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By: Tim Foster Photo By: Thierry Laroche
You know when you hear a track for the first time and it’s completely exciting and intriguing? Well that’s happened to me in 2013 when I first heard ‘Here We Go Again’ off Different Drummer by King Champion Sounds on Radio 6. Jangly guitar, horns, driving rhythm, superbly crafted lyrics that drew me in so that I wished I could read them and ponder their meaning-this was special stuff! Later that year, in the October, I got to see them at The Buffalo Bar, London supporting The Nightingales (though to be honest I didn’t see the headline band). KCS debut album Different Drummer is an eclectic mix and live they were as good as I had hoped, the songs had that extra 10% you always hope for. A year later they released their second album Songs For The Golden Hour which concentrated and developed their unique style. This September they release their third album To Awake In That Heaven Of Freedom and that seemed a great reason to ask founder Ajay Saggar for an interview!
(((o))): Could you tell us about how King Champion Sounds came about; initially it was for a one-off gig wasn’t it?
AS: My previous band, The Bent Moustache, were asked by promoter Sjoerd, who works at a great venue called Occii in Amsterdam, if I’d like to open with the group for Mike Watt on Sunday 24 February 2013! I had no hesitation in agreeing to do the show, but told him that the only proviso would be that I would do a one off special show…..it was to be a 30 – 40 minute “piece”……a special arrangement for this one night. So I wrote all the music, and demo’d everything in my home studio……and then had to find a band.
G W Sok was the first person I asked if he’d like to be involved in this one off project….to write lyrics, and sing….to which he agreed. My whole idea was to incorporate a horn section and a string section as well, and so had to spread the net out for them too. I asked Oli, from the band Shrug, based in England, if he would play bass, to which he agreed. I needed someone who could play as tightly and repetitively as Steve Hanley from The Fall…..and Oli is perfect for that. besides that, he was also an old friend of Mike Watt, having collaborated on recordings with him in the past. The drummer situation was a tough one…..but I had enormous luck when I randomly asked Amber, daughter of Kat from THE EX, if she knew any drummers, and she said “Yeah, check out Mees Siderius”. Mees was then 17 years old, and I wrote him an email and sent him some music. He agreed to join the project too. I didn’t meet him / had never heard him play, until that first practice together!
The horn section came about when I asked Ditmer, and old musician friend of mine with whom I’d collaborated with for several years, if he knew any other blowers in the area, and he recommended Chris. I got the band together on a Friday (without Jos) and we rehearsed all the music for a solid 12 hours. On the Saturday, Jos joined us, and we rehearsed with him for another 12 hours. On the Sunday, we played a fantastic show. We had such great feedback from people, that the idea came into my head to maybe record what we had done and release it under a different moniker. We played our first official show as King Champion Sounds on Wednesday 17 July at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, opening for the YEAH YEAH YEAHS (at their request!). The rest, as they say, is history
(((o))): Had any of you worked together before in other bands?
AS: I had asked Jos to contribute vocals to the last The Bent Moustache album. Ditmer I had also worked with, playing improv gigs in and around Amsterdam. But we all knew each other from the fact that we were interested in each other’s musical projects throughout the years.
(((o))): When KCS started did you have a clear idea of what you wanted or did the sound evolve?
AS: Yeah I had a pretty clear idea in my head as to what the band would sound like, and the different musical fields that I would like to have the band drop their toes into. Basically I write all the music and we develop this in the studio. The songs structures / riffs are mine, and I always start with drums and bass as the basis, and get all that on tape. Once that’s down, then you can start building the rest of the temple. The tunes are sent to Jos as soon as possible for him to start on his lyrics, and in the meantime, I start work on recording guitars and other instruments, and then I’ll get the horn section in last. A lot of the time I know exactly what other instruments will be used to embellish the whole thing, and then it’s a case of finding musicians who can help you out on those particular fronts….like a string section, or guitarists, or vocalists, etc etc.
The sound does evolve for sure, but that’s more to do with work in the studio with editing / mixing / production work. We don’t have the time to meet together and jam out ideas or sit in the studio for days working on songs. The songs are what I offer to the band, and they nail it in one or two takes in the studio.
Having said that, the sound has a red thread running through it all over the course of the three albums made, but I feel we have made huge strides in how the songs are arranged and the variation of the style of songs has always remained eclectic, but on this new, and third, album it sounds like the perfect sonic journey when you listen to the album from start to finish. That took a lot of work and time and energy.
