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Interview: guUs

World travel hasn’t been too easy to do during the past few years. But some intrepid explorers keep searching out new horizons. Fired by fascination, they journey all over the globe, learning and sharing whatever they can, absorbing and synthesizing traditions, and making unlikely connections. guUs is an artist like that — a legitimately worldly musician who has brought his curiosity (and his songbook) wherever he’s gone. Originally from the Netherlands, he’s immersed himself in the musical traditions of his former home of London. While he currently calls San Francisco home, he has a deep fascination with New Orleans and the American South.

All those influences and more are audible in the music guUs makes: a gorgeous fusion of Old World art song, sophisticated jazz, experimental Tom Waits-style blues, touches of psychedelia, the cutting edge of prog, the storytelling sensitivity of Broadway and the West End theater, and spirituals and early gospel, that all takes influence from artists like Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, and Otis Redding. Except for collaborations on sax and with African drummers on the rhythm section, guUs does it all himself: writes the lyrics, sings the songs, directs the videos, and plays all instruments. Every guUs track is an adventure; every song documents a push beyond the artist’s previously established limits. Yet somehow, guUs never sounds restless. No matter how much he plays with rhythm, melody, and expectations, nothing is ever forced. His recordings are self-contained worlds, absorbing, complete, and full of color.

Superficially, “Baron Saturday” and “Moonhangin Man” sound different, but they share guUs’s commitment to experimentation, surprise, self-expression, and a sense of fun. “Baron Saturday” is the journey to the bayou and the exercise in off-kilter beats, swampy guitar, and charismatic vocals. The track is guUs’s examination of his feelings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the exposure of the vulnerability of a great American city, and the deals with the Devil cut by unscrupulous leaders. “Moonhangin Man,” by contrast, is all smoothness. This is guUs at his most urbane, singing out his regrets over lost love and the art (and challenges) of letting go, all while keeping a hungry eye on the future.

The “Baron Saturday” clip takes us to Louisiana and a rendezvous with guUs in a gorgeous, overgrown cemetery that, from the looks of the leaning tombstones, dates back to the colonial era. He’s outfitted for the occasion with Mardi Gras beads, a walking stick, and a big bottle of rum – a fitting drink, as the actual voodoo spirit Baron Samedi is known for being unruly and having a penchant for rum. guUs comes on like the spirit of zydeco — but there’s something sinister lurking in these verdant bushes. There’s a ghostliness to the “Moonhangin Man” video, too, as the artist walks the deserted streets of London, exploring his old Mile End neighborhood after dark. Just short of Tredegar Square – near the old neighborhood of the famous killer Jack The Ripper – we watch him get into a driverless car, close the door, and cruise off to his next adventure.

 

You have developed a truly unique music style, what has helped shape it?

Firstly, thank you. In the creation process I initially do all lyrics, vocals, instruments and production myself, adding things like saxophone later. This means two things. A song can start with a poem but also with a bass-line, riff or melody. The second thing is that I am not a virtuoso in all these instruments, nor do I have great digital production skills. This forces me to go back to the basics with my audio, experiment with acoustic and analogue instruments like tambourine, African drums and non-instruments (pots and pans) and to embrace imperfections.

This works well with the fact that in my music I seek authenticity and aspire to go back to the early roots of music: delta-blues, jazz, soul all the way back to the spirituals and gospel from the Deep South. Lastly I can say that in addition to those styles I am inspired by an unbordered variety of genres and artists which is probably what characterises me and my music most.

How have your world travels expanded your approach to music?

I am lucky enough to be able to say that I have been all over. Originally from the Netherlands, I moved from London to San Francisco just few years back. I spent some time in Asia, Latin America and having married a Zambian woman, we have a second home base there too. Every continent, country and city brings new music and adds to your catalogue of impressions, inspiration and anecdotes: I had a band for less than a month in the Philippines, I worked a lot with musicians from Africa in London, Rotterdam is a great city for jazz and art (rock). And looking at the Americas; the impact of the sounds of the South on my music is evident but also some of my experiences in South America, especially in Rio, have inspired me musically and lyrically.

Who are some of your musical influences?

Because I am inspired by the early roots of music when I am creating my tracks, I absorb from the early greats in jazz, blues and soul. Artists like John Coltrane, Otis Redding and Robert Johnson. Tom Waits is a great inspiration as well. Outside of the classics I am inspired by many. Because I am often a one-man-band myself, I am particularly inspired by other artists that do most of the musical creation themselves that are multi-instrumentalists, that make music that is unique and with an edge. For example D’Angelo, Josh Homme (QOTSA), Mos Def, Billy Idol, Bowie and Prince.

Tell us about “Baron Saturday”, what was it like creating the song and shooting the video?

Filming Baron Saturday was great. I filmed it with a friend who is a rapper but also wanted to explore his skills behind the camera. So it was a unique experience and experiment for us both. The song itself is named after the Voodoo spirit Baron Samedi; patron of death and resurrection, temptation and celebration, rum and cigars. It celebrates the strength of the city of “New Orleans”, the capital of voodoo in the US. After it faced death and destruction during hurricane Katrina the city persevered and was resurrected, despite being “forgotten” and ignored by too many.

What major upcoming projects can fans expect from you?

I have been working on the production of additional tracks with an initial aim of getting some placed in in film and TV. Not all of these will be released (soon) but I expect some of these tracks to be surfacing in not too much time. I have also been working with some HipHop producers to work on HipHop/ Boom Bap remixes and alternative versions of some of my tracks. Release dates are not yet confirmed. Keep your eyes peeled…

 

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