sat 15/06/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Jules Buckley | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Jules Buckley

theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Jules Buckley

Pioneer of the non-classical repertoire on musical seriousness, Beardyman and Quincy Jones

Buckley at the 2015 PromsChris Christodoulou

Conductor, arranger and composer Jules Buckley is a notable champion of non-classical orchestral music. He has pioneered orchestral arrangements with singer-songwriters such as Laura Mvula, Anna Calvi and Caro Emerald. Even more boldly, he has established orchestral collaborations with numerous artists from rock and electronic music, including the Arctic Monkeys, Professor Green, Basement Jaxx, and electronic improviser Beardyman.

As co-founder in 2004 of the Heritage Orchestra, Jules Buckley quickly attracted the support of Gilles Peterson, and in the past decade his career has rapidly accelerated. As well the Heritage, he is now Chief Conductor of the Netherlands-based Metropole Orchestra, and appears as guest conductor with a wide range of European ensembles, such as Germany’s WDR.  

His interest in orchestral adaptations of electronic music has found its most recent expression in an ongoing project with DJ Pete Tong, performing arrangements of Ibiza classics with the Heritage Orchestra. They debuted at last year’s Proms and will continue in two concerts in December this year. He has also been collaborating with jazz musicians, and earlier this year won his first Grammy Award with Brooklyn jazz-funksters Snarky Puppy. Other collaborators from jazz include Gregory Porter and Kurt Elling, as well as his three Proms this season, featuring Jamie Cullum, (11 August), Quincy Jones (22 August), and Kamasi Washington (30 August).

MATTHEW WRIGHT: I’m told the Heritage Orchestra started as a Shoreditch club night aimed at bringing a live orchestra to an audience that wouldn’t usually hear one. Is that right?

JULES BUCKLEY: I run the Heritage Orchestra with Chris Wheeler: we’re good cop, bad cop, no one knows who’s who. He was running a club night called Heritage, and he asked me if I wanted to put together a large ensemble. I’d been looking for an opportunity to do that to get my music played because there were so few opportunities at college to get your music played live. It was like that in the beginning and it was only intended to do one gig. When we piled into the club with the tuba and set of bongos and whatever, we suddenly realised that there was clearly a resonance with the audience that we hadn’t factored in. That was the birth of everything I’m doing now.

Over the years we’ve developed our philosophy of breaking the mould of that pops orchestra

Where does the name “Heritage” come from? Is it ironic? Or are you making a case for a new kind of heritage?  

Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a much deeper reason behind the name. You could argue that with many of the artists we collaborate with there is a heritage, or path. The intention from the beginning was to do something different. We weren’t intending to take on the classical world.

Over the years we’ve developed our philosophy of breaking the mould of that pops orchestra concert band in which they all wear their white coats and the kids come and sit in the park, and they play a really light, inoffensive gig with a pop singer. We definitely wanted to smash that, completely, and make those experiences as artistically led as the most serious symphonic performance. We wanted to make it more respected. You go to those concerts and they’re just playing along to a backing track. There are so many incredible arrangers. It’s the responsibility of the artistic leaders of these orchestras to take the programming more seriously.

Almost everything I’ve read about you says that you challenge or cross traditional boundaries of genres. Do you do this deliberately? Or is it just the way your career has evolved?

It wasn’t my plan. I was writing my own music, and trying to get involved in projects that really inspired. The lines people draw to create different genres is often themselves trying to feel more secure about what they’re listening to. For me it’s just a case of is it good music or is it bad music. It’s a skill that I have to bring an orchestra and singer-songwriter together and find some middle ground.

The teachers I had at school were massive jazz fans

It’s been an important movement in the past 15 years or so, this indie-classical movement, with musicians such as Gabriel Prokofiev or André de Ridder, who conducted the Bowie Prom, or the Bedroom Community. The definitions of genre are what other people apply. I just don’t recognise them in the first place.  

You played trumpet as a child, and have talked about your dad’s record collection – what was the musical atmosphere at home like? How much of what you do today comes from those early influences?  

The main things I remember were: music was always on, my dad had a great record collection, if we were leaving the house, the radio was always on, if we were going on holiday, the tapes were always in the car, music was a permanent feature of our upbringing. Between mum and dad, they had a broad taste, from opera, to the Beatles, to Musical Youth, it went all over the shop. I got a nice education in mainstream opera and mainstream classical. The teachers I had at school were massive jazz fans. Miles [Davis] was the first I was introduced to. That really was a change, being introduced to the whole world of improvisation, and thinking in a completely different way. For the first time I was expressing myself – I always remember that feeling.

Listening to your arrangements of Basement Jaxx, there’s – to me – an almost gleeful sense of fun and mischief in the lushness and ingenuity of the orchestration, using orchestral palettes (harps, for example) that are almost a comic contrast with the house/garage origins of Basement Jaxx.

