‘Pop’ Is Not A Dirty Word: Mama’s Gun Interview

There are few people who have such an infectious enthusiasm for music that it can make you appreciate the entity anew.  Andy Platts, front man and principal songwriter for UK fusion outfit Mama’s Gun, is one such individual. Amongst the artists who merely make music and those who live and breathe it, Platts seems to fall into the latter category.

Whether talking about his many inspirations both renowned and obscure or ruminating on how technological advancement, producers prioritising beats over melody and the proliferation of TV talent shows have led to a decline in modern music standards- speaking to Platts it becomes apparent that he’s a muso’s muso.  This devotion and intrinsic musicality is prominent throughout Mama’s Gun’s highly impressive debut album Routes to Riches.  One of the band’s first singles ‘You Are the Music’ could easily refer to Andy himself; it’s clearly in his DNA.

As the record gathers momentum and plaudits come from all around, 2010 so far has been very kind to Platts and the Mama’s Gun gang.  I join him at an East London studio, working on new material, fresh from doing some promotion in Europe.  Taking a break as the studio succumbs to temporary technical chaos, we settle down to what turns out to be one of my most fascinating interview experiences to date.  The epitome of laidback, middle-class Bo-Ho chic – Afro and impeccable public school accent to match – Andy is completely unruffled by the technical mishaps going on around him.  He kicks back on a sofa as he explains the genesis of the group.

“Jack the drummer, bassist Rex and Dave [keys] are from quite an incestuous set of musicians who are always playing together.   They have been playing on and off for seven or eight years.  Jack and Dave had gone to college together at Middlesex to do music.  Terry and I [guitarist] had known each other from the scene. We had a mutual appreciation for Lewis Taylor.  Terry knew I was looking for guys to play my songs with…”

The rest, as they say, is history.  Things have moved so quickly for Mama’s Gun that it’s hard to believe that they have only been together for three years.  They are currently doing their own UK tour before going on the road with Beverley Knight.  Platt’s excitement at the prospect is endearing. “You know, we’ve piggy-backed with artists everywhere. To come from that to tours in our own right…”

Andy’s adulation for all things music-related is reflected in the band’s name.  As some might have already guessed, Mama’s Gun is derived from the title of Erykah Badu’s sophomore album.  Mr Platts expounds. “People ask if it is because that album is really significant to us or anything.  Not really. There was a bit of a heritage of bands using record names as their own; ‘Radiohead’ is a Talking Heads tune, for example, that’s where [Radiohead the group] got their name.  So there you go, Mama’s Gun – it’s short, warm, catchy and we liked it.”

With Andy being the chief songwriter, the conversation naturally moves on to composition methodology. “I don’t have a specific formula although invariably it has to be a musical idea that piques my interest.  I think melody follows chords. I started out as a player before I even started singing. Songwriting was always kind of hovering there.

“For a lot of people I know who are just singers, it’s all about coming up with that melody first.  For me it has to be a chord progression that makes me want to sing something.   That’s probably where a lot of musicality in the album comes from.  It has to be credible; not pretentious but sure-footed the whole way.  After the melody I flesh out the whole song in my head, what every instrument is going to play.  And then to be honest it’s the lyrics that take the longest and come last.  Sometimes it’s an afterthought; stuff that just rhymes and fits… Sorry people.”

He accompanies this pseudo-confession with a canny smile. “I mean you do try and put meaning to as much of the lyrics as you can. Sometimes it’s the other stuff that’s more important in the track.”

So has this level of creative control brought out the autocrat in Andy?  He responds candidly.

“Once upon a time it was like that, I had to control everything.  It’s there in the composition a lot.  I think of all the parts.  When this band got together it probably was about me; ‘This is my project, these are my songs, you’re going to come and play for me.’  It’s just evolved that this is an equal five-piece brotherhood now.  This first album… Yeah, it’s mostly all my songs but how it sounds is down to the guys.

“The older I’ve got the more I’ve just been able to relax and say, ‘I’ve come up with an idea but this person can make it better’ or ‘It’s time to just let that become what it’s going to be and not be so precious about stuff.’  When you know when to put your foot down in terms of where an idea can flourish and where it’s best left to do its own thing, that’s a good skill to get in your set.”

Andy’s lack of pretentiousness is almost ironic.  It’s not uncommon for artists with such musical acuity to make the kind of self-indulgent, melodically aimless records only they can listen to.  Yet Mama’s Gun are not afraid of a catchy hook; in fact their album is awash with them earning the group a reputation for being a little bit pop.  Nevertheless, Andy’s musical ethos means he isn’t fazed by any derogatory connotations that label might carry.

