The Heliocentrics

The Heliocentrics are a loose limbed collective with roots in funk and their heads in the cosmos. A passion for dusty beats has seen them work with DJ Shadow while their 13 Degrees of Reality album sees the band going further out than ever before. M quizzed drummer Malcolm about music making…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 10 Jul 2013
  • min read
Malcolm Catto is the drummer and rhythmical lynch pin at the centre of The Heliocentrics. 

He's the hub of this loose-limbed, groove-loving collective who've been in operation since their debut Far Out splashed down in 2007. Their ambitious album knitted together all sorts of sonic strands from psychedelia to leftfield hip hop, showing off the group’s love of musical experimentation.

This year's follow up, 13 Degrees of Reality, showed The Heliocentrics continuing to stretch their sound into new pastures where it takes in cosmic boogie to dub and everything else in between.

While it may have been some years between records, it’s not due to any laziness on the part of the band.

Touring, recording and producing commitments with other acts have featured heavily on their agenda while they’ve also moved studio several times.Their pipeline of releases is also looking hectic. They have a collaboration with Afro beat legend Orlando Julius for the autumn followed by live dates and another release featuring Melvin Van Peebles.

In between exploring new musical galaxies, Malcolm took some time to answer our questions on music making and working with the likes of DJ Shadow and Madlib…

How did you first get into music?

My dad played piano in a jazz band and he always looked to play his sixties r and b records to me and my brother. He was passionate about all New Orleans music and he passed that on to us.

As a young kid I loved Spaghetti Western soundtracks by Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicholai. John Peel’s radio show was also a huge influence, especially the way he would always explore different styles. His shows turned me on to a multitude of great bands such as The Fall, The Birthday Party, ATV, Swell Maps, Wire and 23 Skidoo.

What inspired you to write songs?  

Being into punk/new wave music instilled in me a kind of ‘have a go’ approach to music. The punk ethic was very much ‘if they can do it then so can we’. It meant a much narrower gulf between the listener and performer, unlike say prog or jazz which concerns itself a lot more with virtuoso musicianship.

I first played drums in my older brother’s band as a young teen in the eighties, out of necessity when the original drummer quit. We played our own songs but also covered songs by Wire and Lucifer Sam by early Pink Floyd.

How did The Heliocentrics first get together?

The Heliocentrics emerged out of the ashes of previous band The Soul Destroyers. We all shared a love of funk but found that we were unwittingly part of a passionate revivalist scene and it expected a certain sound from us. We made a few singles which were rooted in old breakbeat funk. At that time we sounded like a novelty act because there were only a handful of other bands playing that style.

In 2001 I cut a record for Mo’Wax in which I explored other influences and Jake Ferguson [Heliocentrics bassist] also cut an EP called Nesta. Both were escape routes from the heavily retro sound of the band.

We decided to team up to create something that represented something we wanted to hear, incorporating all our influences. It soon included practically everyone from the old band who wanted to escape the funk ‘straight jacket’.

How did you make the latest record 13 Degrees of Reality ?  

We recorded and produced the album at our own studio using vintage analogue equipment and tape. I wouldn’t say this was a hard album to make as we enjoy recording and experimenting in the studio. It only becomes hard when you have to commit to a definitive version of a track. But I like the process and challenge involved in seeing an idea through from its conception to its logical conclusion.

We tend to improvise first and build tracks through our intuition to come up with variations on a musical theme. It’s all about listening and the right atmosphere. We want to get closer to the source and try to remove our egos completely from our playing as well as everything we have learnt through Western music such as bars, scales and time signatures. It’s a means of creating our own primitive yet contemporary sound.

What did you hope to achieve with the album?

We always strive to take listeners on a journey and use vocal snippets and interludes to help create mood and express ideas. This accounts for the large number of songs, although without the interludes there are only really 13 tracks.

We’re also aware that this record is not an easy listen but we have never wanted to make it easy. In these troubled times we wanted to get across something that reflected the moment we're in as well as offering momentary relief from the daily grind.

How would you describe your music for the uninitiated?

Experimental. We aspire to let new creations emerge rather than replicate anything familiar. The band sound is unique and totally depends on who is in the room when the recording button is pressed.

DJ Shadow and Madlib are past collaborators - how did those hook ups come about ?

I have known Josh [Davis - DJ Shadow] for some time after meeting him in a record shop selling some funk 45’s back in the mid nineties. We both have the same love for raw funk sevens. I think he heard some of the music I was working on for my Mo'Wax Popcorn Bubblefish release and guess he saw something in it. At least enough to approach me to collaborate on some tracks to perform live on his Private Press tour. It was great working with him and we both shared a common drive to experiment.

As The Heliocentrics we also enjoyed collaborating with him later on, playing on This Time and Skullfuckery on his Outsider LP and a couple of other tracks. Madlib used some of my drums on a few of his own songs, rather than as a real collaboration, but his approach to making music is also inspiring. It’s the antithesis of DJ Shadow’s which I think is a very meticulous and self-analytical affair. Madlib has a more Jackson Pollock approach which is refreshing.

I always like the idea of collaborations as the end result is always greater than its parts There are many brilliant musicians/artists that I would love to work with, from The Gaslamp Killer to Tom Waits…

Has the music industry changed for the better or worse since you’ve become a part of it?

Everybody will agree it is now harder than ever to survive when you make contemporary underground music. CDs and vinyl sales have more than halved and the only way to get some income is through touring, but that is often only possible when you have a new release.

Our latest LP was available some places as a free download before it was officially released. This results in the gradual eroding away of independent labels like ours.

On the other hand, music is also everywhere via social media networks.

Nowadays you can hear much music that was previously unavailable and only known by a handful of collectors, from anywhere in the world regardless of the era. You can also get your song heard by a million people without leaving your bedroom. So it’s good in one way that the power is being removed from industry giants and the playing field is slowly becoming more level.

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13 Degrees of Reality is out now on the Now Again label.