In Conversation With Mansion of Snakes

Jim Phelps caught up with Mansion of Snakes as they completed their soundcheck at The Brudenell on 1 November.  

Bonjour and welcome to Detuned.  It’s been a lovely sunny day in Leeds today and if you believe that you’ll believe anything, but luckily, we’re here today with Mansion of Snakes for their album launch party at the Brudenell Social Club.   Mansion of Snakes, thanks for having us. How’re you doing?  

Ben Powling (tenor sax and flute)  Nice to be here.  We’re sleep-deprived but satisfied.  Jack Davis (trumpet and percussion) Italy to Leeds in 12 hours.  Ben  13 hours.  12 would have been fine.   

The album M.O.S. is right there behind you.  It was recorded right here in Leeds?  

Jack  It was recorded in Leeds at a place called Sundown Studios – my mate Shaun Williams runs that place and is the engineer there, so a good space to have.    It was recorded all live down there, all 10 of us. Ben  Jack was producing the album as well as playing trumpet, and yes, we did it all live in one room with new tracks, just vocals and the percussion later. Jack It’s more to the pop side so thought we’d do the vocals separately.  Ben It’s still really important to have that live band sound. Jack  It’s not the same if it’s not done live. You can tell if it’s not done live.

 It certainly has a locked-in feel.  Quite a lot of variety – slow, heavy, interludes….what was the thinking behind it?  

 Jack  The interludes were always something we’d always wanted to stick in; we weren’t sure how, but we didn’t want to just shoehorn it in, so we thought about creating an album that has elements that came and return throughout the album, to create a whole piece, not a concept album but more along those lines than a selection of songs.  Ben  That’s it, it’s making an album that’s one cohesive statement.  Most of my favourite albums, if not all, feel like one real statement and not a ‘best of’ or even worse, a collection of B sides. There are B sides for a reason.    

 Any B sides from this recording?  

Ben  There are some tunes that we left in a very early state.   We abandoned them in the rehearsal process but they might get picked up again.  Jack  Yeah, for the next record.  Ben  Yes, but when we were writing for this album we took our time a lot more than we did with the previous release.  The previous release I think we fell a little bit into the jazz musicians’ pitfall, where you play some riffs, you improvise a bit, then play some riffs again at the end.  Which is cool. This one, we spent a longer time writing it and we’re all a little bit older this time, so it’s a more mature and considered statement than we’ve done before. Jack  For example, the last tune on the record, Komorebi, was actually written pre-bring it to the band as a demo version which I’d got together on pro tools, and we all of us brought our own elements to that so we really had a structure to it, so that was way more thought out, composed, but still with that improvising element, which is what this band essentially is.  So it’s a balance between as Ben says here’s a riff and some solos and something composed.   

There’s that thing in jazz where you hear the melody twice and everyone takes a solo then you hear the melody again.   

Ben  Exactly, yeah.  We used to be a bit guilty of that sometimes.    

So, why did you decide to change?  It sounds like a conscious decision.   

Ben  Partially Vanessa (vocals/percussion) who started bringing some real songs.  When we were writing before we’d write a kind of afro beat kinda jazz tune then you’d bring some lyrics and we’d put a verse two thirds of the way through and then Vanessa started bringing some really great songs and they’re proper songs with song structures, not jazz structures.  

Vanessa  When I originally joined the band – it was never meant to be a vocally-led band – and it’s still not a vocal-led band – the vocals are there to enhance what’s going on.  Over time, I’ve become inspired by working with these amazing guys and yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking – there’s a lot going on politically, a lot of things to say and to write about, so I’ve been very inspired over the past two years.  I’m not always great with words, so talking about things politically – it’s hard for everyone to express themselves in this current climate, so what better way to do it than in song?   

Ben  Lyrically you (Vanessa) can be very concise; the songs you (Vanessa) bring on are lyrically quite compact and quite sinewy.  You’ve already stripped away the fat before you (Vanessa) bring them to us; they’re full of momentum. Jack  Yeah, the lyrics of Fire Melts The Ice get me every time.  Ben And Concrete Money.  That one goes for the jugular.  Jack  In the jazz world, it’s quite easy to overlook a lot of lyrics.  People listen for harmony and melody, but lyrics are such an important part and  because Nessa’s so gifted with that, it’s important that we listen to that. People comment a lot on that.    Ben  Also I think the music we’ve drawn from over the years, even when we didn’t feature lyrics very much, is historically a genre which is protest music.  We have no ownership really over being an afrobeat band which is what we kind of used to consider ourselves. The band was formed out of a real love of that 1970s Nigerian afro music, which is really aggressive music, and so was jazz in the 60s and 70s and so like with elements of bits of post-punk and the bits of kind of New York, New Wave stuff like ESG that we’ve started pulling in recently.  That’s all been protest music in the past and I think it’s important to respect that when we’re writing stuff in that style. Vanessa  Absolutely and that’s where a lot of the inspiration for the lyrics comes from, as Ben said.

