The Brand New Heavies (TBNH) bass man Andrew Levy stopped by for a cup of Cocoa recently…and his message after 30 years in the game? Just believe in you.
Sam Bleazard picks up the story…
Your new album features a whole raft of musical talent, with the likes of Mark Ronson, Beverley Knight, Angie Stone, N’Dea Davenport – and of course your new vocalist Angela Ricci – why do you think TBNH still have such pulling power?
We’ve always had that, and I think it’s because we stuck to our guns in terms of our style. We were all lovers of funk, soul and jazz, and we weren’t a manufactured band. That gave us a certain level of authenticity and brought a quality to our music. In terms of song writing and production, I think what we’ve done has stood the test of time, the effort and the polish that’s in there and our following is made up of a combination of both artists and members of the public.
Just Believe in You is one of the new songs previewing online – how difficult it is to write memorable hooks, and what’s the secret?
It’s from the Gods you know, that talent and that gift. With that there’s also a certain level of ‘practice makes perfect’ to it. I actually didn’t start playing the bass until I was 16, but throughout my childhood and teenage years there was always a lot of music in the house 24/7, especially reggae, which is why I play the bass. It’s really about imagination too and playing the melodies lots and lots of times over. And then you realise there’s a bit of a formula to it.
A bit of a tip for aspiring songwriters would be that for your chorus – use an ascending scale, because everything is going up in energy. Sticking to the established scales is also worth thinking about as well. And finally doing lots of listening, which is something I’ve always done.”
TBNH have always made people feel good – but do you ever feel like touching on deeper subjects?
I mean, yes there are people out there that are very good at being political, who are purveyors of a certain message and can interpret current affairs well. We like to provide a safe haven from all the scary stuff that’s going on in the world. Also, I don’t believe that it’s all bad, because people are still getting up, going to school and work, cooking, exercising, spending time with their kids and getting on with their lives. Everything has to be in balance.
Do you think one of your earliest albums, The Heavy Rhyme Experience, is underrated?
I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but as time has passed I think it’s actually one of our most popular albums, even though at the time the label didn’t really understand it. It’s become this cult following type of record and is a much-respected piece of work. It was recorded in ‘92 and was one of our first official albums – in terms of being a completely new record. It was also out before Brother Sister. Some of our early recordings had caught the attention of people like Q-Tip and Ice Cube, not to mention a lot of the biggest rap artists Stateside at that time. Our thing was that we could play phat grooves live, so we offered them to that community as an alternative to sampling.
And what are your memories of that period?
We flew out there for six weeks and we recorded as many people as possible. It was a great live funk album basically and we appeared on the TV show ‘Yo MTV Raps’, we were all over that at the time! And that’s what really pushed us and got us noticed even more. I’ll never forget the time we were in the studio as Ice Cube walked through the door with his assistant and minder in tow. I looked at Simon and said, “what’s going on?”. I was quite nervous at the time, but because we were young, our attitude was – let’s go for it. It was a good move by our management, and to be honest we’ve been trying to do another one since, so it’s something we will try to revisit if we can.
How important is TBNH brand, as members move on and new people come in?
I think the brand is incredibly important, because we’re all visual animals. We see shapes and colours before we see words and it was always an important aspect of the group to us.
In terms of the design aspect of the band, I went to art college and have a degree, so does Simon, and in the early days the record company really liked it because they didn’t have to do it.
I actually designed the elephant logo you see on our early albums in 1986, on the floor of my parents living room, with a pair of scissors, cutting and pasting.
We noticed that you’re now TBNH…why have you added the ‘T’?
This goes way back to Cooltempo in ’88. We are actually The Brand New Heavies, that was always the official name, but it was an administrative error early on! We obviously had a founder member in Jan (Kincaid) leave the band 2-3 years ago, so there was some legal stuff to resolve around the name.
Put simply we decided to start using the abbreviated name, if it was going to be a case of not being allowed the use the previous one. As it turns out there’s a nice symmetry to it and it looks good.
You’ve had lots of fantastic female vocalists over the years – what are the most important qualities they need to join the band?
Obviously they’ve got to be great singers, great performers and have confidence. Most people who know the history of our band will know that N’Dea Davenport always had an incredible connection with the audience. The priority for us isn’t always the technical ability, it’s the ability to hold their attention for 90mins and more.
You have to keep people interested, and also not over-do it. Strange as it is to say, to some degree people like to be controlled and directed in the live environment, but it still takes time to develop. If you don’t have that you won’t have fans over a long period, and people like to see bands having fun, that’s what performing live is all about.
Who were your musical heroes growing up?
