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Interview with Narcissus’s Pete Lee

Pete Lee is a London based jazz pianist, currently leading contemporary group Narcissus.  Blue Flamingo conducted this interview via email in March 2013.  We were lucky enough to see his RAM performance at The Vortex with Narcissus, so now we’re touching base again!

Tell us about what inspires ‘Pete Lee’s Narcissus’

Over the last few years, I seem to have been torn in two very different musical directions, which futilely compete for my full attention. While I was studying at RAM, taught by the UK’s most prolific contemporary jazz composers & instrumentalists, I was gigging a few times a week with the most killing band of pop musicians of 12-piece group “The White Keys”.  Forming “Narcissus” was my way of bridging the gap between two things which appeared worlds apart.  I identified the two contrasting elements of life and fused them together.  I wanted to compose something with the sense of depth and maturity that you find in Gwilym Simcock’s or Kenny Wheeler’s music, with the sense of conviction, clarity, drive and sheer volume of an electronic pop band.  So that’s the musical background of the project.

I’ve been writing with a specific theme in mind too. I wanted to tie everything together with an idea that an audience could relate to, and that would be a catalyst for the creation of more music.  I chose the topic of the human mind. This includes human perception, attitude and behaviour.  It’s quite a personal theme really – I’ve had my own difficulties with mental health, and recently lost a family member, who had had a long history with mental illness.  So forming Narcissus was a bit of an emotional outpour.  Emotional potency is always a plus in music. The intangibility of the human thought process, and the fact that it is a universal entity, encouraged me to write something honest and truly from my own experience.  It can really interesting to become aware of your state of mind when you’re being most creative.  What’s happening in your mind when you’re lost in music, and how do you ensure that you achieve that state regularly?

 Do you think it makes a difference that it grew up outside the ‘London Bubble’? 

All band members in “Narcissus” have some rooting in Leeds.  We met in Leeds College of Music, but I didn’t form the band until we had relocated to London. It’s important to me that we’ve got a long history of playing together. You don’t really realise how much you trust and rely upon one-another, until you play with other musicians who have a different approach altogether.  It’s easy to forget how much you’ve become accustomed to each others’ playing, but this relationship is the basis for a group that sounds unique and well balanced.  To be honest, we’ve probably spent even more time together driving up and down the M1 in an overcrowded & precarious Transit van, sharing near-death experiences. It’s really important that we’re able to hang out together; it’s never even an effort anymore. Our activities as a group are more influential to the music than the location we came to meet.

This project is especially different for me musically.  Stylistically, it marks a bit of a paradigm shift, a tectonic shift even!  I used to swear by the acoustic sound of double bass and delicate brushes at the kit. I used to think that less was more.  This band is much punchier and more direct.  Now I think that more is more.  We chose to memorise all the material we play, so that when we’re on stage we are free to communicate rather than read.

 What did you learn during the time you studied in London?

I learnt that I’ve got a lot of work to do – a lifetime of work in fact.  I guess I was already aware that with music, there’s always more to learn.  But while studying at the Academy, this really hit home.  I was surrounded by prolific musicians, and I had one-to-ones with Nikki Iles, Gwilym Simcock, Tom Cawley and Django Bates.  It’s an amazing environment to be in – very humbling indeed.

I learnt a lot from Barak Schmool about groove writing – knowledge that I hope to utilise when writing for Narcissus. Pete Churchill’s composition and arranging lessons were great too – I learnt how to arrange my music for octet – which was really challenging.  We’d have a weekly session where we’d have an octet set up, and we’d bring in our compositions and arrangements. Mine would often sound quite rough at first – but I’d use the time between the sessions to tweak my arrangements until they I achieved what I’d first envisaged.

As well as being a humbling experience, the Academy taught me to have some self-belief and motivation. I learned that if I really worked hard, I could achieve an awful lot. The main product has been my group Narcissus with whom I played my final recital. I’m really proud of this group and I’m excited about its future.

 “Writer’s Block” is a great tune….inspired, by, Writer’s Block?  How did you break that Block?

While in my first year at academy, I had a bit of composing crisis!  I didn’t write anything new for a whole year.  To pass my composition module, I wrote new arrangements of 3 year old compositions (shhhh!). But seeing as I was arranging for octet for the first time, it made sense to practice the arranging side of things without worrying about the composition itself.  But once that was over, with my final recital approaching, I accepted that new material was long overdue. I knew how highly original material was valued in the final recital, and I wanted to leave RAM with something of my own.

Over Christmas of 2011, I fulfilled a short-term cruise contract to help out with rent. I was there for 6 weeks, and we revisited a lot of the same ports each time that we’d have new passengers. When we pulled up at port, all the old folks would amble off to the beach, leaving the room with the grand piano free.  I forced myself to write something, dusting off the creative compartments in my brain, ignoring my self-doubt.  It took around 6 weeks to write “Writer’s Block” complete with an arrangement for octet.  My idea with this piece was to unite my pop and jazz ties. It’s really similar to Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” – a really similar structure. It’s got “verses” and “choruses”, keyboard riffs that keep coming back with a horn line that sits on top – swiped almost directly from “Ain’t Nobody”!  But I used harmonic ideas that I’d found in John Taylor’s “Autumn”, and the kind of unison bass and left hand piano runs that you find in Gwilym Simcock’s “1981”.  So it’s a piece that consists of contemporary jazz content, organised into a pop structure.

To be brutally honest, I found it really fun to write something that entirely lacked tact or subtlety. It felt like a bit of a rebel statement in an increasingly pretentious and airy-fairy jazz scene. The enjoyment I found encouraged me to write the rest of the Narcissus repertoire without the self-doubt. I began to believe that I was creating was valid and worthwhile.

 Do you know what might inspire your next tunes?

I want to use more elements of live dance music, including more modern technology and sounds. Perhaps some really subby bass and synth solos. There’s still lots more mileage to be had from my theme too. There’s been some really pressing political & personal issues recently that I’d like to express with music. I’ve been brainstorming – and have a list of tune themes as long as my arm!

 What do you do to chill out when not music-ing?

Music is always on my mind, even if I’m playing Playstation! I read an interesting article recently that suggested that time spent procrastinating can be a time where many people subconsciously order their thoughts, and make grand plans. Perhaps it’s not as beneficial as playing your scales, but I think a good balance of socialising, relaxing, practicing and composing is key to living a life of successes, happiness and sound mental health.

~Thanks Pete! BF

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