Afro Celt Sound System
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2001 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
For Afro Celt Sound System, creating boundary-breaking music is a way of life. But it’s a tough life indeed. The U.K.-based band’s maxim of bringing chaos to established world music order generates considerable artistic and economic challenges—all of which manifested themselves during the creation of Volume 3: Further In Time, its latest release.
The key challenge was meeting its own expectations. Volume 1: Sound Magic, the group’s 1996 debut, lived up to its name. Its one-of-a-kind, seamless, high-energy mesh of West African, Irish and electronica elements helped reinvigorate the genre currently known as "world fusion." Its second effort, 1999’s Volume 2: Release, took the constituent elements of its predecessor and further refined them within a more propulsive package. But though the band and its critics rarely agree on anything, the two aligned on the idea that while Volume 2 is enjoyable, it didn’t necessarily represent a major evolution.
The other significant hurdle the band faced was an economic one. It lost an enormous amount of money touring to support Volume 2. Despite selling more than 500,000 records, it found itself the fiscal victim of its own tenacity in bringing its music to people around the globe.
In many ways, Volume 3 attempts to clear both hurdles. Musically, it’s an impressive and ambitious amalgam of the band’s previous leanings, infused with a serious effort to go beyond infectious instrumental workouts and into songwriting territory. It also finds the band’s core of producer/guitarist Simon Emmerson, multi-instrumentalist James McNally, vocalist/songwriter Iarla O’Lionaird, and programmer/engineer Martin Russell augmenting itself with some notable special guests. Peter Gabriel, who also heads up the band’s label Real World; Robert Plant; and newcomer Pina Kollars share lead vocal duties along with O’Lionaird.
Including artists of Gabriel and Plant’s profile is likely to raise eyebrows amongst the eclectic group's core following. But as the band tells it, the music and lyrics were created prior to involving the superstars. After much soul-searching, it felt the songs needed vocalists with particular qualities, so Gabriel and Plant were put on the A-list of prospective contributors. And in fact, the band is as surprised as anyone that the two ended up taking part in the record.
Emmerson details the making of the new album in this in-depth discussion with Innerviews—the band’s first interview in support of Volume 3.
Did you consciously seek to depart from the structures of the first two albums with the new disc?
We don’t really work within the parameters of conscious effort. [laughs] That implies a degree of rationality about what we do. I wish that was the case. In fact, there is probably a degree of rationality, but we’re just not aware of it. What happens is we have hundreds of open canvases and we throw colors at the wall and pick and choose the ones that tickle our fancy. As far as what we consider completely finished pictures, the process has no real rules to it. The only rules are that there are no rules. Each one of us has our own particular ideas.
We’d never made a record without a producer, so the record company was looking around for one for us. At one point, we met up with Bob Ezrin. He was great and really, really positive. He felt strongly that the band could go forward and have radio hits and that we shouldn’t feel intimidated by that. As a record producer myself, I thought "Well, he’s right. If we just put our record producer hats on and started thinking in these terms, there’s nothing to stop us from doing a three-and-a-half minute pop song." So, what happened is we managed to get a very coherent working practice together without tripping over ourselves and the options. That’s how "When You’re Falling" came out. It was an experiment to write something that’s radio friendly. Each track has a micro-history to it. We were just trying to push the boat out in all directions and experiment without getting frightened about "difficult third album syndrome." [laughs]
Are you concerned that revealing you’re interested in making short pop songs will alienate the band from its original following?
Not at all, because there are no rules to the Afro Celts. We’re a unique band. We’re not working in any particular genre. If there’s a genre for us, I guess it’s the eight minute ambient-dub-eclectic-world fusion thing. You could maybe put half-a-dozen other bands in that—maybe not even that. So, it’s not as if it’s like Nirvana decides to go country and western or a middle-of-the-road band decides to go metal. I don’t think we’ve backed ourselves into any corners yet. [laughs] I think that’s largely because we’re all maverick spirits. For me, the challenge as a maverick and iconoclast is to never get comfortable with music industry categories. For me, it’s more of a radical statement to come out and start writing pop songs than doing another Irish reel over beats. I’m DJ-ing that stuff anyway. I’ve just put together a Celtic club compilation featuring some amazing things coming out of Scotland and England. So, I feel maybe we’ve kind of done that.
