WorldService Project: Articulate Arsonists
There was a time when musicians had publicists, managers and booking agents. Some still do, but most find themselves doing all these things themselvesall while trying to accomplish their primary goal: making music. This change from DIY to DIAY (do it all yourself) is enough to drive many musicians off the cliff, but then there are those like WorldService Project, a young British quintet that doesn't just accept the world as it is today but embraces it. On the cusp of releasing its second full-length album, Fire in a Pet Shop, WSP has become a veritable cottage industry. It's gained significant exposure as part of Ireland's 12 Points Festival, an event that, each year, selects 12 young bands of interest from around the world to perform at a festival that alternates between its home base of Dublin and locales abroad like Porto, Portugal. WorldService Project was also chosen as one of three from those dozen groups in 2012 to be part of 12 Point PLUS, a European tour program that garners for those selected even greater exposure, thus far at festivals in Ljubljana, Umeå and Tampere.
But beyond external opportunities, WorldService Project has intrepidly charted a territory that few groups have explored with its annual Match & Fuse Festival and tour. "I'd say there was a definite step up for us at the end of 2010, when we won an award in the UK called the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award," says Dave Morecroft, WSP's de facto leader and composer. "It's a private award but curated by the Musician's Benevolent Fund, which is the charity that helps musicians who get injured or can't play because they're older. It's essentially estate money left by this guy Peter Whittingham; he loved jazz and left money to be awarded each year. With that money, we essentially devised a project, which was the very first Match & Fuse tour.
"That came in September 2011, but with the award at the end of 2010, it took us that long to plan it," Morecroft continues. "From September 2011well, from the award being given through to nowit's kind of just been this cascading thing of Match & Fuse, and it's literally snowballing, as it's gone bigger and bigger. Our funding applications have kind of overlapped, and we just kept reapplying. Because every step forward we took with Match & Fuse, the more sense it madeto me, anywayto take it and run as far as we possibly could with it, because it was being received with such enthusiasm by the other bands involved as well as venues, collectives and promoters."
Match & Fuse comes with the kind of mission statement that few musicians as young as Morecroft and the rest of his twenty-something band matestrombonist Raph Clarkson, saxophonist Tim Ower, bassist Conor Chaplin and the relative newcomer drummer Liam Waughcould ever conceive of, let alone execute. As the M&F site explains:
"Match&Fuse (M&F) is a touring exchange network and annual festival with the primary aim of connecting creative scenes across Europe. With an emphasis on local culture and its transmission across borders, M&F facilitates shared platforms for likeminded artists and the creation of new artistic material through international collaboration."
This is a hefty objective, if ever there was one, but since its inception just two years ago, Match & Fuse has garnered tremendous critical and popular acclaim, collaborating with a surprisingly large cross-section of young groups including Tin Men and the Telephone (Netherlands), Pixel and SynKoke (both Norway), Innkvisitio (Finland), NI and Alfie Ryner (both France), and with other artists coming from Italy, Denmark, Poland and Germany. It's ambitious, but for the seemingly tireless WSP, it's a means of creating an international scene through a kind of virtual underground railway that engenders collaboration and cooperation across the continent.
The recently ended 2013 Match & Fuse festival brought a whopping 24 groups in three days to the St. Hanshaugen district of Oslo, Norway. All the more remarkable is that Match & Fuse is a completely free festival, and while its Norwegian festival roster included groups from many European countries, its being in Oslo made it possible for groups like the unwieldy nine-piece Jaga Jazzist to participate, along with other important young groups including Bushman's Revenge and the trio Bol/Westerhus/Sna, with rapidly rising guitar star Stian Westerhus and Motorpsycho six-stringer Sna. "We had a great weekend, nice vibes," says Morecroft. "Audiences were goodstarted slow each evening but then picked up and were very busy through 8:00 p.m. onwards. We're holding the Match & Fuse Festival in Rome in 2014, most likely in June again, but we also have a 'mini fest' in London in a few weeks on July 25-26 ."
But it's premature to talk about Match & Fuse without first exploring the genesis of WorldService Project, which has finally released the overdue follow-up to its debut, Relentless (Brooke, 2010). Fire in a Petshop (Megasound, 2013) is already creating something of a stir, with Amazon UK slapping a "Parental Guidance" label on the record, citing explicit lyrics (despite there being none), solely on the basis of one song, "Change the Fucking Record." It's a considerably harder-edged and more complex and distinctive recording than the admittedly fine Relentless, with WorldService Project's staggering and, at times, outrageously funny performance at Sweden's 2012 Umeå Jazz Festival being a real harbinger of what was to come. WSP may be categorized as a jazz band, but as much as bands like Britain's seminal Loose Tubes and Frank Zappa are fundamental to its sound, so, too, can the influence of classical composers like Stravinsky be found seeping into the mix.
