The Brand New Heavies Interview: ‘There are all of these grooves we haven’t got out of our systems yet’
In the early 1990s, The Brand New Heavies were at the forefront of the burgeoning Acid Jazz scene. A quarter of a century on, Founder member Andrew Levy talks to Felix Rowe about hanging out with Stevie Wonder and James Brown and their reunion with classic-era vocalist N’Dea Davenport…
Breaking out of the late 80s London club scene, within a few short years The Brand New Heavies became transatlantic soul stars, rubbing noses with the very heroes they once idolised. Through a combination of chance and raw talent, these school friends discovered a fresh formula for funk – acid jazz. And in doing so, if their youthful press shots are anything to go by, they’ve stumbled upon the elixir of life. Their feelgood music has served them well over 30-plus years, evidently as good for the body as for the soul.
“I never get bored of it,” says bassist Andrew Levy, who catches up with Classic Pop before heading over to Japan for a four-day residency. In fact, Andrew is now 53. “It’s still hard to say that,” he chuckles. But, as we discover, he has plenty of unfinished business. This year sees The Brand New Heavies at something of a crossroads in their career. They’re back with a vibrant new studio album, TBNH, their first since the departure of founder member and long-time drummer, Jan Kincaid, and they’ve reunited on record with on-off frontwoman N’Dea Davenport. It turns out the two events might well be linked…
Andrew, Jan and guitarist Simon Bartholomew met at school, bonding over a shared love of music.
“I was brought up on 7″ reggae records,” says Andrew. “My parents were from Jamaica and my dad used to bring lots of records back when he visited his parents. Then, the beginning of my teens was the whole disco era. Earth, Wind & Fire were putting stuff out and Chic were massive. I remember when Le Freak came out, I put my pocket money together with Jan and we bought the 12″ single. I’d have it one week, then he’d have it the next.”
At this point, it was more about hanging out. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a guy on stage playing guitar.’ I wanted to go to art college, so music was just a fun thing we did. We were obsessed with James Brown, The Meters and Herbie Hancock. They’ve made some of the funkiest, most syncopated, incredible music, especially Herbie on an album called Thrust. We tried to emulate that by copying certain parts of grooves.
“We recorded one particular groove on cassette and I thought it sounded incredible,” he continues. “Barrie Sharpe [co-creator of Duffer Of St George street clothing] used to DJ at this rare groove funk club called The Cat In The Hat. So I took it down, he played it, and everyone carried on dancing like it was a cool rare groove 7″. We all looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, this could be something!’ He booked us to play at his club and made himself the percussionist in that process. And then someone from Warner Brothers came down. They actually came to Jan’s bedroom and watched us jam.”
An Offer From The Godfather
On the map, it’s just a short journey from an Ealing bedroom to Wembley Arena, but one that few get the chance to take. Yet Andrew, Simon and Jan soon got a taste of the big time at the iconic venue, notching up their first celebrity endorsement – from none other than the Godfather Of Soul himself.
“We got a support slot for James Brown,” Andrew enthuses. “That was in the very early days – it must have been around 1987 – before we got signed or had any music out. Obviously, we were listening to everything by him and his backing band, The JBs. We studied that stuff a lot. He was there when we were soundchecking in this incredible bespoke tailored suit. I remember looking at him from the side of the stage and he was rocking – not dancing, but swaying. At the end, he came over and shook our hands and started talking to our brass section. Later on that evening, I realised he was actually trying to steal them!”
A few years after this, in the early 1990s, the band found themselves taking funk and soul in a fresh direction.
“We grew up on the club scene, so we combined that club sound and the whole disco thing with funk and wrote songs on top,” Andrew says. “It wasn’t a contrived decision, it was just what we were listening to. It was the Summer Of Love, so house music was very big at that time, and even hip-hop was beginning to be played on national radio. All those things combined in our heads and in the studio, and what came out was The Brand New Heavies – like a commercialised version of James Brown or Motown soul.”
A deal was swiftly inked with Chrysalis and, on the record company’s insistence that they needed a singer, they hooked up with emerging American soul talent N’Dea Davenport. And so, still in their early 20s, they headed off to the US and took their new brand of funk and soul back to its homeland. The bunch of kids from Ealing went down a storm, but did they expect more resistance as imposter upstarts?
“You know what? When you’re young, you don’t see it…” Andrew reflects. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, this is going to happen, we’re going to go to America, we’re going to do this!’ Your confidence level is so high at that age, you never think of anything not working out. It was basically just a holiday for us, being driven to a studio, and we had all these exotic looking girlfriends in LA!” he laughs. “It was a lot of fun, and music was just something we did. Then, suddenly, Q-Tip and Ice Cube started calling us, and we kind of thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing, is it always this easy?’ So, yeah, for us it was fairly normal. But, looking back on it now, we were incredibly lucky and it was an incredibly privileged position to have been in.”
