INTERVIEW: University Challenged | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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The sheer work rate of Middlesbrough’s musical polymath Oli Heffernan is to be admired for sure, but it is the exceptional quality of his output that impresses the most; he’s already readied and released a number of albums and EPs under his solo guise as Ivan the Tolerable in the last year. However, the cosmic out-rock of latest project University Challenged is another fully collaborative effort which sees Oli team up with long-time King Champion Sounds collaborator Ajay Saggar and Bo Ningen’s Kohhei Matsuda for a double vinyl release of organic drones, subtle electronica and occasional bird noises. Often a genteel bassline and Eastern aesthetics subtly fill the background; a gentle cacophony, like a collection of ambient wanderings through a Chinese tea garden, while an assortment of expertly selected spoken word samples also marks University Challenged as quietly political.

I tracked Oli down in a virtual beer garden somewhere in Middlesbrough, as a kindly whiff of pale ale and roll-ups filled the digital air, to find out all about it…

Ajay and I have worked together a load over the past decade, we both like to keep busy and work constantly on stuff so it’s a good fit. I was booked on a flight to Amsterdam to spend a week in the studio recording this LP and the next King Champion Sounds one with him when COVID struck and I couldn’t go, which was a massive shame. As time passed it became clear I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon so we decided to do University Challenged remotely. The three of us started bouncing tracks around until we had enough stuff and then Ajay spent two months shaping and editing it in his studio in Holland. It has come out way better than I think any of us thought it would. When we’ve played together in the past it’s always been about the feel and sound of us playing together loud in a room, so it came out different to how we expected but I think we hit upon something really nice.”

We always wanted it to be more about drones and repetition, and finding rhythms there rather than having traditional beats

With musical connections all over the world, working remotely is not something Oli is too bothered about in the short term. “We’ve all been recording remotely for years for various other things we do. It’s a good way to work without distractions and you can work at your own pace,” – which for Oli is usually fast – “plus you have access to all your own gear rather than whatever KLM allow you to shove into a plane locker!” That’s not to say playing live is out of the question for University Challenged, “we played a few live improv shows together in Holland in 2019 which was the first time we played with Kohhei [who had just moved to Amsterdam] and it sounded great almost instantly. We planned to do a few shows in December last year but it wasn’t to be again and, with so many plans having already been shelved, I reckon its sensible to just wait until the light at the end of the tunnel is a little bit brighter. But, when it is safe to do so, it’s definitely something we are planning to do, and once I get my head round how it’s all gonna work with Brexit but that’s a whole other conversation!. I’m not really into streamed gigs, they do nothing for me so I’d rather not play gigs until we can do them properly.”

University Challenged is more ambient than any of the three players’ usual material so I wondered how difficult it was to restrain themselves in order to keep things more minimal, but Oli was typically nonchalant in response. “I think it just naturally came out that way. We made the decision to not have any drums on the album which definitely helps keep things more minimal. We always wanted it to be more about drones and repetition, and finding rhythms there rather than having traditional beats, so we focussed on the stuff that usually gets lost in the mix and bringing that to the front and centre. We are all big fans of Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh so it naturally went down that avenue a bit, but we also all like Robbie Basho and John Fahey so a lot of that comes through too.”

The eight mostly instrumental tracks have musical narratives within, so there are clear themes on tracks like Choppers Over Negril and Shibboleth whose dark mariachi undertones and Malcolm X samples create a storied feel, but again Oli was keen to stress that everything happened more organically. “All the samples were added at mixing stage so there wasn’t a theme as such. The shaping and editing was a massive task and Ajay did all that. It took a few months but he did a great job in pulling it all together into a really nice, eclectic and coherent record.”

So, with the record finished releasing it was just a formality, right? “Once it was all finished we didn’t really know what to do with it and wondered who was going to release a double album at a time when nobody can tour or go to gigs?! But we sent it to a couple of labels we trust to see what they thought and Marc Teare from Hive Mind loved it and was super into putting it out and when a label that has released a Sonny Sharrock album offers to put your album out, you don’t hang about!”

University Challenged release Oh Temple! via Hive Mind Records on 29th January

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