A Yakul show is a visceral experience. They’re one of the hardest grooving neo-soul acts in the UK and their latest release Kaleidescope is a perfect snapshot of the gnarly synths and slippery harmonies that define their sound.
Entering 2020 after a big year of gigging, (including their second year at Sussex’s own Love Supreme festival and Ronnie Scott’s Late Late Show), the band was able to cleverly manoeuvre their live act into the recording studio just in time to enable this new release. With tastemaker Gilles Peterson shortlisting ‘Blossoming’ for Worldwide FM’s Track of the Year 2020, all eyes are on Yakul to track their movements in 2021.
“we’re gunna do a totally different thing.”
Tom linked up with lead singer and keys player James Berkeley to talk about releasing music as an independent artist and why their music is even better for your health than the famous yoghurt drink they almost share a name with.
Listen to Kaleidescope now
You’re always very clear that Yakul is the name of the elk in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke and not a reference to probiotic milk beverages. How did you pick the name?
“We’re all really into all of the Studio Ghibli films. The music, the way that they look, and all of the concepts are just so incredible. I know a lot of them are children’s films but they’re still so dense.
“When we initially made a list of potential names I’d actually vetoed this one because, though I like Yakul, it sounds too close to Yakult. But everyone else was into it so hopefully people start to just get the reference and we can get to the point where people don’t care anymore. I feel like every band wants to have a really great story about how “the name just came to me in a dream and it’s just so meaningful”, but usually band names – and even to a degree song and album names – are something you have to grow into. It’s not something that sounds right when you come up with it. It’s something that only feels like the correct name once you’ve had it for a while.”
Kaleidoscope came out at the end of last year. To what extent was the new sound influenced by the rest of the UK jazz new wave?
“The UK jazz scene has definitely influenced us though I don’t think we’re necessarily in that bracket. We get put in that bracket quite a bit which we’re fine with but it’s not been a conscious decision from us to go in that direction. We feel like we’re coming from more of the soul/R&B side. I guess we take some influence from some London bands that have a bit more of the electronic side or a bit more synthesis, like Vels Trio, some Yussef Dayes, Charlie Stacey and Kamaal Williams too. I would say a lot of the stuff that we also take influence from is over in the States. Like a lot of LA type stuff: all of Brainfeeder (Flying Lotus, Thundercat), Mac Ayres, Rob Araujo, Kiefer. In some respects we feel like we align better with LA than the UK.
“But when there’s a slight shift in the songwriting or arrangement style it’s never a conscious decision from the band, it just happens naturally based on what we’re listening to and the situation. For example, the majority of the stuff we’ve written this year is a little different from everything we’ve done before and I think one of the reasons is that we haven’t been gigging it. Normally you might try out a song live before you release it and maybe go back to the track and adjust it, but without having the live shows we’ve had none of that. So while I still think that everything we’ve written this year sounds like us, it’s interesting how exterior changes in your environment can affect the direction you go in.”
What was it like recording an album in 2020?
“We were really lucky. Apart from the vocals on a couple of them, we had all of it finished before March. We recorded the drums first up at Lightship 95 in London and did the rest in my studio. I know enough about engineering and production to get everything else to a good level. The last time we went up there was in January last year and we planned to release it by the end of summer 2020. When COVID started we had a meeting because it felt like a bad time to release a body of work and decided to just release singles. With a body of work it’s something that we really want to be gigging and touring. But with singles, it doesn’t feel like as big a statement so we can get away with just spreading them out throughout the year.
“When we got to about August we re-evaluated it a little bit and wanted to tie up the year with something and release it all together before starting a new campaign. We were extremely lucky because loads of people haven’t been able to release anything but we just had it prepared before.”
Is there anything else you’ve got waiting to release then?
“We’re sitting on so much now [laughs]. I can’t say too much about it but the next thing that we’re releasing will be for the whole of this year. We’ve got a lot of stuff, more music than we’ve ever released. We wrote it all between April and the start of July in the first lockdown. Between that and the second lockdown we managed to get it all recorded and get it to the mix stage, so it worked out well. Now the worry is when to release it this year so that we can gig around it. It’s difficult because being such a live band, gigging is a vital part. It’s something that you’ve got to be doing consistently as a band and it’s always the way that helps us grow the most.”
So far everything you’ve done has been released independently…
“We’re definitely open to working with a partner on releases. The thing that’s important to us is keeping control over it. It’s hard at the best of times to fund releases but at the moment it’s close to impossible. So it’s tricky to factor in having to pay for a PR plan and everything.”
How do you balance the music with the business side of things?
