The Numbers funk fiend on how letting go of his perfectionism helped him release his three-years-in-the-making debut album.
Although he released a few hip hop records under different aliases in his 20s, it was only after transitioning to electronic music production that Tom Calvert’s music started to take shape in its current form. Finding electronic music to be the ideal form to consolidate his influences – electro-funk by artists like Zapp & Roger, electronica by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher – Calvert released his debut EP as Redinho, 'Bare Blips', for the then-newborn Numbers imprint in 2010.
Numbers signed Calvert up for an album deal not long after hearing his second EP, 'Stay Together', but it’s taken him three years to ready his debut album. The hard graft shows on the self-titled 'Redinho': building on and fine-tuning some of the ideas first exhibited on his 'Bare Blips', 'Stay Together', and 'Edge Off' EPs, Calvert creates a fiendishly funky record that brings styles like P-Funk and G-Funk bang up to date, blending them with modern rap and club music production tics. Like all great funk albums, ‘Redinho’ is an incredibly intricate, technical record, with a complex melodic sensibility at play. A seemingly simple pop song like Playing With Fire features loads of vocal ideas – autotune, harmonies made through a vocoder, a talkbox used for layering and texturing on the chorus, all resampled and replayed as instruments. "I was trying to take that processed vocal as a theme," Calvert explains when we meet in a park near his house in South East London, "But manipulating it and using it in different ways."
How did you first get into that really electronic style of funk music?
Redinho: "That was when I was a teenager, playing in bands. Somehow, I heard some Zapp stuff – I dunno how. It might’ve been through getting into hip hop, and loving G-Funk. What I liked about hip hop was the way it made you discover so many different sorts of music.
"I didn’t know much about electronic music at all, so it was like, ‘How is that sound being made?’ That was always the thing that drives me: ‘How is that done?’ I always had an ambition to learn how to do it."
And how were you learning to do it? I’m guessing this was just a bit before Youtube tutorials.
Redinho: "It wasn’t until later – a long time later – that I finally got a talkbox and started practising."
Talkboxes are really hard to use, aren’t they?
Redinho: "They are. I still don’t think I’ve got there. What you’re trying to do is re-learn how to speak. You know when you see people who have a thing up here [mimes putting an electrolarynx to throat] because they don’t have any vocal cords? It’s exactly the same thing you’re doing."
I’ve heard that they’re quite painful to use, too.
Redinho: "It’s never been painful, but you end up with a lot of… a lot of slobber everywhere, because it’s such a weird thing to do. It’s not so much painful, but definitely an alien thing to try to do."
How long does it take to get competent at using that?
Redinho: "It depends on what you’re aiming for. If you’re just aiming to go, [half-singing] Ooh, ooh, ooh – anyone can do that, I think. The real hard thing is to be able to speak really clearly, and I still struggle with that. Roger Troutman had that nailed. He had that down so well."
I always think that Daft Punk don’t get enough credit for how ridiculously good they are at using their vocal effects.
Redinho: "I’ve never really looked into how they do all that stuff, whether it’s autotune or a talkbox, but that’s a good point – they’ve done that robotronic vocal thing as good as anyone, and uniquely. They’ve got their own vibe with it."
"[Using a talkbox has] never been painful, but you end up with a lot of… a lot of slobber everywhere, because it’s such a weird thing to do. It’s not so much painful, but definitely an alien thing to try to do." - Redinho
So contrasting the funk stuff, how did you get into harder, grimier sounds?
Redinho: "It was just wanting to experiment with style. People often think that grime’s a big influence with me, but it’s actually not. I was more influenced by Warp stuff, like Squarepusher, and Aphex Twin. I think that when you work with a certain tempo, and you work with electronic sounds, and you simplify things, it can come across like a grime thing."
I guess you inevitably stumble onto that.
Redinho: "Exactly. I mean, I love the energy of grime. It’s been in my consciousness without really trying because I’ve heard a lot of it, but it’s not a conscious thing. It was mainly just different styles of electronica that interested me."
The focus on the album is a lot narrower than on your other EPs. When did you conceive the album in what eventually became its finished form?
