DOWN TO THE BONE have been concocting their special brand of soul and jazz grooves since the mid 90s. The STUART WADE-led outfit have just released their ninth studio album, ‘The Main Ingredients’… which is chock full of the band’s signature sound… easy on the ear, heavy on the crisp beats and quite irresistible, but, surprisingly difficult to pin down in words. Who better, then, than DOWN TO THE BONE main man, STUART to define the DOWN TO THE BONE sound. Catching up with him between busy Transatlantic commuting (the band are big Stateside), we asked him to come up with a definition…..
Well I guess I would describe it as “good groove” or Jazz-funk. I draw on all the styles I like from Brazilian to funk to soul and Jazz and I have an extensive record collection of stuff I have collected over the years as I have always been listening to groovy music. I try to stick to tracks I like and at the end of the day I have to do the music for myself as I am my own worst critic , which I hope helps to personalise the sound more. Even if no one else likes it I have to be able to walk away from a track knowing I did the best I could and if others then do like it then I feel they like the music for me and not something I am trying to be by second guessing the type of sound I think others want to hear. I try to stay true to what I like which in turn should create the sound which is Down To The Bone. At the time I started DTTB the whole Acid Jazz scene was dying down and this whole smooth thing was coming in so I felt there was a lack of groovy/funky music out there. A lot of the guys I grew up listening to from the 70s were either not doing the music or were churning out the smoother stuff. I wanted to see if I could do the sort of stuff that influenced me and in turn, if it worked, I hoped I might encourage others to start making it again.
… and where did the name DOWN TO THE BONE come from?
The name came from a remix I did whilst in a soul band called THINK TWICE. The track was called ‘Joy Is Free’ and I took that song into a studio, away from the other guys, to try to give it a rawer edge. I felt that what I was doing was stripping the song down to its raw elements and adding a funkier groove to it. So I called it the Down To The Bone remix. From that moment I knew I had to try to expand on what I was doing and create a project from it. The fact that the remix did so well helped to give me the confidence to take it further too. Once again it was all about doing it for myself by believing in what was needed and seeing if others would follow. I was also going to a club night in Holborn, at the time, called To The Bone, with DJs like BOB JONES, MARK WEBSTER, STEVE HOBBS and RONNIE HEREL amongst others. There was no strict format; they all just played music with a groove and stuff they liked and it worked really well. I wanted to try to create that type of vibe in the music I did. I had no idea if it would work but I knew it was something I had to try and felt it was within me to at least give it a bloody good go. I had no idea I would still be doing it over twelve years later.
How exactly do you work…? I’m right in thinking that you’re not a “conventional” musician – i.e. you don’t play an instrument – so how do you achieve your end results?
I sometimes have ideas in my head for certain grooves like a bass line. I’ll then hum it into a Dictaphone and play it back to whoever is doing bass at the time. I’ll add a break beat, which will either get replaced or live drums will go on top of it to add weight and movement. I’ll get the keyboardist to add chords and some sort of comping rhythm pattern to it. Either I’ll guide them to the sort of chords I want or help with the type of rhythm, if needed or they will co-write it with me. This is in the early stages of building up the track as things constantly change as the track evolves. Once I am happy with the rough idea, I always try to let each musician express themselves. Once I have got the groove I am looking for and they know the main part they are to play they can then start to elaborate on that part adding their own style. It’s about sticking to a rhythm but allowing some sort of self expression to come through as well, as long as it works. I want the musicians to sound the best they can and want to be able to use the best parts they play, but within my idea of how the track should be.
How do trained and experienced players take to someone like yourself? How much freedom do you give to the musicians?
