Words by Gavin Kendrick.
At the end of last month, I previewed Sunlightsquare’s forthcoming album, Brittania Shing-A-Ling. When I found out the band’s driving force, Claudio Passavanti, was coming along to the SuncéBeat 2 reunion party, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions about the project.
You grew up in Italy?
Yes! Someone had to! [Laughing]
But by the time you were 20, you had moved to California?
That’s right. I started working in a recording studio when I was very young. I was sixteen, going to school in Italy, and in the afternoon I’d go to the studio. I was a big geek! This was the late ‘80s. I did a lot of work in the pop industry. I was mainly a programmer but by the time I was 18 and had finished at school, I went full time. A couple of years after that I was finishing whole productions but I had always wanted to study orchestra, so I went to LA to learn. And that’s where I found out about jazz.
What was the music scene like in California?
I was at a school called the Grove School of Music, and we were all into jazz fusion. The time of Chick Corea Elektric Band and all that. Cheesy fusion let’s face it!
It’s good! I’m still listening to Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Santana.
Yeah I loved it! Well Santana had more guts, more soul. Unfortunately I was a bit more into that fusion electro kind of thing. And as a white boy there, you know, you do that! But it was hip then. I recorded my first album with John Patitucci and Dave Weckl from the Chick Corea Elektric Band. So I was blessed! Some considered me a child prodigy on piano. I was hanging out in jazz clubs like the Baked Potato and there would be amazing gigs like Mitch Forman, Vinnie Colaiuta, Peter Erskine just playing regular gigs in those clubs. It was very hype.
What made you decide to relocate to the UK?
Well I started to feel that the music I was playing in California was a bit shallow. It was a bit of a jazz musician’s jerk off! I don’t want to say soulless, but it was aesthetical rather than substantial. Back then I was signed to a label distributed by Sony, and I was playing gigs, but I could tell that the people didn’t understand what I was doing. And I didn’t even understand what I was doing! [Laughs]
It didn’t really make sense, so they made me some offers working in pop music. I started producing and performing with Italian pop artists. I was living the life – the groupies, the touring, the stuff! It was a lot of fun! But I was in my twenties so I was allowed! Even though I was doing well, I felt that I was going nowhere. I was doing fine, I had a BMW, I had no problems, but that’s not what I got into music for and I wanted to go somewhere else. I needed to go somewhere to be inspired. New York was too far so London made good sense.
I wanted to go when I was 27 but then I got a huge gig. I wanted to go when I was 28 and I got a huge production. And it kept going on like that. So I just left. I didn’t tell anyone. I kept my Italian mobile phone so when they called me for gigs I would just fly back and do them! Then I got a job as an in-house producer for a record label here called Almighty Records, which was doing techno-trance kind of stuff. It paid good money and I ended up making more in London than in Italy because the pop music industry was going downhill there. And now it’s dead! This was 2002. I still work in Italy sometimes on advertising jobs, but ninety percent of my life now I live as an artist.
And then in 2004 you put Sunlightsquare together?
In July 2004. My personal life – my love life – went weird, and basically I escaped from it all. I went to live in this new place called Sunlight Square. It was a loft space in a building near Bethnal Green station. I would meet there with my musician friends and so that’s what I called this project!
Your releases always have a great sound, what studio gear do you use?
The first album I tracked in New York. We recorded on a Neve VR desk. It was pretty much digital. And it was mixed on another Neve desk in the studio in Italy. I was doing a job there and I traded studio time. Later on I got myself a Studer tape recorder and I love it. The sound is so round – it’s what it’s supposed to be, you know? It’s very exciting.
You recorded the new album in Miloco Studios?
Yes it’s a very fine studio and they’ve got this beautiful EMT vintage desk. They’ve got everything – Ampeg bass amplifiers and Swingerland drum kits. My plan with Britannia Shing-A-Ling was to record live with 25 musicians. Can you believe it?! I only overdubbed strings. I hired in a monitoring system for the musicians and that was a saviour. If everyone is listening correctly, then the mix is there already. If somebody is singing or somebody’s taking a solo then everybody pulls back, you know? So for the mixing, I found the balance with the levels and after that I never touched it. It actually saved a lot of time!
Did you find it daunting to arrange such an ambitious project?
Because of my work in pop music, I used to arrange up to 90 elements in an orchestra. It’s my special thing. But it’s always intimidating, especially if you are the artist.
The concept for Britannia Shing-A-Ling was to take soul and funk tracks and arrange them in the key of Afro-Cuban music. I love Latin music and I love Afro-Cuban music, and the foundation of that is the clave rhythm. If you listen to good funk music, good soul music, the clave is there. In good rhythm and blues, the clave is there. At one point on my radio show I got manic about finding the clave in the music I was playing, and I could always find it. That was the beginning of the idea. Everything else was a direct consequence.
If you’re arranging for horns and you know you’ve got a clave going on, you underline every beat of it. It started as an exercise of style but when I got into it, I ended up writing for two trumpets, three saxophones, two trombones, flute, and I thought that now I’ve either got to stop this or I’ve got to hire these people and do that. So that’s what I did!