“Miles Davis. I got into jazz when I was 14 or 15 maybe, hearing a lot of it on (BBC) Radio 2 for the first time. My uncle was into James Brown though, which made him a bit of rebel, because he was Jamaican and everyone else was into Ska and that kind of thing. What I heard at his house (on James Brown records) was a different beat, different guitars and I also discovered Disco, Chic and artists like Shakatak – who I still love – shortly after. I was also interested in certain things that you couldn’t find very easily back then, avant-garde jazz and Jack DeJohnette. I’ve got most of his releases. On the flip side I would say I’ve got quite a commercial ear, so a lot of the things I’ve written for the band is at the poppier end of the spectrum. Herbie Hancock has been a massive influence on me, even before I knew he played on Patrice Rushen’s music, and I like the Brothers Johnson and a whole ton of other stuff.
Any artists you listen to now?
I really like Judith Hill, whom I believe worked closely with Prince before he died, that’s a good sound.
When you make new music, what are your expectations of it…and how have those changed over the years?
It’s tough actually as I have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old, which is because I started late in terms of my own family. This album was very difficult in the sense that we could only spend 4-5 hours at a time on it, when we’ve been used to spending 12 hours in the studio previously.
You immerse yourself and live in the bubble of the album, but that didn’t happen this time. I think we’ll ‘go residential’ on the next one so that we can eat sleep and breathe the songs.”
Did the tighter timescales help you focus and self-edit in some ways?
Yeah, I suppose it did (laughs). A lot of decisions had to be made quickly, and some had to be harsh! We didn’t have the luxury of taking 3 hours to noodle around, discuss things and jam. We didn’t avoid the difficult decisions this time, so it might have helped, and we brought a producer into the room with us. We’ll definitely do that again.
It also takes away some of the politics around saying ‘I want this chorus line’ etc, especially if you’re on a deadline. In addition, 4-5 of the songs were actually written a while back, but we finished them all off for this album. Some of the material even goes back ten years. A part of me thinks they should all be brand new songs, but the fact they fit felt good in terms of the continuity and legacy of the band.
Speaking of legacy, you’re back on Acid Jazz now – how does that feel, and how did it come about?
It kind of saved us in a way, because they came to us at a time when we needed someone to invest time in the band, so the timing was unbelievable.
A lot of bands with a DIY approach think you can just put stuff out on iTunes these days, but my view is that record companies are very useful. I love them because they have the money to market your ideas. There’s a big difference when you can be marketed, especially nowadays when there’s hundreds of records coming out every day with everyone having the ability to generate and record music. Acid Jazz were a good fit in terms of our history and our story, and as a label they really understand the band.”
How important is live performance, and what are your thoughts about the ‘Funk is back’ tour coming up?
I like the camaraderie of being in the band. A lot of the people we use have been with us for 10 years. I also like hanging out, so that it’s like a party on-stage.
Am not sure I should be sharing this, but we do tend to enjoy half a glass of prosecco before going on, and we just have a party on-stage, it’s not too tightly rehearsed.
We also never use tape, and I think that’s a big part of why we keep getting booked after 30 years of playing. I watched us online the other night, and it struck me that there’s always been a little edge of vulnerability about us.
What are your memories of getting together with Simon and Jan Kincaid in the early days of the band?
I was class-mates with Jan and we sat next to each other in high school. I can still vividly remember sitting in the front row of desks in class and looking down at the shoes Jan had on. They had a really unusual name like, was it Bass Weejuns? They were like moccasins, and I just thought ‘this guy has really cool shoes on’.
That was the beginning of a 40-year relationship and all three of us had a big love of disco, soul and jazz-funk, so we bonded over that. We used to share our pocket money to buy records, and we would then share the music round. We were a very tight unit, and I remember we also had drum lessons together for a while.
Jan’s brother was a virtuoso musician, and he gave me a bass back then, which I taught myself to play. Simon was Jan’s friend before high school, and he started jamming with us in 1984 on Sundays. When we went clubbing it started getting more serious, and it was DJ Barrie Sharpe who invited us to do a live gig in 1986.
Do you use social media much?
My relationship with it is that if it sucks up too much of my precious time, I don’t do anything on it really. Apart from share the odd family photo. To me it’s just a shop-front.
I don’t know where anyone finds the time? My kids hate when I pull the phone out, they don’t like it because it feels like you’ve disappeared from the room. My advice to all Mums and Dads would be to get rid of your phones when the kids are in the room.
And finally, how can people hear your new music?
We’ve got a tour starting on 31 October, so please go to tbnh.co.uk and buy a ticket for the show, as we want to sell it out! We have plans to play an iconic venue next year…so watch this space.