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Artist Spotlight: Jagwar Ma

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Artist Spotlight: Jagwar Ma

Known primarily for their work in Lost Valentinos and Ghostwood respectively, Jono Ma and Gabriel Winterfield joined forces a couple of years ago to form Jagwar Ma. The duo’s new group has quickly built a strong reputation on the back of some hard-hitting singles that meld indie-dance grooves, '60s pop and a healthy dose of psychedelia. They’ve recently released their debut long player, Howlin, which has received gushing praise from all corners of the globe.

Prior to their sold-out show at The Standard in Sydney, Jono Ma spoke to Eventfinda about the album’s gestation, future plans and talk of them saving the galaxy.

You had to cancel shows here and in the UK and Europe recently because of health issues. Is everything OK now?

Well, we postponed the ones over there. We’ve got some shows coming up next week but it’s still uncertain whether I’m going to be well enough to do them or not. I’ve had some serious health issues, without going into much detail, which has kind of rendered me... I’ve kind of basically been in bed for about two months, which is pretty outrageous. I was in hospital for about three weeks. It’s been pretty serious and very frustrating. It’s just particularly bad timing leading up to the album release and everything.

As far as live shows go, we’ve kind of got a contingency plan; I’ve managed to train up a clone or a stunt double if you will, so we’ll be able to keep performing.

Both you and Gab were known for your work in other bands but how did Jagwar Ma come about?

We both playing in Sydney in two separate bands but we kind of operated in the same circles. We were playing similar venues, became fans of each other’s respective bands and ended up as friends. I started this project a few years ago a couple of other Sydney artists: Kirin J Callinan, Daniel Stricker and Julian Sudek from Mercy Arms. We started this collective, if you will. It sort of evolved into getting lots of different musicians from lots of different bands and doing these improvised performances. I got Gab to come along to a couple of those and we just got along really well, musically as well as friends. Then basically, when we were in down time with our respective bands we ended up starting to hang out and share musical ideas. I had a bunch of tracks that needed to be song on. They were electronic instrumental tracks that basically didn’t have a vocal so I played it to Gab and he ended up singing on it. That evolved into Come Save Me and that was the beginning of the band.

What were some of the common musical interests/influences you bonded over?

There’s certain things that crossover. At the time, Gab wasn’t listening to much electronic music, he was very much into '90s shoegaze, My Bloody Valentine, those sorts of bands which I was into but wasn’t into at that moment. I’d been into them a few years earlier. The one thing that we were both kind of excited by at that moment was a lot of old soul, Motown , R&B, garage from the late-50s/early-60s. I kind of wanted to make music that had the energy and the space of a lot of that music - and the poppiness of it - but also modern dance grooves and the energy of modern dance music.

We were both into the '60s stuff and he was writing songs on the side that were kind of in that style so it sort of made sense for us to team up and try and start a band.

What’s the status of Lost Valentinos and Ghostwood at this point; are they still ongoing?

Technically. There’s never been any sort of ‘alright this has ended’ but Nick moved to London a few years ago so it made sustaining a band kind of difficult. Pat and Andy are still making music together as Cosmonaut; they’re doing really great electronic music. We’re all still really close friends; when I was in London, I ended up staying with Nik and I live with Pat here in Sydney. As far as Lost Valentinos go, we’re still super-close and it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to see us do something further down the line. For now, the focus for me is, obviously, Jagwar Ma. As far as Ghostwood goes, I can’t really comment on that. I don’t really know where Gab and the other guys are at.

How does your writing/recording process work, is it usually music?

Most of the tracks on the album would start with the electronic instruments, and then Gab would sing on it. Then I’d go away and edit that and we’d add extra layers to it or tweak the arrangement around what he’d sung. There was also a track or two where Gab would come to me with a song that he’d written on guitar and then there were a couple of tracks where I’d just pull up a beat really quickly and we’d try and write a track in real time. Most of the tracks on the record, I’d generally, in my own time, try and create an instrumental platform for him to sing on.