You might be able to answer a question I’ve got about a rhythm from a Gil Scott-Heron track.
Okay! I’m not very good with track names but I know his sound very well.
There is a live recording of ‘The Bottle’ reissued by Slow To Speak. Gil introduces the song and explains how it’s based on a particular rhythm. I can’t make out what it’s called, do you know?
Hmm I don’t, but he is very soulful. Let’s not forget, the soulful side is the African side. There’s no doubt about it. And that comes from the batá rhythm. Okay, here’s the deal. When the slaves were taken from West Africa and placed into this new land, they only had one thing to link them to their Yoruba culture. That was the batá rhythms. It’s three drums and they have different rhythms – they are polyrhythmic. And every rhythm plays tribute to different Orishas, which are pagan divinities. And they hid this behind the Christian saints, that’s why they are called Santería. So for example, this is going to be St. Joseph and they actually meant Osain who they had rhythms for. So they kept their roots alive by hiding them behind the Christian culture. And the fundamental of that rhythm is the clave. All Afro-Cuban music is based on that, hence all blues music is based on that, hence all jazz music is based on that. It’s all based on African music. That’s the deal. That’s what we’re talking about here. African music. That’s why we like soulful music, I know you like it. I know you want it! [Laughing]
It’s ancestral. It primordial. It’s rootsy. In the music of Gil Scott-Heron you get plenty of that. He’s aware of that. Any soulful musician who is in America is aware of that. Louie Vega is another example. They all have their roots in African music and they know it. And they use it.
That’s fascinating, I’m glad I asked now! I heard you play some of Louie Vega’s recent material on your radio show.
Yeah I play mostly classic material. A lot of Latin music: Fania, Tico, Allegra, Salsoul. And some contemporary artists like Louie Vega and Quantic. I feel like I’m part of a spontaneous movement with labels like Wah Wah 45s and Freestyle. They are into their soul, Latin and Afro-beat. It’s very exciting and in a city like London that can happen. Listen to people like Norman Jay or Gilles Peterson and you realise that this music is alive and well. It’s refreshing. And at the same time it’s funny how the record industry is going downhill completely. Last year I think major labels sold a little over one billion units in total, and this year it’s down to 154 million. The change is dramatic.
In this climate, was it financially difficult then for you to accomplish something of this scale?
The composition of the album was taken out of the equation as I used songs that I consider to be standards. I scored all the parts, producing most of them on my Pro-Tools system. I did some on Logic because it has a lot of instruments and it’s easy to write orchestral parts with it. Then I laid out charts for the musicians – we didn’t have any rehearsals! We didn’t need to with the kind of musicians I’ve got – stellar musicians. Some of them have been working with me for years so I know what they can handle. I knew we could record the whole thing in two days.
Of course I did spend some money. Fortunately with my previous album Havana Central, I sold about 7,000 units between the CD and the singles, which for an independent is alright! So I did have some money from that. And I decided to spend it all, and more! [Laughing]
I have a collaborative relationship with a lot of the musicians on the album. Quentin Collins, for example, the trumpet player. I help him produce his own music and he helps me out. So it’s not as expensive as hiring session players. If it was Sony music booking this then it would have cost a fortune! I spent about six months on pre-production so it was only a couple of days in the studio. Everyone was cool enough to work for mates’ rates. It wasn’t bloodshed but I’ve just finished recovering from it!
The footage you posted from those studio sessions gives a real insight to the recording process.
At this point in my career, I just see microphones and cameras as a way to document what happens. My duty is to create a performance, to create an environment where the musicians are comfortable. Where the music is simple enough and it’s laid out in charts well enough so the musicians don’t have to worry about getting it wrong, where they are relaxed and they are happy. You take care of your musicians.
If you have a good environment, especially with a lot of people, the energy levels are high. Everyone is there, playing off each other. They know each other. If you’ve got a good environment and you open up your mics, that’s just taking a snapshot of that nice moment. If I think of the stuff I like from the ‘70s, big orchestras like Quincy Jones – my idol. The atmosphere during the recording was amazing, and all they did was capture it. So I try to recreate that environment where the people are happy to be there playing this music. And I just wanted to document it.
It is reflected in every side of the production, even mixing. I tried to keep it as basic as possible. May I be damned if I used one plug-in. No plug-ins! Just straight. I only used real compression – analogue compression on bass and vocals. The musicians played right because they had a good monitoring system and they had a nice vibe with each other. It was actually very easy to mix it. I know it sounds stupid but it was easier with the big band than when you are locked in the studio, playing this bassline then trying this and that, and hoping to get it right. Then at the end you have a puzzle that you’ve got to piece together.
But back to your comment about posting the videos online. Is the internet and social media playing a role for independent musicians? Oh yeah! It’s the only reason why I’m alive and I’m able to even think about pulling this together. I think what’s happening is that the gap between the artist and listener is shrinking. I get a lot of people buying music directly from my website just because they want to support the project as much as they can. That’s amazing! That’s very thoughtful! And it’s a blessing.