It’s always been really exciting and appealing to look at the idea of doing a remix, and with Basement Jaxx, it’s so slamming, you know you can’t ever match that amount of slam with an orchestra. Even with 250 people, it ain’t going to happen. Between Felix [Buxton, one half of Basement Jaxx] and I, we got together and spent a long time discussing each track, and we would be excited to do something different. I particularly remember “Red Alert”. Simon [Ratcliffe] wrote the first minute and a half as a demo, and we were really excited about that. The whole time the feeling was always to have fun. That’s always been a massive part of Basement Jaxx’s philosophy, to take these remixes to as high a level as they remix other people’s, because of course all modern dance acts use remixes.

Excuse the simplification, but it is possible to group the musicians you’ve collaborated with into one group of soul/jazz acoustic performers (Laura Mvula, Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling, Caro Emerald), who I’d assume would be sympathetic to orchestration, and another of house/grime electronic group (Basement Jaxx, Beardyman, Skepta, Professor Green), who would require much more of an imaginative, conceptual leap?

I would agree with that. You could suggest that the simplest version of the work I do would be to take a singer-songwriter, who plays a guitar on their own, and introduce them to a symphony orchestra. The arrangement is the same key, the same form and everyone will dig it because when the minor chord is enhanced by the strings it always tugs. You’ve got a pretty good chance of being successful, and the risk factor is low.

Whereas what we did with Beardyman was prepare a 60-minute improvised set, with the improvisations made up on the spot. You’ve gone from one extreme to the other. That was super-high risk, because it was always changing. In rehearsals we’d prepare one 20-minute section, which would be amazing, then another 20 minutes, and it would suck. It would all depend on whether everything would fall together in time. The more esoteric with the artist or production, the more detailed though has to go on how to put it together conceptually. If you can make those successful, that’s the best thing, a great feeling.

Did Beardyman have his new Beardytron then? How do you make improvisation work when you’re managing 25 violins, and associated forces?

Beardyman had at least six Kaoss Pads and whole host of other stuff. We made a combination between Beardy and myself. We created a series of signs. This is not necessarily a new thing – the London Improvisers’ Orchestra has been doing it for years – you create a series of hand signals everyone can understand, to mean “change chord”, “new solo” etc. We set those up, then I drew a one- or two-octave piano diagram on a massive piece of card, then I made a big arrow. I would use those tools to react to what Beardy was doing. Sometimes it worked the other way round, and we would initiate the idea. We only did it once, but I felt like it had bags of potential.

You’re always going to hit 50% of a good thing, but above 50% is so variable, it depends on so much. Not everyone is willing to support those projects where the other 50% is at risk.

With the Metropole Orkest, as well as other collaborations such as German orchestra WDR, you’re part of a European tradition what we perhaps used to call light music, that’s faded a bit in UK, but is still popular in Europe. How different is the environment for non-classical orchestral music in Europe?  

I’m not sure. I find they’re more open to putting a project together and having a go in Europe. It comes down each time to the orchestra themselves. I wouldn’t say the European orchestras are any more open than the UK ones. To some degree I would say it’s the other way round. Many of the UK orchestras are open to doing cool stuff. But we’re cynical in UK, and we won’t take a punt on a fresh project unless we know it’s going to sell. The economics of putting together a concert in UK are harder. The WDR has a lot of money. There are big bands that are protected, which is great – look at what happened to the BBC Big Band. So they have a budget and they’re willing to have a go. In UK, often the orchestra is open to the idea, but the budgets are much tighter. The orchestras in UK are probably the best, because the history of pop in UK and US is so strong.

The third point is that there really is an appreciation from the audience of listening to good music. There isn’t the same cynicism in Europe. In UK the scene is so fast. We’re too cool for school. Germany has a more conservative orchestral feeling. They do also do a lot of crap projects in Europe. Our cynicism keeps that at bay.

I understand you’re a Man City fan. Often comparisons are drawn between conducting and managing a football team, and with Guardiola arriving, you’ll soon have the most slickly orchestrated players in the league, apparently. Do you think there’s anything in this comparison?

There’s definitely a comparison. If you look at historical conductors, there are tyrannical ones, who frighten the living crap out of every musician and suggest that this approach gets the best results. Maybe it did. I’m not convinced it does any more, because orchestras are full of very intelligent people who just won’t take that any more. With football managing, there have definitely been some managers who have that approach. You have managers who work more closely with the players. The more modern conductor has this latter approach, and that’s what I try to do: focus on the music and how you can, as a team, get the best out of it. You have to make decisions people won’t agree with.

Jules BuckleyI’m curious because Guardiola strikes me as someone who has no problem making those decisions, but you can see he’s also focusing on the football. He’s obsessed with it. I hope he sorts it out, but I think he’s too good for Man City. I feel I’ve lost touch with Man City since it became a billionaire’s toy – I preferred it in the Nineties when we had Uwe Rösler. Occasionally we’d trash Man United, but generally we’d lose, unless it was Niall Quinn in the box in the last minute, and I miss that. It’s depressing that everyone expects us to win just because we’ve got the most money.

For your Proms this summer, you’re conducting both Heritage, Metropole, and the strings of the CBSO. You’ve also worked with other mainly classical orchestras such as the BBC Symphony. Is it very different working with musicians who are used to playing classical repertoire?

