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Sweet Harmony: Tootal Blog Talks to Music For Robots

Jan Kincaid, the former drummer, songwriter, producer, and founder of the Brand New Heavies met Dawn Joseph, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, when she started singing for the Heavies in 2013. The pair instantly clicked, and within their first week of working together, they were writing songs. Now they’ve formed their own band, Music For Robots (or MF Robots, for short) – their name, a subtle dig at how generic today’s music climate has become.

Tootal Blog talked to Jan Kincaid about their new soul vision.

By way of introduction what does it say on the Music For Robots business card?

It would have “ironic” in brackets, that’d be the first thing. And then it would just be “music to make you feel good”. Obviously we live in strange times, and there’s a lot of music that reflects that but there’s a lot of things to be happy about still. And we’re very enthused by music, particularly the celebratory side of it. Whenever we play live, it’s a very dynamic and exciting show; that’s what we like from music, which seems to be what we do naturally, so we try and project that. Being introspective is okay but it’s also quite a selfish viewpoint. Sometimes you need to engage with everyone else, rather than just “woe is me” all the time.

How did Music For Robots come about?

Really, for the want of something new and exciting to do. I started Brand New Heavies back in the day with Andrew and Simon, and Dawn came on board in 2011. Straightaway we hit it off and started writing a together, just me and her. I was kind of the main writer in the band and used to working on my own but with Dawn I found a songwriting ally. She has an almost telepathic ability; she just knows the same stuff, the same points of reference, and the things I was into. I didn’t have to describe anything; she already knew what we were trying to do. And she’s incredibly open-minded; she doesn’t have a lot of musical boundaries. I know from experience when you get into writing sessions people can be really precious, especially if you’re in a big group of people. I found that quite frustrating sometimes, because everyone wanted to have an input, and sometimes if you know what you’re doing it’s nice to just run with it. And with Dawn, I’ve never had that problem, so before we knew it we pretty much wrote the last Heavies record together (‘Sweet Freaks’, 2014). There’s advantages to being in a band for a long time, in that you establish a sound and you have a way of working, or a framework, but you can only bend and move that a certain amount before people start getting uneasy.

So this is a response to your personal situation, and to something bigger?

MF Robots Dawn Joseph and Jan Kincaid.

Definitely, it’s like a joyous release. I just wanted a totally new thing, and not having to think about expectations. And that celebratory side of the album also comes from the release of a lot of frustration, certainly in my part. It’s like being in a marriage for a long time, that’s plodding along and you’re not really expressing yourself in the way you want to. So, I had my massive mid-life crisis, I broke out, bought myself a sports car, and all is good! [Laughs]. I’m on that highway, going into the sunset, Tootal scarf blowing in the wind.

Are there individual messages and themes that your songs explore?

There are a lot of themes in there, for example a few of the tracks go into not being afraid. For me, I’ve been in a situation for a long time, twenty-five plus years, so there’s a part of you that’s always saying, “Do you know what you’re doing? Be careful” but a lot of the songs reflect that feeling, of taking that next step. Having enough self-belief and faith in the music, faith in what we were doing, to think actually, no, I’m going to do this. But I’m so much happier, and I’ve never regretted it for a minute. ‘Scary Monsters’ is about that. There’s actually no scary monsters there at all, only the ones you have in yourself, that little voice that’s always telling you to stop. Unless you take that step you’re never going to go anywhere, are you?

Is Brand New Heavies a closed book now?

MF Robots take to the stage.

For me, definitely. It’s no longer a reflection of where my head is at in any way, shape or form. It’s become a bit of a heritage thing really, and it went as far as I could see it going. When you’re playing the same songs for twenty plus years, without really adding anything new it just gets a bit boring. I’m more interested in what we’re doing tomorrow than what we did ten years ago.

The new album has a very full and rich sound; can it be recreated live?

