Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
At the moment, MICACHU AND THE SHAPES and THE INVISIBLE are on tour together. They met through Matthew Herbert’s Accidental Records camp a while ago, and – if David Okumu and Mica Levi are anything to go by – their shared sense of humour and open, inventive take on music meant that would go on to become really good friends. Their music nicely contrasts each other – Mica’s sounds like it’s recorded from household detritus while the Invisible make tracks that sound interstellar – but both of them make pop music that’s forward-thinking, clever and instinctual.
When I heard they were touring together, I thought it would be fun to get them to interview each other, and a few swapped emails later, Mica Levi, David Okumu and myself met up at Leon in Spitalfields.
Mica: Are you ready?
No… Yeah I’m ready.
What’s your favourite guitar shop riff?
That’s a hard question. You just went in for the jugular… We’ve all been there though, haven’t we? I used to get kicked out of the one on Denmark Street on a regular basis. I used to go in when I was 14 and go “Uh, I’m thinking about buying that one” and point to one that cost six and half grand. They’d obviously think You’re either the son of some wealthy diplomat or you’re lying – so I’d be given 15 seconds and play Stairway To Heaven. Stairway didn’t last long though – but sticking in the Led Zep zone, I did play Baby I’m Gonna Leave You a lot in guitar shops. I haven’t actually been in a guitar shop in a while so I feel a bit out of the loop actually. You just bought a guitar though, right?
Yeah. I always just stick a piece of paper between the strings and strum, say Yeah, really good… action. And never have any idea what I’m talking about. I stuck a one of those metallic things that you get on the back of an Argos hi fi in the strings. Then I said Oh, and I need a case and they were like “You taking it on holiday?” And I was like “Oh, actually… I’m taking it on tour,” which I think took them back a little.
Actually, the one I really want to play in a guitar shop is dunky-dunky-duh-dunky-dunk (sings the Just In Case riff). Seriously, I can’t play it. I don’t know how you do it.
Easy. You just stick a train ticket in between the strings, turn it up under the G and just play it.
I want to hear how it sounds on your new guitar though.
It just sounds the same.
That means it’s you then.
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.
I didn’t realise this was going to be such a technical, guitar-based interview.
Yeah – Fender or Gibson?
So, are you doing all your questions first?
No, well, they are such terrible questions… One of the questions is… What you’re favourite out of the Circle, District or Hammersmith and City lines?
I’ve always had a special relationship with the District line. Hammersmith and City always feels a bit peripheral and boring, and you always have to go to specific places to change, it just gets annoying. There was that time when I lived up on the Cally Road and it wasn’t running for a long time and it was a real pain in the arse. And I like circles, but sometimes circles can get depressing. The District line is green, and I like green.
Green is go.
Green is go, green is life. So I’m going district line, definitely. I really liked that question. Right, can I ask you a question? You know how we share an issue based on gender crises? What I want to know is how many times have you been mistaken for a small boy, and does it beat the number of times I’ve been mistaken for a woman
I can easily beat the number of times you’ve been mistaken for a woman. It goes in phases… I’d say like once a day, at least.
Hasn’t it changed since you started rocking the peroxide vibe?
It’s been pretty consistent.
Ally doesn’t get it wrong does she?
No, Ally gets it right. Which is a good sign.
Me – sorry, who’s Ally?
Ally’s my partner. My “partner” – how grown-up.
Yeah, well done. Does the regularity take away from the humiliation that I experience?
But yeah, I think I just let it go now. I can’t be labouring with it.
That’s a good attitude. I think I could learn a lot from you?
Maybe we should swap wardrobes.
I think that would be a strong look. I have been wondering what to wear on tour.
Although, me wearing baggier clothes would make me look more masculine and you wearing tighter clothes would make you look more feminine. I should probably just wear more make-up.
Could I wear any more makeup? You haven’t seen me without face on… Cause I get it phases, and it hasn’t happened for a while, which makes it confusing, as I can’t pin down what makes me look like a woman.
OK, so I’ve got quite a “journalist-y” question.
Yeah, I’ve always thought of you as a journalist. All our conversations feel very journalistic.
Fuck, we have a terrible friendship! So, I was going to ask you about religion in your music. In a few songs you talk about love in quite a religious way without referencing a specific religion.
I think faith is a massive part of my life. I’ve always been quite anti-religion, but I kind of think that faith is almost the opposite of religion, which is almost a misrepresentation of faith. I grew up in a Christian household, and faith is integral to all my creative process and my decision making processes and that, and love and everything. And that comes out in the way I write. That word “passion” is really interesting to me – the idea of suffering and transcendence and love and all that.
Your lyrics are wonderful. My partner is going to have some tattooed onto her back.
Wow. That’s just the best, isn’t it? I could die now.
You legacy will live on now, even after your death…
That’s why I’m planning to die right after this. That’s already in my filofax.
Wow – thanks for giving Dummy that exclusive. I appreciate it
Ah man, that’s such a cliché. The rock’n‘roll suicide. Why not do get blasted into space or something. Or why don’t you kill someone else? A lot of rockstars kill themselves, but killing someone else is another way of sustaining your career beyond your own life.
Maybe I have killed someone else, and I just haven’t told anyone.
Where’s your tear tattoo then?
God she’s probing, isn’t she? A hard-nosed journalist.