How much of the music on the album was live versus sampled?

It depends how you look at it. Most of the sampled stuff is still played on a sampler and we’d create... it might start with a sample but I’d have to recreate the sample myself, which would involve playing stuff live and hitting stuff and then I’d put that through the whole process again. I’d load it into an FDC or an SPG or through a sampler and play it in real time and the loop it up. It’s like and electronic of hip hop approach to live-sounding music. I don’t know if that makes sense but that’s sort of how I saw it when we were making it. All the guitars are played live, obviously all the vocals, most percussion, most of the beats are played and then looped. There’s a backbone of 808 rhythms and things like that, which are obviously using drum machines.

It does vary from track to track as well. For example, a track like Four, the liveness in that was the mix. That was basically a whole bunch of loops that I pulled up on a desk and mixed in real time. So it was the most live mix; just pulling things up and out in real time and throwing things into delay like dub-style mixing. Another track like Let Her Go would be quite band-y in a way. That’s live guitar, live drums, live bass, with a little bit of synth in there. The production approach was electronic but it was essentially like recording a band, in a way.

In terms of live shows, what’s your set-up?

It’s a three-piece. We have a guy called Jack Freeman on bass and he does back-up vocals as well. Gab sings and plays guitar. I play guitar and I play synths and I do all the beats and stuff. There’s no live drummer; the beats, they’re running live off an actual 808 and I have the actual samplers I used on the recordings. We try to pull as much stuff out of the computer as possible so it’s the actual dedicated machines because I believe they have sort of a soul and a tone to themselves that you kind of lose if you run stuff off a laptop. Gab’s got a bunch of vocal loop pedals so he’s doing that layering vocal thing in real time so that way there’s no vocals on a backing track or anything stupid like that. It’s all layered live.

Obviously the album’s only just come out but has the thought of more material crossed your mind yet?

Definitely now, the schedule is full of live shows right until the end of the year, basically but I’m always thinking about the next steps or thinking about the next approach to the next record. I don’t think of it as ‘Oh, that record’ but more like an idea for a track or whatever. We’re constantly writing and demoing and always documenting new ideas but the focus now is definitely to tour this record. We’ve got a string of shows in the UK coming up like Glastonbury, Reading and whatnot. Then we’ve got Splendour and various other festivals here so I think live is going to take up most of our energy now.

Future Classic seems to have really kicked off in the last six months or so. Does it feel like good time to be on that label?

Absolutely. We’re on that label for Australia-only. We’ve got different labels for different territories; in the UK, we’re with a label called Marathon who are brilliant as well and in the US we’re with a label called Mom & Pop. For Australia, I think absolutely, Future Classic’s culturally correct for us in terms of that sort of middle ground between electronic music and live music. As you said, it feels like they’re really blossoming and I feel like we’re part of a really strong community of other artists like Flight Facilities, Flume, Touch Sensitive and various other bands on the label. So yeah, it feels really good to be part of that in this time in this country.

The praise heaped on the band already has been of a pretty high level, to the point that Noel Gallagher’s said that the future of the galaxy depends on your record (and the debut release from UK psych band Temples). Does hype intimidate you?

I find it kind of funny. Part of me finds it flattering. I don’t find it intimidating. This record’s done and it was already done when I saw that comment so there’s nothing you can do about the music then. I like to kind of hear that stuff and keep it at arm’s length to a degree. There’ll be a bunch of negative things that’ll be said as well, I’m sure. If you take everything on that’s been said or printed in the press I think it can start to distort your confidence or direction. When we wrote the record, there was no expectation. When we wrote Come Save Me, we didn’t even know that we were forming a band at the time. We were literally just making music and I believe that’s partly why it came together so quickly and with such strength and gusto, because it wasn’t over thought or second-guessed and one of the biggest toxins to that sort of mentality is focusing on press and what everyone thinks and the hype. You can’t avoid it but you just sort of laugh it off or not take it to heart.

- Michael Hartt