Kwes portrait
06.08.2013, Words by Ruth Saxelby

Kwes interview: "I just wanted it to be as free as possible."

I get lost twice on the way to Kwes’s east London studio. The slightest of wrong turns and I am disorientated in the city in which I’ve lived for ten years. Not that his studio is anywhere near the east London most will be familiar with: it’s away by the river, down a winding road that opens up to a panoramic view of the most awkward building the capital has yet to spawn: the Millennium Dome, with its inviting curves tempered by those almost embarrassingly gangly limbs. It’s hard to tell if its an sensory illusion fed by the late morning sunlight bouncing off the gently rippling river, but the air feels cleaner. There is space here.

Past a greasy spoon serving up English breakfast to dockside workers for under four quid stand a number of shipping containers, some of them renovated as office spaces, others – stacked on top of one another – claimed as homes, and a small handful that have been fitted out as music studios. Micachu has had a spot here for years, Sunless 97 are just round the corner and sound engineer Dilip Harris who mixed Mount Kimbie’s recent album is just across the way. Friends, fresh air and a sense of space: it could hardly be a better setting for Kwes. The London producer, who still lives at his family home in Lewisham (he’s saving up to buy a place), got his studio here just over a year ago and he’ll later tell me how it has changed his life. 

Right now, though, he’s full of apologies for a few minutes tardiness. While he’s as tall and smiley as ever, the first thing that hits is an absence of shyness. The last time we’d spoken was after his triumphant debut live gig in winter 2011. I say "spoken", but the only words came from me: Kwes was speechless at the applause he’d just received. Having spent the past year touring ‘Meantime’, his debut EP on Warp, that shyness has gradually – naturally – worn away. That’s not to say he’s all bravado now; rather a warm, open eloquence has replaced his early self-consciousness. 

There’s plenty to talk about, too, as the young producer (he’s still only 26, despite having almost a decade of producing experience under his belt) has kept his head down these last couple years. Alongside ‘Meantime’, with its standout single Bashful, there was his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to make a record with Damon Albarn, Actress and local musicians for Oxfam, his production and touring work with Bobby Womack (“He’s lovely, so relaxed. I don’t really say much when I’m around him, I just listen.”) and, oh yeah, the small matter of the opera he did. Not to mention working on records for artists as wide-ranging as DELS and Eliza Doolittle. All of that, impressive as it is, is not the reason I’m here though. I’m here because Kwes is finally – thankfully – working on his own debut album and Dummy has been invited along to find out how it's going. The heavy metal door of the shipping container studio is unlocked and photographer Aoise Tutty and I are invited inside to spend a moment in Kwes’s world.

It seems like the last couple of years have either been spent working on someone else’s record or off doing something amazing. What experiences stand out to you?

Kwes: Congo, that was massive. Congo and before that I was playing for Leftfield playing to crowds of 20,000+ every night was ridiculous. Doing Jimmy Fallon with Bobby Womack was nuts as well. Working on the opera, that was mad. There are so many incredible experiences – and just getting this studio as well, April last year. The novelty’s still not worn off. 

How do you approach each of these very different musical projects? 

Kwes: I just look at what the person needs and just do it really. I’m just being myself. I’m not really over-thinking how I approach each of these projects, I just go in and do it. 

What did you take away from the DRC experience?

Kwes: What did I take away from that? I don’t know, just to be appreciative of what I have, y’know. And it kind of reaffirmed for me that having limitations is a good thing. It forces you to work in different ways. 

In terms of creating instruments, rhythms, music?

Kwes: Yeah, any of those activities – having certain limitations and perimeters in which to work. You just come up with other things you wouldn’t have come up with if you had everything at your disposal. I think…I think so. I can think of a few examples when an artist has had too much to work with and as a result the work doesn’t sound as good – but I don’t want to go into that [laughs].

From ‘No Need To Run’ to ‘Meantime’ and now with your debut album, have your personal intentions towards making music changed? In what you’ve been reaching for?

Kwes: My album has been in the making for a good three or four years. I’ve been thinking about it whilst making ‘No Need To Run’ and I guess the single before that. I think I’ve made the album I’ve always wanted to make. I’m not in that place now but I feel like it’s a really honest record, it’s where I was at that time and I wouldn’t have made it any other way. 

I didn’t realise there was that much parallel creation. 

Kwes: Yeah, I’d written maybe two or three of the album songs when ‘No Need To Run’ came out. 

That was obviously heavily instrumental, and so was such a surprise when you sang at your debut live gig back in 2011. 

Kwes: There was a low-key single that came out before ‘No Need To Run’ that was vocal: Hearts In Home/Tissues. Not because it was such a small-scale release but I was a reticent performer back then – I still am now. It became a lot more obvious when ‘Meantime’ came out. 

Oh yes, of course. Bashful was such a revelation though. 

Kwes: It’s still playing in TK Maxx and all of that. I haven’t heard it there but I keep getting messages. 

"I just wanted to get out what I was feeling and what I was seeing from other people and just filter that through my creative process, however long it took. For a good year I hadn’t been making anything. I just hit a massive creative block." – Kwes

You say you made the album you wanted to make: what did you want to make?

