On having fun as an act of revolution: Interview with Ben Powling, Mansion of Snakes

By October 28, 2019

Music. Leeds.

“We began as a fun, unmanageably big afrobeat band, basically to play at house parties,” begins Ben Powling, saxophonist and one-time bandleader of ten-piece, Mansion of Snakes. The notion of ten musicians rammed in a sweaty Leeds student house immediately conjures images of cables and limbs and horns and spilled drinks. Unmanageable, for sure. He grins, sipping his pint, thinking back to Mansion’s ‘young and foolish’ early gigs. “At one Headingley house party” he continues, “we had to stop because the floorboards were bowing so much they’d begun coming away at the skirting boards.” It might seem slightly incongruous, then, that ten minutes later, Ben asserts adamantly that Mansion is “not a party band”.

Of course, those lucky enough to have caught their thunderous live sets will know that a party atmosphere is more or less guaranteed – the Mansion frontline, Ben explains, “come from a tradition of putting a lot of air through their horns”, ensuring “big sounds” and “powerful” performances. Since their formation in 2014, Ben and co. have become the pacemakers for Leeds’s fertile jazz-orientated (and always dancey) scene, packing out hot and steamy basements and playing to wiggling and writhing congregations.

But 2019 has seen the band – Vanessa Rani (vocals and percussion); Jack Davis (trumpet and percussion); Greg Cain (tenor saxophone); Anna Chandler (baritone saxophone); Matías Reed (guitar); Ben Riches (guitar); Matthew Aplin (keys); Sam Dutton-Taylor (bass); Charlie Grimwood (drums); Ben Powling (tenor saxophone and flute) – retreat from Leeds’s clubs and party-places to the studio to put together their first “full, cohesive statement”, their debut album, M.O.S.

A year of refining live-set staples and penning “compact, fully-formed, through-composed” pieces – rather than “vehicles for improvisation” – has seen Mansion evolve into a new beast. “It’s easy to get lazy as jazz musicians… you fall into the habit, if you’re good improvisers, of writing short riffs and taking turns soloing.” Ben acknowledges, “we kind of used to do that.” But on the forthcoming album’s first single, ‘Concrete Money’, the Snakes shed the more sprawling improvisational song structures prevalent on their eponymous EP.

‘Concrete Money’, which comes in at a concise 3 minutes and 2 seconds, is a taut, bouncy, elastic ‘pop song’ in the vein of ESG or Talking Heads. Of all the album’s tracks, it is this single that he’s ‘really buzzed about.

“It’s the first time we have tried to write a pop song. Pop can be a dirty word but I love it. That way of distilling a piece of amazing art into three and a half minutes is great – I’m not saying that’s what we’ve done but it’s what we aspire to do.”

Besides its tight and snappy form, an immediately noticeable evolution is the vocals which spearhead the track. In fact, the more prevalent role of, vocalist, Vanessa Rani seems to have been a hugely significant part of the band’s development during the album’s writing: “Vanessa is such a talent and was bringing all these great songs – it seemed stupid not to build the album around them.” Her shift to front-person and prominent songwriter happened gradually. She became Mansion’s conga player years ago, having seen them play at her house party, “accosting [Ben] in a toilet queue and demanding to be in the band”.

From conga player, her first forays into the role of Mansion vocalist was as a “secret weapon” at live shows – “suddenly two thirds through a tune she would start singing; she always caught everyone aback”. Striking a balance between conversational and pointedly powerful, Vanessa’s vocal capabilities, exhibited front and centre for much of M.O.S., is no longer such a secret.

‘Concrete Money’ deals with the gentrification of Deptford – where Vanessa and, boyfriend, Dwayne Kilvington (aka Wonky Logic), live. Home to Buster Mantis’ weekly jam night and Steam Down’s internationally-celebrated sessions (of which Dwayne is an integral part), Deptford is the beating heart of the UK jazz scene. It is also locale of the cool, yet contentious, Jobcentre bar – arguably the incarnation of Deptford’s gentrification crisis. I ask whether the desire to use more vocals on the album came at all from a place of feeling compelled to say something.

“Yeah, Vanessa is an activist, and really socially-minded and politically-slanted. She works in care-work for the NHS so all the savagery of the Tory government is pretty obvious to her – she’s on the frontline.” Do the song’s sentiments also apply to Leeds? “You can write about the gentrification of Mabgate but on a UK scale, no one knows what that means […] there are live recordings of The Clash where they start the gig by shouting their postcode. Everyone knows N16 [Stoke Newington, Hackney]; you can say LS8 and no one will no one will know where that is but the story’s the same.”

