BY ROSE PARFITT
A world-class jazz musician producing groundbreaking dance-floor records; a national hero in New Zealand completely at home in West London’s broken soul scene; a sharp-suited Kiwi in a world of T-shirted British studio dwellers. Maybe talent is born of contradiction, who knows? The conclusion is that Nathan Haines is exceptional, in all senses of the word.
Son of the bassist Kevin Haines, Nathan has been playing jazz literally from the cradle; he and his brother Joel were learning music and imbibing jazz before they got anywhere near primary school. By the time Nathan formed his first band – the Jazz Committee – at 18, he had New Zealand’s thriving underground jazz scene in the palm of his hand. For almost two years, Freebass and The Enforcers (his next two bands) packed out Auckland’s Cause Celebre every single weekend, and did not escape the ever-beady ear of Talkin’ Loud’s Gilles Peterson who snapped them up after catching a show. The forthcoming record deal with Huh! led to Haines’s first album, “Shift Left”, which became the biggest-selling jazz album ever to come out of New Zealand. Precocious as ever, he managed to bag New Zealand’s Young Achievers Award normally reserved for mainstream classical music or sports, and moved to New York to study with two giants of jazz – Blue Note’s Joe Lovano and George Coleman, Miles Davies’s saxophonist.
In New Zealand, Nathan Haines is known first as a jazz prodigy. But elsewhere, ever since the “Earth is the Place” broke on the dance scene, becoming an anthem in clubs from London’s Co-Op to New York’s Body & Soul where new sounds are made and strangleholds broken, he is better known as the pioneer of a jazz-dance hybrid never seen nor heard before. His determination stretch the concept of fusion to its limit stemmed first from jamming with NYC jazz-dance group, Groove Collective, and when he moved to London in 1996 the path was set. The next few years found him releasing singles on Goldie’s label Metalheadz (under the pseudonym Sci-Clone) with the drum’n’bass producer A-Side, and jamming over DJ sets from Roy the Roach and Paul “Trouble” Anderson. He set up the long-running night “Beshma” at West London’s Notting Hill Arts Club. DJ sets fused with live music from producers like Phil Asher, Patrick Forge and 4Hero and musicians including Billy Cobham, Daniel Crosby and Simon Colam, creating an electricity that has since influenced many of the participants’ future projects.
Meeting Phil Asher – granddaddy and talent nurturer of the broken beat and nu soul scene – was the big turning point. Haines guested on many of his remixes and productions and then in 2001 the two produced “Soundtravels”, the first Nathan Haines album to be released on Dr Bob Jones’s Chillifunk Records. “Earth is the Place”, subsequently remixed by Jon Cutler, was the big smash, but “Long” and “Believe” – remixed by 4Hero and MAW’s Kenny Dope respectively – caused a sensation in clubland on both sides of the Atlantic. International jazz festivals lapped him up, including the Drum Rhythm and North Sea Jazz Festivals in Holland the Nu Jazz Festival in St Petersburg, Russia and the Blue Note in Tokyo – and the rest is history.
Nathan Haines releases “Squire for Hire” on 8 September, his second Chillifunk album. Like “Soundtravels”, it is produced by Phil Asher (Restless Soul) and features Da Lata’s Chris Franck – two men whose responsibility for the explosion of jazz and Latin influenced dance music in Britain is indisputable. It also features collaborations with many of the most exciting artists sheltering under the broken beat umbrella. These include Lyric L (voice of the Bugz in the ttic anthem “Loose Lips”) on the track “Doot Dude”, the next track to be released as a single; Bugz’s Kaidi Tatham (whose debut album, “Agent K” has just been picked up for US release by Giant Step); and fellow New Zealander Mark de Clive Lowe, who plays keys on “O Misterio”. But the album also has more than a few suprises in the bag: Marlena Shaw for one, who gives the title track the full “Woman of the Ghetto” treatment, while Damon Albarn (the mysterious D2) makes an unexpected appearance – not least by providing the vocals on a cover of Steely Dan’s “FM”. Listen out also for some tough spoken word from the Philly-born jazz poet, Rich Medina.