For me, the area unexplored on Volume 1 and Volume 2 are the African elements. I’m the first to admit that we never really entered into N’Faly [Kouyate]’s language in the past like we have on this album. I really wanted to have big African vocals this time around. It’s what drew me to the Baaba Maal and Manu Dibango stuff I was producing earlier on. Also, on Volume 1, there really aren’t any songs. "Inion" isn’t a song. It’s a verse over a dubby ambient track. We sort of stumbled into songwriting territory on Volume 2 on tracks like "Release" and "Amber." But even those aren’t conventional songs.
I come from a songwriting background. That’s what a lot of English folk music is about and same with the best spirit of English pop music. I wanted to write some great songs, so we did. They were very instrumental in a way. I wasn’t resisting or fighting that to be honest. "When You’re Falling" was something that came together at the last minute when Peter [Gabriel] said he’d sing it. We didn’t really think it would make the album. It was sort of on the C-list as a possible album track. When it was written, we felt it was a remote possibility that it would make the album. You know, ultimately, a good Afro Celts album takes you on a voyage and you feel at the end that you’ve had a taste of many, many horizons and landscapes—different aspects of musical geographies and territories. I think we’ve met the challenge and achieved that on this album in a coherent way.
Describe your favorite moments on the new album.
My two favorite tracks are "Go On Through" and "Onwards." "Go On Through" is just a brilliant song. Heather Nova came up with the lyrics and melody. She’s not singing it, but we’re going to do a version of it with her vocal. The song has a simplicity to it. Pina [Kollar]’s voice is just remarkable. She’s got an ability and way of singing that’s completely self-contained. Maybe people like Nick Drake and certain other English folk singers could have done it. But Pina has this way of singing where she’s just singing to herself. She’s not singing to an audience. She’s not trying to impress anyone. It’s very much insular. "Onwards" is another one I like for its simplicity.
You produced the first two albums. I understand the new disc is much more of a band production.
Yes, very much so. In fact, James McNally was responsible for most of the backing tracks. He worked very, very hard. Martin [Russell] did too. Basically, it was Martin, James and myself, and then Iarla [O’Lionaird] would come in at points and provide vocal and lyrical ideas. He’d comment on the arrangements and things, but basically it was the three of us producing it with input from Iarla. To kind of get "When You’re Falling" and "Life Begin Again" to the finish involved two engineers who wanted production credits, so Steve Hague is down as a co-producer for those too. We’d think "We’ve got an eight minute song and it’s a bit unwieldy. Does it justify the length or should it come down to four minutes?" Or "We have a four minute idea. Can it develop into a longer journey?" We’ve also developed a kind of band language now which I think really comes through on the record.
Does it trouble you that you’re constantly pegged as the leader and mastermind of the band?
It does. It’s utterly, utterly unfair and untrue now. I mean, at the beginning I was, but no, I’m not anymore. What I want to do in the Afro Celts is play guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and write songs. I’m sick of being seen as the leader and mastermind. The best thing I did with the Afro Celts was stand back after Volume 2 and let Martin and James come forward. James never gets the credit he deserves, but he did a huge amount of work on this album. I went over on holiday in the middle of the summer to Brittany for two or three weeks and James was in the studio working on the tracks. If anything, James is the driving creative force within the band. Certainly, he is musically. He’s a phenomenal musician. He plays whistle, accordion, bodrhan and piano. He’s a master of all those. Without James, the band would be completely different and wouldn’t exist as it does.
