Let’s talk about your solo work. And start with young Bill. There’s a great story on the Union Chappel live recording, about playing the Axel F, Harold Faltmeyer’s theme to the film ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, on the organ while visiting the chapel with school when you were nine years old. How big an influence did that sound have on you?
“What, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’? [laughs] I remember just liking that melody. And the beat was supercool. I was born in ’81 so I got a heavy dose of eighties beats and stuff. Another album that made a huge impact was Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ [released 1978], with its slightly electronic drum sound. As for Axel F, I just loved the rhythm [hums melody and plays airsynth]. And the harmony as well. At the same time I was also adopting a lot of classical stuff. But I’ve always loved eighties music, always loved that beat.”
I suppose that’s where your passion for synthesizers comes from?
“Yeah, I had a Herbie Hancock record when I was fourteen called ‘Sunlight’ [released 1978]. Where he was using vocoders and multiple keyboards. On the back sleeve there was a picture of Herbie and his keyboards. He had so many. And I just thought: this is amazing. Ever since I saw that photo I wanted to have my own version of it.”
“You can never have too many keyboards really. Especially now when technology is allowing us to explore all kinds of new means of expression. I’m endorsed by this company called Roli Seaboard. And I use that to attain a whole new level of expression. It feels as if you’re playing a piece of marshmallow. Or that [points at a remaining lump of bread on his plate].”
You play a lot of Fender Rhodes as well, an instrument that’s coming from an entirely different era in jazz, with pioneering work by Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea and again, Herbie.
“Definitely. I heard a radio feature about this historical timeline and I realised that a lot of these guys started in Miles Davis Quintet. I kind of follow Herbie Hancock’s path. His evolution is really interesting: the way he explored with the Fender Rhodes on ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’ [Herbie’s “first full-fledged venture into jazz-funk”, released 1970] and then got more spiritual with Mwandishi , before forming Head Hunters [and releasing the same-titled album in 1973]. He’s been constantly reinventing himself. Following time, following technology, and music. Today, dance music is a much bigger part of the scene. So I’m trying to embrace that realm too now. That’s why I need so many keyboards.”
So you won’t settle for the easy way.
“No, I won’t. Whenever you see a documentary about some musical legend, the tendency is that they were brilliant at reinventing themselves. Miles is the best example. Herbie’s another one. It’s always: coming back with something new. Like Björk. And Radiohead.
“Exactly, like Bowie. So I always try to create change in the canvas. Just like a painter: one time it’ll be oil paint, then water colors, then charcoil, …”
When you look at your current body of work, do you see such an evolution already?
[Slightly hesitating] “Yeeeaaah. Yeah, I do. Originally I made these grand soundscapes, with big symphonic textures on ‘Flint’. And I even went more in that direction with ‘Swift’. I thought it was more of the same but a bit more epic. But I also touched the other end of the spectrum, the more sensitive, stripped-back side. Essentially there was a similar sound pallet to the first two records.
I’m working on a
solo piano album.
“And then on ‘Aftersun’ I planned to get rid of all symphonic elements and just focus on the drones basically. Originally, I was trying to make a dance record. But it didn’t really come out that way. I said to Sput (drummer Robert ‘Sput’ Searight): “I want it to be like dance music” [imitates house beat]. But it ended up being more like jazz. We achieved a more improvised sound, which I’m very proud of. Robert introduced me to this New Orleans percussionist Weedie Braimah, who gave the sound the spark it needed.”
“Right now, I’m working on a solo piano album. I think I’m gradually filtering until there’s nothing left: just a piano.”
Great! Are you focusing on compositions of your own? Or will you be interpreting other people’s work?
“I might finally throw in a couple of covers. I haven’t done that before.”
What I like about your albums is that each one reveals a genuine feeling of unity. Which is strange if you look at the range of sounds on there, going from far-out noises to gentle, sparse piano melodies. How do you achieve that unity? Is it al in the production?
“That’s a gooood question. Actually, last night we were talking about establishing a signature sound, a voice that distinguishes you from everyone else. And I also discuss that with my students: ‘What makes you sound different?’ But for my albums I didn’t ponder on it too much. I feel like it somehow comes naturally. All I really do is call on the music I like. Madeleine for example was originally going to be a James Brown kind of track, a very funky thing. But then it’s also referring to Chia from my ‘Flint’ album, based on a minor piano figure. There’s a certain sentimentality about the the song. And the combination of those two things is quite interesting. They’re kind of conflicting. You’ve got like funk mixed with sorrow [laughs].”
“Every song I’ve written
has a certain sincerity about it”
“In the studio we sort of work things out. But I guess the only unity I can think of is that every song I’ve written has a certain sincerity about it. It’s sincere to me and the artist I am. I’ve made previous records where I tried to be a certain thing, and then I listened back and I heard that it was not actually really genuinely me.”
So you made records before you released ‘Flint’?
“Yes, I did. I made three albums before I made ‘Flint’. None of which will ever see the light of day [chuckles].”
Now you’re making me curious.
“The last two were vocal records. I sang on one of them and then left the singing to somebody else, cause I realised I wasn’t up for the task [laughs]. No, there are some cool things in there and without a doubt all of that was part of a necessary evolution. That journey took a decade.
How about writing music? When did you pick that up?
“It’s always been the first thing I was interested in. When I first got my hands on a four-track, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, the idea that you could actually duplicate yourself. Initially, i just used my voice to make a song. I did a beat, then a bassline on top of that … an a capella thing. It sounded like shit, but I had created a song with just my voice, and thought it was amazing. I’ll never forget the adrenaline it gave me. Something I experienced again when I started using Cubase. So yeah, I’ve always been the writing type.”
“A lot of musicians decide to focus on their playing. I did that for a while, but then there was a point where I started to put my focus into composition. Cause, you know, new composition was always going to inform my playing. And all these people you’ve heard of, you’ve heard of them because of their music. Not just cause they’re great players.”
… On page 3 of this interview, Bill talks about the state of jazz today and working with the legendary David Crosby. You’ll also find a Spotify playlist with some of Bill’s influences and recent discoveries.