“Music Is An Act Of Service” Dave Okumu Interviewed

The guitarist and producer on the culture of ambition, making his solo debut and why Grace Jones flows like water...

It’s not that Dave Okumu didn’t want to be a musician, he just didn’t know such things were possible. “I always thought music was the reserve of these aliens or special angels,” he recalls, settling into a sofa upstairs in his Depftord studio. The youngest of eight siblings born to Kenyan parents in Vienna, Austria, Okumu had sustained himself on a diet of ‘80s pop, funk and soul, until one day, his brother returned home with a guitar. “He was like, 'you can make those sounds, I'll show you how to do it.’ That was it. He put the guitar in my hands and I haven’t really looked back ever since.”

Thirty years on and Dave Okumu has made music his life. He has produced, written and played on records with a dizzying array of artists, from Amy Winehouse and Adele, to Grace Jones and Tony Allen. To those who know, he is as much a producer as a mentor – someone who will listen, advise and then put himself in the service of realising their vision. Dave Okumu has become one of those special angels.

“I always gravitated to the people who were into Can and Talking Heads, Prince and Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Public Enemy,” he explains. “I just found that far more liberating and exciting, and I’ll always fly that flag.”

In that sense, to try and place Okumu is to miss the point. From his first student band – slated by an unsympathetic reviewer as “like a car crash in a toy shop” – to his electronic trio The Invisible, Okumu has always sought new creative challenges and contexts. In the last few months alone he has released music with Joan As Police Woman, launched free-form jazz ensemble Obsidian Palms and accompanied a contemporary dance performance by Holly Blakey and Jeremy Deller.

No surprise then that when Okumu finally came to putting his name to a record, it wasn’t going to be all about him. Instead, he took pianist and friend Duval Timothy’s 2017 album 'Sen Am' as his source material and set about crafting an instrumental album that tiptoes between hip-hop, live jazz and studio-based production in a beguiling dialogue with the original recording.

While 'Knopperz' is, ostensibly at least, a solo debut, such milestones don’t concern Okumu. Instead, he is searching for a flow state, a mode of being and creating that is one, and which he recognises in both the musical heroes he has shared a studio with over the years – and his hairdresser. He talks of working with Tony Allen as akin to jumping in the river. After three hours learning to swim in Okumu’s company, I too feel well and truly doused.

Conversation with Okumu runs wide, meandering through experimental psychiatry, architecture, ancestral heritage, social media, studio nourishment, and the simple question we seem to ask all too rarely. Just, why? It’s in that spirit that it felt most fitting to begin.

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After twenty years working on other people’s records, why did you decide to name your “debut solo album” after a German chocolate bar?

So good! [Laughs] I can't believe we actually did that. When you look back, there's always an opportunity to paint a picture about why you did something, but I'll just be honest.

The idea for the record came quite a while ago, but it wasn't until the first lockdown that I actually had the space to do it. And basically, at that time, all we ate were Knoppers. It was the studio snack. The cupboard was just full of Knoppers and we were all eating like 10-a-day, because the nearest supermarket stocked them. So it was like a tribute to our local Nisa which is now called the Food Centre. The family who run that place are just so unbelievably cool. The best part of my day is just going in there and saying hi to those guys. They've got such a great vibe.

Also, when I was trying to find a way in to making this record, one of the cues came via J Dilla. I was thinking about 'Donuts' and about how he’d show you a sample and then flip it. I was thinking this could be a really interesting way for me to show my reverence for the source material, but then have my own journey with it. So that became my framework for this record. It was a combination of the fact that I was fuelling myself with Knoppers, but then thinking about Donuts.

What was it that drew you to Duval and to Sen Am in particular?

I think it's just really deep work. I always have huge respect for things that really exist on their own terms. Culturally, we live in a time that is driven by so much fear, which I think manifests in an homogenised approach to things. Even though it often celebrates those who manage to do it, the culture doesn't always support people who have processes that are unique to them. When something is produced that is like that, it really makes me take notice. That's the feeling I get with with Duval's work. I don't feel like he's trying to be any one other than himself and that to me is really compelling.

In terms of your process for this record, taking someone else’s album and creating something off the back of it feels like quite a unique approach too. There’s a question of authorship and remote collaboration.

Yeah, the whole thing is fascinating to me. I never would have expected a debut solo recording to be presented in this way. But actually what it's afforded me is a sense of relaxed freedom. I feel very accepting of what it is. When I think about it, the term solo record throws up so many issues.

I was going to ask you about it. It can mean so much and perhaps even more if you’ve been in the game for a long time.

Exactly. I think one of the things that can happen for someone like me, when you've been involved in lots of things, is that you feel like it has to represent you completely. And actually, it's been really liberating to release a solo record, as it were, that is really just a very small part of what I perceive as my musical identity.

A lot of your musical career has been in running projects for other people, listening to what they say they want and then trying to realise that. I imagine that’s a role you enjoy?

Absolutely. It's a huge part of who I am.

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It feels like a very generous way to be.

Yeah. What's the word? It's definitely something like vocational. I feel so passionately about that aspect of existence, bringing yourself in service to things. I feel like that's something that is so lost on us culturally, in terms of what is valued, and what ambition is meant to look like. The age of the individual is still rampant. Something very deep inside me really objects to that. I really believe that we're missing out on what things are actually for and what they're about.

For me, music exists as an act of service, really. That's how I think about it and that's how I connect to it. That aspect of being involved in supporting processes I just think is so valuable.

It does feel like as a society we prioritise production over reflection. As if the act of doing something is justification enough.

It was unexpected in one sense, because my desire to make a record had been so strong that I just figured that that justified it. But then when it actually came to making the first Invisible record, I set about the task of writing the songs, and then thought, there's so much music in the world, what am I doing? Who do I think I am? I remember feeling like that when I started performing when I was much younger. What right have I got stand on a stage and demand your attention?

And I know there are some people who feel a sort of righteous drive to grab attention. I don't really feel like that, it's not really what drives me. I don't see my job as to shock you into a state of attentiveness.

Do you have expectations for the record now that it's done?

All I'm interested in is trying to create work of meaning and value. Really that's the be all and end all of the task. Anything else is beyond my control. And if I can find people who are interested in embarking on that endeavour with me, I'm really happy with that. I would have made that record if no one ever heard it. It was such a rich and enjoyable experience.

What I aspire to with what I make, is to be part of the heritage of music. I want to be part of that eternal conversation. I already feel that I'm a part of it because Prince has been speaking to me since I was nine. And when I make stuff, I'm imagining these people in the room with me anyway. I'm not comparing myself to Mark Rothko, but Rothko wanted to be part of the conversation of Rembrandt. That to me is a contribution to humanity. Anything else beyond that is just detail.

You have also literally been in working conversation with some of those people. I’m thinking of the likes of Grace Jones and Tony Allen. Did they carry a certain gravitas?

As different and diverse as they are, they've all had the same quality about them. Being around people like Grace Jones and [bassist] Pino Palladino, they're in this flow state. These people feel like water. In the same way that water exists in phases, it just goes where it needs to go.

I was thinking about Tony [Allen], and I was thinking about my hairdresser Don Abaka, who's an amazing guy. Tony has spent his whole life making music, and he's so close to that source and channelling that source, every cell in his body was alive with that. It's the same thing with my hairdresser Don. That guy is more youthful than most young people I know, because he has followed his calling. He has existed in that state for such a long time. Life just oozes out of him.

That is something that I've taken from those people. There's a depth of understanding and commitment to prioritising that process that I find really inspiring.

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'Knoppers' is out now.

Words: Anton Spice
Photo Credit: Morgan Sinclair

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