The world is simply a better place with The Cinematic Orchestra making music. It’s been 12 years since the group – formed in 1999 by Jason Swinscoe, and completed by longtime partner Dominic Smith – last released a studio album. And we’re more than happy to welcome them back with the forthcoming release of To Believe, out via Ninja Tune on Friday (15 March).
Despite time the gap between albums, they have been a vital source of inspiration over those years for many, meaning it's not at all a jarring return. In weaving jazz and classical orchestration into beat-driven electronic music, and making it sound like the coolest thing on Earth, the band have had so many new musicians picking up on their work: One arguable achievement of theirs is paving the way for acts popping on the current jazz scenes in London and LA. A wide-ranging bunch of acts including BadBadNotGood, Sons Of Kemet, and Floating Points, arguably, wouldn’t have had an open door to break through if it wasn’t blown open by tastemaking forefathers The Cinematic Orchestra.
Historical significance aside, thoughts are all on the future release when Gigwise meets Jason Swinscoe and Dominic Smith over the phone today. The time is kept brief and our interview slots in during a heavy two days of promo for them in London that Smith's flown in from Los Angeles for. Initially it becomes difficult to hold back the gushing comments after spending a few days immersed in ts gravitas: “It’s a monumental piece of work,” we say before hitting record on the dictaphone. And we mean it: From the moment it starts with the haunting beauty of Moses Sumney's singing on ‘To Believe’, right through to the Heidi Vogel guesting closer – it’s under an hour journey, but easily stands tall as one of the most exciting collaborative albums of recent times.
And after hearing it, we can assure you the dazzling quality of talent listed on the sleeve notes is not name drops to sell a record; but awesome handpicked talent that helped shape the band’s best album yet. Guests include Roots Manuva, Grey Reverend (vocalist on Bonobo’s 'First Fires’), Dorian Concept and Tawiah (Mark Ronson band, Kindness). Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Flying Lotus, Anderson .Paak, Thundercat, Hiatus Kaiyote) features on strings, Dennis Hamm (Flying Lotus, Thundercat) on keys.
Upon hitting record and keeping the praise to a minimum, the chat gets going and and we discuss some of the key aspects of the making of the album. We hear their true feelings towards being an artist in New York at the height of gentrification, some niche musical heroes, and dig further into their artfully open to interpretation theme: Belief. We even risk our arm in attempting to dig into what it might mean. Here's 7 things we learned speaking to these hallowed musicians:
1. New York lost its spark
Sometimes a change of scene is needed in order to ignite a spark for great artistry to be achieved. For Londoner Jason Swinscoe, Smith’s suggestion of leaving his once adopted home of New York was the one that galvanised the band. Asked what was unsettling him, Swinscoe says: “In my experience of New York the creative community loses the focus on art and it becomes a discourse on commerce,” says Swinscoe...
“And guestlist,” Smith adds, rolling his eyes.
“And that is really uninspiring. It puts you off engaging in work. I lost trust in the music community there,” replies Swinscoe, who spent five years there.
2. So they moved to Los Angeles
A lot went right once Swinscoe joined Smith over in California back in 2011. We’ve already mentioned a few of the names that came in to prominence during the making of the new album above. Standouts include those working with artists signed to FlyLo’s Brainfeeder label (i.e. Dennis Hamm, who also worked on the Louis Cole album). But they also met Moses Sumney there who sets the mood of the album of epically.
Asked about the draw of Los Angeles, Smith quips: “I used to say LA is hippies or Hollywood. The Hollywood was the bit I didn’t like and the genuine hippy bit was amazing. To me, it had all these people in lots of different disciplines who were really motivated by the work not by the money or the lifestyle and that’s very refreshing.”
The above comments may be nostalgic but his point stands: The artistic community in Los Angeles welcomed them with open arms according to them, and it’s evident in listening to the music. “I think the reason Dom won me over with Los Angeles and then ultimately made both of us spend time there was that the community of people there were really true to their work. It wasn’t trendy or ego-led,” he adds.
It was also musically a very relevant place for The Cinematic Orchestra to be says Smith: “There were a few artists out there that were doing some great beat music at a time when other people weren’t. The enthusiasm for that was dying off in London at the time. And I do think there is a real connection to the West Coast which was more obvious with London electronica.”
The duo, however, only spent two full years living together there (2011 - 2013) but it's what they regard as the birthplace of the record. Much of the subsequent work was done with Smith the only member living full-time in Los Angeles and Swinscoe returning to London.
