“The UK Jazz Scene Could Wither and Die Tomorrow and It Would Not Alter What We Do:” An Interview with Heliocentrics

Joel Biswas speaks to members Malcolm Catto and Jake Ferguson about being self-taught, their first meeting with Madlib, and more.
By    February 28, 2020

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On a bleak, wet Friday in January in a refurbished Victorian ballroom in East London, the weird and wide-eyed groove collective the Heliocentrics are preparing for a psychedelic séance. There’s a cozy homecoming atmosphere, a sense of celebration and a vibratory hum uniting the crowd – no one is here tonight by accident. The backstage area is cordoned off with an ornate Asian changing screen as a beleaguered security guy unsuccessfully herds an endless stream of friends and well-wishers. Drummer and de-facto leader Malcolm Catto is already on-stage, sunglasses on, warming up the proceedings with spacy krautrock records. Backstage, bassist Jake Ferguson is expansive and exuberant.

The Heliocentrics are a particularly colorful anomaly of the post-modern beat-scape. Since 2007, they’ve cultivated a mélange de musique that blends the arch urbanity of Ennio Morricone, the cosmic ecstasy of Sun Ra, the DIY production of punk and the exalted live presence of rock. This blend of reverence and fearlessness has made them appealing collaborators, students and scholars at once. It’s an approach that’s made them surprisingly ubiquitous and quietly influential. From powering the propulsive grooves of world-jazz heroes like Mulatu Astatke or Orlando Julius to friendships and collaborations with Marshall Allen, DJ Shadow, MF Doom and Melvin Van Peebles, to being godfathers to the latest generation of London jazz artists like Kamaal Williams, any discussion of their path quickly devolves into a game of 6 degrees of Heliocentrism. 

The occasion tonight is to celebrate the release of Infinity of Now – their latest baroque aural platter of music concrete, Steve Reich-inspired white noise, sweaty Nigerian funk, instrumental hip hop, spoken word and desert blues that sees the band begin to carve more songs from their lysergic jams. It’s coming out on Madlib Invazion, the fruit of an association that goes back to Malcolm’s late 90’s crate-digging alongside the Oxnard auteur and the likes of DJ Shadow. Madlib looped their menacing “Noises and Conversations” for Freddie Gibbs’ “Soul Right” and invited the Helios to open for London dates of the Bandana Tour. It’s the kind of kismet that’s been occurring to Jake and Malcolm with startling regularity for more than a decade – and that’s before mention is made of Kanye looping their tune “Space Time Girl” on Nas’ Nassir, a turn of events which left even Jake amazed. It’s all part of a master plan that’s dogmatically out of step with whatever’s in and hellbent following their muse wherever it takes them.

There’s a video on Youtube of the notoriously shy Malcolm giving a tour of his Quatermass Sound Lab in East London, an sonic oasis whose name is inspired by a late 60’s expressionist thriller by the UK’s fabled Hammer Studios. It’s a place full of tube amps, valves, synths and machines to manipulate tape. He’s effusive about his quest for vintage fidelity. But if he’s the studio rat, Jake is the explorer.  As we talk backstage, singer Barbora Patkova is seated on the floor in a dress covered in mirrored glass, putting finishing touches an outfit that will make here appear like a spooky chanteuse who’s equal part Sun Ran princess and the robot Maria from ‘Metropolis.’ Jake riffs about boxing greats Sugar Ray and Larry Holmes. His father who was a boxer from Belize. He likes sarcasm not because it’s cutting but because “it’s about the spaces in between words.”

An ornate wooden hurdy gurdy lies on the table next to a sarangi – two of the more obscure sounds that will be woven into tonight’s ritual, as does a small hand-carved wooden clave in the shape of a frog. Jake catches me looking at it and asks me if I know about the Bufo Alvarius – a rare Amazonian frog that secretes a mythically potent hallucinogen that induces overwhelming, ecstatic visions but whose effect is mercifully brief – lasting only ten minutes or so before the supplicant is returned to this plane of reality. He tells me he met his wife at a music festival age 19 and knew right away who she’d become because he saw inside her mind. It’s a disarmingly forward intimacy but the normal physics of social interactions don’t apply in the world of the Heliocentrics – a painstakingly crafted and jealously guarded tableaux of sound and color where there’s no line to separate participant from protagonist, student from master or the everyday from the transcendent. — Joel Biswas

The Heliocentrics are an institution. When and how did it begin?

