Andrew Levy, (seen here on the left), bass player with The Brand New Heavies chats with Kevin Cooper about working with Jan Kincaid, being influenced by Al Jarreau, their latest album TBNH and their forthcoming tour of the UK.

Andrew Levy is one of the co-founders with Simon Bartholomew and Jan Kincaid of acid jazz and funk group, The Brand New Heavies, who are best known for a string of successful singles in the early 90s featuring N’Dea Davenport as lead vocalist. As The Brand New Heavies they gained a cult following in the London club scene and soon signed to a division of Chrysalis Records in the UK, and American distribution was picked up by influential label Delicious Vinyl. They released their self titled debut album in 1990.

Famous for having a number of lead vocalists such as N’Dea Davenport on their Brother Sister album and 2006’s Get Used To It, Sy Smith on their 2003 album We Won’t Stop, Siedah Garrett on Shelter and Carleen Anderson on Trunk Funk.

Famous for their version of Maria Muldaur’s Midnight At The Oasis, the band had to regroup when Jan Kincaid and Dawn Joseph both left in 2015. In July 2016, the band began touring extensively in Europe and Japan with Sulene Fleming on vocals. She stayed until 2018. In November 2018 the band again started touring with Angela Ricci on vocals.

Their eleventh studio album, TBNH, will be released later this year, and whilst busy promoting it, Andrew Levy took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Andrew, how are you today?

I’m very well thanks Kevin, how are you?

I have to say that all is good thanks and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No problem, it is absolutely my pleasure.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

What can I say, life now is very exciting. At my age, which is over fifty, I have got a lot on my plate. I’m now doing a few certain things which I really should have done when I was a bit younger; like having kids and getting married. Both of which I did during the past eight years. I have now got children who are quite young so as you can see, I am both very driven and extremely tired, or at least that is how I feel most of the time (laughter).

It must have come as quite a shock when Jan Kincaid, a founding member of The Brand New Heavies left the band?

(Laughter) well, you could say that. I would have to say that life has been rather challenging after one of the main members of the band disappeared just before The Brand New Heavies went out on tour. Having said that we dealt with it, we coped with it and carried on for the good of the fans. We thought that we were not going to be down trodden; we are going to be as good as we can be and continue to deliver for our fans.

I have to say that you have made me feel rather old today.

Have I really, why is that?

I was checking when the first time was that I saw The Brand New Heavies live and it was actually Sunday 1st May 1994 here in Nottingham at Rock City some twenty-five years ago now (laughter).

(Laughter), that really is a long time ago now. However, for some reason I do remember that gig because the venue was called Rock City and we were a Funk band (laughter). I do remember the whole thing.

We must speak about the forthcoming album, TBNH. You have a projected release date of 6th September, is it all good to go?

Yes, it has, and yes it will; we are all good to go on September 6th. Having said that though, I must admit that this album has been a long time coming. We signed the deal with Acid Jazz Records way back in March 2017 so as you can see it really has been a long process. As you know, we had the legal situation, let’s call it, to deal with which dragged things out with Jan, who left the band in 2015. Jan was trying to take us to court and sue us. I won’t go into why, but let’s just say that we managed to weather that storm, and at the same time we were gathering together a ton of songs, some old, some unfinished actually and some new, and we really just wanted it to sound great. It takes a lot longer when you have got a family because you don’t want to spend between eighteen and twenty hours in the studio.

It really has been a long time coming. We were supposed to release the album last year during the summer of 2018 but because it wasn’t completely perfect, together with the fact that Mark Ronson came in at the last minute, telling us “you have got to do this cover, I will produce it for you and I won’t charge you because you are one of my favourite bands ever” and that added another six months (laughter). However, listening to the finished article now, I most definitely do think that it was well worth the wait plus I didn’t want to rush it. No one was expecting or waiting for us to make another album. So, I just thought ‘when it is finished, then we will put it out’. That was my thought process.

So, taking all of that into consideration, how long has it taken you from writing to recording?

In all, about a year and a half. When we were signing the new contract, that became tricky because we had a member leave the band at just the wrong time. We had to get the ownership of the name, the branding, the logo and get everything trademarked. So, in terms of just the music, production and mixing, I would say perhaps a year max.