Soon they were counting Stevie Wonder among their fans. “They playlisted our first single Never Stop and he came to one of our concerts,” he says. “I can’t remember where we met him, it may have been a Ray Charles anniversary, but we got escorted over to him for a press photo and he started singing the single. That was a moment I’ll never ever forget. And, again, at that age it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Stevie Wonder over there, that’s cool, and he likes our music.’ It’s only years after, you realise how incredible that moment was.”
Push And Pull
The early 90s proved a hugely fruitful period for the Heavies. It’s easy to forget just how many hits they had until you revisit the back catalogue – Dream Come True, Dream On Dreamer, Back To Love, Midnight At The Oasis… the list goes on. But after their early breakout success, ‘artistic differences’ reared its ugly head, and Davenport left to pursue her solo career. In the two decades since, the Heavies have recruited a string of female singers (largely from the US), punctuated by the occasional return from Davenport. With respect to the contributions these talents undoubtedly made to the band’s oeuvre, you get a distinct sense of ‘the one that got away’ – as they forever try to recapture or replicate that original magic. Levy remains unequivocal about how integral N’Dea is to the band.
“She’s the voice of The Brand New Heavies and our biggest hits in our heyday were all about her vocals. And her writing as well, she actually co-wrote a lot of the big songs. But over the years, it’s been quite difficult to keep her in the band for various reasons that I won’t go into now…” He laughs sheepishly, before adding, “…related to a recently departed member, let’s say!”
Back To The Source
As the Heavies ploughed on into a new millennium, something else was starting to happen among the next generation. The last decade has witnessed a huge resurgence in old-school funk, soul and disco. Just look at some of the biggest hits of the last few years: the Nile Rodgers-featuring Get Lucky; Pharrell Williams’ Happy; and pretty much anything by Bruno Mars.
Dig a little deeper, and it’s not too tenuous to credit The Brand New Heavies for helping to spur this reappraisal. Hidden among the crowd of A-listers at one of their very first US gigs, in a Manhattan club called The Sound Of Brazil, was an unassuming 16-year-old called Mark Ronson.
“It’s only really the past five or six years that we realised he was such a massive fan,” says Andrew. Indeed, Ronson was such a big admirer he booked the Heavies for his recent 40th birthday. “He books us occasionally to play bass or guitar. I played bass on a Robbie Williams track for him because we were both in New York at the time. He’s a massive fan of N’Dea as well.”
It must be a little tempting to draw a link between what the Heavies did and the new wave of artists coming through. Even the indie kids are going disco…
“I’m not sure how much they’re rediscovering us,” ponders Andrew, “but I definitely can hear… it’s a specific point in the late 70s just before electro came in, or that early 80s soul. But bands like The 1975 and Haim, some of the stuff they do is totally like Prince soul, kind of funk stuff, and I love the idea of that. I’m so happy that people are discovering it.”
But equally profound is the discovery of his influence in more understated ways. A big fan of YouTube when putting together ideas for his DJ sets, Andrew often stumbles across Brand New Heavies covers put up by fans. “There’s even this guy in Italy who’s learning all my basslines – that’s amazing to watch. It’s really flattering that someone’s sat there and learnt all my notes.”
As good as getting the thumbs up from James Brown and Stevie Wonder? “Yeah, it’s the whole cycle of life, someone’s now impressed by meeting me… oddly enough!”
A New Beginning
The band’s connection with Mark Ronson was integral in bringing N’Dea back into the fold, although this joy would be tempered by another milestone in their story.
“We were on tour in Japan when we got the call saying Mark wants you to play at his birthday party. Something happened where a certain member didn’t want to do the show with N’Dea and some other members of the band said, ‘We’re gonna do it, because that’s what Mark wants.’ So we went ahead and did it. Strangely enough, a couple of months later that person left and I think that might have been a trigger. It wasn’t planned, and I just thought, ‘Let’s just do this for the fans’, you know. They don’t care about the internal wranglings of who doesn’t get on with who in the band, they just wanna see a great show, or see N’Dea singing the hits. That’s basically what Mark wanted and I wasn’t going to let him down.”
Ronson returned the favour, producing These Walls – one of three tracks to feature N’Dea on their new record. Always ready to look forward, the band sound rejuvenated on this celebratory collection of tracks, TBNH.
“Because we haven’t done a tonne of albums, there’s still all of these different grooves, beats and chord changes that we haven’t got out of our systems yet. We’re still catching up! We’ve got a big back catalogue of jams and ideas. Also, after at least 10 years, people expect to hear a certain sound from The Brand New Heavies and I’m very happy to deliver. We can’t go trying to be the new Stormzy! I mean, I think there’s something very authentic about a real drum kit, bass, guitar and brass that stands the test of time. If you listen to it in 50 years’ time, you can still understand it because we’re using real instruments.”
He considers how this might sound. “We’re not fuddy-duddies that are only into retro music. I listen to every single thing that’s out there. I watched the Download festival the other day with my son, that blew my mind. There’s this whole thing about Viking metal that blew me away!”
Don’t go expecting any Viking metal on the new Heavies record or at upcoming shows. But what you can guarantee is incredible grooves and packed-out dancefloors.