The same goes for Iarla. If Iarla hadn’t come up with the lyrics for "Life Begin Again," Robert Plant wouldn’t have sung it. So, I think we’re much more of a group and collective now. That’s not false modesty either. That’s reality. It really pisses the other band members off that it’s constantly called "Simon Emmerson’s Afro Celt Sound System." Yeah, okay, for Volume 1, that was the case, but if I was left running the band, we’d still be playing alternative festivals for the Green movement and the kind of East London anarchist collectives. And we would have sold 10 percent of the records we have. Further, we’d be driving around in a beat-up truck. [laughs] That’s the truth of it. It really was the drive of people like James and Iarla that persuaded me we could take things further.
O’Lionaird told Innerviews "The last album was very constantly coming at you. Maybe that was out of fear that we wouldn’t get it right. I would say we tried to pack everything into every track—maybe too much."
I think that’s a very valid comment. There are tracks on Volume 2 that I find quite naïve and flat now. They don’t really have the power, strength and depth of Volume 3. I think Volume 2 was the difficult album really. It was a nightmare for me. With this album, we weren’t under the same amount of time pressure.
Why was there an inordinate amount of time pressure when creating Volume 2?
You’re always under time pressure to complete an album. The cycle of rock bands is you release an album, promote it, gig, come off the road, have a break and then spend three to six months writing the new album, it comes out, and the rest starts again. It’s like crop rotation. [laughs] Real World really wanted us to deliver a record. The feeling was that Volume 2 was a year late as it was. If we had released it a year earlier, we would have picked up a lot more fans. The album was also a nightmare because I was producing the record and I was a band member. It was completely schizophrenic.
As a record producer, there are certain stages you go through when making the record. There’s the panic just before you mix. There’s pre-mix panic that what you’ve done is not going to work or what you’ve written is crap. There’s mid-album lethargy. You know, I could write a book on it. I’ve made a lot of records and as a record producer you have to stand outside the process and push the band forward. When there are collective lows, you have to bring everyone up. When there are collective highs, you kind of join in and get the inspiration and energy on tape. Being in the energy and being part of the band psychology and also having to stand outside it and be the producer is a nightmare. It was really, really difficult. The new record is effectively a band production, so I could stand back and take more time off from it. It worked very well for me.
What are the unique challenges involved in producing the Afro Celts?
In order to make an Afro Celts track, you have to combine a lot of elements. You’ve got guitar, harp, kora and mandolin. So, you have these stringed instruments, and then you have whistles, pipes and the bodrhan. Then you add talking drums and keyboards. And that’s before you’ve introduced vocals. [laughs] So, you’ve got a little sort of symphonic narrative going on before you’ve even started thinking about arranging. As we mature as a band, you’ll find that there’s more space and more subtlety. Eventually, we’ll do an acoustic album because I think we can get the same energy and power now without drum machines.
If the band does well in the pop world with this album, is a follow-up acoustic album a realistic possibility?
It is. We can do what we want. One thing about Real World and Peter Gabriel is that they really respect the autonomy of the artist. Ironically, for this album, we turned around to the record company and said "Look, we want you to get involved. We want your A&R input." [laughs] We wanted an industry strategy. If you’re going to make a record and it’s gonna work and be a major success, you can’t just sit back and do what you want to do, deliver it and put it out. It was Amanda [Jones] who’s the head of Real World Records who picked up on "When You’re Falling" and played it for Peter Gabriel. So all credit due to her. That’s one example of record company intervention that can be very positive.
When you’re working with a record company and have a good rapport, input can be very important. I’ve spent all my life working in the punk ethic and standing up against record companies and all the rest of it. But at the end of the day, to make a record really happen, you have to listen to advice. The people involved with the Afro Celts are very, very good. I have a lot of respect for Real World Records, here, and in America. The Afro Celts are still an open book. It’s still a vehicle for us to express our own, different creative intentions. If we want to do an acoustic record or a remix album, I think the avenues will be there.
Given that the band solicited Real World’s input, one assumes it wasn’t satisfied with the level of success achieved to date.
I’m extremely satisfied with the level of success we’ve had in America. [laughs] That’s in a different league to the rest of the world. Our main record sales are in America by far. The thing about America is you have things like public access and radio. People also take the Internet seriously there. So, there are enough outlets for bands like the Afro Celts. In Britain, it’s hopeless. We were nominated for a Grammy and there wasn’t a single music paper in Britain that wrote about it. There’s only one music TV show in Britain and it’s impossible to get on. In the rest of Europe, we get marginalized as an obscure world music act on an obscure label called Real World run by an obscure world musician called Peter Gabriel.
