In the first of a new ‘cameo’ series, Selectric’s mastermind, bass-plucker and all around good guy Si Patton catches up with jazz impresario Chris Sharkey to discuss ventures past, present and future. I’ll leave you in his capable hands….
Chris Sharkey has been a key musician in the Leeds jazz/improv circles. His previous bands read as a list of who’s who of exciting and interesting jazz – including TrioVD, Acoustic Ladyland, Bilbao Syndrome, and World Sanguine Report, as well as occasionally standing-in for Three Trapped Tigers. Most recently Sharkey has been playing with his new band Shiver, formed with childhood friend Andy Champion on bass and drummer Joost Hendrickx (also of genre-smashing sextet Shatner’s Bassoon, which is possibly the greatest band name since Dananananakroyd). I caught up with him at the London Jazz Festival where he talks about Shiver, other projects he’s working on, the importance of scenes, the use of guitar pedals in jazz as well as the pros and cons of being involved with a lot of different projects.
Si Paton So I’m doing this for a website called TV is Better and it’s mostly things like math rock and post-rock, people who are into Three Trapped Tigers and those sort of bands read it….
Chris Sharkey I’m sorta friends with those guys. I actually depped for Matt in that band once at a gig. Fucking hell-raising! I learned the whole album for one gig.
Si Paton Is TrioVD still going?
Chris Sharkey Sadly no. It’s a bit of a shame, but the thing is it came to its end and Chris (Bussey) who was the drummer, he wanted to do some different things. So it was time to go. We just figured, we could carry on with another drummer but it would be incredibly unfair on that person. Y’know, having to come in and kinda learn all the weird stuff in the weird way we do the weird stuff. And Chris was such a big part of that band. A big personality in that band and, y’know, we just figured lets move on, which was a bit of a downer but at the same time it was also an opportunity to do something else.
Chris and I….Chris de Bezenac, the sax player, we’re still working together and we’ve got some plans for next year. We’re gonna be working as a duo and doing a lot of electro-acoustic type stuff. For instance Chris is into Pure Data, the computer program. He’s been interested in it for a long time and we’re using a lot of stuff like that and we’re gonna do a huge collaboration. We’re having a meeting with a guy who does visual design and Max/MSP visual stuff. We’ve got plans to work with a director and with a visual artist and hopefully with some dancers too. So that’ll be a thing that’s gonna hopefully kick off next year. But, yeah, the main focus at the minute is Shiver.
Si Paton How long have Shiver been going for?
Chris Sharkey We first started playing about a year ago. And we were just improvising because I’ve always wanted to play with Joost (Hendrickx) and I hadn’t played with Andy (Champion) since …well, we’ve done the odd improv gig mainly with Adrian Tilbrook (drummer of jazz group Back Door). We started out improvising and then I wrote a load of songs and then we recorded them and then…I wasn’t quite sure about that and then we kinda turned the tables a little bit and started playing newer things, so we’ve been working around for a bit.
Si Paton Are Bilbao Syndrome still going? I saw you guys open for Acoustic Ladyland and being blown away by that.
Chris Sharkey We’ve got some plans for that as well. We’ll say that. There will be some new Bilbao action coming soon.
Si Paton What other stuff are you working on?
Chris Sharkey There’s another thing we’ve been doing in Leeds is a regular night which kinda fuses improvisation with electronica and that’s called Tokyo Doorbells and it’s basically a large ensemble. Joost plays in it, and we’ve got these 2 drummers, James Mainwaring from Roller Trio, Submotion Orchestra and Johnny Richards from Shatner’s Bassoon and all those guys. I found that, having spoken to a lot of musicians, that a lot of people were listening to that kind of music and being inspired by it, so it was like, well lets just try and do something that kind of puts the two together, so we’ve been doing a regular night for that and we did five this year and got some plans for that for next year. I like the idea of bringing the whole night to different places. So we have DJs and we have live performances and hopefully we’re gonna have some guests next year when we do it.
So that’s kind of a nice thing, and then of course Shiver stuff and then another thing that I do with Andy and a vibraphonist called Corey Mwamba and a drummer called Mark Sanders. It’s a more acoustic improvised thing. Freely improvised music. It’s called Batteries and we’re gonna do some stuff with that next year too and then of course there’s the odd thing, just the other things.
Si Paton With all the bands that you’re in, do you ever worry that you won’t have time to commit to these projects and see them through?
