Make-up, Styling and Creative Direction: Alex Clark / goldenaxemakeup.com
The first time I see the REMY JUDE ENSEMBLE at Anti-Social Jazz Club’s Aerie loft party, I have that rare feeling of discovering something before the rest of the world does. Although this was only their fourth performance, playing to a crowd who was largely unfamiliar with them, it felt like everyone was there to see their favourite band. Their laid-back, jazz/hip hop fusion is warm and energetic enough to get everyone dancing and sweating, pressed right up almost toe-to-toe with them as they exchange thrilled glances and dance with the audience. The six-piece band is comprised of Remy Jude’s acerbic bars, Amber Kuti’s effortlessly powerful voice, and virtuosos Sam Jones, Max O’Hara, Simon Dale and Conor O’Shea on drums, keys, guitar and bass respectively. The Remy Jude Ensemble are something like an alt-funk-jazz super-group.
The group mostly met through other musical endeavours: Max and Amber toured up and down the country last year with their other project, Galactic Funk Militia; Sam organises events and drums for the Jam Scones Quartet; and Simon just released his first solo single, I Don’t Mind, on Spotify ahead of his EP release. Remy’s star has also been on the rise; he even recently secured an inspiration of his, Loyle Carner, as a mentor.
A single venue, Frederiks, seems curiously central to the story of this band getting together. Most of them met there, in a roundabout way. Sam describes how Parr Jazz’s residency there brought together guest artists every Tuesday: “They’d do two sets, and the third set is a jam open to all musicians. It was at those jams that we would see each other’s musical abilities and go, ‘Ooh that’s nice, I want some of that’.” The Remy Jude Ensemble’s seed was sown in those exchanges. These energetic, connected individuals are evidence of the scene’s current fertility. As Amber puts it, “Everyone does so many different things. That brings quite a different element into it. It’s kind of busy, it’s kind of focused.” The Remy Jude Ensemble’s members remind me of bright-eyed pupils, bubbling with a wholesome, hungry energy.
“You’ve got to take it seriously,” Remy tells me. “If you don’t take it seriously, no-one else takes it seriously. That’s the golden rule.” He recounts his early forays into musical entrepreneurship in his hometown of Hitchin in Hertfordshire: “I was trying to create a little music scene, and not many people were there. We had to cut a live demo for £80, and you’d have to make, like, 100 CDs and force people to buy them all at school to make the money back. Off the back of that you try and do a show, and if you got everyone in the school to come then you sold out Club 85.” Those of them that moved here from the uphill struggle of tiny scenes are perhaps even better placed than Scousers to appreciate what Liverpool has. Max describes his attempts to marshal a local funk sextet in the Lake District; the nightmare of trying to get six 14-year-olds in a room when everyone lives 40 miles away from each other. For these two, coming to a city overflowing with the same drive was life-changing.
Opportunities to play are abundant here, and this group is not afraid to take advantage of them. Remy’s enterprising adolescent spirit has endured into adulthood, and encapsulates the band’s modus operandi: “A musical CV is not something to shy away from, or just for wankers,” Remy asserts. In the culmination to the Merseyrail Sound Station artist development programme, they performed in Liverpool Central station as part of BBC Music Day, a prestigious addition to any musical CV. “Now, you’re able to say to people – we played Central Station. A portfolio of playing live is important to have.” Each member’s pre-existent portfolios meant that the Remy Jude Ensemble found themselves, upon their debut performance, in a position to play in front of “fucking loads of people”.
When they start talking music, it’s hard to keep them on task. The six of them become almost unmanageably excited, talking over each other in a cacophony of praise and discussion. Over the course of the interview, they pretty much shout out every Liverpool artist Bido Lito! has ever covered, and they even start mapping out the logistics of a theoretical all-dayer encompassing Eggy Records, The Blurred Sun Band and the Hushtones while the Dictaphone is still rolling.
For these ambitious, perpetually busy musicians, Liverpool is the ideal playground. As Remy points out, the cost of living here makes it easier to survive as an artist. “All you’ve got if you go back is a little town north of London and it’s bare expensive, and if you go back you’ll have to get a nine-to-five job and settle into the local thing. This city allows you to breathe a little bit, I suppose.” The close proximity between all the major venues makes socialising more effortless than in other cities big enough for a thriving music scene. “It’s a nice size,” says Amber, comparing it to her years living in London. “I love the fact that you can walk into town and there’s always gigs going on that aren’t fucking miles away. There’s so much culture, food and music and art, and it feels compact.” She found London comparatively isolating, compared to Liverpool’s condensed set-up. Here, the ‘music scene’ is a tangible place that is far more open and democratic than the increasingly conceptual ‘scenes’ that seem to operate on social elitism and exist only on Instagram. “If I want to go to a gig and there’s no one in my vicinity to go with,” she says, “chances are I’ll bump into someone I know there.”
The group has watched Liverpool gaining momentum as an artistic hub over the last few years. “I feel like the music scene has got better,” Remy observes, “the nights have become more regular, and better attended.” Max postulates that we are seeing a positive reaction against the recent decline we’ve seen with the closure of places like The Kazimier: “People are actively going out of their way to appreciate music venues.” There is a growing culture of investment in our musicians, from which the group has directly benefitted: “The Merseyrail project was brilliant, how they empowered a few local people was boss,” Remy tells me. He expresses a passionate belief in a self-sustaining musical economy. “You have to know the people, man, and you have to care about what the people do. There’s nothing shitter than someone who is trying to be in a music scene, and is not going to other people’s gigs. It’s pointless, and that’s how scenes die. This one is picking up because people are starting to show an interest and making other people’s gigs a priority. They’re giving up their time. People have to choose to do it together, and motivate other people to do that.”
