Siobhán Kane spoke with Andy Noble of Milwaukee soul revivalists Kings Go Forth ahead of their show at the Sugar Club this Saturday. Like some free tickets?
Kings Go Forth evolved out of a real love for 1970’s soul production and techniques; founded by Andy Noble, (who at the time was running the record shop Lotus Land in Milwaukee, Wisconsin) he enlisted the talents of Black Wolf, a singer who had been very active in the golden age of soul production, and a collective was born. Kings Go Forth have now expanded to a ten piece, and over the past couple of years they have released several well-received 7″‘s , and their first full-length record The Outsiders are Back was released last year on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.
In a sense, the title of their record explains their ethos, since Noble’s passion is rooted in revealing the obscure recordings and stories of people that never quite ‘made’ it. This passion for the underdog goes into everything Kings Go Forth do, from working with folk artist Mingering Mike, to contributing a track for the legendary Dennis Coffey’s imminent record- they put the soulful into soul, as Andy Noble tells Siobhán Kane
Artists from the period you esteem so much, like Sharon Jones and Lee Fields are being reappraised now, and recording new material; finding their audiences expanding in a less-obvious way, that must be heartwarming to see and be part of.
I was there from the beginning of the resuscitation of the interest in this kind of music. My record shop in Milwaukee facilitated the first Sharon Jones show, and that whole camp, because they are the same guys, for Antibalas and Sharon Jones, or at least they were back then. They were really popular at that time, because we were really pushing it, though that kind of music was not popular in our town, though that is what we specialised in, and we were a really small shop that made no money. Though those shows were really successful, to the scale of now where Sharon Jones’ new record will be charting on Billboard. That stuff is pretty wild. In Europe it seems there has always been an appreciation for that kind of music, these pockets of subcultures that liked that less commercial-sounding RnB from the States. Motown and Stevie Wonder were always popular everywhere, but Europe liked all of it, whereas in America that wasn’t the case, the rest were seen as commercial flops.
Do you think this is in part because America is so sprawling, and in that golden era there were giants like Motown that dictated so much, because it knew how to market things, bringing in that pop sensibility as well?
It basically comes down to the fierce capitalism in America, it’s about winner and loser, who gets to it first, who promotes it better first. So the Motown artists, the business end of it, was done so much better.The black independent record labels that were springing up in Chicago and Detroit just couldn’t compete with that business push that Motown had at that time, and the public generally cannot cope with too much choice. There is a reason that there are not four hundred types of soda, because to a certain extent it is better for business that there are only a few things to choose from. It was flooded, and in the golden era of RnB, from the fifties through to the early eighties, there was too much product coming out at once, it is such a huge issue.
You are talking about the first successful black business people in America, then combine that with the idea of capitalism, and that people in the ghettos for the first time had a role model in Berry Gordy, and knew that there was another way to make money other than working in a factory, or for rich white people, it was attractive for obvious reasons. So many people tried to jump on board, but the market couldn’t digest it, but people better at business like Motown rose to the top. I like Motown, but I like other stuff better than Motown, and it was so mixed with pop as well, it was consciously trying to cross over to the white market. To this day, a rap group that sells only to a black audience, can be the biggest in the world, but nowhere near as big as the group that will sell to a black and white audience. Most of the records, the real soul records that people like now, were mainly made by black people for a black audience.
Racial politics permeates so much of the cultural landscape in America as well.
Racial politics absolutely to this day is within soul music, and in America is completely combined with capitalism and economics. To this day it is still there. There was recently a New York blog [Brooklyn Vegan] criticising the fact that Sharon Jones audiences were mainly white, it is such a tricky thing, I hardly like to touch stuff like that, but I will tell you this though, her audiences in America are less white than other groups’, around five percent of her audiences will be middle aged black couples or something. When true racial integration starts it won’t happen in a day, it is really slow. When this thing came out online, I was really mad because they are the last people that should be criticising, first of all Sharon Jones has a mixed race group, has more of a mixed race audience than most, you might as well just run to a mountain top and scream, as, being mad about that won’t make racial integration happen any faster. In fact, what Sharon and Gabe are doing will make racial integration happen in America faster, so the fact that they are criticised is so ludicrous to me.
Anyway, most music writers in America are only about indie and rock music, no matter what they say, well maybe hip-hop is the one exception, but most of them are rock people, or college dweebs who grew up listening to whatever was college rock. In Europe you can sell it to people who already like soul music, in America that market doesn’t exist, so you have to sell a soul record to indie rock people, so Sharon Jones are sold to people who already own an MGMT record, and also to an older National Public Radio crowd who listen to Rufus Wainwright, that’s how they market it over there as they are the only people who buy records. So now if we play festivals it is not us and Lee Fields and Sharon Jones, it is us and Vampire Weekend or somebody.
