INTERVIEW: Nubiyan Twist

Ahead of their upcoming show at Peddler Warehouse, Melanie Rawson talks improvisation, writing modern-day parables and the commodification of jazz music with Finn Booth and Nick Richards from eclectic Leeds/London musical collective Nubiyan Twist

How has it been coming back to performing live?

FB: There was a point during lockdown where I genuinely felt like proper live gigs were never going to happen again. For me, there was almost a grieving process. I thought this really could be it for my live music career and so when it came back it was just a massive release of emotion and celebration. Of course, it also came with a bit of anxiety being around hundreds of people again. The whole experience was really intense.

NR: I remember I kept thinking, will it mean something different to gig again after the pandemic? For me, it’s become more profound really. Everyone’s been struggling and we all needed something, whether that was playing on stage or watching a band or working at a festival. I think we all needed a release and to be with one another again. The best thing about it is looking out into the crowd and just seeing people together having an amazing time. To be part of that is amazing. It feels a lot bigger than people just going to see a band. It’s like we’re all sharing something we’ve needed.

You’re such a big band [11 core members]. Do you think the isolation of lockdown made you realise anything that you took for granted about big band life?

NR: I think the social aspect of music is such a big thing for us. Music is not just a career; it’s deeply ingrained in the way we function and connect together as friends. It’s quite a typical musician thing to only see your mates on the gigs because finding time to hang out outside of that can be difficult. Throughout the pandemic, I felt like I’d lost touch with my main group of friends. We’re such a close band and we really do get on. I think that’s what has enabled us to keep going for so long.

You’ve mentioned before that Freedom Fables references a lot of music that you all loved during your formative years. Was there a musical experience for you that really cemented becoming a musician in your mind?

FB: I was exposed to music from a really young age. Lots of people in my family play instruments and my dad is a music journalist, so I remember he would get CDs in the post and then play them around the house to review them for newspapers. For me, it almost wasn’t even a decision. Becoming a musician was just something that kind of happened.

NR: Like Finn, there was always music in the house because my dad played bass for a hobby. I remember, in school, my friends were starting this punk band and said they needed someone to play bass. I knew there was one in our cupboard, so I grabbed this battered old Fender bass and had a go. I guess what I’m saying is the most important thing for me was people coming together to make music. It didn’t matter if it sounded good or not, it was the social aspect that was important. Since then, there’s never been a conscious decision to make a career out of music; it’s more like I need to do this to function as a human being and to be happy. Music is so meaningful to me, I guess so much so that it’s almost to my detriment sometimes.

You have such a wide variety of vocalists/vocal styles in your music. When in the creative process do you decide who goes on which track and how much that makes it onto a recording is improvised?

NR: I think on this most recent album it’s been about holding the singers and really using our music to facilitate them and their story. I remember we did a session in the middle of the pandemic for BBC 6 Music where we worked with three different vocalists: Ego Ella May, Cherise and Ria Moran. Within four hours we’d recorded with all these different singers, and I can remember sitting back and being really impressed how we’d managed to shape ourselves and our music to fit with all these completely different vibes.

FB: In terms of improvisation, there’s a funny phenomenon that happens when we play live. Generally, we’re trying to play the tunes as perfectly as possible, but it’s so tempting to try and sneak in some little bits that aren’t on the album. Sometimes you can’t even help yourself. On stage, you’ll notice that someone has changed the harmony or put a slightly different chord in and it’s quite fun trying to gauge how subtle you can be and what you can get away with.

If you had the chance to collaborate with any artist active right now, who would you choose? What about if we resurrected someone?

NR: I think someone like Kano. He’s just such an amazing lyricist and I’ve been listening to his stuff for years. We’ve never quite explored that side of grime or UK rap.

FB: In terms of the resurrection, weirdly, I don’t actually know if he’s dead or not but there’s a Brazilian drummer and percussionist called Airto Moreira. He’s a bit of a hero of mine and maybe had we lived 20 or 30 years ago I would have loved to collaborate with him. I’m going to check if he’s still alive though.

Some people have an idea of jazz as a bit of a lofty, unapproachable genre but you manage to make your sound approachable whilst retaining real complexity. How do you find a way to communicate elements of jazz to listeners who might otherwise write the genre off?

NR: Often people are thinking of earlier jazz, like 1950s jazz – something really fast and technical. In reality, jazz is about taking themes and genres of your time and using them as the inspiration to compose, improvise and explore music. People are able to relate to our music a bit more because we’re often referencing genres that are around now like hip hop, dub and contemporary African music. That’s the most important thing about jazz: you’re pushing forward with it and trying to fuse contemporary ideas, genres and sounds. Jazz is more of a process than an actual sound itself.

FB: When people hear the word jazz they often think of a really expensive jazz club or hotel lounge. I think that has come from the music industry commodifying jazz. They’ve taken a type of music that didn’t start out as an elitist thing at all and tried to make it this luxury, expensive product. It’s interesting because I think the resurgence of improvised music of Black American origin in this country over the last 10 years or so has kind of shattered that idea of jazz being an inaccessible art form. It’s nice that people can see that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. You can dance to jazz, you can listen to it in your headphones.

UK jazz has blossomed as a scene over the last few years. Where do you think it’s heading and where does that take you as a band?

NR: It’s amazing because it seems like there’s a whole other generation of musicians coming up now who have a fresh perspective and can push the music to areas that jazz musicians from previous generations weren’t able to do. The jazz scene has always been going. It was going way before it became this popular thing, but I think audiences are a lot more open to listening to more challenging music now. We’ve definitely seen that change. The festival scenes and the band scenes really didn’t have this level of improvised music. It was what we call party bands. You created a fun set to play at festivals, and that’s what the vibe was. Now it feels like there’s more depth, more challenging music in the festival lineups. I think it’s great that it’s opened things up, it’s definitely given us more opportunities to share our music.

Nubiyan Twist

What would you love to change about the music industry?

FB: One thing I’d like to change is having more women headlining festivals. You look at a festival lineup and the vast majority of musicians on the top slots are men, or fronted by men. I really hope that will change, especially because there’s so many exciting female musicians coming out in the live improvised music scene. That would be one of many things I’d love to see change.

NR: I think we need to be able to gig in Europe for the band to survive. It’s very difficult to make any project function on the UK scene alone. We’ve seen so many venues close down, and you get to the point where there’s just not the shows there to sustain the project. It definitely needs to be easier to tour in the EU. There also needs to be better policy around musicians – their security and the support they have access to. The last couple of years, like for so many other professions, have been really quite bad for musicians. If performing is your main income and suddenly it’s just taken away it’s obviously going to be pretty brutal. The government needs a bit of a kick up the arse because it’s really not fair considering the amount of money the music industry brings into the economy.

I love the idea that Freedom Fables is an album full of parables for modern life. What’s the parable you’d like listeners to take away from your music in general?

NR: Definitely one of unity. We’ve always tried to be a band that can facilitate the crossing of different cultures. I think the focus for this record in particular has been about holding the vocalists and allowing them to tell their story. We want people to know that everyone’s story is valid, everyone’s struggle is valid and we want to stress the importance of being listened to. It’s about finding a way, whether through music or through talking to a friend, to express your troubles. Everyone needs that. Certainly, for me, singing a couple of tracks on the album allowed me to process stuff and share things in a safe way. This band has allowed me to express things that I find difficult to think about in any other way.

Tickets for their upcoming Peddler Warehouse show on 21 May are on sale now and can be purchased from £16.50.

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