Brooklyn’s Antibalas is a dozen piece band that is often described as Afro-beat (funky horn-driven African music originally spearheaded by Nigeria’s Fela Kuti) but is always in the process of evolving into something else. They are currently on tour in support of the newly-released Security, their fourth full-length album and first on Anti- Records. In anticipation of their tour stop at the Wexner Center in Columbus on Tuesday (May 1st), I had a chat with tenor saxophone player Stuart Bogie (above, in the red shirt) about the state of things Antibalas.
Andrew Patton (AP): Antibalas has a message of political activism, but many of your songs are instrumental. Without lyrics, do you think that the average person being exposed to your music understands what you’re trying to get across?
Stuart Bogie (SB): Yeah, sure. There are many sentiments, many aspects to being a human being that cannot be expressed in words. Situations of struggle, situations of oppression, situations of striving to surpass oppression, to overcome oppression…there’s aspects to these issues that cannot be described in words. Being artists, that’s our license, and I believe a lot of our music deals with that. You could cite the music of Charles Mingus as a fair example, or Coltrane. Coltrane’s more in a spiritual sort of dimension exclusively, I guess, but that’s a universal thing so it might not even be exclusive.
The song “I.C.E.” (on Security) stands for Ice Covered England. It’s kind of a musical discussion of potential climate change. Through music, and different musical references, it could be viewed as discussing tremendous change in the state of civilization that many people are contemplating right now. The interaction of aggressive musical lines with longer lines that sort of embody, overreach, and arc across the whole experience is something that can be seen through history.
AP: Many of Antibalas’ vocal tunes are often very outspoken. Do you get big reactions to songs like “Indictment” or “Filibuster XXX?” Do people really get into songs like that?
SB: Absolutely. Live, when we do “Indictment,” people feel a sort of rapturous camaraderie in the idea that there are dangerous criminals in power right now. To collectively feel the pulse of the music, and to hear the names of some of these people called out is…the music wraps people together and the words say that we are all right here on the same page, emotionally and intellectually.
And there’s also an element of humor in it. Humor is a musical thing. Humor is all about rhythm. So, to put that in there, “OK, who are these guys? Yeah, these guys are really gonna indict Kenneth Lay.” Or “These guys are really gonna indict Scooter Libby.” We’re just cheerleaders for it.
AP: OK, so how do you feel things are progressing in the US right now politically? What are some encouraging signs?
SB: A few guys in the band have been checking out Obama and are very interested in what he has to say. Alberto Gonzales…they nailed him down today! The process of pointing out the extreme right for what it is and pointing out the centrist Democrats for what they are. I see that happening often. Basically, I think the change in the weather is going to sound the alarm for many people. Even Thomas Friedman, the journalist, is speaking very optimistically about green industries. So, there are places to aim hope. But in terms of sizing things up in history, that’s beyond us. It depends how we feel that day.
AP: How is the current tour going? Any interesting stories from the road?
SB: Well, we got down with the drummer from My Morning Jacket at our show in Louisville. I love that band. It’s been a pretty mellow tour. The action’s in the music. Right now, we’re discovering new ways of playing. Birthing that sort of collective creativity is often very frustrating and terrifying if you consider that the band is not in its adolescent stage. We still want to grow and develop, we’re not satisfied doing the same things over and over again. Yet, what we’ve accomplished informs how we grade what we’re doing now. So, that’s a situation where, if you do not keep a good perspective, you can curse your musical child before it’s had a chance to develop. As artists, this is what we’re struggling with right now. I think it’s probably a very interesting time to see the band play.
AP: Any examples of what the band is changing around?
SB: Well, in our performances of “I.C.E.,” we’re not doing the contrapuntal chorale in the middle. We haven’t been. We’re sort of just exploring and riding the texture. Now, communicating that to an audience that has just been dancing for an hour is a hell of a challenge. We need to find ways to appeal and to tap into that side of our listeners’ psyches. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we always focus on it. There’s certain sorts of psychological devices performers can do to draw attention, to bring out the drama in a performance. We’ve never had to deal with the ones that are required of us when we’re playing some of these new songs. It’s a different dance we’re learning. The engaging of the audience and each other is all part of it, all of these things kinda flow around in a sort of whirlpool.