"I started playing music from quite a young age, because both my parents were professional musiciansclassical string players," says Raph Clarkson, WSP's trombonist. "So I actually started playing the cello when I was very young, and then I picked up the trombone when I was eight. I was quite lucky to have really good music at my primary school, ages seven to eleven. There was good local music, and my school was quite strong for music as well; I also got involved in local London orchestras.
"So I started mainly playing classical music, again because of my parents and the kind of music that was going on in the school. But my first introduction to jazz was at Dartington International Summer School, where my parents used to teach and also wherewell, sadly, up until last year; he's now stopped doing it[pianist] Keith Tippett did a course because he lives nearby in Gloucester, which is quite close to Dartington, in Devon. He had this amazingly magical ability to get a kind of completely random band of sortsfive altos, one trombone, three drummers, three bassists, anything and everythingand create an amazing energy, getting people to do free improv.
"I did it for about three years. I didn't really know what was going on; I sort of just came and joined in. But he was very welcoming, and that was the first time I got introduced to that kind of music. I suppose, then, in the intervening years, I sort of doubled in jazz and improvised music but didn't really didn't do it seriously until I went to York University, which had a very open-minded creative course. You could study lots of different kinds of music and be assessed through writing essays, performing and composing. There was a strong avant-garde element there, and we also had [pianist] John Taylor, starting to lecture there as soon I arrived, as well as [saxophonist] Julian Arguelles' Octet in residence. So I got introduced to that kind of jazz, and that's also where I met Dave [Morecroft], who was the year below me."
"Still am," Morecroft interjects, laughing. "I started music from a very young age because my mother was a music teacher, and my dad was a composer and a sound engineer. But I think my musical journey really began at 16 when I went to Oldham College in Hampshire. We had a very influential head of music there who was a contemporary composera very avant-garde, post-serial composer called Martin Reed, who sadly passed away last year . That six months was very important for WorldService Project because that's where I met Tim [Ower]. Tim was a year above me. Conor [Chaplin] did go to the same six-months college, but a few years later, and also Neil [Blandford], the group's first drummer. Because there was a very strong tradition of jazz bands and big bands meeting every year for a reunion, you didn't just know the people on either side of you in a year, you knew the old people when they came to jam. I knew about Conor when he was 11, and I knew about Neil even though we never actually studied together at the same time, because he was coming back and playing. That was also where I heard the first note of jazz. More properly, I was probably playing, actually; Chick Corea's "Spain," arranged for big band, was the first thing I ever heard."
Like Clarkson, until that seminal time in college, Morecroft's background was in classical music. "I played drums in a punk band and stuff like that, but it was basically classical upbringing," the pianist continues. "From there, I went to York, where I met Raph, and that was a very defining period again because I started exploring a lot more compositionallycontemporary classical composition, studying modules, Stravinsky, Messiaen, that kind of thingwhich, I suppose, contributed quite significantly to some of the language I use now. Also, at York, I began playing a lot more and playing in different setups, different groups, and wanting to form an outlet. As my main compositional outlet, WorldService Project started. Post York, I came to London, did a few bits and bobs with a septet, a trio and an electronic duo with Leafcutter John . But WorldService Project has always been the core of everything, really, because I'm trying to fulfill maybe 25 roles: manager, agent, et cetera, et cetera."
Meanwhile, Clarkson's own development continued. "I got into lots different kinds of music at York. I suppose I did more jazz, freely improvised music and avant-garde music. Then after that, WorldService Project kind of started towards the end of my third year, which was near the end of 2008. I went on to a Master's in Oxford, which was partly academic, but I also did some performing stuff. There's actually a great music scene in Oxfordlots and lots of stuff going on. I did some slightly experimental early music, free improv, jazz-crossover things and some recitals there. All the while, WorldService Project was consistently doing things and experimenting. As soon as I finished in Oxford, I think it was around the same time that the band sound really started. We would play some tunes by me, by Dave and by Tim. There were lots of different styles being referenced. I guess, in a way, it was a period of experimentationand then just a coincidence that when I finished studying, we were all in London at the same time, having been spread out everywhere, and the aesthetic became what it's now led towards."
The third piece of the puzzle came with Tim Ower. "I started playing the usual kind of piano when I was seven or eight, then moved onto saxophone about eleven," says Ower. "Went to a school and kept playing in a lot of bands. I had a really good teacher, all the way through school, who was very into jazz. So I had a good kind of springboard from playing that kind of music from an early age but nothing too serious. I went to Oldham College with Dave, a year above, and started to get more into jazz then, again with the same sort of inspirational music teacher, Martin Reed.
