Naveed Akhtar on the making of his excellent new album ‘The Place I’ve Always Known’
You can get a good idea of what kind of music UK producer Naveed Akhtar makes simply by looking at where it ends up. The Latin jazz of Agua Y Luz found its way onto Norman Jay’s Good Times 7, Tudo Ben was included in Mr Bongo's Brazilian Beats series and he’s appeared on comps from BBE and Phil Asher. This is that area of dance music where many influences cross over and genre definitions begin to sound like lists. Indeed, Akhtar himself calls the music he makes as Sasso as a "jazz, funk, Latin-ish kinda vibe with live musicians".
He’s released his tunes on his own Sing Sing Music imprint, remixed Mr Scruff and built up an entirely separate “purely electronic with more of a Detroit techno vibe to it” discography as Freak Seven. And most recently, he's put out his debut Sasso album, The Place I've Always Known, an eight-track collection that nods to 80s street soul, Minneapolis funk, Balearic chug, synth-pop, electronica, house and more. The Place… is a beguiling mix of electronics and live instrumentation that contentedly wanders across genre boundaries with aplomb.
We chatted with Naveed about putting an album of seemingly disparate tracks together and somehow making it work – as it does here – so well.
How did you get into making music in the first place?
"I grew up in the 70s in an area called Cheetham Hill in Manchester, just north of the city centre, and from a very early age I was surrounded by music. At home we always had music playing, the latest Indian and Pakistani songs by Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammad Rafi sent over from Pakistan. Then a few years later there was lots of music from the street on mixtapes blasting out from boomboxes. Electro, street soul, the beginnings of hip-hop. And then Chicago house and Detroit techno came about.
"I started to buy drum machines, sequencers, synths and samplers. For quite a few years it was just a passion, trying new equipment, learning music techniques, hearing Model 500's No UFOs and thinking how the fuck did he get that synth sound?! Back then there was no Wiki, Google or production masterclasses, you had to go and seek that knowledge out and just try stuff out.
"There was a magazine called Music Technology which was a great source of information. They ran interviews with Mantronik, Juan Atkins, Marshall Jefferson, Derrick May, A Guy Called Gerald, Prince Paul etc, and these guys would talk about the machines they were using. So you would hunt out those machines, the Roland x0x boxes, the Akai drum samplers, a reverb unit they might have used. It was an incredibly exciting time.
"Producing and writing music and then releasing on vinyl was a natural progression from that. For a few years music production was my main job but nowadays my day job is as an electrician – it has its ups and downs but can be quite rewarding!"
Obviously Manchester has a rich musical heritage: do you feel as though you’re part of it?
"Yeah, Manchester has a very rich musical heritage and I guess I've always felt part of it: as a spectator, as a participator, on the periphery sometimes and sometimes at the centre. Early on in my clubbing era, a friend of mine won tickets to go and see 808 State and The Spinmasters at The Boardwalk, and after the gig we went to The Haçienda. It was a first for me and the place was incredible – walking into the Nude night and hearing Public Enemy's Prophets Of Rage alongside Derrick May's The Dance alongside Jago's I'm Going To Go alongside Laurent X's Machines was a revelation.
"So yeah I definitely feel part of the Manchester music scene. And the great thing about Manchester, cos it's a relatively small place, connections can be made quickly, you can get to places easily. The support that other people give you, it makes you feel part of something. I went to a gig recently to see Ned Doheney, a small gig in the back of an old boozer and it's gigs like these that make Manchester so special for me. It's home and it's had a profound effect on my musical upbringing, not just the place but the people."
So tell us about how you approached creating this album – did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve?
"I never have a clear idea! I'd had a few years' break from doing music at any sort of serious level and I wanted to release a long-player. The only clear vision I had was that it needed to run as an album and not as a compilation of material that I'd written over different periods of time. It needed a cohesive sound, which I think I've managed to do by limiting the palette of sounds that I had at my disposal.
"I wrote the album in the space of about a year and kept my production tools quite sparse – one drum machine (Analog RYTM Mk2), one mono synth (DSI Pro 2), one sound module (Yamaha FS1R), a hardware sequencer and a very old version of Pro Tools on a G4 running OS 7! I've always felt that limiting your technology or creating limitations is great for creativity – you find workarounds, you explore, you try different things because you don't have everything at your fingertips. So I created my limitations by using only the aforementioned machines.
"Musically I didn't have a direction – grooves were started and then evolved. My earlier Sasso material was very jazzy and Latin-sounding, but this album isn’t at all like that. I guess that's because of where I am at the moment, musically speaking. Once I started to get basic grooves together it became a little clearer which direction I wanted to take the album down. I did about 15 tracks altogether and picked out the ones that worked best as an album – y'know, the ones that just felt 'right'."
How did you get so many different moods and genres to hang together cohesively?
"That really is a tough one to answer. I guess it’s difficult to explain a process that you don't think about when you're doing it! What I love about the long-player is that it gives you the freedom to step out of the box a little. Just a teaser, nothing too much, and then back again.
"Genre-wise I don't feel that the tracks are too dissimilar: there are common themes, chord voicings, similar bassline progressions. But I get what you're asking. On their own they can sound quite different but in the context of an album, a musical journey, I think they work. I think track order was very important. I tried out lots of different orders, hearing them on different systems, in the car, on my phone, a hi-fi and the final track order seemed to work the best. There's probably a science on track order with relation to key signatures, but that's above my musical knowledge!"
If you had to describe the music on this album, what would you say?
"A clandestine meeting of Compass Point and Wally Badarou at Pikes Hotel."
How do you feel about the album now it’s finished?
"Elated and humbled! The feedback that I've been getting is humbling – I never thought I'd get an email from A Certain Ratio's tour manager telling me they've been blasting the album on their tour bus across Europe. I'm quite surprised also at the range of people that the album has touched and I guess that's what any creative wants: to connect with someone at an emotional level through their art be it music, literature, film, poetry etc.
"I guess also a little sad that it's over and that I can't change anything on it or keep working the tracks, but that's a blessing also. People talk about being perfectionists about their art but it's not perfectionism, it's more like procrastination. There's always a fear that it won't be appreciated or liked, so you keep on working on it to make it better! I'm also looking forward to releasing a second album but that won't be till after a Freak Seven album."
Finally, tell us a musical secret about yourself…
"I played the trumpet when I was younger. Much younger."
Words: Harold Heath
The Place I've Always Known is out now via Bandcamp