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If you ever meet Binker Golding – and you’ll know if you do, because he’ll be clutching a battered, sticker-slathered saxophone case so intently that you might think it contains some essential part of him, like his soul. Which, in a way, it does – then don’t ask him to play you a Christmas song. Even if he has his sax in his hands. Even if he’s asked for requests and it’s only a week or so before Christmas and Mariah Carey seems an obvious, innocuous suggestion.
Because long before he was an award-winning musician, before the groundbreaking albums with drummer Moses Boyd that marry experimental free jazz with jungle and afrobeat, he spent a week trapped on the set of Love, Actually playing ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ 30 times a day because the kid playing drums couldn’t play drums. “He was an actor, not a musician, so it’s understandable,” says Golding. “But the shoot was meant to take two days and we ended up in there for a week, playing the same song over and over and over again because he couldn’t get it right. It was like torture.”
So, no Mariah. Instead, he plays us something that to the untrained ear could be by John Coltrane, but could equally be one of Golding’s own compositions, or something written by one of those thousands of jazz musicians who revolutionised music in the 20th century but whose names, to the layman, have all but disappeared.
Golding’s no layman, though. He’s a student of this stuff. He can draw you the history of jazz from its birth in New Orleans a century ago, through its refashioning in New York in the 30s and 40s and 50s, by men whose names even jazz agnostics know – Miles, Thelonious, Dizzy, Duke. He can talk to you about its experimental 70s phase, or how its cool ebbed away in the 80s and 90s, when it became the finger-snapping, whisky-sipping music satirised by the Fast Show’s ‘Jazz Club’ (“Nice!”).
But he’ll also tell you about how it became exciting again. How its progressive spirit was rekindled by a group of likeminded, London-born musicians, who’ve dragged the music out of velvety clubs and into sweaty warehouses. Who are now performing to people who look like them, rather than the beards and tweed blazers brigade with which jazz, perhaps unfairly, was long associated.
He’s part of a interwoven scene that’s sprung up organically, in which bands form and cut records then morph into something else every week. He hooked up with Boyd while both were touring with singer Zara McFarlane, using their downtime to play together. When they decided to perform and create records together, they drafted friends like keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones and legendary saxophonist Evan Parker. Their music together is wild, improvisational and genre-hopping, at times sounding like John Coltrane playing sax over a heavy metal drum solo, at others whispery and intimate.
In an attempt to pin down how, exactly, the scene has mushroomed, and how he see it in the context of jazz’s long and winding history, we caught up with Golding in the bar at the Southbank Centre, in a break from teaching the next generation of jazz greats.
As a jazz musician, do you feel the weight of its past?
You have to learn all that stuff and assimilate it into your playing, but there is a tendency to only play like that. And I think that’s a danger because at that point, you cease being an artist. It just becomes a bloodsport of how closely can I nail this thing. And that’s all well and good in the practice room, but on the stage, that’s not the way to be. You may as well just eliminate all of your identity if you do that.
The whole point of jazz is change.
To do something different. You can’t let it become holy. As an artist you can’t let anything become sacred. You can love something, but I don’t think it should become completely sacred.
What first made you fall in love with jazz?
The tendency of it being able to change every night on the bandstand. And improvisation, really. That word encompasses a whole lot of things, but that’s the big, unique element of jazz, I think. If I got at least reasonably proficient at making stuff up, I could make up good music anywhere at any time for any reason. Knowing exactly what notes lie on the page, for me I can only do that part of the time. I need to – I need to be free, man [laughs].
It must be more exciting.
You can completely change it. The last tour I did with my quartet, we changed the tempos of the tunes every night. Deliberately. To see how they worked.
Is that why Alive in the East?, your album with Moses from last year, is a live recording?
What you hear on that record is exactly as it was. There’s no edits or anything. That was one show, it was ride or die. We chopped stuff out to get it down to 42 minutes, so we could put it on a vinyl, but we didn’t mess around with any of the notes. It’s exactly as it sounds. But we’ve never messed around with notes on any of the Binker and Moses stuff. They’re all live from the studio, or whatever.
You can over-engineer stuff and take all of that fizz out.
You can end up losing the essence of the whole thing. Something like this, there’s an articulateness in what may sound like inaccuracies to other people. It’s like the blues. If you listen to someone play the blues, someone who’s grown up with house music will say, ‘Hang on, 50 per cent of the notes this guy’s singing are out of tune.’ No, they’re not out of tune. It’s dead deliberate. It’s a certain articulation within the world of inaccuracy. That’s how we try to approach those sorts of things. It’s a way of licensing your mistakes. Even the mistakes are right [laughs].
It sounds like the most rewarding way to approach it.
Yeah, because a personality has many limbs. Most human beings do, they have many limbs for their personality and their mind and I think musically it should be like that too. Otherwise you’re maybe not telling the truth. You’re maybe being a liar and trying to live up to an expectation. Sometimes you have to go against it.
What is it about Moses that makes him such a good partner?
He’s very open-minded. As a musician. We disagree about loads of things, which I see as a good thing. We disagree about musical things sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes. We usually see eye-to-eye in the sense that we’re never too married to any of our ideas. If I’ve got an idea I think is really good but he doesn’t think so, I can usually drop it. He’s about the same. We’ve always been able to find this common ground of compromise before it gets to a conflict.
It must be about trust as well. ‘If you can see something I can’t, I believe you.’
Exactly. That happens sometimes. Another strength is the fact that we have similar backgrounds and we have similar taste in music. There’s a reasonably large overlap in our Venn diagram, but there’s plenty that we don’t. There’s plenty of music that I like that he can’t stand, and vice versa.