"So that was where I found my passion for it. It was one of those things that I felt I was always good at. It never crossed my mind to do too much else. I just continued, and that was something I felt that I really enjoyed as well. I finished studying at school, then went to study at Leeds College, in their jazz course. I spent three years there, which is where I started doing some playing with Dave and with Raph as well. So that would have been towards the end, I suppose, of 2008 where the first incarnations of WorldService Project emerged, with us playing together. And I finished there; it's a great course at Leeds. It's a very open and diverse college, so it really does allow you to experiment with different types of music. They had some brilliant tutors that came in, like [guitarist] Chris Sharkey and Christophe de Bezenac, from trioVD."
York seemed to encourage, beyond the theoretical, the same kind of creativity that schools like the renowned conservatory in Trondheim, Norway have engendered. "Immediately, as you started at York, that was true," says Morecroft. "They almost left you on your own. My first year I actually found quite frustrating because it was, like, 'Why is no one telling me what I should be doing?' Obviously there was some structure, but there was this great exploratory element to the degree. So from day one, I would say, York musically shaped me that way but also in organizing stuff and making it happen. I set up my big band there, and WorldService Project was always going on because York always encouraged you to make your own projects happen."
With Ower at Leeds and Morecroft and Clarkson at York, it might seem odd that they managed to continue working together in the germinal version of WorldService Project, but with the two colleges close enough (30 minutes by train), it wasn't a hindrance. "Initially, it was between us threeRaph, Dave and myself," Ower continues. "That was when I was at Leeds, and they were both at York. It was basically during that year, while I was in Leeds and they were at York, we started playing together."
"But it's worth saying," Raph interjects, "that we were the core three with interchanging drum and bass players. So occasionally we would do a gig where we would use a drummer and a bassist from York, and occasionally there would be a couple of guys from Hampshire, where the guys that went to Oldham CollegeTim and Davefirst met."
"That was when the band was doing a very 'jazz' thing," Ower continues. "Whoever was here who can do the giggreat. We were playing these tunes, would turn up and read some charts. We were reading all the tunes."
"Realistically, I suppose, that first period was more relevant to our individual developments than how we came together," Morecroft says. "The question of when did Word Service Project first start has two answers. If you read our official biography, then it started in 2009 essentially the moment that Conor joined. It sounds corny, and it's easy to say in hindsight, which is 20/20, but it did kind of click at that point. We still had Neil [Blandford], our first drummer, then, but that was when we first started playing a lot more challenging music. Also, we were more in the same area, we could rehearse a lot more, and we could try a lot of things. So 2008 was relevant for us three [Morecroft, Clarkson and Ower], and it's got to do with our own personal development, but I think in terms of when WordService Project actually started, I would say 2009. By the time, what I really liked was the fact that we were five people with five different musical backgrounds, in a way. But it sort of made sense when it came together. Like Neil: he was very much a kind of metal head, a rock head. That was his background; he didn't really like at jazz at all, in fact."
"Well, he studied it for two years at Birmingham Conservatoire," counters Ower, "which, in this country, is probably the most straight- ahead course to go and studyand he did it for two years."
Which simply means that when Blandford decided he hated jazz, he knew why he hated it. With Blandford now gone, and interim drummer Michael Clowes also a thing of the past, Liam Waugh seems like more than a replacementhe seems like the perfect one. "Similar to Neal," says Clarkson, "he comes from pop, funk and soul. In one sense, he really fits into the style we're playing because the drum partsor the approachare not jazz, they're rock. But he's more into soul grooves than heavy rock. It's one of those things where we haven't played with him enough to see where he'll be creative; so far, we've just been getting our live sets together and changing a few bits. It will really come when there's new material; then we'll see what his personal creative approach is."
"He's been a working musician for a few years; he's done shows and tours, that sort of thing. He really fits in well with us; he really wants to be involved, and he really wants to spend the time," Morecroft enthuses. Clarkson adds, "He's said that he's really been looking for a creative project that he can get into."
As for Conor Chaplin, the youngest in the group (he barely looks as if he's started shaving, despite being in his early twenties), says Morecroft, "Conor is very much a groove-based player. He loves anything groovyfrom pop to funk to jazz. He just loves his groove stuff. Obviously, myself and Raph both had more of an interest in contemporary 20th-century classical music. And Tim, I suppose, had the most jazz background out of any of us. Well, Conor's still studying, so he's yet to have his sort of background. He's got one year of college left. But when we all came together, it kind of made sense, in a way. We've also always had a very strong social connection to each other, so that helps moves things along. I think that's become more apparent in the last year, when the music became sillier and wackier. Wackier? Yeah, that's right. A lot of those things came, really, as a reflection of how we interact socially."
As Morecroft, Clarkson and Ower sit around a table in East London, it's clear that there's not only a deep friendship but also an inherent silliness, a Monty Python-esque vibe, with each of them injecting quips as the other tries to articulate a point. But it's that close bond, reflected in an ever-present sense of humor that has, indeed, helped to precisely define WorldService Project. "I think socially is absolutely an important reason," Ower continues. "Dave got me to come across to play some things in York. We did a few things here and there, and we did a few things outside of WorldService Project. So we knew we could get on playing-wise and also socially, which is a massive thing, as we've come to learn, and I'm guessing the same with Raph and Dave."
