The Comet Is Coming – Interview – 2017

Back in 2010 or 2011 (time sometimes blurs, does it not?) I was on a jolly courtesy of White Nights (the sadly no more arts and culture event that took to the streets, cafes and venues of Brighton in late October), who had an exchange thing going on with their French counterpart in Amiens, France, the idea being that a load of Brighton-based acts would showcase their wares to a French audience. Last on the bill, and in the very early hours of the morning, Soccer 96 took to the stage to a rapidly dwindling audience made up of a few friends and the odd French native. Not only did they instill a second, maybe third wind in me, but they completely blew the roof off with their out-there instrumental jazz, prog, space, punk, dance fusion. It was made by just two people; Dan Leavers (Danalogue) on analogue synths, and Max (Betamax) on drums. It was amazing and brilliant.

A few years later (last year to be more precise), The Comet Is Coming are on the telly, having been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize for their debut album Channel The Spirits. Apart from the band name the only real (but big) difference with Soccer 96 was that they now had the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings on board, helping to expand their sound in the process but still with that aforementioned fusion at heart. As well as a special Record Store Day release, the Death To The Planet EP, they are hitting the road for a UK tour, as well as a date with Love Supreme festival this summer. So, it was a pleasure to catch up with Dan for the first time since that night in Amiens.

Amazing to think that Soccer 96 became The Comet Is Coming!
The Comet is Coming is basically Soccer 96 with Shabaka Hutchings on sax. Not many know that. Shabaka started coming to our gigs maybe around 2012, 2013. Max had been watching his gigs around London and then we both went. We were mutual fans. He wanted to get up onstage with Soccer and play. ‘Yeah, cool’. There’s a bit of a myth forming that he was looming in the darkness, at the side of the stage, yielding his sax. But when he played it lifted the roof.

We seemed un-industry ready, or savvy. ‘We’re called Soccer 96, and there’s only two of us and very little vocals’. Lots of people tried to take us under their arms and turn us into a proper band. Also, a lot of people wanted to join our band: vocalists, female guest singers. The things we maybe should have done.

It’s all worked out quite well hasn’t it?
It all happened at the point where we said, ‘You know what? Fuck it! We’re going to record the way we want’. Make the weirdest music we can, record it ourselves, produce it ourselves, and have complete control. We had just recorded four tracks with Soccer at Total Refreshment Centre up in Dalston it’s now my studio. We decided to book a session with Shabaka, and we had our methodology in place. We were ready to go. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Being nominated for the Mercury must have been big?
We were already touring a bit at that point, and we were on a beach in Portugal, playing some amazing festival. It was the best day. It was boiling hot, we’d gone for a swim in the sea in our pants and we were drying off, and Tony (Leaf Records founder) rang up and said ‘I’ve got some good news’. And then we played at two in the morning to a pretty amazing Portuguese crowd. Oh yeah, we also met Saul Williams backstage, who was very complimentary. It was just the greatest day!

Did it actually make a difference?
It made a massive difference. It brings you into different circles, and gives you an endorsement. I bought albums as a teenager because it was in the Mercury Awards. But I also think there has been a massive explosion of new jazz music, and an appreciation for jazz musicianship. Like Thundercat has come through, and that West Coast LA scene. It could not have been a better time for that record to come through. People were ready for it. I would have never have thought when I was 18 that jazz-fusiony stuff would be popular again. I thought it was dead and buried in the 70s. But Thundercat has made it popular. Kamasi Washington. United Vibrations. There’s a massive scene in London; Moses Boyd. Nubya Garcia. People are ready to watch people express themselves technically. And that being a beautiful thing, outside a song format or a dance format.

The Dalston Refreshment Centre is quite a scene of all-night parties, people dancing and letting go, and letting loose. I think it’s something we are all craving at the moment. It’s like a release – it’s a bit of a cliche – from social, and political things. It’s pretty messed up what’s happening at the moment. I think we are all craving a new space where we re-connect with the body; playing music, dance rhythms, find that transcendant space.

You’ve just released a limited edition Death To The Planet EP
We had started developing stuff live and we had a few tracks that we hadn’t recorded yet, and we wanted to capture that while it was hot. We didn’t want to wait to do an LP, which for us is a fairly long process. Death To The Planet is our response, a chapter to the death of the planet right now, warmongering and environmental problems. It’s up to artists to respond even if it is fairly abstract what we’re doing. There are no political lyrics or anything. I think a lot of what The Comet Is Coming does is releasing that energy that we naturally have.

