TODAY is an important one for Equals…
as they launch their album, 1997, into the ether. It is a record packed with relevant and modern themes; thought-provoking cuts and plenty of quality. I have been talking with Ade and James (who fields most of the questions) about the album and its inspirations.
I learn how Equals came to be and what the guys have coming in terms of gigs; which musicians and albums compel them; if there are any more plans locked in for the remainder of the year – the guys let me into their world and reveal what makes Equals tick.
Hi, guys. How are you? How has your week been?
James: Great. We did a great show at Sofar Sounds yesterday; getting ready to release our next single, Triumph, on Friday and the album the week after.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourselves, please?
We’re Ade and James. Ade sings; James takes care of the music. We make Soul music and live in Dalston, London.
Letter to Leave (What Can I Say?) is your latest track – one I have reviewed. I believe there is a Brexit-related link. Was there a moment in the process, or a report from the news, that compelled the song to come together?
The first verse was written immediately after getting news that Britain had voted Brexit. Those first lines, “Hey, what you done/now everything we know has been and gone/We can’t go back we’re where we’re from”, were written that morning 24th June in a state of shock and anger at what felt like a racist and xenophobic vote – pure and simple.
Not to deny that racism played a role but, after reading reports of who voted Leave; it was pretty clear how high the Leave vote was in ex-industrial communities – whose livelihoods were decimated by Thatcher and ignored ever since – and how similar their financial situation is to us younger people living in cities, working crap jobs and paying sky-high rent (who voted Remain). So, the song is about that initial feeling of rage but, then later, the empathy and understanding.
It is taken from the album, 1997. I know there are a lot of themes included. What are the main ideas that inspired the songs?
1997 is about how it feels to have lived through the cultural, political and psychological cul-de-sac of the last twenty years – waiting for 1997 to deliver the progress it promised.
The album, as a whole, is inspired by action against the conveyor belt of mediocrity that’s experienced walking through identikit high-streets (Psalm for the Shadows); watching endless T.V. remakes (Hi-Def Retro); listening to cover versions of cover versions and bland meaningless music (Fizzy Pop)...
The juxtaposition of mind-numbing boredom but never being bored because you’re anxiously, urgently repeating meaningless patterns of behaviour and trying to be more productive (Modalert) and only having exhaustion, self-doubt and depression to show for it – which you’re convinced is, somehow, your fault (No Right)...
Time speeding up, remaking the old but being obsessed with youth (Husk) and the primacy of nostalgia as a coping mechanism (Weary Eyes) - to help us feel grounded in some kind of shared or common experience.
Do you feel, as a nation, we repeat ourselves – remaking T.V. shows and covering songs? Are we getting caught in a bit of a rut?!
It certainly feels like we’ve been stuck in a rut for a while.
Obviously, there’s been a lot of technical development in the last two decades but, in terms of cultural and social progress; it feels more limited. Look at a polling card - and the options to vote for are three bank managers with different coloured ties; turn on Netflix and choose to watch a remake of Lost in Space from the '60s, She’s Got To Have It from the ‘80s or House of Cards from the early-'90s; turn on the radio and Rockstars are covering Nina Simone (Muse) and Popstars are covering Bob Dylan (Adele); go to the cinema and it’s still James Bond, Star Trek; Batman and Harry Potter. This isn’t necessarily a ‘bad thing’ - we covered No Ordinary Love by Sade - but it’s symptomatic of a wider acquiescence that, like it or not, ‘this is the way things are’.
All that said; in the last couple of years, things have started to open up – the status quo is on its last legs and under fire from both sides – left and right. There are some Hip-Hop albums that you can imagine people still listening to in twenty, thirty years’ time; so, maybe, just maybe, we’re coming out of the rut…
Can you take me back to 1997? Can you remember where you both were when the government changed and we were provided with this idea of hope? How does it feel looking back and seeing where we are now?
I was living at home, just outside of Wolverhampton in the shitty Midlands. I didn’t really know the ins and outs of what happened; I was too young to vote but there was just something in the air; that anticipation of better things. But, then, there’s a reason why Thatcher called Blair her greatest achievement: because the wolf was still in power but in sheep’s clothing. By total coincidence, a friend of a friend, who I’ve never met, Richard Power Sayeed has just published a book called 1997: The Future That Never Happened. It’s funny; because I’d never met him but we were obviously writing about similar ideas simultaneously; probably inspired by similar life experiences and writers like Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds.