“It’s very stressful. Around Christmas I make sure I properly shut myself down for a week or two and reset. The rest of the year – even if I’m not in the studio, writing, or practicing – I’m thinking about it: planning the social media for the next week, thinking about the artwork and different assets for the release. We’re lucky to have our management who are super helpful with that and take a bit of the pressure off. But yeah, it’s a constant thought which is why it would be nice to have a partnership. With the Vulfpeck route, we’d be more inclined to have a label services-type deal because it’s a win-win situation. You don’t have to give all your rights away, you also get to maintain all the control of when you release it and you get an advance that can help you fund it. There’s a reason why that’s become the new business model: it gives the artist more control. Hopefully we can sort something like that because funding this year’s going to be hard.”
Sam Barsh is a sought-after producer/songwriter with credits for Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak and now Yakul. How did that relationship come about?
“That was put together by one of our managers who used to manage The Brand New Heavies quite a while ago. They knew Sam Barsh from when he’d filled in on keys during the US leg of a tour and thought that it would be a good little link-up. We had a couple of ZOOM calls to talk through stuff. He’s the loveliest guy and he seemed like he was really into the music. He co-produced ‘Streetlight’ and ‘Company’ which were the first two ones that we released.”
What was it like collaborating with him remotely?
“It was a really cool process working remotely like that. I would really like to go over to LA this year if it’s possible [laughs] to get in the room with him to work because nothing can top that. There’s always gonna be something missed by not being in the same room because everyone’s gonna have a slightly different direction that they want to take it in. I mean, it worked out really well, I’m so happy with all of those tracks, but it would be nice to get in a room together.
“We didn’t actually do any sessions properly over ZOOM. I sent him all the stems of those songs and either did some reference songs or gave him details of the direction that we were thinking of. Then he just did his thing on it and sent it back, and we just went back and forth with notes. It wasn’t the speediest of processes for that reason, but it worked out really well in the end.”
The production is really varied. On one hand there’s plenty of ‘ear candy’ and busy, detailed textures…
“Yeah I feel like that stuff can be the glue of a song, just those little sounds that you probably don’t even notice but if they were taken away they’d feel a little bit empty and things wouldn’t feel quite so cohesive.”
But on the other hand, you’ve got tracks like ‘North & South’ with huge silences….
“Yeah it’s horrible to play live! We’ve only done it together a couple of times. We’ve been saying that I should get car wing-mirrors on my keyboard stand so I can see Sam behind me. That one was fun. With everything apart from ‘Streetlight’ and ‘Company’ we did all the production and then sent it to Jim MacRae (Jordan Rakei‘s drummer and co-producer/mixer) to do the mix. We’ve got a really good working relationship with him because he really gets what we’re trying to do and he’s only in London so we always just go up.”
What production work do you do outside of Yakul?
“In the past I’ve done sample packs and stuff like that. But every time I’ve done it, even if it’s been jazz keys loops, when I get to the sixtieth one I’m like “Fuck, this is so boring!”. Maybe if it was one that was focused on my sound or our sound maybe it would be more enjoyable.
“Production generally is the main thing that I do now, especially not being able to gig this year. There’s a few Brighton people dropping stuff that I’ve worked with this year who I’m excited about. They’re all people who were already my friends but they’re also sick musicians. There’s Kaisha, she released an EP last year which I produced (Something Else) and now we’re working on a future one at the moment. There’s my boy Nico Cara who’s the dopest guy, he’s like the English Nick Hakim. My other boy Alfie Neale did an EP last year and we’re doing something else this year. There’s this girl in London, Gracie Convert, who I work with quite a bit who’s sick. I like continuing to work with somebody because, in the same way as in our work with Jim, when I’m working as a producer for others we get in a really good flow and we know exactly what each other are thinking.”
Could you tell us a little bit about your keys rig?
“Until recently, the Roland FA-08 has been the keyboard that I’ve used for every single gig. I got a Nord Stage 3 last January but we haven’t done a gig since I got it [laughs]. I did love that Roland, but I just love the Rhodes on the Nord and the feel of it. I’ve still got the Prophet 08 and I got this little Juno module, the JU-06A. It’s alright. It’s basically a Juno module, but I’ve got a Juno 106 now and compared the sounds and it’s not the same. But I’m not taking the 106 to gigs. I found it from this seller in Brighton two months ago and it’s in pristine condition. The module does the job for live. All of the stuff that we’re releasing this coming year we’d already finished before I got the 106 so there’s gonna have to be a lot more in-depth synthesis in future stuff we do as I get more into that, which I’m looking forward to.”
Lastly then, where did Kaleidescope’s psychedelic cover art come from?
“That’s our man Adrian who’s this French guy who lives in Madrid. He did the poster art for a show we played in Madrid which was sick so we got him to do all of the singles and the EP. He’s got this abstract, weird style that we really like because it’s a bit different. It was cool having a theme across all those releases. This year we’re gonna do a totally different thing though. We have an idea of what it’s going to be but it’s still forming. Fresh year. Fresh music. Fresh brand.”
Listen to Kaleidescope now
Check out all the bands and artists James mentioned here in our playlist:
Interviewed by: Tom Wijesinghe