It has been more than 12 years since I found out about The Heliocentrics and ever since I engaged with their works I was astounded.
To be honest, I still am and I keep revisiting their past works as more as I can!
Although my awe all these years, I have rarely written about their works and I’m intending to change that and express my love for them. Who knows, maybe someone got stuck with them as I did. It happened before it will surely happen again!
For more than 20 years now, Malcom Catto and Jake Ferguson, the creative masterminds behind The Heliocentrics, are forging with perseverance and patience the psychedelic atmosphere to each of their albums.
Piece by piece they shape the intergalactic sound that brings them closer to the pursuit of “The One”. Drawing from the weird world of Sun Ra, the haunted side of the Maestro Ennio and spicing it with the psych-kraut rhythmology of Can and the anarchy of Musique Concrète of Pierre Schaeffer, the result is an extremely personal and recognizable world of psychedelia.
In their latest output Infinity Of Now, their first album on Madlib’s label, Madlib Invazion, The Heliocentrics collective proves once again that they are at the right way on the cosmic psych funk-jazz orbit.
Known as an instrumental band so far (until World of Masks), the dense production is getting balanced through Babs lyrical approach presenting a crisp, pulsing and colorful result, probably their best so far, pushing the boundaries once again.
I have contacted Malcom Catto and Jake Ferguson and asked them some questions about the band, the music, and politics and here are their thoughts!
1) After 13 years of constant music experimentations, collaborations with great artists and some of the most interesting-innovative releases, is there something you haven’t done and planning to do so? What is your goal now?
Malcom Catto: Firstly, thank you George for your ongoing support of the band and our music.
There are so many things musically we haven’t done that we will all have to live to be 150 to do most of them.
It takes a frustratingly protracted amount of time to learn and absorb a new musical style to the extent that it comes out in your playing without being part of a thought process.
It is only now that we have playing Orlado Julius’s uniques form of Afrobeat for nearly 6 years that it now comes reasonably natural for us to play it and can incorporate that influence into our music so that we can do something with it and take it somewhere.
We also want to learn how to play Brazilian Batucada style music properly as well as dub and (the flying hi-hat style) and learn the swing of Gnawa music and many more musical styles that are not indigenous to us because we are very interested in different rhythms and nuance of various swings.
Our goal remains to come up with a group sound that is unique and that represents us in the now and also to write increasingly well crafted and interesting nontraditional songs
Jake Ferguson: To continue writing good songs with interesting changes and unusual rhythms.
2) Up until now, you have worked with significant musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, Lloyd Miller, Melvin Van Peebles, and Orlando Julius. I guess there are a lot more that you wanted to work with, could you just name a few?
MC: Well, we are nothing if not ambitious and on our list of desirable collaborations include:
- Ennio Morricone
- Kool Keith
- Archie Shepp
- Floating Points
- Jah Shaka
- Members of Amon Dull II
- Pharoah Monch
- Gas Lamp Killer
- The Arkestra
- MF Doom
- Linton Kwesi Johnson
JF: Akala – the UK rapper, journalist, author, activist, poet, and political activist would be great.
3) In your previous album -World of Masks- you introduced us to your charismatic singer-lyricist, Barbara. She’s obviously a permanent feature of the band. How does that work? Does she first write the lyrics that you later add the music or the other way around?
MC: On the world of Masks all except one vocal track – ‘Capital of alone’ was written, all the other vocal tracks were made up on the spot in the studio with Babs putting down vocals in the studio control room live along to our impromptu musical jams, some of which we never played again.
For this album, we have tried to go further down that path towards writing interesting and unique songs by constructing music which has key and rhythmic changes/ verses and choruses and which you cannot get anywhere near so concisely when improvising.
We are now currently also trying different writing techniques including starting with the vocals first and then adding the music to them, which although initially harder does produce music that compliments the voice more than putting the vocals to the music we have worked out.
JF: To date, most of the songs featuring Barbora have happened with us all playing together or from her adding lyrics to backing tracks that we have created. What’s great about Barbora is that she is not constrained by your classic verse-chorus style of song and is happy to go with the flow of the band.
