British Electro-Swing duo The Correspondents were one of the energetic peaks of WOMAD New Zealand 2019, playing two sets of high-octane dance music to an eagerly receptive crowd. I caught up with the ringmaster of much of that energy, frontman Ian Bruce (known professionally as Mr. Bruce) following the second of these sets during the festival’s scorching Sunday afternoon.
The tall and unmistakable figure walked into the media area holding a beer before the interview was scheduled. Approachable and talkative, we chatted for a while beforehand (sadly unrecorded), during which time Bruce talked with great praise about the band’s experience at New Zealand festivals. He spoke highly of WOMAD’s organisers and their equal treatment of artists, their unexpectedly warm and enthusiastic welcomes from New Zealand crowds, and the incredible cleanliness and environmental respect of festival-goers in comparison with English festivals. He had similar great things to say about the band’s experience at Splore, which they played a month prior, and the respect for the land which was emphasised to the artists.
Bruce returned home to England in the gap between Splore and WOMAD - he has an 18-month old daughter whose sleep cycle he says would be too greatly affected by the travel - but not before playing a “Morning Rave” at Auckland’s Neck Of The Woods, part of the Morning People string of shows, energetic rave-like sets put on early in the morning. He says the experience was surreal, and he certainly didn’t expect that many people to show up. Talk of the venue on Karangahape Road, as well as the fact that we are wearing matching black-and-white colours, leads to a discussion about the best op shops in Auckland, which lasts us up until the start of the recorded interview.
So it’s very hot today, and your performance is very physical, I was wondering what’s the hottest place you’ve performed with that level of energy in?
Oh we actually performed way hotter in WOMADelaide six years ago, we played one of their stages, and the sun was literally beaming straight into the stage and it was a heatwave at that time. We were actually on Adelaide news, ‘cause they basically wanted to interview English people who they think are gonna pass out, and they interviewed us for TV basically saying like (imitates Australian accent) “Very hot over here, what do you think?” “It’s very hot here”. “Alright yeah, are you struggling?” “Uh well a little bit but I’m putting sunscreen on.” “Ok good for you mate”. But yeah we played, and that was also when I wore loads more clothes on stage, I used to have these big jackets and I’d be like “reveal” and then have another layer “reveal”. I think I was sort of younger and more naive then, I think I’ve wised up to the fact that it’s not a good idea to wear loads on stage. But it was like 47 degrees when we went on. I quite enjoyed it, I don’t mind the heat, but it was really exciting getting a crowd to move in that heat, cause I think when we first came on there was a kind of “Oh man it’s too hot to even think about moving”, and getting a crowd going was quite exciting.
When you’re writing and recording your music, do you consciously have its live potential in mind?
Interesting question. Do you know what, no. We might do towards the latter end of making a track, and actually when a track is like three quarters of the way through we’ll try it out on a live audience, usually home turf and just say “Look, can you be our guinea pigs please, you wanna judge how this is going”, pre-master pre-mix kinda thing. I think the thing that might confuse people about us is, and I’m sure it’s confused a lot of people who’ve gone and bought our CD, is on the latest album we play maybe like three or four of the tracks, and the rest is stuff that we never really play live. Also, the stuff that we play at the end of the set, which is heavy sort of drum’n’bass and jungle stuff, we wouldn’t put that on an album. And you can’t even get it online, so really to get the full experience you have to come and see us live. But I think people might be, hopefully not let down by listening to us haha, but maybe a little surprised that the music can have different levels other than just the full high-octane.
Are those tracks you play live chosen based on audience reactions you’ve seen?
Over time I reckon, yeah, and we filter certain tracks as we create new tracks, obviously certain tracks are dropped. Quite a lot of thought I think goes into, maybe more on the side of Chucks, as to how those tracks can work live, and what they do at particular points of a set. ‘Cause you know, it’s nice to think that you can start somewhere and just ramp it up til the end, but actually, you kinda need to go on a little bit of a journey and drop things down and then build things up. We played slightly different sets today compared to Friday night, it was a bit more banging on Friday night.