Kwes: I just wanted to make… it was a cathartic record. I just wanted to not hold back. If the record undertakes a certain mood, I’m just going to run with that mood. I wasn’t thinking in my head, "I’ve got three or four upbeat tracks and I should do some downtempo ones". I wasn’t thinking about tempo or anything like that. I just wanted to get out what I was feeling and what I was seeing from other people and just filter that through my creative process, however long it took. For a good year I hadn’t been making anything. I’d made maybe a third of the record and I didn’t make anything for six, seven months. I was just listening to other music and listening to what I’d made. I just hit a massive creative block. I was doing the touring as well so the headspace just wasn’t right for me to carry on working on the record, which is why it took so long. I was working on other people’s music as well. 

Are there any specific things you feel you’ve learned from working on other people’s records?

Kwes: It’s something I did already but just listening. Learning when not to do anything. That’s a really important part of being a producer: learning when to do nothing, to sit back and listen to everything that’s going on. If there’s a need to take whoever you’re working with out to dinner or to just sit with them and talk, or for them to just go home. You don’t have to be busying yourself with stuff when you’re producing a record. You’re overseeing a piece of work; that’s all you’re doing really. I’m trying to realise what the artist or band is trying to make: I’m a vehicle for that. If they want me to impose myself on their work then I’ll happily do that but that’s not the crux of my job. 

So with your own album, did you work with any other people?

Kwes: Regarding the music, I did it on my lonesome.

How does that that work when you are essentially the orchestra and the producer?

Kwes: It’s just songwriting to me. I make stuff quite quickly but then it takes really long because I just sit with it, listening to it. Sometimes I’ll have an entire song in my head and I’ll know exactly what to play and put it all down in a half an hour to an hour and then leave it for six months. Go through that process of loving it and hating it, and adding things then deciding I don’t need to add those things. 

When you say “a whole song in your head”, is that like you wake up with it?

Kwes: It’s happened like that a couple of times. Or I could be washing up and I have the entire song playing in my head and go and put it down. Or as a starting point I’ll get my phone and sing or hum, make noises for each of the parts, just so I have a mental idea. And then I go in [to the studio] and put it down. But then sometimes it can be a very freeform process. I’d have the vocal melody and the lyrics already done in my head and then it’ll just be a process of finding out what works with the lyrics. Sometimes I have lyrics and no melody. 

How has getting this studio – and the sense of space it has – seeped into the music?

Kwes: It’s been amazing for my headspace. I’m just away from everything. But I’m not too far from everything as well. I’ve got an amazing view. I can go out, have a look around and not have to do anything for a little while. I’ve got this place 24 hours a day so I can go out and not come back until three or four in the morning and then just carry on. 

How did you find it?

Kwes: It was through Mica [Micachu] – and through Dilip [Harris], a mix and recording engineer. He’s had his place here for four or five years now. He mixed The Invisible records and he recently did Mount Kimbie’s record. They wanted to record drums in here but I was doing the opera and couldn’t do it. I love that record. 

So you’ve got this space – how much of this gear did you already have? Could you could talk me through the equipment in here?

Kwes: I had this Roland Gaia, which I used live a lot last year, this Fender Mustang Bass… I had a little keyboard somewhere – here it is. This is the first keyboard I got when I was five or six. I’d have to ask my nan. She got it from Avon. 

The make-up people?

Kwes: Yeah, she got it from the catalogue, from the Avon Lady. Then I had this audio interface. I had the mini-accordion that Elan [Tamara, his girlfriend] got me. My friend got me the Melodica in the corner in the claret case. I had the sampler, my laptop but then I got the piano a week or two after I found the studio.

Where did you find it?

Kwes: Gumtree. £450. Bargain. And it was just the other side of the river in Greenwich, so it cost me nothing to get over. It was in pretty much new condition. It just needed a bit of tuning. 

What about the Wurlitzer there?

Kwes: The Wurlitzer I got a few months ago. I use this Wurli emulation in Logic and I tried to get it sounding as live as possible but I’ve got the real thing now. It has its own kind of distortion. It could just put you to sleep really; it’s really calming. 

It’s a handsome looking piece, as well. 

Kwes: I’m sure it’s been around, it’s probably been gigged a lot. I turn it on and I get a load of noise sometimes – when I turn the volume. I got it on eBay. The guy who sold it to me lived in Hackney and drove it to me the next day.

"This is the first keyboard I got when I was five or six. I’d have to ask my nan. She got it from the Avon lady." – Kwes

So when you were essentially gearing up this space to finish your album, were you really clear on the sounds you wanted?

Kwes: Yeah, I was really clear on all of that but I also left enough room for other things to happen. For other sonic artifacts to seep in. There’s a lot of iPhone noise on the record. I didn’t want to be restricted by what I already had in my head. I want to leave room for whatever. If I ended up using trance synths on the record then so be it. I just wanted it to be as free as possible.

What makes you want it to be so free?

Kwes: Just keeping things fresh. I wanted to make a record I’d want to listen to repeatedly. Although with some of this record I find it hard to listen to because it’s so close to my heart as well. I was listening to it this morning though, which is a good sign.