“I take that as a compliment.  ‘Pop’ is not a dirty word. The songs are king and we want to service them.  We’re not trying to put ourselves in a genre or category.  We’re not saying this is soul, this is funk…it all comes under the umbrella of pop.  I think people get too hung up on trying to give themselves an identity by creating some mini sub-genre.  We’re not into all that.

“Just enjoy the music: it is what it is and that’s pop music to me.  I think there’s a natural thing to try and keep things accessible.  We all grew up listening to the radio.  Records that made it onto the radio got onto [it] for a reason.  You know, all good pop music gets onto the radio.” Platts re-considers before swiftly correcting himself, “Well it doesn’t always get onto the radio but a lot of the stuff we grew up with did.”

The depth and timbre of Platts’ speaking voice comes as a bit of a revelation considering how, on the album, his vocals sit so comfortably in the upper register. I half-expect him to talk with an androgynous, MJ-style cadence.  Curious, I probe Andy about his vocal influences.  “I think I gravitated towards guys in that [high tenor] range because I can identify. People like Jimmy Scott, I really, really admire.  You know – Stevie, Marvin… People like Freddie Mercury as well really floated my boat because I came from all that late ’70s classic rock/pop.”

Surprisingly, singing was not always Andy’s thing.  Now 30, he describes how he got into it relatively recently. “Singing came late to me.  I sang in bands when I was 13, 14, 15 but it wasn’t proper singing, just three chord tricks.  I was into grunge and metal at that time.  In terms of being late, I guess I didn’t start properly till I was 23, 24.”

Nonetheless, with the focus of a mature student beavering away at Uni whilst the youngsters party-hardy, Andy has steadily laboured at his craft to get up to par.  “It’s something I’m always working on.  If it’s something I love I’ll just copy it and try and get it right, find the skills to be able to do it. I’ve been doing that pretty hardcore.  I got into jazz singing a lot.  People like Kurt Elling… He’s so surefooted without being contrived.  He’s 30 bars ahead in terms of what he’s going to be singing.  It’s just so sympathetic to the music.  People like Joni Mitchell do that as well.”

The group’s love affair with music calls out for collaborations with like-minded souls.  Outside of the Mama’s Gun fraternity however, Andy remains guarded about the idea. “I did a lot of [collaborating] when I was younger with writing teams, two or three other people in the room trying to rhyme.  It was all kind of counter-creative to me.  So collaborating means having to share that insular process which, depending on the personalities and how it’s introduced, I’m quite stand-offish about.”  That said he’s is not totally averse to the concept.

“There are artists you really dig.  If Prince was to hang out and say let’s jam man, great!”  He chuckles before continuing, “People like Canadian artist K-Os… He’s just doing a lot of things and it sounds like him, really incredible.  G.Love and Special Sauce – that would be cool. If Sly (Stone) could keep his marbles together that would be really good.  I hear Shuggie Otis is still out and about somewhere…”

Routes to Riches’ opening track, ‘House on The Hill’, has gone top 3 in Japan.  On home turf, another single, ‘Pots of Gold’ is being championed by the likes of Smooth FM (Record of the Week) and Chris Evans, of all people, on BBC radio.  Platts recalls the first time he heard it played on Radio 2: “I got a call from my manager the minute before and he said, ‘Put the radio on now.   They’re about to play your song, first time ever.’  I’m sitting in the garden listening to it, just unreal.”

Andy is equally moved by the affection shown by Mama’s Gun fans.  He illustrates with an anecdote from their recent excursion to the Far East.
“Mama’s Gun hardcore fans are pretty bonkers…in a good way. They are really quite dedicated.  We just came back from Japan in January.  The fans over there showered us with gifts, handmade sketches, paintings they’d done for hours…”

Going by the cosmopolitan line-up of the group and the myriad musical influences demonstrated on the album – from Prog Rock, to pop, funk and classic soul – Mama’s Gun must attract a very diverse fanbase.  Platts concurs.  “You hit the nail on the head. MG fans do indeed seem to be a big mix of young and old, aficionados, pure chart pop lovers, jazz heads, rockers… drawn from a whole bunch of different races.  So maybe that reflects the mixed line-up and possibly that the music comes from an honest, uncontrived place.”

Andy maintains a charmingly boyish wonder about the band’s new-found success; “It astounds me daily to think that the music we create resonates with even one person let alone a whole cross section of people! If I think about it too long it freaks me out.”

“I think everyone in this band maintains a naturally high level of humility which informs everything we do – in the studio, on the road, with the fans. That’s not to say we’re ego-less but I’d say that probably manifests itself when we play live.  We’re incredibly proud of what we do and on stage nothing can touch you, it’s truly the one place you feel invincible.”

Routes To Riches is out now (Candelion Records).

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