One of the very best shows at last month’s Fuji Rock Festival was The Very Best, an electronic dance act built around the beats of Johan Hugo, formerly of the production duo Radioclit, and the vocals of Malawi musician Esau Mwamwaya. During their performance on the White Stage their hype man/rapper, Mo-Laudi, was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Africa is the future” written across the chest. Musically, at least, that’s true, and it’s the past, too. No one challenges the idea that almost all pop music we care about was born in Africa, and if The Very Best proved anything with their late afternoon set it’s that African forms are what it’s all about. The chanting style of the group’s first hit, “Julia,” set the standard. With every break beat Hugo set up the crowd would explode in a frenzy of good feeling. “Are you happy,” Esau would ask, stating the obvious. What else is African music supposed to accomplish except making people happy? It’s such an elementary concept that the music already starts from a position of power.
Earlier in the day I caught up with Johan and Esau at the Prince Hotel and we talked.
-So when did you get here?
JH: I got here yesterday afternoon. Esau got here at 2 am last night.
-You flew from Malawi?
EM: Malawi, South Africa, Hong Kong, then here.
JH: He was in Hong Kong for 36 hours.
JH: He was supposed to get here two days before me.
EM: We missed the connection in South Africa. The flight had some technical problems, so it was delayed four hours. It messed up the connection.
EM: South African.
-And you came from London?
JH: Came from London. We were supposed to go via Hong Kong, too, but we got taken off just before we were about to fly because the connecting flights weren’t allowed to leave due to a typhoon in Hong Kong. So we had to wait around in London for a bit and then they put us on a direct flight, which is good. We got here earlier than expected and with six hours less travel time.
-You’re not in London for the Olympics.
JH: I’ll be going back and I’ll be there for a few days and then we leave on an American tour. I live right in front of the arena.
-Is it a pain in the neck?
JH: I’m sure it will be. I wouldn’t mind being there for the opening ceremony, because I could watch it from my balcony. I’m literally the closest building to the arena. It would have been fun for that and then go away. It might be fun for a day or two. But it would be awful to be there the whole time, especially where I live. We won’t be able to get around much, I think.
-Is this your first time in Japan?
JH: Back when I was with Radioclit I always thought we would play Japan. There were talks about it a few times, like when we went to Australia, but with Esau we always run up against a million visa things. Every place needs a visa for him. So a lot of times, to apply for two or three visas at the same time it takes too long, so we have to pick our places. It’s always been unfortunate we couldn’t make it over here.
-How long did it take to get a Japan visa?
EM: A week, approximately.
JH: It was fast.
EM: It was supposed to be faster.
JH: Fuji Rock was smooth as well. Everything was just perfect paperwork.
EM: But when I handed in my papers there was something wrong, not enough information. But once I gave it, it was just one week, Monday to Monday.
-Japanese authorities are usually OK, as long as you give them everything they want and have never been busted for drugs.
JH: Oh yeah?
-Every couple of years Public Enemy comes for a festival gig or concert and just before they arrive they announce Flava Flav can’t make it because of visa problems. It’s a joke. He was busted for drugs once and so, of course, immigration never approves his visa, but they always go through the motions.
EM: That’s funny.
-But they’ll let Paul McCartney in, even though he was actually busted for pot in Japan.
JH: Really? (laughs)
-He was in jail here for a few days. But now they let him in.
JH: It depends on who you are.
-And who you know.
EM: Eric Clapton, too, right?
-Yeah, he comes every few years and plays, like, 800 shows.
JH: That’s great.
-You have your own visa problems, right? You can’t be in London any more.
EM: For the time being.
-You met in London. What were you doing at the time?
EM: I was running a shop.
-What kind of shop?
EM: It was a junk shop. (laughs)
JH: He sold everything in there. It was fascinating. You’d walk by there in the morning, have a little chat, and someone would come by with a truck and give him some beat-up old cupboard with a massive hole in the side. And you’d come back later in the afternoon and he would have sold it for 40 quid. I couldn’t believe who was buying all these things.
EM: A lot of times things look like shit, but you never know who might want it. There’s always somebody.
-Were you involved with music at the time?
EM: Not really.
-But you did play music in Malawi.
EM: Yes, professionally, for four years. I was in a band. I was playing drums at the time.
-So did you make an offer to him, or did he approach you with regards to working together?
JH: When Etienne from Radioclit, who’s not in the band any more, bought a bike from Esau he invited him to party, and that’s where I met him for the first time. We got talking, and he said he was a drummer. I invited him to the studio. When he came, it wasn’t the kind of drumming we were looking for, but he started singing on one of the songs, one of the beats I played for him. So that’s how we started, basically. It was pretty random. But we used to meet a lot of people over time in general, just like that. They say they play an instrument, and we’d say come by for an hour. Esau was one of the few where it really stuck.
-Had you been doing African styles in Radioclit?
