Analogue Exploration: Jake Mehew & Henry Weekes

Henry Weekes and Jake Mehew connected over a mutual curiosity for experimentation and self-expression within their musical pursuits. First introduced in Leeds whilst Henry was visiting from his home in Berlin, the pair found that they were both on the hunt for like-minded improvisers who were interested in exploring unconventional methods and fresh approaches to creating sound.

Both talented artists in their own respective fields, they’ve fully immersed themselves in their musical practices over the years – Henry as a saxophonist, radio host and event organiser, and Jake as a modular producer, DJ, radio presenter and educator. Improvisation is a driving force for both of them; it affords them complete freedom and the conditions to create something that’s incapable of being replicated in another environment.

This formed the basis of their first performance together. As part of Audio-Technica‘s 60th birthday celebrations, the pair joined forces to create a special improvisation that explores the message of ‘Always Analogue’; a motto that’s driven the company since its inception. Recorded at the Analogue Foundation, the performance marks the first time Jake and Henry have played together yet the synergy between the two of them is palpable. Jake provides a sound-world built from field recordings he collected during his trip to Berlin, and lets Henry lead the melodic decisions and textural changes, whilst exploring the subtleties in his saxophone’s sound.

Could you give some background to you as musicians and your collaboration? 

Henry: I moved to Leeds to study and found myself oscillating between two music scenes in the city: neo-soul/jazz and club-culture. Both shaped me in equal measure, finding an affinity in both the driving forces in electronic music and the freedom found when improvising in jazz. As a saxophonist still very much learning my craft, I am grateful for these early experiences and find both worlds have been equally important to my musical direction.

When I moved to Berlin in 2020, I found that my love for both these scenes was amplified. The city allowed me to really let go of any genre-specific troupes associated with the saxophone and explore all these different worlds however I felt was best. I realised that as a saxophone player, it is easy to play the stereotypes that is often protected onto the instrument. I am finding myself trying to steer away from this and explore the potentials the instrument has to offer as a voice of expression. 

When I was visiting Leeds in 2021, I reached out to Jake to talk about music and have a jam. His music caught my attention and he seemed to have a real curiosity for sound and experimentation. The collaboration was the start of a joyous friendship that formed and was the start of a collaborative musical journey; one which I am excited to see where it will lead. 

Jake: I usually describe myself as a performer, composer, producer, and improviser, but there are many hats I wear in my professional life as a musician. Over the past couple of years I have been performing solo shows with a modular synthesiser I have been designing; this has taken my career in an unexpected direction, and opened many new doors for me. These improvised happenings can range from the environmental, experimental and avant-garde, all the way to energetic techno and electronica.

Outside of my performative career, I run a tape cassette label called Mindspace Records that focuses on releasing generative ambient music in small/ exclusive releases, formatted to Cr02 Type II tape cassette. The recording process is respectful of the analogue procedure of recording, with no digitization of signal upon capture; the music stays exclusively on physical format. This is how I met Henry, and how our collaboration with Audio-Technica and the Analogue Foundation came to be. My partner introduced Henry to me in Leeds. From there we had coffee and recorded saxophone samples in my studio that we put within my modular synth.

In May 2022, I was invited to Berlin by the crew at Rhodes® to debut the new Rhodes MK8 piano at Superbooth ‘22 for the world to see for the first time. While I was there Audio-Technica (AT) reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in visiting the Analogue Foundation in Berlin, to spend a day recording there. AT suggested I do the recording with another musician, and I suggested Henry would be a great musician to work with. From there, me and Henry got into the studio together to create something free, and immediate. The video attached within this article is the culmination of that studio session. It was also the second time we had met in person, and the first time we had worked together in such a way to create art. From this, a great friendship has developed, and I’m incredibly grateful to have a friend in Henry.

What set-up were you working with and what were your different roles within that in driving the direction of the improv? 

Henry: My improvisation is always directed by the musical world that I find myself in at the time, which is often defined by what I am listening to and what I am practising. For this improvisation, I was interested in trying to capture the intimacies of the saxophone. This included the finer details, such as the key clicks and the breath work as wells as the different colours the tones could create through my airflow. This was combined with me trying to create different textural changes through rhymical elements and tonal qualities, to ensure that me and Jake were supporting each other equally and I was not just soloing over him. For the session, me and Jake had a vague structure but most of the time was spent listening to each other and reacting to each other’s playing.

Jake: For this performance, I use my eurorack modular A-100 system, a Rhodes MKI suitcase piano, and a turn-of-the-century (1900’s) Steinway grand piano. Within the performance, I wanted to leave most of the melodic work to Henry and his saxophone, and concentrate on using the modular synthesiser as a means of building a sound-world that we could both inhabit. My modular is also controlling the field recordings that I captured in Berlin from that week, contextualizing the performance inside the performative sound-scape of a U-Bahn station in Friedrichshain. 

