Sound and the City: Interview with Gaika

Deliciously mysterious, Gaika has had us transfixed from the early offering of mixtapes and EPs (Machine, Security) with his unique blend of industrial dancehall meets electronic drone, yet regularly evading any clear genre labelling. His debut album Basic Volume evolves to offer a more personal insight to his world lyrically and emotively and with an impressive line-up of collaborators to boot. Brought up in Brixton, for Gaika, growing up south of the river played a unique and integral part in informing his practice, taking into consideration immigrant narratives, sound system culture and the locale.

As an artist, Gaika’s output has been prolific and varied. Straddling the audio-visual world, the thematic elements of his work run through his music video visuals which in turn is an extension of his sonic aesthetics forming an expansive ethereal world and vice versa. In addition, visual art installations, fashion and running his own label are other strings to his extensive creative bow. Creating a unique amalgamation of his influences, interests and tastes, Gaika has honed in on something truly exciting and innovative.

We had the privilege of catching up with Gaika on what makes him tick, from hyper-masculinity, collaborations, to the London music landscape.

KALTBLUT: Hi Gaika! Tell us what you’ve been up to recently.
Gaika: I have been working on an installation, finished artwork, Somerset House [London] in August. Album stuff, working on dance beats with my brother and directing the music. I’ve been doing fashion things with the label that I have, making tunes and touring non-stop.

KALTBLUT: Tell us a little about the installation?
Gaika: It’s an installation called System. Boiler Room asked me to do a piece around [Notting Hill] Carnival, sound system culture, and immigration, like the Windrush generation. I’ve made this audio-visual sculpture which is also a functioning machine, and I am planning on having some parties and events around it. It’s about looking at the sound system allegorically in terms of holding space as an immigrant person. I love a bait and switch! If you tell me come do this thing, I will do what I want to do.

KALTBLUT: What are your earliest memories of music?
Gaika: My dad used to take me to Blues parties and I’d be sitting upstairs with the other kids, listening to bass music and dub/reggae shit going off downstairs. Being in that environment from being very young, like what’s going on down there, creeping down and standing there. My dad was like mid-30s and still like ‘I wanna go to the party!’ I was 4/5 and he would take me. I’d sit on the stairs and he’d say come down, meet my son to the other adults. I was always around there.

KALTBLIT: You’re quite mysterious in your aesthetic visually. Was this a deliberate choice and if so, why?
Gaika: I think everything I do is deliberate. I’m not really a forward planner with my image, it’s just what I like. I was never that kid in the mirror with a hairbrush, wanting to be on stage, I was never that person. I guess it’s some way for me to deal with it. I’m also into performance and want to give people something to look at. I’ve always liked that aesthetic, the shadowy thing, it’s just what my taste is. At the same time, it wasn’t considered. In terms of the kind of artist that I gravitate towards, as an example, for me, it was Prince over Michael Jackson.

KALTBLUT: You’ve released a number of mixtapes and EPs and you’re about to release your debut album BASIC VOLUME. What can also expect from it musically and lyrically? Is it different from what you have done or an extension of it?
Gaika: You’ll just have to listen to it! It’s an extension of Security in a way. SPAGHETTO was initially a film project that came out, sonically it was patterned around what was going to be on the screen. This is kind of connected a little more to the music that you find in Security, but more melodic. Definitely not the apocalyptic dancehall, gnarly stuff that I sometimes make. It’s closer to urban music in a way but it’s definitely gone through my filter. I don’t really consider the audience or effect of the music, I just make it. Thematically I hone in on the personal, my interpretation of how I experience the world. I haven’t listened to it in a long time and recently someone said to me that it was emotionally wrenching. That was my reality at the time of making it, grieving a lot. So, now that I am out of that and listen back to it, it’s like wow, you really said that?!

KALTBLUT: What do you think about the current South London music scene like and has it influenced you in any way?
Gaika: I think it’s great right now, it’s definitely influenced my sound 100%. I get tagged in with grime whereas my music is more connected to South London road rap, R&B, proto grime, So Solid Crew etc. I have a song on my album which is quite sort of grunge-y, and someone said it made them think of nu-metal, how did that happen? I’m from Brixton! There were skate parks growing up, everyone was like into Nirvana, something to link together. The black kids were a bit white, the white kids were a bit black. It’s not like east London where you have much more distinct communities. In South London we are more together, it all becomes a hybrid from Skunk Anansie to Basement Jaxx, to even So Solid Crew. It’s a melting pot and the feeling of it is definitely a South London thing. I think it’s like that because it has that long road that runs from the river [Thames] until you get to Croydon so you have this driving gloriousness to it. Afro swing to drill to road rap, it always feels like being outside because you have these wide-open spaces.

