WORDS: Alex Caslano
Great electronic albums take you on a journey, and when you press play on ‘Theory Of Flo’ there is no turning back. The second extended release from GlasGoan producer Brian d’Souza aka Auntie Flo is genuinely gripping. Listening to it almost feels like you’ve discovered a lost tape, a collection of songs that no one else has heard, unaffected by the commercialism and expectation of modern life – innocent, pure and deeply instinctive. The tribal drum patterns and native tongue deliver a unique experience, steeped in mystery and emotion. This should come as no surprise however, considering the album’s origins and its very unique compositional journey…
“It started almost two years ago in late December 2013” Brian tells us. “I wanted to move away from using computers for production so arranged a very simple hardware set-up in my flat. Over the course of a weekend, the main body of all the songs were written one after the other in a state of 'Flow', which is where the album title comes from.” Working closely with Highlife and touring partner Esa Williams afterwards, as well as vocal artists Anbuley and Shingai Shoniwa (lead singer of The Noisettes), the production process was blessed with some inspired session work, and it seems like Brian’s initial jams resonated with everyone. “I sent ten rough drafts to Anbuley thinking she might sing on two or three songs” he recalls, “we then brought her to our studio in London and when she arrived she said she'd written lyrics for all of them!!”
The production of ‘Theory Of Flo’ even crossed continents, with Brian, Esa and Shingai entering a recording session in Cuba after playing the inaugural 'Havana World Music Festival'. “We ended up playing three amazing shows in Havana to over 10,000 people” he tells us. “We hadn't rehearsed at all, so we just jammed out the two songs 'So In Love' and 'Dreamer' from the album.” In addition to 'Theory Of Flo', Brian and Esa have also worked with artists from Africa on their ‘Highlife World Series’, which is due to visit Brazil this December. “Over the past year Esa has really owned the World Series projects and he's totally in his element doing so” reflects Brian. “Watching him work in our recent trip to Uganda was really special: he knows how to bring out the best in the musicians he's working with to help them create something unique.”
All these influences, experiences and colourful collaborations have undoubtedly helped create something truly organic. From the pensive, mesmerising rhythm of album opener ‘Su La’ to the spiralling beauty of ‘Cape Malay Prayer’ and the enchanting ‘Waiting For A (Woman)’, the ‘Theory of Flo’ has been perfectly realised.
Listen to album tracks ‘So In Love’ and ‘Waiting For A (Woman)’ below, as well as Auntie Flo’s recent mix for Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide:
You can also read the full interview with Auntie Flo below, talking in depth about the production of ‘Theory Of Flo’, his relationship with Esa and Glasgow, and what comes next after such an involved project:
SynthGlasgow: It’s been three years since you released ‘Future Rhythm Machine’ and it seems like you’ve been on quite a journey since then. When did the process of writing a new album begin?
Auntie Flo: It started almost two years ago in late December 2013. ‘Future Rhythm Machine’ was very sample based and largely constructed on a laptop. I wanted to move away from using computers for production so arranged a very simple hardware set-up in my flat: MPC, my beloved Casio SA5 toy keyboard, Korg FX, Roland 606 and 727 drum machines. Over the course of a weekend, the main body of all the songs were written one after the other in a state of 'Flow', which is where the album title comes from. They were done in one take, recording one then moving onto the next in quick succession.
SynthGlasgow: Listening to and reading about ‘Theory Of Flo’, you get a real sense of culture and collaboration. What was it like channelling different influences and experiences into one coherent body of work?
Auntie Flo: After this two day writing period the whole process of collaboration began. ‘Future Rhythm Machine’ relied on samples but three years later I found myself in a position where I didn't need to use samples anymore as I could more easily collaborate with an array of very talented musicians. My first port of call was, of course, Esa Williams who I spend a lot of time DJ’ing and travelling with for our live set, but had not really produced with before. We had been talking to Anbuley about doing a follow up to ‘Daabi’ so it felt natural to bring her on board. Shingai Shoniwa's management had also been in touch to get us involved producing for her solo stuff so we were able to bring her in too. Poppy Ackroyd was an old Uni friend who is doing some amazing solo work as well as with the Hidden Orchestra; and I'd just finished a remix for Red Snapper, so Rich Thair from the band offered to record some live drums in return.
