It’s been said that it’s best never to meet your idols for risk of dispelling the mythical character you associate to them. In the case of Richard Spaven, this only furthered my admiration for the man behind the music. On a rainy April morning, bags packed ready to jump on a plane to Mexico, Spaven kindly gave us some of his time for a chat about the new album, his unique playing style and how London’s prolific underground identity of the nineties is still reflected in his work.
‘The Self’ is released 30th June via Soul Has no Tempo on digital format with vinyl to follow. Before then head down to Jazz refreshed for the album launch this Thursday 29th at Mau Mau Bar.
Much of Spaven’s drumming education growing up came playing in jazz and big bands, however with headphones constantly plugged into the latest N.W.A and Public Enemy; he was never going to be tied down. Spaven’s career has seen him work, both on stage and in the studio, with some prominent names including The Cinematic Orchestra, Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Flying Lotus, José James and more recently Jordan Rakei and Jameszoo. Guitarist Stuart McCallum however is Spaven’s longest-standing collaborator; having met playing for the Cinematic Orchestra, the two have also co-written and regularly play in each others solo projects.
Bands led by one musician – particularly in jazz more often than not – will naturally focus front and centre around said band member. This isn’t the case however with Spaven. Whilst leading his own trio, and many other incarnations of his live outfit, he’s so aware of his role within the production, and thus its live interpretation, he almost (but never quite) hands the mantle over to another. “There was probably a stage when I was younger, when I thought it was a good idea to play more…stuff”, he reflected. However a flamboyant style never quite stuck; in part this may have been down to the fact he’s always listened more to electronic music than live, therefore had much less influence over his work coming from other drummers. “I respect the mechanical way that machines play beats” he continued. “Its super cool and great to listen to. If you adopt that as a drummer and add to that as well as a human, that’s when it gets really interesting for me.”
These two lines, whether intentional or not, pretty much sum up Spaven’s playing style, encapsulating what it’s like to listen and watch him play. A form with an almost machine-like consistency, yet with such absolute relaxation, at any moment he could flip it on its head. But what most fans will probably agree has earned his style the “Spaven-like” coin, is his ability to play meticulously in time, yet layered with complicated patterns and time signatures, without ever losing the groove.
This latter quality especially is given huge importance in his work. It doesn’t matter how many fills he can sneak in, or how obscure a time signature he writes in, Spaven’s preference is that the final product has to be something listenable. “The groove is everything at the end of the day”. We looked at the album title track as an example as he explained a little further. “Some people will listen and feel the snare is on the two and the four and just be fine with that, then some people will hear that there’s an extra level of complication to it.” He describes this element as being a subplot, “where if you really analyse, there is something more complicated going on, but not in a way that would trip you up or draw all attention to it.” He talked despondently about conflicting experiences playing in bands, “where the idea has almost been to fool the audience into having been completely disorientated as to where they are are in the music.” An end game just not in his own mind, “I want them to feel where it [the music] is, and we feel that together.”
This subplot or twist isn’t a recent addition to Spaven’s music either, and can be heard right from the onset in earlier work. ‘1759 (Outro)’ taken from his Spaven’s 5ive EP via Jazz re:freshed is a classic example. Amidst off-beat accents between the main melodic keys harmonies and core drum pattern, a simple head nodding four-count is felt. As the track nears its close, Spaven turns it up a notch deconstructing then rebuilding the rhythmic foundation, all without toppling its structure. “I don’t really like in your face time signatures”, he continues, “like when a band is raging in 7/8 or 9/8, with everyone on this counting grid cleverness thing. I think it’s my job as a drummer to absorb all of that, all of the maths – the numbers – and present it in a way that’s listenable.”
It’s a playing style that has also earned him recognition at the drumming festivals he frequents more often these days. Similar to Moog Fest for synth enthusiasts, these events form communities of drumming appreciators coming together to appreciate the instrument and the musician. “My whole angle on it is still to break down a track and talk about feel, about leaving space and just talk about music. In that scene, that is a really heavy concept to them and they love it. I just try to go in and do my thing rather than doing what you do normally at these things”, which, he tells us, usually revolves around playing as fast as you can.
