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Joel Mallen

IN CONVERSATION WITH: Cory Wong

WORDS BY: JOEL MALLEN

Funky, fun and full of cartilage, Cory Wong is fast becoming a global leading light in a renaissance of uptempo funk. A consistent collaborator with Vulfpeck (to the point where they have a full track reserved just for him as an album closer), he is making a noise with his giddy, positive vibe and bafflingly loose spider hands, somehow sounding tight and rich in musicianship. I had the honour of catching up with him over a vegan burger and sweet potato fries, just before his headline show at Gorilla.

What would be your blurb? How would you describe yourself?

I am a musician that plays music to spread joy to the world. A lot of guitar-led bands, it’s about the guitar player – it’s about “look what I can do”. For me, my guiding light is not about showing off flashy moves. If those come out, great! But my guiding light is to leave my show and listening to my records thinking “Oh wow, that was really fun”, or “oh wow, that put me in a good mood”. It might sound cheesy, but that really is a thing for me.

How does your right hand just, like, do that? Is it dislocated?

Well, I am able to have it very loose but in control – I have a very flexible wrist, and I guess I’ve just practised a lot.

Growing up in Minneapolis, you’ve mentioned how Prince was a real influence on you – did that influence your style from a very young age?

Yeah, I mean I started as a punk rock and ska kid: Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, that sort of thing. But Prince is just kinda everywhere; it’s in the water, it’s in the air, you can’t really avoid it. It’s just how it is.


Was your main source of development rooted in experiences with rhythm bands growing up, or more from discovering artists like Prince?

It’s more from discovering artistry. Even developing my own sound and style was a by-product of learning so deeply the catalogue of Prince, Pat Metheny, Earth, Wind & Fire. Learning it so intimately, and then completely abandoning it to find who I am. I had some mentors that were like “Dude, you gotta stop sounding like Prince, you’ve gotta sound like you. That’s what people wanna hear – nobody’s ever gonna be as good as Prince at being Prince, just as no-one is gonna be as good as you as being you”.

What’s your main impression of the Manchester scene and the UK scene? I know you do a lot of work with the RNCM, masterclasses and the like.

It’s fun to see that there are so many scenes, from all over the world, that have a vibrant arts culture and music business culture as well. The UK in general is such a thriving area for musicians. It’s fun to experience and see this music college that reminds me so much of my own school; it’s very global now.

Your last album The Optimist came out last August – what was your favourite moment or song to record?

My favourite one on there is 91 Maxima. It was a fun song to record, I had an idea of what I wanted to do video wise. I just had some fun little tricks I wanted to do, I didn’t think I would pull it  off, but I did! I really enjoyed Jax and Light As Anything, because I was able to pull off the palindrome, a two drummer drum-kit, a lefty and righty with one kick in the middle. That was a fun, cool thing.

What’s the next step in terms of your recorded music? Are you planning on getting more adventurous with your sound?

I have a bunch of music already recorded for my next record that I feel really good about. Some of this upcoming record is some more collaborations, which I’m really excited about: some that have already happened, some that are coming up which I can’t believe are going to happen. I don’t wanna jinx it, but there’s some big ones, some heroes of mine. I wanna continue to step out as a guitar player led ensemble, in general that’s adventurous to me as a non-shred guy.

Your music seems a very positive force, would you consider that more of a release from you and the music justifies the means, or would you consider that just your outlook on life?

I consider myself a positive person in most areas, but yes I do believe there is a bit of that feedback loop thing, it grows and grows. But I’m mainly just a positive person.

 

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You’re famous across the pond for your jam night in Minneapolis. How important is jamming? What would you say to any young player that is a bit tentative to get on stage?

I’d say it’s formative to them. The word “jamming” can mean a lot of different things to different people.

Because in the higher jazz circles for example, it’s viewed as more like a “cutting session”. Do you think it should be competitive?

Well I’m always out for blood, but I’m not gonna cut any heads. I’m always looking for great musicians to play with. I try to push myself and others in those situations to see how great of a moment we can get. But I think it’s a good thing for growth. The other thing is just to go and hang and be part of a scene, I think that’s the most important thing, and finding a scene that you belong in musically and personally, seeing who you align with.