“Pushed out to the borders/ to make room for the richest/ to take from who was there before,” goes the ‘Concrete Money’ chorus, before Ben’s and Matías’ gain-laden guitars jostle for pole position during the proceeding solo. The engagement in social and political issues certainly aligns with their Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor influences – “I always really respected the fact that afrobeat was serious protest music”, Ben asserts. Music and politics are indivisible for him: “I think going to a gig and having a great time is an act of revolution in itself in the current political climate. They don’t want us to do that; that’s where dissent is bred. If everyone would come out and listen to great music and dance, there’d be a lot less fucking evil going on.” With a wry smile, he adds: “maybe Boris needs to do some pingers and go to a gig.”

Though its “socially-minded” lyrics might be comparable to Kuti’s social commentary, sonically, this single seems to mark a conscious shift from the band’s afrobeat-oriented origins. The album’s press release asserts that the band have “surpassed their early influence of Nigerian afrobeat”. In his staple leather-jacket-and-Misfits-tee combo, Ben certainly doesn’t look like he’s an aspiring afrobeat musician. “We make quite a conscious decision to dress like we bumped into each other at the supermarket,” he explains. “I don’t like that thing where white, middle-class bands who like African music start wearing dashikis – it’s the fucking worst. What the fuck do they think they’re doing? They’ve got no ownership of that.”

Ben expounds. “We love the music but we have no ownership over afrobeat. And even if we tried our hardest it would never sound like authentic afrobeat because we’re not from Nigeria, nor the seventies. Rather than an active movement away from afrobeat, though, there was an active embracing of our other influences [while writing this album].”

So what are these other influences? “When you’re a ten-piece band, by default, you’ve got a really deep bench of influences. I grew up on punk and jazz almost in tandem, Greg and Charlie are super into hip hop, Charlie’s also really into Death Grips, Matías is really into psychedelia, Sam’s really into Squarepusher, but we’ve all studied jazz.” ‘Concrete Money’, though, is very much influenced by ‘70’s New York.

“Jack, our trumpet player who produced the record, was getting really into Talking Heads, which me and Charlie really grew up on. So we started digging deeper into that New York no wave. I was listening to lots of ESG and reading a book called ‘Love Goes to Buildings on Fire’ about the New York music scene in the seventies and how the Latin American scene, punk scene, hip hop scene and the jazz scene all overlapped.”

“What the book dealt with was how the infrastructure of New York at that time was in complete decline and many buildings were in decay. There were all these lofts and abandoned buildings where all these musicians were spending time. But big businesses were buying out these spaces and turning them into flats. We realised that Vanessa’s lyrics and the music that me and Jack were writing for that track were drawing on the same things coincidentally.”

There are definite comparisons between the way Ben talks of ‘70’s New York’s musical climate and that of contemporary Leeds – infrastructure and accessibility is integral within the both scenes’ development. So is “altruism” and a “very DIY, healthy, cooperative” framework. In Leeds, Ben explains, you can “afford to practise your craft – every house in the LS6 postcode has got a basement you can practise in.”

“Everyone’s really supporting each other. People are going out of their way to start collectives and run nights that aren’t directly beneficial to them as an artist or their band; they’re doing it to further the scene.” Indeed, Ben himself began a jazz jam at the LS6 Cafe after graduating the music college in 2013, passing it on to new organisers last year, under whom it still thrives.

“John Peel said once that there were more bands living and working in the LS6 area of Leeds than anywhere else in the country.” Ben recites this quote proudly. It’s something he’s referenced before, when putting together a compilation of Leeds-based musicians with Hyde Park Book Club Records. The vibrant, genre-bending jazz compilation, To Be Here Now, proves Ben’s assertion that the current scene is “really fertile, tight and symbiotic.” It also invokes, and seems a response to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood compilation, We Out Here – a compilation showcasing London’s jazz vanguard.

I ask what he thinks of the UK jazz revival. “It’s great that jazz is getting the press but they’re very much focussing on one aspect of the London scene. That said, it’s an aspect of the London jazz scene that Mansion have a lot in common with – bands influenced by afrobeat and Ethiopiques… It’s just a shame that, without sounding bitter, what is billed as the UK jazz scene is actually the London jazz scene. There’s amazing bands who aren’t getting the attention they should get like Archipelago from Newcastle, Taupe from Edinburgh, Newcastle and Manchester… And there are loads of serious Leeds bands that don’t quite get the traction they should. But we’re playing the long game. And if the British jazz scene–” Ben checks himself, grinning, “sorry, I’ve bought into their propaganda– I mean, if the London jazz scene becomes accepted enough by the nation as a whole, the press will start to reach further and, to quote Mark E Smith, ‘hit the north’.”