(((o))): How would you describe your sound-were there any influences?
AS: Well on my press release for this album I wrote the following : “The album is a music lovers delight reigning in psychedelic krautrock jams, post-punk dub, free jazz spirituals, hauntological soundscapes, spoken word poetics, blazing electronica, and more”, that probably covers it pretty well haha.
Influences…….that’s a hard one to nail down because as a lifetime music lover and vinyl junkie whose tastes span a wide spectrum of music, stuff seeps through both intentionally and unintentionally, but the most important thing is the end result. The song is the most important element in the whole equation. The feeling you get from listening to it, from playing it, how it moves you. And all art is influenced in one shape or another.
(((o))): You songs engage with political and social issues, is that something you wanted from the start- a band with something to say about society?
AS: The lyrics are the domain of Jos and they deal with personal and public politics. His personal and musical background have emerged from a political background having been involved with the squatting movement in Amsterdam from the early 80s onwards and he was a member of a political punk band…..and his writing leans towards politics. People who say they are not interested in politics are kidding themselves as everything they do in their daily lives is directly affected by politics. And so to be able to write about it without giving a sermon or a lecture is a fine art and that is something that Jos has been able to do most successfully for many many years. He is a great lyricist who is able to present hope and light out of every dark situation. And asking Jos to join the band and to be the lyricist / singer was a deliberate choice. The music and ideas behind the band had to have a firm grounding, and his lyrics do just that. Luckily he agreed to join!
(((o))): What sort of issues have you explored in your songs?
AS: That’s a pretty broad question seeing as we have made three albums with a lot of songs within and so the subjects covered are wide and varied. Jos’ lyrics are not black and white whereby you can pin his opinions in an obvious way……but he has a fantastic manner of building a story around a subject and leading you on a journey….the self -discovery of the subject and the issues surrounding it are part of the beauty of his words
(((o))): Was that why you recruited GW Sok as lyricist/singer? Or an unintentional-but positive- consequence?
AS: It was an intentional choice. I’ve known Jos for over 30 years (I saw The Ex for the first time in 1985 / 6 in the UK) and we have been friends ever since then. I’ve always admired his lyric writing, and we have collaborated in the past on other things……and he was always the person I had in mind for this group. Luckily he agreed to do it…..and till now it’s worked out extremely well
(((o))): What was it like recording the first album Different Drummer-it is very eclectic!?
AS: Well most of the music I had already written beforehand and so knew where it was going to anyway. The eclectic element is not per se a prerequisite, but it evolves organically out of the music that is written. Most of the members of the band have a pretty wide musical palette and therefore bring in different elements into the whole equation. The diversity of the record(s) is unique and either can be celebrated fully for the wide and far reaching styles…..but there remains a common thread running through it all – it’s like a journey……or people can get confused that it doesn’t always adhere to a well worn and familiar musical path. I have always made records that sound like compilation albums, but well constructed comps hahaha
(((o))): …and the bonus track on the CD, ‘Massivemissivemessage from the Weird Mouth’ is different again-how did that come about?
AS: I had the music already, an electronic journey. I’d been experimenting with home made oscillators and with various synths and had the musical canvas which needed a vocal over it. My friend Michael Nolan a poet from Manchester, whom I’ve known for many many years, and I’m proud to call a dear friend, was the man I asked to do something on the track. He actually didn’t listen to the music at all beforehand, and I recorded him down the telephone line whilst he was on holiday in Sunderland!!! He did it all in one take, and I just sat in the studio open mouthed as he recited the spiel down the line. Just stunning!!!
(((o))): Has the creative process changed with each subsequent album?
AS: The approach to writing and making the music hasn’t changed drastically over the 3 albums. I write all the music beforehand, demo I and record it all in the studio, and then send the jams out to the musicians so they know what to expect. Then I always start with the drums and bass, and nail that in a day or two. That is the bedrock for most of the tracks, and I will send this to Jos who will start on his lyrics. I then add all guitars and extra instrumentation, and also get Oli to add extra stuff as well. After this, I get Jos to do his lyrics, and then later get the brass boys in, and we score everything and record their parts. Then come all the extra guests….strings, guitars, vocalists, etc etc.
The process is lengthy but the important thing is that you remain focused and know where you want to go with the whole thing, and keep it well planned. To date it’s gone well, even though it costs an enormous amount of energy. The results speak for themselves I think
(((o))): Is song writing for KCS a very collaborative affair, more like a collective or does one person come in with a more or less completed song?
