With the impending release of the group’s third studio album a mere week, the emcee half of Messiah J & the Expert sat down with Sputnikmusic’s Dave de Sylvia to discuss influences, recognition and bring Aesop Rock and Big Rizz out for a snack in the world’s best kebab joint.
An exclusive stream of five tracks from the new album can be heard here.
Jumping right in... how did you two meet and how did the group then come about?
The group came about in 1999. A long time ago now: 9 years. We met at an in-store, a Scratch Perverts in-store in what was Big Brother Records at the time. We were just introduced to each other, kind of like a “he makes beats; he makes words” kind of thing. And the rest is history. We formed a band named Creative Controle and then became Messiah J and the Expert.
How does the writing process work?
It’s a back and forth thing. It’s a lot of show and tell. It would a good idea that would start, be it a nice melody or nice drums or the lines of a chorus or something. It’s basically like a building-block thing; I’d say “I have these four lines” and he’d say “instead of going to a new verse you might have a bridge...” or he’d play a melody and say “I don’t know where this is going to go” and I’d say, “oh that could be on trumpets”- it’s very much back and forth between the two of us. Whereas in the past, definitely for the first two albums, we were a lot more like, “you do your thing and take it as far as I can get, then I’ll do my thing and take it as far as I can.” This time, there was a lot more of a group effort on the songwriting process.
Having said that, I’ll still write all the lyrics and he’ll still write all the music. We’ll give each other pointers. For me, the songwriting process in terms of when I don’t have the Expert with me, when we’re not in the studio chiselling things out, that’s when a lot of ideas are really tested. And some of them fall flat, and some of them we’ll go, “oh that’s got something.” When I’m writing by myself, I’ll just immerse myself. I’ll write for a long time- I’m definitely a “write a bit every day” kind of person. I’m not someone who waits around for some divine inspiration- it’d just never happen. I’ll always go with an idea as long as I can, but I’ll certainly do a little every day or else I’ll feel like a bit of a failure. I’m not writing at the moment because I’ve written so much for this album and for the last while I’m just taking a bit of a break to promote the hell out of it. I just throw myself in- I don’t like any distractions and I just “bleed” onto the page. That sounded very Shakespearian...
And where do the live instruments come in?
They came in just before the last album. Live instruments were introduced because we felt that it would give us a better sound. We would sound stronger and more forceful on stage, and we’d always wanted to play more than just two turntables and mics, which is kind of the traditional set-up for hip hop-orientated bands. We wanted to do something else- there’s nothing wrong with it, other people do it brilliantly- but personally we just wanted to do something else. We’d always played with bass on the tracks. We never really had a lot of programmed bass; there’s some on the new one, but we’d always have live bass on a lot of the songs, so it was a natural progression. And then we got this really, really sick guitarist in called G-Bone and sometimes a guy called Frankie. It made total sense and as we’ve progressed there has been far more live instrumentation. For example, on the new album there is a lot less- I mean, sampling is great and everything, but- less sampling and more original material such as ‘Jean Is Planning An Escape’ which is totally played without samples. I think we have been going more of the band route as we’ve progressed and we’ll continue to do that.
You’ve always had a strong indie rock influence in your music.
Yeah, definitely, that’s one of the sides of the “hexagon of influences” or whatever. Definitely, ‘60s psychedelic music and there’s reggae and there’s funk, and definitely indie rock could be heard on songs like ‘Panic Station’ and ‘Geography’- actually that’s the obvious one, the collaboration with the Delorentos. I think ‘Geography’ has also got a massive drum n’ bass thing going on with the crazy drums and stuff. I think it’s as present as the other stuff and I think there’s definitely soul through the record, a lot of Parliament-style funk and jazz breaks, stuff like that. If you look at ‘Megaphone Man,’ that’s got the whole kind of George Clinton “bump” to it. I think that manifests itself in a very weird way, but I think there are a lot of influences that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
The song with Leda Egri, ‘Turn The Magic On,’ reminds me a lot of the Cure...
Oh really? That’s a total compliment because I love the Cure.
... with the clipped guitar line.
Yeah, well pointed out! I never actually considered that one but I can see why you might think that. It’s definitely a kind of a ‘70s funk influence, you know, with the big horns and stuff. We listen to a lot of stuff like the Meters, James Brown, Stevie Wonder and things like that. That’s more the Expert’s bag- I love all that kind of stuff as well- but he’s the authority on soul and funk. He’s totally hard for it. That song is totally original, we wrote it totally from scratch. That again, started with the horn melody and blossomed from there. Then we got Leda and we thought she’d fit it like a glove, and she did. It’s one of my favourite songs on the album and it’s been a highlight for people I’ve spoken to so far. So, fingers crossed, it does well, but to compare it to the Cure is just pretty flattering in any shape or form.
There’s a real club element to songs like ‘Megaphone Man’ and ‘Jean Is Planning An Escape.’ Was that a conscious effort?
We didn’t sit down and say we want to make music “for the clubs” or anything, certainly not in a typical hip hop club way, but we definitely wanted to make stuff that wouldn’t feel too dense and that people could catch onto. We listen to a lot of dance music and I suppose that just manifested itself in the tracks. ‘Jean’ and ‘Megaphone Man’ are club in their tempos, especially ‘Jean Is Planning An Escape’ has got that four-to-the-floor dancey thing. I think it was just territory we wanted to explore. When club songs come on, they come on on big speakers, and when we mixed our album the test was always what sounded good on the giant speakers. We mixed the album away in Carlingford, in Louth, and there were these fuckin’ giant speakers and we’d put some tracks on- we’d put one or two of ours on- and we’d say “that sounds pretty good,” but it was before it was mixed. And then we’d put on something like the Prodigy or the Rapture, kind of clubby stuff, or put on something like Outkast and, just like, “Oh my fucking god”- the bass and the kickdrum, it was just amazing, and people like Timbaland are just the masters at that. That came across in those two tracks. They work well as club tracks- I think they’re kind of interesting if they are to be called club tracks in that they’re not necessarily, you know, about being in the club or drinking Courvoisier.
That was the one track that jumped out for me when MJEX opened for Aesop Rock earlier this year- how do you think the new songs are being received by the fans in general?
We’ve tested, I think, three of them so far while we were playing our last batch of gigs just before we finished off this record: ‘Keep The Noise Down,’ ‘Megaphone Man’ and ‘Jean Is Planning An Escape.’ To be honest, I think that they went down as well, if not better than, our previous stuff which is a good indication. People had gotten to either love or hate the old stuff- either way, they know it- and people have been saying “we really like the way you’re going.” Maybe that was just the people who said it to my face, but predominantly the reactions have been really, really positive. If I see a band I like and they road-test a couple of new songs, I should be able to tell if I like the direction they’re going in, and I hope that people saw that when they heard our tunes. Once we tour this album, we’re going to be playing the guts of the album. We’re trying to know every song on the album and we’re rehearsing really well. It remains to be seen, but I think some of them could be absolute monsters; particularly songs like ‘Geography’ should be really great live. But they’ve all got a similar sort of energy- none of them are slouches of songs. While we were making this album, the live setting was hugely important for us- tempo is very important, especially with live music, and we felt that much as we love our older stuff, particularly on the first album, there was a lot of slower stuff, a lot of mid-paced stuff, and you’re just a little too fast for being a slow song and you’re a good bit too slow for being a kicking song. I think, you mentioned ‘Jean Is Planning An Escape’ got you, well it’s got a lot of really good elements in it and it’s a really well-written song, but definitely the pace helps it.
You’ve made ‘Jean’ available for free download from MySpace, as well as other songs from the past on your site. What are your feelings on illegal file sharing?
Very confused, to be honest.
Do you do it yourself?
Very sparingly, to be honest. And when I have done, I’ve made a bargain with myself that I’d write it down and buy the stuff, but I’ve given it up for the past year or so, so it’s not something I personally like doing. I always like the physical record. I think it’s totally hypocritical if I do. I think it’s difficult sometimes- I might get a message on MySpace or Facebook saying “I downloaded your new album” or saying they got it for free, and I don’t know how to respond to it, you know what I mean? Part of me wants to say “you robbin’ bastard,” but there’s definitely a lot of people who don’t fully understand what they’re doing when they’re downloading and I think that’s a little frustrating because I am the musician that is essentially smashed and trying to sell a couple of albums. The whole downloading thing is... there is no clear answer for it and people will make up their own minds on it. If people are going to download for free, they’re going to do it and they don’t car. No matter how many warnings there are, they’re not going to heed them.
That’s fair enough but I, personally, am a bit of a nerd in that I buy albums just for artwork and the tangible product as much as anything else. It’s important that that doesn’t get neglected. I’ve friends who I’ve turned to and said, “hey, where’s all your CDs?” And they’d say, “oh, I don’t have CDs anymore,” you know, and everything’s on their computer. And I’m going, “what if you’re computer crashes, don’t you ever want anything else?” And maybe they don’t and maybe I’m the fucking Neanderthal thinking like that, but I value product, I value a collection. If I didn’t have a record collection or a book collection, I’d probably have no possessions bar some clothes. Every time I move house it’s just boxes of records and CDs and that’s pretty much the guts of everything.
Do you feel it affects Irish artists the same as it does British or American artists?
I think it affects Irish artists and I think it affects every artist. Some people say things like, you know, why does David Bowie need the download? Or does Metallica need the money? And in some ways it’s true, they’re not exactly short of a few quid, but that’s kind of like saying... if you rob from a rich man, does that make it right? No it doesn’t. Us as very ambitious, but financially restricted, artists feel the pinch. We are apprehensive as to the actual sales of our new album. Not because we’ve done anything wrong- it’s not a piece of shite or anything- but because things have changed an enormous amount since we brought out Now This I Have To Hear (in 2006). I mean, time will tell, hopefully we sell loads of copies, but I suppose it does affect you in the sense that, I’m saying what every other artist is saying, it is robbery but I just hope that people have a conscious and will pay into a show or buy a t-shirt. If people don’t pay for music, we can’t survive. I mean, I’m not saying everything revolves around us, but a million of us can’t survive and bands aren’t going to come through.
You were nominated for the Choice Music Prize in 2006 for Now This I Have To Hear, losing out to what would seem like a safe choice, the Divine Comedy...
At 50/1 I wouldn’t say it was a safe choice! But I know what you mean.
With your success, the Infomatics and Super Extra Bonus Party winning it this year, do you think the critical tide has turned a bit in favour of domestic hip hop?
I think so. I very much hope so. It means an enormous amount to us to have been nominated and it helped our career a lot...
20 grand would have helped even more.
Yeah, it certainly would have! I know this sounds like a really safe answer, but we didn’t expect to be nominated, and when we were nominated we felt somehow vindicated. You know, we believe in ourselves, and it was nice to see other people believe in us too, and I think a lot of people both within the industry and the public said, “oh! We can take these people seriously now.” And sometimes it takes that. Sure there were a lot of people who said Elbow were just another band, and how many Elbow albums were sold [on the back of their Mercury Prize win]? I bought the, what’s his name, Burial album on the back of him being nominated and I didn’t know him- it puts you in the spotlight. In the case of bands you’ve mentioned before, especially for bands like us and Super Extra Bonus Party and, the Infomatics make great music too, but they weren’t nominated, were they?
It just came out this year.
Oh, it’s this year, yeah, it remains to be seen. People are definitely more receptive to this whole thing, especially within this country. I’m not going to have a rant, but it has a reputation of being very narrow-minded when it comes to a lot of music, and it’s good to see that some people at the highest level are representing the reality of what people are listening to. When we were nominated it was a big surprise that Divine Comedy won. I mean I know that you mean about it being safe, but he was the absolute outsider. I put a tenner on. The ego got the better of me, but...
You’ve opened for a number of high-profile international acts- Public Enemy, Aesop Rock, Jurassic 5 to name but a few- have you ever been offered a dodgy gig you’ve had to turn down?
We’ve turned down gigs, but either because a) we’re not touring, or b) we’re in the middle of writing an album and we don’t have stuff ready and we’re not ready and we don’t want to give people half measures. I think you’ve got to time these things when you’re touring- you can’t just play any gig you’re offered because sometimes you’re offered no money and it’s impossible- you can’t do a day’s work for free. That would be the grounds we’ve turned down gigs, but there’s never been... we’ve been selective with the gigs we’ve chosen. I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but there’s been stuff where we’ve felt like we wouldn’t necessarily complement somebody musically, but if the likes of Public Enemy, Jurassic 5, Aesop Rock, El-P come along.
I mean, I’m kind of going against what I’ve said here, but we weren’t touring when Aesop Rock came along and we were like, we can’t really say no to this. He’s a hero. We just jumped on it- we worship Aesop Rock. Generally we see ourselves as being very privileged to be offered support for these fucking amazing groups. Aesop Rock was great to meet. I was totally starstruck. He’s a really interesting guy. In one way, meeting him was a bit of a letdown, not because of the person he was, but for me he just represents this mystery. I mean he was a great and interesting guy, and he’s an absolute hero. I think his last album is phenomenal. I think he is actually... the word “genius” is battered around, but he’s actually a genius. He’s got the most original way, bar none, in hip hop and I could never do what he does and I will not attempt to do what he does. He might be a bit too cryptic for some people.
