Joey Negro: Sunny side up
Dave Lee is always on the move. And it’s not surprising really considering how many aliases the man works under – Sunburst Band, Joey Negro, Akabu, Raven Maize, Z Factor... the list goes on. It’s actually Sunburst, however, that we’re here to talk about this month; and Negro. For Mr Lee is releasing his fourth Sunburst Band album (presented by Joey Negro) this month, "The Secret Life Of Us."
It’s another scorcher, mixing the familiar sounds of sweet soul, jazz, funk, electro and disco. There is perhaps more of a lean towards Eighties boogie but the instrumentation, musicality and studio quality is as consistent as ever. Lee’s collaborators are on point too. Aside from his talented ensemble of musicians, including Tony Remy on guitar, Julian Crampton on bass and Frank Tontoh on drums, there are heavyweight guest vocals courtesy of Donna Gardier, Pete Simpson and Diane Charlemagne (the Inner City Life singer with whom he co-wrote much of the album).
“You go through waves of satisfaction and dejection whenever you’re recording an album but let’s be honest this wouldn’t be getting a release if I wasn’t happy” Lee reflects. “There are a few unfinished tracks that I originally intended for the album but things change. There’s a familiar soulful sound but we’ve tried to avoid the same song hooks as before; we’ve tried to write memorable new songs that will stand the test of time.”
How did Lee find working with the Sunburst ensemble this time round? “In some ways it gets easier because there are a lot of familiar faces who you’ve worked with before” he says. “But working collaboratively like this is always time-consuming; you’re juggling different schedules, inputs, styles.... This album required all the usual careful organisation and, as such, totally wore me out. But the end product makes it worth the while.”
"The Secret Life Of Us" is a particularly refreshing listen coming at a time when electronic music has overhauled most of the dancefloor. The majority of records, today, are made on bedroom laptops with digital software and recording techniques.
“So much dance music is made electronically these days” Lee agrees. “I didn’t want to stray too far from that with this album but it was important the album represented something more expansive. I’m lucky in that I made a fair amount of money from some of my big crossover projects in the Nineties and can afford now to go against the flow. That’s important because you need to standout; otherwise, you’re trying to second guess 22-year-olds and that’s going to prove a hapless task.”
Is Lee happy, therefore, to simply maintain a loyal older audience? “There’s no doubt that an older crowd likes what we do... that soulful dance sound. And they’re incredibly passionate which is fantastic. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to try and appeal to the kids” he suggests. “This notion that Sunburst is a retro project is a little baffling. Yes, we’re taking the inspiration of older styles of music but we’re also using contemporary techniques and ideas. When you use a live bass in dance you’re labelled as unfashionably old school. But Rock and indie bands today use them all the time and they’re considered normal.”
Lee has been in music for nearly 25 years now, his creation of acid-house imprint Republic Records in 1988 eventually giving way to a number of successful ‘dance’ singles, EPs, remixes and albums under aliases including Joey Negro, Akabu, Jakatta and Sessomatto; not to mention his current label Z, on to which many of those projects fall. What does he put his impressive longevity down to?
“I’ve just tried to remain relevant within the sphere of music that I operate” he begins. “I’ve always been close to soulful, musical house and dance but have tried different things with that style over the years. Clubbers are transient beasts so you have to keep pace with them but not at the cost of our older forms of music, I think.”
Artists haven’t just got their music to think of in these digital times either, much consideration needs to be given to business strategy, marketing and administration. “Music has changed so much” Lee concedes. “There is constant decision making in terms of release strategy and how best to keep audiences engaged. Some of that comes from new material but most by clever use of the catalogue you already have... new compilations of tracks... new remixes.”
Lee has also capitalised on e-retail, digitizing old and new tracks alike to maximise audience and sales: “You have to embrace change. I’ll use Twitter to spread the word on Z, for example, and look at the last Sunburst album [2008’s 'Moving With The Shakers']... we had some great web sales. They were stronger than store sales.”
Looking forward, he has high hopes for Sunburst’s latest opus. He feels it is a significant progression from "Moving With The Shakers" and earlier albums "Until The End Of Time" (2004) and "Here Comes The Sunburst Band" (1998). And beyond its summer release, there are plans for a series of related remix EPs.
“Remixes are a lottery” he says, “You don’t always know what you’re going to get from remixers and that includes me. For every five great remixes you do, there will always be one that’s only slightly good or satisfactory. But don’t get me wrong, I’m a big believer in remixes if they’re commissioned in the right way. I’m looking at how I can extend Sunburst’s influence through the rest of the year, so the likes of DJ Spinna, Atjazz and Million Dollar Disco (AKA Al Kent) will be offering their twists on tracks from "The Secret Life Of Us". I’m confident they’ll each make the grade.”
Joey Negro & The Sunburst Band "The Secret Life Of Us" is out now on Z Records.
You can read more from this interview with Joey Negro in our printed issue of Blues & Soul - click below to order your copy now.
Words BEN LOVETT