Around us the laptops are glowing, lattes and herbal teas are being sipped, and, in all likelihood, some pretty important cultural and media decisions are being made. The coffee shop at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth – the Fazeley Social to give it its proper name – is the kind of place where serious business is done in 2014. And Sam Slater and I are here to talk business, too: his new business, Stoney Lane Records.
Sam is more familiarly seen behind an acoustic guitar with fellow gipsy jazz specialist Jamie Fekete. They had started out while still students as two-thirds of the all-Spanish guitar Trio Gitano; now they co-lead the bigger TG Collective, a band which mixes jazz, flamenco and contemporary classical elements with that core gipsy sound.
But Sam had realised early on that there needed to be more to his musical career than simply being behind an instrument, starting Mubu Music, a production and curating company, with good friend Percy Pursglove, and now a record label. But we started at the beginning…
Q What is your earliest musical memory and what prompted you to head for a career in music?
A A couple of my earliest musical-playing memories are probably both messing around on pianos/keyboards until I worked out vaguely how to play something I recognised. One was in a chapel in West Brom where my Nan and Grandad used to do a lot of work, so I often went with them when it was quiet on a Saturday and made a racket! My other Grandad also brought a keyboard (he started to learn to play Lloyd-Webber hits when he retired!), so I probably used to drive them mad trying to play the Match Of The Day or James Bond theme with a pipe organ sound effect.
Career-wise – surely doing a History degree is reason enough to try and be a musician? I’m not sure it was a definitive call at the time – after leaving Uni, the guitar trio I was 33.3% of (Trio Gitano, now TG Collective) was doing quite well so we just carried on playing as much as we could, around Birmingham, and then further afield. I was working as well, but over time I was able to do more and more things music-based.
Q Where did the interest in jazz come from, and what about other musical influences: Spanish music especially?
A Jazz I think initially came from my guitar teacher, Bryan Lester, probably when I was around 12 or 13, learning the music of Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli, and a couple of other standard jazz tunes. But I think I really started to discover and explore the catalogue more when I was 18 or 19, when I first starting going to basement jam sessions at the Big Peg in the Jewellery Quarter – a brilliant vibe, and a real mixture of musicians – Brummies, students, graduates, DJs, singers, beatboxing, instrumentalists, bands and some really varied styles of jazz and beyond.
Classical and Spanish/flamenco music again probably stemmed from Bryan, who has quite eclectic tastes, which makes it far more interesting to learn the nylon-strung guitar when you’re not just playing traditional classical repertoire.
More recently I’ve started playing the oud and listening to a lot of Anouar Brahem’s music, using Arabic scales and traditions in a more modal jazz context. In the past I’ve done a lot of work with sitar and tabla as well (a whole life’s study in itself with the discipline and feel of North Indian time cycles and rāgas) which is also very open to improvisation.
Q Do you think it’s important for musicians to embrace the business side of their chosen profession. And to keep control/ownership of their music?
A Definitely, although it’s equally important not to lose sight that you’re still a musician and not get completely swallowed up into the business side, otherwise you’ll be lost forever! Saying that, you consistently need to do a lot for yourself, so the more flexible and clued-up you can be in different areas the better. You often need to be your own agent, designer, web-coder, promoter, tour booker, video editor, social media expert and press plugger.
Music is now consumed over so many types of media and formats that you have to be on top of them all, aside from developing the live side of your career, and creating something dynamic and original to be able to promote in the first place.
Unless you’re going to get genuine career-changing support and promotion from people you trust, wherever possible it’s best to keep ownership of your music.
Q Tell us a bit about Mubu Music…
A Mubu began a few years ago, which I setup along with my good friend Percy Pursglove. It has evolved a little, so we now focus on producing, curating and programming interesting jazz, world, folk, contemporary classical and improvised music. In the last 2-3 years, we’ve been producing a really varied programme of family, community and education-based performances and outreach workshops alongside the excellent Education and Programming team at Symphony Hall. We’ve also produced the music for several of the main strands at the International Dance Festival Birmingham, programming for various other festivals, and also a lot of flamenco performances and workshops in schools.
A lovely mixture. We always aim to keep the quality and standard really high, working with Birmingham-based artists where we can so it all feeds back into the local scene.
