Kwes reveals all about his debut album ‘ilp’, released October 14th on Warp Records. Created in association with Tom Morris Clothes.
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The tall and softly spoken Kwesi Sey – aka Kwes – is having the kind of day he probably dreads. One filled with more cameras than you can shake a tripod at – not to mention stylists, lighting guys, sound guys, journalists...
As Clash soon discovers, he’s a painfully self-critical individual: “There’s so many things wrong with my technique, so many things wrong with the way I play everything.” And when he finds out that we’ve listened to his new, debut LP, ‘ilp’, his face crumples with fear, hands placed on head. “It’s quite… it’s quite...” he pauses.
Along with getting out his feverishly-received ‘Meantime’ EP last year, the producer has spent time touring with Bobby Womack, as well as setting up shop in the Democratic Republic of Congo with Damon Albarn, Actress and local musicians to make a record for Oxfam. He’s also casually done an opera, reworking an aria from Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’.
Was it satisfying for him, then, to finally be able to knuckle down on his solo work? “There was a point, maybe around this time last year, where I just wasn’t really… not dreading working on the album, but I was just aware I needed to hand it in and it was becoming a bit of a drag, to be honest,” he answers. “I had a bit of a block.”
Luckily, the label he’s signed to has been sympathetic. “Warp are just so, so accommodating. I can’t stress that enough. They’re just like, ‘Take your time.’ I think they’re used to their artists taking years and years to make a record. If I was on another label then the situation would’ve been a bit different, maybe I would’ve been dropped.”
Eyes glinting, Kwes cheekily reveals that he’d love to do a record that the Warp head honchos reject, but on the opposite scale of the intense listen of, say, Autechre. “Maybe the goal is to make something so easy listening that it’ll make ‘em just wanna puke!” When Clash suggests an album of a continual blues in G, he laughs. “Oh man, I dunno if I’d be able to do that. It’s making me feel sick.”
The album title he’s plumped for – ‘ilp’ – literally points to the fact that it’s his first LP (the ‘i’ representing a roman numeral). But Kwes reveals that it’s also a play on the word ‘help’. He’s got little to fret about, though. The album is, quite plainly, a bundle of joy – the producer skipping through life and appreciating the minutiae of existence.
“I take great pleasure in just boiling a kettle!” he laughs. “Or washing up, or walking.” Banging his legs on the floor, he adds: “Yeah, being able to walk. We take so many things for granted. I’m just revelling in life.”
Packed to the rafters with found-sound recordings, his tracks contain the whirr of a conveyer belt at customs in New York, people chattering on the DLR and swans pecking at each other in Iceland. He whips out his iPhone to play Clash his video of the birds fighting in a lake. “There was one swan that was just horrible. They’re so vicious.”
The dusty clunk at the beginning of ‘parakeet’ is his granddad putting a mug back on a coaster. “We were watching a television programme and he was laughing, he put the cup back down and I thought it was very fitting,” Kwes says, as a huge smile creeps over his face. “And that goes back to a lyric in ‘cablecar’ when I say: ‘And just put our mugs back on our coasters.’”
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Kwes, '36', from 'ilp'
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The grandparents of the Lewisham-born-and-raised musician are especially dear to him. “My grandma gave me my first proper keyboard to play stuff. They’ve been on my mind a lot over the past few years and my granddad wasn’t too well.” He continues: “I’m not sure I’ll play them the album. My nan really likes ‘bashful’; she was really into that one because she likes music that she can dance to.”
As well as providing the soundtrack for his grandma to jig about to, Kwes’ music has won the appreciation of Kanye West, which led to Pusha T sampling ‘lgoyh’, from ‘Meantime’, on the 2 Chainz- and Big Sean-featuring trap-style anthem ‘Who I Am’.
“I have my reservations about 2 Chainz,” he laughs. “He’s such a smart guy but he’s literally just cashing in to put back into his real estate! He must get at least 10 to 20 grand on each feature.”
But Kwes welcomes the acknowledgement from Yeezy. “I know Kanye’s on this minimalism thing. And I was kind of doing that with my own stuff… I’m really into keeping what’s necessary. And that’s why there are so many sparse moments in the record.”
Sparse, yet richly saturated with emotion – and famously, the producer has chromesthesia: the ability to see vivid colours whenever he hears music. On opening track ‘purplehands’, he croons the line: “Red and blue makes purple.” So are those the colours he sees when he plays this song?
“No, cos it’s in a different key,” he replies, then goes on to add: “But I guess when I wrote the song, the original demo was in the key of F, that’s bluish violet purple. So maybe I was referring to that. I’m not sure…”
“I think I might go down the Calvin Harris route,” he remarks, completely out of the blue. “I need to check his album out, cos didn’t he release like seven or eight songs that got to number one before the album came out?” Those keen pop sensibilities crop up at various points in our chat, while the tendency to go off on a tangent is akin to his loose production spirit, which he terms “free-pop”.
“Free-pop really is me pigeonholing myself, before other people do,” he explains. “Pop is what gave me that education and gave me the impetus to make music. It’s literally just letting it run, just letting the music-making run. It was all very free-flowing.”
It seems that, despite the attention that the production game naturally brings, Kwes continues to thrive in solitude. He raves about having acquired his own studio, an old shipping container in east London: “It’s so liberating, it’s something I’ve wanted for ages.”
Amusingly, he refers to playing live as “regurgitating”, but does admit: “It’s really good practise, playing an instrument and using your voice, figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s really good character building… as much as I may not like it at times, I know it’s definitely helped me make my album.”
And, as the bashful producer stresses: “I am still a shy person, but I’m a lot more comfortable with myself.”
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Kwes discusses his musical craft...
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‘ilp’ is released via Warp Records on October 14th.
Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Samuel John Butt
For more information on Tom Morris and to buy clothes head to www.TomMorris.com.
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