There is quite a big difference, which is mainly in the feeling and emphasis on the rhythm. An orchestra like Metropole was only ever created to play jazz and popular music. Within the DNA of each musician is the ability to really swing, and an openness to pulling apart rhythms, whereas a stock classical orchestra would only play two or three non-classical gigs. You have to be very respectful of the musicians, but at the same time you have to get dirty with the rhythms.

A classical orchestra has a phenomenal flexibility according to time. Some minimalist music has a similar attitude to rhythm. But you can’t just put a chart on a stand and expect the strings to swing. With the CBSO we’ll work together on some of the groove repertoire together. It’s a really enjoyable process, but ideally, you wouldn’t just do one project, you’d do four in a row, and by the end they’d really be kicking some arse.

You’ve often talked about throwing the balls in the air, or throwing the formalities out of the window, and descriptions like “lightning conductor” crop up in many profiles. How do you maintain that level of energy and iconoclasm? Do you ever yearn to do something familiar?

Mostly when I put together a project I spend about four or six weeks getting the music created. For the Quincy Prom I’ve got a great team of guys helping me – that’s the first effort. The second thing is, you invariably find yourself repeating the same things in rehearsals with different groups. I need the drive. It’s rewarding to take something unpolished and taking it to the highest level. I hope I would always have that drive. I sometimes wonder about friends and colleagues who travel round performing the classic symphonies, with the LPO or RPO and pull out Mahler 2. I have an innocent advantage, which is that no one knows the music. For some of the other conductors, she or he might need more energy to inspire an orchestra in familiar music.  

You won a Grammy earlier this year for the album Sylva you made with Snarky Puppy. How did that feel? Do you feel like more of a musical insider now?

It’s just encouraging. We didn’t expect to win it – we thought it would be Marcus Miller. It was like being a 10-year-old kid again for the day. You realise you have th get a chart finished for a job. You just have to keep working. It’s easy to settle after those moments, but for me it’s an incentive keep fired up. It’s great there’s recognition for a project that like that was a mash-up.  

Was it any different working with a group like Snarky Puppy which is used to creating its own arrangements?

You know you can go in to see the band and you’re talking the same language. I worked really closely with Michael League, and I helped him get it onto paper and arrange it. The visual element that Michael hit on was brilliant. That project felt more like home ground. Everyone was on the same page. It was completely different from working with Beardy. Someone from a classical background would say they’re all crossover projects, but that category is just too broad. We’re doing a concert with Snarky Puppy at the Bremen Music Festival in September. There a plans for a follow-up album, but I’m not sure exactly when yet.

For this season’s Proms, you have a gig with Jamie Cullum, which will feature new pop arrangements. You’ve worked with Jamie many times before, of course – can you tell us anything about what that Prom will include?

We’re trying to make it Quincy’s world, not just Quincy the composer

Tom Richards, Jamie’s musical director, has written all the arrangements with Jamie, and from I can gather, it’s all new arrangements of mostly new pieces from Jamie’s latest songs. There will be special guests but I’m not entirely sure who they are. There are special guests – to be confirmed – and the Roundhouse Choir. It’ll be really upbeat. We’re planning on using the space in the hall in an interesting way. Looks like Little Simz, ESKA, and Remi Harris.

Then there’s Quincy Jones, who’s done so much and worked with so many incredible acts over so many years. Where do you start with one concert, and a career like that?

Once we got the green light from Quincy’s team, I met up with the guys at Los Angeles, at the same time as the Grammy ceremony, and they immediately said we’ve had a million of these concerts, go away and make a hit list and come back to us. That seemed super simple, but when you sit down and look at his albums, and other albums he’s produced and arranged, and you have a shedload of material.

I spend weeks listening to loads of different stuff. My first idea was a two-half affair of old songs and new artists, but I realised that whatever I did, some fans would be unhappy, especially my jazz colleagues, so I decided just to make it like a two-half narrative, so we feel there’s an emotional path. Once I settled on that it became easier, even though I had to kill so many darlings. I’m still thinking about the introduction. It’s either going to be a medley – I hate the word, it reminds me of the white coats – but it could be. Or I’ll slam in there with one piece. I know what that would be, but I’m still mulling it over.

We have amazing guests – Richard Bona, Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, and Jacob Collier. Each one is going to rework a Quincy piece. We’re trying to make it Quincy’s world, not just Quincy the composer. There’s an element of giving to Quincy, gifts to him from the artists. I’ve also got Cory Henry, as far as I’m concerned the greatest Hammond player in the world. We also have Laura Mvula, who will sing a couple of pieces. It should be cool. Quincy may conduct a part, but I couldn’t say till the rehearsals. He’ll be there throughout rehearsals. He gave me free reign. He has approved the set list.

And your last Prom features superstar saxophonist Kamasi Washington. His music has so much going on already – how are you going to fit an orchestra in?

That concert is about 65 minutes. We’re bringing in two pieces that are him and the CBSO strings only. The rest will be more acoustic. He creates a wall of sound. Everyone will be in it together. The Albert Hall can be a tricky room for anything with drums. I always find that I appear at the Proms with a drummer. There’s always one reporter who will say, 'We all know drums don’t work in the Albert Hall'. You have to approach these things with an open mind.


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