I really like the Sleaford Mods, and what they are doing. They aren’t necessarily giving any answers. They are giving you a chance to vent; the feeling of oppression, and the feeling of social tension. The theme of Death To The Planet is tied in to that; a general apocalyptic feeling we have right now. But also a feeling of how ephemeral and transient everything is, and it could end at any moment.

It’s so great going to a gig. I feel it is a magic space for that moment in time. On tour we do get to do that every night, so we’re really lucky.

You prefer analogue synths?
I’m a very intuitive person, and not very rational, but I found this very cheap mono synth which makes a fat bass sound. We did Maida Vale in 2012 and one of the engineers there said, ‘Why don’t you think about getting a deeper sub thing, like a Moog’? But, I just love it. It has a brutality to it, a lot of mid-range drive to it. It’s really simple; the layout, all the faders and knob. I can get around it really quick, on the fly. And the ‘Juno’, which is my chord synth, that one has almost exactly the same layout on the sliders, and was made at a similar time. But, my main love for it, is that’s all they do. They are an instrument, and you plug them in like a guitar, and you play them. Whereas when you’re using laptops you can get an infinite amount of sounds. It’s far superior in a lot of ways. And I love music that is made on them (laptops), but for me a mono synth kicks me into this space, and I feel really creative. And I love the actual sound of them, they sound so immediate. You get it straight away. And they are hand built in the 70s and they are a bit older than me. They hold a bit of undescribable magic. I’ve never found it that sexy going on a track pad, on a mouse, on a laptop, and double clicking. It doesn’t feel as good to me as whacking up a slider, and turning it up to ten.

They are heavy. It’s crazy when we are touring. It’s like I am carrying about 50 kilos. It’s a love affair.

How do you make your music?
One of my favourite things about the band is that it is completely egalitarian, and there is no band leader like there is with a lot of jazz. I don’t really like talking that much about the music, because as soon as you start, you start moving into the world of language. You’ve got to think in a linear way. It feels more pre-meditated. You’re using a bit of the brain which I like to get away from when I’m making music. So, we tend to not say anything, go in a room and trust that Max will play an amazing beat, Shabaka will come up with an incredible bit of saxophone and I’ll play some chords and bass. We jam for maybe two or three days, relentlessly, onto tape, with just little breaks while we reset the tape. And then it’s like panning for gold. I like to leave what we have done for a couple of months, then you’re almost feeling like you’re listening to another band, and you can appreciate it in a different way. And then we start cutting up the best bits, and form them into tracks. It’s an interesting way of writing because you come up with things that you subliminally want to do but normally it happens, say 20 minutes in. But you might play for two days and feel subconsciously we’re all missing a certain quality, or a certain mood. But we won’t necessarily talk about it. So, we write largely by improvisation and every now and then we’ll go ‘Oh, hang on, if we just practice that a little bit and do it again, it might be a little bit better’!

Tell me about the links with Sun Ra and The Arkestra…
Shabaka stared playing with Sun Arkestra a few years back, and they said once you’re a member you’re always a member. They are super cool guys. Marshall Allen (the current leader of the group) is about 90 (he’s 92), and he told us some great stories, how they still drink a bit, smoke a bit, and have blazing arguments, about missing a melody here or a change there. It sounds really fascinating.

I know we have been likened to Sun Ra, but to a certain degree it is a little bit of an easy option. The Guardian did a piece saying we were the next heirs of Sun Ra, or something along those lines. That is super helpful because loads of people have heard of Sun Ra. ‘Wow, The Guardian says this. I’d better check them out’. But I wouldn’t say at any point we have subconsciously imitated him. I would say that what links us is ‘extra musical concerns’, like what’s outside the music is the myth or the concepts. I think he said something along the lines of, ‘When a population is unable to create their own myths, they are unable to have their own agency for change’. I think that’s quite important right now, like the myths we all live with: the economic constructs, and the capitalist constructs, and the environmental constructs. And really we live within a constrictive reality which has been built for us. I like the imagination you get when you’re thinking about macrocosm. Sometimes it’s cool to zoom out, and ‘Yeah, we’re like animals or organisms living on a tiny little rock, spiralling in a big ball of fire, the universe’. And that is super inspiring. Sun Ra used music to teleport to a different place that he felt was more true to him. And he’s from Saturn, you know? I feel that in that way we have naturally trodden a similar path. It reminds me of how ideas always come up in separate places at the same time. Like two people invented the telephone at the same time. A love of space, I guess, is what joins us together.
Jeff Hemmings