With a self-produced fusion of ska, rocksteady and jump-up blues, Yorkshireman Sam Thornton is ready to take a working-class English sound to genre fans in Ireland under the moniker of King Zepha this month. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.
Couched in the warm familiarity that reggae recorded directly to tape seems to magically generate, and possessed of a sunny disposition without resorting to genre stereotype, Yorkshire outfit King Zepha have a gentle balance of sonic elements to keep both casual listeners and die-hards happy. Led by producer, songwriter and live bandleader Sam Thornton, the project’s new album ‘Northern Sound’ releases this month, a one-man job written/arranged and produced by yourself and released via boutique London label Happy People. After preparing the record for the better part of a year following a two-month spell of songwriting, Thornton took it upon himself to realise his vision in every aspect of the recording process, performing tracks and overdubs on everything. Not that life didn’t get in the way over the course of proceedings, though. “As the father of a boisterous 6-year old and 18-month-old twins, I’ve had to adopt an as-and-when approach, often involving whole nights holed-up in my attic, hunched over a mixing desk. I couldn’t have managed it without strong coffee and my wonderful, supportive partner, Natalie. The test-pressing of the vinyl LP has just arrived. It was pressed in Ireland, by Dublin Vinyl, and it sounds great. I’ve rehearsed all the new material with the band, and now all that remains is to get out there on the road and play it live, the fun part!”
It’s unusual for a central person to take a ‘producer’ role as a featured musician nowadays, with bands, soloists and collaborative songwriting having long since overtaken the studio system of “star” producers and their in-house bands, etc. Transmuting his own ideas to a live setting, then, is a continuation of time-honoured tradition and method. “I’ve been brought up listening to, and playing in, big bands and jazz bands. In that tradition, there’s usually one or two players in each group who contribute compositions/arrangements and the rest are players who bring the music to life. I’ve never actually played in a band that compose songs collectively, so I don’t know how that works. With the writing and the producing I find it easier to do it myself, at home, and then send rough recordings out to the band to learn. We are all involved in other musical projects and this seems the most productive way for us to work. In the early days of King Zepha, we’d try out my original compositions in our other band, Louis Louis Louis. We’d just sneak them in, between two cover versions, and see what response they’d get from the audience. We’ve got a good system for working out songs and vocal harmonies now. Our pianist always takes the bottom harmony, our bassist the top, and so on.”
Recording to eight-track tape is a brave move in the current technological climate, for many reasons. The ease of digital recording has changed the game, and while a number of studios still proudly boast of using tape equipment for the as-live process, parts for old gear and tape itself are increasingly becoming a specialist business. Thornton speaks on how the method informs the message. “Over the last ten years, we’ve experimented with everything from using just one ribbon mic for the whole band, straight to a two-track tape machine, right through to full digital recordings. We’ve even tried overdubbing one instrument at a time for complete control over reverb, bleed, etc. before arriving at the sound we like best. We’ve tracked this album using an 8-track, quarter-inch tape machine and, because of the amount of tape hiss, you have to hit the tape quite hard. This produces a bit of distortion, but it’s nice distortion, not the horrible “clicky” sound you get from digital distortion. That slightly distorted sound reminds me of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s rocksteady recordings by Lee “Scratch” Perry, my production hero. It’s definitely not the “textbook” way of recording, but I love it.”
The title of the album and subsequent live incarnation, King Zepha’s Northern Sound, bears immediate and heavy connotations of working-class English subcultures, harkening back to obvious ports of call like Northern Soul. When asked about the implications, however, it’s as much a call to belonging and togetherness in a time of barely-precedented social and cultural fracturing close to home. “I didn’t realise until now that I had such a fixation on geography! To be honest, the “northern” reference is more of a descriptor than a political statement. The band are all from northern towns and cities, mostly in Yorkshire, and this is reflected in our dialect, appearance and sense of humour. Musically, there is a very strong Jamaican influence too. I think that our album titles and artwork reflect this fusion. There is a political message in some of our music, but it is one of unity, not of division.”
An interesting aspect of the record, with that in mind, is when it zeroes in on the views of Brits abroad, taken from conversations on the band’s touring excursions. It’s a contentious question, amid a hail of Little Englander stereotypes and gags about Marbella, but in the context of the facts of the ramifications of Brexit, a positive realism, and confronting Brexiteers’ greatest-generation rhetoric, are important. “Without generalising too much, Brits abroad are an interesting breed. Watching a group of them on holiday, for example, can be like watching a group of toddlers or chimps in a zoo and it can be embarrassing sometimes being tarred with the same brush. I’ve been asked a few times, whilst touring in mainland Europe, why did “we” vote to leave the EU. The fact is that the British public are hugely divided on this. Roughly half the population wish to remain and many people didn’t really understand the ramifications of what they were voting for. There was, and is, a lot of propaganda and fabrication, being circulated by the tabloids and social media, on both sides of the fence. I’m very pro-Europe, as are the other band members. Our current Government have a terrible track record of looking after the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and our workers’ rights. EU legislation currently keeps them in check on some of these issues and, if the UK were to leave the EU, I dread to think what monstrosities they’d unleash.”
It is this fear, brought on by the seeming sleep of reason that Brexit has wrought on the United Kingdom’s citizens, that informs the record’s sunny nature in other ways: the sustained push from certain political quarters for disunity is ready to be met with a rally to the aforementioned togetherness. “The question of Brexit has driven a wedge between people, from all walks of life, and seems to have encouraged some unsavoury characters, such as Nick Griffin (former leader of the far-right groups National Front and British National Party) to resurface from underneath their rocks. Hate crime, xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the increase and people are genuinely scared. And of course, in Ireland, there is the worrying issue of a potential hard border between NI and the Republic and the impact it could have on the peace process. It’s very telling that the politicians who started the Brexit process have done a runner and left the people with a mess to clear up, whichever way it goes!”
Amid the weight of all this, the band are getting on with it, playing the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork on the 21st as part of a run of Irish dates to get the new album out there. Ska and reggae have always had small but dedicated followings in the city, but with the emergence of genre festivals in the county in recent years, and a new community group having just been agreed upon, the timing is perfect. “This will only be our second time performing in Ireland, and our first appearance in Cork. The theatre looks fantastic, and I’ve heard great things about the city from many of my friends who’ve performed at Cork Jazz Festival. I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of Guinness, and it really is so much better in Ireland, so that’s another thing I’m looking forward to.”
King Zepha’s Northern Sound play the Crane Lane Theatre on Sunday April 21st. “Northern Sound” is available now on all streaming services and on 12” from Happy People Records.