Welcome to Ground Control, a brand new interview series from us here at Satellite HQ! In this series we will be speaking to a selection of amazing local artists and bands about their work, their journey so far and everything in between!
Kick-starting our first edition of the series is the wonderful Sweet Beans! They are a Riot Jazz four piece band based in Liverpool. Formed during their time studying at university, the band consists of Miceál Sammon on Trombone and Bass, Adam Letman on Saxophone, Henry Atkinson on Drums and Josh Blackwell on Guitar. We are big fans of these guys, after seeing them a couple of times, we are in awe of their electric stage presence and penchant for creating blood pumping and exciting music. They are one of the most enthralling live acts we've seen..as well as one of the craziest!
We're so excited they agreed to join us for the launch of this new series and would like to extend our thanks to them for taking part! So without further ado, let's launch straight in and go behind the beans with Sweet Beans!
Rach Hankin: Thanks so much for joining us to launch our Ground Control interview series! We're dying to talk about your gig on Saturday night (13.11.21), but first, introduce yourselves to our followers! Who are Sweet Beans, how did you get together and is there a story behind the name?!
Henry Atkinson: Ha, yes! There is a story behind the name but I think Miceál may be the best person to explain it and kick us off...
Miceál Sammon: Well we all first met at Hope University, we met during myself and Adam's second year and Henry and Josh’s first year in the Phil Shotton Big Band. At the first rehearsal of the big band, we met Henry and then Josh the week after. Myself and Adam had been waiting for a solid year to find a drummer and a guitarist and as soon as we saw them play, we knew we had to chat to them so I tackled Henry whilst Adam chatted to Josh and we said to them that we needed to be in a band!
HA: Yes, it was very aggressive... *laughs*
MS: We came on strong but it worked out! And the rest is history and we started rehearsing straight away. The name came about…
Adam Letman: It’s something he (Miceál) used to say a lot if something was good.. “it’s sweet beans.”
MS: See I’m from Derry in Northern Ireland so that’s just something we always say if something is great! We were trying to come up with a band name and couldn’t really come up with one...
Josh Blackwell: We were kind of being forced to come up with a name for a gig (Angel Fields Festival) and we just sort of stuck with Sweet Beans!
HA: Most things have kind of happened by accident for us, apart from the music!
AL: Especially song names, someone will just suggest something and we’ll go with it!
JB: There’s no real rhyme or reason to it all…
AL: It just ‘is’..
Helen Maw: So you describe yourselves as 'riot jazz', tell us more about that..
JB: So 'riot jazz' is a term that I first heard in relation to a Brooklyn based band that we all really like and one of the early groups that we all connected over called the Youngblood Brass Band and they are kind of a mix of Hip Hop with massive horn sections, really kind of ‘stomp your feet’, Dance/Jazz, it’s very kind of rowdy and really blood pumping and they describe themselves as riot jazz so it’s sort of a real genre, sort of a made up one! But since we started doing our stuff, we had a similar set up with lots of horns and harmonies. That was always in the DNA of our band but then our approach has always been a bit more lively and raucous. So the riot jazz thing was something we all thought suited us!
AL: Yeah, it does suit. We’re not Jazz, we’re not Funk, there is no box, we're outside of the box!
RH: Did you all have similar musical tastes before becoming a band, and was it easy to decide on the style of music you were going to make?
*They all laugh*
HA: It was a slow, arduous process...most of the songs were scrapped initially, but we’re happy with where we are now!
AL: We binned off a lot of our songs because it has taken us two and a bit years to define our sound...and our sound is insanity. So a lot of the songs we were trying to be Jazz or Funk and it was horrible. We needed an element of insanity injected into it!
MS: A bit of weirdness..
HA: Just something different…
JB: As well, the fact is that we do all come from quite different musical backgrounds and I think the reason it sounds like it’s a bit of a melting pot of sounds and styles and genres is because that’s kinda what it is. Probably we (Josh and Henry) have a more ‘traditional’ musical history and approaches until recently. I mean I come from more of a Rock and Blues background and he (Miceál) comes from more a Folk and a Punk..
MS: I don’t even know, a Punk/Folk/Classical mix...I grew up playing Trombone and doing Grades but I love Punk music and I love Irish Folk too so it’s honestly a melting pot. I think the common vein that we share, a root, is Jazz which is why people keep describing us as Jazz music..
AL: But we’re not really Jazz.
HA: Yeah, it did feel strange headlining a Jazz night..
AL: I mean you’ve seen us perform on stage...we go mental and so the music has to reflect that..
RH: I think it definitely worked though! Would you say it's important for you guys to sort of meld genres together? I think you headlining Fujazzi might have opened up more traditional Jazz fans to different styles. I think you definitely can hear the Jazz in there..I know you say you aren't a jazz band but the roots are there..
AL: Well thank you, we really hope so!
MS: Yeah, it’s all about the roots!
