"We're All Striving!" Alfa Mist's Ongoing Journey

"We're All Striving!" Alfa Mist's Ongoing Journey

His production roots, embracing jazz, and new album 'Bring Backs'...

Alfa Mist is a figure whose creativity comes from a certain place, and a certain time.

He's resolutely London in his outlook - the transfiguration of influences, the merging of sounds - but he's also tied specifically into developments within what he terms the city's music communities in the past few years.

Melding hip-hop and club tropes with jazz improvisation, his cavalcade of projects have been augmented by a thirst for collaboration that has seen him work with names such as Jordan Rakei and Tom Misch.

New album 'Bring Backs' though, is all about him. Perhaps his most personal project yet, it's an attempt to capture life in all its detail and normality, unpicking the mundane to find the magical.

Out now, it's a textured, nuanced experience, one whose deep-rooted mystery is matched to a directness, a willingness to communicate.

Clash spoke to the Newham creator over Zoom to find out more.

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How do you feel right now? Nervous?

Not really nerves! I’m anxious to get it out, just to release it. Not to get the feedback from it. I want to let go of it, really. I’m anxious to let go!

What is your approach as a creator? Do you sink a lot of your emotional life into a project?

For me, I’m giving up what this project has been. I view each project as a concept, as a group of things I’m dealing with. And I immerse myself in this. With ‘Bring Backs’, if you look at the ideas surrounding it, I look at it both in and out of the project. Even afterwards, in mixing and mastering, I’ll still think about those concepts, almost from a philosophical point of view. Then I finally get to let it go, and let other people have their opinion on what I’ve poured into the music. It’s an exercise in allowing the questions you ask yourself to go towards other people. It’s a good feeling.

So, what concepts framed ‘Bring Backs’? And when do those themes become apparent?

It was a vague way of getting to this. For my last two projects – since 2017, basically – I sat down with my brothers, and had a conversation about relationships, and whether family members could be friends. That was the main concept of that. I sat down with my sister on the next project ‘Structuralism’ to discuss mental health, and how since you can never truly know how people are feeling you need to always be respectful to people. Basically, empathy.

I knew I wanted to talk about myself in some degree – I’d spoken about everyone around me, so I needed to zone in on the next project. It was quite vague, then – I didn’t really know what I wanted to say… because, to me, my life is quite boring! It’s quite mundane. It’s not interesting! Because it’s just me. You tell people stories about yourself and they’ll find it interesting, but because you’re the one who lives your life it’s all just normal to you. But I still thought: you know what? There’s stuff to explore here. Even mundane things should be spoken about. Not everything has to be rags to riches, glitz and glamour. Not everything should be extremes, basically.

Sometimes you wake up and have a bad day, but you get over it the next day. So, let’s talk about that! I decided to zone in on that.

‘Bring Backs’ is named after the card game, actually.

I haven’t played it!

It’s mostly played in the UK, I think. I didn’t really leave London when I was younger, and we all used to call it London Black Jack. You played it whether you were in East, West, South, or North. The rules differed, but it was the same game. You had to get rid of all your cards – the first person to do so wins the game! You can do the rule ‘bring backs’ which means that people can bring you back into the game. So, if you get rid of your cards, you haven’t actually won – you need to wait and see if the person next to you has an ‘attack card’ and can bring you back into the game. I just applied that to life.

Coming from where I come from, you can get things pretty easily but keeping things is the hard thing. There’s this whole fast life, fast things that people chase… but it’s hard to maintain that unless you’ve got a good foundation. I could be doing well in my life, and my family will see me doing a gig in Germany or whatever and they’ll be like: you’ve made it – transfer me that million pound to my account! And I’ll be like: I haven’t won in the way you think I’ve won. It’s this constant state of questioning your achievements, whether you’ve passed that threshold. It’s not a unique position, but I do think it’s an interesting one.

How do you define success then? Is it simply having that space to create art?

The freedom to do it is the success for me. That’s definitely what it is. And I had to grab that! I had to look like a bum for years because I chose not to work so I could focus on what I was doing, and then I had to close my ears to what people were saying around me about my decisions. But then, things pay off. And now I get to chill out, and create stuff in the way I want to create. When you mix a lot of work in as well… you’ve got to get lucky as well.

But it’s all about freedom. Even people who chase money for money’s sake, if you talk to them they want financial freedom. The feeling of being able to do what you want. We’re all striving so we don’t have this thumb on top of us, someone telling us everyday what to do.

You’ve worked hard to master that craft, but alongside that music in London has opened up in a spectacular way in the past five years.