There is much to be said for relationships formed on the assumption of regularity; consider the reckless abandon with which we said farewell to our classmates at school, knowing we would see them again whether we chose to or not. Although, as Sam jokes, this can be a double-edged sword, ultimately the certitude of time spent together creates trust and understanding between people. “You’re not always just gonna hop into someone’s house or rehearsal space and say, ‘Alright, let’s make a band today’, d’you know what I mean? Gotta speak with people, gotta drink with them.” Simon agrees: “You make connections like this one.” As Remy describes, alliances emerge naturally in the context of this ‘free-for-all’: “Everyone’s got their head screwed on, and you just fucking get on with it. It’s not hard, because everyone’s got that base level of trust, I suppose, or just acceptance and no fear.”
The Remy Jude Ensemble are a standout example of the serendipitous convergences generated in this spirit of playful craftsmanship. The combination of honed musical talent and frequent collaboration makes things effortless. “There’s a lot of trust there,” Max tells me. “I can say to Sam, ‘Play that groove that we like’, and we’re like, ‘Yeh, that’s the one’.” As Remy suggests, each member’s abilities collude with the others to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. “One of the most important parts of what the whole thing does is the different roles that people play. There’s only a certain amount of rhythmic, semi-melodic rapping you can do.” Songwriting is a team effort extending beyond the band, and beyond Liverpool. The track Where U From? was written by Liverpool artist Moon, and Band Bak 2Geva came from Remy’s old schoolmate from Hertforshire, the musician WoodKing. Max finds this process freeing: “Taking it from track to live, there was quite a lot of space to get creative and change shit.” The band’s identity is by no means fixed. “I think there’s even more space for vocals in a melodic way to come through in the project,” Remy says. For Amber, this easy-going mentality keeps things fun. “Everybody is doing ten different bands or solo projects but the common ambition is similar, and it’s an enjoyment when we’re in the same room – it’s really open to anyone bringing their own ideas. I have been in bands where you are insignificant or the butt of the joke. Or you have a band sometimes that is like, ‘This is how we’re going to play it’. Which is fair enough, that’s the job, but being part of this one there is more room to play. Remy’s very open to people trying out different things.” With mutual respect as a foundation, possibilities for experimentation quickly expand.
“Yeh, there have been multiple times where Remy has tried to change the name, but we have none of it,” Simon reveals. But although they go by the Remy Jude Ensemble, their melodies are more than a backing track for Remy. “With Where U From?, it’s reinterpreting music that people have made, and I think that’s the power of the band we are in. The musicians are so talented. To hear something and reinterpret it that quickly is something that I wouldn’t be able to do. That’s a power I haven’t been privy to before, playing in a band.” As an MC, Remy works in a medium which closes the distance between performer and audience by nature, and the others show a touching appreciation of his prowess as a frontman. “See, this is what we mean when we say that Remy just talks really nicely,” Sam’s eyes light up. “‘Power I haven’t been privy to before’ is just such a lovely sentence.” Amber chimes in: “Every sentence is like a beautiful poem.” Simon goes on: “Yeh, he kind of just talks in rap, and it carries through onto the stage. He gets the entire audience on his side, and when he needs a bit of reciprocation, they’re just straight in there.” Amber sums it up: “Charming.” Remy chuckles slightly uncomfortably, but he knows how to take a compliment: “Isn’t that the dream, to be a bit charming?”
At the core of this project is a cool savviness combined with a genuine interest in the musicians around them. “Being ambitious is one thing, but thinking in a competitive rather than collaborative, or rather just loving way, is quite damaging,” Max reflects. “When I see a sick pianist, I would rather think ‘That’s amazing’ than think ‘Oh, I’m better than that’. You won’t improve that way.” The rejection of egotism helps to maintain a sustainable momentum, where everyone’s skills are utilised for the common good. Simon’s description brings to mind Marx’s phrase ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’: “Max is absolutely amazing at arranging; I produce; Sam produces; we all have beats that we’ve made at home and collaborated on. We bring them all together in this melting pot, and we’ve all got our hands in.” Sam goes on: “Remy is the person you’ve got to be attentive to during the gig, but it’s conglomerative, its collective.”
This collectivism energises the music and the audience who listens to it. As Conor says, “It’s not very self-indulgent. We do play for ourselves, but it’s not for ourselves – we’re just expressing what makes us feel good, and what makes us go.” Remy sees this as key to the band’s on-stage dynamic. “The most recent gig we did [at Aerie], man, we’re all in it, we all felt it. I think it’s a powerful thing when a band does that, because when you lock in, you’re not trying to appeal to an audience to like your music. You’re trying to enjoy your music so people can feel that and enjoy it themselves.” The warmth that flows between those watching and the band at that gig is testament to the power of joyful music born of equal parts graft and love. “The dream is to take that to different places around the country in the next year, and different countries.” Hardworking, focused and clearly in love with their craft, the manifestation of dreams feels like a simple matter of time for this band. Conor recalls a platitude that aptly summarises their ethos: “You’ve got to walk the dream in practical shoes.”
Bido Lito! is delighted to present The Remy Jude Ensemble’s first official release. Live At The Aerie is a visual EP in four parts, recorded at Aerie in October and produced by Leech Video. Watch it now.