For some, Nathan’s fixation with the dancefloor is a waste of his talents as a jazz musician. For Richard Betts, for example, of NZOOM.com, listening to “Squire For Hire” is “like going to see Kiri Te Kanawa perform a Mozart opera, only to find she’s been stuck somewhere in the back row of the choir.”
This is pleading for a “real” jazz is something of a vexed issue for Nathan. “It’s all jazz to me,” he says, firmly. Mundovibes asked for some elaboration…
So the album’s already out in New Zealand?
Yeah, it’s gone really well. But New Zealand’s where I’m from and I’ve been putting out records there for 10 years, so it’s a little bit different than England.
In the New Zealand press it’s like you’re a national hero. But I found a lot of people are desperate for you to make a straight-ahead jazz album.
I want to do that, yes.
Are you still playing a lot of jazz?
Well yeah, of course – it’s all jazz to me. I mean, jazz isn’t a popular music, you don’t hear it in clubs. So I moved here from New York I got into club culture, and going out and that’s sort of taken me to where I am now, but I’m a jazz musician at heart, my father’s a jazz musician, I love playing jazz – but it doesn’t really matter to me in what setting or style, it’s all jazz but I do really want to do more of straight-ahead album. The album I’ve just made, there’s jazz elements in there in every track, very much so – obviously the one I’m singing on, “Oblivion”. Eventually I’d like to do a jazz album. I’m not saying that my album isn’t a jazz album but, you know I’ve got lots of albums to make so I think my next project is going to be more of a straight ahead album, just to sort of get it out of my system. People can say what they like but I haven’t got where I have now by just putting out records with long sax solos on them. It doesn’t work like that, you know? People aren’t interested in hearing that. I mean some people are, obviously, and that’s something I’ll address in my next album. But just for these last albums I’m making music for the dance floor. Not on a classical thing, not for jazz, for the dancefloor, so people who buy dance records…
And so are you pleased with the album?
Oh of course yeah, I mean it was a year in the making and there was a lot of work in there. Every single note on there I’ve had a hand in, you know, absolutely everything, every single instrument and note and sound – there’s nothing left to chance. And we’ve also got some amazing people involved. The best thing about albums is making them, and them you finish them and go onto the next one.
With these collaborations with people like Marlena Shaw and Damon Albarn, how did it happen – did you know them already or did you think about it and think right, that’s the person I need?
I’ve been working with Marlena for the last couple of years playing in her band. It’s really important for me to hold onto that side of my musicianship, working for great singers like that – it’s very different from club culture. It’s a different discipline, but it’s something I really enjoy and I’ve learned a lot from. I was doing a week with her at the Jazz CafÈ last year and I said to her would you like to do something on the album. And she’d heard the last one and she said, sure. I’d like to do some more tracks with her.