There is a lot of trust involved as I have to trust them to understand and work with my ideas and they have to trust me to try to get the best parts for the track as I piece all their parts together once they have gone, like a jigsaw. I may get them to play several different riffs for the same part, I then sift through it all picking out the best takes and piecing together the best riffs I feel that work with the track. I don’t want to just accept the first riff if there could be a better one to find. I may even cut up different riffs to make an entirely new one. At the end of the day, for me, it is whatever is best for the track, not the individual but at the same time trying to be as respectful to each musician as possible. I think, by not being a musician, I am able to step away from the track and not be too precious about an individual part just because I played it. If it does not work or could be better it gets replaced. I think if I had played a specific part I might get too precious and become tempted to keep it even if it did not work, just because I had played it. But it does get very frustrating sometimes, not being able to pick up an instrument and play an idea straight away. Most guys I work with are fine with how things are done. The way that I communicate my ideas can be very basic so they need to understand what I am looking for. The longer I work with guys such as JULIAN CRAMPTON and NEIL ANGILLEY, the easier it gets as they already have a picture as to what I like and don’t like, which saves a lot of time because it can be a long process ….especially with me . Of course, some musicians find it hard to understand what I do and it has caused friction in the past. Some found it hard to accept how I can be the main guy behind the project but not be a trained musician. So I have tried to build up a core of guys I can trust and have an understanding with… which is extremely important.
Now on to the new album… explain the title?
‘The Main Ingredients’ is showing the essential parts that go together to make the type of music I do. Once you have mixed them together correctly you can reach people in a personal way. As music is such a personal thing it creates different reactions from different people. It always amazes me how music can affect people. I could take a lifetime to create what I thought was the best piece of music ever created and play it to someone else who, after just a few seconds, could either love it or hate it regardless as to the amount of time and energy put into it. But, hopefully by adding the main components to my tracks I can reach people who like this type of good groove. I always got compared to a scientist in a lab, mixing together all these riffs and ideas in order to concoct a finished groove. I also often go to a bar/restaurant near me called Bar 163, in Chertsey, where I have become friends with the owner, RICHARD and the head chef, NEMO and because they play jazzy grooves there we got talking about the music first. I compared making music to cooking saying you had to get the ingredients right just as you do with food. So I also got the idea from that too.
The set features two great vocal cuts…. more, I think, than on previous albums. Why?
I actually started adding vocal tracks to the albums from the fourth one, ‘Crazy Vibes And Things’, to see how it would turn out. I always felt my music would lend itself to vocals. I find it too difficult and time consuming to try to come up with the vocal parts myself, writing lyrics etc. So I worked first with HIL ST SOUL and then with N’DAMBI as they could co-write their ideas for the vocals on top of the music. There are some tracks that once started, you just know they have to be vocalised. The last album, ‘Future Boogie’, had two vocal songs on it from HIL ST SOUL and if you count backing vocals or ROY AYERS’ scatting and talking on his tracks then most from the fourth have had two-ish songs on them. Even FLORA PURIM added her scatting vocals to the track ‘The Flow’ from the album ‘Cellar Funk’ which also featured GUIDA DE PALMA on the track ‘Dancing To A Samba’. I think it helps to add flavour to each album rather than staying the same for each release.
IMAANI is the featured vocalist on the new album …tell us a little about her…
IMAANI is fantastic and a great laugh. Straight away you can relax around her as there’s always a little bit of apprehension working with someone new. Especially with vocals as it’s such an important part to get right, both vocally and lyrically. I have to trust her to put a song on top of my music that I feel will work. So it can be tense for me. But she is so easy to work with and up for working out ideas both beforehand and on the day of recording and was cool with the way I worked. It made it really enjoyable and that can reflect in the track too. I think we made a good combination so hopefully we can do it again. I know I would love to work with her again if possible. I knew of her from when she worked with the guys from FM INC, around the same time I started DTTB. They came out with the wicked track ‘Easin My Mind’, which is when I first heard of IMAANI .Obviously she is really well known with her vocal work with INCOGNITO, which is where most people will know her from, I would guess. She is also working a lot with REEL PEOPLE, another band I like too.
What are you hoping to achieve with the album?
(Laughs) Enough sales to pay for the next. It is a simple answer but very close to the truth. There seems to be very fewer acts doing this type of music these days, which I feel makes it more important for me to keep trying. It is very difficult right now to stay in the music business but if I can I will. Now that I am on Dome, in the UK, I am hoping they will re-build some of the lost ground over here and in Europe for DOWN TO THE BONE as well, via this album. Being on only US labels in the past, since I signed to them from my own label I had with my ex-business partner, the profile dropped outside the US. Early reactions are good and I am very happy that PETE ROBINSON at Dome seems to be pushing it with more enthusiasm than I have seen in quite a while. I have learnt that, if you can, it is important to have a label based in the territory you are releasing in. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, if you can help it. Which I know is difficult these days with so very few labels left. Luckily I have that with Trippin’n Rhythm in the US/Canada, Dome in the UK, EU, SA, AUS and NZ and now P-vine in Japan. It’s all early relationships at this stage of the album, but fingers crossed we can all continue together. More gigs over here and in general would be a great result from this album too as that has always been a frustration; a lack of gigs. But most bands will say that these days, but DTTB has never been worked as well as it should have been over here. Hopefully that can change a little with this album and some of the help I am getting from PETE at Dome.
