Interview: MF Robots on looking backwards, moving forwards and making music for the digital generati
Following the successful release of their second, self-titled album, UK acid jazz legends Dawn Joseph and Jan Kincaid of MF Robots gave us the ins and outs of their influences, inspirations and keeping things fresh and friendly in a creative collective at Love Supreme Jazz Festival in the summer.
© 2019 Ryan Taylor & Trouve la Groove
Congratulations on opening the festival, it was so much fun!
Dawn Joseph: Thank you! Oh good, I’m glad everyone enjoyed it. It was great for us, we get to relax! We’re not thinking “Oh we’ve got to go on in half an hour”, we’ve done it so we can just enjoy the day.
How do you prepare before you go on, do you have any weird rituals?
DJ: As a singer I’d like to say I do all of the vocal warm ups but I don’t really know what they are! I’m literally just putting makeup on and trying to remember the lyrics off of our new album to sing. I don’t know about you…? (to Jan). I’m glad we’re so chilled, we’re all just having fun.
Jan Kincaid: We’re gagging to get on stage. The worst thing about any gig is that hour before you go on stage because you're up and ready and you want to get it done!
So you’ve mastered the art of winging it then?
JK: Yeah definitely.
You guys are called Music For Robots, so how do you think older styles and methods of making music can survive in an ever-growing digital era?
DJ: Well that fact that it exists and it’s not going anywhere, it’s never going to be erased. I guess it will just stand the test of time. They didn’t know anything different back then but now we’ve got all of these influences to draw on and that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing. We both love and are influenced by older styles and melodies. As a vocalist people like Ella Fitzgerald, Gladys Knights, even someone like Whitney you know what I mean?
But I do appreciate modern artists, I really like Rihanna, I think I tend to like artists that have an identity and you know straight away when you hear that vocalist. Sometimes those songs are not easy to sing, someone like Beyoncé you think “oh my god that’s really tricky” but a lot of people can sing a Beyoncé song, not that you can sound like Beyonce because she’s amazing, but a lot of the time you can get away with singing that. If you look at a Katy Perry or a Rihanna song and dissect that, that’s really hard, and that for me is...they’re amazing artists. You think that melody is easy but I’m telling you...their identity, you can’t recreate that.
JK: I think good music stands the test of time, a lot of music we’re all listening to today. One of the good things about the way things are now and the way music is heard, with things like Spotify and YouTube, everything’s so accessible now. So it’s really easy to plug into lots of music, which is great. There’s all this stuff lying around, old and new. It’s just about what speaks to you and what lasts, in ten years time it will be interesting to see the things that are still standing the test of time.
Certainly when we write music we’re not concerned with what’s happening right now. It’s more about what we feel good about and what we think we’ll still feel good about in two or three years time, that’s really what we’re excited about. It’s the music we grew up on I guess, it still sounds good now, most of it. We all had a couple of dodgy records in our collections back in the day...there’s nothing wrong with that.
You’ve got one of your lead singles ‘The Night Is Calling’, with a Reflex Revision of that track, it’s got a Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones style so is that where you’re getting your influence for the album from?
JK: They’re definitely one of them, for sure. I mean at a certain period in time that was the benchmark, it still really is in terms of songwriting and production. Those kind of bands and the kind of artists they worked on, that’s the pinnacle of songwriting and production, you’re not really ever gonna get a better record than Off The Wall or Bad or something like that. There are lots of amazing artists making amazing records, but those will always be blueprints for a standard of excellence. I think you can’t help but be influenced by that on some level.
What sort of current artists have you got your eye on at the minute?
JK: I like Mr Jukes actually, so I’m gutted we’re not going to have time to see him as we’ve got to go somewhere else - we’ve got to fly to Portugal this evening for a gig. I really like Kamasi Washington’s stuff, it’s very nice. I love Gregory Porter as well, Beck are great. There’s another band called Khruangbin that I really like, they are fantastic.
The main thing is just getting to hear stuff, times have changed and you have to really go and search stuff out, so sometimes you might not hear something. We’ve got a lot of friends who are into music so we always share things. There’s always a constant voyage of discovery anyway in music if you’re into it - you’re always finding out about new and different things, that’s exciting. Creativity is alive and well definitely, it’s nice to hear things being reinvented and tried out in a different way.
Do you have any non-musical inspiration that helps you to write?
JK: I think life is an inspiration, whether it’s good times or bad times, sometimes some of the best stuff you write is stuff that draws on a bit of pain or anxiety. As songwriters you are trying to express yourself and parts of the human condition, the best and most successful songs can be the most simple songs that just express something that everyone can understand. They are the classics that stick in people’s memories and hearts.
© 2019 Ryan Taylor & Trouve la Groove
With the new album, following the success you both had with Brand New Heavies, what are you doing differently in this outfit?
JK: I think we just have a new energy and a new vibe, everything we do we feel really positive about. The whole team is really buzzing and standing in the same position, everyone’s on the same page. The trouble with The Heavies, for me personally and probably for Dawn, is that it got a bit stale and energy was really stagnant. Nothing was really moving anywhere and we were just going around in circles. When you’ve been in a band for a long time, it’s one thing to keep playing the same stuff over and over again but for me personally, and I know it’s the same for Dawn, you want to progress and you want to feel like you are relevant, moving things around a bit. Also, with people coming in with different things [musically] constantly, that gives me energy to move forward.
DJ: You should always be moving forwards and not staying where you are - and you definitely shouldn’t be moving backwards!
JK: We’re already quite restless, even in the process of making a record. By the time you have finished making that record you’re just over it, you don’t want to hear it anymore.
DJ: We want to make another one!
JK: There’s always a weird moment when you push it out to the world, you finished the album six months ago but this is the first time people are hearing it. I’m not bored of it at all, but it’s just a funny thing, you live with it for so long and you’re always thinking about the next thing and the next record really.
How did the rest of MF Robots come together?
DJ: A mixture - we met them playing at other gigs or they’re people we worked with in the past and we just started thinking about it: ‘OK that person would be good...’ and then bought them together. And not only are they awesome players, but they’ve got their own individuality and as a whole it gels. They’re so much fun, full of fresh energy and just a joy to be around.
JK: That’s the way it has to be because you spend a lot of time together and you spend a lot of the time being really tired and kind of not in your best condition! Little things can get amplified, so you just want to relaxed and have fun with people, that’s the best way to be.
And finally, what artists, living or not, would you most like to have collaborated with/collaborate with?
DJ: Stevie Wonder
JK: Definitely! Michael McDonald would be good.
DJ: I would have loved to work with Michael Jackson.
JK: Prince...James Brown…
DJ: Rick James, Donny Hathaway, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker!
What’s next for MF Robots?
DJ: Spreading the message! We need loads more people to come along and join this crazy ride, so tell your friends!
© 2019 Ryan Taylor & Trouve la Groove