The five members of UK soul outfit Mamas Gun are in jovial spirits when they greet me at the Duchess following an exciting sound check. They are playing York and several other British dates amidst lengthy tours of the Far East and Germany, off the back of their sophomore album ‘The Life and Soul’ – released in June 2011 to positive reviews. CIRCULATION wanted to find out what had happened to them since October 2009, where we saw them grace the University’s Fresher’s Ball – their energised and thrilling set numbing the pain of a horrible night of bland X Factor rejects and rappers who one would now be hard pressed to remember. Despite being billed below such utterly anonymous company, the band has grown from strength to strength. Once they are reminded of the night themselves – a ‘very random’ and ‘very echo-y’ evening at the York Racecourse – they concede that big events have been ‘a whole load of touring, a new record, getting big in Japan and having a big road trip there’.
Professor Rex, the distinctive bassist with a handlebar moustache and blonde dreads, concedes that the big news was the second record, but allows front man Andy Platts to describe his approach to song writing on an LP which I described, to the band’s surprise, as seemingly more diverse than the first. “There’s song writing in terms of the bare melodies, lyrics and chords, but that evolves through the band being the band, making the record, being on stage.” Or, alternatively, “at the core, the songs are turds. They’re just buffed.” And what of my statement that ‘The Life and Soul’ is the more diverse collection of tracks? “I’d say it was the opposite”, answers Platts. “It’s more consolidated, more of a one sound. I was trying more melodically and lyrically-driven songs, rather than hanging stuff off a cool-sounding backdrop”. Drummer Union Jack suggests that “it’s possibly emotionally more diverse” against a “greater sense of fun” on their debut, ‘Routes to Riches’.
Platts has an illustrious history of song writing collaborations, counting Brian Jackson – influential collaborator with the late Gil Scott-Heron – and Rod Temperton, whose wrote some of the most revered pop songs of all time for Michael Jackson. Platts has a fantastic vocal range and utilises it to the full over the “melodically-driven” canon of material on ‘The Life and Soul’. His time with these figures has yielded mixed results, he says, and he can’t pinpoint where or from whom he’s picked up certain techniques. “It’s like learning instruments; you listen to people do their thing and you incorporate it into your playing and it just bleeds out naturally, organically. Temperton’s a master of tasty chord progressions, and everything having a place like a Swiss timepiece. Everything’s written before lyrics, it’s a proper composition before he thinks about words. And he works with equipment made exclusively in the ‘80s. This is like in 2003. It was crazy.”
Asked about the state of the UK soul scene, Rex doesn’t feel like Mamas Gun is really part of it, yet Jack concedes that they wear their influences on their sleeve. Andy argues that a band that have supported “prominent black artists playing music of black origin, like Raphael Saadiq, Beverly Knight… and to a degree Craig David” will be thought of as belonging to it. All were unanimous that they wouldn’t be labelled garage, with Craig. Jack admits they are not tuned into a scene, to the extent that, when asked about which bands could support them, ‘I don’t think any of us know any! We’ve met a few along the way, who are in the same ballpark.” Sometimes they are paired with very dissimilar bands – “It’s like soy sauce and potatoes. It’s just wrong.” At this point the interview heads in a bizarre culinary direction, with guitarist Spiller Lewis offering the unpalatable-sounding suggestion of “Nutella on Cheddars”.
After this tangent, I enquired on the band’s experience in Japan and Korea, where they have enjoyed great success thanks to album track ‘House on the Hill’ becoming the most played international song of 2009 in Japan. Of the audiences, Rex remarks “they all clap on the two and four. We were speculating on whether there’s a course you can do in pop music appreciation. But we have a good time in Japan. Nice things happen in Japan. They’re wonderful people. We’ve had some Japanese fans catching up with us on this tour and they’ve all bought presents and flown over to catch the gigs. One woman made us all ties… I’ll show you.” The rest of the band compiles a list of standout presents: “Silver brooch.” “Sketches.” “Portrait drawings of each of us.” “And now there’re two girls, J-pop style, doing another tune of ours” (‘Finger On It’) mentions Rex. Rest assured Circulation will feature this in a forthcoming playlist…
Mamas Gun live shows come well recommended, perhaps in part because they are imbued with a level of theatricality that sets them apart from their contemporaries. “It’s something we discuss. The freezes, the banter… It’s a very conscious decision,” Rex explains. Spiller elaborates: “Speaking as the guy who stands in quite a dull way watching you and watching the audience reaction, I think it goes a long way to winning over audiences. They enjoy the interaction.” Jack expands: “It’s an accumulative process. One night you try something and if it works, you’ll do it again. Over time we’ll keep the good bits.” “As a result”, Andy continues, “there’s only ever runs of three-to-four shows which have the same set. It’s always evolving.” Rex again: “We try to make it an inclusive show, to pull an audience into what we’re doing, like we’re playing at a party or something. We want to bring them into our world and have a good time with them for an hour and a half or whatever.”
Last Saturday at the Duchess, Mamas Gun certainly succeeded in achieving that. The crowd chanted along to almost every track and left in high spirits following a high-energy funk-rock masterclass from a band that deserve to be forever billed above pubescent X Factor runners-up. Who knows, they may soon receive some homemade ties from somewhere in Yorkshire?By Benedick Gibson