INTERVIEW: Ibibio Sound Machine | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Ibibio Sound Machine have achieved a heck of a lot in their relatively short existence. Since 2014 they’ve dropped four phenomenal albums and built a much-deserved reputation as a stunning live band. As they prepare to hit the road in support of their stunning new record, Electricity, I caught up with vocalist Eno Williams and saxophonist/keyboard player Max Grunhard to natter about enforced breaks, post-lockdown live shows, and recording with Hot Chip.

Despite chatting over Zoom, from the outset the whole interview feels remarkably relaxed, akin to a damn good natter down the pub. The pair are wonderful company and really good fun to spend a little time with, they tag team each other, ending each other’s sentences, their answers continually overlapping and bouncing off each other in that way that only happens with good friends.

They were all set for the biggest year of their career when the world suddenly hit the pause button in 2020. I asked them if it felt like the lockdown abruptly applied a handbrake to the forward motion of the band and wondered if they took some time off or instead retreated to the studio? “We’re always writing between shows but in terms of movement with the band, it slowed us down a lot. It did give us a lot of time to think and reflect and a bit more go with the flow y’know. Although everything stopped, we were still able to go to the studio, play music and just try things out and that gave us an escape. So even though we couldn’t go out and perform we could still make music.” Eno explains, and without even the slightest change of emotion in his face, Max adds a perfectly comedic: “We also didn’t do very much…”. Eno smirks at the expertly timed retort and continues “yes…because the days were so long, you had to spread things out. Y’know, I won’t do that today, I’ll leave it for a few days, so I have something to look forward to.” They both look at each other and burst out laughing. As I mentioned, they really are a joy to be around.

Free – at least temporarily – of the music industry treadmill of write, record, tour, repeat, I was curious to find out if they’d developed any new ways of workings, Max nods: “I guess we did,” Eno adds: “We did! The album was finished, and we had to sit on it for a year, and we thought what do we do now? We should have been go, go, go, but instead we just had to wait because it was pointless putting out a record that we couldn’t work and it would be stale by the times things opened up, the label just said sit on it, take it easy, and I now think it was a blessing in disguise because that pressure wasn’t there that much so we had time to tweak things.”

At this point, Max delivers another deliciously dry ”so it took a lot longer than usual”…not content with this, he adds “I was experimenting with little synths and grooves and stuff and we’d layer that up with some of the guys in the band. We started writing in a few different ways because there was more time, and we did loads of tracks that didn’t get onto the album. Eno agrees: “Yeah, and because we had so much time we’ve ended up with a lot of material…It’s like a painting isn’t it, the artist keeps going, they’ve done the layer and you might be thinking it’s a beautiful painting, it looks perfect, but to the artist, they’re thinking no, no, I’ve just got to get that little bit extra, because there’s an image, or in our case a sound you want to hear and unless you get that particular sound, you’re not going to be happy.”I see a small smile appear on Max’s face, another comedic gem is incoming… “so it was good to have Hot Chip around to take the painting away” he then adds a beautifully poignant codicil: “but in a way, the whole pandemic thing helped with the whole attitude around spontaneity, because actually, things don’t matter as much as you think they do, because it can all disappear in front of your eyes, so just get on with it.”

the whole pandemic thing helped with the whole attitude around spontaneity, because actually, things don’t matter as much as you think they do, because it can all disappear in front of your eyes, so just get on with it

Enlisting the aforementioned Hot Chip on the project pushed the collective into previously uncharted ground. This is the first time an Ibibio album features an external production team, and despite it being a mouth-wateringly delicious union, I was curious to discover how it happened. “We sort of knew them and we were fans of their sound,” Max explains, “we particularly remember seeing them at Bluedot Festival a few years back when they were headlining – we were one or two acts before them – and the sonics they have are just amazing. Joe [Goddard] always seemed like a really nice guy when we saw him around as well – actually, they are all really nice guys– and our manager knows Lawrence [Bell] who runs their record label [Domino Records], and that’s how it was organised. The thought was we need to try and push on, we’d got to a point ourselves, maybe it would be good to try working with someone else on the production side, and it was a good experience. It did alter the process though, we got it to where we normally get it to, and then we’d be scratching our head, how do we finish this off, and we took it to them, and we did go up another level for sure.” Eno excitedly adds: “They really are incredible. We were like sponges, just soaking up so much from them. Being there on a day-to-day basis,” Max concludes: “And I think they really enjoyed it too, because we’re from a more live background and I think they thought it was refreshing.”

During a conversation between Eno and myself back in 2020, she described Ibibio’s sophomore album Uyai as brittle and angry, and third album Doko Mien as a healing record with a positive message. As the album was recorded during increasingly fractious socio-political times, I was curious to find out where they thought Electricity sits. “It’s a combination of both to be honest, when we started, it was the dark time of the pandemic and not just the uncertainty of where the world was going but a lot of sadness as well,” Max ponders on this for a second. “It’s the darkest vibe we’ve come up with, partly to do with working with Hot Chip, it’s very heavily textured, they definitely made it sound bigger than what we had, but yeah, it was also the vibe of the time. For example, the track Protection For Me, is really dark…by our standards anyway, so we’ve tried to structure the album with the dark stuff at the beginning and make it a bit of a journey and it’s all up by the end.”

Eno nods her head, adding: “Lyrically, I think we definitely do reflect what’s going on in so many ways, because at the time [recording Electricity] we had the pandemic, and then we had the George Floyd thing and everything else, so there are songs on the album that are reflecting that…but we’re also trying to address the whys; why things are the way they are, and a hope for a better tomorrow, a hope for a positive spirit.”

If you’ve ever witnessed the incredible Ibibio live show, I’m sure you’d agree there are very few more joy-filled ways to spend a couple of hours. After a two-year hiatus from the stage, I was interested to hear their thoughts on the return to actual gigs in front of real people. This brings a smile as wide as the River Tyne from the pair. Eno recalls the experience of the band’s first post-lockdown show at the legendary Manchester venue Band On The Wall: “To be honest, it was scary and really daunting…” and before any further explanation is uttered from the iridescent frontwoman, Max counters: “because no one was actually allowed to get up and dance!”…this memory causes them both to break into uproarious laughter.

Eno tells the story of their first steps back into live work. “As they couldn’t use the main venue, they’d built this beautiful stage in a car park and everyone had to sit in their bubble, but the tables were at least 10 metres away from each other, so we go to start the show as normal and we felt good…but yeah as Max said, no one could stand up…”. He jumps in: “A few people did try but the security came straight over telling them to sit back down, so there was a lot of shuffling in their seats.” Eno grins and adds: “I opened my big mouth like I normally do and shouted ‘get up and dance’, and the security came running across shouting ‘you can’t tell them to dance, stop it!’” At this point, the normally shimmering Eno looks visible embarrassed. “I thought, oh my goodness, I’m in trouble now, the government are going to get me, they’d allowed us to come up to Manchester and now I’ve broken health and safety…but, they got everyone to sit back down and I thought I really don’t know how we’re going to play this show, I’m meant to be interacting with the audience, but I could see people dancing in their seats and by the end the security just gave up as the whole crowd stood up, and I think that came from a feeling of exasperation. For a minute, we collectively saw what we used to have, and it turned out to be nice and positive by the end of the gig…and by the third show we could see people starting to let the guards down. Of course, people still had to wear masks. I felt like live music was the only way we could show that there was a comeback. It was a symbol of things opening back up again, people coming out to a gig feels like good times coming back again.”

Ibibio Sound Machine’s latest album Electricity is out now. The band play Wylam Brewery, Newcastle on Thursday 7th April.

 

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