How hard is it promoting your kind of music?
It was easier when we had our own record label at the beginning and were self sufficient and worked it ourselves. But I had a business partner in that and don’t have it now so it has been very hard. I found that being on US labels over the last few years, although great for the US, has not been as great for other territories, as most seem to see the outside music world as non-essential, especially if you have a good profile over there with this type of music. So the profile was great in the US but started to disappear everywhere else. Which was such a frustrating thing to see. Plus I was being sold as a smooth act which I am not and does not work outside the US anyway. Something I had to keep hammering home to them. I think being on Dome will really help as PETE and SANTOSH there seem to like to push more than I have seen in a while. I have seen for myself that people really like this type of music if it has the essential ingredients over here and in Europe, which is a voice. Someone who is prepared to work it to the right people. It is more difficult these days as there are fewer outlets around but if there is someone like PETE, sending it out to the ones that are left and shouting about it then something more should happen. Especially if he has a good enough product to work with in the first place. I think it also helps that I had experience of co-running a label over here when Internal Bass was around as I built up knowledge of some contacts to look out for so I have been sending Dome a list of people from the past and crosschecking it with their list. So the likes of Jazz FM, Echoes magazine, Soul Brother Records, Crazy Beat, Solar Radio, Starpoint Radio will all get hit this time round, where they may have been left out in the past because the Americans did not know who they were. I am also trying to hook up with a new agent over here called GREG WOODCOCK to take on the UK live band as most promoters and venues don’t seem to like talking to the bands themselves when trying to get dates. Getting interest from a live agent has been nearly impossible to do over here and in Europe, at least one who seems keen enough to push for gigs. But hopefully things may change a bit now ….hopefully.
Over DTTB’s career what’s been your greatest achievement and biggest disappointment?
There have been loads of highs and even more lows, as doing this type of music is not the easiest thing and it is a constant battle, I feel … not for the fainthearted. But just being able to do music I love and have others love it too is for me my greatest achievement and still being able to do it now without drying up. It’s what helps to drive me with my belief in good grooves and this type of music and the reactions I get back from fans. Being nominated for a Grammy was amazing too. Seeing the band play live for the first time in the UK and then in the US was another amazing achievement. I keep looking at it now thinking how the heck did I manage to do this. Selling well over half a million albums across the catalogue …that’s another high …… Disappointments: Being totally ripped off by the first US label we were on and having to try to fight a legal battle with them in the US over income from the first two albums which we were never properly paid for. I learnt a lot then as to how business seems to be done over there …watch your back! Then, having to split up with my business partner, who looked after Internal Bass Records while I did the music. There’s also the issue of having to have two live bands, one in the US and one in the UK because there are no budgets to fly one band over to do both. Although I must be the only band who can have a gig on both sides of the pond on the same day, so that could be an achievement. But I do wish it could just be one live act. It was also disappointing not getting to number one on the US radio chart with the first album because one radio station refused to play us, even though every other radio station play-listed us and then once the moment had passed and stations started to reduce the airplay on ‘Brooklyn Heights’ they then started to play it just to add salt into the wound. Although it did get to number two which is an achievement. So you have to keep looking at both sides of the coin.
Finally what are your plans –short and long term?
Short term – to try to get more gigs for the UK band anywhere and everywhere outside the US. Get my house back in order as I have neglected it too much during the process of making this album. Long term to hopefully build up a workable relationship with the current labels and to start thinking about the new album. I would also love to look at the possibility of starting up a label again as I do miss that. If I could find the right business partner then that could be a possibility. It would be great to be self sufficient again.
DOWN TO THE BONE’S ‘THE MAIN INGREDIENTS’ is out now on DOME RECORDS…. go to our review pages for a full album review…..