Chris Sharkey That was something I didn’t used to care about really, because what I liked about music is the fact you can do lots of different things. I liked having different things on the go and do a bit of this and that. But I do think that’s important actually to affiliate different times to certain things. Because for people who like what you do, it’s good to be a bit of clearer, because if I’m saying one day I’m doing this thing, then one day I’m doing that and then I’m doing that and then I’m doing that, I think sometimes it’s a bit of an overload. A bit confusing, perhaps, for the audience?
Si Paton When you were studying, did you feel like there were those insipid sort of players around? For instance ones that ended up being content with joining wedding bands and such?
Chris Sharkey Yes. Totally. I’ve got no problem with that. Got no problem with people being successful regardless of what they’re doing. It’s just different is all. They’re doing that and I’m doing this. They’re different things. There’s room for everyone. I think that you’ve gotta maintain a positive attitude, haven’t you, when you’re a musician. You don’t want to end up as one of those bitter guys.
Si Paton Do you supplement your projects with teaching music as well?
Chris Sharkey These are the things, like teaching or workshops or function bands – and I’ve done all of that. And, y’know it’s just part of the life, isn’t it? When you choose to play the kind of music, it is very niche music. We believe in its potential for more people to like it, that’s why we do it. But at the same time, it means we have to supplement it with other things. I’m happy with that. Of course I wish it was better but that’s why I work as hard as I do.
Si Paton Going onto the whole jazz-rock thing, do you think pedals and electronics are still kinda seen as taboo in jazz?
Chris Sharkey Less and less so. I think that it’s becoming more and more common. Because basically what those things allowed you is to talk from a greater…a wider palette. So when they’re used in that way, I think they’re successful and when they’re used badly it’s not so successful.
Si Paton I’ve had a fair few failed experiments with pedals…
Chris Sharkey And so have I. And I will again in the future. I haven’t won that battle. It’s just…
Si Paton It keeps developing?
Chris Sharkey Yes. It’s another factor of my playing, I suppose as well as the technical musical side of it, the playing of it. There’s the other side of it. What are my sound choices gonna be? Things like that. And that’s another thing that develops the same rate as everything else. I give it equal importance and I think that’s hopefully the way things start to sound more unified. But there will be some people who don’t like it. They’ll think if you can’t just plug straight into an amp then you’re not very good or whatever that might be.
Si Paton Obviously with jazz they’ve got that whole emphasis on personal sound and most people that do kinda do it within an acoustic context, with your individual attack and your approach and things like that. A lot of those guys find it hard to do that when you’re playing into a pedal system. If someone else perhaps stole your guitar and setup they would have the exact same sound and things.
Chris Sharkey They would have the exact same sound but the sound is only part of what makes me sound the way I do. There’s all the other stuff there too. It’s not just the quick fix of getting somewhere because you’ll hit a wall eventually that way. You’ll have to deal with these other elements if you wanna make the music good. It’s not just about having a load of flashy gear. I mean you can go a really long way having a load of flashy gear but your musical taste and your vision for it is really the most important thing.
The thing about it is, with this band, the way I hear the guitar is with those sounds, with that stuff. But when I play with Batteries, I just play an acoustic guitar. Nothing else. And sometimes when I improvise I just go straight into an amplifier and use the tone generator and I might turn the reverb on and off or whatever and I’ll use guitar. So I’m just as happy to do that in an improv context and you’ll see me do that. If I think that’s what the gig needs or that’s what this band needs then I will absolutely just do that for that thing. I don’t bring the same setup to everything. I make choices about what it needs and I think that’s a sign of experience and, without wishing to sound like a twat, maturity because I’ve tried that thing where I just want a sound and I’m gonna use that all the time and it doesn’t always work. You’ve gotta be sensitive to that.
Si Paton So from experience, how easy or how difficult have you found adapting your sound to suit whatever band you’re in?
Chris Sharkey I think now, it’s a work in progress. Because sometimes you try things and they won’t work and you have to go another way. If I do Batteries and I have the acoustic guitar, I can do that show and I can play and I’ll be able to do what I feel I need to do on that gig with acoustic guitar. If I plug straight into the Fender Blues Jr and turn it all way up, I know what I’m getting from that and I can deliver a performance hopefully that’s good based on that. If I used that really crazy setup that I used today…see what I mean?
Si Paton What bands are you really into?
