Moments Of Synergy: Speakers Corner Quartet Interviewed

CLASH meet the South London luminaries ahead of their Southbank Centre show...

Over a decade into their career, Speakers Corner Quartet serve to remind us of the the importance of community. A pillar of South London’s ever-evolving music scene, the outfit have consistently brought together both nascent and established artists, merging rich experimentation, with polemical messaging and disparate musical stylings. Having met as the house band for Brixton Jamm’s ‘Speakers Corner’ open-mic night, the group have maneouvered at their own pace, introducing new members and collaborators along the way.

At its current state, Speakers Corner Quartet is comprised of violinist Raven Bush, Kwake Bass on drums, bass player Peter Bennie and flautist Biscuit. Last year marked a pivotal moment for the group with the release of their roving and inquiring debut album ‘Further Out Than The Edge’, an impactful collection of tracks featuring the likes of Sampha, Kae Tempest and Léa Sen. Across lengthy studio sessions and sparks of improvisation, Speakers Corner Quartet are in tune with the present moment. Called upon by Chaka Khan to join Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival, the outfit – now recipients of an Ivor Novello award – gear up towards a one-of-a-kind performance alongside Guildhall Session Orchestra, unveiling new material from their upcoming project. 

To commemorate their Southbank Centre collaboration, CLASH caught up with Raven Bush, Kwake Bass, Peter and Biscuit to discuss their communal foundations, process and aspirations for the future.

Coming together at Brixton Jamm’s regular open-mic night ‘Speakers Corner’, what role has improvisation played in your individual journeys? What skills did these kind of events strengthen or challenge?

Kwake Bass: I suppose the necessity of being thrown in and just doing it really made me as a drummer. Also, in terms of being able to listen in many different capacities, to get into a zone where musically you’re comfortable; to express yourself but then also able to listen to the musicians and the rapper and the room to work out, what’s the next place to go? Building that understanding, being fluid and malleable is key.

Peter: It’s really about how it fuses the relationships with the people that you love as well, isn’t it? 

KB: People got to know each other through the music. That became a bit of a blank template to be able to work out what we’re doing musically. I saw Raven play before we knew each other as such, and I knew instantly me and this brother are connected differently. I knew that there was a similarity in the approach to what we was doing. 

P: It’s far quicker to have an open improv with someone and find out if you align or not than having a conversation. 

KB: I think it just took quite a while for us to understand what we were doing, and we weren’t in any rush at that period. We spent about ten years in the studio just playing, watching South Park and eating curry.

Having worked with other musicians on their respective projects across the last decade, how do you differentiate between that process and how you approach your own material?

KB: It’s what you take from all of these gigs and experiences. Me and Raven have definitely been off on random tangents, doing loads of different stuff and it all comes back to base in some shape or form, the knowledge that you acquire. We’re always chipping away and simultaneously learning on ourselves, learning as a band and then also trying to apply that to whatever else we’re doing. 

What does the live experience offer you as a collective that other forms don’t? How important is it for each member to be present, in the same room?

Raven Bush: Because we’ve had such a long connection with each other, we’ve been able to be very malleable, and work in whatever way suits the situation. I think again, it’s taking what we’ve learned from improvisation, and applying that to all aspects of our life, which includes how we make a record remotely when four of us might be in different parts of the country. The pinnacle of that was when we actually managed to do an improvised performance completely remotely. We all have such strong individual senses, characters and areas of expertise, we can be quite modular and we all have different things that we bring to the table. We can do that whether we’re in the same room or not. It’s always a very can do attitude across the whole band.

KB: In lockdown, me and Pete basically built a complete, remote jam and we were connecting all the musicians remotely. It kind of relies on online gaming with a MIDI network linked up. It was literally like: I am in Pete’s studio playing his synthesizers, and he’s playing my drum machines, and we’re just having the time of our lives. A lot of our fun is just trying out crazy ideas. 

What does that relationship between music and technology look like for Speakers Corner Quartet? What was the entry point?

KB: The conduit for that was Sampha and his incredible record, ‘Lahai’. I love MIDI, my in-joke nickname is The Mizard. Sampha was like, I’ve got these Polyends and we need some Mizardry on these these triggers. So we got together, sat down and I had these Polyend percs in my possession for a while. I went ham on the testing and that was it. The machines will play for us, but we’ve got to build the army. Once we’ve got this in our capacity, it means so many things. We’re trying to develop ways to play other types of instruments, forget the whole approach of what an instrument is and just make your own. It’s the Hadron Collider, for musicians!

What qualities do you look for in a collaborator, and how do you navigate between different creative minds?

KB: Jerelle, our previous bass player, says that behind the notes is the musician, and behind the musician is life experience. Somehow, the life experience will draw us together. 

RB: We’ve been focusing on being there for each other and understanding each other as people. Music is definitely a secondary thing. That’s why we spent ten years hanging out, because we were practising but without our instruments.