And if you say it quickly, then it’s not that long is it?

(Laughter) that’s it, I should’ve thought of that sooner.

Are you happy with the finished product?

I am blown away by it. I’m very happy with it. Personally, I would probably have recorded fewer tracks, but apparently nowadays you need to be nearer the twelve-track mark. I really do like a short album I must say. I was a big fan of albums back in the 70s when there were only nine tracks on them (laughter). I think that nine tracks are far easier to digest than twelve. People no longer listen to albums as complete packages anymore; they are just tracks that they simply download which is fine. I am actually very happy that we spent that much time on the album. We could have put something out very quickly after Jan left the band just to say that we are still here and still working but yes, I am very pleased with it.

Once the album is finished, can you walk away from it or are you a meddler? Do you have to keep going back to it and tweak bits here and there?

(Laughter) it’s funny that you are asking me that because we did three solid months of tweaking. There were various reasons but most of it was down to different people’s needs and what they wanted the album to be; the record company wanted something different from what I wanted the album to be which was also different to what the producer wanted. Having said that, it took me a while to walk away from the album. We added an incredible brass section to a song on it called Stupid Love. We tested it out at Radio 2 and they didn’t like it (laughter).

There was a lot of wrangling between Radio 2 and myself but eventually I backed off and left the brass section off the song because if they weren’t going to play it then it was a waste of time releasing the song as a single. Once the album was cut onto vinyl, and once the masters were cut, I thought ‘yeah, okay, it’s time to walk away’. What I did was, I stopped listening to it for about six or seven weeks, I just didn’t listen to it. I completely shut down from it and it was only a couple of weeks ago that I started playing it in the car again. I think you must do that, you have to say goodbye to it and send it on its merry way.

You mention putting the album out on vinyl, whose idea was that?

That was down to the label, Acid Jazz. They are into their dusty grooves (laughter). We are not obsessed with the past, but we do have a connection with vinyl. We do have a connection with the 70s and 80s. So, it just made sense to put it out on vinyl. I have got this big fear that, one day, something horrible happens and there is a world war three and all the hard drives get wiped out. There will be no music after 1992 because it is all digital. Nothing is physical anymore, even our photographs of our families, (laughter). So, it is nice to physically have the album on plastic, and who knows, one day someone might find it after Armageddon, and they might find a record player somewhere in order to be able to get the sound off the grooves (laughter). It’s an interesting thought when you think of how much isn’t physical anymore in the world.

I must be honest with you and say that I personally think that TBNH is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

They tell you that you get cynical as you get older, but I am really blown away by people. You are the second person who has interviewed me today who has said that and I know that you are probably much more honest than a lot of other people, because you have been there with us since day one, and so I really respect that, because deep down I really do think it is. We spent so much time and energy working on this album. There is a silly schoolboy competition thing going on, because in the back of my mind, Jan is always going to be there saying “that is not cool enough” (laughter). I scrapped a lot of stuff and redid a lot of stuff and made the album something that he would be proud of in a strange way.

Obviously, there is a bit of animosity between us, because the way he left and the fact that he tried to sue us. But at the end of the day, Jan’s standards were always very high, and he has been a massive influence on me, even in terms of me listening to jazz for the very first time through him. Jan’s brother is a virtuoso musician; he really is an incredible bass player. In fact, it was his brother who gave me my very first bass guitar. So, as you can see, Jan and I go back a very long way. Taking all the legal stuff and Jan leaving the band aside, Jan really is a serious musician, an incredible musician, a very talented guy. So, I wanted the new album to be on that level, where he would be proud of it as well.

What was it like working with and having the usual suspects back together once again?

It was good. The Brand New Heavies nowadays is really just me and Simon (Bartholomew) to be honest. It was nice to have N’Dea (Davenport) on three of the new songs. The Brand New Heavies have been touring continuously since we were signed, under the radar obviously, playing over forty shows a year all over the world. We have never stopped really. The only big change really is the atmosphere whenever we are all together and out on the road, because everyone is now happy (laughter).

You would be surprised at just how many bands I speak to who have that very same problem, a good example is UB40.

(Laughter) we do a lot of shows with them. They like to book us.

In that case I must ask you, which version? (laughter).

