Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1091

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Joey Negro: Sunny side up

Joey Negro
Joey Negro

Dave Lee is always on the move. And itâs not surprising really considering how many aliases the man works under â Sunburst Band, Joey Negro, Akabu, Raven Maize, Z Factor... the list goes on. Itâs actually Sunburst, however, that weâre 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."

Itâs 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. Leeâs 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).

âYou go through waves of satisfaction and dejection whenever youâre recording an album but letâs be honest this wouldnât be getting a release if I wasnât happyâ Lee reflects. âThere are a few unfinished tracks that I originally intended for the album but things change. Thereâs a familiar soulful sound but weâve tried to avoid the same song hooks as before; weâve tried to write memorable new songs that will stand the test of time.â

How did Lee find working with the Sunburst ensemble this time round? âIn some ways it gets easier because there are a lot of familiar faces who youâve worked with beforeâ he says. âBut working collaboratively like this is always time-consuming; youâre 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.â

"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.

âSo much dance music is made electronically these daysâ Lee agrees. âI didnât want to stray too far from that with this album but it was important the album represented something more expansive. Iâm 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. Thatâs important because you need to standout; otherwise, youâre trying to second guess 22-year-olds and thatâs going to prove a hapless task.â

Is Lee happy, therefore, to simply maintain a loyal older audience? âThereâs no doubt that an older crowd likes what we do... that soulful dance sound. And theyâre incredibly passionate which is fantastic. But that doesnât mean I donât want to try and appeal to the kidsâ he suggests. âThis notion that Sunburst is a retro project is a little baffling. Yes, weâre taking the inspiration of older styles of music but weâre also using contemporary techniques and ideas. When you use a live bass in dance youâre labelled as unfashionably old school. But Rock and indie bands today use them all the time and theyâre considered normal.â

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 âdanceâ 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?

âIâve just tried to remain relevant within the sphere of music that I operateâ he begins. âIâve 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.â

Artists havenât just got their music to think of in these digital times either, much consideration needs to be given to business strategy, marketing and administration. âMusic has changed so muchâ Lee concedes. âThere 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.â

Lee has also capitalised on e-retail, digitizing old and new tracks alike to maximise audience and sales: âYou have to embrace change. Iâll use Twitter to spread the word on Z, for example, and look at the last Sunburst album [2008âs 'Moving With The Shakers']... we had some great web sales. They were stronger than store sales.â

Looking forward, he has high hopes for Sunburstâs 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.

âRemixes are a lotteryâ he says, âYou donât always know what youâre going to get from remixers and that includes me. For every five great remixes you do, there will always be one thatâs only slightly good or satisfactory. But donât get me wrong, Iâm a big believer in remixes if theyâre commissioned in the right way. Iâm looking at how I can extend Sunburstâs 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". Iâm confident theyâll each make the grade.â

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.

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