With nearly a decade at the forefront of UK jazz, tuba player Theon Cross (Sons of Kemet) has gone from strength to strength, collaborating with the likes of Jon Batiste and Emeli Sandé. SNACK spoke with him about his third album and upcoming Glasgow gigs.
First off, congratulations on Intra-I – it’s an album we were all really excited for. Can you talk me through what your thoughts were going into making this album?
Thank you. The intention of this album was to go into a completely different sonic space from my previous works and utilize the tuba as a sonic universe within itself, where it acts as all parts, to the point that listeners question what sounds they are hearing and what’s generating them. The goal was certainly to subvert expectations and push the boundaries of my artistry.
The title Intra-I means ‘within self’, and the aim of the album is to exemplify what it means to go into self across the ten tracks. For me, it was a means to cover topics that were important in my journey of self-discovery, such as understanding my roots and acknowledging the journeys of those who have come before me.
It was also important for me to include lessons that have helped me gain a better state of mental wellbeing, such as having trust in my personal journey and treating every day as a blank canvas for growth.
You’ve said before that you want to return the tuba to its rightful place: what is it about the instrument that makes it so essential?
I think that bass as a frequency and role is a fundamental element of music. For me, the tuba is an incredibly unique bass instrument that’s not only effective at being the sonic ground in music, but also has the natural presence of breath that gives an extra sense of humanity to whatever music it’s involved in. I also think that in modern music, the sound of synth bass that’s often used has a wide-rounded sound, very similar to the tuba. I think that the tuba has a timbre that fits right into the space that is utilised for bass in a lot of current styles of music.
You mentioned that you’d been reading Lloyd Bradley’s Sounds Like London – do you think the spread of global styles on Intra-I come from something unique to London?
Definitely. I think reading that book gave me a broader understanding of all of the musical genres and scenes that have led up to where the sound of black music in London is today. I think what is interesting about the jazz scene in London currently is that many of the artists within the community reference styles which are descendants of Jamaican Sound System culture, and are now unique to London, such as jungle, garage, grime etc. My intention for Intra-I was to reference many of the genres that are prevalent in my own musical DNA as a born and raised Londoner, and to use the tuba as a metaphorical paintbrush to paint the sounds that have influenced me.
It feels like a very personal album, and your father’s influence in particular is prominent. Your grandparents also make an appearance – how did their journey impact upon the music?
Intra-I for me is all about the journey into self, and for me part of that journey is questioning where I come from, which naturally led to me acknowledging the journey of my parents and grandparents.
My grandmother would sometimes mention that when being invited to work in the UK she was told that the jobs she would have would be enough for her to be able to move back to Saint Lucia and build a home within five years. This was untrue, and she and my grandfather ended up staying in the UK for 40 years, before building their house and moving back home in 2000.
That story made me think that if they and their generation had only stayed for the short period they intended, the cultural landscape of Britain would be completely different. The song ’40tude’ is about commending that generation, for the fortitude of coming here to a hostile environment and paving the way for my generation to have the opportunities that we have.
There’s a righteous anger at the heart of a lot of your music – and justifiably so. What is music’s place in the revolution?
I think music’s place in general is to be the sonic embodiment of a state of mind, whether that be political, ceremonial or emotional. I would hope that my music acts as a vessel for people to gain inner peace and mental wellbeing.
‘Play To Win’ references 2-step and UK garage. Is that a nostalgia thing for you?
‘Play to Win’ is actually more of a nod to the type of early grime instrumentals from the 2000s that I used to hear when I was at secondary school. Grime as a sound feels like an integral part of my upbringing, growing up in London, and it felt right to have that influence represented on this album.
You’ve always been a collaborator, and this is the first time you’ve worked with vocalists on your own work – was there something about this album which made that important?
As the themes on this album were about introspection, it was important to have words attached that amplified the sentiments I was trying to express. Working with Remi, Shumba, Ahnanse, Zu and Consensus really helped solidify the messages, especially as they are all so gifted lyrically.
Almost every note on the album is played on the tuba. How is that working out, live?
The interesting thing about creating this record is that it forced me to develop a new way of performing and to learn new technological ways to be able to perform the songs. It became a fun challenge I was working on during the lockdown of 2020. At the moment I have two types of shows. A solo Intra-I set where I recreate most of the album tracks with just me, pedals and a loop station, and a band setup where I perform with my usual quartet, but will also work in some solo moments into the set as well.
You’re involved with the community space in Lewisham Music. Is the sense of music as something that’s passed down from person to person an important aspect of how it develops?
Definitely. I see myself as a product of many great youth music programmes such as the Kinetika Bloco, Tomorrow’s Warriors and the Lewisham Music programme. I think that giving back by offering help and advice to up-and-coming musicians is a big part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem of musicianship. As the saying goes: ‘Each one must teach one.’
There’s a real theme of progression running through the work. Where do you think your music is heading next?
I think the process of creating music that’s more studio-produced and technologically moulded, as opposed to recording a band live and editing after, is a process I’ve really enjoyed, and is a way of working that I’m likely going to repeat for the next project. This project was about utilising multiple sounds that I could get from one instrument, so I think the natural progression will be to use a wider range of instruments for the next. But we’ll see.
Congratulations on winning the MOBO. UK jazz feels like it’s in a really healthy place right now. Are there any artists you’re really excited about at the moment?
Thank you! At the moment I’m really into BackRoad Gee’s music, I think the amount of influences and styles he’s able to utilise effectively is really impressive. And the energy in his music is insane and infectious.
Steam Down, Sons Of Kemet, Ezra Collective – there’s a lot of crossover and community in the UK scene right now, and you’re at the heart of a lot of it. If there’s a UK jazz Wu-Tang, are you the GZA?
I would like to think that I’m Method Man, but I’ll happily take the GZA!
Theon Cross plays Nice ‘n’ Sleazy, Glasgow on Friday 28th January
Intra-I is out now on Marathon Artists