RH: I think it's just great that you're touching on all different genres..
AL: Exactly, that’s what we do and after every gig we get told “oh that was great, it was different!” and that’s what we are, we’re different.
JB: There is influence from Rock music, electronic and dance music, more avant-garde, more experimental stuff...Henry said a few months back that at heart, we’re always a little big band. Which is true because that’s where we met and we’re always a four-piece, there is definitely a Jazz influence.
“At heart, we're always a little big band...because that's where we met..”
MS: We’re just trying to get all of those voicings in the fold...we try our best.
RH: So as 'Musos', properly trained musicians, have you always been comfortable with letting go when performing or is it something that you've struggled with?
AL: We all have different approaches and it’s interesting that you’ve brought that up...so me and Josh do a lot of theory and such whereas Henry and Miceál play sort of more by ear and then those together is unreal...it’s a fantastic mesh of just insanity..again. It’s great, it works really well!
MS: But I think as well, myself having a foot in classical music, being at school and going through grades, you do do that ‘music’ part and you do it formally but I have always relied on my ear in whatever type of music I’m doing; Rock, Jazz, Trad and Josh as well as a guitarist. You do generally learn through ear and it becomes not so much that you play everything that is on the paper..
JB: Certainly for the majority of the time I’ve been playing, I’ve played what I wanted to and also I have also done grades and been classically trained and learnt the notation but that stuff kind of was put to the wayside a few years ago now.
HM: I’ve had the same sort of classical training and found that sometimes it was frowned upon almost to rely on your ear but I think when you’re moving across genres, it’s a really important skill to have..
HA: I think it’s just so old fashioned and now you hear of so many amazing and famous musicians who have never read music and it sort of debunks that myth..
AL: In a band setting as well, it’s definitely less important
MS: It’s definitely less important, I 100% agree, but what comes with music training is a certain way of seeing things differently...it’s being able to approach things in a different way.. Between us all, we have a lot of ability to see things in different aspects Which is a really useful thing and what we learnt music for....we can see the advantages of one thing as opposed to another and we can see the ideas we present to the audience and make them digestible to them.
AL: I think that’s why we made the band the way it is and why we met each other, we’re all a bit different in terms of how we play but that’s just where we came from.
RH: Traditionally jazz is based around improvisation, does this play a part in your composition process?
AL: It used to more, not so much nowadays, we’re a lot more meticulous with details...we’ll still take solos and improvise on stage in a Jazz way but the more we progress as a band, the more accurate we are and it defines our sound a lot more.
MS: We’ve done it before where we’ve jammed for say, 40 minutes and it’s resulted in some ideas but these days it tends to be each individual comes to practice with a certain idea...like a skeleton and then we figure out what it would work with instrument wise and we experiment with textures and change it about. Improvisation defines us as individuals, but not as a band….
HA: I think a lot of the time as well, there is a lot of brutal honesty involved. When something doesn’t work even if we really want it to, we just have to leave it.
JB: We’ve even written entire songs and thought ‘this is great...but it’s just not us’
AL: It’s been important to do that as we’ve come to define our sound.
RH: So that’s been important to you guys for your sound, you could have written a masterpiece but if it isn’t the right fit then it has to go..
AL: I mean, we’ve done that, we've totally done that where we’ve written songs and gone ‘this has to go’.
HA: Masterpiece is pushing it a bit...we’ve wrote some semi decent tunes * all laugh* just some songs that artistically and musically didn’t fit the sound we were going for and so we’ve had to scrap them. A lot of our early music was almost ‘showy-offy’ I’d go so far as to say, not all of us were content with just ‘sitting in the pocket’...apart from Miceál, he’s always been a pocket man!
MS: I love being in the pocket! I’ll sit in someone's front pocket for ages *all laugh* At first we had a Blues tune, a Pirate Shanty, a Latin Jazz tune and a Ska tune...but we don’t talk about those…
RH: As you know, we saw you supporting The Belgrave House Band at Futureyard in October and then again at your headline show on Saturday. We were blown away by your stage presence. Considering you don't have an archetypal 'frontman'. Have you encountered any issues navigating the live industry without a vocalist?
HA: Since we don’t have a front man, we are all giving it what we would affectionately call it ‘full beans’ on stage and we have to kind of ‘amp up’ the energy but at the same time, we are all kind of acting as a front man at different points...there’ll be moments when one person is shining more than the other and we even coordinated that with the lighting guy before the gig to give each person a spotlight at certain points. Having a frontman has never really been a problem for us and sometimes when you do have a frontman..it then becomes the front man AND the band...it’s unavoidable and so we get to just be ‘the band’.....it’s very communal.
MS: We’ve always just let the music take the front seat while we take the back seat, that's what it's all about for us...we always chat in practice about what is better for which instrument and who will just ‘sit in the pocket’ and just groove. One thing at the minute that we’re going for is dance music and we know a key ingredient in dance music is rhythm so me and Henry are integral in that and will just play the same thing for 5 minutes we will gladly sit there in the ‘back of the car’.