Raph continues, "It never seemed like Dave came up to me randomly and said, 'I want you to be in this band.' It was more like we knew each other really well from playing jazz in the department together department ensembles and studying the same modules together. Dave would be in a practice room; I remember [Dave] working on "Breathing Space," which is a very old tune, not even on the first album, and playing it to me and showing me the idea for the tune. He would say, 'Come and play this with me.' I remember [Dave] playing with Tim, certain little gigs, tunes where we would end up as a band. So it was a very natural kind of evolution; we'd played together, so we put together a little gig together, and Dave asked me to play in it. It was just an extension of knowing each other well through playing together and getting on musically and socially."
With its lineup stabilizedat least at that pointWorldService Project recorded Relentless in 2010, released later that year. While many of the cross-genre elements that would come to define the band were in place, it was still a more straightforward document of a group still finding its voice. "There are three or four tracks which are bit heavier," Clarkson says. "That was what the band was really moving towards and had already been moving towards for a while. There are also few other things in there, a few kinds of balladic, softer things. The first album was still a bit of a mix of things. I suppose, through winning the Peter Whittington Award at the end of the year and realizingI remember talking about itthat it was the heavier stuff that was really the sound we were going towards. Hearing [Norwegian group] SynKokethat was the time where we learned a whole new set of music, which we started learning after that Christmas ."
"Probably learning it in a way more akin to a rock sensibility," says Morecroft, picking up the conversation. "The very first time we started playing those tunes, it was more structurally set, but within each section there was quite a lot of freedom, improvisation for each person to do. I suppose that, in itself, was a journey with those tuneswe're talking two years ago now, and we're only now releasing the album. So we've been playing these tunes for a long time, and they have gone through a process whereit's weirdit's almost like it's started in a place, gone a bit far away from that place, then come back again and then gone away again. I don't know; it's strange. But I think definitely with more of a rock approach to it, looking at the identity of the band, looking at the ensemble sound and focusing on those things: five equal parts rather than five soloists."
Curiouslygiven how schooled these musicians are and the oftentimes complex nature of Morecroft's materialthe group learned the material by ear, according to Ower. But, rock-like, WorldService Project is a group that rehearses regularly and is committed to this band in a way that's, sadly, harder to sustain in the jazz world. "Some of the charts on the album I haven't looked at a very long time. I probably wouldn't recognize what's on the page, certainly some sections of it," says Morecroft. "I've changed a lot, or completely new sections have been added, which we worked out together. With most of the tunes on the album, I would pen something down, bring it to rehearsal; we'd play it and maybe try a couple of things out. The guys would suggest a couple of ideas, and I'd take it back, revise it and then finish it back for me and take it back again. I guess quite a usual approach, really. For me, it seems natural to do it that way."
While Morecroft is now the group's sole composer, there was one tune on Relentless by Clarkson. "We didn't really like it, and it didn't really fit in, so we axed it and banned Raph from writing anymore," Ower says, joking. "Well, I remember saying, 'Can we not play this tune anymore?' and they said, 'No, no, let's play it!" Clarkson retorts.
But, among the many things that define WorldService Project, having a sole composer certainly leads to a group identity, though shaped through the input of the rest of the band. "Dave writes for the people in the band," says Ower. "And because we learn the tunes off copy straight away, in a way they've never really stopped evolving, even when we've been more specific structurally. Even now, they're changing again, and that's possibly from having a new drummer. But from the beginning, little things have always been changing so that after about six months, it's almost completely different."
In the group's Umeå performance of material from Fire in a Petshop, beyond Morecroft's structurally knotty writingmetric shifts, stops and starts and complete feel changes all abounding, often in the space of a few seconds, as in a Carl Stalling soundtrackthe contributions of Ower, Clarkson and Chaplin were fundamental. The interaction between Ower and Clarkson was particularly impressive as they found ways to engage that pushed out of Morecroft's writing but came back to it, as if attracted by a lightning rod, when the time was right. Chaplin may look young and inexperienced, but it belies a deep player who somehow managed to imbue Morecroft's writing with an underlying groove. Clowes, despite now being gone from the band, drove it hard, with a blend of lighter textures and harsher dispositions.
And while there are many touchstones in WorldService Project's music, it's impossible to ignore the influence of classical music, even though it may not be anywhere near obvious or overt. "Well, I did a lot of Stravinsky in my third year of university," Morecroft says. "Loads of stuff to do with him, even extra-musical things ... well not really extra- musical but sort of defying someone's expectations, like setting up a section that is going somewhere, then suddenly changing Stravinsky's kind of block-like structure. That's my one definite thing. Also, I suppose because of my background in drumming, a percussive element that he hasespecially in piano writing and stuff like that. I didn't really get a sort of octatonicism from him, like diminished scales; we do that, obviously, but it came more through modern jazz, if you like, or whatever you want to call it."
