Soothsayers are a collective of London based musicians revolving around trumpeter Robin Hopcraft and Saxophonist Idris Rahman. They’ve released three albums, Lost City, Tangled Roots, and their latest critically acclaimed effort One More Reason, which focuses on their love of reggae and dub, and features guest appearances from Bob Skeng, Linval Thompson, Michael Prophet and Johnny Clarke. They’re also one of the UK’s most impressive live bands either as a stand-alone act or in collaboration with veteran singers. Angus Taylor caught up with Idris and Robin, along with keyboardist Zoe, Bassist Kodjovi, and drummer Patrick in Hopcraft’s leafy South London garden, to discuss their manifold influences, their records, and their upcoming landmark show with Clarke at the Jazz Café.
If I wanted to buy a soothsayers record, which section of the shop would I find it in?
Idris: That’s a good question. Next question please!
Robin: What shop?
Well in HMV, for example, they had it in “world” but another branch had it in “jazz”.
Robin: “World” is a weird way of classifying music.
Kodjovi: Same thing I’d say about “Afrobeat”
Robin: I mean they haven’t got an Afrobeat section have they? The thing is there will be a reggae section in most music shops. So the last album – that could be in the reggae section – but not Tangled Roots. But if it was in the reggae section I wouldn’t complain. In fact if it was in the shop at all I’d be quite happy because there aren’t many shops are there?
Idris: There aren’t many shops left.
Patrick: Buy it off the internet!
Zoe: No – better to buy it at a gig. Because music is music.
Patrick: We’ve failed to answer that question.
A lot of people will have only heard of you from One More Reason but you've been around for a while. Give us a brief history.
Robin: Me and Idris met playing in another band and we had some sort of communication going on. And then we started rehearsing in a pub in Brixton. Then we got a gig – just playing other people’s stuff like African and jazz stuff – Abdullah Ibrahim tunes, Hugh Masekela tunes, a few reggae tunes, Tommy McCook, stuff like that.
When was this?
Zoe and Idris: About twelve years ago.
Robin: Was it? Can’t we just say like eight or something?
It was at a place called The Warrior in Coldharbour Lane.
Idris: It’s not there anymore.
Robin: We actually had a song called The Warrior didn’t we? Anyway, it was a pub where all these guys used to go, the sort of guys who’d go shopping in the market about four o’clock, bring their shopping into the pub and sit there all night drinking and leave at eleven thirty with all their shopping! There were some classic characters in there - it was a brilliant place. It had a brewery in the back. Then we started playing at a place called the Pacific Bar, which I used to run a night in on a Sunday night in Camberwell. Played there a lot doing a lot of reggae gigs because I was running it so we got to support the bands. Then we got other gigs because people liked us, we started writing our own songs, and it sort of developed like that really.
And how did you decide on the name Soothsayers?
Idris: I don’t know.
Zoe: Wayne Shorter.
Idris: No! It was nothing to do with Wayne Shorter. I’d like to state categorically! (Although Wayne Shorter is wicked.)
Robin: We can tell you all the things it wasn’t because of!
Idris: It just seemed to fit for what we wanted to do.
Robin: Actually there was a tune, a Don Cherry record called Multi Kulti Soothsayer or something.
Idris: Oh yeah. Could have been.
Robin: And I liked that album a lot. It’s really good. It’s quite Afrobeat influenced and lots of other stuff.
Where you ever THE Soothsayers?
Idris: Oh no.
Robin: Never “the”. Soothsayers is more like… if you say THE Soothsayers it means “we are THE Soothsayers”. When you say Soothsayers without “the” it means more like “listen to the Soothsayers. We might have some ideas and messages and some lyrics but there’s lots of other people as well”.
Kodjovi: Of course.
Idris: We’re not the ONLY Soothsayers.
Let’s talk about the music. Horns are often seen as optional extra in reggae these days…
Idris: No no no no no! That’s where it’s all gone wrong.
Robin: That’s just wrong. Reggae started with a trumpet.
Idris: Reggae started with horns. Horns have always been there and to take them out and replace them with keyboards is just…
Idris: It’s not reggae any more. That’s what I think. Because the sound of the horns is essential.
Robin: I mean Bob Marley didn’t use that much horns in his music…
Kodjovi: He DID!
Idris: He used a lot of horns man.
