An exclusive interview with the man they called Danalogue, one third of the best jazz trio in the UK
There are plenty of bands that engineer a mash-up of electronic music and jazz, and usually the result is far less than the sum of its parts. Not so for London trio The Comet is Coming.
The blend of saxophonist “King Shabaka” Hutchings – a shooting star of U.K. jazz with his bands Sons of Kemet and Shabaka & the Ancestors – with keyboardist Dan “Danalogue” Leavers and drummer Max “Betamax” Hallett – who also trade under the electronica name of Soccer96 – has proven itself an explosion of energy and ideas. Not dance music, but far from a sit-down listening experience either, the band’s sound aggressively searches out the meaning in this life, the universe, and everything, nourishing the union of mind, body and spirit. Released earlier this year, TCIC’s second album Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, out on reactivated classic jazz label Impulse!, represents its biggest splash across the music industry’s consciousness yet, with its brand new EP The Afterlife consolidating its position as one of the most exciting acts in jazz, electronica and all points in between.
We spoke to keyboardist Danalogue in advance of the group’s latest U.S. tour, which takes it to the Austin City Limits Music Festival and beyond.
I get the same vibe from your music as I get from the so-called spiritual jazz of the late sixties and seventies. Is that a fair comparison?
Both the Coltranes, John and Alice, put a lot of thought into the meaning of the music – what it’s gonna be. You know the stories of John Coltrane sitting upstairs for five days meditating, coming out with the concept for his record. Max, Shabaka and I spend a lot of our time outside of music reading and learning about a lot of different things – politics and philosophy and spirituality, and how these concepts and ideas unify the globe not only presently, but back through time. In the absence of monotheism, I think there’s a big void back where…I think not so much in the States, perhaps, but certainly in the U.K. atheists are a huge majority. While that has been just, because there’s been so much negativity around monotheism, which we don’t have to go into, within the void you’ll probably find more people interested in spiritual ideas. That can be as simple as having a huge crowd together in a room enjoying the same feeling of receiving music, or dancing, or going into a trance. So the link between spirituality and music is there to be seen from the very beginning of civilization. You’ve got people going into a trance state using music and singing and togetherness, and maybe using psychoactive compounds in order to go into another way of receiving reality. But we’re all pretty into that stuff, and I guess it just comes out in the sound – it’s encoded in there.
Do you find it difficult to get your message across without lyrics?
In a way I think it’s easier. Lyrics are so tricky – you can be too on the nose, or too abstract. You can force people into a direction maybe they don’t need to go. The best thing about instrumental music is that people can very much have their own experience, and what they take from it will be very particular to them. In a way it makes it more flexible – it means we can travel to Japan or Russia or anywhere across Europe where they’re not an English-speaking nation, even to you guys in the States, and it gives everyone an equal footing to really dig the meaning.
I think people are getting it, despite not having lyrics. I love hearing people’s different interpretations after shows. They come up [and say], “Ah, this made me realize I really need to quit my job” [laughs]. “It gave me strength to go back to my actual life.” In Turkey we played a show right after a load of bombings happened that day. People were like, “Thank you so much – this was an hour and a half where we were separated from that bullshit that was happening in our country, and the terrorism and the political situation.” So yeah, I think in a lot of ways it’s easier to transmit our message without lyrics.
RNRG: You have a new EP called The Afterlife. What do you mean when you say it’s a companion to Deep Mystery instead of a part 2?
While Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery is more open and more expansive in terms of its vision, [with] this record, in the concept of the afterlife, we’re delving into that one specific deep mystery, which is one that we all share: seven billion people on the planet, no one knows what’s gonna happen after you die, right? That’s been a fascination of peoples for thousands and thousands of years. You’ve got texts about it – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, The Egyptian Book of the Dead. You’ve got paradise mythology, you’ve got heaven mythology, you’ve got people going into psychedelic trances where they swear they’ve gone into the afterlife and come back. It’s such a rich area of investigation, and I think there’s a link between trance states and the infinite. So the first track, “All That Matters is the Moment,” is a realization of how infinitesimally small your part in the cosmic journey is – it’s like a flash. But within that, that’s how important life is – the joy in each moment. Then all that matters is the moment.That leads on to “The Softness of the Present,” the second track. So in a way The Afterlife is more specific into the momentary transience of life as a human being.
It’s a companion as well just the way we made it – we made the whole thing together. Certain tracks felt more like Trust in the Lifeforce, and certain tracks felt more like The Afterlife. So they had to be housed in that particular way. At one point we were thinking a double LP. But for very prosaic, pragmatic reasons, we felt it was better to separate them out. And I’m glad we did now, because sometimes a double album is not very realistic to how people actually consume music now.
How do you collectively come up with the tunes? How do you know when you’re jamming that it’s something you want to develop?
