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Riot Jazz: 'we’re just having a party on the stage

Funk? Dubstep? Jazz? Aggressive Jazz? Nobody’s sure how to define Riot Jazz – but nobody that’s listened to them for five minutes cares. Beth Ryan chats to Steve Pycroft ahead of Soundwave festival

Riot Jazz are an unorthodox brass band who take everything from classical film scores to electronic music as inspiration to produce wonderfully unlikely mash-ups. England may not have produced anything quite like them before, but they follow in the tradition of American groups Young Blood Brass Band and Hot 8 Brass Band – so that’s big, brassy harmonies, Hip Hop-infused rhythms and complex, high-jazz interludes, all played out with the slam-you-in-the-face vivacity that gives them such a commanding stage presence.

The uproarious nine-piece formed in their university town of Manchester in 2009, after they were thrown together for a club night and found that they were on to something special. They’ve been festival regulars since 2009, delighting crowds at Bestival and Soundwave with their infectious energy and unique sound. We caught up with drummer Steve Pycroft to find out how they’re tearing up genre boundaries, why they look up to Stevie Wonder and what we can expect from them at Soundwave festival.

When did you guys start out?

So we got together in 2008 – our band leader Nick Walters got in touch with us all and said he’d been asked to put a band together for a night in Manchester; we’d be playing hip hop and quirky covers of pop tunes. We realised it was something different, something we could pursue, and it grew from there.

So it all came about quite naturally?

Yeah, it grew naturally. No one said ‘right let’s go and market this and make it work.’ It came out of enjoyment really, and then it led into festivals.

What are your main sources of inspiration?

That’s a tricky one because we all write the tunes but we all have our own influences. For me it’s a cross between film music – I listen to a lot of classical, orchestral stuff – and drum and bass and dubstep, so I suppose my tunes have a weird mix of those two, but everyone brings their own personal influences to the table which is what I think creates our unique sound.

What's the reaction to your live sets?

I think we’re finally getting comfortable with the idea that people do just go mental and party. Especially in the early days we’d spend too much time thinking, ‘what set should we play for this gig? How is it going to go down if we play Hudson Mohawke covers in the afternoon at a jazz festival?’

But we’ve started to realise it doesn’t matter whether it’s four AM or two in the morning, the energy we have comes across – we’re just having a party on the stage and the audience respond with the same.

What is it about your music that works so well on the festival stage?

With the music we write, the only prerequisite is that it’s got energy, and that people will dance to it. And brass instruments are so loud and engaging – as well as what they’re hearing, people have a visual.

And you feel like that’s something that other musicians lack?

Possibly, yeah… I often feel a bit of resistance against these DJs that are doing a massive show, headlining a festival, and then they’re just playing records. I don’t think it’s wrong or bad, but when I can see the potential for a live show – doing something like Skrillex with an orchestra, when there are 30 or 40 musicians playing – sometimes I think it’s a shame that there’s just someone dropping tunes when It could be a live band. When there are people on stage you’ve got individuals to bounce off as an audience member… It would be nice to see as many artists doing live shows as possible.

You cover such a broad array of genres with your music – do you think that can be off-putting to people with less musical knowledge?

I think, although we have elements of jazz and complicated harmony which might prevent us from being played on Radio 1, the public just respond to our energy and the show aspect of our music. I’ve always looked up to Stevie Wonder: obviously everyone knows him and his music, but when you actually look at the songs, a lot about the music is very complicated and the harmonies are quite complex. But you don’t need to have any understanding of that to love his music  - it’s all about that ‘I’m gunna do my thing’ attitude.

You’ve played at Soundwave before…

Apart from 2015, we’ve played every year since we’ve formed. It’s brilliant. It’s the first festival abroad that we did, so it’s always felt like a home –we feel like we’re heading back to a family.

And what can Soundwave-goers expect this year?

Because we didn’t do last year we’ve got a whole set of new tunes – our second album Incoming came out in October last year, and we’ve got a few new covers of tunes in our own style. So hopefully we’ll bring some familiarity, but also something fresh to the stage. 

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