"We're not like a traditional band": DiS meets Jagwar Ma
Australian outfit Jagwar Ma have released one of 2013's most enterprising debuts with the excellent Howlin'. Formed in 2011 initially as a studio project, the core duo of Jono Ma (guitars, synths, samples) and Gabriel Winterfield (vocals, guitars) have been one of the festival circuit's highlights throughout the course of this summer. Indeed, it's shows like the ones at Glastonbury, Bestival and Festival No. 6 that have established them as one of the most captivating live acts to have emerged in recent months.
DiS caught up with Jono Ma after their set at Bestival. Here's how the conversation went...
DiS: You've picked up a lot of fans on the UK festival circuit this summer, most notably with your three Glastonbury shows and set here at Bestival earlier.
Jono Ma: Yeah it's been incredible. We weren't expecting such an amazing response with any of them, especially Glastonbury. Tonight's set reminded me of Glastonbury a little.
DiS: Has it taken you by surprise just how popular Jagwar Ma have become in the UK in such a short space of time?
Jono Ma: Yeah, absolutely. When we started the band we just had the one song, 'Come Save Me'. We had no expectations of really doing anything. It was almost like a side project. Gabriel (Winterfield) and I were in separate bands at the time. With Sydney being such a small place everyone kind of cross pollinates and collaborates so we just got together and made a track. I'd never made a film clip before but I studied film at University and wanted to make one to go with 'Come Save Me'. So that became my directing debut. I wanted it to look like we were a "virtual band" as technically we didn't exist at the time. It was just me making the music and Gabriel singing at that stage. After that, we just put it out; and when I say put it out, we literally just put it on You Tube and it just grew and grew from there.
DiS: I remember the first time I heard it would probably have been Christmas Eve in 2011. A friend sent it over to me during the day.
Jono Ma: That was literally right at the very beginning. We only put it out there in December 2011. I'm surprised many people heard it then. When we released it we really had no expectations whatsoever. It was purely about making music with an accompanying film clip and that was it. And then everything just snowballed from there.
DiS: At that point were you more interested in making films than music?
Jono Ma: At that stage I was actually doing lots of music for films. So I was starting to lose interest in my previous band. We'd had medium level success in Australia but hadn't really connected anywhere else. I'd had loads of fun playing music with them, but I wanted to do something different so I started writing soundtracks for a few films. They were getting a bit of recognition back in Australia and I was really enjoying that medium - being in the studio writing music for a film. I wasn't going to start making films but putting music to films was something I'd become very interested in, so it kind of took over for a while.
DiS: So where does Jagwar Ma fit into the grand scheme of things alongside making films and your work as a producer which we'll come onto later?
Jono Ma: Oh it's definitely the main thing for now, absolutely. When Gabriel and I decided we were going to make a full length album together we also made the decision to go to France and record it. The first batch of songs we did in Sydney but after we relocated it became our sole focus. All I can think about now is making the second record. I honestly can't wait!
DiS: Are there any songs already in place for the second album?
Jono Ma: We wrote loads more songs for Howlin' that didn't make the final record, so the first place to start would be to revisit some of those and see how relevant they are.
DiS: Do you the second record going in a different direction to Howlin'?
Jono Ma: Well, not exactly in a different direction because we're still on the same trajectory and a lot of it is just instinct about what we do and don't like. Our tastes will evolve like everyone's tastes evolve over time. So when it comes to the second record I'm sure we'll be listening to a lot of music we've discovered in between making both albums. It may or may not influence it and I'd expect the next record to be an evolution of sorts but I don't think the trajectory will change that drastically. I definitely want to follow the same process of how we made the first record. It will be self-produced and I want to have Ewan Pearson mix it again. He did additional production on Howlin' as well. I'll definitely keep the same team because I think there's something there that works with our band.
DiS: In terms of production, with you also being a producer would you ever let anyone else produce one of your records?
Jono Ma: I dunno. It depends on who.
DiS: Is there a wishlist?
Jono Ma: Ewan as the mixer definitely influences the production. The way we make music it's kind of like I'm producing it as we write. We're not like a traditional band where songs are strummed out on guitars and then demoed and then the producer expands on the original idea. It's more a case of as we start I'm already selecting drum sounds out, layering things before Gabriel's even sung on it. I like capturing things in the moment rather than demoing then adding bits after.
DiS: Does a similar process apply where the lyrics are concerned too?
Jono Ma: No, there's definitely a crossover there. I'll generally build a beat and a sense of a track until it gets to a point where Gabriel's feeling it. Then he'll sing on it and we'll tennis it back and forth until we're both satisfied with how the whole thing sounds.
DiS: You've already mentioned 'Come Save Me' being the oldest track on the album. Which was the last to be finished?