We’re right outside the limits of music industry priorities. But that’s kind of changing because we’ve sold a half-million records. The second album sold more than the first and that just doesn’t happen in the music industry anymore. You know, record sales talk. So, people are having to take stock of the Afro Celts and I’m proud of that really. It’s very hip and fashionable to go on about the death of the music industry and live music and "Where have all the live bands gone?" But the fact is when the bands do come along, they don’t get the industry support they deserve. We have been supported loyally by Real World and a couple of people at Virgin, but in America, they just go for it. They love the band and see a huge market for us. It’s been very refreshing and extraordinary as I’ve spent the last 15 years making records I’m very proud of with great bands which didn’t get played on radio here because there aren’t any outlets.
It goes without saying that the North American market has major hurdles too.
True. We lost a huge amount of money touring America and Canada two years ago. It was a one month tour that turned into a massive financial liability. It’s basically kept us in a poverty trap since. That’s the degree of commitment we show to gigging. We’re not a four piece band. We take 12 to 14 people on the road to do the first stage touring circuit which is playing to 300 to 800 people. That means we have to put a huge amount of our money into it which can only be paid back through record sales. The results have been very positive. When we went back the second time, we sold out the House of Blues in Los Angeles. But it’s been very, very difficult. We’ve all made the commitment to the band. But when we come back to America we’ll have to ensure we don’t lose the same degree of money. At the same time, we want to put on a better show and get into the multimedia element by improving the visuals and backgrounds. It’s a tough thing to do without massive tour support.
Take me through the making of "Colossus." I found the seamless transformation from live percussion to a drum loop in the first minute particularly fascinating.
That’s what we call the magic of morphing. It’s a morphing alchemy where in one minute you’re in a folk club and the next minute you’re at a techno rave. It’s something that comes from DJ culture when you’re mixing two records together. It’s also something that comes out of bands like Underworld. You listen to an Underworld record and it’s incredible the voyage you go on. The actually mechanics of "Colossus" are that we get a groove that we like and inspires us. Then James gets a group of percussionists like Johnny Kalsi, our dhol player, and Hossam Ramzy, an Egyptian percussionist, and Pete Lockett, who’s a multi-instrumentalist. So, there’s four of them all sitting around and playing over the grooves where you’ve got a basic tempo and key. Then you take it up maybe eight or 16 bars, or maybe just one bar of the groove. Then you incorporate that into the rhythm track and it’ll give you ideas for keyboard parts. Then I’ll come along and play a guitar line.
Quite often, it’s at that point James will write the melody. You quite often can hear melody in rhythm tracks. The process of inspiration is weird. It’s like those pictures you look at and they’re flat, then suddenly you see a three-dimensional object in it. Whether it’s a tune or top line and you’re kind of half-way there, there’s always a massive set of ingredients. It can take weeks or months to sort out. Normally, I’d do it with Martin, but we got Mass—a brilliant programmer—for this record. He’s very strong on grooves and beats. He spent weeks mixing and matching beats and often taking bodrhan parts, processing them and turning them into drum loops. It’s something you can do now with MIDI technology and computers.
At some point, we’ll all get together and have a listen. We generally agree on arrangement ideas because we’ve got our model of playing live. It’s our prototype. We’ll sit there and think "How would we do this live? How will we build this up live? At what point will the main melody kick in? At what point will we break it down?" And that’s how we wrote "Colossus." It’s a very joyful experience. I guess there are lots of metaphors you can use. I’m really into cooking. When I first started cooking, I would over-flavor everything and reach for the spice rack and want to put everything in. Eventually, you start to understand the effect of individual spices and create space for flavors and tastes. I like Indonesian and Thai meals compared to English "meat and two-veg." I think what you’ve got on a track like "Colossus" is an incredible mix of spices and tastes, but they’re all there in their own space.