All these serendipitous connections made the album much broader in scope, but the challenge that ended up taking two years to complete was channelling these different voices into a coherent album that was still true to the original two day session. I think I made 2 or 3 completely different versions of the album before creating something I was happy with.
SynthGlasgow: The album as a whole is really absorbing, from the haunting beauty of ‘Waiting For A (Woman)’ to the tribal pattern of ‘Hewal3’. How did these songs develop over time?
Auntie Flo: As I mentioned, the main elements of the songs are pretty much exactly how they sounded in the first recording session and were mostly recorded in one take without any editing. I sent the ten rough drafts to Anbuley thinking she might sing on two or three songs. We then brought her to our studio in London (she lives in Vienna) and when she arrived she said she'd written lyrics for all of them!! So we battered out as many as possible over a weekend and I think we got 6 songs with her on it in the end. Her voice was too good to be left out.
Likewise with Shingai, we played her the rough drafts and she worked on three songs with us in London and also - fairly randomly - in Havana, Cuba. We basically got the call to play the first ever 'Havana World Music Festival' during one of our sessions with her and we said, 'why not come with us?' We ended up playing 3 amazing shows in Havana to over 10,000 people. It was all very improvised - Shingai got off the flight and we went straight to soundcheck in this massive outdoor baseball park in old town Havana. We hadn't rehearsed at all, so we just jammed out the two songs 'So In Love' and 'Dreamer' from the album and then two of her songs and a few more from our older material. Playing these songs to 5000+ unwitting Cubans over two nights was a real buzz and I think we just about managed to pull it off! The few days after that was spent in a studio in Havana finishing the recordings with her, before finally taking them to London and stripping them back for the finished version.
SynthGlasgow: Your companion Esa played a big part in the production of this album as well as the ‘Highlife World Series’; how would you describe your musical partnership with him and what you have achieved together?
Auntie Flo: Esa and I have come a long way since we started working together five years ago around the birth of Highlife and the first Auntie Flo live shows. As I mentioned above, the album is the first time we really produced together. I'm a bit of a control freak but I knew I needed Esa to help with the production, so a lot of the best synth work, drumming and other bits of production is his. He also got really into modular synthesis during production, so there is a heavy analogue flavour on a lot of the tracks, which help to give them hidden depth.
The World Series was a natural progression of what we were doing with Highlife but it's been really amazing to be able to travel the globe to work with local talent face to face. Over the past year Esa's really owned the World Series projects and he's totally in his element doing so. Watching him work in our recent trip to Uganda was really special: he knows how to bring out the best in the musicians he's working with to help them create something unique - a fresh new sound but one that still pays respect to the traditional instrumentation of wherever that artist is from. There is plenty more to come from the World Series - our next stop is Brazil in December.
SynthGlasgow: Although ‘Theory Of Flo’ is an international record, do you feel, in some part, that its story really begins in Glasgow and your first Highlife party in 2010?
Auntie Flo: Glasgow is very much at the heart of everything we do, as Highlife and as Auntie Flo. Although we are known for our ‘international outlook’, every track I make still has to pass the Glasgow Highlife test i.e. could I play it on the Highlife dancefloor? So whilst this album is very much for home listening, it still contains enough songs that work on the dancefloor and that will work for the Glasgow audience; whether that's the Subbie or the Art School. Keeping that energy and depth is crucial and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to playing at the Sub Club on Thursday for the first time since we did Boiler Room last year - these tracks were ultimately designed with half a thought for that dancefloor.
SynthGlasgow: With the album due for release this week, how do you feel now that this part of the journey is almost complete? And have you started thinking about what comes next?
Auntie Flo: I've decided that two years is too long to spend on a project and I'm definitely glad it's coming to a conclusion! The last three months in particular have been pretty stressful and actually threatened to boil over and turn a very positive experience overall into something slightly more negative. Without going into too much detail, these recent experiences have provided a real wake up call to me and one that I will learn from moving forward. Basically, it feels good to be sharing this record after so long and moving on! I've got a few ideas for what happens next, but let's wait and see once the album is released!
Auntie Flo ‘Theory Of Flo’ is available Friday 6th November via Huntleys & Palmers. Auntie Flo plays all night long at the ‘Theory Of Flo’ launch party this Thursday (5th) at the Sub Club. The album tour visits The Tunnels in Aberdeen on Friday (6th), as well as Newcastle (7th), Leeds (13th) and London (9th & 14th).