The opening track on the To Be Here Now is by the burgeoning Leeds-based talent, Jasmine. She will be supporting Mansion when they play their album release show at the “legendary venue”, Brudenell Social Club. Talking about the Brudenell, Ben champions its diverse listings: “you could have definitely gone to see Polar Bear one night, Pulled Apart By Horses the next, and some really chilled-out folk band the night after that. We’re really fucking glad to have got out album launch there.” Recalling his first outing to Brudenell to see jazz-punk heroes, Acoustic Ladyland he remembers arriving “and doing a full double take. I thought ‘what’s this shit bungalow in this carpark? This cannot be it.’ There was a man welding his car and lots of stray dogs running about. And I went in and saw one of the best gigs of my life.” He pauses for a minute. “Nathan [Clark, Brudenell’s owner] should be fucking mayor of Leeds.” Music and politics intertwines again.

It’s an exciting prospect: the return of Mansion Of Snakes. Once Leeds’s biggest afrobeat ‘party’ bands, on M.O.S. the band have matured and are in healthy shape, with a new arsenal of slick, tightly-structured statements, drawing from an ever-wider pool of influences.

Album-opener, ‘Boom For Real’ is, on paper, business-as-usual for Mansion: a powerful frontline, instantly memorable hooks, bags of groove and the potential to sound huge in a live setting… But the drums are snappier, it’s rhythmically more buoyant, the keys cut through brighter than ever. Sonically, this all leans towards the late-seventies New York of ESG and co. The title, taken from a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Ben visited, makes the New York connection all the more concrete. Why dedicate a song to Basquiat? “I like to write dedications – so many of my heroes have done that anyway – Pharoah [Sanders] was always dedicating tunes to John Coltrane, Mingus to political figures, The Clash to old reggae legends, Ian Dury to Gene Vincent… [Basquiat] was so involved in that creative New York scene that I love. There’s photos of him in Warhol’s loft with Fela Kuti, Keith Haring, Grace Jones and John Lurie [from The Lounge Lizards]. They were all checking out Fela, and Archie Shepp was hanging around and Talking Heads were playing.”

‘Boom…’ is a tune that the Mansion faithful will recognise. “Some of these are pieces we’ve been jamming for years,” Ben points out. ‘It’s a great feeling when you’ve been playing a tune for a long time and then you sit down and really hone it into its most refined sinewy form.” ‘Fire Melts The Ice’ is the outcome of such refining. Structurally deft, the confident swagger of its first four minutes builds to a one of Vanessa’s most emphatic vocal performances – Ben notes that “Vanessa brought the fire in that tune; the arrangement was changed to fit around her lyrics”. Her verse is proceeded by a tenor outro which spirals to cacophonous finale. Sinewy, indeed, and with abundant muscle.

There are also more atmospheric moments which give the album – which is out on the day of their Brudenell release show – a cohesive feel. There was “a conscious decision to make [the album] feel like one 35-minute statement not a series of five-minute tunes.” Mansion achieve this through interludes – one “free improvisation based on pentatonics from Ethio-jazz records”, one vocal and percussion duet performed by Vanessa – which pull the listener through and contribute to a huge variety within the ten tracks. This variety, Ben puts down to “everyone in the band writing”: everyone’s personalities have come in and [created] something new.” He recognises the challenge of finding space for so many voices. “Everyone’s bringing in different influences [but] hopefully it’s not that thing where you mix all the colours together and it turns out brown…”

Conversation turns to the future. “We’ve got a couple of shows before Christmas and some bookings for next year, but nothing to reveal yet. I think we’re going to handpick the correct shows and do fewer but better gigs – and in venues with nice soundsystems.” It sounds like the end of those raucous house party gigs, then. It’s no surprise – if the mature new album is anything to go by, Mansion are not so young and not so foolish now. But the promise of, implausibly, “better gigs” is certainly an exciting prospect. Discussion spirals into recollections of favourite Brudenell Social Club gigs – ‘Fat White Family,’ – and why it’s such a great venue. ‘Your sweat will get on the band and their sweat will get on you,’ Ben concludes. “We’re not a party band but that doesn’t mean we don’t want everyone to have a good time.”