Throughout the performance, Myself and Henry are listening to what we both play, and we lean into what we improvise collectively. My harmony contextualises Henry’s melodic decisions, and Henry’s extended techniques on his saxophone compliment the vibe and mood I was creating with the field recordings, and piano playing. 

Did any prep go into the session, with regards to sounds we heard or more broadly preparing ideas together? 

Henry: To answer this, I will echo a lot of what Jake has mentioned. We discussed ideas and colours and how we might create a journey for the listener over this extended improvisation. Jake also collected field recordings to use during the improvisation. He ended up using recordings from a Berlin U-Bahn train, giving the performance a darker, more industrial sound. From my side, all my preparation that goes into improvisation is done through my practice weeks in advance. My aim for when I am improvising is to be technically up to scratch so I can articulate the sounds I have in my head and call open them when the moment calls. 

Jake: When I and Henry first talked about collaborating together for this project, Henry had mentioned how he enjoys creating music that is evocative and emotive. Visual music of the mind. During my stay in Berlin, I became increasingly aware of the rhythms of the city, and how Berlin was (if you opened your ears and actively listened) very musical. I’m very grateful for Audio-Technica’s generosity – they gave me an AT897 shotgun microphone at the beginning of the Berlin trip which I used to document my time, capturing environmental sounds and curiosities to sample. The whole sound-universe we created became this dystopian, train journey at dusk on the circular line, traversing the native sounds of techno, and oddities that you might witness crawling out at night within the city. 

With regards to the actual performance we created, we prepared the modular synthesiser for a couple of hours at the beginning of the session, and decided that the recording would have three unique sections. Everything else was off the cuff, created on the fly at that session.

What do you think makes a good improv? Both in terms of mindset going in and the execution. 

Henry: A good improvisation should capture the energy and the atmosphere of the place it is being performed in. The reason I love improvisation is that often, the conditions under which they happen are impossible to recreate. Improvisation is as just about the player’s emotional state as it is about their technicalities. Emotions are such volatile things that they are hard to control and just as hard to channel. Often people will try and push down their emotions or redirect them but when people allow themselves to express their emotions these often create the best conditions for improvisation. Improvising is similar to having a conversation. A good conversation is one where everyone is given the time and space to speak, be heard and respond to what the other people are saying. Discussion and disagreement are part of this but empathy is also vital. This is also true for improvisation. 

Jake: I am an advocate of establishing conditions for flow within all of my improvisatory works I create; the task has to be both easy enough to achieve, and yet difficult enough to keep you focused and concentrated on the task at hand. The task at hand also has to be autotelic – myself and Henry really believed in this work, and were eager to explore what we could create together. We both saw inherent value and meaning within our interaction at the studio. 

When I perform music, I never have setlists with songs, or musical compositions. My setlists very much look like instructions, or musical directions. When I improvise, I never really know the journey in which I depart on, but I almost certainly know that on that journey there are a few places I would like to visit or aim for. Having that sense of direction really focuses the work, and gives it some form of forward trajectory. That’s not to say that there is no merit in pure free-improvisation either. Having a sense of danger within the work can be really exciting and can be the whole reward of experiencing the work – knowing that someone is vulnerable and could drop the ball at a moment’s notice is really compelling and humbling to watch. 

I have routines I practice before performing to get me into the space of improvising. I practice breathing techniques and meditation before pretty much every show I deliver. Being a performer who is neurodivergent, these rituals are very important in preserving my sense of self before I perform. Once I’m calm and I’m in the headspace to perform, then you can really get into the music, delving further into the feeling of play, and ultimately perform a better show. 

The Analogue Foundation studio is a pretty inspiring place to create music. Did you notice a change in mindset or approach to the creative process when making music in a space like that? 

Henry: I felt a lot of emotions when first entering the Analogue Foundation. The studio and space was of such a high quality that I felt very privileged to be able to spend time making music in there. It was also great to share that with Jake. Having not spent much time in that space and having such a short time to record, it felt easy to get overwhelmed. It was great to have the recording to focus on, be open and enjoy the experience. I would like to thank Erik Breuer and Ed Forth for allowing me the opportunity to record and Jake for his a and musical contribution.

Jake: Being able to scrutinise what you’re creating in such high-fidelity is something that artists are not often afforded – I think the Analogue Foundation is a great place for attention to detail. For me personally, I find technology very inspiring, and being amongst it definitely got the creativity flowing. The whole day had a great energy about it. 

Arriving at the Analogue Foundation was a very life-affirming experience. In fact, the whole Berlin trip was life and career affirming. I recognise that being awarded an opportunity to work and meet the amazing people in Berlin that I did on that trip in May was a blessing, and I like to think those experiences came into the studio with me when I made this work with Henry. Thank you Erik Breuer and Ed Forth for bringing me into that space to connect. Thank you to the team at Rhodes® for seeing the merit in my art, and thank you to Henry for your hospitality and friendship.

Watch the BTS video which features behind the scenes footage of the performance and interviews with Jake and Henry that dives deeper into the nuances of their improvisation.

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