Would you call the process composition or construction?
It’s both really. I think the construction is incredibly important. A track like "Colossus" could have just been the reel. It could have been the track we really fell over too. It could have been this album's "Whirly-Reel." You know, "Oh, here we go again—here comes the fast tune over some beats." But Iarla heard it and said we needed to get the fiddle player from Altan because they come from the Donegal West Ireland tradition which is very percussive and aggressive. James was really up for it and he played brilliantly. I wanted to put in some African guitar because I love it. By that point, I’d just got a bouzouki and wanted to play it too. So, things are a lot more guitar-driven. I think there were enough elements there to construct something that was "Whirly"-free if you like. [laughs] The composition side is important too because it has to be a great tune. If it’s a bland Irish tune, it’ll sound naff no matter how strong the construction or groove are. If it’s just one of those off-the-shelf Irish Tourist Board reels, it’s not going to work. Again, James never really gets the credit he deserves for his tune writing. He writes fantastic tunes and top lines.
You often use the words "alchemy" and "magic" to describe the Afro Celts music and effect on people. Elaborate on that choice of words.
It’s convenient to use those words because everyone nods and goes "Yeah, right, I get it"—especially since 50 percent of our audience is old hippies. [laughs] On the other hand—not to be totally flippant here—there is something in the band that is completely and utterly magical and beyond an immediate grasp. There’s something there like a mystery tradition that we’re constantly questing and reaching out for. Every time we try to get it, it kind of eludes us. That’s something you get in a lot of Celtic culture. I think a lot of the great musical traditions are mystery traditions that don’t state the obvious. I think we all feel that there’s a kind of practical magic going on in the band. The fact that we’ve got this far really and achieved what we have is extraordinary. It’s difficult talking about it in Western terms because you end up sounding like a pretentious old hippie, which of course, I am. [laughs] We haven’t really got the language or culture to talk about it in any meaningful way.
I’d love to have some beautiful, poetic prose to describe what we do, but the music does it. There’s something behind the Afro Celts that really evades description. I think that’s what gives it its beauty. There’s a lot of metaphors and stories we could use to describe it. There’s a great story one of Baaba Maal’s musicians told me about how the ancestors come back through musical instruments because the language of words is the language of power. It’s open to corruption and control, but music as a form is much closer to the spirit world. I think the Afro Celts are deeply rooted in a magical condition. I know that because things could so often go wrong and degenerate into chaos. People think we go down to the studio, sit in a circle and hold hands and channel this amazing music. It’s not like that at all. It’s like any kind of quest. It’s incredibly difficult and fraught. At times you feel like you’re getting closer to the edge of madness than you are to beauty. I think the track "North" really gets to the sense of collective madness of the band. [laughs] I find it very difficult to talk about my own spirituality, much less the band’s. We generally don’t talk about it. I think the best spirituality is the one that you walk and don’t talk.
Let’s discuss the multitude of vocalists on the new record. The band really adhered to the idea of a sound system this time around.
That’s right. It’s kind of normal for me when you look at a band like Leftfield or Soul II Soul. People must remember that we are a sound system. They really don’t have sound systems in America, but as a kid, I’d see sound systems and wouldn’t expect to see a band. You’d see a show with a DJ, guest musicians and a string of guest singers. It’s similar to the Jamaican tradition in which you have a toaster who comes on with a couple of singers. I think if people were more familiar with that tradition, they wouldn’t be so concerned with us having different singers. I don’t have a problem with all the singers. I like albums with guest singers. Some of my favorite bands work that way—take Massive Attack for example. No-one turns around and says "Massive Attack, why do you have all these different singers?" Yes, Iarla is the singer of the Afro Celts and he’s irreplaceable. I write music for Iarla. I don’t write music for other singers, but collaborations are fantastic.