"The strongest thing on the album in terms of those things is probably the block-like structure of material," Clarkson adds. "And I remember, as Dave was writing the new material, the economy of the material. And that obviously links to the block-like approach: taking a single riff, gesture or idea that is often a repeating thing, like a rhythmic ostinato. There's a lot of that kind of writing, and then other abrupt section changes being similarly revolving and repeating, being derived from that kind of material. 'De-Friender' is a good example of a very clear diminished section that is very strong and one kind of block idea, which comes back in different forms, but very abruptly, and is played around with. In that tune, there's not a huge amount of variation of the actual fundamental material; it all comes from the same place."
"Some of the leitmotif. 'De-Friender' is, for me, like [classical composer Richard Wagner's 1865 opera] Tristan and Isolde," Morecroft continues, "where you have motifs for grief and despairbut this is for de-friending. That riff is about how you feel when someone removes you from Facebook."
The humorous banter going around the table during the meal at the Turkish restaurant, around the corner from the Vortex, where this interview took place, as well as the absurdity of some of Fire in a Pet Shop's best moments (like in the title track, where, beyond evoking on their instruments the sounds of various animals caught in the titular fire, everyone in the group does his best to vocally inject his own animal imitations), raises the question that Frank Zappa asked in the title to his first album to be released on CD: Does Humor Belong in Music? (EMI, 1986).
"We talked about this in the last yearnot just as a band but in seminars," says Morecroft, "probably starting at the 12 Points Festival in Porto, where we played last February . There's this conversation going on about the relationship between people onstage and people in the front row and that gap and how you address the fact that, in a lot of European countries, audiences are getting a bit smaller and older. And you're looking at the next generation, saying, 'How are we going to address these people?' I've always written things with very much of a gestural approach. A kind of a buzzword for us is looking at a piece and thinking, 'Well what's the gesture of this piece?' Let's remove our musical understanding at the moment and ask how someone is going to hear this. How is someone else in the audience going to listen to this, because they're not going to hear these things that we've just talked about?' Some will, but the majority of people you play to are not going to listen to things in that way.
"From there, it naturally goes into the arena of humor and linking the two things together: a gestural thing and the relationship between us and the audience. The humor bridges those two things and encompasses it really nicely. For me, it's a gestural thing that anyone can latch onto. It's a very honest gesture. I did genuinely write 'De-Friender' about people moving on through Facebook; that's what it's about. It's just us being honest. Like I said, our social dynamic is very silly; it's very fun. So, immodestly, it's a gestural thing that younger people will latch on to and will help to bridge that gap between us and the audiences in the first row."
"The other thing is," Clarkson adds, "that our kind of humor element is probably not that we'll play something or do something that will be a humorous gesture and there's widespread laughter. When I've watched musicians who do funny, humorous things, it's really funny. We do some kinds of slapstick stuff, and sometimes people will laugh, which we like. Sometimes it's more about something that communicates, so people are watching, and they see you making a gesture of humor, and they'll sit there, maybe not laughing, but they get the joke or whatever the gesture is. It's a way to bridge the gap in a way that isn't necessarily: 'Oh, this is hilarious; I'm crying tears of laughter,' it's a communicative device. Although we do like to be wacky and ridiculous, I think a laugh is sometimes as satisfying as a slightly bemused kind of response at doing something a bit crazy."
"I'm very anti-snobbery about it as well," Morecroft concludes. "I've been to a lot of gigs, and it sometimes really frustrates me, actually. That's not something that I want to be at all, or we want to be. Like the tune "Back so Soon," which was from the first album, and which we probably ended our set in Umeå last fallthe one with the really, really big gaps. This is something that involves everyone. The audience is performing as much as the band is: any little noise they give, a clap, a shout. We've done gigs, and people shout stuff at us like, 'Go home.' People have been angry before, too, but that's not the point at all. The point is, 'OK, now it's your turn; you give us something, and we try to hold it and dive back in. It's just trying to create this big party, where everyone's involved; you [the audience] are just as important as we are."
Trying to convey these things on a recording is a different challenge than in performance, where it's possible to see and hear the various gestures and absurdities that WorldService Project throws into its music. "If you listen to the record, there are things that lead on from the stuff that we've just talked about," says Morecroft. "We have put a few curveballs in, with effects and digitally created sectionsstuff that just made sense for us to do. Obviously, we can't be there to have a wacky moment onstage, but, for instance, in 'De-Friender,' there's this kind of Game Boy section at the end. Every time I hear that, I think it's just hilarious. I just want someone to be, like, 'What the fuck? What is this?!' either completely confused or finding it really funnybecause it's just something reaching out from beyond the CD tray and grabbing someone."