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ALBUM RELEASE: FLING – ‘FLING OR DIE’

WORDS BY JOEL MALLEN

Bradford psych rockers FLING play “wonky pop”, according to them, and much more besides. They’ve had incredibly successful debut and sophomore years, rising out of a white-hot arts scene in West Yorkshire, standing out with a committed following to a unique live show and old-school glam rock aesthetic, with all the lipstick, stripy jumpers, dungarees and bright colours that come with it. Working with Lee Smith at Leeds’ Greenmount Studios, FLING record FLING OR DIE, a fruity cocktail combination of reworked singles and new releases, put out into the world on the 22nd February.

In short, the record holds up really well, especially as a profile and introduction to what this band is all about. Kicking off with Welcome To The City, a glam song about a refugee alien running away from his own planet, an opener you really lose yourself in, yet also hear their influences brazenly. Ziggy-era David Bowie and T.Rex spring to mind, with the singers sliding ’70s half rock voice heavily recalling to Marc Bolan (there’s even a bonus “radio-oh-oh” reference a la Starman chucked in there for good measure). This and the entire album set a great tone; jangling acoustic guitars, organs, under a picked indie bass and combined with surreal lyrics and nasal, catchy melodies.

FLING OR DIES’s strength is in the individualism of each track; not enough that it becomes non-cohesive, instead additional sounds and instruments add to the character. Some are absolutely out of left field, like steel drums, recorders, sequenced synthesisers, kalimbas, upright piano, ultra-compressed vocals, and the droning sitar which dominates Revolution. It’s this kind of disrespect for the pop rulebook that gives the album such a life to it, whilst the songwriting absolutely and 100% sticks the landing in setting the mood. Whether it be softly spoken like Je T’aime, cheeky like Just A Dog or Banjo Billy, or tub-thumping like Revolution and Black and White Fibbers.

But it’s more than that: every one of the 11 songs feels intensely involving, with all the energy of a hitchhikers-by-the-fire novella, stored in the crevices of the brain. An album that champions the slightly psychedelic and the bizarre, a cavalcade of expressive joy that leaves you with no choice but to go along for the ride of every song. If you can get your hands and ears on this album, for it is certainly worth the upside down ride.

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IN CONVERSATION WITH: Jalen N’Gonda

WORDS BY JOEL MALLEN

Jalen N’Gonda describes his musical philosophy as “in the works” – but if those works are anything to go by we have a potential future soul star on our hands. The Maryland native takes pride in throat popping vocal power and traditional soul progressions within his music, but is clearly looking to build on that sound piece by piece. I usually ask any musician who they’d have an hour long conversation with if they have the chance, and if “Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye and Kevin Parker” doesn’t give you visions of Motown infused soul jams with a bit of vinyl crackle, I don’t know what else would. “They are/were geniuses in their own field”, he adds, and you can hear streams of their influence running right through his music.

You can’t say that Jalen isn’t shy of adventure, currently touring on the back of debut EP ‘Talking About Mary’. “The tour is great so far, [I’ve] been places that I’ve never been – it’s dope!” he exclaims, and he’s not wrong either: touring with Lake Street Dive in the USA off the back of your first EP is pretty good going. He described the American leg of the tour as “really fun! It was great being around such a talented band and lovely group”, and he returned this November to finish the tour in the UK, his first post-jetlag date being right here in The Castle Hotel. “Manchester plays a good role in my life in the UK; it’s like a neighbour you go to to borrow sugar. I love the night life here and there are some great festivals, band and events coming out of that city.”

Originally from Maryland, he carries that industrial and traditional blue-collar grit into dense, warmly compressed pop harking back to that nostalgic late-60s Motown flair, with classic love song lyrics and reverb-laden drums and tambourines. “Maryland played a great role in my musical and life direction, due to the people that were around me” – he seems like an artist well suited to a storytelling, life experience driven style. He isn’t all-American though, he seems just as informed by his more recent British adventures. “Liverpool is a second home for me, for real! I feel like an adopted northerner! But I recently moved down to London so it’s sort of a new adventure”.

You can hear all this wrapped up in ‘Talking About Mary’, released in June 2018. It quite rightly earned a fair bit of attention, with such a distinct flavour on top of really tight, traditional songwriting. “Everyone who I worked with [on the EP] was just as amazing as the other, but I have to say it was truly great working with Bo Weaver- we produced a beautiful sound”.

As for Jalen’s future, he’s been pretty coy about some new music: “there’ll definitely be some new releases in 2019 – can’t tell you what! But I can say some progress has been made since the last EP”. He has a clear road-map to follow in both his life and music, and he’s definitely going places.

