Northern Funk crew learn from the past and looks to the future By Stuart Rolt
“You spend so long with these people that compatibility is important.” Jonathan Scott Watson, better known as DJ and producer Smoove, is considering the fundamentals of keeping a live act functioning. “You spend hours, days and years on end crammed into a van on the road. It’s like a family. You’ve got to give each other room and respect all the time. I’m always conscious of that. Being a musician isn’t luxury by any means. You want to make them as comfortable as possible.”
Touring is tough work. The founder member of self-styled ‘Northern Funk’ act, Smoove & Turrell, is suffering a bit this morning. A string of shows in Europe culminated with a hugely delayed flight back home to Tyneside last night. But he’s not complaining about this, or any other journey he’s been on. Originally forming as a duo with singer/songwriter John Turrell in 2007, he tells me it was inevitable the pair would meet. Bonding over a shared interest in classic soul, they developed a unique style which fuses funk, hip-hop and electronica. After recording a debut album, they were swiftly asked to join the genre-bending roster of artists on Brighton’s acclaimed Jalapeno Records.
The label is a good fit for a band which constantly refuses to conform. “We love soul. And because we’re from the North, we got coined as Northern Soul. But we’ve never claimed to be that. For some reason the soul boys love the sound we make.” It’s indisputable that Smoove & Turrell provide the most authentic version you’ll find of that distinctive style, without seeming retro or contrived. This neat assimilation of different musical influences stretches back to Smoove’s first break in the industry.
Playing in a hip-hop band called Rubberneck in the 90s, Smoove got himself signed to the celebrated Big Life label – then home to De La Soul and Naughty By Nature. “I’ve always collected records, and my background is predominantly rap and old-school. But I was all more into the music rather than the words. Until I heard Sweet Tea. And then there was Big Daddy Kane. That was it. I discovered rapping as a percussive instrument. I tried it myself, and it didn’t feel right. So I knocked that on the head pretty quick!”
A few decades on, and he’s assembled a phenomenal group of musicians around him, which is never more evident than in Smoove & Turrell’s live shows. Building upon a solid funk-driven base, they mix in socially conscious lyrics which celebrate despair as much as joy – whilst always remaining in touch with their northern working-class roots. A few musical motifs linger from those heady days in the 90s though. “I’m obsessed with drums. That hip-hop ‘boom bap’ was a big thing, and still is for me. Now I hide it in there… But we didn’t sit down and say: ‘We need hip-hop beats, a soulful vocal and a great band with strings and bass.’ It’s something that’s organically happened.”
The band soon head out on the road again, adding to a series of packed Jalapeno Bop events at Hove’s The Old Market on Sat 2 Dec, which welcomes them for some fan favourites and material from new album, Red Ellen; alongside a live set from Wolfgang Valbrun and Bristol bomb-dropping DJs, The Allergies. The evening will also benefit from TOM’s brand-new immersive gig setup, which blankets the venue in dazzling digital projections.
Released last month, Red Ellen was three years in the making, and saw the band turn another creative corner after scoring a lockdown hit with their last offering, Stratos Bleu (a UK Dance Chart Number One and 6 Music’s Album of The Day). That also established a sizeable stylistic shift with a sparkling assortment of French disco and electronica accompanying the trademark funk influences. But, if their fanbase has learned one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.
“We had started writing more stuff like that, but it began sounding like second-rate versions. We scrapped quite a lot. Maybe it’s because our heads were in the wrong place.” Smoove chortles when describing Red Ellen (somewhat laconically) as the band’s ‘difficult seventh album’. But it stands as the work they all really wanted to make. They weren’t excessively preoccupied by expectations from fans or the record label, and the result sounds all the better for it. “Every artist will say that, and it’s nice to be comfortable where your fans will like the stuff, but you’ve got to take risks.”
He implies complacency is one of the worst things in music. “Someone once told me that if you’re stuck for influence, you should listen to new genres of music. You will find something in there. You can hear something like death metal and there might be a breakdown which is totally different.” While the sound might have evolved from the brash upfront sounds of early releases like Antique Soul, Eccentric Audio and Broken Toys, they still concentrate on music which makes people want to dance. The funk remains, but it’s accompanied by a new sense of ambition and urgency.
Everything opens with The Light, where the band involves legendary keyboardist, Ronnie Foster. Working with everyone from Stevie Wonder and George Benson to The Jacksons, he’s elevated some of music’s most iconic names with his flawless playing. “I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. He was signed to Blue Note when he was 17! We met at a festival in France, he was the nicest guy ever. So funny, and he looked so young. We kept in touch, and when he asked if we wanted to do a track together…. Well… We’re so proud of it.”
More evidence of the band pushing the envelope in all directions can be found on the track’s soaring gospel vocals, which urge the listener to ‘let the love shine in’. These were born from a collaboration with Jalapeno label-mate, Izo FitzRoy. “She did them in one day and sent them up. I was listening to the parts just gobsmacked, it was so beautiful. Everyone loves gospel. But just to put those sorts of vocals on a track doesn’t instantly make it better. It must be a good song. But they really did make it shine…”
A poignant piece about loss, Mary’s Song stands as a heartfelt homage to Turrell’s beloved late mother-in-law. Rich layers, not dissimilar to the atmospherics on much of Radiohead’s work, slowly give way to more electronic moments in one of the album’s stand-out tracks. Also exploring loss and grief, Empty Bottle Serenade could be seen as celebrating the life of Smoove’s own father. “We started writing about mundane tasks in life, like waiting for the washing machine to end… One night, we were talking about my dad, and I showed John the fingerprints on his records – which he thought was amazing. Then I started telling him more stories about my dad. You’d never guess it was about him by listening to the record, but the references are in there.”