“The groove is everything at the end of the day”
As with most artists, making his own music is “sacred” to Spaven. “Stylistically, when I write there is a load of stuff that needs to come out, so it just ends up being a culmination of influences.” The biggest ones come back to his love of electronic music, especially drum & bass, dubstep and broken beat – “ the programmed genres” – and electronica, leftfield hip-hop, soundtrack music, and “some of the people I’ve played with as well along the way.” It makes for an eclectic mix that can certainly be heard throughout The Self album. “I feel like what comes out is a build up of influence of all of these things and I find it very satisfying to make music that has elements of all of this in it.” A reflection of himself, not what others may want him to make.
In The Self, the London skyline is what seems to be looking back from the other side of the mirror. “Drum and bass remains relevant for me, it just won’t go away” he muses. One of many London heartbeats which has currently slowed (for the moment at least) but endures as a penchant for Spaven. “I’m stuck in the 90s as far an drum and bass goes. Metalheadz, Photek and Source Direct that sort of stuff, I feel like I was almost there in the beginning.” He talks about what it was like living in London through the birth and development of these movements. “Looking back on it I feel like we were there watching it all unfold. At Speed at the Mars Bar, I talk about that with Benji B quite a bit because it turns out that he was there quite a lot so we must’ve bumped into each other, although we didn’t actually know one another back then.” He talks of how they still cite that as something special, for the irrepressible energy in the room despite there being few people there at the time.
“Going to Metalheadz, Sunday session at the Blue Note in Hoxton, and feeling like you were onto something before it broke to the rest of the world, you could feel it in your stomach.” He remembered being totally shocked one day hearing drum and bass on a TV advert, while now “you wouldn’t bat an eyelid, it’s just mainstream consumption isn’t it?” Evidently a big thing for him, he spoke of how he would “come away from those nights feeling completely inspired musically, it was just the freshest thing to my ears and that’s probably what is rekindled by listening to that now.”
Album tracks ‘Law’ and ‘Hidden Camera’ explore this influence to the fullest, the latter a homage to Photek’s 1997 vintage. ‘Law’ is a wonderful representation of the album’s simpler arrangements, where less is most definitely more. Extending delay and reverb on electric guitar from McCallum forms a vision-clouding mist with Spaven’s crisp Soul Pride break-inspired drums sat just behind. Then underneath everything the sub-bass, subtle overall, yet in places it’s deep resonance just impossible to ignore.
Broken beat was the next movement. “This is why London, to me, is the most incredible scene to have come from. It’s put such a stamp onto my playing”. Spaven remembers being introduced to it by Bembe Segue, “who was telling me about this crazy music she was doing. I remember going to CoOp for the first time and, as a drummer hearing that, it really had a huge effect. I was instantly in the music.” He’d never heard anything like it before, but there was instant inspiration and ideas making it very much a heuristic project for Spaven. “I just had to get involved.” ‘Letters Of The Past’ with it’s flat soul and central drum line littered with broken elements, feels this broken beat influence the most.
“Stylistically everything that I do could be boiled down to being from London”
By the time dubstep came around, Spaven remembered just thinking “oh my god it’s all happening again! It was great new stuff, who cares what it’s called.” ‘Stills feat Jordan Rakei’ with its sparseness and weighty bass line is the album reference here. He recalls an immense pride being a Londoner at the time. “I remember just looking at the London scene and taking my hat off, what the people of this city are a capable of putting out is just unbelievable. Stylistically everything that I do could be boiled down to being from London.”