Chris Sharkey The stuff that I’m listening to at the minute is Connan Mockasin. I really like his new record. I really like the new Bill Callahan album too. I’ve been really digging that. I love the songs and the way it orchestrates and I love the guitar player on that. I went to see Rokia Traore the other week in Leeds who’s a Malian singer and that was one of the best gigs I’ve seen this year. I’m really into the stuff that’s on Flying Lotus’s label Brainfeeder. I’ve been listening to the new Fuck Buttons album. The Haxan Cloak album, I’ve been really liking that record. It goes on. It’s always a mixture of things. When people ask what you’ve been listening to, you can never remember can you? But I’m a big Spotify guy.
Si Paton Are you into math-rock, like Hella?
Chris Sharkey Massively into all that stuff. It’s really exciting music. The first time I heard Hella, I couldn’t believe anyone was doing that. I’m a very very big Death Grips fan and the new record is unbelievable. I mean they’re very inspirational guys. They’re very very hungry, passionate, exciting. Got a lot of time for that.
Si Paton Who do you think will appreciate Shiver? Do you think the jazz purists will get it or do you think it’s more for people in DIY bands?
Chris Sharkey Hopefully both. I do know that people in that scene do like it. We did a tour a few weeks ago and we played at the Vortex and we had a nice crowd in and we also had some really nice feedback about that show and from those kind of people. Also, the Vortex is a jazz club and there’s enough kinda improvisation happening there and enough kinda jazzy stuff happening, which people, I think, can like about that too. I suppose with Shiver, like with all the stuff I do, you cover a lot of different things and put them all under one kinda thing. Like the piece we played tonight, there’s a lot of melody in that piece and a lot of what you’d call functional harmony in that piece. I did a lot of music for a long time didn’t use any kind of functional harmony.
Si Paton Have you got any other long-term plans?
Chris Sharkey The plan is next year to put these EPs out. We’re gonna do a big show at Gateshead Jazz Festival and then we’re gonna go on the road after that. That’s gonna be EP2 and then, I think, we’ll be either, we’ll do Shiver3 and Shiver4 which’ll be next year too. And then hopefully every time we release we’ll be on tour, we’ll be building the fanbase if you wanna use that term, and then you just gotta see what happens. I think if we can get a bit of a following or get some people interested, then we can start maybe thinking about the idea of making a record.
Si Paton A full album?
Chris Sharkey Yeah. I mean at the minute, we’re doing everything DIY. We record everything ourselves and everything is sold directly through us and I think that nowadays with the state of the record industry and the way that it is, every musician wants to make a record, but maybe they shouldn’t, y’know? Like, making a record is an amazingly creative and wonderful thing to do, document something that’s fantastic. But at the same time if you want that record to serve a purpose and create a larger audience then you need to have a bit of profile first and the thing with Shiver is, we’ve just kinda started so we’ve gone back to the beginning and starting again.
Si Paton A bit like with my band, where I decided to do an EP as opposed to a full album? For the first batch of tunes, I wrote 15 and only 3 were worth keeping.
Chris Sharkey The same thing happened with us. We went into a studio after playing together for a couple of months. We recorded stuff and it was OK but when we listened back we thought, you know what, this is kinda ok but we need to spend a little bit longer on it. We stuck another 6 months on it and then I think now we’re doing something where we all feel we are on the same page and we’re all happy with the direction I think. Sometimes these things take a little time. So the idea will be to develop that throughout next year too. We’re not in a hurry. We wanna get better at playing. We wanna write better material. We wanna improvise better together. We’re gonna do that through the EPs and touring and we’ll see where we’re at in a years time.
Si Paton How important do you think it is to be in some sort of a scene or a collective of like-minded people? Do you feel it is possible to do it on your own or do you feel like you couldn’t have done it without the support of peers and things?
Chris Sharkey It really really helps. That’s all I can say. It’s not a very nice feeling to think that you’re in a vacuum. Like what you’re doing has a context. It’s a weird thing, isn’t it, looking for validation isn’t it but it is a nice thing when it happens. It means you can broaden the range of what…the music that you listen to because you get turned on to new things by what your friends see – like have you heard this and have you heard this, and that’s how I learned and that’s how I like to experience music. The scene is really really important. Not just for the validation, as I said, but, also just for the fact that you feel like you’re part of a team or feel like you’re part of a movement and that’s and a very inspiring thing. But I mean, could I do it? If that wasn’t there, I would probably be still doing it but I’d probably be finding it more difficult. It’d just be another conundrum.
Find more about Chris Sharkey’s myriad endeavours here, and, while you’re at it, show Selectric some love too.