Happiness is the End Goal For Swedish-Malawian Electronic Duo The Very Best
We interviewed producer Johan Hugo about perseverance, poverty, visa issues, and Vampire Weekend.
Photo courtesy of The Very Best
The Very Best has to make it, or at least, that’s what it feels like. Half of the Swedish-Malawian duo of Johan Hugo and Esau Mwamwaya currently lives in Malawi. There isn’t a lot of work right now, anywhere, but particularly in Malawi. It’s expensive to record in Malawi, it’s expensive to exist as an international, bi-continental duo who are just on the verge of extremely popular. It’s expensive, really, just to exist, so to ensure the band’s survival, the individuals in the band’s survival, and to make the music that gives said individuals survival meaning...the Very Best has to succeed.
The Very Best formed in 2006, when Esau was managing a junk shop in Hackney and Johan was living down the road. Fertile collaborations (along with then member Etienne Tron) ensued and led to the debut, the much-lauded album Warm Heart of Africa in 2009. Due to visa issues, Esau moved back to Malawi in 2008 and Tron left the group in 2010. They put out a second album in 2012 that was generally well received but they encountered the inevitable sophomore…“slump” might be too strong a word, so let’s say “sophomore reduction of expectations.” The hype died down while the quality of the music was retained.
The new record, Makes a King, is the sound of a band invigorated by the challenges they face carving out a career in a landscape now crowded with multinational electro-dabblers, and the challenge of making the music one envisions under socio-economic surrounding circumstances that can only be described as dire. And, of course, in facing both challenges with their creatively necessary sense of joy and discovery intact. Makes a King was recorded live outside Malawi’s capitol in the village of M'dala Chikowa. Much was recorded outdoors, with local children and visiting musicians joining in, and the recording equipment The Very Best brought along occasionally picked up the sound of insects and the water of the lake nearby. The final work combines Malawian traditional music, Chicago/UK house music, and Brit-pop, all repurposed for The Very Best’s individual worldview: positive, buoyant, without illusion.
Johan Hugo was good enough to talk to Noisey at length about the new record, the music scene from Malawi to Bonnaroo, and The Very Best’s hopes and intentions for the future.
Noisey: In terms of the basic economics of this, and I don’t pretend to know a lot about Malawi, but I interviewed the guy from the Zomba Prison Project, and one of the issues he was talking about with Malawi was that it’s not particularly awash in musical instruments. Do you guys bring things from England and leave?
Johan Hugo: That’s a cool record right? We played a few shows at prisons but never Zomba, cause that’s the high security one. But yeah, I liked that record a lot. I’ll start from one end of it. You look at all these places I’ve been influenced from all over the world, you’ve got kuduro in Angola and all the early South African dance music; it was all kids with no money making music on computers. There were enough shitty PCs and bad music programs around that people could make music on. When I first came to Malawi in 2008, I was really excited to see what kind of underground scene was there. It was nothing at all. The amount I’ve seen the music scene grow in the last eight years is crazy. With instruments and stuff, poor people don’t have the luxury of even remotely finding a second hand PC or getting their hands on a guitar or anything like that. It really holds back the progression of the music and the arts in general. It’s a real problem in the way the arts struggle with this. By now, we know all the artists, and have an amazing young engineer out there, plus he’s bought most of his old stuff, so he sits on his own stuff in terms of studio, and most things he’s got on the ground these days. He’s grown a lot; there’s a lot of kids with computers these days, and even phones. It’s come a long way but it’s still a lot different than most of the countries. But now for the new record, we’re bringing a full Malawi band with us. I just got back from there a few days ago, we were rehearsing for a week and a half and then we shot four light tracks, not to an audience but kind of in a controlled outdoor environment. They’re a pretty good, big band in Malawi.
The band is called Mafilika, right?
Yeah, and still we realized halfway through rehearsal, the guitar’s pickup was fucked, and during one very stripped down song we filmed, it’s this really weird song. Even if you had the money, you couldn’t just buy an electric guitar. Even for them who do pretty well, it’s going to be a crazy amount of money. Malawi now, based on the World Bank or whatever, it’s now considered the poorest country in the world. It’s a place that struggles all the way around these days, and obviously the arts are not high on the agenda in those situations.
Yeah, it just makes it very apparent, something considered underground like punk, what’s taken for granted; the level you already have to be at economically to start that.
Yeah, if you’re borderline starving and can just about buy a loaf of bread, you’re not thinking about it. Sure, there’s the culture of singing and music, but it’s not as strong as Senegal where I spent the last couple years. Again, I think because it’s so poor, it exists more in the countryside, people sing together that culture is being kept more alive. But in the cities, people tend to be more focused on survival, and the hustle and it’s so much more pressure, rent, all these things people deal with. People are struggling.
The new record, it’s at times very festive—I’m always trying to think of other words than joyous and joyful (the words constantly used) to describe every goddamn song coming out of Africa—but also seems more ruminative and a little sadder than other albums. I was wondering if it has to do with the fact that Esau has been living in Malawi under those conditions for the past few years?
It has a darker feel in general; it’s definitely a moodier record. At the same time, I don’t think we were in a happier frame writing a record. It’s weird, we were going through more struggles, and it was a hard time to make the last record. It wasn’t hard making the first record, we did it in London but Esau had a hard time in London. The second record was harder to make, and looking back now it wasn’t a super positive experience. I think coming back and making this record, it’s why we went out to the middle of nowhere, rented a house but did something like a dream scenario where we could just escape and do our thing. In that sense, I had a good feeling about making this record at the same time it came out darker than the other ones. I think we’re getting older and even though we’re aware of these things, it creeps up on you and you think more about it. In general as well I think we were a little tired. It’s so easy having Esau singing the most uplifting, epic joyous fucking things where you can hear him smile through the music; it’s more of a challenge to make something moodier. Since no one who doesn’t speak the language understands what he’s saying anyways, it’s more about the feeling That’s why we’ve always been more “we don’t want to talk about poverty and all these things,” it’s like “let’s put Malawi on the map as something positive because it’s a beautiful place.”
