Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Interview: Neko Neko

Type ‘Neko Neko’ into your internet search engine of choice and you’re met by numerous Japanese anime drawings of cats. That’s easy enough to explain; ‘neko’ is Japanese for ‘cat’. But delve a little deeper and Neko Neko, aside from meaning ‘cat cat’, is the alter ego of an electronic musician with a knack for successfully interlocking samples into fresh, soulful and funky settings.

For its creator, Graham Shortland, Neko Neko’s other meaning – “someone who has creative ideas that are damaging or get in the way of normal life” – was too fitting with his musical outlook to resist as a moniker.

The project is indirectly the result of a defining experience at the age of 16 that lit up a path in electronic music. “Late on one night, I was having a cig in my garden and I heard this amazing music coming from a neighbour’s window. Immediately, I ran round and knocked on until he answered. He told me it was Four Tet and gave me a bunch of records. That was it, I was hooked.”

The path has so far led from listener to composer and on to performer, with many and varied modes of musical production, which is what keeps Shortland interested. Sitting in front of flashing LEDs and digital complexities, he has a simple intention: “to create something with soul.”

“With samples,” Shortland explains, “it’s generally one little part of a song or phrase that catches my ear. Sometimes it's not even an obvious bit, might just be a single note or chord I can hear which I know I can transform into something else.”

Fulfilling that ambition is no easy task and the possibilities for filling every minute segment of musical structure are vast, so when writing he aims for a clear mind in order to produce something “that's different and has a new sound. I don't think I have any big notable influences that I try to emulate.”

Once pinned down, the samples are then often looped and it is a technique that walks the tightrope between mellow bliss and monotony bereft of meaning. That’s the risk at stake for any musician and Neko Neko’s output so far not only avoids the potholes, but shows early promise.

It’s also always a risk to rework any song considered sacred to many, but that didn’t stop Neko Neko taking on the Pink Floyd classic album The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, finding right amount of clever embellishments, tempo shifts and idiosyncrasy to make it something distinct enough from the original to take on a new life. Its title of Orange Side of the Moon is typical of his abstract and light-hearted approach to making music, with the orange part a reference to an unreleased album of his named My Favourite Sound is Orange.

Since then he has released a two singles via Manchester based My First Moth Records – the latest of which sold out of physical copies soon after becoming available to buy last month – which have been punctuated by another longer recording project in the shape of remixes from an old Reader’s Digest mixtape. He filmed the process via webcam as an added innovation to accompany the Balearic grooves that recall Aim’s funky trip hop in its smooth rhythms and instrumental ambience. For something he describes as being born from frustration, it makes for delightful listening, although not much of it has been retained for live sets.

What does merit inclusion in the Neko Neko live set varies between subtle clips and better known remixes, such as the B side to his latest single, ‘Ya Playin’’, with its lyrical nod to Jeru The Damaja. Now sought after by his peers, Shortland sets himself a high standard in remixology but, aside from his own material, he can appreciate anyone who achieves a composition “where the remix ends up standing up as a good song in its own right, like the Machinedrum remix of Bonobo’s ‘Eyesdown’.”

His realigned soundwaves are scheduled to be featured on the forthcoming record by Frameworks and BluRum13, while a recent gig supporting local trip hop trio From The Kites Of San Quentin at Salford’s Sacred Trinity Church proved an opportunity to air remixes completed last year for an EP by The Electronic Exchange. There are plans to develop this further in imminent performances as The Electronic Exchange’s vocalist, Najia Bagi, will make the step from an electronic sample to a live appearance in collaboration alongside Neko Neko. The first opportunity to see the results will be a Now Then gig with My First Moth Records on Thursday 8th March.

It is a sign that Neko Neko is an evolving artist with a busy year in the pipeline. Shortland admits that his current guise is by no means the finished product so there is plenty to look forward to in the foreseeable future. “This year there’ll be an album, another beat tape, a remix for Frameworks’ album, an EP and some possible collaborations with a local mc, but that's early days yet. I'm also planning to step up the live set, hopefully introducing some live instruments.”

Words: Ian Pennington
Now Then My First Moth poster design: Craig Brown (Beards Club Illustration)
Other art / photos courtesy of My First Moth or Neko Neko

Neko Neko's first performance in collaboration with Najia Bagi will be at Dulcimer on Thursday 8th March for a Now Then / My First Moth co-promotion. WhoAmI & Trebor will also perform live while MFM manager DJ Mischief will DJ along with TNC's Omas and Aver.

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