Do you ever see a point in which you’ll have to lower the performance energy a little bit, and if so do you think your musical composition will adapt to that?
Aha, we were talking about what’s-her-name, who sits in an armchair? What’s her name again?
Yeah, hahaha, I’m not sure I have enough charisma to sit in an armchair and do a set.
I’m not sure anyone has that much charisma until they’re seventy-nine you know, you grow into it.
Yeah, exactly exactly. That is something well-earned. It’s something I think about a bit, and I always joke to people “Oh how long are you gonna do this for” and I’ve thought of two answers to that: one is kind of as long as people want to come and see us, and as long as my knees last. I don’t think I’ve slowed down yet, but I’m thirty-four. It’ll be really interesting if we’re invited back, I mean we’d love to come back, if we’re invited back in four years time, six years time, whatever they decide, it’ll be interesting to see whether I’ve physically slowed down. What I’m hoping is that my kind of dance style is the equivalent of long distance running, and you see these old seventy-five year-olds still up with the young kids. I mean there’s a lot of like explosive stuff going on, and it’s down to joints and things. I feel okay at the moment hahaha.
Probably not something you need to dwell on, sorry haha.
Well nah it’s something I think about a lot. Doing this for eleven years I’m always kind of surprised that we’re still going, genuinely. And that’s not like me being really modest or whatever, it’s just, woah, this was started out as a big kind of a joke almost and we had no intention of it lasting this long and turning into a career, so it’s always surprising. And to get highlights in our career, I mean today was an absolute highlight, and to get that eleven years in is just, you know, unexpected.
WOMAD is a festival very much involved with the concept of tradition, how do you see yourselves as relating to that through your modernness with the swing influence?
Oh right, yeah, when you said tradition I thought you meant in terms of connection to the land. I mean I’m surprised that we’re booked in a sense because we’re very much a Western band. But I think because we’re not really really famous, they can get away with inviting us as a sort of wildcard. I guess it has its connection to jazz and swing, I mean really it has its roots in black music, swing, blues, jazz and hip-hop. If you were to talk with Tim the producer, he’d say he grew up on hip hop, and particularly people like De La Soul who are using lots of jazz samples and that kind of thing, so I guess we do have that. I kinda grew up on drum’n’bass, that was my kind of go-to, that does influence things probably in terms of my vocal delivery. But even being here I feel like I’m learning a lot, you learn new rhythms even though I don’t really know what to do with them, you learn how different people from across the world deal with being onstage, how they play with an audience. You see instruments you’ve never seen before.
Where did you learn your really fast syllabic delivery?
I mean, I really did listen to drum’n’bass like 24/7 when I was like thirteen to seventeen or thirteen to eighteen, and supposedly between the age of like thirteen and fifteen, you’re at your most receptive musically. DJ’s are told if you don’t know what to play to a room, work out the average age and then play music they would have listened to when they were fifteen. I was kinda blinkered and into drum’n’bass, I made loads of fake IDs, went to clubs and listened to loads of the MCs and what they did, and I was kinda drawn to that. I used to DJ as well, so yeah, kinda learnt it then, but I mean it wasn’t very good haha.
From your earliest memories of creating music, whenever that was, was the visual and physical performance aspect always a major point for you?
Interesting, I dunno. I think I learnt, in a very very small way, the impact of throwing people’s expectations visually, when I was at art college up in Edinburgh and I was the local MC for a club called Trouble. It was actually a club that specialised in worldwide music. So in a way, there’s a link there. They had a lot of DJ’s from all over the world come and play, and I used to come on stage in a full three-piece tweed suit and then scat to some of the more kinda drum’n’bass stuff that they’d play, and I think I was aware of the fact that when I got on stage people were kinda like “What the fuck is he doing on stage, who invited this guy”, this kinda weird-looking posh white guy with glasses, and I think I understood then, “Oh you can really throw people’s expectations.” Visually I work as an artist when I’m not doing this, I work as a portrait painter, and I was at art college, so I have really no musical training, that’s my disclaimer haha. So I do kinda think of things in visual terms, even music I think of in visual terms.