Back in the mid-90s, the Brand New Heavies were everywhere with their brand of disco-infused acid jazz. Having resurfaced a few years back, the band and bassist Andrew Levy were in fine form – as we found out when we caught up with him earlier this year.
We started out by asking him about the band’s beginnings in West London: “We all grew up in Ealing,” he recalls. “Simon Bartholomew (guitar) and I were in West Ealing and Jay Kay from Jamiroquai was based around that area too. There was a lot of music going on at the time and that’s partly why we’re still together. Our lives are more complicated now with families and stuff, and the changes that the band have been through over the years. We don’t all agree on everything, but when we’re put in a room or in a studio together – just bass, drums and guitar – something happens that puts us back to the late 80s. Musically and chemically something happens, and without that, we probably wouldn’t be together – but we’ve still got that, which is great, and we’re not tied to a label, so it’s all a bit more open.”
In the early 90s, grunge appeared while acid jazz was the other side of the musical coin. Were the band ever concerned that grunge could wipe out their music scene? “It was more that acid house might wipe out bands generally,” Levy explains. “1988 was when it really happened in London: that’s why the term acid jazz was coined, to take the mickey out of the rave scene. Somehow we bypassed all of that and stuck to our guns and came out the other side. I was fascinated by the guerilla side of it. We did a gig up in Manchester and all the kids were out of their heads on E, and we didn’t realise what was happening until one guy said ‘We love you guys, you’re one of the best soft rave bands around’… and we thought ‘What?’ They didn’t know what to make of us, so we were termed soft rave… unbelievable! For some reason, we got a lot of backing from the record company and sailed through it really, until the mid-90s when we became more radio-friendly and did more uptempo stuff which became more pop.”
Despite the acid jazz tag, what the Heavies were doing always harked back to disco grooves, so would it be fair to say it would have worked in any sort of dance environment? Andrew nods in agreement: “Acid jazz was a tagline that magazines liked to use, and it created a little pigeonhole for us at the time which was useful. But I grew up on disco, which became house music, which is partially why we are still able to work, because dance music for some reason hasn’t really changed that much. The cycle of styles is a very quick cycle. Back in the 90s, you were in a scene if you were younger – either the dance scene or the soul scene or the rock scene – but now everything is merged. There’s nothing wrong with that but if you look at people’s iPods now, you see Nirvana and David Guetta and people are mixing everything up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but everything is so freely available nowadays.”
He recalls: “We got to the end of our deal with Warner Brothers at the end of 2001. We basically toured for too long, meaning that the gaps between albums were too long. Being away, the repetition of the job used to annoy me. I’m a Gemini and I like changing my mind. I used to love sitting on my couch watching TV when I got back from tours – not very rock’n’roll, I’m afraid. We got dropped after 10 years, and from that point on I started to buy property, just as the market went crazy. I had no intention of doing it, but my uncle seemed to be doing well and I was aware that we might not play again or make another record or get a deal, so I bought a small flat in Margate, another one down the road and then another in Islington. At one point I was juggling six mortgages! I got my cousin involved, which took the stress out of it, and for the quiet years I lived off of the properties. You have to diversify, but I can’t complain, we’re still gigging and working. The weird thing was that the tenants recognised me but in another context: they couldn’t quite place me, although the face was familiar.”
Following the end of the band’s record deal in 2001, how did Levy keep himself occupied – did life as a session player appeal at all? “I never used to do a lot of session work,” he considers. “My first ever session was the Soul II Soul single ‘Fairplay’ when I was 18, and I bought my first bass for £150 which was an Aria Pro I – which I thought was a lot of money, although I borrowed the money from the Students’ Union and paid back £10 a week. It got nicked when I left it in the offices of Delicious Vinyl. I did a few sessions for Gota (Yashiki, Simply Red’s drummer) and Jamiroquai, too: I think I’m playing on ‘When You Gonna Learn?’ but there wasn’t tons of work, maybe people were scared to ask. I charged a fair bit! I didn’t need the extra work but I did some the other day for nothing, and it was so much fun going into a session where you don’t have to worry about producing the song or finishing on time. You go in and they say ‘B… C…. A’ and you play a few licks for a bit and then you can go home.”
So what draws Andrew towards using Warwick basses alongside his Fender workhorses – they’re quite different beasts, surely? “Warwick endorse me, which is great. They are so perfect for so many things,” he nods. “If I’m in a studio and I need to learn something really quickly or impress the producer, I will play my Warwick Thumb with flatwounds because it is unbelievable the way it’s set up, it’s beautiful and fast and I sound really good on it. I like a deep sound but not too glassy, although it’s important to hear your fingers. I started using the TC Electronic stuff when an engineer mate suggested I speak to them. The Blacksmith head is so cool, the built-in tuner, the preset functions, all really cool.”
Levy’s enjoyment at being out there and playing is tangible, and he left us with these words of wisdom that every bassist should take on board: “I freaked Simon, our guitarist, out recently by saying ‘I wonder what our last gig will be like?’ He went silent, and I thought if I could never play on stage again, I doubt I could handle it – and that’s when I started to really appreciate it.”