Romare on his latest LP, sampling and gearing up for a new live show

(Image credit: Future Music)

For some artists sampling is just a means to an end - a quick way to capture certain sounds and textures. For other musicians though, the process of sourcing, capturing and blending samples is an art form unto itself. Much like label-bosses Coldcut before him, Ninja Tune’s latest crate digger Romare is an artist who falls firmly into the latter category.

Following a debut EP that explored the sonic and thematic links between West African rhythms, jazz, blues and Afro-American culture, Romare’s musical output to date has seen him joining the dots between psychedelic rock, British folk, Detroit house and beyond.

Named after American visual artist Romare Bearden and influenced by time living in South East Asia, Paris and London, Romare’s music plays like a multicultural musical history lesson, fashioned around a loose framework of club music and instrumental hip-hop.

Recently settled in the placid Kent countryside, Romare is about to release his second LP, Love Songs: Part Two, his most stripped-back and direct work so far, combining deft sampling skills with his own talent as a multi-instrumentalist. We caught up with him at home to talk sampling, sonic influences and the gestation of his new live show.

Where do you start with your tracks?

“Tracks can either start with instruments or samples. I try and make my songs half sample- based and half original instrumentation. When it comes to samples, I’ll often start with a drum break. That might be because I used to be a drummer in a band; that’s how I started to grow a passion for music. I bought this drum kit when I was about 15 for around £30. I was living in South East Asia at the time. It was one of the best things I ever bought; I used to get home from school and I’d just play drums for hours and hours, and luckily my parents were okay with that. I got engrossed in the drums and started a band.

“As soon as school was finished we’d go and practise and then play at concerts and stuff. I loved learning to co-ordinate three or four limbs at the same time. I started listening to Art Blakey and stuff and got really into jazz drumming and rock drumming.

“I lived in Paris a few years ago, when I first started doing solo stuff. I used to pick up a lot of African records, a lot of which were just percussion and drums. Then I’d pick up rare soul and funk compilations, and you’d find an odd or unexpected break and that would be like the gold dust – like an opening to something new. So that’s often where a track will start, if I’m building from a sample.

I think there’s a certain section of audiences who want an element of risk... It’s inspiring to watch somebody create sounds live.

“My tracks can start with instruments too. I might be strumming my acoustic guitar in the morning or something where I’ll come up with a chord progression, or I’ll find something on the bass or keys. I’ll build up a chord progression and then I’ll look for sample to go with that. I’ll rarely add in drum samples though – I feel the magic of a drum break is when you build out from the original. When you try and fix a drum break onto an existing beat you lose the swing of the original. Instead I’ll look for maybe strings, or vocals and bits like that.

“Sometimes I’ll start with vocal samples too. There might be an interview or something where you’ll find that the voice of the person speaking hits a certain note and it clicks so you’ll pick up a guitar and find a chord that it fits with. It might be a relative minor or it might be the major, then you’ll play with that.”

(Image credit: Future Music)

How do you capture and arrange samples?

“I use a computer to do that, just because it’s the easiest, most portable thing to use. I record directly into it through a soundcard. I tend to sample as much as possible from records because I find, especially with drum breaks, it sounds very different if you sample from a record to if you sample digitally. It makes a big difference in the studio when you’re mastering. I have done it once, sampled a classic break digitally, and it sounded crap. The rest of them are pretty much all from records.

“I only really use software to capture the samples; I step away from the computer as much as I can after that. I’ll also use software to create loops, or sometimes if I’m sampling vocals I’ll lay them out across a piano keyboard – I’ll find maybe 20 vocal snippets from a song so I can experiment to find the right part that will work with the chords or the drum sample. I use it like an MPC. I’ve used an MPD32 since I started making solo music, which is a sort of digital interface version of an MPC. I like to have as much at my fingertips as possible.”

How did you first get into producing music?

“I was a bit of a control freak I guess, wanting to direct where the music was going all the time. Having rehearsals in a band could be quite long too. I had this real burning desire to explore sampling, this whole musical world opening up to me. I bought a MIDI controller while I was at university; it was very cheap and basic, it might even have been a birthday present or something, but it came with some software too. That was a big moment for me. From then on I started making music on my own in my room; it was the beginning of it being much more one-to-one with the music and me.”

