INTERVIEW // Ishmael Ensemble: the band making jazz punk again

Ishmael Ensemble's Pete Cunningham on their Bristol-centric debut album

Ishmael Ensemble interview Pete Cunningham

Local jazz-infused electronica heavyweights Ishmael Ensemble have been making huge waves in the both in Bristol and beyond, since the release of their 2017 EP Songs for Knotty was championed by BBC6 Music and Gilles Peterson, and caught the attention of electronic and jazz fans alike. 

This Friday, their debut album A State of Flow is set to be released and after hearing a few singles, including the excellent Lapwing and The Chapel, fans already know it’s going to be a corker. To kick off their highly anticipated album tour, Ishmael Ensemble will be performing live at Rough Trade Bristol this Thursday via Colston Hall Presents. 

Nitelife caught up with Ishmael Ensemble’s Pete Cunningham to find out how the multi-instrumentalist and producer first came up with the concept of Ishmael Ensemble, what we can look forward to from the album and what’s in store for Thursday’s show at Rough Trade.  

Ishmael Ensemble is the brainchild of saxophonist Pete Cunningham. After moving to Bristol in 2009, Pete began making electronic house music under the name Ishmael – inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Ishmael released his first single with Wolf Music in 2012 and continued to create ‘jazzy-house music’, before slowly starting to incorporate live instrumentation into his live sets. But after realising he was spreading himself too thin on stage trying to juggle various instrumentals, Pete knew something had to change. 

‘Banoffee Pie Records got in touch and asked me to make an EP for them, but they suggested I used live instrumentals instead of electronic stuff. I took their advice and I went out to record my mates playing various instruments to make my own sample pack, as opposed to sampling records or using online sample packs. Through that process, I thought about how we could go about performing these sounds live, and that’s how the band came to form.’

I went out to record my mates playing various instruments

The core four members of Ishmael Ensemble are Stephen Mullins on guitar, Jake Spurgeon on keys/synth and Rory O’Gorman on the drums. But rather than putting a random ad out to find musicians to form the ensemble, Pete invited friends he has known since primary and secondary school to join him on the project. 

in my mind, we’ve been playing together for at least 20 years because we’ve been friends for so long

‘It’s funny, when I speak to people about the new album, they think we are this cool new band, but in my mind, we’ve been playing together for at least 20 years because we’ve been friends for so long.

‘I think there’s something really nice about that though. We all know each other so well, so no one is afraid to put new ideas on the table. I’m not the overlord who determines everything we do – especially in our live sets. It’s very much one big collaboration. We’re all good enough friends to not be offended if we don’t like something either, which really comes in handy.”

It’s very much one big collaboration

Ishmael Ensemble’s debut album A State of Flow is a fine representation of the local community within Bristol’s jazz scene, from the members of the Ensemble, to their guest features. Embodying a ‘think locally, not globally’ attitude whilst creating this album, Pete has pulled together some of the best local talent to feature on the album to celebrate the thriving local music scene Bristol has to offer. 

it’s really nice to get people we admire to be part of the album

‘This is the first time we have properly collaborated and it’s really nice to get people we admire to be part of the album. Bristol based singer Holly Wellington aka Holysseus Fly has been part of the project since its conception and was the person who introduced me to people like Snazzback and Waldo’s Gift, so it’s really nice to have her on board. We also have Japanese singer Yoshino Shigihara from the Bristol based psych-jazz band Yama Warashi feature on the album.

‘We are constantly referenced as a “new London jazz group”, so we wanted to shout about the Bristol scene to try and make people aware. As a result, we created a very Bristol-centric album that celebrates the local sounds through our lens. There’s so much happening in Bristol at the moment, in particular the younger scene at The Gallimaufry with Waldo’s Gift and Snazzback. It’s a really exciting time right now and it deserves to be celebrated.’ 

we created a very Bristol-centric album that celebrates the local sounds through our lens

Ishmael Ensemble are touring their live show across the country this May, with support from Waldo’s Gift. Kicking off at Rough Trade Bristol on the 2nd May. Pete gives us a sneak peek on what we can look forward to from their live, home turf show. 

‘This tour is really quite exciting because we’ve lived with this album for over a year now, so it’s that weird moment of passing it on. The live show expands on the record, rather than sticking to or being loyal to the original recordings. We’ve created something really invigorating and potentially unpredictable.

we’ve created something really invigorating and potentially unpredictable

Lapwing, for instance, has doubled in length in the live show and has this epic ending. It’s things like that we’re really excited to share with everybody. We’ve almost written entirely new songs for the live show, using the album as a framework.

We’ve almost written entirely new songs for the live show, using the album as a framework

Ishmael Ensemble have received a lot of airplay on BBC6 Music and Worldwide FM over the recent years, thanks to the likes of Gilles Peterson. Pete tells us how they first got on Gilles Peterson’s radar and what it’s like to have such a figurehead in the music scene flying the Ishmael Ensemble flag. 

‘I think what makes Gilles so commendable is that he is a serious digger and has this great skill where he really gives everything a deep listen.

‘The first time our paths crossed was after performing at a mate’s New Year’s Eve party. A friend approached us saying how his brother works for Gilles Peterson and he’d like to pass on our music, so I gave him a rough demo CD with my name and number scribbled on a piece of paper. A few weeks later, on a Saturday night around 1am, I got a text from Gilles saying how much he enjoyed the album. For me that was such an eye opener into how prolific he is. That’s probably his one Saturday night off in three months and he is sat at home listening to random blank CDs at 1am. That was the real realisation for me why he is so respected – because he genuinely loves it.

on a Saturday night around 1am, I got a text from Gilles saying how much he enjoyed the album

‘We might get somewhere in a few years and it would always be him that picked up our CD first – that’s the enthusiasm for us to keep going.’

As we wrapped up our chat with Pete, we finished by reflecting on the jazz movement that’s swept across the UK, despite the fact people were still cracking ‘jaaaazz’ jokes from The Fast Show up until only a few years ago. 

Jazz has lost the stiff, tuxedo wearing image and is back to being the people’s music again

‘This scene has a youthful energy, where everyone looks like an average millennial. Jazz has lost the stiff, tuxedo wearing image and is back to being the people’s music again. It has a DIY punk element to it where people are recording and releasing stuff themselves, and support each other within the wider community.

‘I like to think Bristol mirrors this attitude with everyone playing in each other’s bands. We are all helping each other out. I think it’s an attitude people can really relate to that’s about inclusiveness. It’s broken down the boundaries of jazz being an elitist genre and has gone back to being the people’s music.’

2 May – Ishmael Ensemble, Rough Trade (Colston Hall Presents)
Tickets // colstonhall.org

ishmaelensemble.com // @ishmaelensemble

Previous PREMIER // Pharaoh K drops his first EP under chilled techno alias Seska 
Next Win 4 x VIP tickets to Bristol Sounds 2019

No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *