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Interview: AJ Holmes talks to Run Riot about smashing High Life, Palm Wine & Afro Rock

He's one of Run Riot's all-time favourite musicians and DJ's - having graced our events and house parties on several occasions we're loving staying in-tune with mister AJ Holmes. The man and his band, The Hackney Empire have an album coming out - and an imminent gig. Off course, we're going - who'd miss it? Here Anthony Chalmers catches up with AJ to hear about the High Life.

Born in Barking & Dagenham in the industrial far east of London, A.J. Holmes discovered a love of playing African music through a chance meeting with legendary African musician Folo Graff; Learning to rock the Afro Pop guitar style, A.J. became obsessed with the good time sounds of West and Central Africa and set about forming a band.

The Hackney Empire: Vocalist, Sabine, percussionist, Dasi and drummer, Ged were recruited one New Year's Eve after an all night jam when A.J. saw they were just what he needed. Later finding guitarist and pop guru Martyn and bassist/Brazillian groove queen Abi completed the lineup and the beauty of the band.

This eclectic bunch are the perfect match for A.J.'s flamboyant stage persona, providing the solid backing to allow A.J. to weave his unique blend of Pan African guitar styles with English lyrical wit and satirical observations.

The success of the band's early shows saw them invited by white-hot electro producer duo, Radioclit (M.I.A., The Very Best, Amadou & Mariam) to become the Secousse club - made famous for it's nights of tropical madness - resident house band. Once there, the ensuing chaos on the dance floor left no ass unshaken and month after month saw guests blown off stage.

Support slots with David Byrne soon followed along with collaborations with some of London’s finest African musicians from Palm Wine legends Abdul Tee-Jay and Papa Milo to Nigerian grime star, Afrikan Boy. They have also smashed the likes of Secret Garden Party, Big Chill, Lovebox and Thames Festival whilst also rocking the stages of the Royal Festival Hall, Islington O2 Academy and Gulbenkian Lisbon and many more.

Anthony Chalmers: Hello, thanks for having a chat with Run Riot. Seems like it's a quite an exciting time for the band with a new album coming and the biggest show yet at Village Underground. How's things going from your side?
AJ Holmes:
Yeah I'm feeling pretty excited about the above!

Anthony Chalmers: I first caught you guys at Shacklewell Arms supporting Zun Zun Egui a couple of years ago - but I think you had already been going quite a while, right? When did you guys start?
AJ Holmes:
Yeah we really enjoyed that show. We've played with Zun Zun Egui - who are brilliant -  a few times, they are one of our favourite bands to play with.

We started at the beginning of 2009. It was great start because I had given a CD of songs to Glenn Max the then programmer at the South Bank Centre. I didn't really think much more of it. Then a few months later I got an email from him saying he loved it and he wanted me and 'The Hackney Empire' to support David Byrne at Royal Festival Hall. Which was crazy because the band didn't actually exists at the time. I'd largely played all the instruments myself - with the help of a few friends - on the CD I'd given him. So I had the songs, I had the band name - and I had a gig with David Byrne! All I had to do now was form a band. So I had to set about finding the best musicians for the job pretty sharpish! Six weeks later we played our first gig at Secousse: Notting Hill Arts Club and then two days after at the RFH. Which somehow reminds me of what Orson Welles said "I started at the top of this business and slowly worked my way down."

Anthony Chalmers: What's your musical background?
AJ Holmes:
At first I wanted to play classic indie music. I wanted to write songs like The Smiths - I mean who in their right mind wouldn't? I played one of my very early songs to a drummer friend - I think it's worth mentioning that he's British Jamaican. He got really excited and said "you do know you're playing African music right?" as I started to play a Soukous beat to it. It hadn't occurred to me before that but I had to admit on hearing him put this rhythm to my song it fit perfectly and really brought the music alive. When I moved to Hackney I met my neighbour Folo Graff. He's one of Sierra Leone's finest musicians - and one of the best African music teachers in the world apparently - he taught me to play 'proper' African Guitar, so I lucked-out there.

Let me tell you a bit about the band. Gedman (Drums / Samples) has a background in Hip Hop, Jazz and High Life. Sabine's (Percussion / Synthesizers / Vocals) background is in Samba / Batucada. Martyn's (Guitars / Synthesizers / Vocals) is in Prog and Sound Engineering. Abi (Bass / Percussion / Vocals) - like me - was a teenage Indie Rocker and then got into West African and North East Afro Brazilian music.

Anthony Chalmers: Had you played in many bands before?
AJ Holmes:
Yes. I think we all put it about before we found true love in this band. Which is great because everyone came to the band with relevant experience.

For example, before I formed the band I was playing with the 20 piece Congolese Soukous outfit Les Beaux Gosses de Berlin. Gedman was playing with African music legend Papa Milo (who puts in a featured artist spot on our album). And Abi was playing with the amazing London based Afro Brazilian band Maracatudo Mafua. So most of us already had a good idea of the sound I was going for.

Anthony Chalmers: How did your passion for Afrobeat get going?
AJ Holmes:
I don't think any of us are that passionate about Afrobeat in general. Although, I'm sure we'd all agree that Fela Kuti and The Africa 70 were phenomenal. We're more inspired by other West African music styles like High Life, Palm Wine or Afro Rock and Congolese music like Rumba, Cavasha or Soukous.

For me the passion for 'African Music' comes from growing up in east London where there is of course a huge African community - and regularly hearing the music from an early age because of this. The borough that I grew up in - Barking & Dagenham - has had the most amount of immigrant 'settlers' out of all the London boroughs in the last 15 years. This has its negative sides; for example as a backlash, the BNP got voted - thankfully only breathily - into local government. One of the many positive sides of this high number of immigrant residents is the inevitable cultural cross pollination - which I totally embraced. It seems the most natural artist statement given my background.

Anthony Chalmers: What can we expect from your album / live set?
AJ Holmes:
Album wise: 9-banging British Afro Pop songs, well thought out production, all-star guest features (old school to contemporary), some pretty slick mixing, top quality mastering, beautiful artwork, a tight concept... and all-round bloody good value for money record! It's officially released on the 14th Jan 2013 on Moringa Music but you can buy it before then at our shows.

Live wise: We're really looking forward to playing support for Baloji especially after we heard that he will bring a band lead by legendary Congolese guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku with him.

I'm not gonna give too much away, but all I can say - like all our shows - we intend to completely smash it! We've also enlisted some of the artists that feature on the album - the mighty Afrikan Boy and Kastro - as super-guests.

We're very much a live band. For example on the album we didn't quantize or auto-tune anything. The album is pretty much a swished-up live performance and any 'mistakes' were left in. I'm a firm believer that 'Perfection is overrated'. Like all the classic African recordings that have influenced our sound; the 'imperfections' is where the sex is. I felt the last thing the world needed right now was another record that had been quantized and auto tuned to the point that it was no longer recognisable as a human performance. I have no problem with those these type of records - I actually really enjoy them - I just felt it was important for us not to make one.

So, because we focus a lot on the live aspect - as much as I warm to modesty - I think it fair to say our shows tend to be pretty good.

Anthony Chalmers: You have a pretty strong look fashion wise. Is the appearance of the band important to you?
AJ Holmes:
Thank you that's very nice of you to say so. We call our look Cocknicolor. It's a mix of the London Pearly Kings and Queens and Congolese sapeurs. Yes, the visual representation of the band is very important to me. I wanted something that reflected the music; as there is the African influence and there is that of my own personal family background (east end white working class) that both equally inform the bands identity and output. We have an amazing stylist called Iman Ogoo who designs our shirts.

In general I feel it's important for any artists to be concerned with the visual representation of their work. Stages are there for a reason. They are raised above the surrounding ground level so that people can get a better look at you. If you are going to step on a stage, then at least be polite enough offer people something to look at, even if that something is 'nothing'.  

Anthony Chalmers: If you're DJ-ing at a party what are your 3-party starters?
AJ Holmes:

#1 Chief Boima & Uproot Andy - Sina Makossa Remix
#2 Batida - Alegria
#3 and the ultimate party starter: Atumpan (Talking Drum) - The Thing

Anthony Chalmers: Any favourite bands in London you like playing with?
AJ Holmes:
I really love playing with The Very Best, although I've only DJ'd at their live show as - despite the fact that they formed here and Johan the producer / co-writer lives here - they hardly ever play in London.

I always enjoy playing with Afrikan Boy. He's a real power house and we always play a few songs together, which is a highlight for me.

Maracatudo Mafua and us is a great combo and a good laugh for me as they always manage to rope me into taking part in their dance rituals at the end of the show.

The Chap are one of my all-time favourite London bands - although half of them live in Berlin now.

Vadoinmessico are also great and I think work really well with us.

Anthony Chalmers: Anything you would like to plug while we are here?
AJ Holmes:
Well, only our show on the 28th November and the album release on 14th Jan 2013. I think that's enough for now.

Official site: ajholmesandthehackneyempire.co.uk

Next gig:
AJ Holmes and the Hackney Empire
with Baloji
19:30, Thursday, 28th November 2012
at the Village Underground
54 Holywell Lane
London EC2A 3PQ

Interview by Anthony Chalmers, anthonychalmers.com

Read our interview with Baloji here.