(Laughter) that would be the expensive version, they are the ones that can afford us.

Moving swiftly on as I don’t want to be sued, did Beverley (Knight) and Angie (Stone) take much persuading to contribute to the new album?

No, not at all. The thing is that everywhere we go and everywhere we play, there is so much love for our music. Because we have never really been household names, there is this authenticity that we have managed to perpetuate over the years, and I think that people are really buying into that. Beverley was happy for the song to go forward, and Angie has always been a massive fan of ours. I think that the more musical side of the industry together with people who are interested in songs, chords, and deeper music, I think that they respect us, and they want to be a part of the fact that we have kept it going for so many years, I think.

At this moment in time I have got three go to tracks on the album; The Funk Is Back, Little Dancer and the first single, Getaway. What I was going to say is that Little Dancer reminds me of The Miracles Love Machine released in October 1975.

Wow you certainly know your stuff, that really is an amazing track. We like to think that it sounds a little like Hey Ya! the Outkast song from 2003. It has got a 60s and André 3000 type thing going on there as well. They really are great choices.

I have to ask; did you intend to sample The Emotions Best Of My Love and Chic’s I Want Your Love when you were writing Getaway?

Yes, I did. I wrote the music for that quite a while back now and I had it tucked away, in fact N’Dea did the vocal for that track some years ago now. However, for one reason or another I held the song back, because I thought that we weren’t ready to put something like that out. I’m glad I did because I think that it is one of the songs that shapes the album. Its disco but it’s not too throwaway.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

Do you know what, yes, I do and it’s not for commercial reasons (laughter). It is probably one of the most accomplished arrangements, most accomplished lyrically, and just the whole journey from the top of the song right to the end, is It’s My Destiny with Siedah (Garrett) doing the vocals. The way that it was written, just after we signed the deal with Acid Jazz, we booked a studio and we got our new drummer in, Luke Harris, together with our keyboard player for the past fifteen years, Matt Steele and we just jammed. And amazingly we came up with It’s My Destiny. At that point I thought ‘you know what; I think that Siedah is going to love this’ so I emailed it over to her and a few days later, she sent back to me.

She sent me the finished song, complete with backing vocals, mixed, with an edit of everything in there and I thought ‘wow, this actually sounds like The Brand New Heavies from the Shelter album back in the 90s’. I thought ‘right, we have got that, we are nodding to the past’ and we then built the entire album around that song. So yes, that is one of my favourites. I have to say that Siedah really is the consummate professional; she is the most unbelievably professional person who I have ever worked with.

You are going back out on the road here in the UK on 7th September to promote the album, are you looking forward to that?

Yes, I am, I really am. We are constantly touring but most of the gigs will be over in Japan, Budapest, Copenhagen, South Korea places like that, so as you can see, we are literally everywhere. We still do a lot of shows which you would have to say are under the radar. But the tour here in the UK starting in September is the main album promotional tour.

With the extensive back catalogue that you have got, plus the fourteen new songs on the forthcoming album, how much trouble is it for you to put a set list together?

It is tough, it is very tough. I often have wrangling’s with Simon about this very subject. I’m quite customer facing and I’m the guy in the audience who loves all the old stuff, and who will buy a ticket to hear all those songs being played live. On the other hand, Simon is always thinking ‘we need to put some new stuff in’ and I am always worried that people don’t want to hear new songs, they want to hear what they know and that’s why they buy the ticket. So yes, it is going to be tricky, but we will be playing These Walls, and we will be playing Getaway live. That is the minimum that we are going to be doing off the new album.

I know that it is still a few months away, but do you have any thoughts regarding a support act here in the UK?

Depending upon the size of the tour together with the size of the venue, it sometimes becomes a problem to have any support at all. When we get up onto the stage there are nine of us up there, sometimes ten if we have got a three-piece brass section. So, it is literally hard to find the space and time to sound check two bands. At this moment in time, we really are not that sure about taking a support act on the road with us. What I will tell you is that we have got a DJ Brand called Sheen Resistance and they are going to be doing a warm up together with a before and after show party. So with regards to any support act, it all depends upon ticket sales.

Who has musically inspired you?