Robin: But when you listen to Bob Marley often you don’t notice that actually horns are playing? That’s the great thing about the music is he’s got a lot of instruments that you don’t specifically go “oh I can hear so and so” because the production is amazing.
Kodjovi: There was loads of horns there. Especially the last two or three…
Kodjovi: Yes, beautiful horns. And even from the beginning Thomas McCook, Roland Alphonso, they all used to play. It’s all based on horns because those horns people create the reggae music in the first place.
Robin: Ernest Ranglin.
Idris: He’s a guitarist.
Robin: I know but I have to say Ernest when you talk about creating reggae! You can’t leave him out.
Idris: Yeah ok.
You've risen to the top of the UK free festival circuit. How does it feel to be playing with Johnny Clarke at Jazz Cafe?
Robin: It’s going to be good. I’m looking forward to it.
Idris: It’s going to be brilliant. I mean Johnny Clarke is an amazing performer anyway and it’s really exciting to be doing stuff with him.
What can we expect?
Robin: Symbiotic vibes. We’re going to do some of his tunes, some of his classics, and he’s going to do the tunes we did with him on the album. Then maybe get Johnny to come and learn one of our tunes so he can sing along, do the chorus vocals. That would be nice. If he wants to of course!
You're one of the best roots reggae backing bands in the country. Did you ever consider just doing that?
Zoe and Idris: No!
Kodjovi: Not at all!
Robin: It’s nice to work with the vocalists but somebody offered us something the other day and it was backing pretty well known reggae artists and they had like fifty odd vocalists on. You know when they have those classic shows and the lineup goes on forever? A queue of vocalists. And we just said no because doing that sort of thing it just treads you down…
Idris: It’s not creative enough.
Zoe: It’s more diverse than that when you have your own personality and your own music. It’s not just about reggae and about doing what someone else has written.
Idris: We’re not just reggae musicians. We’re wider than that. We like reggae but we also like Afrobeat, we like African music, we like Jazz, all these other styles are all in our music. It’s more about us than reggae or any one particular style of music.
Zoe: Going back to what people can expect with Johnny Clarke at the Jazz Café. It’s not a reggae gig as such. Well I wouldn’t say so.
Idris: We’ll be doing our own thing.
Robin: Johnny Clarke will make it reggae but we’ll probably make sure we don’t play a load of reggae numbers before he comes on. We’ll play other stuff. I mean, I love reggae, I’ve loved it for years, I’m really into it. But I also known there’s loads of other people who like Afrobeat and Jazz and so on. And going back to your question about where do you put the record in the shop – it’s partly related to that. Because that whole thing of classifying things – it kind of clips people’s wings a bit you know? Especially with reggae because it can be a bit conservative. I mean you’ve got that UK roots thing. When we made that Johnny Clarke seven inch [Bad Boys] that was basically an Afro-groove, a six eight groove we did on our second album and we just adapted the rhythm and made it into a one drop thing. So it doesn’t sound like your typical UK roots and some UK roots people are like “urgh – it’s a bit jazzy” but it doesn’t bother us – it doesn’t matter. The classification and being too rigid in what you do is a bit boring and there’s no need for it I don’t think.
The sound is always really good at your gigs. Is your sound man like a member of the band?
Robin: Yeah. He’s becoming that way.
Idris: We like having someone there basically.
Robin: He’s a guy called Yuki from Japan. He’s really good.
Patrick: He doesn’t say much.
Idris: It’s really important to get the sound right. Because when we’re on stage we can’t hear what the audience is hearing so we’ve got to trust someone else to do it. So if that person knows our music and knows what we want it’s much better. Because otherwise we could be playing on stage and something completely different is coming across to the audience.
So if you go on to play at Brixton Academy one day would he be able to make the sound good there? It’s terrible.
Idris: Yeah the sound at Brixton is really horrible. It’s hard to get any decent sound there.
Robin: I think the problem with that place is you’ve got that balcony and the sound man sits just before it but most of the audience are under the balcony and because you’ve got that roof over the top it does something to the sound.
Describe the process of making One More Reason.
Idris: Well quite early on we did the track with Linval [Thompson]. That History track. That was the first thing we did for this album. The opportunity came up and we used the opportunity to work with Linval and it worked. So we thought we’d try a few more similar things like that. So we did stuff with Michael Prophet and Johnny Clarke. We were working with Mellow [Baku] – she was doing some gigs with us at the time so we did a bit of writing so we put an album together out of that. We spent a bit of time trying to make it sort of make sense really.
