Frontman Dave Okumu is fast gaining a reputation as a studio hand in demand having produced Jessie Ware’s universally lauded Devotion while drummer Leo Taylor has played with Adele. Bassist Tom Herbert has always been a busy jazz player, having lent his musical skills to experimental jazz outfits such as Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear.
The latter’s love for jazz has left an indelible mark on the musical backbone of The Invisible with this sense of off kilter rhythm helping define their music. It’s led to the band receiving a Mercury Music Prize nomination and gaining a large and devoted following.
Tom is recording again with Polar Bear while The Invisible are also in the process of gearing up to record a third album.
M quizzed the bassist on his jazz roots and how these sounds feed directly into his pop band’s songwriting process…
Why were you first attracted to jazz?
At school I used to play covers and got into blues and rock, then discovered funk. Through that I was introduced to music like Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Then Miles Davis and his album Kind of Blue. It was this whole other world of sound and I found it really exciting.
As a musician, I wanted to push myself creatively. From an instrumentalist’s point of view, I wanted to stretch myself and jazz offered that via the improv side of things. That was really attractive so I went to college and studied both jazz and classical music.
Did you always want to be a musician?
I knew that I wanted to do music but wasn’t sure how. There was a jazz course at the Guild Hall School of Music. It was combined with classical playing so I had to play the upright bass to do that but it seemed a good way of learning and of meeting people. I met Pete Wareham there from Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear. We started playing together in Polar Bear with Seb who I met there too. We all just kind of clicked. I remember thinking it felt like they were both kindred spirits.
Are these networks needed for musicians looking to sustain their careers?
Yes they can be really helpful. They aren’t the only way to do it but it is an easy way to meet lots of people. The great thing about the Guild Hall course is that there’s both a degree and post grad course and Pete was on the latter. It’s a year long so there’s a constant change of personnel.
I met a lot of the people I’m playing with now there. And I met Dave from The Invisible before I was even at college. We bonded at a weekend’s art college run by trumpet player Ian Carr. That was a great way of meeting people too – all these enthusiastic teenagers. A lot of these folk still make up my networks.
How does this jazz background feed into your songwriting with The Invisible?
The three of us have jazz in our DNA and it’s informed our songwriting. Plus all the other kind of music we’ve played. We’ve all played lots of different styles and interested in different types of music. This all feeds into making us the musicians we are today. In specific terms it’s hard to say where it has an impact but I think it means there’s an understanding there. We’re speaking the same language.
Having the experience of of playing jazz means the improv side feeds into the composition. We often start pieces by just improvising and we’ll just play. It plays a really big part of what we do in the songwriting process. The music would sound different if we hadn’t had this sort of background.
Is the jazz scene in good health?
I think it is. To be honest, I don’t feel so much a part of that at the moment and I’m sure there are loads of people I haven’t even heard of coming through.
But it does feel like there’s a lot of musicians coming through who are really good. The standard of playing is really high and there’s an open mindedness to the music. There’s a desire to make interesting music rather than just jazz with a capital J. It feels like people want to be creative as possible.
When I was more actively involved in that scene, it was more about playing in a certain way. The idea of bringing influences from outside jazz into your music wasn’t so prevalent I suppose. And it feels like there’s a lot of music which I’m aware of which doesn’t seem to be restricted by boundaries of genre. Although they are rooted in jazz, it’s a starting point for the music rather than it being restrictive.
It’s about joining the dots – not thinking so much in terms of styles and genres but music which makes me feel great, makes me feel alive. There’s some amazing jazz out there and some boring jazz out there. It’s the same with electronic music and hip hop music. There are people in these genres doing interesting stuff and others going in the opposite direction.
Read our interview with Melt Yourself Down’s Pete Wareham. You can also read our feature on the health of British jazz and the artists and musicians doing their bit to reinvent perceptions of the jazz genre.