Dan: Sometimes I just say, “Hey man, this we’re playing right now is amazing – let’s do this for a bit.” [chuckles] And vice versa – sometimes me and Max will be doing something, and Shabaka will come in the door and be like, “What’s that? Is that new? Is that something we can use?” We’ll be like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And he’ll get inspired by what we’re playing. Sometimes Max is like, “Yo, listen to this beat,” and we’re like, “Oh shit, let’s do something with that.” It’s very collaborative. In a sense not having a leader sounds very chaotic, but I think it’s just that we’re all very comfortable leading and we’re all very comfortable following. I think that’s the beauty of it. That’s the whole thing with having a bandleader. Sure, it can work. But for me the whole concept of leadership is so problematic. You’ve got a great one going right now in the States. There’s a great one in Brazil, as well: “Let’s chop down all the rainforests – whoo!” Having a leader can be super great if they’re cool, but if they’re not, you’re fucked, and that’s the situation we’re in right now on this planet. We think strong leadership is often equated with dominant machismo.
This is almost like an experiment: what can three guys do? Is it possible to work cooperatively and keep it together, and give their all, and not feel too egotistical? Let’s see what happens. In a more pragmatic sense, what we’re doing is all sorts of different methods, and sometimes we’ll write and finish at the time. Sometimes we’ll have an improvisation and it’s just perfect, start to finish, bang! Like the first track on Deep Mystery [“Because the End is Really the Beginning”] – we took a little off the front end, but that’s just something that we played, and we played it quite near the end of the session. Sometimes we go into the studio – me and Max kind of produce the record, so we’re doing a lot of editing and arranging and overdubbing, acting more like electronic producers. That can reach quite a ridiculous level, like on “Star Furnace,” a track on our first album – it’s almost like we’re remixing ourselves.
So we do it all sorts of ways. Sometimes we just stop and say, “Come on, man, let’s play that again but slightly better.” But we try to keep it as fresh as possible, so we don’t overwork stuff. To be honest, when we do, when we go, “Oh, this is really good, let’s play it for three hours” [chuckles], it ends up terrible and we just put it in the bin. But sometimes that stuff comes out really fast, and as a producer, that’s what I want with anyone I work with. Because I produce for other artists too, and I go, “Let’s keep it fresh and not belabor stuff.” The raw energy is what I’m interested in, that star exploding on the sun whacking out all this strong heat and light. I’m attracted to that first inspiration, the first take, the early takes – that improvised retention that hovers around the first few takes. Incredible!
I respect bands that work their shit for six months or that take a year to make a record. I respect that and I love that music. But in our band the actual recording happens super fast – in a few days. Then we do labor it afterwards, in all honesty – months in the studio working it all out.
The U.K. jazz scene is exploding with Ezra Collective and the scene out of Tomorrow’s Warriors. Do you feel like TCIC is part of that scene, or do you feel like you’re standing apart from them?
A lot of what people are talking about is the Total Refreshment Centre. It’s a big warehouse building – it’s been there for about a hundred years, but in its present state it’s been there for eight years. Me and Max have been there from ground zero – Max lived there, I was sleeping on the couch there for two years before I moved to London. There’s a studio in there – that’s where Capitol K [Kristian Craig Robinson] taught me how to engineer and helped me on my path to being a producer.
There were tons of gigs there, raves and all sorts, for years, and it was amazing. It wasn’t really to do with jazz, for a long time. But in the last couple of years of its life, someone at the venue got really sick and were able to invest in good speakers, good mixing desks and good sound engineers. Suddenly, that’s exactly when the jazz scene started popping off hard in London. So the Total Refreshment Centre became the hub. Now a lot of people know it as one of the hubs of London jazz. But actually me and Max were doing stuff in there as Soccer96 for about eight years – we came at music way more from this kind of warehouse/loft party scene. It’s not a million miles away from the New York loft scene with bands like Liquid Liquid and ESG and that kind of thing, where you’ve got kids playing very hypnotic, very repetitive, trance-inducing dance music. So basically slackers, and DIY people, and being in this kind of experimentally minded place. When Shabs joined the group, we were coming at it from that angle 100%. Then when we formed The Comet is Coming, we thought this was great – we could explore all kinds of notions of consciousness and cosmology and stuff.
But then the jazz scene popped up around that, and Shabaka is heavily involved, because he’s also in Sons of Kemet. He’s almost like the elder statesman of the scene – he’s just a little bit older than the rest. He’d been doing it for like two albums more. So all these guys look up to him. He’s a prolific composer and writer, and a real gent, and he gives a lot of the younger kids advice, and even gives them bits of saxophones and stuff.
So I see us as being kind of outside, but also linked. And we’re happy to be linked, because it’s a beautiful scene. I don’t see our music as sounding like the rest of the stuff, but I’m happy to be linked to them socially, and going to their gigs. I love everything that’s coming out – Moses Boyd and Joe Arman-Jones. There’s guys that people forget, like Tenderlonious and his label 22A. You’ve got guys like Kamaal Williams – I like his energy. Yussef Kamaal and stuff. But what’s really exciting about it is that there’s women there: Yazz Ahmed, Nubya Garcia, Chelsea Carmichael. You’ve got Kokoroko, which is largely women and a couple of guys in there. There’s loads of women there. You’ve got people from all different backgrounds; culture lines have blurred. You’ve got Sarathy Korwar, who’s from India; you’ve got Yazz Ahmed – she’s from Bahrain, I think.
