The Brand New Heavies were formed in 1985 in Ealing in west London. Centred around songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Simon Bartholomew and Andrew Levy, the core members of the group since its founding. Best known for a string of successful singles in the early 1990s. The group came up with the Heavies name after signing their first record contract, apparently borrowing from a liner note on a James Brown single declaring the artist “Minister of New Super Heavy Funk”.
Can it really be thirty years since The Brand New Heavies first sashayed their way into the public eye with their hedonistic spirit and a Superfly sensibility? Their extraordinary new album TBNH, however, finds the band – and main songwriters funk-soul brothers Andrew Levy (bass) and Simon Bartholomew (guitar) -embarking on an entirely new chapter in their illustrious history.
A heady cocktail of Chic-style funk-pop, sunshine grooves and scorched-soul balladry, TBNH refines, reimagines and ultimately reinvents a winning formula which has won them16 top 40 hits and three million album sales.
The morello cherry in the glass? A breath-taking cover of Kendrick Lamar’s These Walls, produced by Heavies uber-fan Mark Ronson. “He saw The Heaves in New York in a really small venue SOB’s back in the early days and it changed his whole musical outlook,” says Simon of their collaboration with the planet’s hottest producer.
“It’s incredible to think that everything he’s done since has been shaped by us. It’s a cool thing.”
At the album’s core, a friendship dating back to the mid-eighties, and their shared experiences growing up in Ealing, West London. “For us it’s always been about a love of funk, and the positive things which go with it, like dancing, hanging out and having a good time,” says Simon of one of pop’s most stylish and enduring partnerships.“We didn’t invent the wheel, but we did reinvent it to a certain extent by going back to the people in America who made the funk in the first place. That love of the music never goes away.”
For The Brand New Heavies, groove has always been in the heart. Having emerged as part of the original Acid Jazz scene, their self-titled 1990 debut made an instant connection with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
“We were these young kids from a suburb in West London who went to America with our funny flared trousers and weird shirts, and they really took to us,” explains Andrew. “The week I landed in LA I was having dinner with the bass player from The Bangles.
We went to a ceremony to honour Ray Charles at the Apollo in Harlem and Stevie Wonder came over and sang Never Stop to us. At the time you don’t realise how incredible that is.” Over the last three decades The Heavies’ eclectic dancefloor aesthetic – Andrew still recalls the thrill of hearing Al Jarreau’s 1981 crossover classic Breaking Away – has seen them build an unrivalled reputation as the ultimate musician’s musicians, guaranteed to get the party started everywhere from Coachella to the Montreux Jazz Festival.
However, their iconic status- acknowledged by the receipt of a ‘Living Legends’ gong at the Urban Music Awards in 2016- masked internal tensions. These came to a head when drummer and founder member Jan Kincaid quit the band during the touring cycle for 2014’s Sweet Freaks. But we stood strong. Simon and me get underestimated because we’re seen as the rock star playboys who horse around at the front and wear silly clothes, but we’re serious people. Jan leaving really galvanized us into making this thing work. Then, once we realised we could carry on, the vibes went through the roof.”
Having proved their mettle in spectacular fashion with a triumphant show at Mark Ronson’s star-studded 40th birthday party in 2016, they set about making an album which would eclipse anything they’d released
to date. Currently on a UK tour and armed with the new album TBNH, Absolute caught up with Andrew levy.
We begin with an enthusiastic discussion about the old days of recording to tape vs the process of digital recording used almost exclusively these days. This leads to a nostalgic chat about vinyl, the pops and crackles of the Dj’s 12” and find a lot in common both coming from the old skool days.
With this firmly in mind, I ask after thirty years how do they manage to keep a fresh approach when writing new material while urban genres develop and mutate on a daily basis? “That’s just it, we keep it fresh by not trying to make it new. We were always actually chasing the past. Even in the 90s we were making music that was already twenty years old but with a pop sensibility and an Acid Jazz twist. And it’s a beautiful thing to have, thankfully we never set out to reinvent the wheel. We have no interest in chasing the next new thing, there’s plenty of very able men and women out there who are searching for the new thing so great for them. We just work on making quality songs, after all, it’s songs that people remember not some type of baseline. We concentrate on the songs.”
So, do you have a vocalist in mind when you are songwriting?
“Well, yes, I always have N’Dea (Davenport) in my mind. She’s embedded in my brain! She’s my go-to when I’m working out a lyric or tune. She’s not always readily available, one day I hope she’ll be with us all the time but that’s another story. As a collaborator she’s brilliant! The thing about her voice is she doesn’t sound like anyone else, unlike so many pop records which autotune vocals as standard, N’Dea just connects on an emotional level with her pure voice.”
What kind of show are you featuring on tour, is it a classics Heavies repertoire?
“Pure classics. We may feature two or three new tracks, but the audience wants to hear re-tweaked versions of Dream Come True, Never Stop, Back To Love and the best of our catalogue. It’s precisely what our crowd want, and we’ll give it.”
How do you write new material, do you sit down at a keyboard and hum or do you jam it out as band and write?
“Yes, we totally jam it. Open a bottle of Prosecco, play and record everything. We treat it as fun all the way. Then next day come back to it sober and critically, edit the parts we like, re-work and refine. It’s always fun and a party when we jam and create. It really shows through.”
The new album is really smooth and tight, was there a conscious effort to keep out the dirty wah funk you employed in some of the early 90s recordings?
“Not really consciously as such, but there is a way of delivering Jazz-funk that finds its way to radio. The retro-funk thing doesn’t find an easy way to the big radio stations, so we take that all on board. We get advice on what may not work, such as significant brass parts or extended sax solos. So there is a process of our production delivery. It has to work for radio. Playing live is a different ball game; however, we pull it all out then! The title for the new album TBNH is our statement to say we are back. We feel it’s our finest so far and wanted to reflect the fact that our first release was named ‘The Brand New Heavies’. It’s the abbreviation, of course.”
You feature an array of exceptional vocalists on the album – British Soul Queen Beverly Knight, who we had the pleasure of talking to recently features on ‘Beautiful ‘. Did she need much enticing into the studio?
“No, in fact, she was in the studio with Simon a year and a half ago. Hummed a few melodies to the music then went to the mic and sang it in one take and left! Pure class. The album also features Siedah Garrett, Angie Stone and off course the legendary N’Dea Davenport. Angela Ricci is our featured ‘Back to Funk’ tour singer.”
As a respected bass player, how did you learn to be a musician?
“I never had lessons, I listened to jazz, the solos, the melodies and even vocalists. Al Jarreau is a favourite vocalist of mine, I looked to Miles Davis, Charlie Parker for the way they played notes. The solos give you melody, and that’s I how learned to play. If I was to offer a tip on learning to play – don’t play too much on your own. Play with other musicians, play with a drummer if you’re learning bass. I actually never play on my own.”
Talking about early days, I pose the question of first records bought?
“Chic! I bought it with pocket money. Shared it with our first drummer, he had it one week than me the other. The Bee Gees was another. Tragedy. Some excellent writing and production. My whole life changed with Saturday Night Fever!”
The Brand New Heavies ‘Funk is Back’ Tour
31st Oct Concorde 2, Brighton
The new album ‘TBNH’ is out now