When Morcheeba last toured Brazil, they stayed in a Sao Paolo hotel with a swimming pool bar called the Skye Bar on its roof. One day, singer Skye Edwards was swimming in the pool when the manager came up and told her, “You do realise this pool is named after you, Skye?”
This gives some measure of how far and how deeply the band’s influence has spread since they first sketched out the blueprint for trip-hop with their debut album Who Can You Trust? some 18 years ago. It’s a journey which has taken the brothers from their native Kent and Skye from East London to performing for tens of thousands of ecstatic fans in South America and China, along the way releasing seven successful albums of modern music which reflect the most positive aspects of contemporary culture. Paul Godfrey, the band’s beatmaster and production wizard, remembers the impact that Big Calm, their second album, had across the world. “People were almost religious about it” he marvels. “I’d get stopped in the street in New York by people who’d been going through a really bad time, and they’d say it was our music that helped get them through this bad period. I still get messages regularly to that effect. It’s easy to be cynical but the reality is that’s what music did for us too.”
That positive, healing aspect of Morcheeba’s music is in full effect on their eighth album Head Up High, reflecting a series of significant changes in the trio’s lives. Paul’s multi-instrumentalist brother Ross Godfrey, for instance, finally joined his bandmates in becoming a parent for the first time in May this year. “It’s a trip, it’s a whole new phase of my life,” he says. He also moved back to London after spending several years working as a film composer in Hollywood. “When I talked to other movie composers, they’d say, ‘You’ve got a successful recording career – why would you want to do this?’. But I think it’s something I want to continue doing and grow into. I loved being in Hollywood, but it never felt like home, and now I’m back with friends and family in the UK it’s really nice.”
Paul meanwhile, found that a health scare proved to be a blessing in disguise. “Ironically, after 2010’s Blood Like Lemonade, I found out I had Type 2 Diabetes, and that my blood was indeed like lemonade!” he explains. “I had to change my diet and cut out sugars and carbs – it was incredibly effective , a massive wake-up call that helped stabilise my moods. Feeling healthier, I felt better about myself so going into this record I felt really positive rather than with my usual depressed, victim mentality. Skye and I really connected on this album, more than before. We found we had so much common ground. I have a huge respect for her. She’s done three solo albums, and she’s brought that experience and determination back to our project.”
Like Brian Wilson, Paul prefers not to accompany the band on tour, so while Ross and Skye are jaunting round exotic distant lands, he stays home in France, working on the grooves and structures that will go to make up the next Morcheeba album. This time, he was heavily influenced by working on a project with composer Janko Nilovic. “He’s a French sound-library legend,” explains Paul. “In recent years he’s been sampled by the likes of Jay-Z, Raekwon and The Beatnuts, so he’s finally making some money out of getting completely exploited in the ’60s and ’70s. I’m a big fan of his, so I looked him up in Paris and got to work with him. It’s amazing the way he puts together instrumental combinations. He taught me so much, particularly regarding basslines, and completely changed my approach to arrangement.” Paul began to investigate analogue synthesis more deeply, creating his own bass sounds rather than relying on sampled lines. “Where before we’d always been quite linear and followed the drums, it freed me up to compose more irregular basslines and create more movement.”
That new sense of movement in turn prompted Ross and Skye to enthusiastic creativity in fleshing out Paul’s structures with textures and melodies. “We knew we wanted it to be more uptempo” says Skye, “we wanted to write some songs that could be played on the radio and add them to the live set to change it up a little. It feels like a positive step into the future for Morcheeba. Where Blood Like Lemonade was touching back more on our roots – that sounded a bit like the next album on from Big Calm, but this is moving forward.”
“We pushed ourselves to do lots of different kinds of things on this album,” agrees Ross. “We experimented with areas of music we don’t normally delve into; but at the same time it still feels like a comfortable sweater you put on, because we’re really feeling at home working with each other.” As the band’s main instrumentalist, Ross is responsible for most of the musical colour, tints and tones. “When you write songs, they take you in different directions,” he believes. “It’s almost like they take you where they need to be, stylistically.”
