Partikel Interview – China Tour, String Theory and more

Fast rising British sax/bass/drums trio Partikel have had a busy year with the release of their third album, String Theory, and are now about to embark on a tour of China. Set to headline Jazz Café POSK on 26 September before leaving for the Far East, Sarah Chaplin spoke to saxophonist Duncan Eagles and bassist Max Luthert about how it all came together

Sarah Chaplin: How did this China tour come about?

Duncan Eagles: None of us has ever been there before, but it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. Really it came about after a chance meeting during the London Jazz Festival last year between our drummer, Eric Ford, and Rachel Zhang from the music agency I Hear Jazz. We’d just finished recording our third album, String Theory, with Whirlwind Recordings, and she was wanting to set up educational events with British musicians in China and putting bands forward for gigs over there as well. Eric gave her a copy of the album and she really liked it and said she wanted to put some things together for us to go out there. We’ll be doing a mixture of workshops at a few universities as well as performing in a number of different places as a trio over the course of about thirty days.

SC: Will this be the first time Partikel has played outside Europe?

Max Luthert: It’ll be the first time the band has played outside of this country, let alone Europe! We’ve all toured abroad individually with other bands that we play with, but this will be the longest that any of us has been away working.

SC: Did you plan for it to be a month from the outset or did it just work out that way?

DE: We just gave Rachel all our promotional material and said we would be happy to do as many gigs as she wanted to set up, and initially she asked us to do 60 days, but there were some visa issues, so we settled on a tour half that length.

SC: It seems that jazz is quite an emerging scene in China, is that the case?

ML: I think western music culture generally is still quite new over there, and they are still getting their heads around jazz and trying to build up a jazz following.

DE: Blue Note have just commissioned some new clubs in China, and from some people I know who work in Hong Kong, they’ve told me there’s now an interest in jazz and a desire to understand the western tradition of it.  

SC: So it’s a nice moment for you guys to be playing to audiences who are still pretty open-minded and presumably don’t have a preconceived idea about what jazz is or should sound like, and you’ll be able to help define that! I had a look on a few of the clubswebsites to see who else they were putting on, and it’s quite a mixed bag of stuff - fusion, funk, hip-hop, as well as jazz - it seems like quite an open book right now.

DE: Yes it really is, and it’s just luck and good timing on our part to be doing this tour now. Hopefully we wont ruin it for them - with our version of jazz I mean!

SC: Do you have any plans to play with other jazz musicians during the tour?

DE: There is a gig we’ll be doing as part of the Shanghai Jazz Festival with trumpeter Steve Fishwick, who is out there when we are, and we’ve also been sent some Chinese folk tunes which we’re going to be doing some arrangements of, so there will be some gigs where we be will joined by Chinese musicians, and also some gigs we’re doing with Chinese bands as part of their line-up.

SC: I suppose in those situations it’ll be Partikel that’ll have to keep an open mind, since you wont necessarily know their way of making music together?

ML: I guess that’s the whole thing really, it’s that unique blending of cultures which is what Rachel Zhang is after. It’s not so much about us going out there and playing a few set gigs, it’s more about us spending time there and learning as much from them as they might from us.

DE: Yes that’s definitely the plan. In taking on the folk tunes for example, we wont arrange them too heavily or distort them too much; we will just present them in our way and see what response we get.

SC: Presumably being together for a long stretch of time like this, things are bound to brew. Do you also see the tour as an opportunity to develop some new material?

DE: Yes, we are definitely seeing it as a chance to work on new stuff. We’ve been writing some new material specifically for this trip that we will be playing in, and also because String Theory was recorded with a string quartet led by Benet McLean, a lot of the material from that has had to be reworked so that we can perform those tunes but as a trio. I’ll be using an effects pedal for example and looping some of my lines, much like Benet did on the album with the effects he created for his violin.

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SC: Is this process of ‘playing innew material something you now prefer, having developed String Theory in that way compared to your first two albums, which were written and recorded before you started gigging with them?

DE: It’s definitely the best way we’ve found of working, and we also felt it would be a shame to have this concentrated period of time away together and then just play all the stuff we’ve already got together.

SC: Have you had to change the charts quite significantly from how the tunes were played on the album with the string quartet?

