Congo Sanchez Opens Up About Solo Project, Touring and Cultural Influences
During his first tour as a solo artist, drummer and producer Congo Sanchez sat down with Inity Weekly to candidly discuss the concept of his solo project, D.C. culture and what's in store after his SXSW tour. He was accompanied by two talented counterparts, Flex Mathews (MC) and Haile Supreme (vocals).
IW: You came out with your debut solo project in April of 2012 called Congo Sanchez, Vol. 1. For those unfamiliar with your solo work, how would you describe your project and the various musical elements that you pull from to create your eclectic sound?
CS: Those were tracks that were produced as instrumental listening and what was happening with me at the time. At that time, I was working with Thievery in studio a lot, working with Funk Ark, Empresarios, and a lot of other D.C. bands, and you can hear it in that music. Since then, I've gone through a lot more influences and gotten a lot more exposure to what’s going on in the world. Traveling with Thievery has exposed me to a lot of stuff that they don’t necessarily have in D.C.
IW: What exposure in particular has been beneficial to you?
CS: I've been seeing a lot of shows, everything from bands who have four hit songs and then they play those songs and it’s awesome for that song. But then you see 80,000 people standing there for 10 songs, and then they hear that one song and it’s awesome, with biggest crowd response ever, but then for the rest of the show it’s like this (blank stare). I've been trying to figure out how to craft my live show so that I can get the audience in the groove and keep them there. I mean, we’re just starting out, so we don’t have that hit song yet, so it's not like people are waiting for that song to sing along with the lyrics yet. I’m trying to bring all I've learned and expose them to one center of musical concept. Having Haile [Supreme] and Flex [Mathews] on board is great because it’s opening my possibilities as a producer.
This song we did last night, “Rhythm and Knowledge,” I used to perform as a solo. I used to perform this whole set as a solo and we adapted the songs for the live set. Like the one last night, we were waiting for him to show up to rehearsal and I happened to play the song and he’s like “What’s this?” and I said, “This is my song” and he said, “Well, I like this.” We spent an hour in rehearsal flushing out the general form of how I crafted the song and the sections that were already there. He came up with a little hook, we had some free styling and he came up with hip-hop stuff at the end.
We’re currently still adapting from the old to the new, but we have some new material that’s been coming together. The goal is to put the first full length album together after this tour. With the likes of Haile and Flex and others from back home that are trying to do songs, I want to put out a product that is bigger than Congo Sanchez, from a producer standpoint. I’d like to put out a product that has the real sounds of music, the actual culture of what we have in D.C. We have something there right now. We have a lot of artists and a family of people working together. We started talking about the EP which was obviously a solo effort. Rare groove stuff from my studio has progressed into the potential to make songs that people might actually remember the words to.
IW: Go back to the culture you were talking about in D.C. and the music scene. What cultural elements there have been positively influencing your solo project?
CS: D.C. has a rich cultural history. It’s one of the only cities that has its own music. Seattle has grunge, D.C. has go-go, New York has jazz, Kansas City and Memphis have blues. When you say D.C. you think go-go, you think hip-hop, you think black American culture. And a lot of that carries over into the fact that there is a huge reggae and world music scene there. You have African bands, Ethiopian bands, Reggae, indie-rock bands that are influenced by African music. It’s a diverse population. You've got young people like Haile, Flex, and myself, and guys like Ras Puma from Thievery that are into the culture of the whole thing, but as musicians, it's very difficult because it’s not an easy town. If you want to make it in music, it’s an independent effort. There aren't big people to pull you up.
IW: So, how did you get immersed into it and linking up with other people? You obviously found each other…
CS: [Turns to Haile] How did you find me?
HS: I used to go to George Washington University... I’m taking a break now. I went on a Wednesday to reggae night at Eighteenth
Street Lounge. I haven’t been doing music that long, only about a year and a half. I went to the reggae night and after the show, I was blown away because I don’t really have the opportunity to see many live shows. It was very high energy and my first reggae show ever. After the show, I went up to the drummer and said, "Hey, I’m a singer. What would it take for someone like myself to one day be on stage with you?" or something like that. I guess it’s kinda ballsy but it worked. The next day, he had me send him some tracks and the following night we linked up for rehearsal and…
CS: We had a show that week. Basically, the first solo show I did was at Electric Forest. I did drumming and electronic beats that I was producing. I did another show on U Street where Flex came up for a free style. That ended up being, you know… I saw that one, while I’m drumming and playing, there’s no one talking to the crowd and two, it was nice having someone to do that. So, I was thinking about it and I didn't have any more shows that week and I had just met him that week. So, we got together and this other guy helped us get our concept of rapping with singing and tying the music together. Basically, we did a show that weekend. We rehearsed four times in five days. I’m pretty anal. I come from a background of classical performance. I’m all about improvising and getting to that space of free energy and music. But since he just started performing and we are trying to build something more consistent, rehearsal is very important to build consistency and lay a foundation. Now we’re seeing that we can add a little more of this and a little bit of that.