The internet is a strange place in the sense that there are so many opinions, but often such little real knowledge and grasp of the mettle of the subject.
The internet is so huge, and is a representation of everything we are as a people now, except for the Third World because they are not up to speed on the technology yet, it’s weird, but then you have sites like Soulsource from England that are really directly responsible for my own group’s initial success, it’s amazing that in one day I could put up one song and thousands of people can hear it. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as there other great sites popping up. At the moment every state in America are making these lists, and academically going through everything, listing RnB releases from every state over the decades. If something isn’t on there, people write in,and there is so much music out there getting discovered. It takes us back to the fact there was a glut. For the first time a poor black person could become rich and famous in America, a lot of people tried, a lot of records came out fast, a lot were really good, but it was too much to digest, so it makes sense that there was this thirty year elapse, and the world is now dealing with the quality.
The retrospective research being done now is quite rich as it is more measured, people know what they are looking for and want to write about – history levels it out somehow.
I was just thinking about this earlier, with nineties and indie music, I was a naysayer, I didn’t really like it then, because so much came out, but this is the interesting thing, it is a lot cooler to get into these things after the music industry has had its way with them, but now you can just listen to that periods music and judge for yourself. When music is contemporary it is hard to get an objective listen as the marketing comes into play so much. I remember a guy talking to me about Northern Soul, that at its peak, they would be trying to market fifty records in a week, two were successful, the other forty-eight would get dumped, then years later, people would listen to these records and if they liked it, they would play it and help promote it years later. I think that is what initially attracted me to digging for older records, I wanted to judge for myself. In America you are really over-advertised to. I was just rejecting that, but I think it is great now, listening to soul music from that era.
Why did you close the physical aspect of Lotus Land Records?
I didn’t close it for any bad reasons. I needed more time for the group, and didn’t need to be tied down, but the other thing was that we always sold our records online, no-one from Milwaukee wanted to buy our records, and having a shop became a luxury, and a bit of a ball and chain. I basically moved the shop into my house into a little room, and right now my friend and employee is shipping out the mail order records! It is more profitable. I opened a store to find records rather than sell them, which seems like a foreign concept to people, but I wanted people to bring us records, and not enough people were bringing us stuff, so now what I do is house calls in the inner city, and look for black music in basements and houses, it’s a better way to get records. Also, I see everything. Before, when people would bring things, they would pre-select what they would bring, and they were always wrong about what they thought you wanted. Black families would bring us their collections and offer Prince, Michael Jackson and Earth, Wind and Fire, as they thought that was what we wanted. In my lifetime I have done a rudimentary quick thirty second explanation of supply and demand to around ten thousand people and I don’t know how many of them understood it, but I would say ‘this sold a billion copies, I don’t need another copy of Thriller, it is not worth a thousand dollars’ – everyone with a copy of Thriller in the ghetto thinks it is worth a thousand dollars, and I had to tell them it wasn’t worth a dollar, but still see those people take that beat up copy of Thriller and putting it up on Ebay the next day with a starting bid of ten thousand dollars! The records we are looking for are no-name, but they have it because their cousin was in the band, or their mother got it at church one day. We are looking for rare records that haven’t been discovered before. I work with a lot of people who work with discographies for things like soul harmony groups, and I do a lot of work tracking down artists and producers and contributing to books and websites, these are real labours of love, but because I am out there in the field every day I find these things.
Your friendship with Black Wolf expanded into what is now Kings Go Forth, how did that friendship come about?
I had an interest in the history of that scene in Milwaukee and knew a bit about it. I had history too as my Mum managed a couple of soul groups when I was younger. There were so many other small people who made one record and faded away, but Black Wolf was there then, with his group The Essentials, though I am not sure how active they were. They did record in Curtis Mayfield’s studio, but their recording was never released. He gave us the tape one time, and we played it and it was something completely different, so I don’t know if the tape still exists. The weird thing is they wrote a song over Mystic Voyage by Roy Ayers but just sang over the Roy Ayers recording and I guess that was what it was supposed to be. I don’t even know. He knew socially a lot of the people I wanted to know, obscure bands in Milwaukee, so initially our relationship was almost based on us trying to find these people, finding these records, tracking down some of these old guys that had faded into obscurity, and he was a scenester, and had hung out with the bands, and went to all the shows, so he was like our agent in a way [laughs].
Those journeys must be like pilgrimages of sorts, and very satisfying when you finally track these records and people down, they must have some amazing stories, and you are really paying homage to their lives and sacrifices and experiences.
I still do that stuff every single day, I did it before I met Black Wolf. You hear all kinds of stories, there are a couple of different camps, one is the people that just gave it up and became regular people, which is the most common thing. They made a record, decided it was frivolous, as usually a kid came along or something, and they play recreationally, The other camp is that they went gospel, and not always because they found God, sometimes they are just following the trends, and rap wasn’t an option so much as they found it threatening. Although some people tried to go rap, producing some of the worst records that have ever disgraced the face of the planet. Me and all the other guys that work at the label have private jokes about this, it was 1986, when ex-soul people went rap and made anti-crack records. I could make you a thirty CD box set of soul guys who made anti-crack rap, it is fucking crazy.