DE: We have played a few gigs as a quartet with Benet in recent months, and it’s been interesting to see how he’s been reworking the string sections as a single player with an effects pedal, and we’ve found using the technology changes the overall vibe of our material in an interesting way. So on this tour, we are going to think about how we’d like to capture that emerging sound on our next album.

SC: Does playing with the string quartet mean you want to use your bow more now Max?

ML: It’s something that I’d like to get more into definitely. It’s scary playing with classical musicians in a way, because their intonation is really spot on, but it’s really good fun, and just thinking about the range and register that they’re each playing in is important, so you don’t get in their way, especially playing with a cellist. I’m just about to take delivery of an effects pedal myself, so I’m starting to get into electronics and stuff like Ableton and using midi, so I’m really looking forward to taking it with me to China and having the time to try a few things out. With Ableton you can create effects and write patches, and can get quite specific sounds, and even right down to setting up a certain effect for a certain tune. Just looking at our tour schedule, we will be covering many thousands of miles and there are days when we’re not going to be performing when we will have time to think and write and rehearse.

SC: What are you looking forward to musically on a tour like this and what are you hoping will emerge during the course of this unique experience?

ML: For me personally, and on a purely music level, I’m looking forward to really getting to know these new tunes inside out, trying to strip everything back so you are just playing the tune in its purest form. Over the course of the thirty days away I think we will really get inside stuff in a more focused way than is usually possible back home in the UK. Hopefully the tunes are going to sound totally different by the last gig we do in China compared to the first one.

SC: Will you record each gig you do so you can hear that musical evolution in action?

DE: Our agent Rachel Zhang is also a filmmaker so she’s going to video all the China gigs and get a little documentary together. What’s really interesting is that once we all know the tunes really well, things start to happen in the improvised sections and then we all clock it and something develops that wasn't there before in the writing, and eventually that becomes a part of the tune that’s written itself. I’m looking forward to that process happening again in a much more dramatic way because we’ll be playing together so much more and over a concentrated period of time. Plus we will be totally surrounded by a musical culture that’s so vastly different from what we’re used to, it’s bound to have some inspirational effect on what we play.

SC: Other musicians reading this interview are bound to want to know how easy it has been to set up a big tour like this, so what advice could you give them at this stage?

DE: We’re still pretty much in the dark because we’ve never done something like this before, so we really don't know what to expect. Over the past few years we’ve been lucky in that we’ve built up a fair amount of promotional material and we’ve got a few albums under our belt, so promoters over there can see we are a serious band, which helps a lot. We’re just going to take it as it comes really, and when we get back we will be able to tell people exactly what to do and what not to do I expect!

SC: Do you have any pre-tour anxieties or interesting riders you want to share with us, about getting instruments on and off planes for instance?!

ML: Well I’m quite lucky in that I’m not travelling with my double bass, which was one of the riders in fact. But we still need to figure out how Duncan’s saxophones will get there. I’ve asked for my bass to have a certain set-up and a certain type of strings, that’s it really. You can ask for all sorts, but you’re not necessarily going to get it!

DE: Eric’s said he’s bringing cymbals but wants them to provide the basic kit and some cow bells. Other than that we’ve been very British about the riders. No bottles of Bourbon or anything! Since Rachel is travelling with us, there shouldn’t be any problem with language, because she speaks Chinese obviously, and from what we can tell, the venues are either theatres or clubs with in-house sound engineers to sort things out for us on the night.

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SC: Will Eric be incorporating some new Chinese percussive elements into his kit do you imagine during this tour?

DE: I’m sure he’ll probably end up picking up a few choice new items along the way! He’s already told me that one of the first cities we’re going to is home to a famous cymbal company. Plus we are appearing at the Beijing Drum Festival as one of the stops on our tour, which Rachel also set up, so Eric is gearing up for that - our slot is in between Billy Cobham and Dave Weckl, so that should be a great experience! The festival mainly features drum clinics but we’re one of the only bands performing as such, so we will probably feature our more drum-heavy tunes on that gig.

SC: Has Rachel given you any indication of the size of audiences you might expect?

DE: It’s a bit of a range, from 200-400 seat theatres, down to the smaller 100 or so audience in the jazz clubs. The other daunting thing about the Beijing Drum Festival gig is that it’s going to be broadcast to millions on Chinese television, so we might have to put a few more rehearsals into what we play that night!