Malcolm Catto: As a long-term friend of Gerald Short of Jazzman Records, I somehow got roped into playing his New Year’s Party in 1997. Jake was there and among the minority who enjoyed the music. He introduced himself and we found that we shared a love of Tribe, Del Jones spiritual jazz. He’d recently moved to London and like me, was drawn to Gerald’s flat in Camden, a beacon of desirable but unobtainably rare jazz, library and funk records. We formed the band the ‘Soul Destroyers’ which was a straight-up late 60’s funk band which included future Heliocentrics members Jack Yglesias and the guitarist Ade Owusu.

Jake Ferguson: I had never met someone with such in-depth knowledge of black music and the ability to translate it into his playing. I got the call to play bass and I have never looked back. We later met an amazing poet, a former Black Panther and Sun Ra acolyte called Russell who brought out something in our playing that hopefully is still evident today. We make sure the music swings.

Who would you describe as influences on your sound?

Malcolm Catto: I grew up watching post-punk gigs for Birthday Party and Gang of Four and then 60’s garage and psychedelia –  Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground and the Stooges – the subversive spirit we recognised in punk. Punk and psych share a desire to expand people’s perceptions.

Jake Ferguson: I was brought up with Gil-Scott Heron, Garland Jeffreys and Peter Tosh. I didn’t really known what psychedelic music was. But now wherever we play we’re in a record shop after the soundcheck, looking for psych and world music.

Malcolm Catto: I see our music as a natural progression and culmination of the melting pot of musical influences which we have grown up with and have or discovered through digging. Psychedelic and jazz music have a lot in common. Both are immersive forms of musical expression at their best when the musicians turn their backs on commercial designs and play with total sincerity for a time and capture an undiluted snapshot of that moment, the band’s character and its core artistic message.

Psych artists that still sound good tend to be the bands who transcended the genre even at the time –  Silver Apples, Fifty Foot Hose, Second Hand, the Third Ear Band – that ethic of cross-pollination and the freedom they sought. Today, Vanishing Twin have taken the same musical ethic and done something with it.

Jake Ferguson: For me, it’s about finding that cerebral space as we are improvising or trying something new. There is a time when the music flows almost as if it had always been there – unfettered, unfiltered music connecting with the natural rhythms and sounds that are around us all the time.

The psychedelic connection was particular clear on your soundtrack to The Sunshine Makers.  How did that project come about?  Have psychedelics played a part in your process?

Malcolm Catto: That hook-up came through via our friend in LA, Egon of Now Again records. We were one of a number of bands who submitted music for the film – we got chosen for the trip sequence. Sitting down with guitars, knocking out melodies and chords, then applying the string arrangements, writing to the picture. We’d like to play the US so, talking about psychedelics such as ‘the toad’ for example, is probably a conversation for another day.

You’ve collaborated with a who’s who of seminal artists from across the musical spectrum – Mulatu Astatke, DJ Shadow, Gaslamp Killer, Melvin Van Peebles – how have these artists influenced your approach? What have they taught you?

Malcolm Catto: Along with the many lessons in musicianship, composition and working methods, it’s been a lesson in the value of staying power, operating outside of trends and only changing your style as a natural process of your own musical evolution.

Jake Ferguson: People like Archie Schepp and Marshall Allen have a certain magic quality about them. When I first met Marshall Allen when we were rehearsing for the Worldwide Awards concert a few years ago, I reached out to shake his hand and I felt a strong energy emanating from him. Lloyd Miller had something too. He is a musical savant. He didn’t like the piano we had done for a track so offered to replace it. He went into the live room sat down and started playing before the backing music kicked in. He made it sound like we were following him. In my experience, the best musicians are humble. Orlando Julius, who invented Afrobeat back in the 60’s and had a huge influence on Fela Kuti is a case and point. You will not meet a more genuine, loving and humble person. So few people have heard of him despite his huge influence both on Fela and James Brown.

What ideas and inflections on your style came to the fore on this album?

Malcolm Catto: I think this album sees our emergence as a potential song writing unit.

Jake Ferguson: Our production has gotten better. We are less inclined to focus purely on the drums and bass when mixing but more on the subtle nuances of the quieter instruments like the sarangi and hurdy gurdy. On our first album, we sampled but now we can create our own sounds with amazing players and an arsenal of weird and wonderful instruments.