"Those things have to be much more exaggerated on record to create an effect," Clarkson adds. "Compared to the first record, which was trying to capture a live kind of sound and had just one or two tracks where the mixing exaggerated things, with Fire in a Pet Shop, we wanted to fully engage it as a recording and all of the post-production stuff that entails, instead of trying to capture a live sound. We've done various gigs and released them as live EPs."
The album is no less impressive, even though some of the arrangements had already begun to shift by the time the group hit Umeå. "We actually recorded last April , which is a long time ago," Morecroft explains. "But I suppose one of the biggest reasons why the first record was in 2010 and the second one will come out three years later iswhile I think we wanted it to be two yearsMatch & Fuse. We were so busy doing that; there's so much administrative and logistical organizing for it but also a lot of touring and hosting bands. Also it meant that if we had any spare cash, we were inclined to put it towards that rather than save it for an album. We recorded the album in April, but then in June we actually ran the first Match & Fuse Festival, in Gillett Square in London. It had 13 bands from 8 different countries, and we basically did that all ourselves: started in March and finished in June with a festival, and it was quite a ridenot one that I would necessarily would like to repeat."
When Morecroft talks of the administrative and logistical organization involved in launching a festival, it's hard to imagine such a young group of players actually succeeding in doing so. "It started from the Peter Whittingham Award, and it was Dave's idea," Ower explains. "We actually applied for the award a year before, and you have to put a proposal for it to a panel. Our proposal was to record an album. Basically that's what it was: 'Give us some money to record an album.' Now they get bands going through all the time because, of course, everyone wants to record an album. So the next year, Dave had the idea of doing something a little different and collaborating with Norwegian band SynKoke to do this collaborative tour and to write some music together, rehearse together and maybe play together on two tours, in the UK and Norway. There was a heavy emphasis on the creative side of it and on the sharing of ideas, fan bases and the whole spectrum, basically, rather than just hooking up and doing a couple of gigs and going home. It was very much, I guess, a way of networking and a way of connecting with other musicians around Europe. That was where the initial idea was."
Clarkson picks up the thread: "I guess the thing is that what we realized, after failing in the first application, is what they wanted was an innovative idea with which to spend the prize money. It was that realization that gave Dave the idea. Because after [Dave] left York, Dave started getting very involved in the Vortex [renowned British jazz club in the East End]. I think the suggestion of SynKoke, the band we worked with, came through a connection with somebody at the Vortex. I imagined being at the Vortex, seeing all of this different kind of music going on and exciting bandsyou know, bands as opposed to different collections of musiciansbut seeing bands was what possibly sparked the idea. Because, as well as Match & Fuse linking up musicians, it's really linking up bands as opposed to different people playing with each other; it's very specific.
"I remember, actually, just after we won the award, Dave sent around a video of SynKoke playingvery intense, this kind of black metal, prog thingit was a kind of realization that we have to coalesce into a defined band and inhabit the music more, because they were so intense onstage, but they also clearly had such a trust with each other and such an identity as a band. I think that had been building, and then winning that award and realizing what we needed to do to was match what they were doing and have a set of music that was cohesive as opposed to a collection of different things. I think that was happening at the same time as planning Match & Fuse."
"So with the award, we did the first Match & Fuse with SynKoke," Morecroft continues. "And because that was so great, about three months before we did the tour, we decided to try extending it. The relations between the two bands were so good, and the logistical thing, too; it just seemed like a thing that was going to work really well. So we basically looked for another four bands to extend it from September 2011 through to June 2012. That was with a German trio called Schulbus, an Irish quartet called ReDiViDer, an Italian quartet called Tribarco and a French quintet called Alfie Ryner. All of those bands were found either though word of mouthso another person would suggest them, or Tim's cousin is the French's band's sound engineer just little connections like that. But each time we'd obviously listen and be, like, 'Yeah, this is fucking great; let's do it.' Or like Schulbus and Tribarco, who were found through Internet research. Looking at certain clubs and venues to find the right kind of band that were suitable for us and send them an e-mail suggesting this concept, and they were, like, 'Yeah, great.'
"So we got through Christmas, and we said, 'This is better than we ever thought it would be, so let's try to extend it further.' We applied just before Christmas 2011 for another grant that would enable us to run a festival in June 2012 that would be a celebration of the end of the first phase, if you like, and do another three tours with another three bands taking us into ... well, we still have two of them still to do this year."
At a time when finding ways to tour are increasingly challenging, it's almost antithetical to reality that WordService Project and Match & Fuse have managed to do just the opposite of other artists and find consistent, regular work. While a little different, perhaps, they are not totally unlike artists like Pat Metheny, who spent 300 days a year on the road in his early days, traveling by van, picking up any gig possible and not necessarily worrying about the moneyexcept that now things are so much more expensive. But the beauty of Match & Fuse's idea, once it actually began to roll out after germinating with Morecroft and WorldService Project, is that it it involved everyone, from every country.
