Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani.
Guelph musician and producer Andrew McPherson has spearheaded the fusion band Eccodek for more than a decade. He takes global sounds and tweaks them for the clubs, adding an electronic dimension to wailin’ groovy tracks that bring to mind Bill Laswell, among others. His newest album is called Singing in Tongues. You can grab a free song download for a limited time here. Sound Seekers caught up with McPherson to talk about the new album, which focuses on the work of Jah Youssouf.
Sound Seekers: Explain your new album Singing in Tongues.
Andrew McPherson: It’s a cool story. A local music legend named Lewis Melville had done the original off-the-floor sessions with Jah in Guelph back in 2009, I believe. Nothing was ever done with the recordings and Lewis just kept saying to me, “Listen man, I’ve got these great elements that would totally be great for the Eccodek zone. Do you wanna check ’em out?”
And after being asked that several times over two or three years, I finally said, “yeah, lay that shit on me!” And I’m so glad I did. When I played the rough mixes he presented, I was totally inspired. But my original approach — and this is where it gets good — is that I wanted to do more of a Laswell or Adrian Sherwood kind of thing where I’d dub out the original ideas, but it’s still really the original performances that you hear.
But as soon as I tried to sync beats or anything electronic, the tracks would just wobble and lose all their funk because of a glitch in the technology. So I scrapped that whole approach and decided to pull the songs apart as I heard them and rebuild them, like Jah was fronting Eccodek and we were co-writing this album. I think it really worked.
SS: How many tracks are reimagined Jah Youssouf songs?
AM: Seven tracks are pretty much from the ground up, rebuilds or reimagined. The track “The Big Man” is very true to the original performance. It just wooed me with its beautiful folk-like charm so I never wanted to lose that, but of course I had to totally trip it out by adding Meral, the Balkan singer, and the dubbed-out sax section. The closing track “Permission to Speak” is from a completely different session, one with Toronto-based composer/drummer (to everyone) Morgan Doctor. We’d done a wonderfully inspired collab over one weekend a few years back in my then home studio and that was one of the gems that we improvised that turned into such a transporting and strangely Eccodek-esque piece. I chose to finish the album with it.
SS: Can you talk a bit about your stage setup? I have to remark on the prominent placement of the percussionists …
AM: Percussion is the thing that has always driven the Eccodek bus. And right now, I have the most insane rhythm section working with me: Marc De Vos and Adam Bowman. These guys in conjunction with my right hand groove man, Les Hartai (aka Deliveryboy), are like a gridlock of bricks on those beautiful old European streets. It’s an amazing interlocking rhythmic matrix that is only further spiced with our congas man, Jason Shute. In essence, we have four drummers if you think of a bassist as a percussionist. I’ve always felt we needed all of that to truly convey these records. And by starting to recently put the drummers down in front has been an amazing vibe change for the audience. They love it. Let’s face it: Looking at me behind a wall of synths, laptop etc. is boring as shit, but watching two skilled percussionists duke it out front and centre is pure love.
All of the Eccodek albums start with grooves, even if it’s just lame Logic samples. Then it’s bass and usually Rhodes to get some kind of harmonic framework happening. But in the beginning it is always about trying to find the funk of the track. What little I know about both African and South Asian music traditions is that the study of percussion (whether it is created by a percussion instrument or not) is a bedrock of both musical traditions. One needs only listen to the many and diverse vocal techniques that exist in the South Asian singing traditions, what you would hear in qawwali singing for instance. For sure the role that percussion plays in Eccodek music is a direct evocation of what I’m inspired by in not only African and South Asian music but Island and Balkan music among others.
SS: The title Singing in Tongues seems a little cheeky. Is it a reference to the sacred nature of this music, or a reference to a kind of unconscious stream?
AM: I took a risk with that title because of it’s sadly maligned connection people have with visions of “possessed” people going barmy and spouting weirdness. I kind of wanted to reclaim the expression a bit and give it a more joyful spin. And really when I think about it, most of Eccodek’s album titles have been looking for some kind of way to express that all the musical traditions represented on our albums have an equal voice and are trying to get through to the listener. More Africa in Us, Voices Have Eyes, and Singing in Tongues are all mandates for trying to experience some part of the singer’s essence through their voice. And yeah, I do think this music is sacred for sure so I’m busted on both counts. Trading in the sacred and the cliché simultaneously.
SS: How did “Primitive Heart” come about? It gives me a bit of a Massive Attack vibe meets Deep Forest.
AM: I love my dub, but I also love that hazy psychedelia of people like Massive Attack, Mad Professor, African Headcharge — folks known for their love of not only dub, but of envelope-pushing atmospherics and patience. Being on the same label as MC Yogi, who rapped on the track, and knowing the extremely conscious vibe of his lyricism, I was inspired to find something that burned very slow and deep but not loud or too big. So this track became a function of trying to keep that sweet Malian bluesy-ness in the ngoni part but having totally contemporary programming and dubwise mixology act like a veil over the whole mix. When I added the slide guitar, the whole thing just became a ganja-soaked dub love poem. Bliss.
In some ways, Eccodek has always acted as a bit of a mask for me, because I keep it a faceless musical entity. I don’t mean heartless or without soul, but without any fear of putting two ideas that might not normally sit on the same couch at a party in the studio together and trusting that what will happen will be awesome—even if you didn’t see it coming.