There are a number of recurring themes within the music you sample - jazz, blues, African culture - where do those come from?

“Certainly at the beginning of getting into sampling, that just came from loving Jazz and Blues music. I had quite a lot of music in that style; my dad listened to it a lot and I just thought it was very cool. I actually had a bit of a culture shock when I first went to uni; I’d been living in South East Asia at the time and getting to uni everything was very different. People would ask me what music I’d like and I’d say jazz and blues and people would laugh- dubstep and drum ’n’ bass would be what people normally said. I felt slightly silly and strange.

“I thought there was something very relaxing about jazz and I loved listening to it. The voices were a big thing for me too; I really liked a lot of blues singers. The other reason is that there are fantastic musical breaks in jazz music. It’s the famous combination of improvisation and structure, and when those meet you get some incredible music - saxophone solos, drum and bass combinations, flourishes on the piano - there are amazing musical combinations that happen from jazz because of its nature.

“Blues, similarly, there is something very special in the singing because you get that same mixture between improvisation and structure. With a blues singer like Big Bill Broonzy, he’ll sing a note but it’ll go up and down, there’s a modulation to it. With the backing of an acoustic guitar playing in tune it creates this almost spooky resonance as his voice goes above and below the note. I find that really fascinating about blues singers, and once you bring that into the world of sampling it really opens up what you can do with a voice. I try to apply that even when I use a synth; one of the few instruments I use in software is a synth, where I’ll create a chord and have it do a similar thing with the pitch.”

There seems an openness to your approach to sampling. Rather than going to lengths to hide your sources you seem to be creating a sort of sonic exhibition for these records…

“Exhibition is an interesting choice of word. That’s exactly what I was trying to do with the first release I ever made, Meditations On Afro-Centrism, because I studied American Studies at university and I really got into Afro-American culture, visual culture in particular. That was a sort of exhibition of African samples, mostly West African, Ghanaian or Nigerian stuff, along with African American music on the other side. It was basically an exhibition of those samples and I kind of put them together in a way to try and show the similarities between them. It was an interesting thing to look at, I think. It’s such a vital influence on all kinds of modern music that it’s nice to look to the roots of those genres, like when you trace hip-hop back to funk and soul, then jazz and blues and gospel and follow that lineage back to the slave trade and the musical roots in Africa.”

Is that something you’re still exploring on Love Songs: Part Two? Is there still a theme?

“I thought what I did with that first release covered what I wanted to do, in terms of exhibiting that theme. I’ve moved away from that now as people started labelling me as somebody obsessed with African music, which I’m not; I’m interested in all kinds of music. The rhythms of African music were interesting, so that’s why I sampled that, along with the voices in blues and the pianos from jazz – it all came together in a really nice way, so that’s why I started with those sounds. Now I’m more influenced by disco music, italo stuff; I really like psychedelic music too.

“Folk music is an influence these days too, more western folk – I’m really digging that stuff now. It’s partly because I’ve done a lot of African sampling and now I want to go into different stuff, but also some of those areas are quite unexplored, particularly British folk music. People have been sampling jazz and blues for decades, but not so much folk. I’ve sampled some nice old ballads and things on the new album.”

Did you spend a lot of time searching out new records to sample for this new album?

“I’ve actually sampled less on this album and played live instruments more. It’s maybe not that easy to hear because the samples I used in my last record perhaps sounded like I was playing guitar or bass when it’s actually a sample. This time around there’s more of me playing keyboard, synth arpeggios, things like that.”

That’s something we wanted to pick up on – it’s often hard to differentiate between what is sampled and what’s live in your music. Is that something you try to achieve on purpose?

“No, it’s not something I’m necessarily trying to do. For me, I can hear what’s played and what isn’t, but obviously I know that because I make it. I like that I can distinguish the samples; it might even just be a twinkle of a piano that’s pitched up a lot to sound like a bell or something. Whereas when I record my instruments I try to keep them as straightforward as possible, I don’t mess around with them very much. I’ll maybe add a bit of reverb or something like that. Samples generally I’ll mess around with more – I’ll pitch them up or down or make chords out of them, make women sound like men, men like women, things like that.