Are you guys popular in Malawi?
It’s getting more and more, but Malawi struggles to understand us I think. The “Hear Me” single and video, I thought the song would be, like you listen to the artists big in Malawi, it’s very African, dance-meets traditional. I feel like Esau is the Bjork of Malawi. And all the artists love it, but for a guy in the streets, a lot of The Very Best songs that are singles here, don’t work particularly well there. We’re doing alright out there, but it’s a weird situation as well. no one knew our faces for a long time. Now you can’t walk down a street without someone recognizing me. So it’s definitely coming up. But we’re not really doing much shows, it’s just too expensive. You can’t roll up to any live venue that has a remotely decent PA and anything in place. You want to do a show then you have to rent everything. It’s about 4000 pounds to put out any show out there, so if you’re not selling 1000 tickets, you’re losing money. So we kind of avoid the headache of it a little bit.
I know you have the full band with this album so it seemed like you were leaving your comfort zone a little bit with the electronica stuff integrated in.
Yeah, I mean the full-band isn’t playing so much on the record. This is something that’s naturally progressed outside of The Very Best, but it’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years outside of The Very Best. I think we both found a good place to work on the fly like that. Now we know each other well enough where it just works. And being so much more used to working with instruments, and both being sick of electronic music to some extent. It seemed natural to take it to the most organic and natural music. We needed to become a band; we can’t keep playing shows with me deejaying a back track with Esau doing backing vocals and maybe a guitar or something. That’s what’s been interesting on this trip now; it’s basically reinterpreting the whole thing where a band can play with absolute minimum of things sitting in the click in the backing track. Our tolerance for imperfection is low so it’s working everyone hard so we can make the live show represent what the record sounds like. It’s been super cool; it’s gone better than expected with these first rehearsals.
So Esau’s visa issues are all resolved? Are you guys coming to America?
Yes, finally. He only had a problem in the UK. The reason we missed the tour in America a bunch of years ago, was because we were applying for a UK visa, and they took his passport for a month. But he never had problems in America. He came back last year, last summer we did one festival and it was a trial run to see if we could do it with a band. So since then basically everything is sorted finally. The only American things announced so far is Bonnaroo, but yeah there’s a bunch of stuff, festivals and headline stuff.
Do you think that your fan base in the States and the UK is jam band-based, or is it because of Vampire Weekend?
I think it’s a wild combination of people. I think having M.I.A and Vampire Weekend on the first record helped people find out about us, which gave us an indie-ish crowd. And then the second album was more electronic, but not electronic enough for the electronic crowd to get us! But when we started out, the alternative worldly scene with Diplo, MIA, us, Santigold, there wasn’t a whole lot of people around so we all fed off each other to an extent. But now music has come so far, it’s crazy the different amounts of music people are listening to, so it’s very diverse. But it’s always been the case, from the first touring we’d have 60 year old people paying for tickets and coming, and then we’d have 15 year old kids into indie or hip-hop. I’m grateful we had the chance to make this record. It’s not cheap to make a Very Best record, it takes a lot of traveling and craziness to make a record, so we’re just excited that we managed to do it, and we hopefully managed to pull the live show together which is insanely expensive.
That actually makes me think of the end result, you want to have this live show for a reason and you’re not having the live show just to do it…there must be some emotional payoff you’re aiming to achieve.
Yeah, that’s like a sense of accomplishment. It feels like the natural next step to create a proper live show. We’ve always had a good feedback on our shows that people enjoy, they get rowdy and crazy, but I don’t think we’ve showcased all the things that are my favorite things about the band, like Esau's vocals and the melodies. We’re rehearsing acapella songs, like very stripped slow songs that we’ve never done because we’ve only done the fast songs. Which then in turn makes us have to be tighter, and Esau's vocals have to be tighter live. These were all the challenges that lay ahead, and that’s what excites me the most to see this come alive, and to take on the road that it’ll do well. Of course to see if people like the record, but you never know about these things.
For some music, happiness is the end goal. What’s your end goal? Happiness? Is it he artistic experience, a spiritual thing, or do you just want to be the best band you can be?
I know what you’re saying. For us, it’s like our favorite part; it comes to some of the variables. This is a very expensive band to tour and make records because it’s all these visas and flights, so we’re always up against it. We’re on our third record, our last record with our label, but we love it so much. I think we kind of, not felt like it was a desperate attempt, but we both knew if we don’t do something cool this time, we’d never have another chance to do it, and it’d come down to “yeah we can afford to go to Malawi, and we’ll just put out a free EP here and there.” There’s a lot on the line, you know, Esau makes his living off this, and he can’t just go out and do something on his own tomorrow, there’s no jobs in Malawi. For me it means, like essentially we tried to find life security for Esau, and that’s what works itself into the title. “Make the King,” overcome the struggle, and it’s important lyrics to both of us, and surviving the music industry. Not just waiting for this thing to happen where you’ll be happy because you succeeded or you had a certain amount of money or built a house. Esau's been trying to build a house for eight years, but you should be happy during that process, and that’s what we do.
'Makes A King' was released on April 6.
Zachary Lipez is on Twitter - @zacharylipez