We’re taking the best elements, the effervescence and the joyous, celebratory, party side of it and we’re taking that out live. It’s quite raucous, and Dawn’s an amazing performer; she really does know how to engage with a crowd. The thing is, we’re quite a new band, so some of the gigs we’ve done, particularly the bigger festivals, there’s a large part of the audience that have never heard us; we’re very aware of that, but halfway through the set, they’re all over it. They have a really good time, and that’s the best we could ever wish for. It’s not about having to recreate the record, note for note, because it’s quite a big sound but we’re still going out with a horn section, guitar, bass, drums, there’s eight of us on stage, so it’s not a small band but for what we’re doing it’s right, and it sounds great.

Fourteen unfamiliar songs is asking a lot of your audience. If you had to throw in a cover version…?

We actually do two quite different cover versions. We do ‘Finder’s Keepers’ by Chairman of the Board, and we do ‘Keep That Same Old Feeling’ by The Crusaders. ‘Finder’s Keepers’ is our encore, it’s a bit raucous, it really gets people going, it’s the kind of song that just keeps going up and up. We’re thinking of adding a Dolly Parton song but we’re approaching it from an entirely different direction; it’s going to be interesting.

‘Finder’s Keepers’ is forty-five years old. Why is it that Soul and Funk particularly still sound so fresh and vibrant?

It has all of those things we’re striving for, it’s celebratory, it’s joyous, it’s that gritty, real feeling, it’s passionate, it projects outward… all of those things, and Soul music is a true expression of spirit. In a musical climate where everything is generic, and boring, and very samey… most of the records you hear seem to be produced by the same producers, and even if they’re not they sound pretty similar. When you have twenty writers writing one record, which seems to be the norm just now, to me that’s just insane. If I’m trying to write something that’s honest and sincere, how can you tell a story that’s written by twenty people? It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t sound honest. It sounds like a business transaction. It’s more like a manufacturing process, rather than a creative process. And that’s where the name Music For Robots comes from, because we’re kind of cocking a snook at that whole vibe. I think that’s why reissues and re-releases are such a booming business for record companies, because it’s music was made with a purity of heart, and I think that’s lacking in a lot of music right now. I think that people want to hear that kind of honesty and that straight forwardness again.

Did music play a big part in the home when you were growing up?

MF Robots Dawn Joseph and Jan Kincaid.

Massively, yeah. It was in the home, it was on TV, so many theme tunes, film soundtracks, adverts, all kind going around, as well as Pop music, so I picked up on a lot of stuff. When I was about nine, maybe ten, I got really into Rock ‘n’ Roll, and early R&B. I think primarily it was probably because of Grease, if I’m completely honest. Then I heard ‘Blueberry Hill’, and stuff like that, and I got more into New Orleans R&B, artists like Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, that kind of vibe. And when I went to high school I really got into Soul music, then Jazz, Latin music, Hip-Hop and everything else in-between. Now my tastes are really eclectic, as they are when you get older. I was a massive purist when I was younger but now there’s so many things I’m hearing that I love.

Let’s go back to the first to the first record you bought…

It was probably a cheap Top of the Pops album, if I’m honest. No idea which one it was, or what year it was – a Seventies one. And it might have been bought for me. I bought a few records when I was ten, eleven, something like that, a few singles probably. And then when I went to high school, I really started buying singles properly, and I haven’t stopped since. Buying records has always been a passion for me.

When you’re making an album do you think of it in terms of “track one, side one”, etc.?

Because we weren’t rushing and we started this project before it even became an album, we kind of did it track by track and then suddenly we had six tracks, then twelve, and it was like, “ooh, this has become something special now”. And when we started to apply the polish and to hone it, we were sequencing it from a vinyl point of view, and actually we are doing double vinyl, so I did it as Side A, Side B, Side C, Side D. That’s how the album runs, that was very specifically thought out.

We wanted to make it a really attractive package because I collect vinyl, so that’s what I look for as well. If you’re going to buy the vinyl, you want to have that full-on aesthetic joy whenever you pick it. And something that I can always go back to and think, “I love this cover” because that’s one thing that frustrates the shit out of me with Spotify, even though I totally get the ease of use, I want to find out who some of the players are sometimes, where it was recorded… all of that kind of thing.

What about the first time you bought your own clothes?

MF Robots Jan Kincaid and Dawn Joseph.

