BY JONATHAN WINGATE
Simon Bartholomew, The Brand New Heavies’ guitarist, clearly doesn’t believe that you should never judge a book by its cover. The sleeve of TBNH, the band’s latest LP, shows Bartholomew and the band’s co-founder, bassist Andrew Levy, in the suitably glamorous surroundings of Annabel’s in Berkeley Square, Mayfair. “The cover really sums up the album perfectly,” Bartholomew explains with a boyish grin. “It’s a little bit clubby and sleazy, but it’s also luxurious and street.”
From the moment they first burst into the spotlight with their potent fusion of funk, soul, and jazz, The Brand New Heavies looked and sounded utterly unlike anyone else. Matching their flamboyant superfly style with hard-hitting dancefloor grooves and infectious tunes, they spearheaded the burgeoning Acid Jazz movement, blurring the lines between Chic and The JB’s. Their influences may have been quintessentially American, yet they emerged from the not-so-mean streets of Ealing before going on to chalk up 16 Top 40 singles and three million album sales.
“We wanted to be Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters, but we didn’t really see it as a career,” Levy recalls. “My dream was to be a sculptor, but we got offered a record deal instead. We were young kids from West London who went to the States with our flared trousers, but they really took to us immediately.
“I vividly remember the first time I went to New York. We went to an event in honour of Ray Charles at the Apollo in Harlem, and Stevie Wonder came over to us and started singing ‘Never Stop’, which was our first hit record over there. At the time, you don’t pause to really take it all in and realise just how incredible moments like that are.”
“We certainly didn’t invent the wheel, but we took our passion for funk back to the people in America who’d created it in the first place,” Bartholomew continues, taking a sip of champagne. “There’s a lot of love, passion, and positivity within us as people, and we try very hard to reflect that in our music. For us, it’s always been about our love of funk, dancing, and having a good time.”
February 2020: It’s a couple of hours before the band are due to take to the stage for their Boisdale of Canary Wharf debut, and there’s a palpable fizz of excitement in the air for what will be their most intimate hometown show in years. Their last few albums may have struggled to make much of an impression outside their fiercely loyal fanbase, yet the band’s popularity as a live draw has never waned.
Having recently released their best album since their 1990 debut, The Brand New Heavies sound like they have been given a new lease of life following the departure of drummer, Jan Kincaid, who originally formed the band with Bartholomew and Levy when they were still at school.
“When Jan left it really galvanised us, because we’ve been released from the shackles of someone who was never happy in the band,” Levy explains. “It was getting darker and darker. We went on tour to Brazil and I literally didn’t have one conversation with him. He emailed to inform us that he was quitting two weeks before we went on tour, and we knew that we’d be financially ruined if we cancelled, but we stood strong. People often underestimate us because we’re seen as the rock-star playboys who dance around and wear silly clothes, but we’re very serious about the band.
“Our music is actually very hard to play. It’s repetitive, and people think that repetition is easy, but to lock into a groove like ours is a lot harder than you realise. When we first started, we’d often play a groove for hours on end just to get all of the details right. We worked very much in the same way as James Brown – just jamming with a groove until you find the sweet spot. You have to have grown up dancing to this kind of music to try to emulate it. If a song doesn’t make me move, then I know it isn’t right.”
Fittingly, TBNH kicks off with ‘Beautiful’, a triumphant call to arms featuring the unmistakable voice of Beverley Knight belting out the lines: “We’re winners / We’re back to take it all”. Alongside their current lead singer, Angela Ricci, the album also features a glittering array of guests including former Heavies vocalists N’Dea Davenport and Siedah Garrett; soul queen Angie Stone; and Mark Ronson, the most in-demand record producer in the world.
“It all happened organically,” Levy remembers. “We just thought, ‘Who do we know? We’ll email them and send them a track.’ If I’m honest, there was a little bit of desperation. It’s terrible to admit it, but there was a childish, competitive element to prove that we could make a damn good record without Jan. It’s a comeback album, and we wanted people to really take notice. We knew they’d take notice if you’ve got people like Beverley Knight and Mark Ronson on it.”
“Mark asked us to play at his 40th birthday party four years ago, because he’s a massive fan of the band,” Bartholomew explains. “He told us we’d changed his life, because he was originally into rock and pop, and then he got into hip-hop and funk after he saw us play. We spent two years recording TBNH, and it’s a proper album, like a bowl of fruit rather than a pile of nuts and bolts. We’re really chomping at the bit right now, because we’ve still got so much that we want to achieve. Life is short.”
It may be 30 years since their debut album, but The Brand New Heavies appear to be more passionate about music than ever before: “Andrew and I have been best friends since nursery school, so we even have His’n’Hers bass and guitar towels. We might have been around for a long time, but in our minds, it feels really fresh and exciting now”.
While their musical influences may not have changed since they first started, they are acutely aware that the music business they emerged from is now a long way off in the rear-view mirror. “The days of selling millions of records are long gone for most artists,” Levy explains. “You used to make your money from record sales, whereas now you make an album so that you can tour.” Bartholomew adds, “I’m ashamed to admit it, but we really took our success for granted. At one point, we had a studio that was costing £1,000 a day. We were turning up at 1pm, we’d go for lunch, maybe get a massage, and then go to the cinema and come back and do some recording. If you had that opportunity now, you’d turn up half an hour before you were due to start. I don’t think we ever got too carried away with fame and the rock’n’roll lifestyle, mainly because we were always so busy. We did fewer drugs than most guys working in an office. We’re still down-to-earth Ealing boys at heart.”
Given the fractious and fearful times we are living in, The Brand New Heavies are convinced that their infectious brand of dance-floor escapism is exactly what the world needs right now. “We make music with a positive, upbeat message,” Andrew Levy says with a smile as he polishes off the last of his mojito. “When you’re on the dance-floor, you don’t want to think about Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump, or Brexit. You want to escape from reality.”
TBNH is out now on Acid Jazz Records. For UK tour dates, visit seetickets.com/tour/the-brand-new-heavies