The album as a whole seems include fewer dance tracks and have more of a rare-groove sound to it than the last one…
I guess calling it something isn’t really my job. But, you know, anyone can check my credentials, I’m a jazz musician and people can say this or that, stylistically. But, I don’t get gigs like playing with Marlena Shaw by not being a jazz musician. When you’re playing with Marlena there’s nowhere to hide; you have to know what you’re doing. When I play jazz gigs – it’s pretty easy to fake it in this world today, in this world of pop stars and all that sort of thing – but with jazz music if you don’t know the chords and the changes…even people in the audience might not know but you’re going to know and the other people in the band are going to know and other musicians are going to know. And they’re going to be like, that’s bullshit. The first time I played with Marlena I hadn’t really learned the material and she sort of really took me aside, well not took my aside but she was like – learn your shit, you have to learn these songs. So I went home and learned them all again and it was cool. So it’s very, it’s a different school of thinking, it’s a different thing. And then, you know, after you’ve learned them [modes, scales, jazz theory etc] you have to just let it go and go with your feelings. And that’s why it’s great working with Phil [Asher] because if it was up to me I’d just be making jazz records but with Phil he really stretched my mind and made me stop thinking about those things. I mean, sometimes these things can really be a barrier between you and the audience. So working with Phil has really brought that home to me. Just forget about all that, all those ideas, and just really get into music and – just simple sometimes is better, it really is. We wrote a lot of demos together at Phil’s house, Phil would be on the drum machine and I’d be on the keyboards and that’s how most of the songs came about. Very simple, and I’m not the best piano player but we’d bash out an idea and once we’d got the original idea we had to sort of preserve that idea and make sure it didn’t get too complicated especially with big recording studios and lots of strings and horns. We had to try and keep it how we originally envisaged it as a demo and not get too carried away. So the thing that took time on the album. It’s different doing an album when you’re all in the studio together as a band and just bash out a whole album in two days. I’d love to do that again.
With all these groups and individuals producing music in and around West London – Bugz in the Attic, Phil Asher, Patrick Forge, all of them – it’s like everybody’s collaborating on with everybody else; one big collective, basically.
Yeah it is; it’s an incredible collective. I mean, I’m from New Zealand but I’ve been lucky that people have supported me and allowed me to work with them and come into their scene. I mean people like Chris Franck [Da Lata, Smoke City] I mean he’s really respected as a musician, he’s just incredible. And then Kaidi Tatham [Bugz in the Attic, the Herbalizer]. We all support each other and its rough out there for us; none of us is selling loads of records. But it’s my life’s work; I’m absolutely determined to sell records, that’s what I’m here for. So it’s going to take many paths throughout my life. But for this time, yeah it’s a really encouraging environment to be in and there’s a lot of challenges out there, we’re all just helping each other really, but it is quite rough.
Yeah, it must be a bit disheartening. But it does seem to be taking off a bit…
Hmmm, I don’t know about taking off, I don’t know about that. Because I think the music that we’re into, not everyone’s going to be into it at the end of the day because you’re dealing with music that’s got a lot of emotion in it and a lot people can’t handle a lot of emotion. You know what I mean? It’s like it’s only a certain type of person, so it’s never going to be popular. We’re not writing three-minute pop songs with videos – none of us are doing videos because the records aren’t selling enough. That would be all that it would take would be for one of us to do a wicked song with a video.
“Earth Is The Place” was massive though, or maybe only in a certain type of club …
Yeah, it was…well I don’t know about massive but it worked in clubland but that didn’t really change into sales. Not really. But I think the good thing about that tune for me and for Phil was it just sort of got my name out they’re internationally.
To go back to the beginning, you were playing jazz from day one?
Yeah, well I just grew up playing with my dad [Kevin Haines] but my dad started teaching me when I was four. I was classically trained [on the flute] until I was about 14, and then started playing the saxophone. But already by then I’d learned a lot of sort of Charlie Parker stuff and sort of learned the rudiments of jazz and most importantly just the development of an appreciation of music, like I really loved it – it wasn’t like I didn’t like it, I really, really, really loved it. I formed a band with some friends when I was 15, and basically from the age of 15 I’ve been playing every weekend of my life.
And you moved to New York at 19 to study with George Coleman and Joe Lovano?
Yeah, they were both really good teachers and taught me a lot. But mainly it was just being in New York that taught me the most. Just about life, you know. Because the thing about jazz is you can learn it when you’re young, but you can’t really play it, you know, like what can you really play when you’re 14 years old? It’s such a complex music and it’s about lost loves and all these things that you don’t know about when you’re young. So basically I’ve just been learning about life. You don’t have to go through all this training and stuff, it doesn’t really mean anything – that’s the path I took, but you either move an audience or you don’t. It’s very simple.
How come you decided to come over to the UK?
