Introducing: Mansion of Snakes
Before their show at the Sunday Joint this weekend, we asked possibly Leeds’ finest afrobeat band, Mansion of Snakes, if they fancied a chat. Greg and Ben got back to us to talk us through their group.
There are 11 of you in the band. Where did you all meet? Did you come together as friends or out of necessity to start the band?
Greg: We all knew each other at music college and many of us had played together before in different projects. A mate of ours needed a band for his night: Bold as Brass, so we made some phone calls and got some material ready for the gig.
Ben: Yeah, Dan who runs Bold As Brass asked me for some recommendations for bands for a gig he was putting on and none of them were available. I told him I’d been working with an afrobeat band so he booked us on the gig. Truthfully, the band didn’t exist in anything other than pub chat at this point but we made some calls, rehearsed and did the gig.
With so many of you in the band, do you ever find yourselves at crossed purposes, or is it quite a well oiled machine?
G: Nothing has ever come up. We all have ideas and opinions but to say we are a well oiled machine is a bit of a stretch! Logistically it can be a nightmare.
B: I think I’ve shaved a few years off my life with the stress of trying to sort gigs and rehearsals with this band. Musically, we’re all on the same page but it can be hard to pin people down because everyone is involved in so many other great creative projects. Everyone’s ideas and influences make for a good mixing pot.
Your Facebook description gives a strange summary of the sounds you make. How did you come to make this sort of music, which might more generically be called afrobeat? What were you listening to growing up?
B: Most of us were playing a lot of background jazz gigs and a lot of weddings so I think we needed the release of a band like Mansion of Snakes. We needed to make original, creative music that also makes people freak out and dance. One of the reasons for forming Mansion of Snakes was through a mutual love of Fela Kuti, but as with any large ensemble, there are so many other influences brought in. The music we play is pretty far removed from traditional afrobeat.
Growing up I was listening to a lot of punk and new-wave and a lot of jazz – The Clash, Talking Heads, Misfits, The Birthday Party, John Coltrane, 60s and 70s Miles Davis. Then, I discovered these British bands like Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland and Led Bib who were combining the two and it blew my mind! Pete Wareham, the guy who formed Acoustic Ladyland has an amazing new band called Melt Yourself Down. We played with them at The Brudenell recently. It was such an intense show.
G: Just love for that style of music and the other genres/artists who have sampled and were influenced by it. When I was younger I used to listen to Fat Freddy’s Drop, Funkadelic, The Who, James Brown, The Herbaliser.
If I may play devil’s advocate for a moment: How do you feel as a group of white guys imitating an African sound? Or is that an unfair question? Last week I was thinking about how the Awesome Tapes From Africa label releases old African cassette releases digitally and on vinyl – some say it’s cultural appropriation.
G: As a sound it’s something that we all like. As musicians, there are lots of other sounds we like too and we express them through Mansion of Snakes and other projects alike. Of course, there’s more to afrobeat than just the sound – it was a platform and catalyst for social change and revolution in incredibly unjust societies. It’s something that we are all aware of – it’s important to know the cultural context behind all music.
B: I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot and it is definitely something we need to consider in Mansion of Snakes. What Greg said about having an awareness of the social context is vital. Like I said before, we’re not really playing traditional afrobeat but anything we have borrowed, consciously or subconsciously, has been done with a respect and love for the original music.
Do you think live dance music works better than going to see DJs for a more prolonged period of time? Having seen your live shows, I can say they are a pretty intense workout.
G: Our shows do tend to get sweaty. But live music and DJs both have their place and can compliment one another well on nights out/festivals.
B: I suppose I usually prefer to see live bands, but I’m not ranking one above the other. David Bryne wrote a great book called How Music Works and he talks a lot about how music needs to fit the space in which it is being experienced. Sometimes a DJ is a better fit than a band, sometimes the other way around. I’m glad you thought our shows were intense, that’s what we’re going for.
How has Leeds influenced what you do?
B: The cost of living has definitely been an influence. The less you have to work the more music you can make. The beer prices have also made a lasting impression on me. I remember seeing bands like The Haggis Horns, Ikestra and Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra when I first came to Leeds and really wanting to be in band like that. That probably planted some of the seeds for Mansion of Snakes. I really respect the DIY scene in Leeds too. Places like Chunk and Wharf Chambers are doing great things.
G: Yes – there are things happening all the time in Leeds, and there are a lot of talented individuals here too.
Your music always seems to have a funny title – you choose not to take it too seriously. Does your music come with a message or do you just try to achieve a bodily or instrumental language, so to speak?
G: We like to enjoy ourselves, but that’s not to say we don’t take it seriously. We want the audience to dance and enjoy the show as well.
B: We just want people to booty shake and be nice to each other.
Have you had encounters with HiFi before?
G: We’ve seen lots of bands and attended lots of events at HiFi and some of us have already played there.
B: Yeah we used to go to HiFi like, every week. We’ve been dancing there since the Red Stripe was cheap and we’ve all played there in various different projects. The place is an institution.
What plans do you have in the near future? Do you think the sound will alter in any way?
G: We love playing shows and we want to record some more tracks so we’re currently getting some stuff together. We are also starting to work with a vocalist, so that’ll be something different for us to do.
B: The sound is always altering. I think we’re still finding our feet to be honest, and it could take a lot more writing and gigging before we have a really solid sense of what our sound is. We’ve got some music coming up with a singer and we’re trying to find a time to get into the studio.