There is a lot of noise around the London jazz at the moment. Do you feel in any way that you have inspired or contributed to the musical explorations of this generation of artists?

Malcolm Catto: I do hear similarities between us and some of the new burgeoning London Jazz scene. Our association with Shabaka Hutchings over the years has inevitably given us an air of credibility on the UK Jazz scene. And I recorded Yusef Kamaal’s Black Focus album at our Quatermass Sound Lab and produced and mixed the first couple of tracks. But as Lloyd Miller pointed out when we worked together, other than Jason, none of us are trained Jazz musicians — we’re undeniably self-taught. We have never consciously been part of any scenes, we make the music that we want to and which sometimes intersects with current styles. The UK Jazz scene could wither and die tomorrow and it would not alter what we do one iota. And we don’t really have the chops to be admitted to the ‘inner sanctum of London jazz.’

Jake Ferguson: It’s great that younger musicians such as Skinny Pelembe or Gaslamp Killer are inspired by us. There’s a lot of quality jazz around right now  – US label International Anthem really captures the spirit of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Phil Cochran of the Sun Ran Arkestra and of course, Tribe.

What is the writing and recording process like for you? How has that evolved? How do you leave room for the spontaneity of jazz or indeed psychedelia?

Malcolm Catto: We collected analog equipment at a when it was more or less being thrown away. It creates the transparent sound we like and we feel captures our sound best – clarity with a soft-focus or cinema-scope aspect. Since opening up the studio you learn – production, mic placement, recording techniques – even psychology. Input is just nearly as important as the technical side of things – getting the best out of the band and having ideas. I am just finishing producing and mixing the next Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids album. Recording jazz  is all about getting the sound in the room without needing to add things. But I also love to run sounds through old effects boxes.

Jake Ferguson: I saw an advertisement for a second-hand BTR tape machine which I’d never even heard of, so I contacted the guy and it turns out he wanted to sell a vintage Ampex Stereo tape machine and 8 vintage EMI BBC preamps. The Ampex was probably used on pretty much every American record in the 60’s and early 70’s. It’s equipment we use to this day. Much of the gear of that era was so well engineered it has lasted the test of time. We also use a lot of pedals to mess with the sound of individual channels when mixing. I love driving the string reverb through a compressor and pre-amp so that you get that huge sound across the whole mix.

How did your association with Nowagain Records begin?

Malcolm Catto: I have known Egon since I did my Popcorn Bubblefish LP on Mo Wax in 2001 and also through ‘Jazzman’ Gerald. Egon was the natural choice to send our first LP to.

Jake Ferguson: He trusts our ears and lets us focus on the music with hardly any interjection or guidance.

How did you come to the attention of DJ Shadow?

Malcolm Catto: Josh and I met in a London record shop. I used to buy Funk 45’s and breaks with Gerald, making trips to Northern Soul dealers and to the US before Ebay or Discogs existed. It was like the Wild West for vinyl back then. Gerald and I would regularly meet hip hop producers like Mark the 45 King and Pete Rock. We got talking and he started to stop of at my place regularly to trade 45’s. I heard his music later on and couldn’t believe what this young self-effacing guy from the Bay Area was creating. There was nothing like it. He supported my Popcorn Bubblefish project and I toured with him in the US and played drums on a couple of his songs. I even met my wife through Josh – she ran merchandise on one of those tours.

That same year I did a breakbeat album that I thought would give hip hop producers some drums they could use without licensing. A copy of this made its way to Madlib via Egon, who shared a place with him at the time. That’s when I met Madlib and was floored by his humility, sincerity and the speed with which he could put something great together. It was only a matter of time before he found something on it and used it. He and Egon are like family.  They dropped by our studio one day while in London and asked to hear what the band had been up to. I played them our just finished LP and told them the response of our label at the time which was “some very interesting ideas on this demo, when can we hear the actual album?” Madlib turned around and said “I’ll put it out” and that was that.

What’s coming next?

Malcolm Catto: We are currently working on material with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra and what is shaping up to be a great LP with our good friend Will, the Gaslamp Killer. We’re also releasing another album called Telemetric Sounds this year, which is based on a jam that we recorded during the sessions for ‘Infinity of Now’. Our singer Barbara and keyboardist Jack left the studio to get lunch and we just kept playing until they came back.

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