Interview: STEVE SPACEK

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‘Move Soul Music Forward’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Forget neo. The future of soul is space funk.
That’s what some of us have been saying for a while now, so it’s rather encouraging to see a new wave of soul music with sexy fusions of electronic funk creeping towards the mainstream – in the form of acts such as J*Davey (on Warner Bros) and SA-RA Creative Partners.
There is another name I’d like to add to the sassy and innovative aforementioned: Steve Spacek.
His timeless, floating vocals were signature to the sound of musical trio Spacek (comprised of South Londoners Morgan Zarate, Ed Cavill and Steve), who were at one point signed to Mos Def’s label. Steve continued to pioneer their genre-busting sound with a borderless attitude reflected in both his music and his life – literally – as he moved from London to LA to work on his solo album ‘Space Shift’, and currently resides in Australia. His music incorporates electronic elements found in the UK’s broken beat movement, having worked with Orin Walters of West London collective Bugz In The Attic. Steve’s international endeavours hooked him up with the sorely missed J Dilla, resulting in the accessible groove of album highlight track ‘Dollar’. Even Leon Ware (largely responsible for Marvin Gaye’s sensual album ‘I Want You’) threw a duet into the ‘Space Shift’ pie.
I found myself in the north of the UK last year, in a bar in Manchester having a long chat with Steve Spacek and his producer Mr French before his show at Mint Lounge…

Soul Culture: Mos Def championed you at the beginning… are you still in touch?
Steve Spacek: Every now and then I bump into him and he’s cool. He started a label and we were meant to be on it and we were, but it was at a point where his acting career kicked off. But we were cool about it because it was a good chance for him. It was called Good Tree, and it was literally just us on there. He’s a good guy, I get a good vibe from him.
SC: Your extensive travelling has given your music an international base with no clear regional allegiance. How has that freedom pushed your projects?
Steve: I just go wherever I wanna go and make music. The most important thing for me is to make music I wanna make regardless of who I’ve gotta make it with and wherever I’ve gotta go, I don’t give a monkeys. Know what I mean? I feel like I can do what I like. And not necessarily just do music for weird’s sake, but trying to move soul music forward and go some places.
SC: Do you find it easier to put your music together and get it across to your audience in America than in England?
Steve: Easily. To be honest, they don’t care about young black artists in this country [the UK], unless you’re doing it a certain way; unless it’s really watered down or you’re a part of the pop scene. Look at guys like Blue and all that, that dude Simon Webbe, when I look at guys like that I think it’s sad really… well it’s not sad for him, because obviously he’s having a good time, and I know that for a fact – look at him. But I just think deep down in your heart, when you get older and you look back, are you gonna be really happy with what you did? Because I know I will be. But maybe he will be! Maybe he’s really happy with the songs he’s written and maybe I shouldn’t really sound like I’m slagging him off.
I always used to equate being quite pioneering with young people. You know? Being young, you wanna go and explore and try some things. But they just come along and try to fit in. So I’m looking at them and then I’m looking at say Massive Attack, or Radiohead, Bjork, Omar… all these people are pioneering as far as I’m concerned and they will always try and reach out and go somewhere else with their music. But a lot of the youngsters, I feel like they ain’t really going nowhere, or they jump on the RnB-American tip and try to be Usher. It’s about trying to keep a fine balance, because I like to see them doing well. Everyone should have a chance. I just wish they could step out sometimes and say ‘you know what, I wanna dig deep in my heart and try and go somewhere with this’. But not everyone can be like that I suppose.
SC: What other UK music do you respect?
Steve: I like the sound of Grime and Dubstep, because I’m coming from that originally – when I was younger with Jungle, and when I used to produce music before them, that whole dance vibe with the bassline and the way drums are chopped up and the whole Reggae feel. My family are Jamaican aswell so all that music makes sense to me – I can hear the carnival in it, the Soca, and I love that feeling.
I think the [UK] industry doesn’t give them a chance; it just gives them a little niche but they don’t really lift them up. In America if you come with a new style of music as a young black group, even though you’re always gonna encounter racism, there’s a certain point where they lift you up, they see it and everyone runs with it. Everyone champions it and people do well out of it. It’s a realistic goal in America that if you’re a talented young black person that you can get somewhere. There aren’t many chances like that in the UK in the same way.
SC: America champions black music more strongly, but in doing that they can also boost stereotypes and clichés, maybe they’re caricaturising people?
Steve: They do that big time but living in this world it’s just nice when you see your own people doing well. I used to be like ‘look at the same people… the clichés’. But then I got to the point where even though it’s a cliché I’m glad they’re doing well.
SC: So where in the States were you? How did the J Dilla hook-up come about on ‘Dollar’?
Steve: I was in LA. Jay Dee did a mix for us years ago on the first album, and that was all through a friend of ours who took our album and played it for Mos Def and Q-Tip and all those guys because they all went to school so there was a little vibe from that. The main track was ‘Eve’ at the time and people heard it in America. Dwele’s done an undercover cover of it. When we went to do the single we wanted a mix from Jay Dee and since then we kept in touch but we didn’t hang out that much. When I was out in LA he’d just moved there from Detroit cause he was really ill and needed to get out and be more in the environment so he was staying at Common’s place. So I used to go there to hang out there and one day I said I needed something for my album and he bounced through his tracks and found it.
SC: Your voice really fits into his style of production really well. Who else would you like to work with?