Q And now Stoney Lane Records…
A A more recent adventure… the label began when we self-released a TG Collective album in 2012. At the time it was only through necessity and for our own music, but I had the idea in the back of my mind that it would be nice to create more of a working record label. Over the last year, knowing several brilliant local players and friends were planning on recording or planning new projects, it made sense to come together as a collective support and promotional basis for us all, which helps to shout a bit more about the great (yet sometimes under-exposed) scene and original music we’ve got bubbling away here.
From that base we can then develop more artistic collaborations too. We have a series of performances kicking-off in summer 2015 at Kings Place in London – all double-bills – where we’ll have the two bands writing new music together to debut at those gigs.
It’s not a big profit-making venture for the label – if it helps to push careers, new artistic directions, opportunities and projects, great happenings, more national and international prominence for the musicians and scene here, and not losing much money in the process, then we’re on the right track.
With distribution in place, a lovely press and PR guru and a great engineer we work with, we’ll be releasing some wonderful music over the next year, with Chris Mapp’s Gambol, Lluis Mather’s Quintet and Nonet, the Mike Fletcher Trio, and hopefully, if we can fund it, an album by trumpeter Percy Pursglove. He’s written a really imaginative suite of music for choir and eight-piece band, which premiered to a full-house at the CBSO Centre in October and blew everyone’s socks off!
Q You say Stoney Lane [the label takes its name from a former West Bromwich Albion ground – Sam is a stalwart Baggies fan] grows partly out of friendships. How important have these been and how important is Birmingham and its musical scene to you?
A For me it’s a large part of why I’m still a musician and started the label. Of course the love of music is fairly integral, but touring, performing, writing, collaborating, arguing and learning from friends and contemporaries is at the heart of it. I think that carries over to the chemistry and relationships on stage, and being conscious of the strengths of the musicians you write and arrange for.
In context of the label, it’s definitely a labour of love rather than a financial one, so it helps if you like and understand everyone you work with! It’s people that make and create the scene and vibe, so the more you can help each other out, collaborate, bring in new faces and ideas, and keep people in Birmingham, the more everyone feels part of a growing and exciting scene and city.
Q Do you think there is a characteristic sound/ethos/style to the jazz being made by young Birmingham musicians?
A Musically, not anything dramatically different to the rest of the UK, that I’m clever enough to discern, at least! But what I think we do have is a lot of originality and ideas popping up in the make-up of bands, instrumentation, performance ideas and writing, with a lot of it accessible and crossing a lot of musical genres, and not just academic music that sings its way straight out of music college for the sake of being clever.
A lot of musicians who studied here and now in their late 20s or early-30s have been in the city long enough to become a bit more Brummified too, so the slightly self-deprecating and modest outlook is always a good trait!
Q How do you see the scene here developing? How would you like it to develop? What does it need to help it?
A We have a very good focal organisation in Jazzlines at Town Hall Symphony Hall, which runs a big development and education programme, as well as a wide scope of gigs. Equally, it’s healthy that we have three or four regular independent, successful weekly sessions too.
Dare I say I think a successful label might help a little?!
It would also be nice if we could have a flagship jazz festival bearing the city’s name that could compare with the likes of London and Cheltenham, pulling in international artists, commissions, audiences and broadcasts. However, I think it’s good we’ve got jazz strands in the Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul festival, and a couple of smaller artist-run festivals, which is much more than we had five years ago.
It’s not always finance that is needed, as you can do a lot of work on your own without loads of cash, but alas it does play a significant part and often helps to speed things up and develop new audiences/venues/commissions/mentoring, etc, so to see more devolved investment and inventive, risk-taking projects funded outside of London by big business and public funding bodies would be a big benefit.
It would also be useful for the BBC to have a serious street-level musical and media presence here across radio, TV, online and education.
Q Name your favourite album – the one you’d “save from the waves” in Desert Island Discs parlance… And why do you like it so much?
A Impossible! I’d have enough trouble choosing the eight you’re allowed. Predictable cliche, but I’d have to take a couple of Miles albums – Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain probably, as they are still unsurpassed on so many levels. Then I’d sneak some Paco de Lucia or Django through desert island customs, with a bit of Bach, John Barry, Anouar Brahem and a rogue Pavement album for good measure.
- To find out more about Stoney Lane Records go here.