Interview: Chris Sharkey

SharkeyChris Sharkey’s website describes him as ‘a musician who plays the guitar in no particular style with lots of different people’ – which isn’t giving the musician enough credit if you’ve ever felt the full force of his razor sharp riffs or wild improvisations.

Sharkey has a musical rich pedigree. He’s played, composed and arranged music for several groundbreaking UK groups including his own Trio VD, Acoustic Ladyland, World Sanguine Report and Bilbao Syndrome as well as leading his own Sharkestra.

Originally from Gateshead, Sharkey now calls Leeds home but spends much of his time on the road playing and recording. Along with Arun Ghosh, he’s part of the Serious Take 5 initiative. It helps bring jazz musicians from across Europe together to share ideas and perform.

M quizzed him on his own music and how jazz musicians based outside of London can survive in the digital age…

How did you first get into jazz

I started playing the guitar in my early teens and just wanted to get better at it as time went on. I played in various bands, discovered different kinds of playing and tried to work out how I could technically be as good as possible.

When you go down this path with the electric guitar, you get to a point where you either go into classical music or jazz. Both forms are more complex, sophisticated and have a bit of history so you end up at this cross road. As an electric guitarist jazz seemed like a natural route.

Which guitarists did you look up to at this stage?  

I didn’t know anything about the music other than wanting to play it. I had an idea in my head but didn’t really know where to go. So I gravitated to the standard jazz guitarists first. They grew up in the 60s and 70s so they based their playing on rock music. It’s impossible to be a guitarist and not have heard or be into Jimi Hendrix.

How did you become involved in the Take 5 initiative?

A friend of mine Matthew Bourne, who is a great piano player based in Leeds, was on the first edition. And someone nominated me the year after. But I wasn’t ready to focus the first couple of times I was asked to apply. By the time I did, I realised I needed some guidance and a bit of help to learn certain things. It was the right time and helped me launch my band, Trio VD.

Are these initiatives important in helping push the genre forward?

It’s great to have support when you’re a jazz artist as the UK industry is a cottage one. It’s a community. Knowing what industry figures do and how knowing they can be mutually beneficial as an acquaintance is really useful for someone outside of London. It helped me plug me into that community. Being on Take 5 got me closer to that and allowed more people to hear and see what I did.

Is the genre in a good health? Are there challenges that it faces?

There’s an ongoing image problem for jazz with the wider public. Education may play a part in it in terms of exposure to this kind of music. All the music I do is towards the sharper end of the spectrum. It’s contemporary, crossover and meets with the electronic side of things.

That’s something which has always worked in rock venues and DIY venues which is where Trio VD started. We played in punk places before a hardcore band or a noise band.

Can jazz be backward looking in some respects?

There’s a real emphasis on a form of playing based on music from the 50s and 60s which is still taught in academic institutions. That’s still important as a method of learning about the music. But what can happen is that the music doesn’t necessarily resonate with people now. Artists need to be open to the inspiration of the music currently around them. I’m inspired by a lot of modern music but there are a lot of jazz musicians that deliberately eschew that.

In the media, you don’t hear a lot of jazz anywhere which has an impact on the audiences you get at shows. Especially outside of London. The capital is fairly healthy but we’re talking about 100s rather than 1,000s of people coming to gigs.

You can’t ignore funding cuts either. In the last couple of years certain initiatives and promoters have been stopped in their tracks because of them.

Is this felt more in regions outside London?

Yes a lot of musicians who were stalwarts of the Leeds scene have moved down to London. I live in Leeds but I don’t make any money here. It’s all generated elsewhere. Either in London or across Europe. Leeds is where I workshop, write and rehearse because it’s cheap and easy to do – I’ve got a studio in the basement of my house.

What are you working on?

I’ve recently started on a new project called Tokyo Doorbells. I had this idea recently about doing a night in Leeds with a mixture of musicians and electronic artists. We have a DJ and a bunch of live musicians (including Matt Bourne and various members of Roller Trio) who respond to that and improvise. Then I conduct the band.

The last time I advertised a gig as a free improv I got about 30 people. But for this Tokyo Doorbells project we had more than 100. Pretty much similar music just framed in a different way and marketed differently in terms of language.

Things have become tricky to put on jazz shows now. You can either think that sucks and hate it and complain and be bitter, or you can try and do something about it. I’m quite proactive about changing things.

So branding is a challenge for jazz?

Yes but this sort of thinking is also adding to the list of things a musician has to be. Previously you’d just do the music and your agent, promoter, record label, manager would do the rest.

Now you have to have to make your own music, record it, find your own gigs and be your own marketing guy. I guess that’s another challenge. These days you have to be much more than a musician.

Read our full feature on the new jazz generation.

Check out more information about Sharkey’s latest musical projects on his website.

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