Chris Montague, Joshua Blackmore and Kit Downes are Troyka, a jazz trio in love with Aphex Twin and Steely Dan and tipped by Timeout as one of London’s most exciting live acts. We spoke to Chris on songwriting, routes into jazz and how to survive as a jazz musician in 2013

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 27 Jun 2013
  • min read
Chris Montague (guitars and loops), Joshua Blackmore (drums) and Kit Downes organ) make up Troyka, a jazz trio with a difference.

This threesome take their cues from a shared love of Aphex Twin, the angular sounds of New York saxophonist Tim Berne and the blues-jazz-rock of the legendary Steely Dan.

Since they’ve been making music together, the band have done much to carve themselves a reputation as a fiercesome live act with London’s listing magazine Timeout naming them as one of the top live groups in the capital alongside Plan B, The xx and Hot Chip.

They’ve used both their breathtaking gigs and recorded output to forge a path as exciting musical contortionists, continually looking to re-invent the jazz formula. Their explorations have seen them receive Jazz FM award nominations for two categories (cutting edge jazz innovation and best UK jazz act) and an inclusion on eclectic music maker Micachu's mixtape and in Jazzwise magazine’s top ten albums list.

2013 has already been quite the year for the band with a third album in the can and well received gigs at the V&A (as part of the David Bowie Is exhibition) and Cheltenham Jazz Festival (as Troykestra) performed. The rest of the year sees the release of the new album and the group touring even harder.

M spoke to guitarist Chris for his thoughts on the health of the jazz scene and where the future of the genre lies…

How did you get into jazz?

I was into rock, metal and blues when I was kid. But I had a great guitar teacher in Newcastle who introduced me to exciting ways of improvising. This led into jazz.

As I’d got really hooked on the improv aspect, I went to music summer school and chose to take the jazz course rather than rock. The spontaneous aspect really appealed and I ended up going to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

What projects have your band Troyka been working on?

We’ve just finished recording a new album. Bar a few over dubs and extra bits, it’s finished and sounding great.

The writing process is quite a slow one with us as we can’t record it without gigging it in. When we go to the studio, it’s all mapped out and memorised. Then we have a few runs at it and get a live take laid down.

We’ve also got the Troykestra, which is the big band alter-ego of Troyka. We recorded a live performance at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May.

How does the new material differ from your past recordings?

The first album [the self-titled Troyka] received lots of press because it sounded fresh when it came out. That involved being in the studio for a day and a half and naively smashing it out. The second [Moxxy] was more considered. It’s got an analogue kind of vintage sound to the whole thing. With this third record, we booked a little more time in the studio. I wanted to layer up the guitar sound and produce it a bit more to make it seem quite strange in places but hopefully accessible too.

Is there still a role for the jazz album for artists?

With a lot of musical projects I’ve been involved in, the album is often used as a calling card. There are a lot of promoters out there who won’t book bands unless they have a new release out so it’s hard to get a tour together without having released something.

I don’t know how economically viable albums are. It’s usually a tight balancing act as fewer people are willing to buy albums in the traditional way. Although vinyl sales are supposedly on the increase and understandably as it looks, feels and sounds cool. You only tend to sell CDs at gigs but that can still be important in supplementing a band’s income.

Is the jazz scene in good health?

It has been for a few years because there’s just so much good new music out there. It’s fuelled by a combination of good artists and great promoters who are willing to take risks. There are some great promoters putting on what they like rather than things which are going to sell.

Is it harder to make ends meet as a jazz musician now than before?

It’s much harder for promoters from that angle. It’s really important to sustain these tours from region to region to support the artists. But it seems every other month another arts place goes under which is a real shame.

I’ve never been on the receiving end of any funding to go out and tour. They always tend to pay for themselves. But you have to be quite savvy about the business end of things. It can hurt you more to play low-paying gigs as they impact your ‘sell-ability’. And there’s definitely something to be said for holding back in terms of playing shows. Increasingly we’ve been getting into Europe even more which is what we’ve been aiming to do over the course of the last 12 months. We play Norway, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Paris later this year.

How can music fans discover new jazz artists?

Go take a risk on some gigs. You might not recognise the players but talk to the musicians afterwards. Word of mouth is still strong. The internet is deluged with everyone trying to hawk their wares around so you need to talk to people and open your ears. Everything I listen to is based on a recommendation.

How did you end up performing at the V&A’s David Bowie exhibition?

It was a one off thing at the V&A and it happened to coincide with the Bowie exhibition so they asked us to incorporate some bits of Bowie into it. Which we did and it sounded pretty cool – this isn’t a covers band. It’s just elements of him we took and used within the original music.

Are there any new musicians you’re really excited about in the jazz world?

There are so many. Rory Simmons is an active composer and trumpet player who does loads of interesting music. I’ve been in the studio with Josh Blackmore and Kit Downes for three days and they do some incredible things. Jazz drummer Tim Giles is someone I’m always blown away by.

Why do so many jazz artists study the music?

If you’re serious about a career in jazz, then you have to be at the top of your game. You have to be the best you possibly can. Because of this, every gig you see is of a very high standard.

It would also be nice to think that jazz will have an explosion like the folk scene recently has. It seems there increasing amounts of young people are getting into it and they don’t label it in the same way. It’s just music to them. It’s our job as musicians to go out there and connect with audiences who wouldn’t necessarily class themselves as jazz fans. That is our responsibility.

Read our interview with fellow Troyka member and jazz pianist Kit Downes. You can also check our full-length feature on the new jazz generation of artists doing their utmost to reinvent the genre.