It’s very London. Because London is a big metropolitan place, with people from all over, and we’re all just sharing and experiencing different genres. There’s immigration from all over, and despite this anti-immigration shit, London loves immigration. People there embrace all our cultural differences, and share different music.
I think the jazz scene is exciting because it’s young people, people from all different backgrounds and social classes, different countries, and it’s the spirit of sharing and collaboration. It’s insane right now. And it’s danceable – you can dance to it. I think that’s another thing. Before it was stuffy – you’d just sit and maybe half fall asleep. But now the shows are vibrant and alive. Anyway, I think there’s so much going on in London, for sure.
VIDEO: TCIC live at the Morraccan March 2019
The way Shabaka plays in TCIC is different than his other work – more riffing, more structure.
He has his creative outlets with Sons of Kemet and Shabaka & the Ancestors. He’s intelligent enough to say, “I’m in this other group – what can I do? What’s another voice? What’s another way of expressing myself that meshes really well with the music?” That’s the reason why we made Comet is Coming. Me and Max have our musical language that we developed with Soccer96 – we’ve played together since we were eighteen, about half my life now. We had our musical language already, and one of the things that made it so good with Shabs is that he listens. Not just listening like listening, but listening, really deeply knowing where we’re coming from, and then playing the thing that’s going to bring the maximum energy and lift the tune. We’ve been really blessed that we can work together. Sometimes Shabs will shred – a tune like “Start Running” on the Death to the Planet EP is a big ol’ shred, and it’s amazing.
Essentially, I think the only world where you have bandleaders is jazz, and because we have a sax player, and sax players so often are the bandleaders in groups, this is where it even comes into question. I was into Pink Floyd, I’m into CAN and the Krautrock scene, and electronic music, and the term “bandleader” doesn’t even exist in those bands. But it’s a weird world where in jazz…I grew up listening to jazz when I was eleven or twelve, at the same time I was listening to Nirvana, I was listening to John Coltrane. I loved Cannonball Adderley and all sorts, Billie Holiday and everything – I got into the real classics, the obvious jazz, really early in my life. For me Comet is more like a band, more like a psychedelic, punk DIY group who make their own records. It’s a straight-up collaboration.
It’s certainly a very unified vision. Do you ever talk about that, or do you just start playing and everybody fell into sync?
I don’t really like talking about making music. That led to me and Max making our first group, which was the Tour Bus. Everything’s simple when there’s two – you just go, “Hey, man, I really like that. Let’s do that.” Or “Hey, man, that sounds terrible. Let’s not do that.” It’s as simple as that. Whereas before that we were in a six-piece for quite a while, and it took ages to get things moving. But the way me and Max often work is to not say anything, and just make music. Then we work it all out in post. You don’t have to say this track’s better than that track – you just listen and you know, if you’re like-minded individuals. We agree on 95% of which tracks we’re gonna really work on.
So when Shabs came in, he was super down with that philosophy. We don’t talk very much – we just let the music do the talking. All three of us are slightly rebellious individuals, so we don’t really like being manipulated or controlled or whatever. So it suits us down to the ground to be left alone to play. It’s a bit like a football team, where you have individuals, and they have their individual talents, and they can flex their stuff as flare players, and you’re like, “Wow, what individuals.” But at the same time as that they’re training together. They have to unite as a group if they’re gonna win – otherwise it’s not very cooperative. I see it like that. It’s like anarchy. It’s not a democracy, because we’re not voting on stuff and we don’t talk about it. It’s not a fascist thing, because it’s not one guy controlling the whole thing, dominating. We do our own thing, but we do what’s best for the group as well. What’s going to be best for the overall sound? As long as we’re doing that, we can do whatever we want. It’s like an experiment, really – can anarchy work in a musical format? I’m sure there’s plenty of other bands who work like that, too.
This seems like the kind of band where you can take a break, and then come back together and pick up right where you left off.
Exactly. Shabaka will do another record with Sons of Kemet next. In that time, Max and I will make other releases with our different projects. I think there’ll be a Soccer96 record coming next year. I’m gonna have a Danalogue release next year too, hopefully. But this is all has to be exactly worked out. I think we’re all going to have a lot of space between this record and the next. But we’ll all come back together and assemble like Voltron.
We’re all fairly professionally minded, to be honest. We’re not out there doing loads of drugs or nursing some kind of crazy lifestyle. We love music. We just like playing music, we want to write music. I want to produce music, I want to play gigs. We’re all pretty hyped to making new music – that’s the goal. It’s a responsibility that we have as artists. It’s like a healing experience for your community, and it gives your life meaning. Because we’re in a time now where it’s hard to get meaning out of your work, and unless you’re doing something that’s directly affecting people, and sure, we’re not climate change scientists or whatever, but we’re doing our bit, and I feel like people need a healing experience. They need a collective experience, and music is one of the oldest ways of doing that. For us it makes more sense to keep doing it than to stop. I think there’s a few more albums in us yet.
VIDEO: The Comet Is Coming live at the Hard Club in Porto, Portugal, October 2019