Times & Tunes with Ishmael Ensemble

In the words of Banoffee Pies founder Ell Weston, some artists not being “suited to sitting in front of a laptop and having bits just repeat themselves’. Pete Cunningham aka Ishmael is one of those artists that transcends genres, from his straight club bangers on Wolf to compositional jazz pieces on Banoffee Pies, he can do it all. A multi instrumentalist with a taste for Jazz and a strong inclination for a UK Garage banger, Ishmael really illuminates the thriving Bristolian scene. Now, alongside his full live act, he is delving deeper into compositional pieces which take the listener on a journey through his wide palette of taste.

Ahead of the release of their 7” series, Severn Songs, Cunningham speaks to Bolting Bits interviewer Sameed about jazz, the future of electronic music, what defines the West Country and who would be in his ‘Simon Cowell’ jazz band.

Pete, where did the name Ishmael come from?
It all happened whilst living in Canada actually. I was working on tunes and sending them back to a few mates in the U.K. one of which being Ned Pegler a.k.a. Medlar who sent them on to the guys at Wolf Music. They were digging the sound and snapped up a couple of the tracks for release. I was reading Heman Melville’s Moby Dick at the time which famously opens “Call me Ishmael”. This really struck me as a cool way to start a story, like “Hi there, this is me, this my story, let’s get on with it shall we?” I guess i also identified with the lone wolf character, out on the open seas & not quite sure what he’s doing with his life!

You are Simon Cowell. The concept is Jazz. Who is in your band?
Drums: Ginger Baker (In 1968)
Bass: Miles Mosley (If he has his bow with him)
Guitar: Ernest Ranglin
Piano: Herbie Hancock
Sax: Pharoah Sanders
Vocals: Minnie Riperton

How does the “Severn Songs” series differ from the Banoffee Pies release of last year?
I think in general the music’s a bit more refined. A lot of these new tracks were conceived around the same time as “Songs For Knotty” but I’ve had an extra 6 months to develop the arrangements and mixes.

Order : The Chapel – Ishmael Ensemble

Do you have a ‘concept’ when you sit down to make music?
Generally speaking, every time I’ve attempted to write music with a concept in mind I’ve either failed miserably or completely deviated from the original idea. Any music I’ve been happy enough to release has been conceived in a state of unconscious flow in which i’ll basically follow a series of happy accidents down a rabbit hole until i start to feel something. Then it becomes a subtractive process. I’ll slowly remove the different parts i’ve recorded until something clicks. I’ll always save a few different versions so I can easily jump between them if one route gets tired or boring.

We are seeing more migration towards playing, live concepts and less quantiztion. Where is the future of electronic music going?
The lines are pretty blurred I think. What defines electronic music now? Bands like GoGo Penguin are playing euphoric rave music with a traditional jazz trio line up whilst Bon Iver is making folk on an OP-1. For me, the most exciting prospect was to play with a drummer. Nothing quite beats the vast array of tones and velocities you get from someone playing a kit. I was doing solo live shows for a while and got caught in a trap of trying to do too much which resulted in compromising things like the drums. I felt like I was performing karaoke versions of my tracks whereas now there’s a really dynamic vibe on stage. I’m just focused on playing sax and making mental noises, Mullins is doing much the same on guitar, and then Jake (Keys/Bass) & Rory (Drums) are locking it all together. There’s a very addictive rush to playing really loud music with other people and I guess that’s the draw. I rarely got that buzz performing alone.

You have a strong visual connection to your work – Banoffee pies artwork for example – how would you describe the visual connection to this work?
I guess i’ve always enjoyed record sleeves, sometimes more than the music itself. It’s a big square canvass so why not make it look it’s best? The Banoffee guys were kind enough to give me free reign on the artwork so i enlisted my uncle Chris to get to work. And get to work he did; the following week two large envelopes full of sketches, watercolours and paintings arrived on my doorstep. It took a while to narrow down but i was really happy, and still am, with the final outcome.

The idea behind “Severn Songs” actually stemmed from the artwork. I was visiting my parents in Somerset when my Dad showed me this series of lino-cut prints he’d been working on. They immediately jumped out at me as perfect record covers, slightly off square, beautifully textured and easy to print. The image depicts the view from Capel-y-Finn Monastery in the Black Mountains on the border of England & Wales. Once home to controversial artist Eric Gill and his followers, the Monastery is now a guest house where we’ve spent many family holidays.

What 5 things summarize the West Country?Can be food, music, art, architecture. go crazy.
The River Severn: Given the context of this chat, I have to big up our dear Severn. Not only the longest river in the United Kingdom, it also has the second largest tidal range in the World resulting in the natural phenomenon; “The Severn Bore”, a surge of water that locals surf from Bristol to Tewkesbury. The great river has been with me (or I with it) since birth. I vividly remember those tall spires soaring above us as we crossed the bridge as children en route to Capel-y-Ffin or Hay-on-Wye. The peppermint paintwork of the second crossing and the excitement of it’s opening, Abergavenny had never felt so close! It’s complete nostalgia for me.