Are there other records you’ve listened to over the years that have that life-creeping-into-the-recording feel?

Kwes: Oneohtrix Point Never’s last record ‘Replica’. That’s one of my favourite records of the last five years. I absolutely love it. I heard his new record not that long ago: the guy’s a genius, man. I guess Brian Eno’s record ‘Here Come The Warm Jets’ is one I’ve listened to load. I love how fun it is. I think that really inspired this record. The freeness of it. 

Skipping back a second: when you say iPhone noise, do you mean the noises it makes going off in the background?

Kwes: No, I did a lot of recording onto the iPhone. I was sitting on the cable-car [outside his studio] when I recorded some of the song. I’d done an all-nighter in here one Saturday and I got in the cable-car from Royal Victoria – it’s a five/ten minute journey – and I sat there and recorded a conversation that a kid was having with his mum and dad, and that ends up toward the end of one of the tracks. 

The space creeping into the record. 

Kwes: When I was witnessing that, I was thinking that was quite beautiful.

What were they talking about?

Kwes: I think they’d just been on a boat and the kid was talking about how friendly the guy on the boat had been. He kept mentioning him and then his attention got diverted: oh, look a boat. That’s a man, that’s a woman. I thought that was quite beautiful so I put it in the track. 

You mentioned there’s a lot on the album that’s close to your heart. What emotionally in your personal life has fed into the making of it?

Kwes: The happier times are spending time with family and friends. The usual stuff. Some of the lyrics are quite bleak but that’s where the private jokes come in. For example, there’s a track on the album named after the door number of my grandparents’ house because I wrote the song for them.

It that the same grandma who got you your first keyboard?

Kwes: Yeah. 

Have they heard it?

Kwes: Not yet, I probably will play it to them. It’s just a track reminding them of one another. My granddad was diagnosed with dementia at the end of last year. It’s pretty severe so they’ve put him on antidepressants. He’s been a lot calmer recently but every now and then he’d get agitated, sometimes to my amusement, you can only just laugh at the situation sometimes. I was spending a lot of time with them earlier this year because I wasn’t touring as much. That song just came from sitting with them. The final track has an excerpt of me sitting with my granddad and Only Fools & Horses was on and we were watching that having a cup of tea, having a laugh.

"Awkwardness wakes you up every now and then. I love that personally but a lot of people view music as something that’s for them to enjoy – they’re drawn to something that sounds good to them. It’s a subjective thing. Some people like their music quite linear, some people like it messed up. I’m more towards the messed up end of the spectrum." – Kwes

I can’t imagine how something like that affects a relationship. When you’ve known each other for so many years but how you know each other suddenly changes: the rug’s been pulled out from under you.

Kwes: Totally. My nan used to be a lot more mobile too – she’s got problems with her knees – and I sing about that too. Just the little mundane things, amplifying them and reminding them that things are still okay. 

Life is made up of those tiny mundane things. 

Kwes: Yeah, that’s it really. I don’t know if I will play it to them. 

How has playing live affected your confidence?

Kwes: I think touring helped me to get to know my voice better. I felt it getting stronger. That works hand-in-hand with the confidence. I’m in a really great headspace at the moment. I’m already kind of thinking about the next record. I’m excited at that prospect. Oh…there was one other highlight I nearly forgot: getting sampled by Kanye West. On Pusha T’s record. It’s mad how that whole thing happened. I’d just done Jimmy Fallon with Bobby Womack. My friend is actually Kanye’s tour DJ; Mano, his name is. 

How did you guys meet?

Kwes: We got in touch over Myspace six, seven years ago and I met up with him in New York at CMJ; I was there with Ebony Bones. We kept in touch since. From then he’d gone on to tour DJ with M.I.A. and done a load of production work and ending up touring with Kanye.  He met Kanye back in ’05/’04, while his second record was out. We’d kept in touch and he said he’d been playing a load of my stuff to Kanye. They all really loved the EP and wanted to sample Let Go Of Your Hurt [or lgoyh as it is known on the EP]. They completely recontextualised my song. The song’s called Who I Am. It’s about drugs. Selling dope forever. It's a beautiful banger, check it out.

Even though there’s such a variety of approaches and sounds in UK music, I think there's still something about the way that UK producers use texture that links them together. What informs your approach to texture?

Kwes: Really just being free with it. I love all sorts of textures. I think for a while I was really drawn to this rough, beaten-up sounding texture. I love the complete opposite to that as well, though: when stuff sounds really clean. Anything to make the music more 3D or a bit more than audio. Trying to get to that point to make listeners feel the music. 

Like awkwardness, which is something you've previously mentioned you like in music. Why is that? 

Kwes: Anything to just keep you on your toes. Awkwardness wakes you up every now and then. I love that personally but a lot of people view music as something that’s for them to enjoy – they’re drawn to something that sounds good to them. It’s a subjective thing. Some people like their music quite linear, some people like it messed up. I’m more towards the messed up end of the spectrum. I like things going wrong every now and then. I love it all, really. As a producer you’ve got to appreciate it all. 

Kwes' debut album will be released by Warp.

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