"We book the UK part, and the whole point of it is that it is matched equally, so as soon as the bands land in another country, everything is already sorted," says Morecroft. "We book the UK tours, and we sort the accommodations, the expenses, the fees, the promotion, publicity, press, everything in the UK, and as soon as we get to the other country, we just play and eat really nice food."
Of course, not every band is as organized and driven as WorldService Project. "Yeah, that has been a problem a couple of times, in fact," Morecroft reveals. "We've had external help from Lee Paterson [of the British GoBetween publicity agency], who has been doing our press, basically, for the whole project. We've also had great support from the Vortex and Todd Wills, who used to manage it, who allowed us to have a sort of residency there. And we've brought up relations from other promoters around the UK like Paul Bream in Newcastle, a promoter in Nottingham, and we know that we can go back there, and the gig will work because the audience is right and the gig is right. So we've had a team of people, obviously.
"But it has been a problem for a couple of bands. One in particular, where it got to quite close to the project, and we began talking about the nitty gritties, and they turned around and said, 'Well, look, we don't have any funding. We don't have any funding, so we can't do this.'
"I think one of the things that the Arts Council in the UK always likes about it is that they're only ever funding half of it, because you're saying this other band will put up the rest," Morecroft continues. "But it hasn't been easy; we've had to be quite creative with certain figures, but it's the stuff everyone does for an application form, and you make certain sacrifices. The good thing was that the five of us in WorldService Projectwell, at least until the festivalwe were all very much investing in a project. We all saw it that would expand and grow into something much bigger, so we were very happy to do loads of stuff. We tried to cut down expenses and do that sort of thing. Also, we were learning the whole time; it was a massive learning curve. We were learning how to host a band and run a tour properly. So it wasn't like we were the maestros of running tours, and it was just fine; we made mistakes along the way, and we tried to learn from them and improve it each time that we did itwhich did happen, I think."
Clarkson continues, "It's also worth saying that we didin terms of making sacrifices, thinking of the budget, we were very creative with things. It's not like these bands are being put up in nice hotels all around the UK; they're sleeping on someone's sofa, so it's not necessarily very comfortable conditions. We were lucky, though, that all of the bands were really in it for the music and for the idea and the project. A lot of them were asking our age, which is another thing to mention. We've had instances where things have just not worked out. For example, one of the bands was an older generation of musicians, and they may not have been happy when it came to sleeping on someone's sofa and driving six hours after a gig. So it's all that kind of thing that, luckily, all of the groups so far have gone ahead with running this touring scheme; they've all been on the same page."
The first Match & Fuse Festival, in Gillett Square (where the Vortex can be found), was an ideal location, an enclosed square a short walk from a main street, in proximity to a tube station. "It was one night and one whole day," Morecroft recalls. "And it was really great; we got a really nice Arts Council grant for that festival. That was the second that we were successful in. It was very shoe string, but with enough blood, sweat, tears and effort; every musician that was there was really happy. I think every musician played a great set. I was walking around, and everything sounded amazing, and everyone was really happy. Again, it really comes down to that social thing that we're talking about. If you're being hosted somewhere, just having someone being gracious and looking out for you and doing everything they can to make sure you have a good time, it makes such a huge difference. They don't have to spend loads of money.
"I think the live audience was about 2,000 across two days, and we also had stuff inside the Vortex, so we sort of had a relay thing," Morecroft continues. "As soon as one set finished, the other one would start. We had a screen that would project on the side of the Vortex; that was actually Lee [Paterson]'s project. It's called VortexLive, and it's essentially a screen on the side of the Vortex to show gigs. So even if you stand outside, because obviously 1,000 people from Gillette Square can't go inside, you could still watch.
"Tim did some good hustling of advertising departments and playing them off against the journalists, because they felt like since you paid the money, they had to, too," Morecroft continues. "It was good; the BBC came, recorded and broadcasted three sets and still have another three that they're going to broadcast, hopefully sometime this year. John Fordham came from The Guardian and reviewed it; The Wire and Downbeat came."
"That was the thing," Clarkson interjects. "It wasn't the most glamorous hospitality, but by everybody being there, trying to make it the best thing it could be and looking after people ... I think it's the feeling that's great; it's about music and people being looked after."
"In terms of legwork that we had to do beforehand, it was something, as Dave said earlier, that we would not necessarily ever do againor, at least, not in the next few months," says Ower. "It was very hard, and we did end up doing a lot of work in terms of promotion. No one had heard of Match & Fuse, obviously, so you had to go to very specific places for it to ring any bells. It was really a brand new thing, so to say you're putting on this festival: 'Well, what's it called?' 'Oh, it's called Match & Fuse.' 'Well what's it about?' 'Bands you've never heard of from all across Europe.'
