of what we have to do.
Do you have to focus on live or recorded income?
Albums definitely sell less these days, to get to number 1 you don’t need to sell half as many copies as you used to. Spotify and the various other streaming services are not really sales anyway. Spotify is an advert for your band, so that’s how you have to look at it. The income musicians get from those services is negligent, so if it doesn’t change no one will make any money at all in future. You can still sell vinyl, CDs and physical product though, particularly to the crowds in your genre. You have to make it desirable, but it can be done. Dawn and I have got a blue double vinyl edition of the album coming out in the next few weeks. We’ve both grown up with vinyl so we wanted to do that properly. It’s a great package so I’d encourage readers of the Cocoa Diaries to check it out! You have a unique situation now where you can sell virtually no singles or tunes but also be selling out venues around the world. For me I could never exist without playing live, it’s such a massive part of our experience. It’s a lot of fun when you’ve been holed up in the studio making a record, and then you get to play that music live. You get to see people enjoying your music, and the songs take on a new life. We take the best elements of those songs and amp them up onstage.”
What sort of shows have you been playing?
We’ve done a wide variety, one of our first gigs was to just 200 people in Madrid, and that was so much fun because it was an established night for soul, funk and jazz heads. The attitude was – turn up, plug in and play. Second gig was for 15,000 people at the Black Sea Jazz Festival with people like Joss Stone and De La Soul.
Your video for Believe in Love – is that a UK beach resort in Brighton or Hastings?
It’s actually Southsea beach near Portsmouth, and it was shot in the middle of the day. We hadn’t explored it before, but a guy I knew who lives there filmed it. There just seemed to be lots of great locations there, and space. It was also the hottest day of the year that day which helped.
How do you see the British scene these days?
Some of the new jazz stuff is interesting, but there’s so much hype around things now. I still look at the music press online, even if 9 times out of 10 I’m disappointed. I also have a problem with a lot of music journalism in general, because there’s often a bit of Emperor’s New clothes about the reporting. I don’t see any David Bowie’s or anything super ground-breaking right now, someone who’s reinventing something that went before. Rag and Bone man was interesting when he came out, I quite liked what he was doing, but then loads of people are launched off the back of that. I can just imagine the A&R people licking their lips and having that conversation, but for me it should be about personality. Bands like Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament, artists like Miles Davis – they were all incredibly individual people who were only trying to be themselves. Maybe people are struggling with identity these days. A lot of people seem to be drifting around trying to find out who they are. There’s no link between fashion and music like there used to be either. A lot of the low-key things are the most interesting to me. Vulfpeck – look them up – are influenced by Steely Dan, and are massive underground. I went to see them at Shepherds Bush Empire a little while back and it was absolutely rammed, with people singing their bass lines and horn lines back to them. Khruangbin, are an American trio who do trippy, funky breakbeats completely live, it’s like a filmic tapestry with only 3 instruments. I also still hear the odd song I really like, by Kendrick Lamar and others. Back in the day bands were signed for a minimum of 3 albums to help them experiment and discover their sound, that environment just doesn’t exist anymore. To be experimental you have to make your own music and be selling it yourself.
Any UK festival dates coming up this summer?
We put our record out at a slightly funny time, when a lot of these things had been booked. We do have a tour for the end of this year booked, which will take in Europe and the UK by the end of this year.
So, what’s next for MF Robots?
We just got the call to join the Lenny Kravitz tour from the end of this month (May) – which came out of the blue. The question was do you want to go out on the road with Lenny in Europe? It was a nice problem to have! We’ll be playing all over Europe and it starts on the 31st of this month. We’re not playing on the UK dates unfortunately as they were already set, but we’re playing in places we haven’t been to yet and playing to big audiences, which is fantastic. We’re also going to be on the same bill as CHIC and Nile Rogers later this year, and at a festival date in Scotland (in Inverness).”
What else do you want to achieve in music?
There are lots of things I want to achieve. This band is just going for it. Pulling back from all of that, it’s more about being able to express yourself, and just being able to say the things you want to say. I just want to carry on making music because it’s the thing I need to do. I’d have to express myself in another way if I didn’t have this. It seems to fulfil a psychological need so I’m going to carry on exploring that.”
Music for Robots is out now