JH: We were dabbling with a lot of African influences, and worked with Buraka Som Sistema at the time and their old singer Petty. So we had done things, but there was never a plan to do something properly, or go find a singer. It was completely not something we were expecting, even when we started working together. It took a good half year before we realized we were working on an album.
-Were you listening to electronic music?
EM: Yeah, I knew about electronic music when I was in Malawi, but not that much. At the time in Malawi there were no electronic bands. Practically speaking it was difficult, though we heard a lot of European electronic bands doing African music. It was weird, becasue when we started working together it was something I had never been used to, but I quickly picked it up.
-What made it easy to pick up?
EM: Well, for me it’s all about melody. African music is all about melody in general. And I found out that Johan is also really good at coming up with melodies. That’s why we could collaborate so smoothly. If the music has no melody, I find it hard to work with.
-I imagine probably 90 percent of people feel the same way.
JH: Except for a few rappers, maybe. (laughs) Once in a while we’ll have a track or a beat that’s centered on drums, and it’s really cool but it’s also hard to start something from that. What fascinated me about Esau was the fact that we were making quite dark beats and instrumentals and he always manages to put a major key positive spin, melodically, over whatever I give him. And that’s where we clicked. He interpreted what we had done in a way that we would never have come up with by ourselves, but it still completely blew my mind. And I think it was the same for him, there was an equal measure of enthusiasm for what came out.
-A lot of people obviously felt the same. Did all those guests contact you, or did you approach them?
JH: M.I.A. we had known for years, and she was in the studio recording something else with us, a track that we did with her and Santigold. At the same time we were working on the “Rain Dance” track and she heard it and wanted to sing on it. With Ezra (Koenig of Vampire Weekend) we also knew them from before as well, because we tried to produce their first album before they had a record deal. We cut demos for them. We met with them in New York a couple of years earlier. So that relationship was already there. That’s usually the case. We never go out and try to find people. Though we did try to get Phil Collins for the first album, but it didn’t work out. And every time we try to get someone–like we also tried to get Akon for the first album…but we’re not that big a band that we can succeed at that kind of thing. Every A&R rep is like, “Oh, I kind of like that, it’s different, but…” It’s always the same reception. So we just do what we want to do anyway. All the guest artists on the new album were people who just happened to come along while we were working on it.
-It was recorded in Malawi, right?
JH: The majority of it. We had sessions in New York six weeks before where we did a few tracks. A half year before that we spent a month in Sweden. And two tracks made it to the album from that. It was a process, songs in the pipeline, mostly production. Everyone who appears on the album had to come to Malawi during those six weeks. (laughs) It was mostly collaborations on things that had been lying around. It’s the way we do it: keep it organic. Whatever happens happens.
-Do you use session musicians a lot?
JH: On the new album we used a lot of musicians.
JH: No, the studio we were using didn’t have the capacity. It was mostly used for writing. After Malawi I had about three months in London producing everything we had done there, because in Malawi it was so much about writing the songs and getting the vocals right. So in London I could take my time on the production. A lot of the session musicians were recorded in New York. People like…uhh…
JH: Antibalas, right. They were on a lot of the tracks that didn’t make it to the album, actually. They added a lot of horns and guitars. There was also Angelique Kidjo’s drummer, Daniel Freedman. Seye, the guy who sings on “Kondaine,” who’s also here with us, he played pretty much every guitar part on the album. There were also producers like the guy from Buraka Som Sistema.
-How many members will you have on stage today?
JH: Four. Me, Esau, Seye, and Mo-Laudi, who’s also on the album and has kind of been our hype man/rapper for the last four or five years. South African guy.
-Since I don’t understand Chichewa, what are the songs about?
EM: It varies. Love, life. I kind of like nature, because of where I grew up. I prefer a more simple life, so those kinds of things get into the songs.
JH: Eventually, the lyrics in English will go up on the website, so you can see them there. Some of the stuff on the new album is more political, like “Yoshua.”
-You could tell that much from the context of the video, I suppose.
EM: That was the first time we ever did a political song like that.
-Was it awkward?
EM: (laughs) Not awkward, but…It was fun for me, but at the same time it was kind of sensitive. The guy who the song is about had just died.
-He was the president, right?
EM: He died just a week before the song was released. (laughs)
-So does it have something to do with the title of the album, which also seems to be a very sensitive topic.
JH: We still can’t talk about that.
-Is it illegal?
JH: No, no. Well, it’s…l don’t even know what it is.
EM: It’s sort of a political…
JH: No, don’t say it Esau, because we’re not allowed.
-Can you at least tell who told you not to explain the title?
JH: The label. It was the working title that we were using for a few years and literally at the last minute they said we had to change it, so we only used the initials, “MTMTMK.”
-Maybe you should have a contest.
JH: We are. Next week. People can make their own version of what the title means.
-What do they win if they get it right?
JH: A crazy jacket. (laughs) For me, it’s not that big a deal.
-But when you say that, of course, everybody wants to know.
JH: People will find out soon enough.