Jono Ma: I can't remember the exact running order but 'Four' wasn't finished until quite late on, and 'Exercise' was completed literally the day before we sent the record off to be mastered. 'Man I Need' had a bit of a reprise section added just before we went to mixing. It was almost a case of us remixing it to flesh it out first! 'Backwards Berlin' was done in Sydney around the same time as 'The Throw', and we kind of forgot about it until the very end, so it ended up being one of the last songs we finished even though it was one of the first songs we started. A lot of the more poppy songs on the album just happened really quickly whereas the dancier tracks took a lot more time to develop and mature.
DiS: The band have been compared to a lot of early 1990s indie/dance crossover acts like Primal Scream and Happy Mondays. Are you very influenced by those kind of bands?
Jono Ma: We are but at the same time, to say we're predominantly influenced by those would be way off the mark too. It comes up a lot which is great because they're incredible bands. That whole scene was a pivotal moment in UK music history but so were loads of other moments and from our perspective to just focus on that alone isn't doing justice to all the other stuff that's influenced and inspired us. There's lots of 1950s and 1960s R & B and soul that we were listening to and getting off on. I think the Manchester thing is somewhat accidental. I'm definitely a fan of Andrew Weatherall and his production as well as him as a DJ and I went through the whole Joy Division/New Order phase but the more I discovered about that music, the more I realised we had common ancestry in a way. One of the first artists I really loved as a kid was Jimi Hendrix. He's the main reason why I picked up a guitar, and then from that I remember watching the Woodstock video where Sly & The Family Stone were also playing which threw me into funk and soul in a big way. And then I came across the Phil Spector productions and only recently found out that Primal Scream when they were making Screamadelica were also massively influenced by him. Whether you can hear it or not I don't know? It's that big reverberating wall of sound which characterises a lot of the more upbeat tracks on Screamadelica. And then I discovered Shaun Ryder was also massively influenced by Sly & The Family Stone. In one of the Happy Mondays songs ('Lazyitis') he actually sings a Sly lyric, so there's definitely a connection there, and also The Stone Roses are massively into Hendrix so the common ancestry is pretty much completed there. So from that point of view, those comparisons are almost coincidental.
DiS: Do you feel more of a kinship with UK bands than Australian ones, musically at least?
Jono Ma: I would say so, yeah. I've always loved dance music and also early rock and roll. Not just the American stuff like Bo Diddley but also the British reaction to that. People like The Beatles, the Stones, the Zombies, all the garage and psych bands as well. Australian music history's kind of a bit funnier. There's a lot of pub rock for example. Nowadays there's a lot more Australian hip hop artists which aside from people like The Avalanches hasn't really connected with me. I like my hip hop to be American. So yeah, I've always loved music from the UK right back into the early half of the twentieth century.
DiS: Is there much of a scene in Sydney at present?
Jono Ma: Yeah, there's loads of great artists in Sydney at the moment. Jonti's one I'm really excited about. He's put two records out on Stones Throw, which is a legendary leftfield hip hop label. He's making some incredible music at the minute. It sounds like a cross between J Dilla and the Beach Boys. He and I have been talking about collaborating as well. He's actually done a remix of one of our songs and also did some work on the new Avalanches record. Then there's another guy called Guerre who actually came on tour with us. He's just a one-man band who kind of loops his vocals. I guess the nearest comparisons would be James Blake or Jamie Lidell. He's really soulful; quite mellow and beautiful. He's only put out a few seven-inches so far but I would expect big things from him in the future. Then there's Kirin J Callinan who's a really good friend of ours. He's just put a record out with XL. He's also a one-man band but also an incredible guitarist too. So I guess reflecting on the scene over there retrospectively now that we're living in the UK it does feel like we were definitely part of a real musical community.
DiS: Do you think bands have to move to London in order to gain some kind of recognition?
Jono Ma: I guess in a way they do, yeah. The internet definitely allows you to reach out to a wider audience. We were still based in Sydney when we put 'Come Save Me' out. But at the same time there's only so many gigs you can play in Sydney.
DiS: Jagwar Ma live shows do transcend an almost rave-like atmosphere. Was it difficult translating the songs from their recorded versions into a live context befitting of the shows?
Jono Ma: When we're in the studio we aren't thinking too much about anything that we're doing. It's very much about following your instinct on what feels good. I know that sounds a bit weak but it's very much about finding that sixth sense of what's good and what isn't. It's like binary in that we're not paying that much attention about the sound. Whether it's dance enough or whether it's psych enough, funky enough or whatever. We literally just make the music then worry about all that kind of stuff later. Live it's definitely a bit more premeditated because we have the songs, have the body of work already recorded and produced. So with the live show it is more about making those songs connect with a large body of people. We decided we wanted the live show to be a bit more dance orientated. Electronic I guess you could say. On the record there's lots of live drums and samples, things like that. We could have gone down the path of having a live drummer but we decided to be more electronic and I guess try to create a rave vibe and fortunately it seems to have worked.
Jagwar Ma are on tour in October and can be seen at the following venues:-
14 London Barfly
17 Glasgow King Tut's
19 Manchester Gorilla
20 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
22 Brighton The Haunt
23 London Scala
24 Bristol Thekla