SC: Tell us a little bit about the workshops you’re running while you're in China.

DE: Yes, we’re doing several, all at different universities such as Nanjing University, Yun Nan Arts University, Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Beijing Music Academy, with undergraduate level students we’re told. But we are not sure of the level of jazz musicianship we will be dealing with, so we’re prepared for a lot of different things and we’ll be learning on the job, how best to explain things etc. We've planned a loose structure where we just play a few things and then talk about what we’re thinking about when we’re playing and how we communicate as a band.

SC: So it will be more of a masterclass with some participatory elements then?

DE: Exactly, we will probably relate a lot of things to the standard repertoire, and give them some charts to look at and try and get them involved as much as possible, reading and playing.

ML: Jazz is such a melting pot of loads of different things so it will be really interesting to see what the people that we work with in the masterclasses do with something like a blues, where they take it might be completely different to what we’re expecting.

SC: So by the sounds of it, Partikel will be developing a whole new workshop style as well as some new material while on the road, building on your mixed ability workshops down at the Hideaway in Streatham and your other teaching commitments in the UK?

DE: Absolutely, we do have a lot teaching material already, but compared to the Hideaway where I seem to do a lot of the input, this will be more about all three of us offering insights and leading the workshops. At the Hideaway we don’t often talk about what the three of us are doing as a band, whereas this will be a different kind of format.

ML: Hopefully we will be able to cover more rhythm section stuff, different approaches to harmony, and layer it up more and get everyone involved, whatever their ability. I’ve done quite a lot of work with kids, and if you strip it right back to just a couple of chords and a fun rhythm, you can do a lot with that.

SC: Do you think that this kind of performing tour with some taught elements would be more difficult for a band to do that’s working in another genre that’s more constrained and less open-ended than jazz?

ML: It depends, it would probably be more difficult for a group of classical musicians perhaps. Jazz is inherently about call and response, which is kind of like what we will be doing the whole time, whether on the gigs or at the workshops.

DE: Jazz music is so flexible, you can basically incorporate so many different styles from so many kinds of music into the general umbrella. And as a jazz musician you’re trained to be flexible by nature yourself and that really helps when your agent asks you to take on some Chinese folk tunes to work with! We’re keen to work with them and incorporate them into our set, but if we were going to China to deliver a load of classical recitals from lead sheets, it might be more difficult to integrate something like that. It’s just about finding a way to connect with people, and once you’ve got that, even if it’s about identifying five notes, you’ve got something to work with.

SC: How do you feel about your new album material at this point?

DE: We’re really happy with it actually; it could be our best stuff! We haven't done any of it on gigs yet, but the day before we fly out to China we are doing a gig at POSK in West London with Benet McLean, where we plan to play some of it in public for the first time. It’s all been written with Benet in mind, and also with a view to featuring more electronic effects like loops and delays.

ML: It always works best when there’s a concept for an album rather than just a collection of tunes, so it’s good knowing the basic idea for our next album, and then you can start writing accordingly. I had a few lessons with Steve Watts, and one of the things he said was give yourself a limitation and you can be really creative. With complete freedom it’s actually a lot harder to come up with ideas.

DE: Stylistically, I would say the new material is a lot more rock-y and soundscape-y for some reason, maybe because of the technology we’re using. Rhythmically and harmonically it’s a bit more complex maybe as well. Having been together as a band now for seven years, it’s about trying to take Partikel into a new territory, so we’re not just re-hashing what we’ve done before. It’ll be a lot more through-composed than our previous work. And with Benet involved, there are a lot of new dimensions to explore.

SC: Do you find that as you’ve been working together as a trio for such a long time, that you are each writing with each other in mind now, putting things in you know each other does or likes to do? And how does the addition of Benet as a fourth member of the trio change things?

DE: He’s becoming a bit indispensable!

ML: We’re writing now to try to bring the best out in each other.

DE: Yes, that’s maybe is why I’m happiest with this new material. You’re always getting to know each other better, and what everyone’s strengths are, so I guess that’s subconsciously informing the way you’re writing. It’s really collaborative now, things can change in a rehearsal when you start to work on it together, a lot of things can happen. Especially in China. Watch this space!

Partikel play Jazz café POSK on Saturday 26 September followed by their Far East Tour for more info visit www.partikel.co.uk/concerts/

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