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LIVE: GoGo Penguin @ Albert Hall

WORDS BY JOEL MALLEN      PHOTOS BY GARY BROWN

Hometown boys GoGo Penguin are probably a name you’ve heard – they’re the shining bright burden for acoustic, left field jazz, and have cultivated a reputation for high quality, widely-influenced music. These guys aren’t Mercury Prize nominated for no reason. The 2018 UK tour for their February album ‘A Humdrum Star’ concluded at our very own Albert Hall; its church setting with the open, fairy-lighted top giving an atmospheric and intimate take befitting of the band’s clout. Manchester, and myself, awaited with baited breath.

Starting the night off were Gondwana Records newbies Sunda Arc, who had swathes of progressive and modular trance jazz for the audience – a great homage to the large reach of GoGo’s tastes. Their square and sawtooth bullets of sequenced bass settles under colourful, washing chords, skipping sixteenths and throbbing kick drum. The percussion is multi-layered and detailed, which give a possessive motion, especially with the natural reverberations of the Albert Hall sitting softly underneath.  Looping sequences patiently whirl in and out, either to highly charged quaking and rumblings, or disturbing, hypnotic buzzing. This is filled out with minimal melodic solos on a Nord or improvised mini-saxophone. They should definitely be watched within the scene, and closely; and their first EP ‘Flicker’, primed for release in December, might just strengthen that sentiment.

And then for something completely different – there’s nothing chilling or disturbing about Andreya Triana. The MOBO nominee glided comfortably on stage over the counter-melodic noodlings of guitarist Ben King, and offered a stripped back blend of pop and soul. On stage with such little instrumental backing, the effect is one of isolation, but if anyone can fill that pronounceable void it’s Andreya. Her clean, soulful chops filled rooms and hearts with genuinely jaw-dropping ease, and combined with her refined stage presence makes her performance hard to take your eyes and ears off.

We were treated to cuts off new album ‘Life In Colour’, due for release in February, such as ‘I Gave You My Heart’ and ‘WOMAN’, where her melodies had strong shades of Corinne Bailey Rae – a pop-centred yet incredibly intelligent navigation of colourful diatonic harmonies. Yet, her delivery had plenty of versatility, adding blues-like riffs and raspy sprinklings at song climaxes, all over intricate, rhythmic guitar work. We even got a preview of Andreya’s new McCartney-esque Hofner bass, adding a lovely layer to the closer. A fantastic support on what is an overall high quality night of music so far, and if any band can push that even further, it’s our headliners.

GoGo Penguin are shrouded in yellow coming on to stage, starting the set like the album does – pianist Chris Illingworth plays the patient, monotone piano pulse of ‘Prayer’, which builds to a heart-crushing crescendo of space and melancholia, Nick Blacka’s bowed double bass whirling in and out. One thing that immediately hits you about their live sound is how acoustically pristine it is – there’s a cleanliness and purity to every single note, never fudged and combined with an unbelievable sense of musicality. No song shows this more than oldie ‘One Percent’, an ultra-rhythmic piece that mixes pulses and and skips beats to gleeful abandon, ending on performed live out-of-time glitches with an unbelievable tightness I have rarely seen.

Songs like ‘Bardo’ show a hypnotic, EDM-like approach to progressive acoustic music, with repetitive hooks on Illingworth’s piano, whereas songs like ‘Strid’ show Rob Turner’s bullet-quick drum changes and minimalist polyrhythms; but whichever song they do, they act as one incredibly tight sonic unit. Whilst they blend elements of jazz and acoustic music, every now and again you hear a bass pattern that wouldn’t be out of place on a Squarepusher anthem, or a Nils Frahm-prepared piano: they pull from such a wide range of influences that it’s hard to really box them into one all encompassing genre. They even sprinkle some delay pedals on a bass, and a wash of hand bells on ‘100 Moons’, to add to their mature sonic palette.

The one feeling you get from the entire room, and it’s one you rarely experience as a gig goer, is one of genuine awe. Their almost robotic humility and dedication doesn’t negate from the overall sound, and special mention must go to sound engineer Joe Riser, who helped provide one of the purest sounds I may have ever heard live. Blending perfectly with the surroundings, it is a sound to be proud of. More poignant tracks like ‘Murmuration’ and closer ‘Transient State’ cement this attention to detail, and provide listeners with such a love for music that they almost transcend being a band altogether; a immaculate, subtle yet jaw-dropping tribute to the musical experience. If you fancy getting both misty-eyed and blown away at the same time, hop on this show as soon as possible, and I guarantee your heart will grow three sizes.

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