Interview | Benin City

by Lee Adcock

For nearly a year, the London collective of Benin City have deliberately shrouded themselves in mystery. With the release of ‘Faithless’, however, the band have finally unveiled themselves – Joshua Idehen spins rhymes, Tom Leaper mans the synths and saxes, and Theo Buckingham handles the drums. Their debut LP, Fires In The Park (via Audio Doughnuts), fuses a multitude of genres – including hip hop, electronica, drum n’ bass, jazz and soul – into one bold, distinctive style that remains both remarkably cohesive and surprising throughout. (See our review for an in-depth look at the album.) Set to ignite on 1 July, it’s destined to spark a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic.

But where on earth does that distinctive mixed style come from? I certainly had no clue when I penned my first two articles, nor did I ever imagine that I’d find out (since I am, after all, thousands of miles away from the UK). However, shortly after reviewing Fires In The Park, PR extraordinaire Johnny asked if I wanted to interview Benin City. Thus, nearly a week later, I’m sitting comfortably in my room, while Tom and Josh chat with me over Skype from a sunny café. The two artists spoke freely about their cherished project, unloading a wealth of detail even after my slightest questions (which, mind, was a huge relief for me). We spent roughly an hour discussing Benin Ciy, from the origins of the band to their collaborative composition style…

…but, alas: somehow, the program that I was counting on to record the interview failed. Fortunately, Josh has graciously re-answered my questions over email; hence, what follows is, at best, a “reconstruction” of the colorful interview I lost. I remember very clearly from our chat in the café, however, that Benin City, at the end of the day, share an old-fashioned band ethos – no one track, they assured me, is the work of just one individual. I dig that. Here’s what else Benin City had to say…

To start with Josh: how long have you been performing spoken-word poetry, and how did it lead to music?

I started as a poet around 2006/7. At the time I was friends with Musa Okwonga (King’s Will) and Scroobius Pip (Dan Le Sac Vs Pip) and listening to Jill Scott and Gil Scott Heron so I was already aware of spoken word’s potential with music. I went to a squat party where, amongst many scenes of debauchery, there was Theo, in the corner, with a full drum kit, dropping some serious fills. I, being stupidly high on E Numbers, ran in front of him and did the best/worst impression of a poet trying to rap, and surprisingly Theo did not stop and tell me to quit ruining his shine. We became friends and agreed to carry on making music. We needed someone to help us with arrangements and to give our ideas that ‘we worked really hard on this’ look. Luckily, we found Tom.

Been listening to LV’s “Routes”, your last big project…Benin City is whole different beast, isn’t it? You seem to be more in charge on this LP.

In way, yea. [in] LV I was more the lyricist – I gave them my poems and they went to work. Whereas here we all contributed to the writing/songwriting/arrangement and production to some degree. I’m pretty good at coming up with bare-bone ideas, as is Theo, while Tom is king of arrangement and composition, while Marc Pell produces like a god.

Fires In The Park is truly amazing. Really one of – if not THE – most unique, ambitious releases I’ve heard this year. How did it come together?

First thing we did at the end of 2011 was come up with ‘The List.’ You see, one of our original ‘problems’ was that all our initial songs sounded different and not quite belonging from the same band: Tom was a super funk/jazz/classical/electro head, I’m Mr if-it-sounds-good-then-boom-baby and Theo loves his drumnbass and breakbeat. So we decided to write up a list of songs we really were inspired by, trim the list to ten songs and stick to it no matter what. Then we came up with a bunch of demos: every one brought in about 6/7 each in varying degrees of completion. And before we took them to Marc we asked ourselves: which ones sounded close to the songs on The List? Tom, obviously being trained classically and a wicked composer/arranger, his ideas came more fully formed than most (This Is London and Winning Streak). Theo is an awesome producer in his own right; he would bring over drum and bass already worked out (People will say and DAM). I came with ‘Melody Skeletons,’ usually verse and Choruses, that would be beefed up by Tom and Theo as we worked along. Marc would come in once the live instruments were recorded and THEN THE MAGIC HAPPENED.

‘Wha Gwan’, man. It’s epic. But the lyrics are very wistful – you mention that today there’s “all this hype over something totally minor”. What were you referring to when you wrote that?

I am not allowed to tell how so in my old age I can auction off the true story. But what I meant by it was 9/10 times every argument between friends that leads to a schism is usually over something which, while at the moment was a big deal, is not really worth the loss of a real friend, or the cold war that ensues. I know folk who are too embarrassed to call ex friends over something they fell out over because in retrospect it was incredibly petty but the time in between has given the bad blood gravity. I’ve done it.

And that’ll be the next single, right?

We dunno yet. See how people react to the album innit 😉

Also knocked out by “This Is London”…perfect, sultry city vibes, and the monologue is enthralling. Who spoke that, and how’d she come on board? Was that her composition?

That was Deanna Rodger, the “butterfly” in the Baby video we did last year. I was a little nervous about being the only voice on the album at the time. Meanwhile Tom had sent me the beat to the song (fully formed, by the way) and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Deanna is a great spoken word artist and offered to help me through what I thought was a writer’s block. I played her the track. She went ballistic like ‘OMG THIS IS SO SICK’ So I was like, “If you like it so much, why don’t you write something for it?” A few days later, she sent us a rough demo. We played it during a production break. We were all slack jawed and stunned.

I was really impressed by the two short “reprises” on the LP – hearing those motifs recur was something else. How did those come about?

Tom, and to a lesser extent the rest of us, often compose songs with the idea they belong on stage first, so a few of the tracks (actually a lot of the tracks if you think about it) are prone to the ‘BIG FINISH’ effect. We knew something wasn’t working though on track so I suggested we cut them up. When that was done, I realized the endings [stuck out] because this really concentrated a minute or less of sweetness we couldn’t leave off the album. The guys weren’t sure, but Marc is a genius: he mixed it in a way that when we all heard “So You Say Reprise” follow Winning Streak we knew it had to be in there.

You released a video for “Faithless” last week…and reviewers (including me) are loving it! Where’d the idea come from, and how was it shot?

First off, THANK YOU. Simon Lane (Clouded Vision) and Henry Moller (Label boss at Audio Doughnut) get full credit. I have to admit I wasn’t completely sold on a lot of ideas in the vid that ended up working amazingly well. Henry lives on a House boat with a garage we commandeered for a day. One thing we all agreed on: Our first two videos we did not want to be in shot at all; let the music do the talking and all that, so with Faithless we were like this one is definitely the moment we should show face innit.

How have the live performances been received?

Superbly at the moment. We perform at a three piece at the moment and seeing as it’s a long step away from the usually 7 when we started we were unsure how it would be taken. So far it’s been majestic. We’re hoping to take the momentum into the festival season.

What’s next for Benin City? 

Gigs, more gigs. Releasing the album (hurrah) getting the responses. More gigs. No, really: More gigs.

And, finally, the overwrought question that all music journalists ask…what are you two listening to at the moment?

Tom: Meshelle Ndegeocello, Janelle Monae, Tawiah, Submotion Orchestra.

Josh: Hiatus Kaiyote, Jono McCleery, Thundercat.

Website Design by Atomic Smash, Bristol