THERE are some equations in music that are hard to figure…
and get your head around. When it comes to Equals; things are a lot more straightforward – I probably shouldn’t have started down this path! I speak to Ade of the London-based duo about their new single, Hush, and working with Awks (on that track). I ask whether there will be new material coming and what the remainder of 2017 has planned for them. Ade talks about performing as a backing singer for Amy Winehouse; I learn about the artists and sounds that inspire Equals – and some new music/artists fresh in their mind.
With an impressive body of work behind them; I was curious to discover what it was like having the everyone from BBC Radio 6 Music and The Line of Best Fit behind them; how integral London is to their heartbeat and ethos; whether there are tour dates coming soon – and why this week has been better than most!
Hi, guys. How are you? How has your week been?
The week’s been non-stop travel - as I'm on the road with the mighty Gorillaz.
For those new to your work; can you introduce yourself, please?
We’re Ade Omotayo and James Low from R&B duo Equals.
Husk is all sorts of smooth and beautiful. It seems like a track that would have taken a bit of experimentation and construction. Was it easy putting together – or did it come in stages?
This one definitely came in stages…
James recorded the basic piano chords on a Zoom mic plugged into his iPhone - on an old piano at his mum’s house (during Christmas of 2015). It’s a bit out-of-tune and creaky but it sort of suits the vibe of the track - so we never re-recorded it. We worked up a demo with Awks that was more like Single Soul from our first E.P.; just some sub-bass and a simple beat - but the track needed more.
We gave it to a couple of other producers but that didn’t work out; so James started experimenting making it swing a little with regular electric bass and the beat. Then, we got Chris in on bass to cement the idea and, all of sudden, we had a new direction.
The last thing was the horns. We needed something to lift the chorus; Ade knew the killer horns guys and we were like: “Can you layer something up like the first forty seconds of Blue Train by John Coltrane?".
They sent part the part you hear on Husk and that was it.
Awks is the female voice on the song. She has amazing tones! How did you come to meet her? Do you think she will go far in music?
Doesn’t she just!
She played before us at a show we did down in Shoreditch. We were just like, ‘wow; we’ve gotta get her on a track!’. We ended up getting her on most of them, to be honest. She’s also a really amazing writer.
We’re really blessed to be working with her. She’ll go far – she better take us with her!
With production from – Submotion Orchestra producer – Ruckspin; bass grooves from Chris Hargreaves; horns from Killer Horns in there – it sounds like you had a great crew behind you! Was the recording a blast for you guys? What was your reaction hearing Husk back for the first time?
Ruckspin just did some additional production stuff: beefing up the snare, suggesting extra percussion. James and he went through the track together and sort of pimped it iteratively.
Similarly, with Chris, we’ve worked together in bands for years so it’s super-collaborative. The real new thing on this track was the brass. When that came back, we were like ‘aha! We can do this'. It feels like some really big albums - To Pimp a Butterfly, A Seat at the Table - have really foregrounded the horns; so it felt like we were in safe territory...even though it was new for us…
Is Husk the start of something else? Will Equals release new material in 2018?
Husk will be track-two of our debut album (to be released March 2018).
James and Ade. You have a tight bond. How did you guys meet and form the duo?
We had a mutual friend in the sax player Pete Frasier – though through quite different scenes. Ade knew him through the North London Jazz scene; whereas James knew him from touring together in Tech-Noise bands. When James moved to London, wanting to start a new project, he asked Pete if he knew any vocalists – Ade was the first person he recommended.
The first session we did together just clicked
Ade. You were Amy Winehouse’s backing singer through her career. How instrumental was that time – and what did you learn from her? Do you think there is anyone in music (now) quite like her?
Amy Winehouse is the reason I do what I do.
I dreamt of singing in front of large shoals of people - but thought it was reserved for the 'special' ones. There's a whole production line of Winehouse-type singers, but that's expected. I think, more than anything, my tastes evolved upon working with her - as she would listen to anything she considered dope.
She wanted to make a Wu-Tang album…and she wasn't joking!
Equals’ fanbase extends to BBC Radio 6 Music, The Line of Best Fit and Capital Xtra. How important is this support and growing affection?
It’s really important...
We want people to listen to our music, enjoy it; empathise with it, hear the messages; feel it, think about it. We can only do that with support and exposure. But, its more the human response we get through the exposure that’s important to us - rather than the hype for its own sake.
That’s more a means to an end…
Your sound is a special blend I cannot pinpoint! Which artists did you both grow up listening to? Do you both spend a lot of time crate-digging for modern gold and past glory?
Great question. James’ grew up in the Midlands and has early memories of his parents playing stuff like Pink Floyd. Then, he went to school during the Grunge years with Nivarna, Smashing Pumpkins…that kind of segues into Post-Rock: Slint, Do Make Say Think and Low.
Ade remembers listening to Kylie Minogue's first album! The production is shocking at times - but the songs still hold up!
In my older years, I listened to whatever I could lay my hands on. I was especially into Hip-Hop, though: Jay-Z, Kanye West; A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar and MF Doom.
The music kind of represents a meeting of these two histories. But, obviously, is influenced by a lot of contemporary stuff, too: Solange, Frank Ocean; Nicolas Jaar, James Blake and Nils Frahm.
It seems East London is the perfect mix of cosmopolitanism and heritage. Is the city a muse that impacts all the music you record?! Do you get a lot of inspiration from the people around you?
Another great question...
It’s has a huge impact. Nearly every track on our new album features field recordings of London - particularly of, in and around Dalston (where we live) and Ade’s lived for most of his life. You can hear one at the end of Husk – a man shouting on Ridley Road market There’s one at the start of the track, too…but this was a bit different. James went around asking people how they felt about getting older - and this was one person’s answer.
London is many things: a fantastic melting pot of different cultures, music; art and people - but it’s hard too; it takes its toll, wears you down and will spit you out unless you cling on. London sometimes feels a bit like the Internet: its fast, you’re bombarded with information and people you don’t know – but, at the same time, it’s vast; almost limitless and that potential is magnetic and addictive...
That feeling definitely inspires some of the lyrics on the record.
IN THIS PHOTO: Benin City/PHOTO CREDIT: Cesare De Giglio
Who are the new artists you recommend we check out?
U.K. Hip-Hop never gets enough attention. Fellow Londoner Avelino has just dropped his debut album - it's well worth checking out.
We sometimes use a studio in Stoke Newington next to Tom Tripp – if you haven’t heard his stuff yet then you’re not as cool as he is (smiles).
IN THIS PHOTO: Tom Tripp
If you each had to select the one album that means the most to you; which would it be and why?
Let's Get It On by Marvin Gaye
If you're a singer; it's cool to examine how seriously you take your craft. He sounds magnificent on the entire damn album. It was my quit-or-be-better-album.
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Write good lyrics: it’s really important to giving a song depth and giving people a reason to return to it. The speed of culture - and the amount of new stuff coming out all the time now - means you’ve got to give people something more to return to (and dig a little deeper).
There will always be something fresher, newer…but you need quality and longevity to stand out.
What tour dates do you have approaching? Where can we see you play?
We’ll be playing an album launch party in London, in March. We’re going all in: full-band; brass, a choir...the works!
Christmas is not too far away. Do you both have plans already - or will you be busy working?
James hates Christmas and saves up all year to fly away and escape it, and as much of January, as possible. This year brought three nephews into Ade’s life - so its bound to be a big one. It’s always about family for him. Oh...and an alternative bird. He’s gunning for ostrich this year.
Last year he had turkey and goose - big family problems…