AS: I usually write all the music and the lyrics are handled by Jos. Regarding the shape of the whole thing, it’s pretty much my call on how the boat is steered musically……but this has come about due to different things. The whole thing was my idea and I have a pretty firm idea as to where I would like the whole thing to go, and so can be termed a control freak if you wish. But also due to the fact the members live abroad, are away on tour constantly with other acts, have jobs, go to college, etc, its very hard to get everyone together to practice and write music together. In an ideal world that would happen, but we have different things going on in our lives.
(((o))): Have you been pleased with the response you’ve had-the KCS sound is quite unique?!
AS: Yes the response to both the records and to the live shows has been amazing. I think the records have gone from strength to strength…..the new album that is due out in September 2016, is a classic! It’s going to be a double album with an extremely wide range of styles and surprises, but the sound is uniquely King Champion Sounds. We had a lot of guests playing on this album who tapped into the KCS vibe very quickly…..people like J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Mike Watt (Minutemen / The Stooges), Tom Carter (Charlambides), Alasdair Roberts, Johanned v/d Weert (Rondos) and more.
The live shows have been explosions of energy….both onstage and offstage. The band have really gelled hard when playing live and it’s a super dynamic band. The gigs have been very well attended and the feedback we have had from audiences all around Europe has been tremendous.
(((o))): You are releasing a third album in September- you seem to have involved some notable musicians on this album, how did that come about? Has this led to a shift in the bands sound?
AS: There are indeed a whole host of great guest musicians involved on the new album. This came about as I thought that some songs needed a fresh element bringing to the sound, or carrying to a different level, and for that we needed help. I’ve collaborated with Johannes v/d Weert (Rondos) in the past, and he and Jos rapped together on a track (for real!). The tracks “Mice Rats Roaches” needed a blistering guitar solo for the last part of the song, and seeing as solo-ing isn’t a strong point of mine (some might say guitar playing isn’t either…but we’ll leave that one for now haha), and I thought lets ask a friend whose whole life has been one long solo…..J Mascis! For a hauntology piece I needed an improv electric guitar player who would add fire and passion and evil to the track, and Tom Carter was the man for this…..I met Tom back in 1995 when I toured the USA with Donkey, we stayed with Tom and Christina (Charlambides) when we played in Austin, Texas. The spoken word piece needed a distinctive man, with a distinctive voice for whom words are always important…..and Mike Watt fitted the role. He asked me for a theme to write about, and it was post-Paris attacks, and there was the whole Trump presidential bid, and Syria was escalating etc etc….and so I asked him to use the theme of fear. The piece he recorded is utterly beautiful. Alasdair Roberts added great acoustic guitar and improvised vocals too this piece.
The sound didn’t shift as such…..the core element of the sound is KCS. But I definitely feel that the songs have developed significantly over the 3 albums we have made, and there has been real strides made in the dynamic and quality of what has been rendered. I am extremely proud of this new record (as I am of the first two off course).
(((o))): Are you hoping to tour this album later this year?
AS: KCS will tour in mainland Europe between 16 September to 1 October taking in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium. We will play in the UK in late February / start of March.
(((o))): Are there any countries where KCS have been particularly well received-any ideas why?
AS: We’ve always gone down well in France…..they have a knack of hooking onto the energy being transmitted from the stage and soaking it up on the dance floor and reciprocating that energy. But I have to say, that most audiences in most lands that we have travelled to and played in have given us extremely favourable reactions…..for which we are always grateful. Playing music live means sharing something special with other people and the energy formed and shared in a concert hall is a unique and powerful thing which can lift you to higher places. Certainly in these times, music is the ultimate healing force……
(((o))): I think you are based in Holland-how is the music scene there-are there lots of opportunities for playing live?
AS: I’ve lived in Holland for over 24 years now. The music scene is pretty vibrant…..alot of young bands doing their thang and vying to get seen and heard…..like anywhere else. Trying to get shows can be tough….but there is an underground scene in some towns where independent promoters / groups of people are willing to put on perhaps new and young bands because they hear something special in the music, as opposed to following trends and fashions. But there are also a lot of established clubs + venues that pander quite often only to acts whom they know will sell a significant number of tickets and cut out the opportunities for newer bands to play there…..which is highly unfortunate, and unfair. But there are networks and groups of independent minded people who do work together to create something outside of the mainstream and these places and people are unique and to be cherished.
Thanks to Ajay for his time!