Steve: I dunno… I’ve got so many places to explore. It’s whoever I come across. I’d definitely like to do stuff with Leon Ware again. And I’ve still got some beats from Jay Dee to do stuff with. Producing-wise I’d love to work with D’Angelo. He smacked it at the Northsea Jazz Festival and then when he was at Brixton Academy it was off it’s head, it was like watching Marvin Gaye or someone like that just live on stage, he was incredible.
SC: Speaking of Marvin, a lot of people have said you sound on certain tracks the way they would imagine Marvin Gaye or Sam Cook would sound if they were still around and making music now.. Who are your musical influences?
Steve: Loads of reggae music. Growing up in London there was a lot of Ska. From when I was about 5, I was influenced by Georgio Amaredo who produced that Donna Summer track ‘I Feel Love’. When I was a kid that was the sickest thing I’d heard. A lot of dance music and synthesizers. When Planet Rock first came and before hip hop kicked off in the UK, that whole electro thing. The jazz-funk electronic sound in soul. Even when Marvin Gaye came back with ‘Sexual Healing’ and he had the 808 drum..
SC: You’ve written all the lyrics on your album and you don’t generally have duets other than the one with Leon Ware. Is there anyone you’d like to sing with?
Steve: I tell you who I think is an amazing singer, Mica Paris. I’d love to do some stuff with her. I told them if she’s up for it I’d love to do some production if she wants to do another album. Produce stuff for her and maybe do some duets. She’s like a female version of Omar as far as I’m concerned because she’s the real deal. Carl Macintosh from Loose Ends. I love Radiohead.
At this point, Mr French cuts in to add – “We were mad they didn’t ask Steve to do something [on the Radiohead tribute ‘Exit Music’ album] because when Spacek first came out a magazine once called Steve “the Radiohead of soul”. The Radiohead bass player A&Red the project so next one we’ll be there, we really wanted him to be on this one.”
SC: What do you think the industry could be doing to make soulful artists more successful in the UK?
Steve: I think they just need to lift them up. I’m out of touch with a lot of record companies here now but a lot of them seem to be friends of friends who’ve got jobs. And you talk to some of them and they were like designers before, or skateboarders! Music-lovers of course, so it’s valid in one way, but I dunno whether they’ve properly earned their stripes in the music business as such. And then there’s other people who have. Their take on it is they’re always looking for a rock angle, I feel. I think a lot of that comes from upstairs – the programmers and the people that run these companies.
When we first went to Island when Spacek signed the deal, and the guy who was running it Mark Moroe was cool and he was really into the sound. We went into the office and he was wearing shorts, Hawaiian vest, sandals and sitting on the floor. Proper hippy. Loved the sound and wanted to do this thing. Just a few months after we signed, the whole setup of Island changed and they moved him out. Lucifer… err, Lucian Grange, his name is. He was big in Polydor, apparently he’d made Polydor a success back in the day and he’d brought in Lighthouse Family and all them kinda bands, so they brought him into Island to bring some sales up. You can imagine he’s there and Ross Allen who’s the guy that signed us to Island Blues, the offshoot to Island containing the trendy part of it with the new beats. All these new hip hop and soul artists that were amazing and different. There was about 40 of us on there. All this music totally went over his head and he was nonchalant, he didn’t care.
SC: Isn’t passion meant to be the bare minimum to get anywhere in the industry…
Steve: Yeah tell me about it. I’m like, don’t get me wrong, you got Lighthouse Family to wherever they got to but you ain’t really got a clue about music ‘cause if you did… well, there’s some real talent there. But then you don’t really need to at the end of the day, cause you’re getting fat pay, why should you bother about us? It’s just the way of the world. But it’s sad because when we spoke to the dude… he was like, ‘we were trying to bring back the original Island when Marley was on it, and Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Bjork in the later years – trying to bring back that real creative side of Island and you guys fit into that plan really well’. And then Lucifer comes along and it’s a whole new ballgame…
SC: What hasn’t the UK done for you that you’ve had to seek elsewhere?
Steve: There’s this thing I found out about in Australia where I live now, they call it ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. As soon as someone gets somewhere people can’t handle it, they don’t really like winners (I find) in this country. If you win and you win too much, after a while they wanna cut you down, as if they’re bored of you. Whereas in America it’s all about success, they don’t mind braggers. People are into it, the more you brag the more they soak it up. Whereas over here if you do really well you have to be real but you’ve gotta hold it down – you can’t really celebrate it or make too much noise about it. People are not up for it. You see it sometimes, like years ago Eddie The Eagle they took the mickey out of him. He was a ski jumper, but he was so rubbish. But he was a national hero! And look at Frank Bruno, bless him and all that but Loser. But they lift him up into the clouds. He never won! They love it: you lose over here and they’re into you. As soon as you’re a winner they don’t want you to be too good or successful. Maybe it’s the climate..
SC: Do you take on influences from the places you visit?
Steve: Not really, because a lot of those places are following London. And they’re always looking at America anyway. So they’re almost a few years back, but at the same time their outlook is a little more open – but that’s only because of the places we’re going and the places that people are into. When I make music if I really want to get in the zone I need to lock myself away from everything. There’s not enough hours in the day so that suits me fine. I’m trying to get out what’s inside of me. I feel like I haven’t even started yet, like there’s a lot of places for me to go musically and I feel like a baby in this business in terms of where I wanna go and what I wanna do. So many places to explore musically. When I look at soul music I see a universe in it, you can go to enough different places. When I sit down and make music there’s all these different emotions and directions that come to me and I just want to follow them through.
www.stevespacek.com