Following the excitement brought about by the release of their debut album, Fires in the Park in 2013, hip-hop trio??Benin City??have been tipped for big things. Josh Idehen and Tom Leaper (vocalist and saxophonist, respectively) were good enough to take the time to speak to us about their origins as a band, their plans for 2014 and even some thoughts on both Noel Gallagher and Elton John.
Many people will have first discovered Benin City in the course of the past twelve months. How long have you been together?
Tom:??Two years in this current formation, really. I joined the band about four years ago as a kind of collective with a lot of different musicians coming in and out and other poets being involved.
So how did that evolve to Benin City as you are today?
Josh:??We started out as a spoken word collective called A Poem In Between People??and we wrote a track called This is London, which did well on the great??MySpace. We got to perform a bit with Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip,??then we decided somewhere in between that we started to start a band so we got in a drummer, a bassist and a saxophonist. We started off by writing a music version of the spoken word track that wed already been performing.
Musa Okwonga (poet, writer, musician) was involved as well at that stage, wasnt he?
J:??Yeah, Musa decided that he wanted to go and do The Kings Will??and focus on his journalism so I took on Benin City as my own project and kept the name. A few people came and left but then Theo (Buckingham drummer) joined us and the first song that we wrote together was Baby. He was like Its nice but it needs rearranging so that it sounds like a song rather than a bunch of parts tied together by a loud African voice. Thats when we got Tom in and he said This bit goes here, this bit goes hereand now we have an ending. We listened to it back and agreed never to do it ever again. Haha, Im joking; we thought it sounded really, really good so we worked towards making more.
That seems like a really cool way for it to progress?
J:??It is because I have no proper musical knowledge whatsoever. It can be a bit of a problem when were working on songs but Tom really understands he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. Hell look at things and say Its too sharp or Its too flat.
T: Basically, I just say that everything is wrong all the time!
J: Yeah, hell point out when a part doesnt fit in with the rest of the alphabetic scale or something whereas I just like it if it sounds nice! I tend to digest a lot of music and thats what informs my influences so having Tom there is great because he adds structure and arrangement.
Is the spoken word influence something that youre still very conscious of when putting your tracks together?
J:??I think it differs from song to song. I suppose the entire album is influenced by my work as a spoken word influence apart from Faithless and So You Say, which are the only two where I actually try to full-on sing. In terms of the writing, I think personally that theres a lot of imagery in there because I am a spoken word artist and I cant really get away with Hold your cup up to the sky and feel everything go higher,??or something.
J:??Those are actually good lyrics; I should write those down.
Do you have to adapt your writing at all to fit with the musical direction of the band?
J:??Of course. I will always be a spoken word artist but you have to adapt. For example, My Love was a piece three years before the music but it was seven minutes long and Tom had written the music, which was three minutes. So there had to be a lot of editing to make it work together.
Its a really interesting thing to try and do I, I think to marry the two because its something that seems natural, but it doesnt always work.
How pleased are you with the success of Fires in the Park?
T:??Were pretty pleased with how its gone down. Reviewers were generally really kind about it. That album is sort of the majority of our output because we didnt do a load of EPs first or anything, we went straight into releasing an album. Its very eclectic but I think its shown everything we can do and people are like I love how its so eclectic now rather than that confusing the hell out of them like maybe it did before.
Whats next in terms of new material?
J:??What were working on at the moment is amazing. Its going to blow every sock off left sock, right sock, puppet sock, every sock. Its like the sock terminator! Were concentrating on doing a proper tour and releasing a second album. Weve started already by making a playlist of track ideas and then we have to sit there, stroking our beards, and deciding what works. Weve probably got about fifteen so far.
T:??More than that.
J:??Everything so far has been very contemplative and middle-of-the-road after Christmas so weve decided that next time we meet, its going to be our bangers weekend and everyone has to come with songs over 130bpm.
How have things changed since you wrote the first album together?
J:??Its great at this stage; were trying everything and seeing what works. I think this next album will be an evolution but also a re-iteration of what weve done before, with less of the parts that could have been better and more of the parts that were absolutely excellent.
T:??Our sound together has matured already as well. That happened naturally over the last year just from playing together more, and playing our own songs.
J:??Toms right, we have matured in the last year. We were going to wait until late 2014 to record this album but were having ideas now so were trying it all out. Ive got a lot more confident with my singing, as well. What about you Tom?
T:??Im a lot more comfortable with the idea of production. I learned a lot by sitting on Marc Pells shoulder during the production of the first album. Hes amazing.
J:??And youve learned to dance more on stage, which is cool.
You mentioned a tour earlier what can you tell me about that?
J: We have a few plans but obviously I cant divulge too much because theyre super secret! Were looking forward to it because Tom has expanded on his repetoire and were looking to change the way things work. Weve always been drums, sax, vocals and a backing track in terms of our live shows thats a great starting point and everybody has seemed to enjoy it from the gigs weve done. We had a run of no crap gigs after the release of the album; every gig we did was zero crap. Faithless and So You Say turned out to be really popular live numbers.
T:??Being a three-piece on record, there are a lot of layered-up parts. There is just the three of us so were going to have to re-think how it works live and change the live experience.
When you say you might have to change the way things work, will it definitely still just be the three of you on stage?
T:??Absolutely. Our use of technology will change. Its all just ideas welling around in my head at the moment really.
J:??Weve purposefully kept it as a three-piece because weve performed as a collective before. There were seven or eight people, which was difficult. The three-piece works but we just want to see how far we can stretch the three-pieceness as a live sound without it breaking. We probably will get a huge horn section at some point but that depends on the type of gigs that we get.
Is there anywhere in particular that you want to visit as part of a tour?
J:??Outside the UK, anywhere. Kazakhstan, whatever. I love travelling and doing it for free is even more fun. In the UK, anywhere where they like hip hop and spoken word. Id like to play in Birmingham and Ive got friends and family in Manchester.
T:??I lived in Leeds and Im from near Birmingham so theyd both be cool.
J:??After that, places like Devon, Oxford, Cambridge. Im not really picky.
Have either of you seen the video doing the rounds recently of Noel Gallagher slating old Oasis videos?
T:??I havent but Ive heard about it.
He does make a serious point at one stage that music videos are no longer the important medium that they once were. He claims that nobody watches them any more anyway. Do you think that videos are still an important feature of music?
J:??I think hes mistaken to be honest. YouTube lives on music videos and its a great way for new bands to get their name out there. Look at the last four videos that weve done and you can see that theyve helped. When Baby dropped, that one really opened up the market to us. And Faithless was a major turning point for us, Id say. Ive seen a lot of videos that have brought me to tears or astounded me. You have to bear in mind that Noel Gallagher has made great music that has touched people more than I have in my career but I think hes operating from a very limited perspective. Someone like Elton John buys music voraciously and is one of the greatest ever writers of pop music so you have to value what he says. I doubt Noel Gallagher is the same. The bigger question is why mainstream channels are only showing derivative videos by major label artists featuring girls in hot pants and rappers with BMWs?
Where do you do your hunting for new music?
T:??Online. I use eMusic because its brilliant and Ive found a lot of new stuff on there. Youre a fan of blogs arent you, Josh?
J: Yeah, I follow a lot of blogs on Twitter. I also use Blalock because they release a monthly playlist of 100 1000 songs. Its sometimes a bit needle in the haystack and the skip button is your friend, but eventually you will find some amazing artists that way.
Thank you very much for talking to us today and good luck with everything in 2014!