Our album is really an expression of how it feels to have lived through the times Richard analyses in the book. Reading it really resonated with me – how the Spice Girls adopted an individualistic form of feminism called ‘Girl Power’ to sell more records; how the royals curbed republican sentiment by appearing more modern and humane after the death of Princess Diana; how the institutional racism review following the sentencing of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers clearly fell short of dealing with the problem and New Labour boosted their progressive credentials by ‘giving back’ Hong Kong, before obviously later teaming up with Bush to invade and occupy Iraq.
So, to answer your question; it feels like a massive let down, like a cruel and spineless insult – and it feels tiring that we’ve still not seen progress on many of these issues.
How did Equals get together? What brought you together?
We had a mutual friend in 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 a backing singer for Amy Winehouse. What was that time like? Did you learn a lot from her?
Ade: My time with Amy was memorable, mostly for the amount of exposure I got to a world previously alien to me. She would always say to me that I belonged here and I could make it too. I'm forever indebted to her for that. Yes, there was madness, but I look back at that time with nothing but pride. The stages we touched and the people we met along the way - it was a special time with a special individual
James. Who are the musicians who compelled you and inspired your route into music?
James: My best friend at school taught me to play Nirvana riffs on an old classical guitar with only four strings on it. ‘The Banger’ we called it. But, I owe a lot to him and Kurt, of course. I grew up listening to guitar-based stuff with interesting arrangements – Pink Floyd, King Crimson; Talk Talk, Low and Tool – and I loved music that sounded both minimal and epic.
Do you have any gigs lined up? Where are you heading?
Just done a string of shows supporting Submotion Orchestra on their U.K. tour; a headline show at Ace Hotel London and a Sofar Sounds this week - so now we’re looking at confirming festivals for the summer…
If you each had to select the one album that means the most to you; which would they be and why?
Ade: I would say Joni Mitchell’s Blue
Because it gave me writers block for ten years: I've never been impacted by songwriting in such a manner. So much so I had to pack it in and start again. It’s a masterpiece that cuts through the damn gristle!
James: That’s a really difficult question. The best guitar tone ever recorded has got to be Siamese Dream by the Smashing Pumpkins. The album I’ve danced to most in my kitchen is Michael Jackson’s Bad; the album I fell in love to is Drums and Guns by Low – the album that inspired me to write better music is To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar.
What do you both hope to achieve in 2018?
Ade: It would be nice to get on the road at some point with this album. I feel it needs to be played to as many people as possible. One can dream…
James: We’ve had some reviews recently where people have used our music to talk about things that are really important to them: their mental-health, their love of music and their hopes for a better world. That’s all I want to achieve with our music – to be a critical witness to what’s going on around us and inspire that kind of writing and debate.
Have you each got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Playing the beach stage at Dimensions Festival in Croatia right before the Internet was a touch.
Ade: I once sang a duet with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ronnie Wood on guitar in front of Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn and Matt Bellamy. It was a fun night.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
James: In the words of the late great Bill Hicks: “Play from your fucki*g heart!”
Ade: Be nice…
IN THIS PHOTO: Benin City
Are there any new artists you recommend we check out?
James: Shout-out to our friend and collaborator Joshua Idehen and his bands, Hugh and Benin City. 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). Also; keep your ears pealed for our bassist Chris Hargreaves’ new live Grime project, PENGSHUi.
Ade: He's problematic, but Xxxtentacion is taking Rap to interesting places.
IN THIS PHOTO: PENGSHUi
Do you both get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
James: Music is how I unwind: it’s the rest of life that’s stressful
Ade: Me too
Finally, and for being good sports; you can each choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
James: Stuart Warwick – Artemis 20
He’s one of the most overlooked artists in the country - such a beautiful voice; not sure he’s even making music anymore but a beautiful song about Hilary Lister, a disabled sailor who became the first female quadriplegic to sail solo around Britain – we need more stories about people like told by talents like Stuart.
Ade: Death Grips – I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States
Sums me up, really.