There wasn’t an aim as such, for the new album to incorporate these club styles, it’s been a continuation of what he’s always done. Looking back on the record, for Spaven it’s more a question of “seeing how these earlier influences still manifest themselves”. There wasn’t an “intention to say that this would fit into a drum and bass set or that would fit in a dubstep set” he started, addressing the production styles. “But if you put it on a sound system I would like it to sit naturally so you wouldn’t have this disappointing transition of going from in your face programmed drums to the softness of recorded drums.” This is something he has particularly worked on. While recording all his drumming in one-takes, he talked of upping his game with the recording quality and awareness of this goal in the production process too. The focus was very much on the balance of sound, space and feel. “I was really trying to get more of a sampled sound in places,” attuning here to his long love for samplers and sample based music. On ‘Hidden Camera’ from the album, he talks of wanting to experiment with sampling his own drums. “There are some real holy grails of drum samples”, and to think he has the means to do that himself, it effectively helps him become his own sample bank to recreate this process. “I do like it when I play something and people think it’s programmed. I get a little kick out if that. After all, samplers were fed live drummers and then we were simply fed them back.”
Spaven seems to be writing his own rubric with The Self. It’s arguable that his music is not strictly jazz, but having origins in this world and introducing elements of the club, place him in space occupied by very few. Almost the opposite of what has happened in dance music over the years, with samples coming from the non-club world. It happened with some of London’s heritage genres too. Photek went some way in joining the dots between drum and bass and jazz back in the 90s sampling Pharaoh Sanders in his track ‘Rings Around Saturn’, but Spaven has gone further. With The Self he has re-contextualised these genres giving them a different light in spaces they may not have been heard before.
“I do like it when I play something and people think that it’s programmed, I get a little kick out if that.”
Other significant influences on the record have come in the form of collaborations. Jameszoo brought his “beautiful mess” production style to ‘Alfama’, written by Stuart McCallum. Kris Bowers, pianist and fellow band member for Jose James “absolutely destroyed” replaying the Pharaoh Sanders sample from the original of ‘Greetings To Saud (Brother McCoy Tyner)’. There is also legendary jazz vocalist and MC Cleveland Watkiss turning back the clock on ‘The Hidden Camera’. Yet the most compelling for Spaven, was that of Jordan Rakei. Meeting initially when Jordan reached out for Spaven to play on his own album track ‘Toko’, the two hit it off and have never looked back. “He’s a breeze to work with. I love his ideas and his whole outlook is so positive which is super inspiring.” Great respect could be heard in Spaven’s voice as he spoke of their short time working together. “Studio wise he works in a kind of producer mode, he’s very much a producer-singer. So when he has an idea he’s already coming with a production idea of what the vocals are going to be like as well as the literal melodies and harmonies he’s going to sing.” Spaven concedes that “trying to imagine this album without him is very difficult. I’m really glad to have met him and we’re looking to working together some more.”
Whilst The Self is notably influenced by the club, Spaven insists that this doesn’t then cause him to put it through a jazz filter when playing it live in his trio. “I’d say you can do a lot with it in a trio format without it necessarily being a jazz trio”, he points out. “A lot of jazz musicians see things too simplistically in terms of the structure – head, solo, head sort of thing. Even though we’re a trio, were not necessarily approaching stuff like that.” Not wanting to conform to stereotypes, he remarks “it’s unlikely if you come and see me that you’re going to hear a twenty minute sax solo.” All three in the band, bassist Rob Mullarkey being the final member, have played a lot of jazz in the past and Spaven comments on his liking for hearing people who have been through this “but aren’t hell bent on playing it all right there and then. It’s all part of the make up. It all counts and adds up to make you the player you are.” The ultimate aim with live is to leave it open, so as not to limit what it may be. “I want it to be something different from what you are going to hear on the album as well.”
Before heading to the airport, Spaven ended by saying that work has already begun on his next album, which is to be recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in rural Bath. “Some people would say it’s the best studio in the country,” struggling to hide a little bit of smugness. He can be forgiven; it’s even got a solitary space which allows you to look out onto water and picturesque countryside. Such is the anticipation, it’s the first time he has started writing before releasing a current project. If the synthesis of London club genres with groove-heavy style of this album is anything to go by, we’re excited to see where such weighty recording facilities will take him next.