15 questions for... Ishmael Ensemble: "Arrange fast. It's more efficient than being stuck in a 4-bar loop"

Ishmael Ensemble
(Image credit: Ishmael Ensemble)

Ishmael Ensemble is a collective of Bristolian musicians, throwing elements of that city’s rich and varied history into a melting pot of styles and fusions. ‘Experimental jazz’ is one label, only the results are much better than that sounds, and have already drawn praise from the national press and landed the band two BBC sessions.

With Ishmael Ensemble’s debut album, A State Of Flow, garnering praise from The Guardian, Mojo and The Wire and landing the band sessions at Maida Vale for Gilles Peterson and Tom Ravenscroft, the pressure was on for its followup. Luckily, new album Visions Of Light is just as wide-reaching and ambitious and looks set to only increase the band’s success. 

The ensemble is led by producer and saxophonist Pete Cunningham, with Holysseus Fly on vocals,  Stephen Mullins on guitar, Rory O’Gorman on drums and Jake Spurgeon’s on synths. Their sound takes all sorts of elements from the rich musical history of their home city of Bristol and mixes it up with experimental jazz leanings and a very decent helping of tech...

1. Tell us how you got into music in the first place?

Pete Cunningham: “I first got into music through my parents’ record collection. All the classics: Dylan, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Nick Drake etc. We didn’t have a TV so we would just sit around and listen to records on a Sunday evening. I used to listen for hours, picking apart the arrangements and noting each instrument. 

"The first music I discovered for myself was Placebo, Radiohead and Green Day, which led me to the guitar. I got an Epiphone Les Paul from one of my brother’s friends and a Danelectro distortion pedal. I had a friend who was a drummer and he asked if I wanted to join a band. One of them, Jake Spurgeon, now plays bass and synths in Ishmael Ensemble. I was 8 and he was 12!”

I used to try and remember ideas that keep you up at night but never succeeded so I’ve taken to tip-toeing into the bathroom in the middle of the night to record them

2. When did you get successful?

PC: “It’s always been a balancing act between producing, remixing, performing live and DJing. It all started to align about three or four years ago. The release of the debut Ishmael album A State Of Flow in 2019 was a turning point. We were suddenly booked to play across Europe for enough to actually pay ourselves.”

3. What is your overall philosophy?

PC: “Record everything! I’ve often ended up using the first take of solos or vocals as there’s definitely hidden magic in there that doesn’t reappear second time around. It’s also got to be fun. No matter how serious a piece of music is, if the musicians aren’t enjoying themselves it shows in the final recording.”

4. Tell us about your ‘computer music’ production history?

PC: “At 14 the school had just refurbished its music department and had some early iMacs. The teachers had no idea so me and a few friends would spend hours chipping away on Logic until we worked out how to chop samples and program beats. 

"A cracked copy of Cubase did the rounds and I was able to take my tinkering home. The next step was getting an M-Audio soundcard that could record mics into the computer. I was able to record saxophone, guitars, voice and even drums which gave a purpose to the hours I’d spent jamming with friends. I could turn it into anything which was thrilling as a teenager and still is!”

5. Tell us about the rest of your studio.

PC: “I have a WEM Copicat tape delay that I picked up for £100 at a house clearance that ends up on everything. I also love cassette tape and have our guitarist Mullins’s Yamaha MT400 multitrack recorder that I do a lot of processing and pitch manipulation on. 

"For making noises, I have a Novation BassStation which is super fun and easy to get quick results with, a Roland SP-404 SX for chopping and playing samples and an Arturia Drumbrute Impact for programming and sequencing drums.”

6. What are your favourite plugins?

PC: “A lot of the Logic plugins are great. I use EXS24 for playing with recordings and noises I’ve made or found. It’s super quick and intuitive. I also use the Pedal Board a lot; basically loads of fun and allows for very quick madness. I use guitar pedals in my live setup a lot, so it’s also been a good way of preparing and playing for that. I also love the organ-style Rotor Cabinet and Scanner Vibrator. 

"I often use these on big groups of horns or guitars as I find it adds a sort of cohesive movement that can help gel layers together. They’re also great for adding a Phaser effect to hi-hats or washy cymbals, again just a subtle movement goes a long way. I was introduced to a few new bits by the engineer I worked with, Ali Chant. 