Do you think that’s something that’s missing, that protest element, from modern jazz music?   

Jack  I don’t think so.  You take from it what you want.  People write what they want to write. If people are going to write that, then people will listen.  It will continue. It shouldn’t be an active choice to write more like that because then it’s not genuine I don’t think.  

The single Concrete Money is a good representation of there being a song there, not in a jazz form but a pop song format and also a lyric in there .   

Vanessa:  I’m from Sheffield, then went to music college in Leeds, then 3 years ago I moved to London for 2 years, Deptford for 2 months and noticed even in the two months of being in Deptford that gentrification was just all over, so a week would pass and a trendy cafe would pop up.  There was even a trendy sausage bar. They’ve closed it down. It was like £15 for a sausage. It got to me and it got to me in Leeds, being around the Merrion Centre and just new, flashy glitzy buildings everywhere and it really gets me. I don’t want to go too deep politically about it as it’s quite controversial. Too much money being spent.  On concrete and sausages.  

Jack  The instrumental side of it took like a three-minute banger.  Our songs always tend to be quite long which again is a knock-on effect of that 70s afrobeat thing that we really all love to start.   Ben  We had some practice with that last year when we released a single with Come Play With Me, a really good Leeds indie label, but they only cut 7″ vinyl, and I was talking to Tony and he said I really like your music but you’ve got to write something that will fit on a 45 so I wrote Mating Season 2.10 then you (Jack) started getting really into Talking Heads didn’t you? A couple of years back.  Jack  I basically went through a phase of watching Stop Making Sense on repeat.  I went through another phase of watching that every night of the week and said we need to write a song that hits hard like that.  That new wave sound; we all love it. We should write some more short ones.  

How do you write music for 10 people?    

Vanessa  We use varied processes.  Jack  You (Ben) brought some horn lines at the start.  Ben  In the early days, one of us would bring a couple of riffs and we’d kick them around and realise that one of those was a bass line and one was a horn line.  Once you’ve done that if you kick it around for 10 minutes you have a kind of painting by numbers. Jack  Especially with Sam D-T on bass.   Ben  Yeah, that’s it –  if you have good musicians you really trust and you understand each others’ playing, you can bring relatively little material along and everyone can fulfil their role and slot in and it works.  It’s nice to move away from that. That became our bog standard writing technique. Jack  I think we all got slightly bored with that.  We wanted more and I think this album really represents progression for us.  Ben  Yeah, it’s putting more thought and consideration into the process. We don’t write any of the music down, but we might send each other recordings from London to Exeter to Leeds and everyone will listen to the recordings and adds bits and eventually we’ll get in the same room and we know each other so well now that it’s a relatively quick process.  

Vanessa:  Concrete Money – It makes me laugh.  I was given the challenge of trying to arrange all the bits that I had: the horns, the chords, or bass or whatever, to make this arrangement which was vocally friendly for 3 minutes.  I wish we had the little duo that me and my fiance did. Ben We must have that on WhatsApp somewhere.  We could make a compilation; it could be a 12″ single with the second a half phone demo of Concrete Money. Vanessa  For example, just me singing horn lines or whatever, but even in rehearsals, it’s just been me trying to sing.  Ben:  I was weeping with laughter as we all tried to play along.  Jack  It’s hard to get together with half the band in London.  When we get together we’re so used to playing that we focus and do two hours and we have two new tunes or the basis.  

Vanessa  The amazing thing about this band is when we do get into a room together we are very focused as we don’t have much time so it’s very snappy – get it done – and I love that.    Ben  We used to take whole afternoons, write a bit, go to the shop for a four pack, write a bit less, but we’re older and busier now and we can’t afford to do that.      Some of us live in London and some in Exeter. Time is precious. We’re a big band with people all over the country bringing different influences. Jack’s doing 5 weeks touring.  Vanessa  I have a 9 – 5 job now.  