I had a friend and her boyfriend was [DJ] Roy the Roach. He saw me playing with my dad in New Zealand and say you know, you should come over. So he arranged for me to come over and I did some gigs with him and he took me to the Loft to see Paul “Trouble” Anderson and all this sort of thing, and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was amazing – and I thought there must be some way that I can combine jazz with the club scene.
So you were doing soloing over their sets, and collaborating with Metalheads…
Yeah, that was quite an exciting time actually being involved with them, going to gigs and seeing what’s happening. They became massive because it was like a fashion at the time, and I think everyone’s always looking for the new sound. And when drum’n’bass came along it just sounded very new. And it was new, there was nothing new about the actual music but there was something new about the sound of it, there was new sounds going on and people hadn’t actually heard anything like that before. I mean it just sounded like be-bop for me, because you know it was fast. I wanted to hear some more chord changes and stuff but the music was quite – it wasn’t jazz based because there were no jazz musicians but it was just an exciting and happening thing, and I got involved but it didn’t really end up being what I was looking for and then things changed, egos were involved, you know. But it was an interesting time and I’m still friends with Goldie now, I still work with A-Side.
In New Zealand is there a really strong jazz scene?
I mean, yeah, there’s all sorts – there’s only four million people there so things get blown out of proportion. But I think what I did when I was younger is I’ve never really been concerned about the jazz scene, I’m just into music. So I got signed, Gilles Peterson saw me playing. But they marketed me as a pop artist, they didn’t market me as a jazz musician. That’s why I’m so known in New Zealand, because of music videos and the advertising. So it is possible to make records that are more jazz based – it’s all about the marketing. So I’m just going to try with my next album, just concentrate on the music and then hopefully the record company will not market them as jazz albums. I mean look how the Nora Jones album, that’s just a surprise hit for Blue Note. And they spent billions and billions, and it’s just a lovely, simple, acoustic album of original material, you know? And it does show that people do what to do that. So that’s what I definitely want to do. But before I do that I’ve got to promote this last album! I think there’s an amazing array of people on it, and the actual sound of the album is very cool the way we mixed it, all the tracks sound great on the club and that’s the way we wanted it.
So is that how you imagine people listening to it, in a club?
No. But the way we mixed it you can listen to it quietly at home, or turn it up and it’s going to smash it in a club.
Well, it’s a great album and I really hope it’s a big success…
I’m not hoping too much. Like I said, the good thing is making an album and finishing it and getting it out and starting the next one. You know. There’s not going to be any smash hits [for the West London broken beat producers] because none of us is doing videos. But hopefully, hopefully with the new single “Doot Dude” which is the Lyric L song on the album, Ashley Beedle’s going to remix it and I’m trying to raise the money to do a video at the moment. But, you know, it’s alright for us because we know what the score is but for kids out there – if you’re 18 years old – why are they going to want to listen to my album? They’ve got Justin Timberlake who’s awesome and he’s got the Neptunes producing, and awesome videos. I mean, there’s a lot of competition out there for us and we have to be just as good as that shit, you know? It’s like we listened to that NERD album a lot when we were mixing that last album just because those guys really know what they’re doing with sound and production. Phil played me loads of stuff – we listened to Kylie, we listened to Brittney, you know, just to know what’s out there. If you’re not concerned about worrying about that market then you don’t worry about it. But obviously we’d love it. I’d love it if 15-year-old people were buying my records, but they’re not going to without a video.
So what comes next?
Basically I’m just having a bit of a holiday at the moment because the last album almost killed me! And every day when I’m in England and I look out in the morning and look and it’s a grey sky I’m thinking about New Zealand. And now I just really need to re-think what I do. I don’t want to make an album like the last one…so now I’m just sort of gathering ideas. I mean I’m promoting the last album I’m doing a lot of and a lot of shows, including September 5th and 6th at the Jazz CafÈ in London, and from October, Easy Living’s back on twice a month at Cherryjam, after the album’s launch party there in September.