How have you evolved between your EP ‘Further Back Than The Beginning’ and your debut album ‘Further Out Than The Edge’? Which different versions and variations are we hearing?

KB: It’s as sincere and evolutionary as possible. It’s all of the growth of the people playing. All music released by an artist, in my opinion, is nothing more than a diary entry. It’s about how open you want to be with who you are and what you’re saying. If it correlates with whoever’s listening to it, maybe they feel the same, or can elaborate on that feeling? The music is the conduit to do that. The growth between then to now, on some level is a little bit hard to understand because we’re not the most forefront-y type band. We’re much happier to just be in the studio.

Photo Credit: Marc Sethi

Which themes or ideas were you looking to explore on your debut album?

KB: For me, the sense of community and cohesion between people from different creative endeavours, that hopefully came across as sincerely as possible. It was more the demonstration to make it not contrived or name-droppy, this is an actual document of an actual group of friends. 

You’ve just been nominated Best Contemporary Song at The Ivor Novello Award for ‘Geronimo Blues’. What does it mean for you, to have been acknowledged by the academy?

B: We gotta go there in a minute.

KB: We’re indoor people!

P: That was very well put!

KB: I’m being as empathetic and diplomatic as possible but I will say this, ‘Geronimo Blues’… it’s not really for the environment of a hotel with big lavish meals and silly money on tables. For us, it’s a bit mad. We’re like: have you heard the lyrics?! Kae is talking some heavy stuff. That tune was made donkeys ago. Sad to say, there are a lot of atrocities today and those lyrics will still apply again and again. 

I do remember feeling very humbled, gassed and telling my neighbour. It was a realisation of; it does feel good and you should embrace it. It is very flattering, and we should enjoy ourselves but we also have to be very aware of what we’re enjoying. Someone’s gotta be skint for this to exist. For them to be up, someone has to be down, it’s the notion of economy.  Within that, where do we sit? Where’s our moral compass? How do we then, as Wu-Tang would say, keep it real?

From your own experience, what is the most effective way to build a sense of community?

B: Sincerity.

P: Sincerity, but also patience and time. I’m afraid it’s not something that you can get in the form of an Instagram story. There’s a reason that it’s taken us this long to get to the point where we can put out an album like we’ve just done.

RB: Creating a sense of love, respect and connection. That is paramount. The music is not the important thing. It’s something that comes out of the family side of it. If we are trying to describe the music that we make, it’s basically music to live and die to.

Are there any specific spaces or moments that demonstrate how you’ve been able to do that within South London’s music scene?

KB: I would say it’s The Room Studios, which is the studio me and my previous business partner Miles Wu-lu built many moons ago with the sole intention of having somewhere to be as the the wave of South London fast approached. We gathered our boogie boards, rid the crest of the wave and have done ever since. From that, I believe a lot of that energy has been formed to create such things as the songs, the relationships or other environments to be in.

How does it feel to be a part of Chaka Khan’s Meltdown at Southbank Centre? What kind of performance are you fashioning?

KB: The sense of growth and development is going to be heightened by the fact that we’ve got an orchestra playing with us. The material and the direction of this next record is definitely something that’s a passion project that’s been on our minds for many moons. The elation of getting to a certain point and being blessed with the opportunity of doing an orchestral thing a bit earlier in our in our mental plan,  there’s the excitement of that as well. 

I didn’t actually know that the list gets presented to Chaka Khan, and then they choose one. In whatever capacity just to know that she’d consider or listen to something we’ve worked on, that’s amazing! I’m a huge fan so that’s very humbling. 

What made you want to take this direction on your upcoming project?

RB: There has always been a big classical influence on the band. For a start, we’re called a quartet. There’s violin, flute, double bass, which are all classical instruments. It feels like we’re getting to explore something which has been at the core of our sound for a long time, but we’re getting to express it in a way that does justice to that part of us, which is a huge honour and a huge privilege. 

Do you have a favourite show that you’ve been to at the Southbank Centre?

KB: I would say Kwesachu at Southbank Foyer, where I met my wife. It was the first time we’d crossed paths via Mica. 

RB: I remember the first time we had a meeting as a band, it was at the Royal Festival Hall.

KB: That used to be our spot! We used to do a lot of busking as well, so we’d sit down there and count the pennies. 

What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead? Which sounds, styles or scenes are currently exciting you?

KB: ICA in November. No spoilers, but we’re creating some sort of robotic MIDI device to further our expression of things that we disagree with. We’re just opening up the doors of what people think of technology, basically. Shoutout Kirby! We have a Kirby and therefore it’s all good. 

For tickets to the Speakers Corner Quartet & Guildhall Session Orchestra show, click here.

Words: Ana Lamond

Photo Credit: Fabrice Bourgelle

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