AP: The new album was produced by John McIntire (Tortoise). How was that experience? Do you think his involvement changed the band’s recording process?
SB: Absolutely. It’s a combination of his skills and the fact that what we prepared ourselves to do was a very different record than we’d done in the past. Our first three records and the two EPs were all similar in their recording process. The one with John was different, and we expected that. He didn’t sit us down and say, “This is how we’re gonna do it,” but instead, “OK, how are we going to do this?” And we all figured it out together. But we tried new ways of doing things with him.
AP: OK. To me, the album definitely sounds more focused than your previous recordings. Did you have certain goals in mind when you were recording?
SB: Oh yeah. His aesthetic is very fine. The way he records and mixes songs brings out all these different textures and layers. He’s painting with sound. That brought out a whole bunch of things that exist in our music. He brought those aspects out. But he also opened the door for us to try all kinds of new things. “Let me put some hammered dulcimer on this.” We were listening to Italian soundtracks with him and tried a few different things [in a] cinematic way.
AP: Are things going well in your relationship with Anti- Records so far?
SB: I believe so. The record industry is in a new state. They’re figuring it out. And we’re figuring it out. And it’s changing! So, it’s very difficult right now to predict things or know how to roll with them. It’s very difficult and often painful for an artist to try and evaluate what they’re doing in terms of business and marketing. In an ideal situation, we’re often shielded from those things and allowed to focus on the creative aspects and the refinement of our art. Because the arts has its own disciplines, and things that are very functional. An accountant will balance his ledger. A musician may forget the ledger, but he will practice his scales or edit his compositions or seek out new inspirations. So, while we’re very disciplined about that, we like the record label to help us with the business aspect of it.
AP: I’m hearing about a bunch of different strains of the Afro-beat scene from NYC coming out these days, even some of your fellow band members in other projects like Ocote Soul Sounds or DROID. How do you feel about the New York Afro-beat (and Afro-beat related) scene right now?
SB: Well, you can hear it all over the place. You can hear it in TV On The Radio, which I know because a bunch of us played it. There’s a band Celebration that we’ve worked with that’s got some great polyrhythmic chord sounds in there. Right now we’re trying to let go of the Afro-beat label. It was a subject of study for a long time, it was a springboard, but it’s become sort of a straitjacket. Anytime you make a new Myspace friend, it’s “Oh, there they are, the new ‘King of Afro-beat.'” So we listen to it, and it’s the same old shit! God bless them for making their beautiful music, and I know they celebrate it with their friends and their communities, but at the same time, we’re interested in a little bit more of an aesthetic relationship to music. We’re interested in a certain progress that isn’t about recreating things historically and that isn’t about playing this “new flavor.”
AP: Are you involved in any side projects yourself?
SB: Yeah, I do a great deal of production. I’m producing a blues record right now, and a pop record that’s by one of the other guys in the band.
AP: What kind of stuff are you guys listening to these days?
SB: Well, there’s Tinariwen, a Malian group…amazing! Neko Case’s new record is beautiful. Amy Winehouse is very popular. Some of the guys in the band play on her record. [The aforementioned] Celebration is a band that many of us just adore. It’s usually people that we are loosely associated with. That way you sort of check out the music from the inside; we stay pretty occupied with that. I gotta get that new Arcade Fire, I’m curious about what that sounds like. A saxophonist that works with Antibalas a lot is touring with them right now, playing trumpets and clarinets and stuff. The family expands. I also work with a guy from Wilco (Mikael Jorgensen), so I gotta hear their new record; I’m pretty excited about that. He (Jorgensen) and I got to know each other through a bass player named Matt Lux (Isotope) who is going out on tour with Iron & Wine right now. There’s that Brightblack Morning Light record, my friend Eli played percussion on it, I think we’re gonna play together in a couple weeks. The extended family is deep and wide.
It pains us to feel pigeonholed as world music, but at the same time, there are also people who don’t want to listen to anything but that and will listen to us simply because they can deal with us in that way. The artist’s struggle to be understood in any way beyond their actual art is bound to be a painful process and is futile really.
AP: Finally, for people that might be checking out Antibalas for the first time, can you give them something to expect from your show?
SB: They can expect intense rhythms. They can expect ecstatic horn solos. They can expect to have their minds, bodies, and spirits elevated and touched, figuratively.