Chris Eustace caught up with Sound Of Rum frontwoman, Kate Tempest, to chinwag about the state of UK hip hop, the group's first tour and why carrying all your equipment on children's bikes is not the best idea at Glastonbury.
When VF catch up with Kate Tempest, there are the occasional pauses as “complicated roads” rear their head. The group have loaded “all the gear into a tiny car” and are “heading off” on tour but, as she’ll reveal later during our chat, there are worse ways to get around.
With her band, Sound Of Rum, embarking on their first headline tour, the debut album ‘Balance’ days from release and a summer of festivals in the offing, she’s reflecting on three years of work coming good: “It’s been interesting! We’re a bit intimidated, but hopefully people will be into it and buy the album, we’ve all been writing and playing music for a long time separately, but ever since this band came together things have been happening at breakneck speed. It just worked the minute we got in a room together.”
Formed in 2008, the band are an intriguing proposition, with Tempest’s scattergun raps to the fore while the band veer between jazz, rock and hip-hop. As with new single ‘Slow Slow’, the mood can switch from vulnerable to downright aggressive in the blink of an eye.
A prominent figure in her own right on the UK’s spoken word scene, she’s been feted by two of UK rap’s finest wordsmiths, with Roots Manuva calling her work “truly of upliftment and betterment”, and Scroobius Pip, another spoken word artist drawn to hip-hop’s lyrical nature, pronouncing her to be “annoyingly good” and “inspirational”.
Tempest is trying to keep such endorsements in her stride: “It’s amazing, humbling. They’re people that I respect and listen to, but it doesn’t make me feel arrogant or anything. It’s wonderful to know that anyone’s listening, let alone people who I respect.”
Along with these luminaries, it’s the artists that first drew her into hip-hop aged 12 that still inform her work now, with literary giants and friends also getting a mention: “I love The Wu-Tang Clan – GZA, Gravediggaz – and Gangstarr, a lot of that early ‘90’s stuff. I really like Jay Electronica too, and a guy from the UK called Durrty Goodz, who’s brilliant. I really like William Blake, Bukowski, all kinds of poets, and at the moment I’m really lucky to be influenced by people I know, peers of mine, that I’m lucky enough to be around and listen to. People like Polarbear, Micachu & The Shapes and Jamie Woon.”
Aside from those influences, Kate insists there was never any blueprint for the band’s sound: “A lot of my friends are musicians, I’ve always been around them. We just ended up at a party having a play on stage and we just put it together, we never sat down and said ‘Let’s fuse hip-hop with live music.’ I’ve done gigs with DJ’s before and it’s really cool, but there’s something about performing with a band that’s so addictive, and I can’t sing, I can only rap! So it all happened in a balanced way, which feeds into the name of the album.”
With UK hip-hop riding high in the charts at last, albeit in a rather narrow form, what does Kate make of artists who used to document the world around them, as she does, now merely asking club-goers to put their hands in the air? “I’m wary about casting judgement on somebody else’s thing, though I can feel myself wanting to! I don’t want to go home and listen to a song that’s about being in a club or talking to a girl,” she says.
“For 15 years, UK hip-hop has been asking how it’s going to get itself heard, but now it’s done that, the next question is ‘How do I sell some records?’ and the answer seems to be ‘Okay, I’ll talk some dumb shit, put it on a big beat, and then get famous.’ It’s a little bit heartbreaking, but it’s wicked at the same time. It’s just that it’s a bit contrived and when I got into that kind of music, it seemed a lot more genuine.”
Perhaps it’s an inevitable consequence that when a genre becomes popular, it gets watered down slightly, but Kate is still keen to champion those still going their own way: “There are people who are pushing themselves forward who lyrically can’t compare with some of the heroes our country’s produced, who just aren’t getting recognised. People like Chester P, he did this album called ‘From The Ashes’, which is incredible, but no-one’s ever heard of it. It’s great to see UK urban music is finding a way to be successful, but part of me is staying faithful to the artists who aren’t so successful but are still writing great rhymes.”
While the spoken word arena may be slightly more genteel than the rap scene, battling was how Kate cut her teeth, and being a female MC in a male-dominated field had its pluses and minuses: “When I first started doing battles it was difficult to get on the mic, but I’ve moved into a different world with gigs and the spoken word thing now. But people are still genuinely surprised. They think you’re going to be so shit that it doesn’t matter what you say, all you have to do is be a little less shit than they thought you’d be and they’re really congratulatory. In a way I’ve got an unfair advantage over a man who might be saying the same things!”
With Sound Of Rum set to return to Glastonbury this year, Tempest is quick to sing its praises, and the circuit in general, with a few reservations: “Glastonbury is always completely mind-blowing! I love doing festivals; it’s a bunch of people there to have fun. We go and set up by the bins and just play! But you can end up just being a festival band all your life, and never break out of it, and we’re aware of that. Everyone goes home and you’re like ‘I thought I was in a band?!’”
Sometimes it’s hard enough just trying to be a band at festivals though – Sound Of Rum will be hoping for a smoother ride into Glasto this time, after their chaotic entrance two years ago: “Our drummer Ferry [Lawrenson] had a ticket, Archie [Marsh, guitarist] got in playing keyboards for Blak Twang, and I got in as a poet. We had all our gear in just a cart and we had to push it across the festival because we had no artist passes. I borrowed two little children’s bicycles strapped together, with a rickety cart at the back. We put all our gear on the back of this bike and tried to cycle the whole width of Glastonbury! It was really hot, people were trying to jump on, the snare drum kept falling off, and we were seeing all these bands in nice cars being driven past. Then when we got to the stage we thought we were playing it turned out to be the wrong one!” There’s surely a song in there somewhere, but here’s hoping they arrive with a little more style this time.
Sound Of Rum are set to appear at Liverpool Sound City 2011 alongside Miles Kane, The View, Funeral Party and many more.
Liverpool Sound City tickets are on sale now priced at £45 for the weekend or £22.50 per day.
The debut album ‘Balance’ is released on 16 May through Sunday Best.
Find out where else the band are playing here.