What is in a song? Why is it that we connect to music? These are questions that the founder of Incognito, Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick has asked himself for the past several years. The UK-based band has returned with the release of Tales from the Beach
(Heads Up, 2008). There are many layers to Incognito's music, representing a celebration of music and life, both in and out of the studio. Make no mistake: this pursuit of happiness through music is more than an occupational mantra; for the members of Incognito, it is a lifestyle.
All About Jazz: Incognito has been labeled as an acid jazz band. Do you agree with that categorization?
Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick: The acid jazz thing began with our second wave. Listening to American bands like the Blackbirds, Roy Ayers and Earth, Wind & Fire; we felt like we were just copying these bands, but in our own way. We were creating something new. In the UK we started calling it jazz funk and then DJs came into it. At that time there was a house music movement that turned into the acid house movement. People were getting high on the dance floor. That is why Gilles Peterson coined it acid jazz, and when he coined that, it seemed to really suit the music we were making. Bands like Incognito, Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai were working the floor. I think acid jazz explains our music. Some people think that sound has gone, but it is still around. The music of Incognito is very much alive.
AAJ: What was the recording process like for this project?
JM: The writing process took longer than the recording process. The writing took about a year from the time that I had finished the last album. The recording was done in a scattered manner. It was done whilst I was traveling. Some of the recording was done in Germany, London, Italy, and the mixing was done in Indonesia. Overall, the recording was done in a couple of months.
AAJ: Did you do most of the writing in the studio?
JM: I did most of the writing away from the studio. I actually did most of the writing whilst on tour and on the beaches of Tuscany and Italy. I feel at ease when I am on the coastline, away from the madness of phones and the internet. There are so many ways now for people to be distracted, it is just the world that we live in. We [Incognito] used to go on promotional tours and do face-to-face interviews and now we do a lot of it through the internet. In a way, because it works this way, you constantly have to stop your flow, so I took myself out of the equation in order to write and become inspired; so I stayed away from technology.
AAJ: How much of the writing for Incognito is a collaborative process?
JM: Oh, certainly. I formulate all the songs, the ideas for the lyrics and the melodies. If you have a story or something to say, we can come to collaboration for an idea and it is always better, because then it is more focused on Incognito as a whole. It is basically stories and things that I want to relay in a song. We get together and collaborate on the inner music level. I either write the music myself or I collaborate. On this project I collaborated with the keyboard player, Matt Cooper, and Francis Hylton, the bassist. I went back to an old collaboration that the fans really like in America. I worked with Richard Bull on Positivity (Polygram Records, 1994) and Tribes, Vibes and Scribes (Talkin Loud, 1992), albums which did quite well for us. I rekindled that relationship with Bull.
AAJ: You must be pleased with the outcome of the album.
JM: Yes, because we do these things in isolation and it is great when something is well received. You feel joyful when you have a child, when it comes into the world. It is a very personal, incredible feeling. Your true happiness depends on the child being accepted by society and that the child can carry its own. When an album is well received, it is always a joy for mewhen people get it, when people hear the songs and relate to them. Some of the albums that haven't been as well received have been some of Incognito's fans' favorite albums over the years.
AAJ: It all depends then on the listener.
JM: The albums have taken the time to grow on the fans, they all have a story. I must admit I feel really cool about the fact that the internet is actually helping us to sell this project. Especially at time when technology and what is available to us has taken a lot of my record sales away and record companies have been running scared.
AAJ: So many of your songs focus on love and have a positive message. Is this something that is important to Incognito to impart to its listeners?
JM: An artist can only write about how they are feeling. If I am in love or in a romantic situation I am going to write about that; those are the strongest personal forces in your everyday life. I like to observe and send messages of optimism. Our live shows are bigger than our records. Our live show has always been what it is aboutwe make records so that we can have a live show. These songs are meant to be played live and to uplift someone face to face. These songs are meant to be a personal message to someone out there listening. There is an understanding of their situation, whether it is "Still a Friend of Mine," "When the Sun Comes Down," or "Step Aside," where you say, "You're getting in my way. You're not empowering me. I can grow stronger without you."