Man, your first question was about gender issues. It is strange though. I’ve always had quite a small and supportive group of friends , and it wasn’t until very recently that I became aware of how I looked – like that how you come across and appear is actually a massive, massive part of what you do. That’s why we wear the same t-shirts on stage – so people won’t be overly-concerned with what we wear, but at the same time it’s not like a uniform. I mean, I always saw myself as making hip-hop, like a backroom producer – where people know what you do but not what you look like. It’s strange when you realise you’re…
- .. adored by millions?*
Yes, exactly. Adored by million laughs. Well photographed a great deal and judged on how you look, anyway. How lucky is that? I’m not sure if she’s joking here. I’m not sure if it matters It’s a weird job. It’s such a fucking weird job.
It is strange. How do you deal with that aspect of it? The fact that image is so integral to the way people perceive what you do?
I think … through doing fashion shows, I think fashion and the way that people perceive you visually is actually really exciting – the way it changes and evolves and goes in cycles. And it is weird and fun and exciting, but if you’re not yourself it’s bollocks. If you’re not being honest, there’s no point in doing anything. In our industry, no-one buys records anymore, there’s no money in it, so you’ve just got to indulge yourself in our own little project. So whether you dress a bit shit or masculine or feminine or whatever, you can’t change it. It sounds so cheesy, but you’ll just fuck up if you try to be anyone else.
I’m just going to cash in on everything you just said. Everything that I’ve liked or has had a transformative effect has been through nothing else but pure honesty, through someone being completely themselves. And it’s the only justification for doing this ridiculous job is that you give license for others to do the same. When someone’s from another planet and being wonderful, you allow people to be themselves. Certainly, that’s the way that great art or great music makes me feel.
Maybe it takes a certain megalomania to do that. Everyone’s so certain of the way to do things, and it takes a certain arrogance to go your own way. I find myself pushing against things so much in so many ways. It’s quite hard, but it’s good.
Right, on to the next one. [Reading out a question left by the band’s PR] “How excited on a scale are you to tour with me?”
God, so excited! It’s just holding us in at the moment. It’s so good touring with you guys. Touring can be a strained experience in some ways, but touring with the Invisible is such a joy on so many levels. Gush, gush, gush, gush, gush. But not just as friends, for any band who plays with the Invisible, the musicianship, the whole thing is just through the roof. Some of the three best musicians in London, playing in a band together, playing so well together. Great band…
David hands Mica a five pound note
Don’t let me stop you. Just topping up the meter. And there’s more where that came from.
[Laughs] Also, because these guys have been on tour for so long, they are so good at drinking. You’re very subtle. That was the most drinking I’ve ever done.
*You are a quarter the size of me. It’s the same for us though. We’ve toured with some great, great, lovely, lovely bands, but with these guys it’s on another level. There is that repetitive side to touring, but with these, you always know you’re going to be inspired every night.
Mica slides the fiver back
It’s just the whole Accidental Records thing.
It is a wonderful place. Everything, warts and all, is just done with nothing other than love and respect for the music.
OK, next question. My next is “What’s your favourite element in the periodic table?” Is it… Mercury?
Yeah, a few weeks ago, I was really into the periodic table. Now,. I’m so over it. it’s done.
I’m just imagining everything that you rely on from the periodic table deserting you.
Yeah, I’m over, I’ve moving to another planet.
I’m not sure how to ask you about it. It was quite nice seeing you on telly. I wore my Invisible t-shirt, and styled my hair into a La Roux quiff, just for a laugh. I was just sitting in my living room, but still. When Speech won, I was fucking happy though. Either her or you guys. Started to restore my faith in the music industry. Just differing tastes I suppose.
It’s also quite uncomfortable to see the relationship between art and money so up close.
It’s fine, it’s all there for a purpose. I’ve made my peace. I mean, with the internet it’s all so accessible. Financial backing can be useful if you’re into doing certain things, but…
It can also be restrictive when the agenda gets commercial.
[Tired] And there’s a lot of yes men…. Fuck it.
All I can say about the Mercury is that it was really nice to be nominated and we had a ball. Would have been nice if you’d been there, but straight up, I thought you would have won it.
Yeah, some people have said that, which I never really thought about. But I thought it was a good list, and for what it represented – the female solo artist or whatever – Speech winning makes a lot of sense. And that gave me faith in the people doing the selection. Not trying to be down or self-deprecating, it was the first thing we’d done, and we were finding our feet. I’m not totally behind that record Jewelry It was something that was made an issue of after.
Straight after the winner was announced, I had some dude from Radio 1 asking me How does it feel to lose?
Fucking hell. Like there’s only one winner?
Like, I was so far from that headspace! it’s a weird mix of emotions, or whatever, but to immediately address it in those terms…
You should have been like [furious] “I can’t believe it! I can’t fucking believe it!” Shouting at people on the table “You fucked it up! You fucked it up!”
It would have been funny if we’d strolled up and accepted the award anyway, like we misheard it. Launched into my well-prepared acceptance speech.
With hand actions.
Yeah, with the appropriate gesticulations. That would have been funny, but I didn’t have the balls. What else would have been funny is if we’d gone dressed up as Bat For Lashes, La Roux and Florence and the Machine. Or Bat For Tashes, Florence and the Drum Machine and La Roux-mu. Though that would have probably done in our career.
I think this interview has probably done in our careers anyway.
Yeah, this is the worst idea we’ve ever had. laughs
Laughs Ah well, honesty is the best policy.
Yeah, at least we’ve been honest.
For more avant London pop, read pretty much any article on the site, especially Ruth’s piece on the xx.