KALTBLUT: You have a very distinctively epic sound, really hypnotic and blends a number of genres from electro, industrial gothic to feels of dancehall. Tell us a little a bit about the process?
Gaika: I’m really into soundtracks and cinematic sounds, things that feel grand, epic and emotive. So that’s the core of it. But I also like drums, so it has a knock so I build on that. The drums are the drums. I have a thing where you can do whatever you want as long as it bangs you know? And then we do that, I sing on it and then we try and twist it a bit, flip it a bit set it away. But it definitely starts with a solid chord progression. I don’t know if that’s an insecurity cos I’m not a trained person but I have to have the music in that, or it’s a taste thing. I’ve played a lot of shows with drone in America. In certain places, I get boxed in with the drone artists. That’s cool but I’m also like, did you not hear my R&B record? I just take that industrial sound and make it have a tune.

KALTBLUT: You’ve spoken about this before, but male black masculinity. How has this influenced or shaped your work?
Gaika: It’s just to do with how I feel. I just always thought a lot of machismo surrounding all masculinity. I thought of it being nonsensical from before, even when people weren’t even considering it. If I am in touch with my emotions, does it make me weak? There’s something about puffed up dudes which I always thought was bullshit, and any music I was going to make was not going to be the same as that thing. I think especially when you’re making rap music there’s so much of that in there. I used to run clubs, and after a while, if you have any sort of empathy and conscience you just get sick of that environment. So, when I stepped out of it and started to make music, the last thing I wanted to do is put that thing directed at women in it. Like a lot of my music is hyper-masculine but just, it’s not like anger directed towards women or seeing women as less than or any of that shit. It doesn’t make any sense.

When I say hyper-masculine, I mean directly about being a man, right. I remember growing up and being called ‘sensitive’ and mocked cos you’re not supposed to be like that. When you challenge the status quo when it comes to gender, you just meet instant resistance more than anything I have ever encountered. People you think you know say ‘women this/that’. It’s toxic and twisted. It’s more a function of how I have always felt. A lot of black men have felt like this for years but it’s not necessarily the loudest voice. I guess I am an extrovert/introvert so I was always able to navigate that space without being trampled on. But I definitely always felt a bit alien to that, I was never one of the lads like that. I never wanted to be either. The company of ‘men’ insecure around each other is not really the one so I never thought it would be a thing that I got asked about

KALTBLUT: You’ve worked with a few people on your album tracks. Who has been your favourite collaboration so far?
Gaika: Outside of my band, I work with my boys a lot. I have known them for over 10 years, it’s us. But in terms of outside people, music, process, Nick Leon is a young guy I met on the internet. I have a real close working relationship and this incredible synergy, we read each other’s mind when we exchange things. Buddy Ross definitely in terms of process. We basically jammed out in his studio and then made something out of this weird 3-hour synth jam! And he’s a genius – you are aware of this, he’s made Frank Ocean so you’re thinking ‘I am here on this level’. He’s a piano virtuoso and I’m just banging about on keyboards. I never had a piano lesson in my life so to make something together with him, we made that song Ruby together and it’s one of my favourite songs. It was definitely an affirming process. I can’t say one person, SOPHIE was great, Jam City, everyone I worked with was dope. I feel really lucky. It’s been a passion thing for them, it’s my first album, it’s not like I have all this money. The whole thing has been wild, I love it. I can’t just name one.

KALTBLUT: The album release, what else can we look forward to from Gaika?
Gaika: I have a release coming up, a Mexican thing where we did ten songs in ten days, and want to get that out later on in the year. I have another release called Heaters for the Two Seaters which is a bit more super bashy. Trying to get a few features for that, for the roads! That’s what that is. Music is the only thing that I’ve ever done my homework on, I am always ahead. I love it. It’s not a chore for me. It’s not an emotionally weighty thing for me, it’s an emotional release. If I don’t make music then I feel fucking weird. At some point, I might hit a block but it’s not going be any time soon.

KALTBLUT: Finally, before we say goodbye is there any new music that you are currently excited about?
Gaika: Simeon Said, an artist who I am putting out on my label. It’s a friend of mine. Kind of Manchester shoegaze mixed with trap music. A lot of people, close friends from up there are people that really know how to write big hits. I lived there for a while. Bipolar Sunshine, Simeon, close mates of mine – if I can write a poignant song, they taught me how to do it. I can write a clever song, a cool song but how do you write the stuff that gets played at funerals, poignant moments? Say what you mean directly. That’s what I’m interested in. Then I would say Gloria, based in London and on my label. She has a big R&B voice and makes loads of epic sounds has a proper belter voice. Saying that I’m a bit insular. I’m generally just interested in what I am working on.

Gaika’s debut album ‘Basic Volume’ is out on 27 July via Warp Records/Rough Trade