The band has a lot of influences.  Where do they overlap? Who is into the weirdest crazy stuff.   

Jack  You’re (Ben) probably into the weirdest crazy stuff.   Ben  Yeah, potentially. There are 10 of us so yeah it becomes a really rich pool of influences, some of which manifest in the music and some don’t, but the depth is still there, that consideration and awareness of different styles ….in that Charlie’s (drums and percussion) really into death grips and Greg’s really into parliament funkadelic … and I grew up listening to The Stooges and Dead Kennedys.  Maplin’s into Paul Motian. We don’t reference all of it but it’s still there. That was Maplin (keys) slamming the door a minute ago.

Jack  One other project Maplin’s involved with is a free jazz project and since it kicking off there’s a real shift in Maplin’s playing in a whacky but good way and I really dig that progression.  Ben  Never heard anyone describe Maplin’s playing as whacky before.  Jack  You can hear those influences coming through and that’s the sound of moving forward and it gels and we let stuff happen…..   

Ben   That thing you said about influences overlapping, coincidentally, when we were writing Concrete Money, which has to be said draws quite heavily on that New York, New Wave scene of the 70s and 80s, early Talking Heads and ESG and stuff, I was reading a book ‘Love goes to buildings on fire’  about the New York scene and the way the free jazz, early hip hop, early punk and Latin American music styles in New York coexisted and overlapped a lot. I was reading that book when we were writing this tune, then Vanessa brought the lyrics along, which were all about the gentrification of Deptford which reflects into gentrification of Leeds, which is literally the other theme of the book, which was the thing that enabled all these scenes to be so prolific in New York in that era, was that there were all these abandons warehouse and loft spaces, and the culmination was all these scenes being driven out because these spaces were being bought up for offices as New York changed.  So it really tied in with the lyrics of that song we were writing. Vanessa  I didn’t know that.   

We’re all learning.  Every day’s a school day.  A couple more questions – A record was put out last year about the Leeds jazz scene,  To Be Here Now (a compilation album of jazz from Leeds, with tonight’s support band, Jasmine, as well as Skwid Ink, Wandering Monster, Ayana, TipToe and Ancient Infinity Orchestra).  I know you had a big hand in that.  Ben: I co-curated that record.   How is the Leeds jazz scene?  Is it gaining in strength?  

Ben  Yeah, it feels very prolific and fertile at the moment..  Part of this is a level of altruism where people are running nights and collectives not in a way to further their own career but to help build the scene and Leeds feels particularly strong for that.  There’s a really long-running free improv night in Leeds called Fusebox that’s just started again and a group called Tight Lines who put on loads of events and release videos and they’ve just released another compilation.  Maplin (piano) runs a new night called Motion mixing improvised music with dance and visual art. People are doing this all around the City. Vanessa  There’s Leeds Jazz Festival which has been going for 3 years.  Jack   There’s Hyde Park Book Club of course.  This record has been released under their label.  Ben  Book Club has become a real hub.  Jack  I feel very fortunate – I get to do a lot of producing in Leeds, so I’m very fortunate to be involved in that.  A lot of people are graduating college now, there’s just incredible music coming out, so we can see the potential right now.   As Ben said recently, the jazz scene is more than just in London Ben  The press you see referencing the UK jazz scene is great, but they mean the jazz scene in one particular part of London.  It would be nice to see the press for other cities – Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Glasgow and Bristol.   

Hyde Park Book Club and The Brude are important Leeds venues for music.  

Jack  The Brudenell’s great.  We love it here. Ben  Nathan (Brudenell) has just won an independent business award for the Brude.  (Live UK Music Business Awards – Best Venue Teamwork – Club (cap under 800).) Drinks on Nathan!

So, if people want to check out Mansion of Snakes music, they want to pick up a record, what do they do?  

Ben  M.O.S. is available on all of your favourite streaming services and can be ordered from Band Camp and Rough Trade and we’ll be doing drops, definitely including Jumbo here in Leeds.  Jack  We’d like to give master engineer Tim Thomas a shout, and the album cover is designed by Vanessa Cain on the front and back.   

MoS, thanks very much.  Looking forward to the show.  

Thank you.  Cool.    

Photographs by Mark Wheelwright.

Jim Phelps

Jim writes for Leeds Living on contemporary music, bringing gigs alive for readers who couldn't be there. He is in his element when interviewing artists, using his own experiences to ask questions which are by no means run of the mill.

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