Interview: The Very Best

Interview with The Very Best

The Very Best


Joyously fusing the music of Malawi with electro and hip-hop, The Very Best were one of the breakout success stories of 2009. Esau Mwamwaya and Johan Hugo talk us through their journey from acclaimed mixtape-makers to friends of the stars, and explain the inspirations behind latest album MTMTMK.

Questions and answers

Hi guys, can you explain how the band formed please?

Johan Hugo: Esau ran a second hand junk shop on my street in Hackney and Etienne [Tron] from Radioclit used to pass the shop going to my house. He bought a bike from Esau and invited him to his house warming party and that’s where I first met him. He told me he was a drummer so I invited him to the studio thinking he was a African percussionist. Turned out he was more of a proper drummer, which wasn’t really what we were looking for, but I played him some beats and he started to sing, and he just completely blew me away. That day we did the song ‘Chalo’ and, from there started recording during whatever time Esau had off work.

Did the critical success of Warm Heart of Africa take you by surprise?

Esau Mwamwaya: Yeah. A lot changed around that time: I moved back to Malawi, we started touring, we got to play with Vampire Weekend on their tour around America, we played festivals all over the world… [After] all the work doing Warm Heart of Africa, it was amazing that suddenly it worked.

So, MTMTMK was recorded in Lilongwe, Malawi. How was the experience?

JH: It was a great place to record. We play the Lake Of Stars festival out there every year, but it was the first time we properly recorded out there. We hired a simple, little studio for six weeks, with no internet and barely any working phones. Electricity would cut out for two to six hours most days, so we had to be on point to get work done whenever we had electricity. And when we were leaving the studio in the early hours of the morning, there would be hyenas outside that would just stand and block the road so we couldn’t drive. It was pretty amazing to see, and it’s why we were inspired to make the synths on ‘Rumbae’ sound like hyenas.

EM: It was an amazing place to work. It seems we work much better in a shack in an African slum than in a fancy studio in L.A.!

Do you think being in Malawi had an influence on the sound of the record? And if so what influence?

JH: Definitely. We knew we wanted to do a record that would work well when we performed it live on big festival stages so we kept going to the local club to play our songs and see how they worked.

EM: The modern African music you hear in clubs inspired the album too: South African house, West African dance music, kuduro etc. At the same time, the nature around us influenced the music, and the fact Malawi was in turmoil inspired me to write ‘Yoshua Alikuti’, about the president Bingu.

What were you setting out to achieve sonically this time round?

JH: We wanted to mess with too many styles of music, like we always do, but at the end of the day we wanted to bring out the massiveness in Esau’s voice and go all out on the production so that together they created something as epic as possible. And sometimes we just wanted to do the opposite of the last album, like with ‘Rumbae’ which is minimal, weird and dark, but actually a love story.

EM: It’s a love story which sounds like some dark, futuristic, tribal ceremony. Johan told me he cried when he was working on the post-production ‘cause he got so excited! It used to have another beat… (Laughs)

Musically, it’s hugely diverse. What were your key reference points for the record?

JH: I think the main references were more like guidelines. We wanted it to be as big-sounding as Coldplay. We wanted the club songs to be able to sit comfortably next to our favourite South African house tracks. And when we thought we had a hook melody, we would use it as pre-hook and find something even bigger and better for the actual hook. We just tried to reach higher with every song.

You worked with some pretty high-profile artists on the album. How did the collaboration with K’Naan and Bruno Mars come about?

EM: Just like on the first album, it was organic. We don’t try to go after guest artists, but rather do our thing and people seem to pop up when the time is right. The Bruno Mars track was extra weird: we had done ‘We OK’ with K’naan and he wrote part of it in L.A. without us. It was only when we were handing in the album to our label that K’naan told us that Bruno Mars had written it with him, which was a shock but very cool at the same time. We’ve never met Bruno Mars but were very grateful that he helped create a song we were very proud of.

Who have you enjoyed working with most so far?

JH: Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend was really nice ‘cause we only had a tiny little beat when it started and we built ‘Warm Heart of Africa’ together over two days. It was just a very easy and enjoyable process. But every artist is amazing to work with. We’re not always in the same room with people, but when you send someone a half-finished song and they work on it and send it back, it’s like Christmas Eve when you listen to it!

And if you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be?

JH: Some of the people we would love to work with are Apietus, Karl Jenkins, Hans Zimmer and Seal. I think Esau’s and Seal’s voices would go really well together. We’re about to work with Nico Muhly on something, which we’re really excited about…

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

EM: I think ‘We OK’ is my favourite. We recorded that whole song with a very different beat, then Johan changed the whole thing when he went back to London. When I heard the new version it just blew my mind: I didn’t even see it sounding anything like that but at the same time it was so very good.

JH: Yeah, ‘We OK’ is one of my favourites too. It’s just such a hopeful and optimistic song, just what The Very Best is about for me. I also really love ‘Nkango’. For me the lyrics and the simplicity of the song are beautiful. I loved listening to the Warm Heart of Africa album a capella but MTMTMK doesn’t work the same way when you take away the music. ‘Nkango’ is one of the songs on MTMTMK that I can put on in a capella form and love it...

What’s the plan for the rest of the year?

JH: We just finished doing all the music for an amazing documentary by Village Beat called “Tough Bond”, which follows street kids in Kenya who are addicted to glue. We did the score and soundtrack with Seye (who sings on ‘Kondaine’) and it’s been an amazing process. Most of the music is very different from MTMTMK. It has much more of a desert blues kind of feel, plus some hip-hop and very dark songs.

And we made a Afro-punk track that I can’t wait for people to hear. We were inspired by the idea of an African street band in the early 80s hearing the Sex Pistols and deciding to make a punk track, which was then recorded by someone on the street, and then the tape was found by someone in 2012… We like it so much, we’re thinking of making a whole album like it. (Laughs)

What’s been the highlight so far and what would you still like to achieve?

JH: This whole journey has been one big highlight. But maybe playing Fuji Rock last weekend was one of them. We hadn’t toured together for two years and it was amazing having everyone together on stage again and putting on an amazing show for 20,000 people.

It’s pretty mind-blowing every time we make music together too. Esau never stops surprising me. It can be kind of emotional at times: some melodies just hit me right in the heart when he sings...

And finally, can you tell us The Very Best’s mission statement please?

EM: The Very Best is all about feeling. Most people can’t understand what I’m singing about but the music carries a positive feeling. At the end of the day, we want to make people happy.