Interview: Pete Wareham

Pete Wareham image‘The sound of Cairo ’57, Cologne ’72, New York ’78 and London 2013’ is how saxophonist Pete Wareham’s latest musical act Melt Yourself Down describe themselves.

Confusing? Can’t quite picture Cairo back in ’57? Then the name of the outfit should give more pointers to their musical style.

This six piece, which features Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone), Tom Skinner (drums), Ruth Goller (bass), Kushal Gaya (vocals), Satin Singh (percussion) and Leafcutter John (electronics/production), create primal, funk-filled jazz hybrids which are boisterous enough to make you sweat. It’s a force of sound that taps Egyptian and Nubian aural flavours as well as more traditional western sonics for inspiration. If you’re after funk and chaos, then Melt Yourself Down could be the band for you.

Pete originally made a name for himself as a musical adventurer with previous exploratory outfits Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear. Although the latter are still working together and he is very much part of the band, Pete’s now embarked on a new musical journey with Melt Yourself Down earlier this year – and since they emerged kicking, screaming and playing a saxophone, their music has been met with pretty much universal acclaim which bodes well for the debut album, released on 17 June. We asked Pete about his musical schooling, songwriting and why new artists should spend more time on their music and less on Facebook…

How did you first get into music?

My dad played me Led Zeppelin 2 as a kid when I was really young. That just started me off. My parents then bought me a flute and insisted I take lessons when I was about six. It made me realise I was better at that, than anything else. As time went on I realised it was also what I was more interested in than anything else. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I got a saxophone and started playing in a school jazz band. I did my grades, then did music A Level and went to college.

Were you listening to the same sort of music you were playing?  

There was a difference. At the time, I listened to a lot of the Police and Led Zeppelin. Then I progressed to Hendrix, The Doors and Velvet Underground in my mid to late teens. Jazz didn’t start in earnest until saxophone became more important for me. But then I got into jazz for ages. Then had the realisation I was listening to jazz and only jazz and had been doing for years. So I decided to try and open things up again.

How did you begin fusing jazz and rock styles? 

I’d already been writing as part of a contemporary jazz quartet which was obviously very ‘jazz’. I got to the point where I didn’t know what to do next and began to think about what famous artists do when they reach this point. Many of them studied their childhoods or looked at their lives and started working in an autobiographical way.

I’d completely left this obsession with pop and rock behind so thought I’d try and integrate that. Jimi Hendrix was the musician I saw as being at the bridge between studied musicianship and visceral energy. So I decided to do a Hendrix inspired project. The first Acoustic Ladyland album [Camouflage] was acoustic. The idea was to make psychedelic music out of acoustic instruments although it didn’t really work out like that. It ended up being a contemporary jazz version – but this was a stepping stone between what I was doing before and [second album] Last Chance Disco.

After the first album I analysed the music, re-wrote it and re-imagined it in a theoretical way. But we didn’t have any of the visceral energy, rawness, or just insanity. It was too sensible and accomplished.

I started transcribing a lot more broadly looking to Led Zeppelin and Velvet Underground for inspiration. It made me start writing my own music in this way.

Melt Yourself Down is your new project. How did it start off?

I found this Egyptian Nubian soul music. And a lot of these African countries will have their traditional music but an individual in the 50s and 60s will come along and start using electric guitars, drum kit and horns and change the sound. All over Africa, there seems to be these people who take a folk tradition and do something modern with it.

I was DJing at a party and put on this track I was obsessed with and everyone went crazy. The room exploded – it was just full of this raw energy. The next day I started to think I really wanted to make this sort of sound. Who do I want to do it? I made a list, phoned them up and they all said yes. I called everybody, wrote a load of music. Got together, started rehearsing and after a few months suddenly thought it’d really be good to get to a singer – Kush was up for it. It was shockingly straight forward. I was expecting some huge curve ball but it never came.

How do you write the songs?

I had a very specific thing I wanted to do (Nubian music) so I listened to a lot of it. A lot of the music was very traditional ancient rhythms which I just looped up. If I was writing a song, I’d listen to a track I liked, I’d take that bit, chop it up, loop it, stick it in Logic, loop it, make it ten or 15 minutes, then improvise some saxophone. I’d do four or five takes just blowing over it with saxophones. Chop them up, find the best bits, arrange those bits and gradually a song would start to form.

Have you got any advice for aspiring musicians?

I think what I found useful was just trying to get a feel and an idea of what’s going on now and look for stuff which is new and original. I’m not saying you should do what other people are doing. But it’s really good to get an overview of what’s musically going on now. It’s inspiring as much as anything else.

There’s so much music I hear from young people that’s a little bit generic, sounds a bit like they love a certain thing and that’s it. And many people spend ages on Facebook and Twitter pushing certain things and promoting their band. Then you’ll listen to their music and it sounds generic so you don’t bother with it. They would have saved themselves effort if they’d worked on the music instead to make it sound as fresh and as exciting as possible. Then you don’t need to push quite so hard getting people to listen to it because word will spread on its own.

Any jazz acts out there you’re excited about?

I don’t know much about it. I haven’t been following that for ages. I’m not the right person to ask.

What am I into at the moment? I’ve been listening to a lot of Diplo actually. I really like the last Express Yourself EP. I really like New Orleans Bounce although it’s a bit too full on to listen to all the time. Diplo’s take on it was very interesting and much more listenable than the raw filthy stuff. Then moving on from his Soundcloud I found the Gutter Brothers and Tweezy. I also love Mikki Blanco and on his EP /mixtape he listed a load of producers so I’ve been listening to a lot of them. I tend to listen to a whole range of stuff but always trying to check out things which are both fresh and new.

Melt Yourself Down’s self titled debut album is due out next Monday (17 June). You can find out how to pick up a copy and the details of their forthcoming tour from the band’s website.

http://meltyourselfdown.com/