Smoove’s father undoubtedly had a musical influence on him as a youngster. “I’d been going to buy music at Hitsville in Newcastle but didn’t have a lot of money back then. There were no listening booths, so you had to go by reading the sleeves and taking a punt. I bought lots of cheap white labels, which were often crap. I once got home with this record by 2 Live Crew and turned it up really loud in my bedroom. Then the house started shaking, as my dad started playing the original sampled track by Jimi Hendrix. He was into a lot of rock stuff.”
He agrees that rap music often provided a gateway to new musical territory. Kids might be buying the records to annoy their parents but would be introduced to classic artists through the samples being pilfered. Osmosis aside, the intention was still to find something edgy and exciting. “Rap music like Gunshot and London Posse… that fast-paced stuff… I really liked. Looking back now, it’s the equivalent of kids playing punk rock. There’s that energy and attitude. I still love that stuff now, but there isn’t a place for it. You can’t go out and DJ with hardcore rap. You might impress one person on the dancefloor!”
In terms of his own production, Smoove tends to work best with musicians one on one. “I’m really good at working with people and getting great stuff out of them. But if there’s three people in a room, it can slow the process down. With this album, all six of us did get in a room together, with an idea or a half-written song and then seeing where it goes. That again goes back to what I was saying about breaking out of your normal way of doing things.” In the early days, it would be just him and Turrell writing their music using samples. Now, they try to involve the touring band in the writing process as much as possible. “It gives longevity for them… They’re no longer performing material onstage which isn’t ‘theirs’ That must be quite rewarding.”
There’s no denial that the duo has developed a habit of giving their albums simple two-word names, which often involve some kind of in-joke. “Yeah. I named the first two, and John said we should keep that going. It does get harder every year though!” While being slightly less oblique, this new album’s title pays homage to Ellen Wilkinson – a key figure in British socialism and feminism during the early 20th century. Contributing to women’s suffrage and the early Labour movement, she also helped form the British Communist Party, was involved in the General Strike in 1926 and went on to become the first female Minister of Education. Originally the MP for the Middlesbrough East constituency, she went on to represent Jarrow; a town with one of the worst unemployment records in England.
In 1936, she helped organise the iconic Jarrow march – where 200 unemployed workers marched on London to protest the austerity which had aided the industrial North’s economic decline. “The strength of a hundred men…. That’s what they used to say about her.” While Smoove says the album isn’t overtly political, it only takes passing research to find where its ideas spring from. The story of Wilkinson and her attempts to highlight basic inequalities in our society have become markedly relevant in recent years. “We’ve all gone full circle. This album is subconsciously about ten years of austerity, and the elite destroying our public services. The country has gone to shit, and everyone is almost standing by and watching it happen. I don’t think there’ll be riots, but something is coming.”
With little attempt to smash regional stereotypes, Smoove asserts people from the North East have a great sense of humour. “I guess you have to, just to get through the tough times.” This is further emphasised by Turrell’s socially-conscious song-writing, which blends dry witticisms with a genuine pride in where the band comes from. “John is a brilliant lyricist. A lot of this album might suggest ‘fuck Brexit’ but it’s more subliminal. You could take a negative song that he’s written, but it will always sound quite positive and upbeat.”
Those familiar soulful vocals from Turrell and some complex digital arrangements are met with lush strings from Ben Lee on the album’s first single IGOTCHA, lending shimmering warmth, depth and intensity to the track. “He actually lives on my street, about four doors up! He arranged and recorded all the string sections. To have that as well is such a beautiful thing. I dreamed of that as a kid. And now there I am mixing it all, going: ‘WOW!’” It emerges that the band, including guitarist Lloyd Wright and drummer Oscar Cassidy, all live within a mile of each other. Bassist Neil Harlan has performed with Above & Beyond, Joe Cocker and Katherine Jenkins, and keyboardist Mike Porter is… well, we do need to talk about Mike.
Smoove claims he’d never asked him to formally join the band. “He just turns up. He’s basically the frontman though. John just wants to sing, so he’s not interested in dancing or costume changes. Instead, Mike is up front, standing on his keyboard.” The irrepressible Porter’s onstage antics have become an essential part of the band’s live shows.
Smoove recalls one show at a packed festival in Ghent, where Porter jumping into the audience didn’t quite go according to plan. “He stage-dived, and ended up being carried out… He was convinced someone was trying to steal his phone, so was wriggling like a fish.” Smoove is now heartily laughing at the memory. “You’re supposed to lie still in a cross. I think it’s on YouTube as the worst crowd-surf in history! He is a great guy. Really fun…”
Smoove & Turrell come to The Jalapeno Bop: Winter Edition at Hove’s The Old Market on Sat 2 Dec. Their new album, Red Ellen, is available now, via Jalapeno Records.