Redinho: "Those EPs were part of the process – you know, ‘Here are a few styles and ideas.’ Like you say, it got distilled towards the end, and I honed in on certain ideas. Going out and playing live was a big part of the process."
You’ve always done live shows, right?
Redinho: "Yep, and that was always in mind when I was writing: ‘How am I going to do something with this live?’"
Was there a lot of roadtesting involved?
Redinho: "Massively. That was a big back-and-forth thing. It was like: ‘I wanna write something that has parts that I can perform with a talkbox or some sort of vocal element.’ That helped me hone in on things, trying to make the talkbox a big feature. Gradually, I felt like the live show had a more distilled, cohesive aesthetic and style, and that’s kind of what I settled on."
There are many musical elements at play on the album – the musicality, the melodic and harmonic aspects – it seems like a very important thing. What draws you towards that complexity?
Redinho: "I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and it still gives me a lot of joy to listen to their stuff. There’s actually a lot of complexity in what they do, harmonically, and yet it still comes off as accessible. That’s something I aspire to as well. That’s a good balance between being too complex and too simple.
"But yeah, that’s a big part of the record. I like harmony like that. I found myself doing a lot of club shows, being sandwiched in the middle of a lot of techno and bass music stuff, which is understandably droney. There’s no harmony a lot of the time – and that’s fine – but it was a challenge to then get up and do something completely different. It still is."
Do your shows tend to go down well?
Redinho: "Mixed. I’ve probably blocked it out of my mind, but I’m sure there were plenty of times where I cleared the room. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – you’ve got to take those risks. If you’re not clearing the room occasionally, you’re playing it too safe. But equally, you can do exactly the same set [somewhere else] and people will love it.
You worked with quite a few vocalists on the album.
Redinho: "The three I worked with were Brendan Reilly, Vula, and Vanessa Haynes. Brendan was a collaboration. [With] the rest, I’d written the songs and always liked them, and those girls were singers. So I sent them the tune, they sang it, and nailed it."
Did you know them beforehand?
Redinho: "I knew Brendan a little bit. All of those singers are London soul singers – even though all of them weren’t born here; Brendan and Vula were born in America and Vanessa was born in Trinidad, I think? But they’ve all come to London, and I’ve seen them about, and they’ve been amazing. If you’ve written a track and you’re quite anal like me, you want someone who’s gonna be amazing at executing things, and those guys all are."
It brings it back to that complexity – these singers operate at professional standards.
Redinho: "That’s important to me. The culture I come from is being around musicians who aspire to be really good at what they do – performing, executing, all that stuff. And that’s a big part of what I aspire to do. All of those guys have that ethos as well."
And technically, they’re all very accomplished.
Redinho: "Oh man, yeah. If you go into the studio with those guys it’s mindblowing. I was often getting them to do adlibs, almost out of just wanting to listen to them do their work. It is laughably amazing when you get them to just let go. It’s just mindblowing how good they are."
"If you go into the studio with those guys it’s mindblowing. I was often getting them to do adlibs, almost out of just wanting to listen to them do their work. It is laughably amazing when you get them to just let go." - Redinho
Is your working process one of trial and error, or is it quite natural, or improvisational?
Redinho: "A lot of initial ideas come from messing around, but there’s a whole other journey. I’ve mentioned some of it – roadtesting, playing out endlessly… A lot of those tracks have so many different versions, different instrumentation, different feels, different vocal styles. That’s one of the reasons that it took a long time. Actually, I’m not trying to get away from that a little bit. It can be not very enjoyable to work like that."
I like hearing about people’s working processes, how some people can take ages to get things done, yet the finished version sounds flawless and effortless. Then some people can just knock things out in a day.
Redinho: "You’ve got to be careful of perfectionism, because that can really hold you back. There is no perfection. If you take it to its logical conclusion you’ll be there for the rest of your life. There’s a phrase, which is like: ‘A track is never finished, it’s abandoned.’ And that’s the point where I usually come to: ‘Nothing’s really irritating me about this. I can let go now.’ It’s a weird one. Now, I’m finding myself working a bit differently."
Numbers released 'Redinho' on September 22nd 2014 (buy).