After signing their first record contract and having to come up with a new name, they aptly consulted the liner notes on a James Brown single which dubbed the artist the “Minister of New Super Heavy Funk.” The Brand New Heavies have since epitomized everything that is groovy, funkalicious and uplifting.
I remember wearing out the Brother Sister album for a good part of two years – an album so delicious that I listened to every single song over and over again as if each time was the first. And to think that 20 years later they are still rocking the performance circuit hard along with new music like the free download album Dunk Your Trunk and a studio album in early 2013, means that all will be good in the land of funk.
In anticipation of their upcoming performance at The Shrine on November 1st, I had the opportunity to speak with drummer and Brand New Heavies founder Jan Kincaid about the band, the House scene and the art of live performance.
If you’re going to have staying power, if you’re going to last, you have to have some good stuff. You have to be consistent and have people into what you’re doing. It’s not about creating an illusion, because illusions don’t last.
So the history of your band is that you, Simon Bartholomew and Andrew Levy all went to the same High School in Ealing and formed a band called Brother International. What exactly was the climate of the time when you decided to form the group and what was catching your ears?
We were just having fun together initially. We were all into the same kind of music. It was quite a musical school and we used to hang out in the local under 18 clubs. We were listening to a lot of Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, stuff like that. Also early House Music, Disco, early Hip-hop – a bit of everything. There were a lot of warehouse parties where all of those musics were represented. It was a very fun, experimental time for music. Light of the World, Incognito, that kind of Brit-Funk explosion… Freeze, High Tension. We came from quite a legacy before us.
You guys were birthed during the time when the major labels pretty much ran everything. Where once artists were at the mercy of some ridiculous hierarchical decision making process, now they have complete freedom to carve their own path. You’ve seen the whole evolution of it. What do you like better?
I think there are good things about both. I think there was a lot of waste in the ’80s and ’90s in terms of money. Back in the day someone would come in and put a load of money on the table and practically make your record for you. Record companies were spending ridiculous amounts of money on certain things, like videos. Compare that to now: you can make a video at home and make it for next to nothing. I kinda like that in a way. It’s a bit more down to earth and that’s where a lot of interesting ideas happen.
You know the period now, creatively, reminds me of the early ’80s when there was a lot of experimentation with electronic music and a lot of genres crossing over. I mean the business has completely changed. We’ve had a big journey over the last 15 years in terms of how we do business. It’s kinda better now in the sense that you’re more in control of your own destiny. You have all the means to reach out to your fans. You just have to be active. It’s all about building communities and finding like-minded people.
I agree that’s a great thing having control over all the artistry and the marketing of it. I guess the catch-22 is that with that availability comes saturation, and this is especially true with dance music.
If you’re going to have staying power, if you’re going to last, you have to have some good stuff. You have to be consistent and have people into what you’re doing. It’s not about creating an illusion, because illusions don’t last. That’s why in all of these talent competitions that come up – you know the odd person who has real talent will shine through and will last. The majority of the people you never see again. They’re too like everybody else and not really trying to create anything different.
Not everything is like a TV episode. We’ve never fallen out with singers or anything like that.
I know this has probably been asked of the group hundreds of times regarding the revolving door of vocalists you’ve had over the years. N’Dea joined back with the group in 2006. What is the whole deal with people dramatizing the changeovers?
Not everything is like a TV episode. We’ve never fallen out with singers or anything like that. We’re quite an organic unit and people want to be involved as long as they want to be involved and things move on sometimes. In N’Dea’s case she was with us for 5 years and she went off to do her own thing and her journey brought her back to us. And in between that we’ve had the pleasure to work with some really talented singers. I think everyone we’ve worked with has brought something to the table that’s unique on their own.
There’s quite an impressive list of remixers that have added magic to your music. Have you ever thought about doing your own remix work?
Yeah, we have done it in the past but there’s always interesting people around that you want to work with. It’s always cool to see how someone else interprets your music, you know?
Who are some remixers that you’re a fan of?
I love Spen, Karizma, I love Phil Asher, some of the English guys over here. I like Dimitri from Paris… I like a lot of those guys that understand the musicality of the style as well. Even if they completely change the sound of what we’ve done, they have an understanding and an affinity for that music. You know, all of these guys do edits of classic disco tunes and that’s a really interesting scene right now.
House has taken a really big turn, and the word I feel has lost its meaning in the traditional sense. There are so many trends going on that when I speak of House to the layman they have a completely different interpretation of it.
