London-based drummer Yusuf Ahmed has been on our radar for a while, and when we heard his newly formed psychedelic-jazz quartet Qwalia had signed with the always reliable Alberts Favourites, we were very excited for him.
Led by Ahmed, the band is made up of some of the city’s most talented players; Tal Janes (guitar & vocals), Ben Reed (bass) and Joseph Costi (synth, keys, piano).
Having recently shared their debut single, ‘Fool Me Once’, followed by the title track of their upcoming album, ‘Sound & Reason’. Across the album, they combine funk, folk, ambient, and avant-pop into an engrossing, experimental sound that varies from contemplative and spacious to dense and demanding.
With no idea what music would be made or where the session would take them, Qwalia spent two days recording completely improvised music at the Fish Factory. It results in an astonishingly coherent and tightly woven musicianship filled with energy, spontaneity, and freedom.
“We set up altogether in one room, dimmed the lights, pressed record and just played,” says Yusuf. “We came away with over 13 hours of music, which was consolidated into three albums worth of material. The final record is mainly a result of pulling faders up or down to create space and structure out of what was already there from the live recording. The production process felt akin to a sculptor chipping away excess stone to reveal a statue that was already there, and occasionally putting some makeup on it!”
To warm us up, Ahmed guides us through the forthcoming record without further ado…
Fool Me Once
This is the opening track of the album, our introduction to the band and the first thing we played in the studio. The whole recording session was completely improvised, we had no idea what we were going to play, we just set up and pressed record. You can hear some of the room mic chatter and sound checking going on before Tal (guitarist) asks Alex (engineer) if we can “go for it”. The groove that had established itself naturally during soundcheck continues and eventually lands on a slow and nostalgic outro. In post production we added a vocal hook and some minimal tambourine to give some lift to certain sections. The way this track develops gives the listener a good understanding of what this band is all about.
Dense and dark, this track feels like it should be listened to at night time. The drums are funky, syncopated and locked in with the bass which dances around the synthesisers. The guitar delays create an impenetrable wall of sound and a solid foundation is set. The track really came to life when we asked our dear friend and incredible percussionist Ernesto Marichales to do some overdubs. Ernesto’s phrasing on the congas conjures up a folkloric vernacular and adds to the conversational tension which builds throughout.
Sound & Reason
Like all of the tracks on the album, this song is built up from improvisations. You can clearly hear how the music formed layer by layer, each musician listening and then building upon what is already there. The drum groove meets Joseph’s clear harmonic direction with lush pad-like synths, followed by Ben’s hypnotic bass line which ties the harmonic and rhythmic world together. When the band breaks down Tal, on guitar takes the music into a new direction, with a powerful and sonorous riff. As was the case with “Fool Me Once”, we also overdubbed vocals on this one courtesy of Idris Rahman, Rob Hopcraft and Valeria Pozzo.
Powerful in its insistence, this one is simple yet nuanced. Hypnotic low end with electrifying melodies on the Rhodes. This groove developed into a longer piece but, for this album it serves only as a short introduction. Part 2 will be released on the next record, so stay tuned!
Haven’t You Heard?
This track perfectly illustrates the influence our engineer Alex had on the recording process. Up in the control room, he found an old 70s drum machine which he would occasionally feed into our headphones during our improvisations. On this track, you can hear that classic 70s drum machine sound creep in under the paddy synthesisers at the beginning. Ben immediately jumps on the groove with a pulsating bass line. As the drums lay out for a while, there is space for Tal to explore sonic landscapes and develop a riff. Once the drums are in and doubling up on the forward momentum, the track breaks down only to come back in with a more positive and uplifting feeling in the harmony. Tal improvises a melody which sounds like an anthem.
It’s hard to use words to talk about certain artistic forces of nature and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is one of those. Here we use a sample from a live concert Nusrat did in London. We didn’t use a part where he is singing in a classic Qawwali style but rather, a moment when he is talking. In this particular instance, he is addressing Imran Khan, who was in the audience that night.
In Your Own Words
This closing piece is a gentle landing after an intense and dense record – perhaps a glimpse into what is yet to come from this band. This track is carried by Joseph on the grand piano. Joseph is from Venezuela and it sounds like he is channeling every ounce of melancholy and nostalgia prevalent in the South American lexicon.