What sort of thing?
Some really severe modern classical stuff that I like. Or some of the really straight-ahead classical stuff, like Mozart. He respects it, but he doesn’t like it. Which I’m completely fine with. I think you’ll find that with a lot of musicians. They’ll really respect something but they don’t necessarily like it. They accept that, genetically, within the music it’s good. I think those are the only two things, but that makes up a lot of my listening. He’s really into house music, and most of that I can’t stand. Anything with a constant, four-to-the-floor drum beat. I just miss the point.
A lot’s been made about the London jazz scene about the cross-pollination of electronic music and jungle and hip-hop and afrobeat.
Jungle’s good. It’s more musical. Otherwise you can’t dance to it. I just can’t dance to something that has that techno beat. Because every beat is equal. Every now and again some of my mates will take me to a club, and they’re alway there like, ‘Oh yeah, this tune coming through’. I just think, ‘It’s exactly the same as the last one. I can’t tell the difference’. I’m the musician here and I can’t identify a change [laughs].
What did you listen to growing up?
Mostly it was rock music and hip hop. Remember in Terminator 2, the kid on the motorbike listening to Guns N’ Roses, but he’s got a Public Enemy t-shirt on? That’s a pretty accurate depiction of me at the time. I just wish I had the motorbike. And a robot [laughs]. Also Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepellin certainly, other bands of the time like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana I was massively into. Then hip hop-wise, Public Enemy, the Pharcyde, Cypress Hill, NWA, all sorts of people. KRS-One I was massively into.
How about jazz?
My parents were both big listeners of jazz music. I liked the genre, but I didn’t always like the choices that my parents made musically. But there was enough Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, [Thelonious] Monk. Those three were key as they formed my first positive impressions of jazz.
Something that really used to piss me off as a kid was when my parents used to be like, ‘Stop saying you hate this or you hate that, you have to be open-minded, you’re just going through a phase.' And I knew it wasn’t a phase but I didn’t have the vocab to articulate myself at the time. I was open-minded. How many six-year-olds listen to jazz? I just couldn’t articulate what I actually meant and to this day, I still – those certain tracks, I still can’t stand them.
Did you study music purely out of spite, so you’d learn the vocabulary?
Yeah. I studied theory so I could prove on paper why I hated those records [laughs]. I’m still very big into music theory, because you can make things that are seemingly subjective way more objective. This is something that I often argue with my students. They say I’m dogmatic. I don’t mind what someone’s taste is, but you shouldn’t talk about it how children talk about Haribo. ‘I love the cola bottles but I hate the eggs’. You can talk about it in a super-analytical sense. This is fucking correct, man. Or this is as close to correct as you can get. You can look through Jimi Hendrix’s work and you can prove it’s good. The music’s objectively good. You might not like it, that’s fine. But it’s objectively good. End of [laughs]. So yeah, maybe it is dogma.
Is there a creative tension between that analytical mind and then the freedom of something like your work with Moses?
The best thing to do is just to play and not to write music from an analytical point of view, because then it starts to sound like an exercise. But if you try to write and play from the heart, and let the heart be the judge of the music in the moment, that’s fine. You’ll end up with something that’s hopefully going to be a far more perfect version of itself. Then you can stand back, perhaps, six months later. But at best it’s all subconscious, and you can’t tell why it works. You’re just like, this has the essence of the human spirit and it’s unexplainable.
I think the best music, the very very best music ever, is in that class. It’s just unanalysable. You can’t actually say what it is about it that – it’s almost like it comes from god. Brian Wilson in interviews he’s asked how did you write Pet Sounds. And he said, ‘I didn’t write Pet Sounds, god wrote it’. It’s not him being big-headed, it’s him putting into his own words what’s really taken place, that he wrote it unconsciously. And that’s why it’s a perfect version of what it is, rather than tampering.
I guess part of being an artist is knowing when to be a conduit and let things flow through you –
Be a vessel.
– and then being able to step back and do the more conscious after work, the editing almost.
You use theory and editing when you know something’s either a little bit wrong, or someone’s on your back to get the work out.
What do you think is behind London scene right now?
I think it’s really hard to say. There’s a number of genuinely talented young people that are doing it, or are interested in jazz music and are putting things together. And the internet means you can make something and get it out there. The quality of the work is good, genuinely, but everyone is looking for a reflection of themselves in social media and internet land. So people are getting out there, putting the work out there, and they’re reaching an audience that looks like them. ‘Oh, I’m a 25-year-old person in London, with a nose ring and dressed like this. Oh, that person is, and they’re playing this music that I kind of like, I’ll look into that’. So the music itself, sure. And the artists, sure. But it just fits that bill of contemporary, young people’s lives. ‘I want to be an individual. I want to be regarded as unique. I’ve found this niche music that appeals to me. I’m the only one that knows about it.’ Maybe every time was like that. I think it was, probably. Punk in the 80s and so on.
When I first started listening to jazz, the only places you could see it were concert halls or very boujee jazz bars where everything was velvet. Now, it’s clubs or warehouses or festivals and these are places that people are used to experiencing live music. There’s not that extra threshold you have cross.
I can completely see that. Had I not been a jazz musician I would probably have never set foot in Ronnie Scott’s. Ever. I mean I really like the space but y’know? But it is a combination of the art itself and learning how to harness what’s around you. Not just social media, but spaces too in London, like Ghost Notes, and then bigger places, like Field Day festival realising that they can financially take the risk on that and it’ll pay off.
Ex Nihilo, by Binker Golding & Elliot Galvin, is released on Feb 1st on ByrdOut Records.
Words: Tom Banham
Photography: Matt Joy
Styling: Millie Rich
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