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Interview: Johan Karlberg of The Very Best

"I was completely blown away the first time I heard Esau open his mouth."


The Very Best

The Very Best (Johan Karlberg, left)

Green Owl

When did you start your club nights, and how did they relate to how you developed as producers?
"The first club night that we had in London was probably about a year into working together, around the same time as we met Switch and Sinden and started working with them. We started this little club night in a place called the Old Blue Last in Shoreditch, Vice Magazine owns the bar. And Sinden used to come down and play with us, M.I.A. used to come by and hang out, DJ and play. It was cool, but just for a little while. From there, we started getting DJ bookings more, and that's how Radioclit started getting proper DJ bookings. At the same time, Bonde do Rolê were working on their album, so we did some tracks for them. That's the way it's kind of worked for us over the years."

How did you endeavor to make The Very Best its own thing, separate from Radioclit?
"With The Very Best, the only thing we knew about the project was what we didn't want to do. We didn't want to make it a real African album, where the production was super-African. It's almost like we approach it less African than if we make a house track or dance music or remixes or some such. I think I'm more conscious of what I like in African dance music and will just take from that, whereas, when we're working as The Very Best, we want that real collision of cultures. With 'Chalo', the first track we worked on with Esau, that track was originally made for the English rapper Kano. 'Julia' was a beat that we made for Lil' Wayne a couple of years ago."

So there's a lot of history behind some of the tracks?
"Well, the whole album was finished a year-and-a-half ago. I think we've grown a lot as producers since then. Saying that, though, I'm happy that the album is not so overproduced, because Esau needs a lot of space. His voice is like a massive instrument itself."

Is it true that Esau was not a singer before this, but a percussionist?
"He's never been a frontman before, yeah. He'd always been a musician in Malawi before he came over to London, but it was mainly as a drummer. I think He did vocals on a song or two, but sung whilst playing behind the drums. After he came to London, he was still writing music, but he never had an outlet for it. And now he's fronting a band for the first time. So it's been a pretty new and eye-opening experience for him, just as it was for us realizing Esau was going to be our singer, and wasn't just a drummer."

Was it an immediate revelation? That this was going to be its own thing?
"Not really, actually. I mean, I was completely blown away the first time I heard Esau open his mouth. But, even though we had this great chemistry together, and were having so much fun when we worked, we probably had worked together for about six months before we actually realized we were making a project. Before that it just felt like we were doing something around the house. We'd played our manager one or two things, and he wasn't too impressed, because his mindset is more about pop kind of things. Because it wasn't in English, so he doubted it, which I think a lot of people did at that time."

The prevailing sentiment was that having songs sung not-in-English limited your potential?
"Definitely. A lot of people would like it, but, still, they thought we were a bit mad putting so much work into a project that wasn't in English. People were very wary of it, but pretended that they were for our sake, like they were worried we were wasting our time."

Did having people like Bonde do Rolê and Buraka Som Sistema around you reassure you that singing in English wasn't a prerequisite for success?
"I never had any doubts, really. I might sound arrogant, but I just had such a good feeling about the project from day one. I didn't worry about it because, at the end of the day, if it had gone absolutely nowhere, I wouldn't have cared, because it was such an amazing project to work on. The whole experience of it was just beautiful. But, yeah, we did stuff with Bonde, and used to go visit Buraka, saw them coming up. We saw all these people striving. We knew Vampire Weekend when they were coming up; we really wanted to produce their album when we first found out about them. We could see that there were things coming through with a lot more African influence. It felt like the timing was right; that by the time our album was done, people would be ready for it."

Did people respond pretty much immediately?
"Yeah, it turns out they were ready for it. We were correct in that assumption. We put up demos of 'Chalo' and 'Tengakazo,' which is Esau's version of M.I.A.'s 'Paper Planes,' on Myspace the same day that M.I.A.'s album, Kala, came out. And after that, really quickly, Esau was on the cover of Fader magazine, and we thought 's**t, this is really going to work!'"

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