We are now starting to write more around her lyrics which will ultimately make the songs stronger.
4) Your latest album -Infinity of Now- released on Madlib’s label Madlib Invasion. What is the connection between you and Madlib, how did this collaboration happen?
MC: Pretty much by pure chance as we were on a label at the time who we had sent the album to, but who were not totally enamoured with it and thought it was a demo.
Long term friend Egon was in town with Madlib and they stopped at the studio to catch up
While there they asked to hear what the band had been up to so I played them ‘Infinity of now’ and told them how our current label thought it was a demo and wanted to hear the actual album at which point Madlib just said, I’ll put it out, and true to his word here we are.
5) There will also be a second record release in 2020, right? Are the two records connected to each other? Will the second release be out on Madlib Invasion too?
MC: Yes, it will be another Invazion release and is a direct result of recording the first album and came about from a session to re-record a version of – Burning Wooden ship with Hurdy-gurdy as we thought the initial version we did of it (which is now out on a 7”) sounded too Psych.
This follow up album will be called ‘Telemetric sounds’ and is made up predominantly from an edited single amorphous 40-minute jam that we did during that session when the singer Babs and Keyboardist/Percussionist Jack went down the road to get something to eat and the rest of us frustrated at having to nail a track, stayed and carried on playing until they returned, forgetting that we were still recording.
JF: The second album actually happened when we were recording songs for the first album and Jack and Barbora popped out of the studio to get some food.
When they left the remaining four members of the band carried on playing and the music just flowed so most of what you will hear is effectively the first take of music we were making up on the spot – with a few edits here and there plus some additional Moog from Ollie Parfitt and sax from Jason Yarde. It’s very intense music as a result of it being in the ‘moment’.
6) You have been politically active, as far as I know, a lot in your life and that has also depicted or influenced your music. How do you believe Brexit will affect you as a band and is that political awareness still fits in the band in some way?
MC: We have always been interested in politics and have wanted to be able to express our opinions on issues that we believe are important and that should receive more public attention, but until now have sadly lacked a front person to be able to put over our message.
Now with Babs, we have a vocalist who is very switched on and passionate about world politics and environmental issues, (she got a degree with honours in Ecology at Cambridge university).
Also along with several other members of the band, she is a committed member of the Extinction Rebellion movement and is a strong supporter of the benefits of 5-meo- dmt toad venom.
We are slowly making the transition to becoming more vocally politically as this album can testify to and as artists, of course, we feel it is important for us to mirror our political and social environment.
As long as greed still is the dominating motive of those in power, which ultimately impacts on those who are worse off than them, and is detrimental to our environment and the planet, we will hopefully always feel angered enough to want to express our dissatisfaction.
As for Brexit, it is just another example of how cynical modern politics is today and how easy it is to manipulate and fool the general public especially when you manufacture a complete set of ungrounded fabrications which capitalize on people’s fears.
It also helps your party to win if you have an unlimited budget of millions to spend (courtesy of all the conglomerates who are backing you because you represent their interests in parliament), to advertise this blatant propaganda knowing full well that none of it is remotely true.
Of course, Brexit will make things still harder for us but we have lived long enough to have overcome many adversities and this will be just another addition to that long list inflicted on us by our current government and an ill-informed and mislead public.
We have lived with the Tories in power sadly for decades now and have watched them slowly erode the very social ‘community’ infrastructure that permeates our everyday life with their ‘Look after number one’ ethos and their deliberate divide and conquer policies.
What is bewildering is the ever-ready goldfish memory gullible public voting them in year after year even though they are exactly the very people who will suffer the most from their self serving reign.
A friend put Brexit (which also applies to the tories) perfectly- ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’.
JF: All the band have some strong sense of social justice and are therefore interested in politics. It feels like the politics in the UK Have been turned upside down with the traditional norms going out of the window.
Brexit, unfortunately, unearthed the darker side of British society and gave rise to racism and classism. What’s important going forward is we remain committed to tolerance and understanding.
The current government has destroyed many working-class families with more than 10 years of austerity yet the public voted for them in the last election which is shocking and depressing.