"That's what we were sort of riding onfor it to be exciting and for people to cover and come down," Ower continues. "In terms of the budget we had for promotion, I mean it was nothing. It was a quarter of what we needed to get a half page in The Guardian for one day, so we did have to do a lot of work, and we put a lot of hours into postering and all that kind of thing, following up with papers, saying, 'Cover this.'"
"We all worked really hard on it, but we already had a couple of partnersfriends from other Match & Fuse tours who were coming and helping outand, obviously, the Vortex," Clarkson continues. "The Vortex was really into the idea. A lot of our friends and supporters came in and mucked in. The whole thingthere was just a lot of support and enthusiasm for it."
If The Vortex keeps coming up in conversation, it's because, while it may be something of a dingy hole in the wall in a slightly rough part of London, it's that cluband Oliver Weindling's Babel Label, located just around the cornerthat have kept the jazz and improvised scene alive in London, providing both the breeding ground for new talent and a place where established legends like Evan Parker run mini festivals each year (in the case of Parker, his quaintly named Might I Suggest week, which this past year brought members of the ICP Orchestra to interact with local players and featured, quite possibly, the last live performance by Misha Mengelberg, who is in the advancing stages of Alzheimer's Disease).
"When I graduated from University, I started volunteering at the Vortex, because it's obviously a volunteer-run club, apart from two or three paid members of staff," Morecroft explains. "I started volunteering there to obviously hear great music but also to network, meet people and to develop ideas. That's what happened, really. It's been four years that I've been volunteering; I still do as a night manager, which is just running gigs on certain nights. All the people that I've met in those four years have just been incredibly useful, and they're the right people to meet, bounce ideas off of and discuss things. It's a very creative kind of place, a very creative hub. You have musicians coming with their new projects and international musicians; it's the best music club in London."
Still, with all the groundswell of support, with the help of venues like the Vortex and people like Lee Paterson, it's still a tough slog. While WorldService Project is behaving more like a rock band than a jazz band in its being the almost exclusive focus of its members, as opposed to having them spread out among many other projects to make a living, it's not easycertainly not something a group of older musicians would be prepared to do. "Basically, we all teach part time, which is fine," says Morecroft. "Conor's still studying, but in terms of WordService Project on its own? I suppose a couple of us are close-ish to being able to just perform and make a very basic living. Maybe."
"I think with Match & Fuse and the WorldService Project, it certainly feels on an upward curve in terms of becoming more viable," Clarkson interjects. "If it continues where it goes, then it will. When some of these things started, we really had to invest in some things ourselves, like not breaking even on a small tour. Now that sort of thing isn't happening anymore. It's on the right path; we just hope it will continue and that it will be viable for us to do."
But at a time where "pay to play" has become a serious and severe norm, it still makes it very difficult for a groupeven one as clearly committed as WorldService Projectto achieve reasonable, sustainable viability. "It's the sort of deal where people pay the amount on a ticket, and once you've had 20 peopleonce your band has had 20 people to say, 'I'm here to see World Service Project,' you get a pound per every ticket. It's theft; it's basically theft," says Clarkson.
With a room that holds 150 people, that means the bandfive people get to split a whopping £150. "That kind of gig is more practice than gig," Clarkson concludes.
But the good news is things are moving in the right direction. Beyond the recently wrapped-up Match & Fuse and the next one coming in London, the group will be heading to the United States for its first North American tour. The group is calling it "Music and Miles 2013," a double bill with Italy's Nohyabandatrio for the most part, followed by some dates with the Italian/UK collaboration Bulldog Drummond that will hit (so far) 33 venues in a grueling 41 days and involve traveling from Chicago to Washington, Lexington to Rochester, Indianapolis to Louisville and Brooklyn to Charlotteacross a total of 15 states.
It's ambitious, risky and puts absolutely everything out on the table. But for the members of WorldService Project, that's just business as usual, and with Fire in a Pet Shop already garnering positive press, things are clearly looking up for this young, forward-thinking and, in so many ways, intrepid British quintet. If the group continues to hone its own sound and approach and, with its Match & Fuse festivals and tours, collaborate with other like-minded musicians from across Europe (and, on the cusp of its first US tour, perhaps some American artists as well?), there's every chance that the name WorldService Project will begin to garner the same recognition in North America as it has in Europe. And if ever there was a group that deserves that recognition through time and effort, blood, sweat and tears, and sheer determinism, it's WorldService Project.
World Service Project, Fire in a Pet Shop (Megasound, 2013)
World Service Project/Tribraco, Match & Fuse IV (Self produced, 2012)
World Service Project/ReDiViDer, Match & Fuse III (Self produced, 2012)
World Service Project/SynKoke, Match & Fuse (Self produced, 2011)
WorldService Project, Relentless (Brooke Records, 2010)
Pages 1, 9, 11: Courtesy of WorldService Project
All Other Photos: John Kelman