Robin: We took some tunes off that we could have put on. It’s a set of tunes like when you write a set list for a gig. It’s a similar sort of thing to getting that right.
Idris: Making it flow. Sonically making it work. There’s a lot of things to factor in.
Robin: Some of it’s band recording and some of it’s programming the beats.
Idris: And then the sessions were done in different studios so there’s different sounds to the audio that we’d got. So matching those up and then mixing it to make it all sound like one thing.
Robin: Nick Manasseh mixed most of it.
Idris: That’s why we got Manasseh to mix it so it would have a similar sound.
Is there any type of music you really don’t like and wouldn’t consider incorporating into your music?
Idris: I’m not a big fan of techno to be honest.
Robin: That beat you know “booff, booff, booff, booff”! And Gabba. I’m not into that.
Idris: I like ABBA but NOT Gabba!
Kodjovi: What’s Gabba?
Idris: Or Metal.
Robin: I’m not really into heavy metal but this guy put some on when we were in a cab in Newcastle - he was a big metal fan…
Idris: He was quite nice.
Robin: I was quite enjoying it! Good guitar playing.
Idris: We loved it. We were rocking out!
Patrick: It would be great to play in a heavy metal act.
Idris: That’s because you’re a drummer!
Robin: Most music has something good about it.
Patrick: It’s good to be open. Even if it’s knowing what not to put in there!
Kodjovi: It depends what you call music thought because most types of music they are just noise for me – they are not music.
What’s not noise to you?
Kodjovi: Well everything is noise but they have to be joyful to the ears. That’s a joyful noise you understand? That is music.
Who are your favourite reggae artists?
Kodjovi: One of them is Bob Marley.
Robin: Culture. Bob Marley. Gladiators.
Kodjovi: DEFINITELY Gladiators!
Idris: Johnny Clarke.
Kodjovi: I listened to a lot of Steel Pulse when I was a youth.
Idris: Toots and The Maytals.
Kodjovi: Gregory Isaacs.
Robin: What about more modern ones… Luciano’s good.
Kodjovi: Studio 1. Studio FIRST you know?
What's next for Soothsayers? A new album? More gigs?
Robin: We’ve got a few tunes. We’ve got a tune we recorded the other day which we’re probably going to release on a seven inch vinyl release. And we’ve got new tracks we’re going to work on, writing new tunes, do a few more gigs. Carrying on same vein really. Maybe more gigs in Wales. We were in Wales the other day. That was really good. Because of all the influences on what we do we get quite an unusual selection of gigs. We played at this place called Eisteddfod, which is like a Welsh singing competition! It was quite folk oriented. There were a lot of world and folk acts and dancing and stuff. We did loads of workshops with secondary school kids and some gigs. It was great. A really nice vibe.
Idris: Then we played at Henley festival on the same day.
Not Henley Regatta???
Robin: And people loved it!
Patrick: They were in dinner suits but they got into it.
Zoe: They were waltzing to reggae!
Robin: And next year we’re looking to do more festivals and stuff, playing in Europe a bit more. We went to Poland earlier on this year. It’s a really good scene over there. So we hope we go back there.
And now you’ve done One More Reason will your next album move away from reggae and dub?
Idris: No never!
Robin: You can’t just do it all one album can you? (LAUGHS)
Idris: All our stuff is dub influenced. There’s always dub elements even in the first album which much more Afro, instrumental kind of vibes. But there’s still a lot of dub influence in there – in the basslines, in the actual music itself as well as in the production.
Finally, if you could play with any artist no longer with us who would it be?
Robin: In what sense? Like us having a guest performing with us? Hmmm…. That’s a good one…
Idris: Bob Marley.
Zoe: Fela Kuti.
Robin: Fela, yeah. Just for Fela to come on stage and stand there.
Idris: That would be amazing as well.
Kodjovi: Michael Jackson!
Patrick: We’d wear a diamante glove in tribute!
Careful. You’ll have his fans bombarding the site with complaints if you say things like that! Good thing they can’t leave comments!
Kodjovi: That would be so funny if they did!
Soothsayers play with Johnny Clarke at Jazz Café on Thursday 30th July 2009. Their album One More Reason is out now. Read the review here.
Interview by Angus Taylor