3. London and New York still played a big part
Despite the enthusiasm for Los Angeles – and the jadedness mentioned in our first point – there’s no denying the prominence of London and New York in the recording process. Merely scratching the surface, we can see the mighty Grey Reverend vocal sessions came out of New York, and the recording was finished in Jimi Hedrix's Electric Lady Studios in said city. And the Roots Manuva session is just one of a few recordings sessions they had in their old stomping ground of London.
4. Roots Manuva recorded his part in a hotel room
Londoner Roots Manuva – a label mate over at Ninja Tune – has nailed his vocals on the album’s atmospheric, goosebump-inducingly awesome lead single ‘Caged Bird/Imitations Of Life’. Asked about the session, Swinscoe tells Gigwise: “’All Things To All Men’ [their first collaboration together, released on the album Everyday] was a great moment capturing Rodney in a great place in his career and Cinematic’s likewise. Normally, we don’t revisit vocalists on our previous repertoire. But Rodney is special human being and our path’s naturally met again and that track ['Caged Bird...] was calling out for him. We were like, ‘No! We can’t do it. We’ve done it before.’ But it just had to be. That whole recording session with roots in London was exceptionally amazing. It was in a hotel room the first session.”
5. Composers Jean-Claude Vannier and Bernard Herrmann are among their heroes
The Cinematic Orchestra worked with the brilliant string player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (Flying Lotus, Anderson .Paak, Thundercat, Hiatus Kaiyote) and treated his parts much like samples, adding in his writing where it might fit with ideas of their own. Offering high praise they explain what drew them to work with him, they say “he reminded us of heroes like Bernard Herrmann or Jean-Claude Vannier or people like that.”
6. Vocalists given lyrical suggestion yet freedom to express themselves
This album is – as the title implies – Cinematic Orchestra’s treatise on belief. Smith tells us they’ve taken on socio-biological (The University of Sussex professor Anil Seth is a big influence), social theoretical (post-structuralism and post-modernism) considerations; and Los Angeles film professor and hip-hop photographer Brian “B+” Cross was a key influence in honing the theme for the album.
But the end work isn’t one dictated by their sole view of their belief; it’s one that opened the playing field to a smorgasbord of interpretation from the musicians guesting on it. Speaking of the freedom the singer’s had to record, Swinscoe says the following:
“Obviously these vocalists were handpicked and purposefully to engage in their self-belief, their questioning, their critique, and their background will naturally seep into it. I think that’s a really compelling part of it. They do engage and everyone has a slightly different path. On a holistic level we’re trying to focus everyone on the same thing, the same question.”
7. Here’s what the theme means to us: The music implies we should question everything we’re told is the ‘truth’ for a better world.
Aware of people guided to believe the ideologies purported by increasingly fascist Western politicians in power, The Cinematic Orchestra are making music that feels like it’s directing the listener to subversive discourses that – if engaged in en-mass – could amount to change for the better.
For example, it can be argued that the following quote about the album, told by the Smith to Gigwise, implies that questioning what makes the powerful powerful – or analysing the structures upholding mainstream discourse – is the start to pulling the rug from under the treacherous direction we’re pulled in:
“I think the ideas [in To Believe] are encouraging us all to be a little more critical of our process. To think about how we interact with the world around us. And think about how discerning we are of the narratives that are presented to us. How discerning are we of information? How discerning are we of our own consciousness, and our own situation in reality and just feeling? It’s something we could all grow in all the time. […] You could argue the news isn’t the news, it’s a construct. That stuff is ringing quite true with the political climate at the moment. ”
A thoughtful perspective. One that chimes with his corresponding comment that: “The lead line [from the track Moses Sumney takes lead vocal on ‘To Believe’] ‘In this fantasy everyone needs something to believe’ is a question and a statement.” He goes further: “You could argue that consciousness and belief – without belief there is no purpose in life and really belief is the architecture or our reality. We believe in things therefore they become something we manoeuvre around.”
This compassionate thinking of the patchwork of voices and complexity of our society and understanding of self, is the kind of thinking that Twitter – the number one platform blamed for binary thinking and a lack of discussion about ideology couldn’t be further away from. The likes of TVAM, The Coral, and Trevor Sensor have all called for a deeper critique about our current political situation in society – and in music – in interview with Gigwise. And The Cinematic Orchestra appear to be doing so in music. Afterall, there are very few bands who do political and preachy well – it’s very hard. Subtly subversive will do nicely.