The first band I was in was called Working Week back in ’82. It was kind of a soul-jazz band with Robert Wyatt, Tracey Thorn and a Chilean singer named Claudia Figueroa. Our first record was called Working Nights. It charted over here, but was never released in America because we were too political and multicultural. You can trace the history of the Afro Celts through me back to the early ‘80s when there was a lot of experimentation going on. There were a lot of sound systems with guest singers. But the Afro Celts do have a main singer which is Iarla.
I find it weird that people are asking me "Why isn’t Iarla singing in English on this record?" He is. He’s singing "Persistence of memory." In fact, he’s done his first full English lyric song. I guess because we have Peter Gabriel, Pina and Robert Plant on the record, people haven’t focused in on that track which is a shame, because I think it’s extraordinary. Iarla comes from a Sean Nos tradition of unaccompanied Irish language singing and he’s making massive breaks by first joining a band and then coming through and singing in English, and then writing songs for Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant. He sat there and said "I think this will sound better if Peter sings it. I don’t think it will be strong enough as it stands with my voice singing in English." He said the same thing about the Robert Plant track. Initially, he was quite skeptical, but he thought if we could get that really soaring kind of voice that the track would work. I think it shows a real understanding and maturity on his behalf.
I think "Go On Through" sounds brilliant with Pina singing it. That choice of female vocal makes a profound difference. It’s a real woman’s song. All the women I know love the song. The only other singer that gets close to that is Macy Gray maybe. In Pina’s quiet and tender moments, she sings directly to women. And I was quite worried about the record for a moment. There’s cellist we work with called Rosie who does all of the organized string sections for us—although we do all the arrangements. She was saying she found Volume 1 a very feminine record with a lot of feminine energy. She said Volume 2 was much more masculine. She was worried that we were losing the feminine side. The Afro Celts have a huge following with women—about 50 or 60 percent of our audience. They obviously identify with the band. So, I was concerned this album would end up full of confident, strong, masculine dance music. But there are moments like "Go On Through," "Onwards" and "Persistence of Memory"—all four of the last tracks really—that very much reclaim the feminine side.
You’re likely to be hit with some criticism for including Gabriel and Plant on the record. What’s your stock reaction going to be?
My stock reaction is "Fuck off! You try and write a song for Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant!" [laughs] I mean, for fuck’s sake! I don’t come from the Peter Gabriel or Robert Plant fan club. Far from it. But they’re two musicians who I have a huge amount of respect for, both as people and musicians. I’m not saying that sycophantically either. I’m very, very proud of the work we’ve done with them. I think in some ways, the Afro Celts can’t win. We spent the last two albums accused of being "file them under obscure, but worthy," and now we’ve come up with some great tracks that really suit their voices which they thoroughly enjoyed singing. Remember, we wrote those songs. Now, people are turning ‘round and saying "Oh, they’re copping out." You can’t win. What do you think?
You said it yourself: you’ve established yourselves as mavericks. It’s possible there will be some backlash, regardless of how good the tracks are.
But isn’t it maverick to work with them? I mean, sure, we could have got a reggae singer or someone from the world music section. But Afro Celts and Robert Plant? That’s absolutely maverick! Afro Celts and Peter Gabriel, fair enough. But Afro Celts and Peter Gabriel doing an ironic pop song? Yeah, I think we’ll get a bit of criticism, but on the other hand, they are good tracks. They wouldn’t have gone on the record if they weren’t good. I’m just amazed that we’ve done it to be honest. That’s all I can say. This time last year, we didn’t really think we’d get either of them on the record, let alone have them even listening to the songs. It’s a huge achievement. We may get some radio play in America as a result, but not here. I doubt if we’ll get any radio play here. I think that’s probably quite a good thing to be honest because it keeps us level-headed and angry and bitter. [laughs] That’s very important.
You were once a member of Scritti Politti during the early days. I understand you initially met up with them at a Martin Carthy gig. An odd pairing indeed.
Remember, they weren’t a synth-pop band back in ’78. They were Leeds art students and political punks. It turns out we were all Martin Carthy fans. So, I turned up at a gig and there was this little group of punks in the corner. We were kind of giving each other dirty looks most of the gig. Martin Carthy was sitting there looking terrified. [laughs] Then, at the end, we got chatting. And I was in Camden Town and they were just ‘round the corner. One of the great things about London is the eclecticism. You’ve got this kind of openness which I also kind of find in San Francisco too. I love West Coast hip-hop—Michael Franti and all those people. East Coast hip-hop is a different thing altogether.
