In Conversation with Mammal Hands

Photography: Tom Barrett

In 2014, Mammal Hands appeared in the industry with their debut album, ‘Animalia’. An LP that was recognised by the minuscule jazz community for its blending of melancholic and night-time tones with soft, almost electronic sounds, two resonances that have been revolving around each other since the birth of the common synthesizer by Harald Bode in 1959. However, there were no signs of electronics in ‘Animalia’. Instead, a trio of saxophone, piano and percussion, basic and to the roots, there is little similarity to Portico Quartet here.

Since the release of ‘Animalia’, Mammal Hands, with the help of Mathew Halsall’s record label, Gondwana Records, have gone on to produce two more pieces of work, 2017’s ‘Shadow Work’ being the most recent whilst 2016’s ‘Floa’ is sandwiched somewhere securely in the middle. Already, this year they have been announced to play key UK festivals, Boomtown and Field Day — both of which follow a European tour, which started on the 1st March at Prague’s Festival Spectaculare, before ending in Amsterdam on the 27th May.

And over the course of what would be weeks, the trio and I sent and received messages over the rigidity communicative service of email — through which, Jordan, Jesse and Nick keep a sense of modesty around them, something that can often be taken as a sign of weakness in today’s music industry; perhaps this could be due to their backgrounds?

Jesse, who spent some time being trained and influenced by the popular Tabla player, Sirish Kumar Manji, tells me that his influence and relevancy keeps with him, adding that:

He’s played such a huge part in my development as a player and he’s been really supportive of the project from day one. My studies with Sirish have been my only real formal music education, so as a player and improviser I come from the Tabla than anything else…

Asked whether Kumar’s influence could impact on his composing, he went on.

I try to live by the ‘play the instrument, not the genre’ mentality. I think it is easy to go down the world fusion road, trying to marry one distinct musical tradition with another, but that feels like a bit of a dead end to me.

As appealing as Sirish Kumar may be, he is known to be a demanding musician. Recorded recitals from 2011 revealed a minuscule clash with a sound technician who may or may not have altered the front of house volume midway through the show. Jesse goes on to state that Sirish has been extremely open-hearted and is generally a supportive person. But when asked if he is a difficult person, Jesse moved.

Sometimes you have to be honest and that might feel harsh at times, but that kind of teaching is so valuable to me. He grew up playing with the best Indian classical artists in the world; legends like Ustad Sultan Khan were his sparring partners when he was just a young boy. So for me, there is never any question of being his equal, I just hope to learn as much as possible while he’s on the planet.

Despite Jesse’s time with Sirish Kumar, the three of them never studied at an Institute, meaning they never truly had any formal training within their instrumentation; Nick has stated in the past that he studied Music Technology at De Montfort University in Leicester. Instead, they all met whilst busking in Norwich.

Stereotypically, a common musicians’ thought of a classical and jazz artist is that what they produce, along with their talent, is completely hereditary. Music was made to be their life, learning little else as they would have gone to a specialist institution or college in music. But, we now know this to be false. Like many new UK Jazz related groups, it is now widely acknowledged that this doesn’t need to occur. Jordan isn’t too sure whether institutions would have been beneficial to his composing and playing skills but would say it’s more down to the individual.

I always felt like a good teacher helps to bring out the players voice on the instrument and guide them in finding that.

Continuing, Jordan also began to close on other valuable elements that an institution may carry.

There are a lot of general skills that you need to make a living as a musician, which people really hone in on institutions. Students are often required to do more work in varied areas than they might choose to do, which is definitely very useful. However, if you have a lot of motivation and are very driven to learn otherwise, you’ll make sure you learn and develop, in whatever environment.”

In few interviews, Mammal Hands have expressed how the two elements of nature and minimalism both carry a level of importance to them, Jordan went on to speak about how those two fundamentals have worked together, with Jordan concluding that they find a lot of their compositional “influence in nature, particularly in mathematical models of physical and chaotic systems.”

The trios video for ‘Boreal Forests’, I find, supports their compositional theory with aerial-drone shots of the groups nearby forested and coastal environment — a lot of which is potentially under threat due to a never-ending world population boom. But the group don’t necessarily think that danger is going to head to their local area anytime soon. Nick, mentioned that “I think we’re quite lucky living in Norwich because we don’t get hit hard by these issues compared to our friends living in other cities. The population here is still going up and the cost of living is slowly rising, but the overarching feeling is pretty relaxed.

Coincidentally, on the same year that ‘Shadow Works was released, the BBC and David Attenborough revitalised Blue Planet with extra messages on the human impact on the global environment. Viewers often found themselves responding with tears, but interestingly, not many appear to be taking the programme’s message on board, with others going along the road of broken promises. Jesse, when asked on whether the documentaries message is sinking in, agreed.

In short, yes. But too slowly. David Attenborough is great, but I think at the minute there is so much noise in the media that its hard for a clear, sensible message to come across. The light at the end of the tunnel in that market forces seem to be changing now and renewable energy seems to be drawing more investment and becoming a more viable option for the average household. Luckily, we have places like Germany setting a great example of how we can deal with these issues, and it seems to be catching on.”

On top of that, Jesse added on to the ‘end of the tunnel theory’: “I’m no expert but my hunch is that once the type of demand from the energy industry starts changing, a lot will happen very quickly. In the last 15 years, communications have changed so much that it’s hard to remember how we used to live. I think renewables and the way we think about plastics could be that type of shift. Hopefully.”

Last year, the trio reached new heights and were sent to make their debut in Japan, playing at a nightclub in Tokyo called ‘Unit’. Noticeably, the trio took with them their nature and minimalistic mindset. Images depicting the westernisation and development of Japan’s urban areas contrast with the near untouched and adapted rural land. When asked about the influence they may have brought back with them, Jordon responded.

I’ve actually been trying to learn a bit of [the Japanese end-blown flute] Shakuhachi, and the way the compositions and the way music is notated, it’s really interesting. Also, while we were there, I visited a few temples in Kyoto and listened to hours of chanting and percussions from groups of monks — which had some incredible sections with rapid tempo and tonal shifts that were juxtaposed with these long and meditative drone sections.

Not appearing to be worried at the prospect of the groups’ effort not working its way into a Japanese audience, Jordan carries on:

Music often transcends cultural and language barriers, and this is a huge part of its power, especially with instrumental music. With the ease of communication, we have between people and the sharing of music and art, a lot of people have made their own framework for listening, that won’t be solely created by where they live anymore…

One of the amazing things in Japan was the level of the visible support that music has, it seemed as if a lot of the venues, record shops and bands were doing really well, and the value that people put on music was really noticeable.

One of the most intriguing clouds that surround Mammal Hands is just how successful the group are, albeit, a minimal success, but in the new world of jazz, a success none the least. Having come from Norfolk, being part of varied street buskers to then being sniffed out by Mathew Halsall and to then releasing three consistently ecstatic and interesting albums with tours that reached the far side of the world; whilst all the while still retaining that simple and calm mindset, they are somewhat worthy of an increased amount notice in the not so distant future.

Perhaps though, that calm and humble mindset was just what I had perceived from behind a digital screen? Nevertheless, I am interested to see what the next five or so years hold for the trio.

In short, it is heavily likely they’ll release more LPs and tour a tad more, that is if Gondwana would have the budget, but I believe they’ll make the money somehow. But will they retain their modesty? I’d like to think so, they’re extremely kind and down to Earth, despite having an overtly large following from inside and outside the Jazz-Classical world. Nothing should change them.

Photography: Tom Barrett