“It’s a bit like me having this fantasy of being able to jam with musicians from the past. I feel like I can pull my bass out and I can accompany Jimi Hendrix playing acoustic guitar or something. So when I play instruments I prefer to keep it kind of natural, I guess. Blending samples is another thing completely. When you blend a piano with a voice from two different records from different time periods, you squeeze them together and it creates this weird texture and sound. You can’t do that with real instruments and voices. Sometimes in the past I’ve had problems with drum breaks and then the label has asked if I can re-record them – that’s always been a definite no from me. Those records have context and a particular tone to them.”

(Image credit: Future Music)

Is that something that’s happened often – where you’ve come up against problems with sample clearance?

“Not really no. We had to clear a few on the last album and that’s maybe had an effect on this album, making me a little more cagey with sampling. Itcan cost quite a bit, but also if they say no then you can’t release the track. It’s an interesting area, especially legally.”

On the sampling side of things, what sort of artists influenced your approach?
“There’s a lot of hip-hop artists like J Dilla. When I first heard Donuts that was a massiveone for me... a bit of game-changer. Flying Lotus as well. I love what Mr G is doing now – I’ve liked what he’s been doing for a while. Floorplan too, his stuff more recently, in terms of that MPC- style production.”

We noticed you’ve got your sampling records and DJing records separated in your studio. Do you think of those as two completely separate things?

“They’re pretty separate, yeah. Sometimes there’s an overlap where there’s a tune I’ve sampled and it’s also great to play when I’m DJing because of the beat or voice or something, but not usually. They’re quite different, so I’ve got to be careful to make sure I’m spending money on both things and to be sure they’re balanced. I want to build up my sample record collection and my DJing one.

“When I go record shopping for samples, I tend to go for cheap unusual things; I tend to try and get my hands on as much shit as possible. I actually prefer finding a gold nugget in a piece of crap than finding it in a £30 record. That’s certainly happened on this album. There are a few things where I’ll listen to it and I’ll remember that record that I bought for £1, and now it’s the basis for this song that’s on the album and I’ll play in my live sets. I quite like that discovery thing.”

How long have you been DJing?

“Since I moved to London, which was around 2012. I had already had turntables that I used for sampling but I hadn’t DJ’d before or mixed records together. Around then I decided to start going down the DJ route, buying records to play. I only had three or four records to begin with, because they’re much more expensive than the sample records I tend to buy. Those are £1 or £2, whereas records for DJing tend to be more like £6 or £7. So I started with limited records to mix with, but now I’ve got two full shelves of them and I feel I can mix different things together. I’m still a long way off from where I’d like to be as a DJ though, definitely.”

Do you always DJ out with vinyl?

“I play mostly with records, unless the turntables aren’t working, which happens quite a lot. Less these days than a few years ago, but it happened recently at a festival, where one turntable didn’t work and I didn’t have a fresh USB stick with the latest things that I bought digitally. There’s an important lesson there, to make sure you have everything backed up on a USB.”

(Image credit: Future Music)

What are you using to play live at the moment?

“I try to use as little pre-recorded music as possible. The live set-up until now has had quite a lot of pre-recorded material in it because I can’t recreate certain samples or certain recordings of my music. Things like, for example, the particular hi-hat off of a Yamaha keyboard – instead of playing that live or putting it into a drum rack, I was just playing it as a loop. Now though, I’ve got a modified drum machine that I use for all of my drum sounds. I’ve got a channel of hi-hats coming from that and it’s got its own effects that I can add – things like reverb and delay pedals - and that will be my only hi-hat.

“The aim is to be able to build up the live music as much as I can so that I can capture the essence of the song I made. For example, for the single from the new album, Who Loves You?, on that I’ll have the drum break and the vocals on my computer, but that will be it, everything else – the bass, the strings, chords, bongos - I’ll try and build it up live. The great thing about that is I can then conduct the song completely naturally. I can bring in the middle section when I want, bring the kick in and drop it out when I like.

“I’ve got a soundcard with eight inputs so I’ve got a monosynth, Casio keyboard, Yamaha keyboard, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, then I’m hopefully going to add turntables and bongos to that. The idea is to loop all of those so I can play them and add to them when I want to, to build and develop the track live. that’s the aim. I’ve got a percussionist who I also want to provide the live drum break elements.”

Is the plan to have a certain amount of improvisation between the two of you?

