Multi-instrumentalist, producer and bandleader Pete Cunningham aka. Ishmael, has been working diligently on the fringes UK jazz and electronic music for several years. Not dissimilarly to Kamaal Williams, aka. Henry Wu – he has dropped nu jazz-inflected house cuts under his solo moniker and branched out subsequently, to lead a genre-bending live outfit. Last year’s release of Songs for Knotty – a four-track EP later expanded to include three live cuts, recorded by Balamii Radio and Champagne Funk for their “Body of Work” video series – was a statement of intent from the inventive Ishmael Ensemble. Featuring talented musicians from Bristol and further afield, their versatility and breadth of influences make their decision to tackle material by the renowned Japanese outfit Yellow Magic Orchestra, a thrilling prospect! Ahead of their show at Band on the Wall on 9th May, which sees them do just that, we reached out to Ishmael to discuss his introduction to YMO, his vision for the ensemble and his ‘desert island’ YMO disc.
‘Technodelic is their fifth and arguably most conceptual record. I feel it shows YMO at their most inventive and bold.’
When did you first hear Yellow Magic Orchestra and has your relationship with their music changed over time, or perhaps marked your progression through production to band leading?
I’ve been aware of the YMO classics for a while and of course the soundtrack works of Ryuichi Sakamoto, but it wasn’t until starting this project that I really dug deep into the back catalogue, realised their genius and influence on the music we, as a band, are interested in. The way they blur the lines between live musicianship and sequenced synthesis really struck a chord with us, it’s much more inline with our process of writing and performing than a lot of the more programmed and rigid electronic music of the time.
Can you take us inside your preparations for performing a set of their material – how have you gone about selecting, arranging and rehearsing, and has it been a challenge you’ve relished?
We decided to focus on one album as opposed to a “Greatest Hits” show. Technodelic is their fifth and arguably most conceptual record. I feel it shows YMO at their most inventive and bold. In both their arrangement and production, the songs feel more free-form and daring than their earlier work, this in turn allowed us to approach them with a bit more freedom and creativity. Once we’d scratched away at the surface, the songs revealed themselves as really beautiful pieces. A lot of the chord progressions and melodies were new to us and pushed us out of our comfort zones, I for one have really enjoyed translating some quite bizarre sounds to the saxophone. We’re now just itching to perform the show to an audience having been locked in a rehearsal room for 6 months!
You began Ishmael Ensemble with a clear vision, recording Songs for Knotty last year and expanding it with material from the fantastic Balamii live session. Can you tell us a little about ‘the blueprint’ for the ensemble, who your bandmates are and how they came to be involved in the group?
The ensemble came about after I’d been doing solo live shows for a couple of years. I felt I was trying to play everything at once with not enough hands. Touring a show like that can be hard going, there’s a lot of gear to lug around and it can be pretty depressing when you have a bad night. It seemed the only logical step forward was to start a band.
The backbone of the ensemble are old friends of mine that have played and performed in various bands over the years since school: Jake Spurgeon on Keys, Stephen Mullins on Guitar, Chris Hillier on Soprano Sax and Rory O’Gorman on Drums. The final piece of the puzzle is vocalist Holly Wellington, who I first saw perform at the Bristol jazz & blues festival a few years ago with her group Feelgood Experiment. I jumped at the opportunity to get in touch and soon started collaborating on a few ideas. Since then we’ve been playing a lot, refining where each of our instruments sits in the overall soundscape and giving each other enough space to improvise.
Can you tell us a little about your forthcoming remix and Noods live session – what can we expect to hear from each?
We’ll be releasing a remix for electronic music pioneer Carl Craig on April 19th as part of the Versus project on InFiné Music. Carl has been a big influence through the years, so to be asked to rework his material was a bit of a dream come true!
We’ll also be performing some of the tracks from the YMO project live on Noods Radio on April 21st. We also have a series of singles coming out over the summer, but more info on those soon…
‘I feel very lucky to be working with such an invested group of musicians, everyone’s on their own personal journey but all aiming for the same goal.’
Looking at guys like Tom Misch, Max Graef and Floating Points in today’s scene – there are plenty of artists, like yourself, who operate beyond the ‘producer’, ‘DJ’ or ‘jazz musician’ moulds. Do you think this a reflection of the current climate for working artists, or more to do with artists capitalising on every opportunity that technology and their abilities grant them?
I think the technology is key. All the ensemble stuff is recorded, arranged & mixed in my studio. I can layer and remove as many things as I want and invite people over to record their parts, there’s so much less pressure than booking an expensive studio and expecting inspiration to come on the day. It’s also a constantly evolving process. Jake [Spurgeon] is getting into modular synthesis, [Stephen] Mullins is forever getting new guitar pedals, the possibilities are literally endless. The key is taking your time and not just chucking stuff into a track for the sake of it. I feel very lucky to be working with such an invested group of musicians, everyone’s on their own personal journey but all aiming for the same goal.
Finally, if you had to pick a ‘desert island disc’ from the YMO catalogue and those of its respective members, what would you select and why?
Gradated Grey is a track on Technodelic that has been stuck in my head since we started the project. It’s so beautifully arranged, simple yet emotive. It’s a perfect example of YMO at this stage in their career, full of mad sampling and tape looping. We hope our version does it justice!