HS: It’s interesting because I’m learning the dynamic of bands. In an ideal band situation, you need that one person to be super anal because otherwise it’s just a bunch of free energy and improv.
IW: Where did you get the name Congo Sanchez?
CS: That name came from a late night at the [Eighteenth Street] Lounge and somehow I was talking to the sound guy and I said, “Congo Sanchez. I think I might go with that.”
IW: Yeah, when did you start going with that as your solo project?
CS: I was in these bands Funk Ark, Empresarios and See-I. I produced tracks for Funk Ark and Empresarios. I always had my own songs that were in my folder that weren't part of the band. Once I left those bands and was working more with Thievery, I was like, what am I going to do with all of this music that is mine? I just thought I’d call it Congo Sanchez and put it out. And that was released on ESL and it was a really good thing for me.
IW: So you coming out here is your first push to tour?
CS: Yes, this is our first push to put us on the national radar. We are doing SXSW and doing four shows in Denver, which is one of the top music scenes in the world. It’s amazing here and Colorado in general. We have a song that we are almost done with right now. We were going to release it before the tour, but we are going to work on it a little more and let that go. We want to get some recording done and put together something that will build onto what we've already started to do.
IW: How did the SXSW opportunity come up?
CS: Luckily in Austin, we have a lot of connections down in Austin because Thievery’s management is down there. Though we’re not doing much with them, we have a lot of friends we made along the way. Flex got us on with Kosha Dillz with the Oy Vey! showcase which will be on Wednesday afternoon. I’m doing something with lg.group which is a Denver-based music culture collective and they have a showcase that I’m performing at on Thursday. My friend Motion Potion, who is a San Francisco DJ, does a silent South By every year, and I got selected to do that this year which I’m excited about. It’s a lot in three days. It’s just been a lot of work from the past that makes it possible to pull off independent tours like this.
IW: Can you speak to why you feel it’s important to support and promote independent artists? You’re clearly on an independent label, so how has it been beneficial to you as an independent artist?
CS: Obviously mainstream is mainstream. You know, it’s all kinda sounds the same. You get into the real grit of the culture of music today in this time. Obviously mainstream is a huge part of our culture; it’s what most people listen to, which is funny. It’s easy, it’s put in their faces, it’s in commercials, it’s in ads, it’s in movies, it’s everywhere that people go to spend money.
FM: I only buy independent music. I don’t even waste my time with mainstream. Mainstream is just trying to achieve what independent music already has. Mainstream wants the intimacy and connectivity that independent music has with its fan base and crowd. Once they get that, they mass produce it and it’s not intimate anymore. I only buy independent music, because at the end of the day, that’s what the best music is.
IW: You guys are all pretty young. What are some of the goals that you have in terms of musicianship and being an artist?
FM: I don’t have a job. I do music full time. That’s been my goal all along and everything else is a cherry on top.
HS: So, I just dropped out recently. My original goal was, let’s do this music thing and get super rich. But there are a lot of hassles of being super rich and super famous. I like this level of learning and making authentic connections with people. People really connect with your music and you can start a movement that is grassroots. Riding around in an RV is the best time I've had as far as my music goes. So, I just want to get to a level where I'm learning as much as I can and I support myself truly off my art. I want to get to that point without compromising artistic integrity. So if I can get to a place where I can do that and support myself, not have to ask my parents for any money, or resort to anything illegal, then I’m good. (All laugh)
IW: Is there anything else you want listeners to know about you and the direction in which you are going?
CS: I’m trying to let the right people come together, the right sounds to come together to get the message out of what we represent. Every day we are making music, every day we rehearse, every day we perform, every day we have a DJ set. If you follow us on twitter, you see it. I only have 500 twitter followers. But, it’s not exposed enough about what it takes to put food on your plate as a musician.
FM: It’s completely underexposed.
CS: A lot of culture of the world is that music is what you do in your spare time. Nobody wants the music that people do in their spare time, end of story. People want what’s richest in culture and influence. That’s why reggae will never, ever not be vital. It’s a culture. It’s something much more than trendy sounds or a poppy hook. From where we’re at now, to where we’re going, I hope we go into a culturally conscious direction of unifying our sound to put out the message of the music, but put the message behind the culture of what it takes to pull this off. So that’s what’s becoming most important to me. It’s always been important, but it takes a lot to figure out your place in the world. So that’s the most important thing to me…and doing that through music. ~Gabriela Barbosa
Follow Congo, Flex and Haile on Twitter:
Congo Sanchez Profile: http://www.eslmusic.com/#!/artist-profile/congo-sanchez/