Well, who would have guessed we would be here by now? The UK is no longer part of Europe, America is run by Donald Trump and Melt Yourself Down have released a new record with political undertones. It was the year 2016 when we’d just begun to learn how far the two sides of humanity stood apart and in its midst, saxophonist Pete Wareham and his six cronies were in the beginning stages of their third album, 100% YES.
“For me just the thought of writing music with any kind of even political nuance was so remote, it wasn’t on my radar for all my life really,” Wareham says on the phone. Surrounding the release of the band’s previous album, Last Evening on Earth, was a “dramatic” political shift set to deepen the divide amongst people and caused the band themselves to rethink their previous aversion towards political commentary. “It didn’t feel that my music needed any form of political comment to be relevant, but as soon as we started making this album, we sat down and we were like, ‘well, we’re not gonna start writing songs about love’,” Wareham continues.
How fitting that three years in the making, it is now that the album is released; to a country governed by the biggest Tory majority since the Thatcher years and to a world barricaded in by a global pandemic. When they say it’s political, it isn’t specifically about Trump or Boris or Farage. Vocalist Kush Gaya takes aim at the British colonialists in India in ‘Boot and Spleen’, which was written after a reading of the book Inglorious Empire by Indian MP and ex-minister Sashi Tharoor. The depravity of the Russian heroin replacement, Krokadil, in the second single ‘Crocodile’, and the tragedy of Grenfell, in ‘Born in the Manor’, are also his targets as he laments on both his Indian heritage and atrocities in the West with a blow from the same razor-edged scythe.
“we sat down and we were like, ‘well, we’re not gonna start writing songs about love'”
On the progression from singing in his creole on the band’s first album, Melt Yourself Down, to now giving full meaning for an English speaking audience, Gaya says “It’s not that my lyrics haven’t always had meaning, I’ve always really wanted to talk about the world around me and comment. I guess you could call it some form of social commentary. Before, I never thought I was sharp enough to do it.”
It’s not just in the inclusion of meaning behind the lyrics that this album differs, the band have also altered their sound slightly. There’s still the dirgy basslines, Wareham’s poppy sax licks and Gaya’s intense vocals, almost like the Happy Mondays covering ‘Destination Calabria’ fronted by Anthony Keidis. The music still contains Wareham’s fascination with Nubian rhythms and North African sounds, but the influence of more traditional forms of dance music in Britain, such as UK garage and acid house, shines through.
This slight change in the atmosphere of the music was born out of Wareham’s desire to take more control over the “sound” of the record and, in turn, led to it taking longer to complete. “The previous albums had been made very much with the live band in mind. The songs had been written and then performed by the band and then it was all about recording the band,” Wareham says. “Where with this album, the music was developed over a longer time, I was doing a lot of the editing so I was able to have lots more control over the sound. It wasn’t just about getting the drummer on a good day and asking him to play a beat that sounds like a bit of a garage beat.”
As Wareham has taken more control, in what he called a “steep learning curve”, the methods behind writing the tracks have also changed. A whole complicated “process” of recording live improv sessions and annotating parts from them to then rehearsing and recording a demo of the score has been “completely wiped away.” While this has made the work more efficient in his eyes, he doesn’t think it will be necessary for every song the band creates. “There is always something to be said for a song that’s been played live a lot and you just go in the studio and smash it; that can be really good as well. Sometimes, the sort of faster, punkier songs, it’s nice to just get in the room and smash them out as a band.”
This is Wareham’s 13th studio album released across all his projects; the others being a BBC Jazz Award Best Band winner, Acoustic Ladyland, and one of the only bands to get a Mercury prize nomination with an entirely instrumental album, Polar Bear. And even though Wareham now feels like he has played music for so long, he doesn’t question why he continues to do so, he still feels a “buzz” when a record is released. “There’s something about the simplicity of when you hear a track that’s a pop song or any kind of song, there’s a simplicity to it that’s like ‘I wanna have a go at that’,” Wareham says. The stuff that made him want to do ‘that’ for 100% YES when I asked were: Wiley’s Godfather, People Just Do Nothing and Marmozets. If you’re looking for a starter pack for the new album, go on then, take them.