London-based trio Benin City scour the four corners of the globe for inspiration, reflecting it all back via a healthy mix of sonic experimentation and solid groove.
So far, they’ve got one album under their belt, 2013’s ace Fires in the Park, which set out their stall as one of the most diverse collectives in the capital.
A line-up change and recent props for knockout live performances at SXSW and The Great Escape have since placed them back in the spotlight, with an anticipated follow-up LP ready to up the ante.
Last Night, which lands on 15 June via Moshi Moshi, is an intimate love letter to late-night London written by three people heavily immersed in its grainy intricacies.
Early hours adventures and the changing fortunes of the city’s clubs supply the creative grist, while whacked out percussion collides over deep bass to provide a solid bedrock.
Here, Shanaz, Josh and Tom let us in on what makes up their far-out sound, how they earned their nocturnal stripes and what they make of London’s dwindling club culture…
How did you come together as Benin City?
Shanaz: I was called in to do some writing and vocals on the album, so in the early stages I would do gigs and festivals as a session player (and also a fan!). Eventually, the guys asked me if I’d like to be in the band ‘for real’ and I of course said yes!
Tom: We used to be more of a collective but as we were working on our first album, Fires in the Park, we tightened up to a three-piece. After that we had a bit of a reshuffle and Shanaz had met Josh through a poetry and music night he ran. She featured on Bus and after that we were like, ‘she’s sick, she has to be in the band’. We managed to convince her and here we are!
Why does it work?
Shanaz: We all have similar views that pop music can offer both escapism and realism. So we always approach work with a desire to make the music danceable, but also with a desire to tell stories about the world around us.
Josh: We enjoy each other’s company on and off the stage and we geek over the same music.
You meld loads of different sounds and styles – was that a conscious decision or did it just come naturally?
Shanaz: I came in once the Benin City sound was already established – so I can just write without any limitations or genre because our sound is such a mixture.
Josh: I wouldn’t say fully conscious, we’ve just chased whatever excited us and made the best songs we could: we’d be listening to Bipolar Sunshine or Mesita, and in the same period, Philip Glass and Thundercat, and we’d be like, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the first two jammed with the second’?
Tom: The three of us come from different scenes and between us the array of music that we like is huge. Benin City is the middle of that Venn diagram where dance, indie, afrobeat, electro-pop and jazz collide. When it comes down to it we all want people to feel, think and dance at the same time. Or failing that, choose one and commit hard!
Collectively, what or who are your biggest influences?
Shanaz: Stromae, Tuneyards, Mura Masa, Sylvan Esso and lots of other pop music that is boundary-pushing but still makes you want to boogie!
Josh: Metronomy, Mesita, Portugal The Man, Gnarls Barkley, Baloji, Son Lux, Thundercat, Niki And The Dove, and Common’s Electric Circus.
Tom: When we write we sit down and throw around music that is inspiring us and work out where Benin City fits in all of this. If we were to go deep on this, I’d have to say Miles Davis. He was such a chameleon, always pushing forward and knew how to get the most out of his band. He also knew that less is more and how to let the music breathe. Something we have to remind ourselves sometimes.
What’s the thinking behind your new album, Last Night?
Shanaz: When Josh told me that he was writing about nightlife, I immediately got the image in my mind of zooming into the individual stories on the dancefloor. In ways, a club is like a microcosm of London itself because it’s where the people go to escape. As we began writing, it also became apparent that so many of the spaces that we were drawing memories from had been closed in the last few years. So it felt even more apt to dedicate the album to that part of London’s culture that has so rapidly declined.
Josh: After we made the Midnight Marlarkey EP, I got excited about writing more of the stories I’d collected watching people as a bartender over the years. As we began researching, it turned out most of the places I’d worked at or performed as a poet had shut down already.
Tom: We recorded two tracks at the time Shanaz came on board. Bus and Long Way Home. Two sides of the coin. A great night out versus one that turned sour. This duality became the inspiration for the album and A way for us to frame many stories about nightlife many of them drawing from our real experiences.
Your sound is indebted to London’s nightlife, among other things – how have those experiences shaped your sound?
Shanaz: In ways, dance music and the cultures around it are in my blood – my parents were massive dance music-lovers and my dad had a jungle pirate radio station when I was little. My mum still goes to jungle raves and I’m always stunned at how inclusive they are. It’s a community.
Tom: The music that you want to hear out in the club is very different to the music that you want to hear when you’re at home. The theme of nightlife carried with it for us dance music. We draw on house, kwaito, bass music, trap, pop. Anything that makes you want to dance. The lyrics are largely vehicles for storytelling. Something you wouldn’t normally find in these styles of music. That’s the sound of Benin City.
Josh: I worked in bars for 10 years, and I don’t drink. In a way, my experience of London nightlife has been half in service of, half observing from a distance.
You’ve been really well received live – do you find the stage is a natural place for your music?
Shanaz: All of the questions of ‘what genre is this?’ go out the window once we’re on stage. The energy, narrative, passion – all of those elements define us much more, so I think people just understand us better after sharing a mini-rave with us in person.
Tom: The live shows have been going off. Thanks everyone who’s come down to party with us. When you’re making music to make people dance the gig becomes a party. But when you really listen to the lyrics you get the full picture. We expanded our show in collaboration with Nabokov and made a live of experience that includes snippets of recorded interviews of people telling their real stories about London’s night life, visuals and staging. A concept show for a concept album.
Josh: I like dancing.
How do you prepare for a gig?
Shanaz: We sellotape all of the equipment to the stands as we dance so hard that there have been incidents of it falling off the stands from the vibration! We have also been really fascinated by all the youth/meme dance trends on YouTube right now, so we’ve been doing a lot of outrageous dancing backstage and that seems to get us in the zone!
Tom: We’re normally getting acquainted with the rider and then dancing our asses off out front to the other acts.
Josh: Supporting the acts before and after us feels great. Heard some awesome music and met some good people that way.
What does the rest of 2018 hold for you?
Tom: Writing new music and getting our show and album heard by as many people as possible.
What’s the last great record you heard?
Tom: I loved Everything is Recorded by Richard Russell. Would’ve given my right arm to have been on that record!
What advice would you give to new artists just starting out?
Tom: Make sure you get your shit together. Persevere. And collaborate with people. It’s hard out there as musicians and we’re stronger together.
Josh: Work with people you like to hang out with, who support you in and outside your music project. Envy between bandmates is lethal.
Shanaz: Don’t be afraid to tell your story, no matter how ‘mundane’ it seems. Unfollow any social media accounts that make you compare yourself to others too harshly!
Benin City’s Last Night album launch party takes place on Friday (8 June) at Kings Place, London.
Picture credit: Anko