So these people were lost, blowing in the wind at that time, as suddenly nobody cared about that stuff anymore, so you find a lot of bitter people, people who don’t want to talk about it anymore. In the inner city, things are more black and white, you are sinner or saint. Having a white more middle class background, there is a luxury of not having to perceive everything in that way, whereas in the poorer parts of the black community it is not like that, there is a kind of a hustler mentality, it’s really important, if it doesn’t work financially then they move on straightaway. There is an embarrassment there too, they would think it meant it wasn’t good. There is a white college thing of it’s amazing if it only sold three copies – that is a foreign concept to the poor black community, money means success, as Joe Strummer said about the music business, no business, no music – but often they were making the best music in the world, but didn’t think of it as such because there was no business.
Is there a sense of mistrust with the people you are tracking down?
Oftentimes I will get people wondering why this young white kid is asking about this record, some people are freaked out by, some are paranoid. There are a lot of weird old paranoid guys who will make me talk to their lawyer, but then it will turn out to be their sister who is pretending to be their lawyer or something like that, that’s happened to me around ten times, because there is that history of white business people ripping off black people, and the thing is, it still exists. If a white group comes along and does something they will have a better shot, look at The Beastie Boys compared to Run DMC, that thing still exists. Race is still the elephant in the room in America, no-one talks about it, it is too explosive.
On that subject of hip-hop, what do you think about the current state of it? There must be so much that draws you in, like Madlib, but then so much that pushes you away.
My store sold a lot of hip-hop but that was more to do with my partner John. I don’t really listen to much of it, though I do listen to some older stuff once in a while – homemade rap records. Contemporary hip-hop in America right now is not exciting to me, although the best black music always for me, is black music made for a black audience, I prefer what rock critics would slap me in the face for liking. I would like stuff that is very DIY where a cousin has made the beats, and they only exist on the Myspace page, because history has shown that that is the stuff that ends up blowing peoples minds. I guess I like stuff that is not mixed with pop. For me it has become Motown all over again, where you have those big diva choruses in the middle of the songs, and then Mozart chord progressions, trying to sound all grandiose, it sounds so bad, it’s so blatant. You can hear the marketing coming straight through the music.
So you prefer the anti-crack records by ex-soul singers than contemporary hip-hop?
[Laughs] Oh my God, I have like a hundred copies of that Poetry Boys track Crack Attack.
A while back I worked on this compilation, which was half disco rap and disco soul on the Numero label called Don’t Stop, they didn’t put the crack one on the compilation, but on the liner notes they put the sheet music of the anti-crack rap, someone actually sat there and notated that, it’s crazy! The saddest thing is for all those songs, and there were a lot, people just kept doing crack [laughs].
How have you been finding the live experience so far? As so many of your arrangements on the record seem quite complex, especially in terms of harmony.
We had to adapt to do it as most of the songs came together in the studio, and some are hard to pull off live. We really had to practice our harmonies a lot, and it’s still hard, I mean, we are playing good venues but not really pro venues yet, so our monitors are okay, but you need really good ones to hear, you have a cymbal crashing in one ear, a trumpet blasting in the other one, and you are supposed to find a fifth over this guy over the other side of the stage singing too, so it’s tough, we are finding our feet with it, but the crowds have been really receptive, and we have pretty much sold out everywhere we have played, which is great.
It is a weird time to come over in January, but the logic was that we are going to try and impress a couple of promoters and get some festivals for this summer, hopefully that will work out. I think festivals could probably do a lot worse, and we have a lot of edge to us. Lee Fields is my favourite soul vocalist out there right now, and Sharon Jones – the band is so pro, they do it exactly as it used to be done back in the day, but with us we are not the showdogs, we are the mangy mutts, more rough around the edges, we approach it like a rock band, and come at it with that kind of energy.
How did you meet Mingering Mike who did the artwork for your record? He is such an unusual artist, and seems like quite a personality.
Mingering Mike was discovered by a record digger guy in America, and I am tuned in to that scene in America so got to know him. He MC’d a show for us in Washington DC and it was very funny, and unsurprisingly he is very much a character. Yale, who runs Luaka Bop knew of him, David Byrne had tried to do a kind of record with him or something, I am not sure which genius came up with that idea, as Mingering Mike is not a musician of any kind. Although he wrote a song for us actually, called I Need Assistance and I am actually supposed to work on it, and it’s him singing the lyrics and beating on his leg [laughs], it’s pretty funny. We liked his art, I like LP covers that are hand drawn and homemade looking stuff, our record is very homemade, he is considered an ‘outsider artist’ though we are not, but being from Milwaukee in America, well, it kind of makes us outsiders, people can’t believe that something they like came from that city. My Mum sold ten thousand t-shirts in the eighties that said ‘I’m From Milwaukee and That’s Not Funny’, and it’s like a really famous shirt in Milwaukee, it got bootlegged by two people it’s so famous. She was an art dealer and she would go to New York and say where she was from and they would instantly laugh.
