An interview with Neue Grafik

Fred N’Thepe – AKA Neue Grafik – is a Parisian soul with an inclination for London grit. The latter city being a place that he now fondly calls home.

Most recently, he’s developed his sound amongst the backdrop of London’s Total Refreshment Centre, a performance space and studio-cum-community centre that’s been described by Gilles Peterson as the ‘flip side’ to London’s jazz renaissance.

Like most great creative spirits, his work takes a stab at social, political and cultural commentary, conveying messages through moods, rhythms and scenes from the UK, France, Africa and the Americas.

Through his live sets, he brings dazzling jazz-hands to the MPC, and he now also caresses the keys collaboratively with the Neue Grafik Ensemble, whilst regularly DJing on the side.

We caught up with Fred recently to discuss a few things…

Hey Fred, What’s new?

Hey Evan, everything is fine here. How’s life treating you? Oh yeah, I don’t know if you heard but I’ve got a new live project with a band!

Life’s great, thank you! Yes, we heard about that of course – a group with jazz at its core!

It’s clear that a broad range of music with jazz at its heart has been inspirational to you – from 90s hip-hop and street poetry, to contemporary London jams and older artists like Milton Nascimento and Alice Coltrane. What is your most striking memory of jazz and how did you initially uncover it?

Wow! Hard question… I’ve got a lot of significant moments of life with jazz, both as a performer and a listener. It’s hard to choose just one. I think my real first big memory was when I was 15 and I discovered ‘Night in Tunisia’ by Parker and Davis. It was huge to hear that – such a banger! But to be honest, it’s a genre which came quite late in my life, drop by drop. Before that I was a pure 90s product, growing with the music of NY hip hop and stuff like Timbaland, The Neptunes, Nirvana and the songs that you could listen on the radio

(‘Loser’ by Beck, ‘Virtual Insanity’ by Jamiroquai etc…). You can fill the portrait with funk, dancehall and French rap (a real kid from the Parisian suburb). But I was already fascinated by sampling and discovering the roots of my favorite tracks.

Of the work that you’ve been involved in so far – be that recorded sessions and producing, DJ sets or live performances – which moments really stand out as the most pivotal, or groundbreaking for you in both a personal sense and in terms of exposure and validation as an artist?

In my mind I’m still a rookie – a noob with blinders on – constantly researching (but also lucky to be understood and well-surrounded throughout this journey). Thus, it’s hard for me to see a moment like that. I’ve lived through so many incredible and unreal things – both good and bad – and I’m still waiting for the next one. However, my link with London and certain local artists and labels has been a real shift in my career.

In the past, you’ve touched on the political landscape of the moment being a source of inspiration – including the phenomenon of fake news and the current atmosphere of truth-manipulation, which clearly strengthens your hand artistically. Can you envisage the potential of Brexit and the broader political atmosphere perhaps reaching a negative tipping point from an artistic perspective? Or perhaps jeopardizing the London/UK scene that you often speak fondly of?

It’s tough to say, but I think the hardest moments in life consolidate creativity, commitment and depth within music. In any case, the scene here – and more than that, the music culture out here – is engraved within the city’s DNA. I think that the music’s topics and themes will be increasingly critical towards the political establishment, which is already the case in a sense – Sons of Kemet with ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’ for instance. In any case, I’m pretty sure music will survive no matter what. Music is a vibrant reflection of our society.

As an outsider looking in, I often find it difficult to imagine or comprehend the routines and rituals (or even just an average week in the life) of London-based artists, where the plight and struggle of surviving is often cast against a care-free energy and passion that stems from the people they’re meeting and working alongside. What keeps you sane and grounded in day-to-day life, in what often comes across as a disordered way of living?

As I said above, I’m really well-surrounded – I’m in touch with people who are fundamental for me and my sanity. It helps. Also, I’ve got a roof over my head.

You certainly can’t ask for much more than that!

Now, in the past you’ve drawn on how there was a pivotal shift in your musical outlook that took you completely by surprise, starting at the turn of the decade with artists like James Blake and labels like DMZ, Hessle Audio, No Hats No Hoods, Hemlock and Planet Mu, amongst others. Which releases and performances stand out the most to you from those times, and why?

At this time, I was living in Paris and few of them were coming to play out there (or I was not aware of it at the time) so I didn’t have the chance to catch them live. Based on the releases only, obviously ‘CMYK’ by James Blake comes to mind. It was a crucial track for me at that time. But also Tempa T with ‘Next Hype’, DJ Manny’s ‘All I Do Is Smoke Trees’, ‘Commotion’ by Wen, the FaltyDL albums and just about all of Ramadanman’s tracks: ‘Glut’, ‘Blimey’ and ‘Work Them’. Burial with ‘Untrue’, as well as Kode9 and Spaceape with ‘Black Sun’ were also important albums for my vision of the sound. It definitely was a priceless period for my ears!

You can also include everything which was released on Deep Medi as well. The same applies for Digital Mystikz. I would listen to ‘Haunted’ on loop, and also ‘Lean Forward’ and ‘Anti War Dub’, and even ‘Ancient Memories’, with the awesome Skream remix. I was literally into their whole discography. I was especially fascinated by the way they were playing with the mix – the space and the silence within the tracks.

