Open Mic Presents… Us3 (Interview Series Ep. 20)

us3 copy 1024x682 Open Mic Presents... Us3 (Interview Series Ep. 20)

Today we welcome the mastermind behind Us3, Geoff Wilkinson to Open Mic Presents… Known as the first artist to go Platinum on Blue Note Records back in 1993, Us3 continues to create high-quality sounds, incorporating an array of influences and genres. His latest effort, Stop.Think.Run, made entirely from live instrumentation, employs up-and-comering emcees, Brook Yung and Sene, giving you a very unique and innovative record to nod your head to. Not only should you cop the album, but if you get the chance to see a concert, their 8-piece band is known to rock the crowd time after time. With that said, please join me as I chop it up with the overseas legend himself, Geoff Wilkinson…

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Reyn: Hey Geoff, thanks for stopping in! How are things?
Geoff: All good here in sunny London thanks! We’ve just come back from a 21-date tour of 11 countries throughout Europe, so I’m in the recovery position right now…

Reyn: The new album is a hit! How did the recording process go?
Geoff: Recording was smooth. I have my own studio where we recorded and mixed everything. This is the first album I’ve mixed straight out the box so that was an interesting process. I actually took a year off last year in terms of releasing something and touring so the prep time for this album was much longer than usual. I wanted to take my time with this one, and try something a little different. I moved my studio closer to my home and completely revamped it. I sold all my old analog gear and bought lots of small shiny boxes that are 100 times more powerful. I feel cleansed!

Reyn: Blending a slew of different genres and influences, Stop. Think. Run seems to have no boundaries. Was that a goal you set out to achieve with this album? Explain some of the different sounds that you utilized.
Geoff: I think the variety was a direct result of taking my time and making the changes I mentioned above. I had over 100 backing tracks for this album. Last year I worked every day in my studio, I felt like I had a real creative burst. I brought lots of different musicians in and just played around with different sounds. I had a lot of new toys to play with! I didn’t set out to achieve a specific goal though, I think an album is only a snapshot in time of where an artist is at that particular time. I listened to lots of new stuff as well just to mess up my own head – I don’t like boundaries, I like to experiment.

Reyn: You employed a bunch of different musicians and artists to create this very eclectic LP. Talk about some of the musicians you have on there that handled the instrumental side of things. Why did you choose them? What did they bring to the table?
Geoff: Most of the musicians on the new album are people I’ve worked with before. I’m fortunate to have a great bunch of open minded musicians to collaborate with. Most of them are straight up jazz musicians who have their own thing going on too. Sax player Ed Jones did all the horn arrangements. He’s the only guy that’s played on all Us3 albums, a ridiculously underrated talent. A couple of years ago I found a new trumpet player called Bryan Corbett who has a beautiful melancholically mature style of playing for a young guy. These guys are also the horn section for my live band. I used several keyboard players, John Crawford and Neil Angilley, who are both terrific latin pianists, Ross Stanley (a lovely intuitive and versatile player), and Mike Gorman (who also plays in the live Us3 band). Turntable duties were taken by DJ First Rate, who has been a feature of the live show since 2001 (he was a member of the Scratch Perverts when they won the DMC World Team title in 1999). These guys are like my extended family now! 

Reyn: From my understanding, this album was done entirely from live instrumentations as opposed to using sampled records. What is the advantage to using this type of method? How does it advance your sound?
Geoff: Although I’m probably best known for sampling the Blue Note back catalogue, this is the 4th Us3 album to be sample-free. It’s much easier now with the technology that’s available to be more detailed in the production process. At the time I made “Hand On The Torch” (the first Us3 album) I was using an Atari 1040 running Cubase with an Akai S950 sampler. Laughable! My laptop is about 1000 times more powerful now. I think some people can become slaves to the technology though. It’s important to make the equipment work for you, rather than stressing on how to use the equipment. I feel like it’s freed me up to be more experimental.

Reyn: Rather than choosing a huge lineup of well-known emcees, you decided to take two up-and-comers in Sene and Brook Yung to handle all the rhymes on the album. What did you see in those two emcees that made you want to employ them for the full album?
Geoff: There are really only 2 things I look for in an MC – lyrics and rhythmical flow. Both Sene & Brook Yung have different styles, but I could see that they would both work on my beats, and that they would also complement each other too. That was important. I like working with up-and-coming guys anyway, I always liked the idea of Us3 being some kind of launch pad for other peoples careers. There was a handful of people that really helped me early on in my career, people that never gained anything from my success, just good people that put me on the right path and gave me good advice. Somehow this is my way of paying that back. If I can help someone else, I’m happy to do so. I hope they both learn from their experiences with Us3 in whatever they do next.

Reyn: What is your favorite cut from the album?
Geoff: I’m still in love with the whole thing! There’s a line in “Keep Movin’” where Brook says “my whole life is a bunjee jump” – I can definitely relate to that. I like giving the vocalists different things rhythmically to rap over, and watch as they step up to the plate. Sene did it brilliantly on “Who Got Next?” where he raps over a four bar pattern in which the 3rd bar is in 3/4. I moved the drum fills around to give it more movement, but he nailed it straight away! Before I gave Brook the backing track to “Gotta Get Out Of Here” I played him Branford Marsalis’ version of Charles Mingus “Scenes In The City”. The original is a spoken word track from 1958 where the narrator talks about escaping from the pressure cooker of an urban environment. As Brook does a lot of spoken word stuff I thought he would relate to that. I asked him to update the story in a 2009 setting, and I think he did an amazing job. I could talk about every track like this. I know I’m biased, but I think they’re all great!

Reyn: From what I hear, Us3 puts on a killer live show. With an 8-piece band, what can one expect to see at a show?
Geoff: Everybody is a star in the Us3 band, everyone has their own solo spots where they all have a chance to show off their own talent. I’ve changed some of the song structures slightly to enable the guys to improvise within the form. It’s not a one-man show, it’s very much a team effort. It’s a living breathing monster of a show!

Reyn: You have been all over the world with your music, where is your favorite place to perform?
Geoff: Anywhere where there’s a good crowd really. I’m confident the strength of the live show can win over any audience. I desperately want to bring the band over to the US. I just need a couple of adventurous promoters (is there such a thing?) to make it happen. I know it’s a bit expensive to put on, but I think we could blow up in the US given half a chance.

Reyn: Talk about some of the opportunities that music has allowed for you. Meet anyone special, perform with anyone interesting, etc?
Geoff: Well I didn’t think I would still be here 17 years after signing my first deal, and I’m very grateful for that. I love travelling, I think it’s really important to take the music out on the road to the people. Meeting your audience and getting direct feedback from the people that effectively pay your wages is a truly humbling thing, and massively important I think. The only person I met that turned me into a gibbering wreck was Quincy Jones. I’ve got a picture of him hugging me and the smile on my face is so wide it looks like my head has split!

Reyn: Being from the US, I have yet to see anything about the album. Has this been intentional? Is this going to be an overseas only release? If so, how come?
Geoff: It’s not going to get a big marketing push simply because I can’t afford it. This is the 4th Us3 album I have released independently. It is available digitally, and I’ve just done a new digital distribution deal which will reissue my back catalogue in the US, so check ‘em out on iTunes.

Reyn: What else is on Us3‘s plate post-Stop. Think. Run?
Geoff: We’ve got a bunch of summer festivals in Europe coming up, and another short club tour in October followed by a couple of gigs in China!! US promoters get at me through the website or myspace page!