From a very young age I was always the kid that was like, “No, I don’t want those, I want those” but I didn’t always have that choice; my mum was still getting my jeans from Tesco, and more frustratingly my brother is six years older than me but we were still wearing the same outfits, the same cardigans… there’s loads of 1970s photos where we’re wearing the same clothes.

For me it was a youth culture thing, and the first time I got into something that had a strong identity it was Rock ‘n’ Roll, so I went out and I bought a shoestring tie and some luminous socks – there was a little shop in Ealing that had all that stuff – I started to roll up my jeans, even though I still had Tesco ones. I never had a drape coat or anything like that. Some sides of that fashion I was a bit uneasy with, because I thought it looked a bit silly. I did buy some Brylcreem but I had such fine hair it didn’t work, it kind of half flopped down. I’ve got these photos of my mate and me at eleven years old, looking more Flock of Seagulls than Bill Haley.

When I got into high school everyone was either a Soul Boy, a Mod or into 2-Tone, maybe the odd Skinhead kicking around. I was very firmly a Soul Boy, so I was into Farah’s and the casual thing, even though I couldn’t really afford it. Everyone had burgundy cardigans and waffle shoes. Soul belts, Hawaiian shirts, and the G.I. thing, I went through all that. When I was fifteen it was putting the seam down the front of your trousers, with a Gabicci shirt, something like that. Slazenger jumpers, Lyle & Scott… I never had a Lyle & Scott, Slazenger was the cheaper alternative.

Do music and style still go hand in hand for you now?

Oh, massively. And I really like fashion for its own sake; I’m very much into the thing of where youth culture and fashion meets. There’s an amazing book that’s just come out, ‘Rebel Threads’ by Roger Burton, that book is incredible, because when you see a lot of those histories it is mainly American stuff, so it’s really nice to see all those shots from the Fifties and Sixties and it’s all British style. I really like those little books like ‘The Ivy Look’, and there’s another one called ‘Icons of Men’s Style’, I love all of that stuff.

Being on the warehouse scene, that’s where I started to see people dressing up, and I used to look up to some of those people like the Duffer’s and that kind of crowd, and I started hanging out with those cats and that was a real exciting time. There’s no tribalism in music any more, and that is really sad, I think. People don’t have that band they can look up to and say, right, I want to be like them. That was everywhere – Punks, Rockers, Skins, Teddy Boys, Soul Boys, Mods, all of that, and now you don’t have anything, and that’s quite sad. I definitely benefited from and enjoyed that tribalism, and it reflects on everything I do, whether it is conscious or not.

Previously the name Brand New Heavies would have been enough to sell a few albums or tickets. It must be a challenge to start building a new audience from scratch?

MF Robots debut album ‘Music For Robots’ is released on 4th May 2018.

We’ve done quite well on social media so far, building it up kind of organically. We definitely want to get out to America and do some business there because I think potentially that’s a really big audience for us. I don’t think we fit into traditional radio so much, it’s so targeted at specific audiences, and I think that’s its downfall in a way. For me those little online stations are the ones that we were searching for back in the day, and while they come and go there’s some great podcasts as well. It’s a really exciting time in music, but there’s just so much out there – everyone can do something and promote it now. You get a much bigger range to choose from which means some things never get heard. And you have to be a marketeer to a certain extent, and you have to be a salesman and all of these things as well as being a musician, and if you’re from a younger generation that’s all you know

Going forward, is there a Music For Robots master plan?

Yes, to carry on doing what we’re doing, and try to do it as organically as we can. We want to do a lot more shows, play to a lot more people, and wake them up to what we’re doing, that’s the plan. And, of course, get the album out there because we’re really excited for people to hear it, because we put a lot of work into it. So far people have been really encouraging but you never really know – you just do something to the best of your ability, you never know whether people are going to accept it. People think, oh, yeah, it’s going to be just like the Heavies but actually, once you hear the album, there’s a lot more going on than that, and that’s the thing I think we will gradually get across. It’s a lot fresher than the last couple of Heavies albums, but it wasn’t a conscious thing, it was a case of the gloves are off and we have that freedom.

‘Music For Robots’ by MF Robots is out now on Membran Records, on CD, double vinyl and available to download and stream.

Find them on Twitter @musicforrobots on Facebook @mfrobots and on Instagram @MFRobots