Following their breakthrough debut album in the early ‘90s The Brand New Heavies went on to earn sixteen Top 40 hits and three million worldwide album sales, not to mention two UK Platinum albums. Emerging at the heart of the Acid Jazz scene, they made an instant impact with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, with enduring classics such as ‘Never Stop’. ‘You Are The Universe’, ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ and ‘Dream Come True’. In their first performance since last year’s lockdown, TBNH, led by bassist Andrew Levy, guitarist Simon Bartholomew and featuring vocalist Angela Ricci, take to the stage on Valentine’s Day to stream their good-time grooves live and direct from London’s Jazz Café, on Sunday 14th February at 8.00pm UK time.
We spoke to Simon recently over a brew…
What are your memories of the early days of the Acid Jazz scene?
It was a funny thing Acid Jazz – the guys that started it were going to clubs where people just wanted to dance, and the DJs from East London would play rare groove records. It became really popular and things started to happen. I didn’t go clubbing before that time, and it was way before they built giant clubs like Ministry of Sound and those kinds of places. We went to clubs like the Wag, and Dingwall’s in Camden, which were more like discos, but you could also put small jazz gigs on in those kinds of venues.
People started to put parties on all over the country, and there was also a fashion sense that came with it. You would hear about various nights on the grapevine, and those clubs also played hip-hop and early house music. You had people like Soul II Soul and other sound systems starting to make their name known around town, and a few things began to merge into one.
I remember going to a night held in North London in quite a posh area – as we would often find ourselves dancing in anonymous venues. And coming out of art college we were into things like super 8 projectors, making film loops and projecting them onto the walls of these places. It was very makeshift, but also very entrepreneurial because so much was happening so quickly. Acid House had just started as well, which was kind of the opposite of what we were doing in some ways.
So how did you get a record deal?
We had a deal with CoolTempo, which was a subsidiary of Chrysalis records, but we got dropped quite quickly because of Acid House, as it was the new kind of dance music on the scene. We were working on a single called Got to Give, which was one of our early songs that we felt had global appeal.
In terms of the Acid Jazz and its identity, funnily enough the founders Eddie Piller and Gilles Peterson – who founded the label in 1987 – took the Acid House smiley face then drew a pair of glasses and a beanie on it!
The Heavies got some heat and we started playing around town. We were a very young band. I can remember early acts like Galliano, who were just like a gang, because you had Rob and Valerie, Snaith, Constantine, Crispin, and they had a fantastic live show. One night I went to see them at the Town and Country Club and they came down on ropes – like they were explorers, and they wore sandals and there were all of these plants on stage.
I also used to take part in jam sessions at the Jazz Cafe on Sundays, with one or two members of Galliano and Carleen Anderson, where we would play things like Apparently Nothin’ or some Marvin Gaye songs, and various people would come up to the stage and play. It could be anyone from an incredible marimba player, or James Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield, it was incredible really.
What were your main musical influences growing up?
Well I didn’t get David Bowie properly until relatively recently. I bought his Scary Monsters and Super Creeps album when I was younger, but then the penny dropped about 6-7 years ago and I had to have everything, even the Laughing Gnome! A lot of an artist’s music can come from adversity, which is interesting. When I hear an artist’s early work it’s like hearing the naivety of youth, like a bulb coming out of the ground. A little stem, rather than the full plant or a tree. You’ll put up with everything when you’re a fan, that’s the cult of personality.
My Mum actually passed away in 2016, the same year as David Bowie and Prince, so that was tough. We actually met Prince very briefly a couple of times – sort of said hello, although he was always surrounded by an entourage when our paths crossed.
The Brand New Heavies album Brother Sister is often cited as a classic of its time – can you tell us more about the period when you were recording that album?
Someone in America heard our first album so we recorded Never Stop, which went to number 3 in the RnB chart over there. When our first album was re-released it came out with Never Stop on it, and that got us signed in the UK. We also added Don’t Let It Go To Your Head, and we started to get some bigger gigs. Jamiroquai were also getting signed around that time, and there was some real heat around the scene. People were hearing about us, and Acid Jazz, and it was seen as a gateway to older music. We were crossing paths a lot with Jay (Kay), and I remember playing at venues like the Jazz Café, but also festival shows at Glastonbury.