“Yes, there will be. We can change things depending on the crowd and the feeling. The other thing the computer provides is a tempo, which is another thing I’m not sure I want to hold on to. It would be good to be completely devoid of the computer, because then I could have the percussionist doing all the percussion bits and have control of the tempo myself. But there are still a few things I’d like to control using a computer. Plus it makes it easier to travel with. Sometimes I do a DJ set and a live set in one weekend and if I had a fully computer-free live set it would end up being a lot to carry.”

You have a few effects pedals connected up to the live rig... Is effect manipulation going to be a big part of the live set?

“Yes, I try to do a lot with hardware effects as much as I can. I’ve got delay, echo and distortion. Delay is particularly good for looping; I can do random loops, which works nicely. I’ve got a few other bits of gear that I’m keen to try out on there too. It’s going quite well. I had a practice two weeks ago with a percussionist – we had an improvised jam that lasted about two hours, in which we probably went through five different pieces. We only used vocal samples from the computer for that, although it was also acting as the MIDI clock so providing the tempo for the loops. That was a really successful jam though; I’d like to keep it improvised like that.”

Do you think it’s important to be visibly doing something ‘live’ when you’re up onstage?

“I think being able to play instruments is really important for musicians these days. More and more computers are more powerful and giving you information. Even with DJing, it will tell you what key records are in. It creates a strange new discipline in music performance where things can be written for you. That’s why, other than one synth occasionally, I try not to use any instruments on the computer. Part of the fun is finding these sounds that clash. Some of the really great Dance records I’ve bought have this really eerie thing where something sits strangely and catches your attention. Some people don’t like that though, some people go out to concerts because they just want to hear C, G and F; but some people don’t, some people like having something a bit different and a bit strange.

“It’s funny with performance; a lot of the time when I’m playing a live set with a synth or a drum machine people just think I’m DJing. People don’t see what you’re doing up there. There’s a strange relationship between the audience and performer now, especially in electronic music. It’s different from the ’70s or ’80s where there was always someone on stage with a synth or guitar or drum kit and you could see where the music was coming from. Someone behind a black table just moving their hands around, you can’t tell what’s going on.”

You were saying you want to use a computer as little as possible live…

“I think a lot of what it comes down to is the fact that with computers you can save everything, and if you make a change and don’t like it you can just hit Cmd Z and get rid of it. Using a live set-up, if you’re fucking around with the knobs of an effects pedal, you can’t just hit undo to get back to where you were. I’ve done that before - messed around with a load of effects and instinctively reached over to my laptop keyboard to undo it before realising I couldn’t do that. But I think there’s a certain section of audiences now who want to see something with that element of risk. It might be more sloppy, it might be more sketchy, the audio might be a little more all over the place, but it’s a live thing and what they’re doing on stage is directly creating the music. It’s inspiring to watch somebody create sounds live.”

It’s funny with performance; a lot of the time when I’m playing a live set with a synth or a drum machine people just think I’m DJing. People don’t see what you’re doing up there.

You create the cover art for all your releases too... What’s the thinking behind that?

“I originally did it because I wanted to credit the people whose music or voice I use. Originally for my first release I wrote 2,400 words on why I chose each sample, because I knew it was a heavy subject and I wanted to explain where the samples were from. I couldn’t do that for copyright reasons though, because obviously if every sample was highlighted there’s more risk for the label. So instead of that I decided I’d credit them by putting their image on the cover somewhere. Even that was a little risky, but it’s a sort of tribute, I guess.“My work is largely about paying tribute to musicians who have influenced me or inspired me. Anyone from Iggy Pop to Thelonious Monk, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix – all those people who made me feel passionate enough about music to make me try and do something as original as I possibly could.

“That’s the same with the new album, every sample is credited via the figures that appear on the cover. It might be the singer, it might be an arranger, it could be the person who recorded the song. I write them all down as the record gets mastered and then do my thing with them. I’ll find images, mix up heads and bodies, print them out, trace them, ink them, cut them and then finally I’ll arrange them and photograph them. It’s all done by hand and takes me about three days. It’s partly to do with Romare Beardon, who I’ve named my solo stuff after – he was a collagist and a painter among other things, and he paid tribute to different parts of the American experience during an interesting time. Part of it is the fact I’m a bit of a control freak too though.”

Love Songs: Part Two is out now via Ninja Tune. Check out Romare’s page on Ninja Tune for more release info, the latest news and live/DJ dates.

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