Whatever the message is, it is meant for somebody out there. It isn't written for my own ego. The live work is really what it is all about for this band. We don't get on planes so that we can promote records, we promote records so that we can get on planes and play for people. That has always been the theory of Incognito which is why we play countries that other bands don't play like Kazakhstan. We were the first British band to play a stand up concert in a festival in China. Previously it had all been sit down concerts. We have broken a lot of barriers over the years. We do it because it is our destiny to travel and touch people.
Music serves a purposeyou can touch people with it. You can heal and educate. It also opens a platform that goes beyond the music. It allows me to have an open dialogue with people, learn about the different cultures and be able to give something back. Along with our shows, we run programs of education. We have a group that runs alongside Incognito called Hope Collective. It raises funds for Tsunami victims and benefits. We can take care of things first hand if we go to Africa or Indonesia and any other country where we can cause an effect but also start a movement.
AAJ: Absolutely. Music is deeply personal and artists have a terrific opportunity if not an obligation to use their status to make a positive impact on a number of causes. Is there a particular country that you feel has openly embraced Incognito?
JM: Italy is really a stronghold because Italy really gets the music, they understand it. On a personal level I feel that as a writer, producer and leader of Incognito, I feel that the Italians get it. I think that part of it is that Italians have like an Island mentality. I come from a small Island and I see that the Italians are not afraid to embrace something. They don't stand waiting to see if someone is going to dance before they can dance. You can see if Italians like something because they will just start dancing and they will let you know that it is affecting them. Therefore, when we come out on stage, they have in a sense prepared the way for us. The gigs are absolutely celebratory. The audience isn't waiting for us to show them what we've got. It is a feeling of a party having started and joining in.
I would say that the most amazing experience I've had has obviously been in AsiaIndonesia and Japan which are strongholds for Incognito. The biggest kick I ever had was in Manila in the Philippines where I saw that people were really holding onto the words. You know when something is significant for someone and you know that these people have had fewer opportunities to see bands than other countries. There are people who have had an inner struggle with their country and there are a lot of different religious and spiritual beliefs that can be divisive. I find that many people find our music and reacted to it as something that unifies people beyond color or creed.
That is my life's work. It began in Mauritius when I was five. I would listen to musicians playing on the beaches of Mauritius and the way that they told stories, they made people laugh by the humor in their performance. They engaged the public, making them join in. There is always a positive message in music. When I was ten years old, I was involved in the Skinhead movement and I spent a lot of time in hospitals nursing my wounds and music showed me the path to overcome the adversity that I went through. I have embraced music and used it. I was educating myself while going to school in that I listened to Stevie Wonder and albums like Marvin Gaye's, What's Going On (Motown, 1971). I didn't really realize what was going on with the war in Vietnam. The war became a real issue for me. It was at that time that I began to pay attention and read books on what was happening in America. I learned so much about what was happening all over the planet just by listening to records.
AAJ: One of the great things about music is that it can teach and influence scores of people. It starts movements and gives a voice to many issues that would be silent otherwise. You tour so much abroad, do you have any plans to tour more frequently in the United States?
JM: I would tour in America all year, if it wasn't for the fact that, in America, musicians pay a twenty-five percent tax on the money made on tour. It is called a withholding tax. When you are a ten-piece band traveling from London, you aren't making music that is selling millions of records. The kind of music we make is deeply personal. It is for people that are drawn to our kind of sound. It is not the mass populace. We don't get radio-play 24/7. We aren't constantly in the public eye. We aren't a band generated by MTV. Therefore, to come to America, even though we sell out shows, I have to prepare for a certain loss. With this record, Tales from the Beach, we are looking for people to be involved in the success of this record, which may just open up the door for us to come back to the United States. It is important because live shows are what it is all about for us.
Every radio or internet interaction that we have, and even the fact that I am speaking to you is going to help us connect to people that have perhaps lost awareness of us. At one point, we were selling four-hundred-thousand records in America, per album. To go from that, to twenty-thousand albums, people know us out there they just don't know that we are still making records. It is a matter of people hearing the record for Incognito to get out there to perform.