In the documentary you feature in – Super Noble Brothers, it seems to be a loveletter to doing what you want to do, as well as a loveletter to Milwaukee, what makes it a special place do you think?
I was just talking with my friend back in Milwaukee about this since I have been on tour, and we have been to all these places in Spain and the Netherlands and such, and I would still say that Milwaukee is more hip than some of these other places, from the art scene, down to what people wear. If you talked to Mark [Escribano] the director he would agree with you about it being a loveletter to Milwaukee too. He is a photographer, and that was his first film, so there is a major emphasis on it being a photographic film, it’s a factory town, with engine and beer factories – something that Irish people can probably relate to, we are you guys, for sure. The people have a really good sense of humour.
Though soul music is your passion, I can sense other influences in your work, perhaps it is more about being drawn towards the obscure, whatever it is.
The soul music business is my meat and potatoes, and that is what I play when I DJ, but if you got into my house you would see Pentangle and jazz as well. I am totally into folk, and then on the tour now all I am listening to is nineties indie, I listen to everything. I love the little bands that never made it out. In Rotterdam I just bought some New Wave records on a small label, and they sound so contemporary, it is amazing how some of the low budget stuff has aged so well. It has a totally different feel to it to the major label productions. I have also been buying a lot of ethnographic recordings, Europe has so much, because France was such a huge hub of that, so I have been buying Moroccan 45’s, and figuring out what kind of thinking around a commercial product would have a field recording of a Moroccan tribe leading their camels down a path with that image on the sleeve? I bought ten of those from a funk shop in Rotterdam, they probably thought I was crazy.
Is it true that Luaka Bop approached you when Yale of the label heard some of your music in a BMX video?
That’s what Yale says, I don’t know if that’s true or not though. I have never found that video. My theory is that he heard it on Myspace and is embarrassed to say that, but he was into it right away, he emailed me saying ‘Do you have a record label? Do you want a record label?’ and that was it. I of course knew of David Byrne, and I respect him for sure. The funny thing is I have never talked to him or never met him and if someone told me right now he had never listened to Kings Go Forth I would say probably! Not to sound crass but I don’t really care, Yale liked it. I don’t do this to impress famous people, everything about what I am inspired by in the world is music that never made it, I love underdogs, people that made music because they wanted to make it. One thing I am put off by is not fame per se, but people who really rate fame. When I was younger with my group of friends, there were always two girls who would want to go to a show and meet the band and I would think it was so gross, but it is a really common characteristic in people, and in Milwaukee it’s horrible, because there is nobody famous. So people are blown the fuck away by anyone, just the guy who is in a commercial, it’s weird. There is a backlash even for me in Milwaukee about getting the amount of press we have. People get really pissed off if someone from the same town gets somewhere, the worst reviews we got were from Milwaukee.
Considering your background, which is documenting an aspect of musical and cultural history, curating your own support slots or a small festival would surely appeal to you?
I thought as soon as Kings Go Forth got big in Milwaukee I would be able to do that straightaway, I wanted to get the Black Metal band Electric War Babies, and wanted them to open for us, though only three people would get it, so I got really stoked about that idea of curating, but when we got one step bigger than that and started playing to the 600 – 700 seat places, we stopped getting consulted, and promoters wanted to go genre correct, so it often ended up with them finding a crappier soul band and have them open for us.
It’s that awful business side of music that you so hate.
I hate the music business and also hate guys who want to be in bands to get girls, so if I didn’t do everything my way I would quit. The key is not caring at all, I will only do it if its good, as honestly I have a perfectly good life outside of being in a band.
Are you writing more work at the moment?
That has been a problem as we have been so busy getting things ready as a live band, but we did record an instrumental for Dennis Coffey’s comeback record, and I think that turned out pretty well, it’s going to come out on Strut this year. I have been working on stuff here and there, and you know talking to you about Mingering Mike has given me a good idea, maybe I should do a 45 where Kings Go Forth do the song and I write some music for it, as he didn’t really have a melody, it was more of a chant. We could record a version on the A side and then have him sing it, tapping his leg on the B side. I’ll do it.
Kings Go Forth play the Sugar Club this Saturday, January 15th, and we’ve a pair of tickets to give away. Just send an email containing your real name & thumped.com username to firstname.lastname@example.org with KGFTICKETSPLEASE as the subject. Entries will need to be in by lunchtime tomorrow, so get moving.