Describe your relationship to British Isles folk and folk-rock like Carthy, Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch.
As a kid, I went on the Forest School Camps from the age of six. They were the prototype Green awareness camps that started in the ‘20s and ‘30s as an alternative to the Boy Scouts. During that time, I was brought up with the Martin Carthy and Christy Moore songbooks. I’m utterly steeped in the English folk tradition. I can do English folk dances. The English folk tradition is great. It’s not like the Irish folk tradition which is more about people getting pissed in pubs and going off on holiday together. I think English folk is brilliant actually. I would maintain that everyone should go out and get an album called Knock John by Chris Wood and Andy Cutting. That’s one of the greatest folk albums of the last 10 years. Then you’ve got Ian Carr, a producer who is also a phenomenal guitarist. My relationship to that music is the same as with reggae and jazz. It’s music I’ve been brought up with.
What sort of reaction have the Afro Celts generated from people like Carthy?
I still go to his gigs and he’s very supportive. He’s a fantastic bloke. The British folk scene is great. Everyone’s low-key and friendly. They give each other a lot of support. You haven’t got the kind of aggressive, hustling edge of the Irish folk scene. And there are some great alternative English folk bands out there making beats and grooves like Knights of the Occasional Table. They’ve even done some mixes of Martin Carthy. There’s also the Headmix Collective. I just DJ-ed with them in Brighton at the Big Beat Boutique. That scene is great. English folk music is much more open. That goes for a lot of the Nordic folk musicians too. To be honest, I think the Irish-Celtic hegemony has been there for too long and has really held back a lot of important experimentation that’s been going on in European folk music. I’m much more interested in the music going on in Eastern Europe. There’s this amazing new wave of Gypsy music which is part pagan and punky. There’s a general resurfacing of roots music and ancestral music. I think the ancestral memories are coming back, it just happens to be interpreted through machines and MIDI gear. I think it’s essential. Without that, you’re really in danger of falling into aspects of racism and ethnic cleansing. I think it’s very important for people to have a strong sense of their own ancestral memories in the broadest sense.
You’ve included a more evolved version of the Noodle software as a bonus element on the new CD. The program enables users to create their own mixes of "Colossus." Discuss your attraction to interactive media.
Noodle is one of the reasons I was drawn to Real World. They helped pioneer interactive media. I loved some of the CD-ROMs Peter Gabriel came up with like Xplora. We were just very lucky to be on a label where they’ve designed this amazing musical engine called Noodle. I think Noodle is responsible for a fair percentage of the sales of Volume 2. A lot of people wrote to us to tell us they bought it because of the game—because they’d been around someone’s house playing it. With Noodle, you get to see how we made the songs. You’ll sit down and suddenly realize "So that’s how they got that drum beat to morph after the percussion groove." So, it’s kind of a demystifying process. I hope people enjoy it.
I think the conventional medium of the CD will disappear in the next 10 years. We as producers have to start looking at new forms of expressing ourselves. I’m very interested in surround sound and DVD. I think the Afro Celts are crying out for surround mixes. The music we make is busting out of the stereo picture constantly. When we made "North," we were constantly trying to get the music to wrap around your head. A couple of times we’ve heard surround mixes like on the DVD by Underworld of their live show. It’s fantastic. And we are the band that was made for that medium. I’d like to do a DVD where you go right back to N’Faly’s village and meet his mother—you’d actually go into his ancestral history. Yet, on the other hand, it would be via this cutting edge technology.
I don’t consider it at all surprising that the first interview I’ve done for Volume 3 happens to be with Innerviews. I think it’s normal and it’s all part and parcel of this new world. The Afro Celts are kind of the musical backdrop for the global village. We’re a band providing music for the village as opposed to music accompanying the globalization of the village. It’s a fun process.