When Barrio’s line-up was announced it was easy to skim the international guests to feast your eyes on two locals playing long-awaited solo shows at Adelaide Festival’s late night club: Surahn Sidhu and Ross McHenry.
Surahn and McHenry have long been two of the most interesting musicians to hail from Adelaide. Though they come from different ends of the music spectrum, there are similarities: they’ve released on international labels, collaborated with high profile global names and both are primarily bass players who are talented songwriters. Surahn was the singer of the rock outfit Morals of a Minor and bass player of the nu-disco trio The Swiss. He set up the club label Bark Bang releasing modern disco tracks under his pseudonym Sidwho? and was a touring bass player for the global phenomenon Empire of the Sun. McHenry, on the other hand, won the Tommy Norman Jazz Bass Award in 2007 before setting up his deep funk and soul outfit The Transatlantics and the ARIA-nominated Afro-beat collective Shaolin Afronauts. The two bands released their first two albums through the UK imprint Freestyle Records.
Given their pedigree, potential and commitment, it’s fitting that Surahn and McHenry will headline solo shows at Barrio under the names the Ross McHenry Future Ensemble and Surahn alongside international acts such as Soul II Soul, Toro Y Moi and Gramatik. McHenry will also join Surahn as part of his live band with members of The Transatlantics.
“I've been aware of Surahn’s work for many years now,” McHenry explains. “I've always dug his solo stuff and as a member of his other projects we'd always run into each other from time to time at various festivals and events. He's a great bass player and a fantastic songwriter. As Surahn plays bass in many bands, and so do I, the opportunity to work together didn't come up until now, as Surahn's solo stuff will see him fronting the band rather than laying it down at the back of the stage. We've been talking about working together since early last year, so it's taken a while to get it together. Surahn approached me about putting together the band for this live show, so it was natural for me to think about how that might come together with the people that I know.”
Surahn says McHenry has been instrumental in helping him put together his live show.
“He is a great player himself and a wonderful man. A lot of the songs are love songs, so it's essential for the people involved to be lovers and not haters. Working with haters can be really negative and drags the whole process into an unpleasant space.”
Surahn recently released his first solo EP under his given name through James Murphy’s (LCD Soundsystem) hip imprint DFA. He is best known for disco jams but his EP showcased love songs, not club tracks, that have a 70s West Coast feel to them. Surahn will look to release his debut album (which is currently being mixed in Los Angeles) this year. Despite releasing solo tracks, under Sidwho? and now Surahn, Barrio will be his debut solo show.
“I have been itching to perform my own songs in front of an audience since their inception,” he explains. “I have spent a lot time on the stage with other projects and it becomes a kind of addiction, I guess. I think songs don't become real until you perform them to people. They take on a life of their own. I'm really sentimental about this debut live show. It's been a long time coming and sharing these songs will be exciting. I only just finished the album and it’s being mixed in LA right now, so it's actually going to be the first time people hear a lot of this new material before the album drops.”
McHenry’s Future Ensemble will showcase more jazz and electronic influences than his other projects. His band will not only feature his Adelaide crew from the Transatlantics and Shaolin Afronauts but an international pool of musicians that includes LA’s Mark de Clive-Lowe. McHenry met de Clive-Lowe when the former UK musician was playing a show with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (a legendary American new jazz composer who mentored McHenry in 2011) in Los Angeles. Aside from playing Barrio, McHenry’s band will tour the country and record an album.
“I'd seen Mark doing solo shows in Adelaide and London but what really blew me away this time was seeing him play live keys and electronics with an improvising band. I was aware of how dope he was as a producer but what he was doing live was really something special. I knew from then on I wanted to do something with him. I'd been talking to the Adelaide Festival for some time about doing a special collaborative show that showcased Adelaide talent with internationally established artists. I was extremely fortunate that they were open to the idea. They gave the project the budget and credibility it needed to succeed and from there I turned it into a national tour and recording project.
“Once I had the green light I met with Mark in Melbourne last year and discussed the idea with him and he was into it and after hundreds of emails and negotiation we have arrived here. The Adelaide Festival have demonstrated, yet again, that they are the most important cultural event in the calendar year by having the foresight and vision to invest in the Adelaide arts industry, not only in terms of programming international artists, but also by valuing Adelaide-based artists on the same level as those operating outside our state border. Sounds like a no brainer but most organisations in Adelaide do not value what's in our own backyard unless it suits them.”
McHenry raised money to record the Future Ensemble album through the crowd-funding site, Pozible. McHenry hopes to release the album in the middle of the year, which will be primarily influenced by future jazz and LA beat.
“It’s influenced heavily by those things but it will be unique. It's hard for me to put a label on anything, let alone something I've not heard in its complete form, so I'm reluctant to say it'll be too much of one thing or the other. I've been following closely the musical innovations of LA and NYC for a long time now and have been deeply affected by both cities’ musical discourse. I hope that I'll be able to incorporate elements of both these great cities into my music. I envisage it as a relevant, contemporary improvising ensemble made up of some of the greatest exponents of new music on the planet.”
Ross McHenry Future Ensemble plays Barrio on Sunday, March 3
Surahn plays Barrio on Saturday, March 9