"The Fabfilter Pro-Q 3 is incredible compared to any EQ I’ve seen and the Aberrant DSP SketchCassette II is a super fun plugin for adding grit and hiss and only £15!”

If you can live with it for a week or so and nothing’s nagging you, it’s probably finished

7. How do you tend to start a track?

PC: “Usually by recording an out of tune melody or terribly beatboxed rhythm very quietly into my phone at 3am. I used to try and remember ideas that keep you up at night but never succeeded so I’ve taken to tip-toeing into the bathroom in the middle of the night to record them. 

"Either that or just playing with chopped beats and drum hits in Logic. I work with a lot of different vocalists, so I’ll often throw something out there to people, get a scratch idea for a hook or verse then develop it from there. If it’s an instrumental I’ll do a similar thing but with either Jake or Mullins. 

"I try to start arranging as quickly as possible. It’s more efficient than getting stuck on a 4-bar loop that never goes anywhere.”

8. How do you know when a track’s done?

PC: “Working with an engineer on this record was a massive help when finishing tracks. Having someone that isn’t emotionally attached or happy to be a bit cut-throat when editing is helpful. It doesn’t always mean something’s bad, just that there was something better or it wasn’t needed. 

"When working with vocalists there’s an added pressure to make sure they’re happy. Generally though, if you can live with it for a week or so and nothing’s nagging you, it’s probably finished.”

9. Do you have any production tricks?

PC: “Drones! I love ambient and drone music so even if it’s an uptempo or quite erratic track there’ll always be something in there pretty much sat on one note. This is usually layered saxophone or Mullins’s guitar, looped or just overlapping. I’ll then record these to tape and pitch them down or do a similar thing in Logic if I’m feeling lazy. 

"I find this creates a nice bed to start from. It’s also a great way of keeping your ear interested whilst working on the early stages of a track which would otherwise just be some raw drums (or horrible voice notes!).”

I think it’s far more entertaining to watch people play instruments live [...] than someone on Ableton triggering pristine-sounding stems

10. Any collaborations on the new album?

PC: “I love collaborating, especially with vocalists. I’ve struggled with words so watching someone come up with lyrics that create a mood always amazes me. A lot of the people are good friends from the Bristol scene; Holysseus Fly is the main vocal contributor but has become a key member in the live band – an incredible pianist and singer and has such a powerful presence on everything she touches. 

"Chris Hillier wrote Morning Chorus and Visions of Light with me. We’ve known each other since school and he’s been someone I’ve looked up to musically. Alun Elliot-Williams aka Tiny Chapter and Bethany Stenning aka STANLÆY are two collaborators I worked with for the first time. We’ve played with each other live so it wasn’t an unnatural move to the studio.”

11. What’s on your gear wish list?

PC: “I’d love a distressor. We recorded a lot of stuff through that on this record and it sounds great. I guess I should also get a proper Tascam reel to reel to realise my tape loop fantasies. I’d love a Minimoog and Therevox ET; they both have such unique sounds.” 

12. Any advice for playing live?

PC: “There’s a temptation to rely on loops and pre-recorded playback when performing electronic music live. This seems like the safest option, but it leaves things open to go wrong. If you mess up a part on an instrument you can just carry on playing regardless. 

"If a laptop or sequencer crashes there’s often no way of riding it out. I also think it’s far more entertaining to watch people play instruments live, even at the expense of it not sounding exactly like the record, than someone on Ableton just triggering pristine-sounding stems.”

 13. What about studio advice?

PC: “Go in with a plan! It’s amazing how quickly time flies so set realistic goals and imagine that everything will take twice as long. The first three hours are spent miking up drums by which time everyone’s ready for a coffee break! Also make time for playing with stuff, random messing can make for the best parts.”

14. And from working in the industry?

PC: “Stick to your guns. If you enjoy the music you make then chances are someone else will too. And make sure you get a lawyer to look over any contract before signing!”

15. What have you got planned?

PC: “Aside from touring and promoting, I’m always in the studio working on new music some of which will see the light of day soon.” 

The new Ishmael Ensemble album Visions Of Light is out now. 

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