HA: We know that the end product will be people bouncing up and down...you have to accept what works and go with it and apply it.
RH: I think that makes you more solid as a group that you all play an equal part..no one person is the 'face' of the band.
AL: Yeah definitely, I think it’s important that we all write as well and we do, we all write tunes, or someone will come with an idea and someone else will tell them to add something in and it becomes a chimera of madness. That’s what it is, it’s great, it’s fantastic and we all contribute.
HM: I think that's really interesting and as well how you mentioned the lighting set up at the gig, is that something that is important to take into consideration when performing live, especially if you don't have that typical 'frontman'?
AL: Yes massively, even when we were recording with John ( Lawton - Crosstown Studios), we were recording a bit more of a mad tune and we told him to make the lights go red because it gives an atmosphere and I think that we as a group create an atmosphere too.
JB: Especially with somewhere like Future Yard, it really feels like the full package with the sound and lights and the guys and girls who set it up were really into what was happening on stage, the music and the atmosphere. So when you’re in that situation and you’re playing your gig, it’s really reciprocal..
AL: And they were incredible too, nothing was too much for them, they were some of the loveliest people we’ve ever worked with...everyone was perfect!
HM: I think as an audience member as well, that really translated too. It seemed like such an easy atmosphere and especially the lighting which seemed so in synch with what was going on on stage...it just made it even more exciting!
RH: So tell us, how did you go about landing the headline slot at Future Yard?
MS: So the day after we played Future Yard for the first time for the support slot, I went over again the next day to see a gig and Charlie the promoter came up to me and said he’d heard good things about the night before and said he thought we were ready for a headline slot...just like that, straight away the day after, we got it! I just said yes straight away...we just love playing so it was great for us!
AL: Definitely, and it’s nice to just let out on stage and do what you want to do and we all bounce off each other and give each other jazz eyes so we know when to come in, when to stop, when to go mental...
RH: We touched on this before but The line-up also featured Liverpool rapper, Koj, with Bop Kaballa. It's really exciting to see genre cross-overs like this. Would you say this is something that's important to you guys as a group?
JB: We’re all just lovers of music and all of our tastes are sprawlingly eclectic so I’d rather be on a line up with a Dub-Reggae band and a DJ for example than four of the same acts...they were great!!
“We all bounce off each other and give each other jazz eyes so we know when to come in, when to stop, when to go mental...”
HM: After a turbulent 18 months for the arts industry with the Pandemic, how did it affect you as a group? Did you have more time to be creative at home or did you struggle to find inspiration during the long lockdown periods?
AL: We were very fortunate that we (Adam, Heny and Josh) lived together and he (Miceál) lived down the road and the house we lived in had no neighbours either side so we practiced a lot and very loud! And we also wrote quite a few tunes!
JB: Yeah we got a lot of the new set and frankly the sound that we have now and the one we are trying to make synonymous with the band was really developed during lockdown..it was starting to sort of go that way in early 2020 but during the lockdowns, we had so much time.
AL: The only real downside being we had no gigs….
JB: Of course, but it meant that we could just knuckle down and write and really practice prolifically. So I think really, our sound has only become what it is now during the pandemic...obviously it was not a great time but it’s a silver lining at least.
AL: Even during Covid we did the Liverpool Digital Music Festival, so we technically gigged, we filmed it in our living room, henry edited the video and it was great! That also led to us being featured in Bido Lito which is amazing!
HA: It was terrible but it was a good excuse to have a go again and I feel like we were so busy...we had a residency at a Jazz bar which we felt was very detrimental to the band in a weird way...we had a steady cash flow but we weren't working on our music, it was just music for the Jazz bar.
HM: After hearing your extensive set of songs, do you have any plans to record and release more of your original tracks...or is that privileged information?
MS: Ooh, we’ve got plans...we’ll see what happens. All we’re saying is you’ll hear from us in the new year.
AL: No Comment...
HA: Adam Letman pleads the fifth.
So there you have it, we'll find out more from these guys in the new year! Whatever their plans are, we can't wait! Thank you so much to Miceál, Adam, Henry and Josh for taking the time to talk to us. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to sit down and hear all about their music and how they came to be the one and only Sweet Beans.
Please make sure you go and follow these guys on social media and support them when they're playing live! They are a seriously talented bunch of musicians and we see big things for them in the future! If you are wanting to hear more from them, you can stream their releases El Pera and Phafrican via the link below!
Thank you so much for reading the first instalment of Ground Control! We'll be back soon with another amazing artist, so we'll see you then!
Helen and Rach x
Follow Sweet Beans on social media: https://linktr.ee/sweetbeansband
Stream El Pera and Phafrican: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3eTGVpFpyF9b1BeZqFRaJ5?si=JT22__4lSaundNDo3oDXsg