Before Brother Sister came out percussionist Max Beesley toured with us out in Japan, and Acid Jazz are actually going to release that album next month – Live in Tokyo 1992: Shibuya 357.
N’Dea Davenport was also in the band by that time, and there was a studio we used near the British Museum, which we pretty much went into every day. It’s one of my favourite albums, because if you listen closely you can hear the chatter and the vibe of people hanging out in the studio between tracks. We would also try things with the guys in the control room. One day I had a bass guitar and an electric guitar round my neck, and I was messing around with a riff that became the song Fake. So that one was born from messing around, but it was funky and has always been fun to play live.
Everything was easy going at that time, N’Dea was working with Dallas Austin on Dream on Dreamer – and he was the hottest young producer at only 17 having just produced Boys II Men.
Shortly after that album there was a US release called Excursions: Remixes & Rare Grooves – can you tell us about that?
Delicious Vinyl didn’t always ask our opinions on things! For example, we didn’t always see the final artwork pre-release. They had made quite a bit of money with Tone Loc on tunes like Funky Cold Medina and Wild Thing back then. Even though we weren’t fully bought into that particular project, we have had some really cool remixes of our tunes done over the years. The Ummah mix of Sometimes I really liked.
I read once that Mary J. Blige is a big fan of yours, and cites Never Stop as a track that really inspired her – has there ever been any talk of you working together?
Mary is fantastic, and we have tried to make contact, but it can be hard to reach people. We’ve worked with so many fantastic female vocalists over the years, so who knows what could happen in the future.
What did you make of the recent headlines around the Brexit challenges for live touring acts in the future?
When you travel you have to fill out more and more forms these days and have all your gear searched. In airports you have various barriers. It feels like a military state that we live in and the world is getting locked down.
And now with Coronvirus it’s an invisible enemy that controls everyone and shuts everything down. Big businesses are still doing very well though and the music business is still making millions. Big labels are getting bought up and you’re seeing a lot of music catalogues being bought for vast sums of money. In the meantime, it feels like I make about 0.001p per play!
A lot of people are smelling a rat in all of this, but equally you don’t want to be labelled as a conspiracy theorist. I also think that people are quick to self-appoint themselves as the Covid police, because you’re going to Sainsbury’s for your weekly food shop without a glove on! I think it’s tough for young people and musicians right now.
During your last set of shows, we noticed you taking on some vocal duties – can we expect more multi-tasking from you?
I always wanted to sing more, but in previous incarnations of the band I just didn’t get that opportunity for various reasons, but am ready for it now, so I’m going to do it a bit more. To be honest I’ve always had various projects on the go, including Akimbo, which was a band that featured Nick Van Gelder from Jamiroquai, and various other musicians from London.
Akimbo has another album which is 80% in the can, and I also have a solo album of funky rock – which is more like a classic three piece, in the style of Cream or Jimi Hendrix, but a bit funkier. I need to put that out now, otherwise no-one will ever hear it!
And getting back to immediate concerns Simon – we hear the Heavies are streaming a Valentine’s Day concert from the Jazz Café in London’s Camden, what can you tell us about that?
By streaming this gig we’re hoping that it keeps the energy alive. Even though we haven’t had the chance to jam and rehearse as much as we would have ordinarily, we’re going to do the classics and we’ll really be looking forward to it on the day. We know the songs well obviously and it will be a case of getting back on the bike you haven’t ridden properly for two years. To me it never gets boring playing these songs – it’s fun and I like to be open, am just myself at the end of the day.
To catch the Heavies live from London’s Jazz Café, on Sunday 14 February at 20:00 UK, 21:00 CET, 15:00 EST, tickets are £20 and available from www.streamzy.co.uk or from the Jazz Cafe website.
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