I didn’t grow up around the music circuit in London… so I don’t know how it was before. I came from a beatmaking background, so I used to make beats. And when you’re making beats as a producer, you’re kind of an introvert – you’re honing your own thing. By the time I got a band together it was just tunnel vision. I didn’t understand how much things had changed. A lot of that, I guess, is to do with the internet and the amount of music that is available now. It’s not a funnel of: this is what you need to be listening to. Things ain’t controlled by radio as much any more. People can go and discover! People used to go to record stores to dig for samples, and now you go on YouTube. It’s been an interesting journey. 

For me, I first heard jazz in the context of hip-hop. That will always be my underlying feel. I respect the tradition. I respect people that play full-on jazz. But you’ve got to be true to who you are, and that’s what I take from jazz. Even people who come from the tradition, the ones that stand above the others are the ones that truly sound like themselves.

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It’s defining success, isn’t it? Some people want to master that tradition, others want their own voice.

It’s all about getting as close to the way you sound as you possibly can. That’s what success is for me. I want to sound like myself. There’s this purity you can hear with certain people, where it’s like: I can hear you sound like you, and I hear it wherever I go, and there’s no mistake in that. And that’s what I think the goal is. It’s the cheesiest thing, but it’s to be the best version of yourself… that’s what you should strive to be. It’s not possible for us to have grown up in the environment we grew up in, and not to have absorbed different genres.

So then, when we grow up, those different genres are just in us! Unless you want to focus on jazz and nothing else matters… but when you were seven years old jazz wasn’t what was playing in your mum’s car!

If we look at your own methods, ‘Teki’ feels enormously distinct.

For all of the music on this album, I make little beat versions first. I make these versions where I get these versions together, and I make versions of it for myself, and then I get better people in to play them. So, with ‘Teki’ I had a version of that. The original name for this song was ‘Enemy’ and ‘Teki’ is the Japanese translation. ‘Teki’ is a song about the battle with the self. I like a lot of nice harmony. I like harmonies that flow nice. But when it comes to soloing, I value chaos over technical correctness. So with ‘Teki’, it’s about that constant battle within the self. I told the guitarist: go a bit crazy in your solo and ignore how it sounds! That’s the concept. And the Japanese name was a nod to anime.

Have you played Japan yet?

I have! I played the Blue Note over there, two years ago. Back to back shows, two shows a night. Intense, but it was wicked! Amazing to be there.

‘Run Outs’ though seems to exist in a different spaces.

That was built from the beat. But ‘Run Outs’ was more about me accepting where I’ve come from. The thing about ‘Run Outs’ is that I used to make beats like that when I was 14, 15. I’m from Newham and grime was really on the come up when I was growing up. I used to make grime beats on Fruity Loops! I’ve come to see beat making, and what I do with the live band, as being one and the same, not as separate entities. ‘Run Outs’ is me trying to bring the two together. Plus, it’s a game from back in the day!

Are you still a committed gamer?

I am yeah. Not so much this year, but during lockdown and before, sure.

Games have such a potent world building element, does that way of working resonate with you creatively?

Yeah that’s how I work! I build songs and projects around colours, and concepts. Then you build it out. I approach rap in the same way. I’ll rap if the songs needs it – it’s not like I’m a rapper who needs to get his bars out in the universe! It’s about the requirements of the piece of music.

You’re a renowned collaborator, and this time round you’ve got Kaya Thomas-Dyke and Lex Amor. What made them the best people to bring in?

Kaya came in as she’s done the artwork all my full length projects since 2015, and she’s played bass with me for three projects now. Just an amazing artist and vocalist. You’ll hear more from here. I wrote this on bass – I didn’t want keys on it – and I wanted it to be folky. I actually listen to that music – I know I don’t seem like that type of person, but I do actually like that sort of stuff. So I needed Kaya in there.

And Leks is incredible – Lex is unique, she’s mastered the sound of Lex.

Bringing the project together at the end must be a creative act in itself – nine tracks, but a huge amount of ideas. How did that contouring roll out?

When I went in to record it, I had these nine songs. I whittled it down to nine from maybe 60 a long time ago – when they were still in beat form. When we had the nine, we went in for a week and recorded straight to tape. Then we did a few other sessions with string players, and the features were done remotely. The process wasn’t too long, and I make sure I have a good idea of what I’m doing before I go into the studio. That comes from the days of not having money to pay for a studio – you needed to know what you were doing!

The album is a real success, but did you find – in the spirit of the game Bring Backs – that once you’d finished it, another project called you back into the game?

Ha! Yeah. I’ve done quite a bit since. That’s just how it goes! I just follow what I want to do. In the past couple of years I’ve had these ideas, and that’s led to some music. I’ve been lucky – I haven’t had a lull where I didn’t feel like doing much. There’s always been something to do. Probably because I’m interested in a bunch of different things! I’ve been keeping myself busy.

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'Bring Backs' is out now.

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