He’s the type of person who can spit stuff where I’ll admit I have no concept of exactly what he’s talking about, but he’ll paint such amazing pictures and uses metaphors amazingly. When I met him, I suppose it was just the whole thing about mystery, when somebody is a mysterious character. Aesop Rock for me was this kind of agoraphobic, bug-eyed guy who I never really saw much in interviews. I heard he used to not perform in front of people and I think that was part of the charm, that sort of mysterious thing. Like I was saying with Burial, they weren’t quite sure who this person was. I mean it’s the sort of thing with meeting any hero, I think, you don’t have that same kind of hunger, you know, “what are they like?” But, total privilege, man.
He promised me a kebab...
Yeah, we actually sent him to Iskanders. Big Rizz was giving the thumbs up to the chicken kebab at Iskanders, so we did our part anyway.
Are you planning to kick on to the UK and Europe?
Yeah, very much so. We’re going to start with the UK and see what happens in Europe then.
Have you tried before?
Yeah, we tried it with the last album in the UK and it was very difficult. In retrospect, we probably didn’t tour enough, that’s where I think we were at fault, and it felt like we wasted some money. What money we had, we tried to do PR over there and it didn’t quite work out. In one way it was a blessing in disguise. I think we this one we have our strongest hand. It’s our 12 best songs and will do more damage than the last one would maybe have done. Not to slight on the last one because I love that album to bits but it’s definitely more accessible, this album. We’re really hungry and we’re ready to have another bite at it and I just think we have to tour a lot and play shitholes. Place that will test our character where nobody will know us, where we have to prove things to people to show them what the fuck we’re made of. We’re not scared of going to the UK, we’re just relishing it, you know? At the moment, we’re going to bring the album out in Ireland and early next year it’s going to be hardcore over there.
On the same label?
Yeah, Inaudible [Records, the band’s own label] all the way. We’re in control of our own destiny. We may not have all the funds or all the backing, and we may be under-resourced in some ways, but things are in our hands and we’re in complete control over what we do. I think we will continue that way and I think it’s following the model of a lot of other indie labels, like Def Jux and Domino. Obviously Domino have a much higher profile, as do Def Jux, but they do it with their own bare hands. It’s coming out on iTunes everywhere, so technically it’s available worldwide on the 17th, but physical copies will only be in a handful of places to buy. But then we’ll have a proper release and, hopefully, a big campaign in the UK. At the moment, America is quite a scary place and, to be honest, we don’t know how to start there but I think the next step is the UK and Europe as well.
Do Leda and Joanne [Daly, who guests on ‘Amnesia Comes Easily] perform solo or...
I don’t know what’s going on with Leda to be honest. Leda is very, very talented. Outrageously talented. You’re waiting for her to create stuff as much as I am because neither of them have stuff out at the moment but I believe they are both quietly doing their own thing. I want them to both bring out more stuff because Joanne is insanely talented and Leda is insanely talented and we’re just privileged to have them on our record. They definitely helped with all the melodies. It was very much a collaboration. We sat down and I’d have lines and I haven’t quite envisaged where they go, and Joanne or Leda would take them another way. They both turned out really well; they give stellar performances and they really break up the album nicely. Leda we worked with on the last album (on single ‘Something Outta Nothing’) and Joanne we have worked with as well on a lot of b-sides. She actually did distorted ghostly vocals on ‘V.I.P.’ They’re kind of long-term collaborators but for a very good reason.
What are you listening to?
Right now, I’m listening to a psychedelic compilation called Artefacts From The Psychedelic Dungeon which rules. It’s got all these bands on it, like, from the late ‘60s who released three songs and had to go and become butchers and bakers. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. There are some bands like the Move, or there’s early Pink Floyd stuff. I’m not a Pink Floyd fan by any means but the real psych stuff is really good. I’m listening to a Charles Mingus album called Oh Yeah. I remember G-Bone got it when he was in London three years ago when we were there, so I’ve been listening to that. I’ve listened to the Jape album a lot- it’s the business. I think that Jape is such an important Irish artist. He was great at Electric Picnic and I’m rooting for Jape all of the time. I think he’s a really nice guy and I hope things go well for him. I’ve also been listening to an album by a band called the Beginning Of The End called Funky Nassau, a pretty great funk album. I’m listening to the Kinks a lot. I’ve always listened to the Kinks, pretty much, but I kind of go through spells where I listen to them intensely for a while and then very briefly forget. I’ve been listening to Village Green Preservation Society. I think Ray Davies is in my top three greatest lyrici