To be honest, though the big issue is the sustainability of the planet which means we need to forget small party politics and look at the big picture. Many of the band are involved in environmental demonstrations (Extinction Rebellion).
In fact, Barbora and Jack were actually on the pink boat that was in central London for the mass protests. I am a strong believer that love will conquer all and have deep faith that the younger members of society – our kids – and future generations won’t make the same mistakes we and our ancestors have made in raping and pillaging the planet and stealing resources from countries that can’t defend themselves.
7) The exploration of the universe and the idea around the One, Sun Ra was influenced by, applies to your beliefs too. Apart from that, are there other things you draw inspiration from?
MC: Our music, especially the improvised portion of it is is inseparable from our everyday lives and the myriad of experiences and emotions it deals with you on a daily basis. Without new experiences and new stimuli, you cannot go on being a musician as music is a form of self-expression.
Therefore ultimately everything around us inspires us to some extent.
We are all interested in all kinds of music old and new which we actively seek out via youtube and via record shops when on tour.
We are kings of the bargain bin and always find cheap great inspirational music in either the world, contemporary classical, electronic, jazz, rock or soundtrack sections from all eras.
The smallest thing can inspire you and at any time, for example, recently I was returning from a gig on a plane and while watching a film a voice came over the tannoy and then a mili-second later the same voice came through the headphones. I used this mili-second delay idea for the one track with vocals on ‘Telemetric sounds’.
JF: I’m not sure if you could say we share the same belief system as Sun Ra. After all, he was strongly interested in the development of black people and believed he had an alien visitation early in his life.
He consumed books and ancient philosophies with a deep passion for new knowledge, speaking in public parks and engaging his fellow US citizens as well as being a studios musician. People rightly see him as the godfather of AfroFuturism so it’s much more than just his music that is important. The book, A pure Solar World goes into depth about all this.
We are generally inspired by lots f things – from what happens in daily life to more psychedelic experiences created by certain molecules but at the end of the day its how you all gel as musicians at that particular time in that particular space with that particular instrument.
We keep an open mind which I think is important as it allows the things around you to influence you naturally.
8) You’re music lovers and record collectors. Do you think that it affects the way you approach music and your compositions?
MC: It must do although we have never intentionally or consciously lifted an idea from a record or music we have heard.
When writing music together it starts as a very spontaneous occurrence with us adding our parts to whatever the initial idea is and then we keep trying to improve on those parts until we are all happy with the track. During this process, we all bring to the table our musical ideas which will, of course, incorporate consciously or subconsciously ideas that have recently inspired us.
I would say that bands who have a strong concept or an unorthodox style can definitely show you a different way of seeing music. Sometimes it might be a bands dissonance and discordance as with some of the Third ear bands output, or their extreme uncommercial approach and production as with Faust or the way a band can be so tuned in to one idea ie deconstructed simplicity as with Parson sound, Harvester international and Trad grad och stenar.
JF: Being avid record collectors many of the records we buy provide us all the influences we need as there is so much great music, particularly from the 60s experimental period when jazz, rock, blues, ethnic music all started to merge into interesting fusions.
9) What would be your top-five of records of your collection right now?
MC: Right now I am listening a lot to these tracks or albums. Sorry, there are a couple more than 5.
- Jake Holmes – Leaves never break – (from the Lp A letter to Catherine) – Tower
- Second hand – Reality – Polydor
- Etron fou le loublan – Batelages – Gratte Ciel
- Pan Ragaliz – Today is raining (from the lp Pan Regaliz – orange
- Insolito Universo – Tonado del Guante – (from the lp La Candela del Rio) – Olinda
- Headstone circus – You don’t know – (from the lp Headstone circus – Shaddocks
- also The box sets of Parson sound and Harvester International.
- JF: May Blitz – May Blitz;
- Barney Wilen and His Amazing Free Rock Band – Dear Prof Leary
- The Advancement – The Advancement
- Centipede – Septober Energy and
- Graham Collier Music – Songs for My Father.
10) What’s appealing most to you, fooling around with your equipment and experimenting on the Quatermass studios or playing your stuff live?
MC: I love both, creating an interesting mix and manipulating sounds through pedals is a passion for me.
