The Brand New Heavies were at the head of the Acid Jazz movement when they formed in 1985. They quickly found transatlantic success with their self-titled debut album, spawning collaboration with the likes of Kool G Rap, Gang Starr and Main Source. They’ve had scores of Top 40 hits in their time including ‘Dream Come True’, ‘Never Stop’ and ‘Stay This Way’ – all sung by the inimitable N’Dea Davenport. Speaking to us from Kensington, bassist Andrew Levy talks their latest album, TBNH, the new generation of music and fitting in fatherhood with touring.
The Brand New Heavies emerged from a specific scene in London. Is that scene still alive and do you think a band like yours could form now?
Unfortunately, I really don’t think it would happen right now because of technology and the digitisation of music. The whole idea of a ‘scene’ or a trove of people that just listen to one specific type of music, whether it’s punk or rock or house – back in the day these groups didn’t cross over so much. Now everything’s modernised – which is no bad thing – but music scenes are probably harder to spot and navigate now.
You’ve witnessed so many changes in the industry and the way that music is consumed, which ones are positive in your view, and which not so much?
The best thing for me is that I can hear a song in a supermarket or whatever and I can hold my phone up and find out what it is within a couple of seconds. I love listening to new types of music because I’m a songwriter essentially, so it’s a good way to get inspired. The downside – and hopefully I’m not sounding like an old fuddy-duddy – is that people don’t experience the sound quality of a good set of speakers or decent headphones where you can hear all the instruments interplaying. I do think a lot of younger people are missing out on listening to analogue music.
There seems to be a vinyl renaissance at the moment, as some of the younger generation discover the joys of crate-digging and physically owning music. Do you think it could come back?
I really hope so. The whole idea of a physical object being connected to a piece of music – if that comes back I’ll be over the moon. I’ve got a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old – I’m kind of indulging them at the moment to show how music was sold back in the day – and they love watching the record going around.
Another major change is the introduction of platforms like Soundcloud for new musicians. How does this differ from the beginnings for The Brand New Heavies?
Back in the day you could never go into a recording studio without having a label because it was so expensive to record – hundreds and hundreds of pounds a day. I remember even in ‘97 we were dropping about 1,500 quid a day in the studio minimum just to rent the place, then it was £250 for a reel of 15 minutes. Times have changed!
Your latest album TBNH is billed as a 30th Anniversary album. Was that intentionally timed as a way to survey your sound, looking forwards and backwards?
I wish I could be that sophisticated and say that it was! The album was delayed by a year because we were so busy as dads with very young kids. It just so happened that it was around 30 years since we first signed a deal. We thought we’d just underline the fact that we’re a band that writes songs and works with several singers – so let’s have a load of singers on there and do some incredible songs that will last the test of time. We didn’t want to massively change the sound too much because we're good at what we do and people seem to like it.
When did you first pick up a bass guitar? Was there anyone that inspired or encouraged you?
Myself and Jan [drummer] – who recently left – went to school together. We were in the same class and had drum lessons together – we used to have a little giggle in the lessons because our teacher used to have this very odd posture. He’d sit very far forward, so much that we could see down the back of his trousers. He taught us how to play the drums but I thought one of us ought to play a different instrument, so Jan’s brother gave me one of his old basses. At 15 I was given this great big heavy thing with four strings on it, and over the years I taught myself how to play it by listening to James Brown and Herbie Hancock and a lot of Latin fusion music. It all happened accidentally really. I was more influenced by Miles Davis – I can sing off virtually any solo of his, not intentionally, it’s just by repeated listening you kind of get it lodged into your brain.
You’ve mentioned your two young boys – fatherhood changes everything in your life, but as far as the music goes, has it adapted your attitude towards it?
This album has really taught me and showed me that it’s a different part of the brain that’s used. In the mornings I was dropping off my sons at school at nine then driving to the studio. Moving from dad-head to funk-rock-head is really difficult especially when I’m looking at my watch and realising that I’ve got to rush off and pick them up again. What did really help was this stuff called ‘gin’.
You’re going on tour now – The Funk Is Back. What’s the family situation there?
We're never away for very long – my kids are almost the exact same age as Simon’s [guitarist and vocalist], so we time it so we're never away for more than two weeks. We’re more of a weekend band so it works out okay – I don't really like being on the road for that long because I just end up killing myself and the recovery time over the age of 40 is quite a long time.
Your relationship with Simon has lasted this whole time. Do you still have the same sense of humour that you used to?
Yeah, we do. When we’re together we just talk continuously and we’re always late for meetings. I met him when I was 11 at school and then we went to art college together and had our whole lives completely intertwined. We’re very similar in our tastes and humour – it’s funny because after Jan left, we realised we were sending each other emails about when to do the album and who to have on it, and were always writing exactly the same email almost like we’d had a discussion. We decided that we’re on the same page spiritually which is lovely.