If you think that the early stages of independent music here – punk music on cassette tapes dubbed over and over. There was no business there. And now fast forward to 2011 and you can run a whole record label platform on your own – you don’t need anybody. It’s a very interesting time for independent musicians to be making music. You can survive off it. I know I’m very lucky – I see what goes on. Lots of struggling musicians as ever. But there is hope. There is an alternative if you play your cards right and you are fixated enough to persevere; I’m one of those examples. I’m not particularly talented, I’m just fixated enough to get it done! You know? It’s driven by love. A lot of people talk about talent. I don’t believe in talent. You get fixated with something and then when you do it long enough, you end up doing it better.
Have you read The War Of Art by Steven Pressfield? He says the same thing about the artist’s struggle. He talks about writing, but of course it applies to all creative pursuits. He says the thing that professional writers know, and amateur writes don’t, is that the most difficult thing is not the writing, but the sitting down to write. Talent comes second. It’s about having the discipline to sit down and do your work. Every single day.
Exactly! That’s how I feel it. It’s like going to the gym. You want to have muscle, you’ve got to practice every day. Eventually you get to that point. The same for singing, playing an instrument, or composing. If you compose a tune every day, you will become a better composer eventually.
The other thing is, you can’t escape from who you are. You can choose to sing this song, or that song, but you can’t escape from the fact that you are in front of a microphone doing your thing. No matter what song you record, what comes across is who you are – the reason why you are in front of that microphone, doing that performance. It’s a spiritual thing, if you will. But it’s the truth. If you stand in front of that microphone and think that you want to be famous, and you want to escape from the inevitable decay of life, and you want to be remembered and loved and accepted, you will sound fucking desperate. That is exactly what’s going to come across. But if you have a genuine love for music, that will come through above the fact that you want to be recognised. I’m not saying that I don’t want to be recognised. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I love it. And if you love it, that will come across.
It does. Before I spoke to you, I wrote about your album, and my closing line described it as ‘the most passionate long player I’ve reviewed all year.’
That passion shines through. The songs, the recording, the videos, the packaging.
Hopefully! It’s a spiritual path. I don’t want to sound like a tree-hugging hippy but it is spiritual! [Laughing] What are you doing with your life? You can’t escape from who you are. Leave alone the idea of being famous for fame’s sake, like in these reality shows. These stars are famous today, forgotten tomorrow. People might enjoy that…
But when you are surrounded by authentic culture, authentic musicians playing authentic music, you can see through it straight away. You just feel how shallow and empty that mainstream culture is.
You can’t lie, can you?! There’s no way! Even if you’re not very good, people will respond to your honestly. If I can sum up anything from my career so far, I can say that people will always respond to truth, as naïve as that might sound. Are you a musician or a DJ?
So you already know that.
For me, it’s the difference between downloading MP3s for free and getting out of the house and going to the record shop.
It’s a different action isn’t it?
And of course I still download music, and I get sent music. But yes it’s different. The song might be the same, it might be the same piece of music. But because you got out of bed, you cycled to the record shop, you spent that time looking through those new releases. Then you’re home. You take the record out of the sleeve for the first time, you put it on the turntable… That whole experience. Eventually, that extra effort shines through. And at the same time, it’s meaningful and it’s fulfilling.
Absolutely. When I go to the Miami Winter Music conference, there might be six DJs playing at some parties. So why doesn’t the music playing change six times in the night?!
When you play records to a crowd, you see the reaction, you feel the reaction. ‘If you like this, you’re gonna love this!’ That is interplay. It’s love. Quincy says that it’s not by chance that you have two ears and one mouth. You’re supposed the listen twice and talk once! There you go!
[Laughing] The label I mentioned that reissued ‘The Bottle’ is called Slow To Speak: ‘Be quick to listen, slow to anger and slow to speak.’ James 1:19.
Exactly! It’s so fascinating because with music you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t bite it. It’s invisible. Yet, you listen to Stevie Wonder singing ‘Ribbon In The Sky’ at the O2 arena and you cry like a little kid. What?! He’s just singing. Why am I crying? That’s the difference between an assertive musician and one who doesn’t have that projection. It’s the listening side of you.
I was just talking to a guy who was out in Croatia at SuncéBeat 2. An hour into Osunlade’s set on the terrace, he filled up and cried.
Yeah it happens! A few years ago I was listening to the French DJ from Defected – Yass. He was playing in Miami and he played Shaun Escoffery – ‘Days Like This’ and everybody was singing along. I didn’t know the song! And everyone was singing it back to the DJ and I was like, ‘This is a beautiful song! Mommy!’ And I started crying! Look at me! [Laughing]
You can’t package that up and sell it!
Exactly. It might not necessarily be a mainstream success, but it’s about great music. Hopefully it will trickle down and crossover into the mainstream, and I’ll make enough money to pay off my mortgage! [Laughs] I wish! At the same time, you know, I’m blessed that I can even sit here talking with you. You can’t imagine what an honour this is to me. I’m just a kid from west Rome! I am blessed. We are blessed with many things. We are alive, and we’ve got music! Hello!
For more info on Sunlightsquare, and to but the latest album, check out their website here.