On Head Up High, Ross uses a lot of lap steel guitar to produce atmospheric, spacey sounds, and there’s even a largely acoustic track, “Under the Ice”, featuring hand percussion and a charango, the Peruvian stringed instrument using an armadillo shell as its body (after which the band’s fourth album was named). ” Paul and I bought it in a Parisian, classical music shop,” says Ross. “I’d been to Peru and had seen them playing Charangos, but we’ve never really played it traditionally, which is strumming it; we use it more to pick out arpeggios and melodies. I taught Skye the part for ‘Under The Ice’, and she played it at an acoustic show we did in Switzerland, while I played guitar. It was really good, so I think we’re going to try and incorporate that into the live show from now on.”
The biggest changes in the band’s sound, though, are provided by the retrained post-dubstep elements coming through in some songs such as the wobbly synth bass underpinning the urgent dancehall throb of “Make Believer”, and the jerky rhythm of the bittersweet “To The Grave”, a song about guilty secrets. “It kinda nods a bit to dubstep culture,” admits Paul. “That’s one of the good things about having teenage kids playing all that nasty stuff! Rather than be the cynical old dad, I try and appreciate what it is they like about it and, when I understand, I know I’m not getting too old after all. So I incorporate a few different things, but keep it within the framework of Morcheeba, which is pretty wide anyway.”
In the elastic, buzzy synths of “Hypnotized”, which in typical Morcheeba manner, blends Paul’s turntable scratches and Ross’s bluesy guitar and harmonica into a piece that defies simple genre description – all the more so for the fiery Spanish rap by Ana Tijoux, whom Paul first encountered watching an episode of Breaking Bad. “I thought she was incredible,” he recalls. “While she was recording her vocal for ‘Hypnotized’, she was heavily pregnant and we didn’t know if she was going to be able to do it; I think she went into labour about a day later.”
Ana Tijoux isn’t the only guest featured on Head Up High. Rappers Nature Boy Jim Kelly and Jurassic 5’s Chali 2Na appear on the sinister, edgy “Release Me Now” and the infectious, loping strider “Face Of Danger” respectively, the latter song a celebration of shame-free liberation and self-determination which finds Skye wisely asserting, “I don’t need religion or a self-help sage”. “I’ve always loved Chali’s deep voice, and wanted to work with him,” says Paul. “It was pretty touch and go, because he had an art exhibition at the time, but he pulled it out of the bag.”
Elsewhere, Jordan and Harley from Rizzle Kicks appear on the slinky tambourine hip-hop groove of “To Be”, essaying a typically outrageous rap involving a risqué pun concerning Hollandaise sauce. “When he came up with that line he was so chuffed,” chuckles Paul.
“Working with them impressed my teenage kids!” says Skye. “Jordan, particularly, is really driven, he knows an awful lot about music. I don’t know whether that track will work as a single, ‘cos he’s talking about adding drugs to his girlfriend’s steak – but at least he’s not killing her for being too fat this time!”
“A lot of that generation, like Rizzle Kicks, Plan B and Adele grew up on Morcheeba,” says Paul, “so there’s this weird loop in time, where young influential artists are fans of ours.”
But it’s not just rappers that guest on Head Up High: three tracks also feature the smoky vocals of White Denim guitarist James Petralli, who brings a soulful blues tone to “Call It Love” and blends beautifully with Skye’s voice on the brief “I’ll Fall Apart” and album closer “Finally Found You”. All three songs also feature Petralli’s lyrics, while Ross gets to display the full gamut of his guitar prowess, with a delicate break on the latter and an all-out, Hendrix-style blitz on “Call It Love”.
For the other tracks, Paul wrote lyrics using the cut-up method devised by William Burroughs and most famously employed by David Bowie. “I took phrases I admired from a load of my favourite books – writers like Philip K. Dick – put them in a bag and drew them out, putting relevant ones together, and the mood and feeling of a song would come together from that,” he explains. “It was just a nice, fresh way of approaching it. With the English language, it’s so difficult to reinvent the wheel, despite its flexibility.”
It’s an attitude typical of the band’s approach to their art overall: Morcheeba have never been a band ready to rest on their laurels. “I always need to feel we’re moving on and making progress,” says Paul. “When we make new records, all we want to do is blow our fans away, and hopefully make some new ones.” With Head Up High, Morcheeba more than fulfill those ambitions.