Royal Tunbridge Wells might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of the recent UK jazz revival, but Top Cat Collective are proof that really exciting sounds can come from the most unexpected places. Blending classic funk with jazz and broken beat, the six-piece released their self-titled debut last year with 5 tracks smooth enough to put a Santana/Rob Thomas collab to shame. Olly Knight-Smith’s guitar and Chris Hutchings vocals compete for the title of “sexiest band member” on “Cat Scratch Blues”, an old school two-fingers-up to control from the perspective of a cat who refuses to be tamed with lines like “I’m not the kind of pussy you can stroke when you please” (described by the band as “euphemistic in a feminist kinda way”). Alex de Lacey’s keys channel the South East London scene on “Rascal Bud” while Ben Killick on bass and Conor Williams on drums give the band their signature funk sound.
The latest EP “Ways to Move” is more ambitious, with some truly insane beats on “Cowslip” and phenomenal dreamscape “Carlitos” that sounds like someone married Snarky Puppy to the Keats Collective. Harriet Langley’s sleek vocals and Chris Hutchings’ husky tones are a match made in heaven, and the album as a whole is continually surprising.
We sat down with the band at Rye Wax ahead of their EP launch this Friday to talk P-Funk, the gig life and the new album.
How did you guys meet, how did the band start?
We started at Goldsmiths with a different line up. We didn’t have a singer, we had a saxophone player and we just jammed, played hip-hop covers. Then we moved the band down to Kent. Ben came in on bass, Chris sang and we had an EP formed. Harriet’s the singer of Olly’s brother’s band and we asked her in to do some backing vocals. She came to one rehearsal and just kept coming every week after that.
Why are you called Top Cat Collective?
We really needed a name, so we just had to come up with something – and we’re useless at it. We had 2 months of silly suggestions till we got it. Alex was reading a George Clinton book, and he had a pig on one of his tours called Officer Dibble, who’s the police officer in Top Cat. We all are really into that sound so it seemed to fit. And as we all come from different musical backgrounds, it felt like a collective.
So George Clinton is obviously a huge inspiration for you – who else?
Lots of old school hip-hop – D’Angelo and the world-class musicians he’s got in his band, the J Dilla stuff. From there we worked back to the 70s P Funkers they were sampling, so it’s all kind of come full circle. And some artists right now taking inspiration from those guys and doing their own thing is inspiring us too – Hiatus Kaiyote, Jordan Rakei, that sort of thing.
Theres a lot of hype about the South-east scene – do you guys see yourselves as a part of that?
Not really, we appreciate that scene but they all grew up going to Steez and that sort of thing. We have a connection to that and an understanding but we’re not grounded in it. Most of the band isn’t based in London so we’re not all about on the scene. We’d love to play those kinds of venues though.
You’ve been playing at a bunch of festivals– tell me a bit more about where you’ve been gigging, how’s it been?
Really good – we played El Dorado festival in Herefordshire, and we were a bit worried because we were playing at the same time as Groove Armada on the main stage – but it was a really great gig with loads of people having a great time. If we can make you dance we’re winning.
Would you say you guys are natural performers then?
Our courses were performing music degrees so we were marked on that kind of stagecraft, but you don’t really learn it until you start go out and playing at really shit pubs, or to empty rooms – that’s where you really start to learn it. Sometimes you can feel a bit insecure, feel like you’re a bit under the microscope. At other times the hype you get makes it more natural.
Do you guys have a favourite gig?
El Dorado. But we’ve had a few really good ones, including our first EP Launch in our hometown Tunbridge Wells.
What’s your writing process like, how has it changed since the last album?
It’s changed a lot, because the first EP was mainly written by Olly, whereas now we have workshops as a band and just go off jam sessions. Chris wrote the lyrics before and Harriet just sang, now they both just turn up and see what fits the vibe. It’s more organic, more of a feeling. Also, have you ever tried a rather large joint followed by a rather large coffee? It can do wonders creatively.
The new stuff definitely sounds like more of a conversation between two singers. How do you guys reckon your sound has changed with the new album?
It’s more jazzy, less straight-ahead funk. The production’s heavier too. We’re really lucky to have our producer Phil Scragg, who’s been mixing and producing and recording it, and he’s a genius who’s worked with huge names. He’s got some platinum records up there.
We’re huge fans of the new EP, and especially love the new single “Ways to Move”. I also can’t wait to hear the epic “Carlitos” live – what’s the song about?
It’s kind of about staying true to who you are and not letting other things define you, about the transition from the artist persona to the person behind the music. Particularly being a musician, the kind of things you’re expected to be – the lifestyle, the drugs and alcohol and partying when sometimes you’re just trying to stay above ground. It’s so romanticised but the reality behind being a musician in London trying to pay rent and book gigs is such hard work – you can’t just be off your face all the time, you wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s about finding that balance and keeping those plates spinning.
What have you got in the works?
The single “Ways to Move” is out and the new video too. Our EP launch is on 29th September at Rye Wax, and we’ve got another two singles we’re doing the videos for. We’re hoping to do some remixes, with some hip-hop vibes too, just with some people Alex knows from the grime scene. And we’ve got Raimund Wong doing the album artwork.
Words by Amardeep Dhillion
Photography by Ruby Bukhari