This music was just far from all of the codes that I knew. I often discovered young new artists with a different vision of the rhythm, or for reinterpreting bass, dubstep and grime or whatever. At the same time, you could feel that all of these tracks were real – and still relevant. For example, ‘Untrue’ represents a bad period in my life. I still listen to it once or twice a year… and it’s full of memories and emotions. It’s really hard for me to listen to it, despite all of the good things I think of this masterpiece.

From your long list of influences, which two artists would be the most magical to collaborate with? And why?

I would have dreamed to be a part of the ‘I Want You’ album, so I tend to say Marvin Gaye would be first. His sense of melody and the passion we feel when he’s singing is still completely unbelievable, even today. I could add Nina Simone for the same reasons. It would have been so amazing to work on an album with her.

It’s clear that you have a very unique way of amalgamating influences thematically, and that really cuts across in your music and the way that yourself and others describe it. But how do you translate that abstract way of thinking and approaching a piece into the beginning of a tangible track structure? Is there a particular method or mind-frame that you find yourself falling into when you sit down at the keys or in the studio to convey these ideas? Or do you try to avoid falling into routines altogether when you approach new work?

It’s hard to explain, but both. My idea is to spend a lot of time on gears – developing skills on the piano, MPC or synth for example – with a plan to be ready for ideas when they come. When you are prepared, tracks come organically. But collaborations, composing for a band or a singer, getting new materials, or making music in other studios and changing your routines can help sometimes uncover other approaches. You just have to keep a vision and be open-minded. It’s also really important for me to read books, practice sport, chill on Netflix or even hang out in a park… the latter, I need to do more often, trust me!

Given that you clearly draw such inspiration in this highly thoughtful way, do you ever feel the urge to express your ideas verbally? Perhaps drawing on those street poet, hip-hop or grime influences?

I’m still learning. But at the moment and for a few years now, I’ve been really into abstraction. Your vision or your message could be clear to you, but everybody could have their own outlook on your composition. I’m thinking of the Coltrane version of ‘My Favorite Things’, which illustrates this. This song could speak to different people for really different reasons: people who love the standard and enjoy hearing this band playing it, people who love the representation of Coltrane transforming this ritornello from Broadway into an epic Afro-American cultural pinnacle, or people who just want to study solo. It’s a feeling that I particularly cherish.

In your Boiler Room Beijing set, you do a fantastic job of jazzing out on some old MPCs. As a producer and performer, is there a particular synth, plug-in or piece of hardware that you personally associate the most with your own sound or development? Which bits of gear have been integral to the Neue Grafik experience so far aside from the MPC?

Thanks for the compliment! For many years, I’ve used a Roland JX8P on almost everything. Also my MPC (sometimes 1000, sometimes 2000XL) is in nearly everything that I make. You can see me vibing on it a bit in the Church Of Sound video of Hedgehog’s Dilemma (full video coming out soon!).

So, Neue Grafik Ensemble’s ‘Foulden Road’ mini-LP has just been released – which is sounding amazing too, by the way! How integral has the community vibe surrounding the Total Refreshment Centre been to this project? Would ‘Foulden Road’ be possible without the TRC?

Foulden Road is the road leading to TRC (the building). The idea of this name came during the closing of the venue. So the link with TRC (and by extension the book ‘Make Some Space’ by Emma Warren) is inescapable. This project is just a synthesis of meetings and friendships developed throughout two years and an acknowledgement of the whole TRC community. The first version of the band was created by me and Lex (Alexis Blondel, the founder and curator of TRC) when I was in London spending a lot of time in the space. We already had Dougal Taylor, Emma Jean Thackray and Matt Gedrych on board.

Organically, some other artists and musicians joined the creative process: Nubya Garcia, Allysha Joy, Ahnanse, Yahael Camara Onono, Esinam Dogbatse, Jordan Saintard, Tanguy Jouanjan and Brother Portrait. Even Bradley Zero plays a bit of percussion on ‘Voodoo Rain’! I’ve met loads of people and participated in so many parties and gigs at TRC before Steam Down/Unit 31, it was even before I settled down in South London. Sometimes I was sleeping on the sofa in the living room or playing piano with my charts and my compositions there. Some people already knew my work from the Innervision EP on Rhythm Section, and others saw me working everyday on new material, or even practicing my daily routine on the piano. So little by little you become a part of a community and want to do your bit for this beautiful story.

Which tracks from the release are you most excited about putting out? And why?

Each track of this album is important for me. I tend to change my mind about the ranking almost every day though! It’s a good sign I guess! At the moment, I just love ‘Dalston Junction’. I’m really proud of this collaboration with Brother Portrait (and his poem is the perfect illustration and synthesis of my mind for this record) as well as the jam with Esinam Dogbatse.

Finally, what can we expect from you and your collaborators and friends in the near future, looking beyond ‘Foulden Road’?

Actually we are working on the part 2 of ‘Foulden Road’. The other side of the same coin, maybe a bit more political, that I will dedicate to Adama and Assa Traoré (and obviously their entire family – check their story if you haven’t). After that, you could expect more music, more gigs, more stories…

Fred, thank you.

Thank you for this great interview. It was really lovely to answer these interesting questions.