And if it is for a track that is going to be released it is also a challenge with long term implications whereas a gig is a very transient experience. But of course playing live is much more emotional and it is very rewarding when a gig goes well and the crowd enjoys it and oppositely pure hell if it goes badly whereas if a mix goes horribly wrong I will just redo it.
11) You have produced a lot of records for other artists in Quatermass studios lately. Does that help you evolve your sound regarding the Heliocentrics? Are there other rules applying to the production of other bands?
MC: I think it does as I get too many new and diverse bands to mix all with something positive to take away from each unique experience.
It is the best thing to get a band you love come in that want you to record, mix and produce their album, such as with Vanishing Twin, The Pyramids and Valentina and Julien or even when I just mix or record them as with Insolito Universo, Champagne dub and Jan Whitfield.
All seek the same common denominator, a sound that has warmth and character that is not of the shelf and sounding like everyone else out there.
Each band requires a different approach which enables you to create a sound that suits and enhances their music.
Some bands need heavily producing and their music lends itself to being processed more whereas with say the Pyramids, they all played together in the live room and that was a lot more about really capturing their performance as a band without overproducing it or messing it up.
12) You have a distinctive sound right from the start of your career. Even though there’s a different approach from album to album, someone could easily recognize who’s the band playing. How hard is it to maintain that? Is it harder when people coming and going to keep a standard?
MC: When it comes to hiring and firing we are not exactly Miles Davis.
We have had pretty much the same core line up for 10 years, with the exception of horn players who have come and gone and players like Danny Keane on cello who went of to tour with Mulatu for over a decade (which I advised him to do).
In the last 2 years, Ade our long term guitarist left as he did not really like our new material and direction, and we also lost Tom Hodges another long term player in the band.
To cover the loss of our guitarist and electronics we drafted in a long term associate who is an amazingly talented young musician -Raven Bush, a former member of Syd Arthur who plays Electronics and violin/viola and on guitar we now have – Dan Smith from the Noisettes who is also an amazing player we have known about for years and who is the only guitarist who could replace Ade, he also plays electronics. Another recent addition is the virtuoso saxophonist Jason Yarde and multi-instrumentalist – Sylvia Hallett on Hurdy Gurdy and Sarangi.
Barbora Patkova our chanteuse has been with us several years now and needs no introduction. It is actually nice to have a change in line up enforced upon us although traumatic when Ade announced he was leaving, as it does change significantly the band sound but not so much that it sounds like a different entity.
It is good that we have a sound that people know is us as that gives as that is our identity as a band and as individual musicians. I think this Identity is more able to reveal itself because everything we record and play is a completely live stretch and not us sampling ourselves or moving things to a grid or playing to the dreaded click track.
13) Are there any plans for a tour after the album release? And will there be an EU tour or just within the UK?
MC: We basically take any gigs we can get so any potential tours come from the back of the record and the demand for live shows it creates.
The problem with making the left-field music you want regardless of mitigating factors is that your popularity may not generate the said demand for live shows, which seems to be the case in point here.
JF: The plan is to tour in the Autumn. We are due to play a number of festivals in the summer including Glastonbury, Gilles Peterson’s We Out Here and a few smaller ones which will be fun.
14) Please choose where would you feel more comfortable to be:
- At the beginning of the previous century in the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, backing with your music,
- 50 years later on France, experimenting along with Cecil Leuter,
- Around the same time period, but in New York instead, biting the apple with Silver Apples
- Right here – right now, researching about the weird-psychedelic music of the past and putting together records about that?
MC: 100% definitely here and now, I love what is going on musically over here at the moment and worldwide with so many more bands taking more chances and not trying to be anyone but themselves.
And yes we have now access to all that music made up until now thanks to youtube etc, how weird not to have Modal Jazz, Afrobeat, Contemporary classical, Italian library, Krautrock, Psychedelia, Post Punk, Hip hop, Jungle, at your fingertips and all that great music and bands since those huge chapters in music.
Saying that if they invent an affordable time machine within my lifetime, I will, of course, use it.
15) Thank you so much for your time guys, it’s been a pleasure!
Malcom Catto: Thanks again George for this and your ongoing support of the band.