I think that’s more of an American thing, I think. That kind of dance scene has really taken over there right now. You’ve got the Las Vegas thing going on now – just that kind of trashy, bad side of Ibiza, that Guetta style of DJing. That really commercial side, I’m not a massive fan of. And that’s hard for a lot of traditional House guys – that’s what they’re competing with.
But the way to look at it is, there are a lot of nights in England now where people are just hearing music that they want to hear. That’s the way you’ve got to do it: let’s throw some amazing House nights with House DJs all over the world. It’s all about that linking up and communicating with each other and creating a vibe. It’s all about the celebration of music, isn’t it?
I think in a way dance music is becoming diversified, almost too much because you have all these little scenes and people lose their way as a movement. I think it’s really important that people keep doing those nights and keep having those parties and just reinvent it. Try to attract new people to it as well.
And I see that you DJ as well! I saw video footage of you spinning at Djoon in Paris?
That’s right yeah. I’ve always DJ’ed. I kinda do things for friends and parties – I’m not that commercial guy who will go out on tour. I’ll spin if we’re having a Heavies gig and we’re having an afterparty, or if we’re going abroad somewhere. So I’m not trying to make a living out of it or be a professional DJ, I just play tunes that I love. I’ve always been involved in clubs, I love to hear music in that way. I have fun doing it. I kinda play funky dance music of all genres really. A bit of Disco, some Boogie, a little bit of House – whatever’s clever and quite eclectic.
Live music isn’t just a musical thing; it’s an energy thing. It’s like a language that speaks to you and you can be so moved by a live performance, it’s a real experience. It can be a spiritual experience the more open you are.
It seems like the ability to plan a musical instrument is becoming a bygone thing. Why bother when you can use a computer? Yet whenever you see a live band playing dance music, bands such as Tortured Soul or a homegrown favorite here in Chicago MAAD Soul, people go nuts!
There’s a whole new generation of kids that have never heard live music. In this country and in Europe a lot of people are into festivals and they’re seeing a lot of live music and it’s the same reaction – they’re blown away by it. Live music isn’t just a musical thing; it’s an energy thing. It’s like a language that speaks to you and you can be so moved by a live performance, it’s a real experience. It can be a spiritual experience the more open you are. I don’t think that will ever change. I sometimes use computers to make music but I still put my soul into what I’m doing. But we always incorporate live music in what we do because that’s where the soul of what we do comes from.
What’s interesting is when you’ve got someone who’s been in their bedroom for three years making music and is really successful, and then they have to go out on the road because the money is on the road. They have to create an act and that’s when it becomes interesting.
You know I read somewhere that Carl Cox played keyboards with you guys in Ibiza?
Yeah, it was a TV program that was being made about him. The premise of the program was about somebody doing something that they used to do but they’re not known for and they’re back to rediscovering it. And his thing was that he used to play the piano when he was quite young. Then he became a DJ, so it was about that journey. They were teaching him to play “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder. So the end of the program was us going over to Ibiza and playing that tune with him onstage. And then we played at his 50th birthday at a massive party, that was fun too. Carl Cox is a good guy.
Is it true Jay Kay auditioned for you guys before he went on to form Jamiroquai?
No that’s not true. I don’t know where that rumor started. I’ve got a theory that he probably started it or his management team, press team or something. He’s never officially played with the band. We played on his first single “When You Gonna Learn”. We were both signed to the same label, Acid Jazz, at that point and then he was picked up by Sony and just blew up.
And now the buzz all over town is you’ve got your new album out early of next year!
Yes we’re halfway through that album now. We’ve actually got a single that’s going to be out in the next 3 weeks, it’s straight up kind of Salsoul. It’s a good tune, really uplifting as well. We’re kind of waiting to get some mixes done on that. It’s called “Sunlight”.
Refresh my memory as to when and where you’ve played in Chicago before?
Oh we’ve played in Chicago many times. The last few times was at the House of Blues. Andrew also got married in Chicago because his wife was living there at the time. He actually lived in Chicago for about 3 years.
To wrap up I just want to thank you guys for bringing your music to this world, it’s very rare to find such positive and feel-good music nowadays. That’s what so many of us need right now in a musical space filled with so much dark undertones.
I think people are looking for escapism. I think people become so worn down by the images they see on television and the things kicking off in the world. You always need to have a balance, an escapism.