Bristol Music Scene: Although often overlooked, Bristol is really bubbling at the moment and at its core is a community of peers that are supporting each other. Again it’s about blurring the lines, whether it’s the Waldo’s Gift Trio reworking Aphex Twin at their weekly Gallimaufry residency or Giant Swan kicking formulaic Techno up the arse with their intense noise-driven live shows. We’re all friends here and if we’re not yet we probably will be next week. I guess we’re all just trying to do our bit to make original music, always questioning our intentions and pressuring each other to push the boundaries. At the end of the day we’re all skint, there’s no government funding, there’s no grants or conservatoire scholarships, we’re just doing it ourselves and making the most out of what we have available.

Glastonbury Tor: The ancient isle of Avalon, alleged home of the Wizard Merlin & King Arthur, resting place of Joseph of Arimathea, now a pilgrimage site for yoghurt weavers & American tourists alike. Aside from all that it boasts an amazing view across the once submerged Somerset Levels from where I’ve witnessed many a gorgeous sunset over Brent Knoll.

Cheddar: A year after moving to Canada, I met up with two British pals in New York for a few days. We were out late in Brooklyn one night and got on to the topic of cheese when in comes a screaming interjection from the other end of the bar “Cheddar?! I thought that shit was from Switzerland?” Enter Tony Sandwiches. “And whilst we’re at it, Richard Gere sucks man!” Referring to some comments I’d made earlier about serving the “Pretty Woman” actor in a restaurant I’d been working at. Anyway, back to cheese: Cheddar Gorge was carved out of the Mendip Hills by melted water rushing off nearby glaciers some 1.2 million years ago. Coincidently, it’s caves were found to be the perfect environment for the maturing of milk curds and the town has since become synonymous with this British fridge staple.

The Wunderbar: This was the single most influential place of my youth. Myself, Mullins Jake & Chris went to school in Midsomer Norton, 12 miles south of Bristol. Once a bustling centre of the Somerset coal-mining industry, it’s now a sleepy town with little to do besides skateboard and make music. Wilb, the Wunderbar landlord, would put on bands 4 nights a week, mainly punk, ska & metal. I think I was 14 when I first played there, you could literally go down and ask for a gig without any demo or audition and be on stage the next week. As I got older, I started to play at dj nights there, mainly playing reggae, early-dubstep & jungle alongside local celebrities & esteemed selectors Johnny Rench, DJ Hosepipe Ban & Rossy Gee. Occasionally Bristol DJs like Sir Beans OBE & Jon Kennedy would come down and blow our minds with their genre bending, cut & paste sets. The venue sadly closed its doors for the last time in August 2016 but it’s lasting impression of acceptance & enthusiasm lives on amongst the community.

You spoke in previous interviews about your dads instrument collection and how that inspired you. What records do you remember most vividly growing up?
My parents have a great record collection, most of which has disappeared one by one into mine!
There was a period when we didn’t have a television at home so we just sat around as a family and listened to records. They had all the early Pink Floyd & Syd Barrett records, Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, all the classics from the 70s. They also had Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?” which blew me away. I guess that was my first introduction to soul music or black music for that matter. I used to love picking out the individual instruments in those recordings, I’d write lists and then check them against the sleeve credits, much more fun than homework!

You love a good colab. variety is the spice of life. If you could at any given time in history, who would you sit in a locked studio with?
I think I could happily spend an eternity in either King Tubby or Lee Perry’s studios around the mid-70s. There’s a Congos record called “Heart of the Congos” where Lee Perry brought a cow into the vocal booth to moo on “Children Crying”, what a mad genius!

Given your multi- discplinary approach to your work – visuals, multiple artists etc – who would direct the MTV music video to the LP?
I’m pretty chuffed with where we’re at currently to be honest, Amie Nowlan is doing some amazing stuff at the moment and her work just seems to be getting better and better so I’m really excited for her future!

There’s one guy called Ruff Mercy that I’ve been into for a while now, he does some amazing video collages with paint and film. I know a guy that does some camerawork for him, I just haven’t plucked up the courage to ask him to hook me up yet!

Vinyl is nostalgic right? But i do not remember vinyl, i remember cassettes. you have released music on that format. what are your Top 5 cassettes?
Both formats played a pretty heavy part in my introduction to music to be honest. There’s a few standout cassettes from my childhood: Hugh Masekela’s “Techno Bush”, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and a mixtape my mum made that featured John Martyn, Joan Armatrading & Nick Drake… These were all on repeat in my parents car growing up. Then getting older, I remember there were copies of DJ Hype’s “Jungle Massive” & Louis Slipperz “£10 bag” knocking about school that had a pretty big impact on me and heavily informed my adolescent taste in music.

Nowadays, I’m more interested in using cassette tape as a processing tool in my productions. I often record drum mixes to tape and layer them under the drum tracks in logic as it gives quite a unique compression and warmth. I also worked on a record last year with some friends in Berlin where we recorded a load of sax and guitar to one of those Yamaha MT4X 4 tracks. The console has a pitch control that lets you slow the tape right down, creating some pretty deep tones, I’m hoping that stuff will be released at some point soon.

Interview by Sameed