I have been waiting for someone to ask me this because I have recently been playing and listening to a whole load of old stuff (laughter). I have been playing my kids a lot of old stuff in the car, to get them inspired by the keyboard sounds and all the different sounds on the new album. I have been listening to the late Al Jarreau quite a lot recently. Whenever I get asked that question, I usually say James Brown, Miles Davis or whatever, but Al Jarreau made an album called Breaking Away and that album has been a massive influence upon me. I first heard it when I was sixteen; in fact it was Jan’s brother who gave me a copy of it. And that is a massive album to me.

His song structure, keyboard solos, together with the production and everything, he is a big influence. Another massive influence upon me was, and still is, Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock formed a band called The Headhunters back in 1973 and they released an album called Thrust and when I heard it I thought that I had never heard anything that funky in my whole life. I really did think ‘wow, I am going to be playing the bass now, forever’ after hearing that album (laughter). I was also heavily into The Meters, an American funk band formed in 1965 by Zigaboo Modeliste (drums), George Porter Jr. (bass), Leo Nocentelli (guitar), and Art Neville (keyboards) in New Orleans.

There is a track called Love Slip Up On Ya that I used to play every day on my way to art college in the mornings (laughter). That was during my long drive from Ealing to East Ham, I used to do that every day. So, all that kind of stuff has influenced me over the years. But going back to Al Jarreau I nicked a couple of brass lines off his Breaking Away album (laughter). When you next listen to the new album you will hear the stolen brass lines on a track called Together (laughter).

I recently saw an interview with you online and you mentioned that you had a passion for Motown?

Yes, that’s right, I absolutely love Motown.

In that case, you must have researched and listened to the legend that is the late James Jamerson?

Absolutely, in fact I have got James Jamerson’s book, which I can clearly remember buying when I was on tour over in the States. As you know I am self-taught on the bass; I have never had a lesson, I have got the world’s worst technique, I could never play in another band because the way that I play is very specifically tuned to The Brand New Heavies, and I am not the sort of guy who will put a record on and try to copy the bass player. I pick up on what I hear, and it filters through me and comes out as something else (laughter). I didn’t realise that I was a big fan of Jamerson until the end of the 90s when I realised exactly who he was after I had figured out what his name was.

He does this run that is the most incredible thing, and I must be honest and say that no one else really does it. I have really been blown away by some of the stuff that he does together with the inventiveness of him and his playing.

I can see that you have really taken an interest into James Jamerson’s life and playing. In that case could you perhaps give your old bass playing friend John Taylor of Duran Duran fame a lesson or two please? (laughter).

Really, why’s that?

When I interviewed him and mentioned James Jamerson, he hadn’t got a clue who I was speaking about.

Oh my god, that’s awful. I bumped into John a couple of weeks ago now as our sons play football together (laughter). So, thanks for that snippet of information; I will be teasing him about that.

And then, after Jamerson passed away, Bob Babbitt took over the reins and, in my opinion, did a remarkable job stepping into Jamerson’s shoes.

That’s right, he did. I must agree with you on that point although there will only ever be one James Jamerson.

Without intending to be racist in any way, for a white man, Bob Babbitt played the bass like a black man. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does, it totally does. It’s funny that you say that because when we first went over to America, we found that a lot of the rappers were sampling our music. And suddenly we were face to face with some of these rappers, while we were recording our Heavy Rhyme Experience Vol. 1 album, and I have to say that it really was a surreal experience. After that, Jan walked into the studio and started dropping beats and they were blown away as well (laughter). Jan is the only non-Jamaican drummer who can play Reggae properly. Reggae is very hard to play, and it is played very badly by lots of people, but Jan has really got it.

He knows how to play the Lovers Rock beats, the Steppers beats, and I think that if you listen properly and you have got it in your soul, then you are halfway there. You must remember that we grew up in clubs; we used to go to the all-dayers back in the 70s. We would take ourselves off into Central London with just enough money for the tube fare, we would drink water from the taps in the bathrooms, just so that we could hear the music and dance to it. We really did grow up in a club environment. That really did hone our taste in music.

You formed The Brand New Heavies back in 1985, some thirty-four years ago now. Could you ever envisage that you would still be playing thirty-four years on and more to the point, that you would still be as influential today as you were back then?

No, not at all. When you are that young you think that it is never going to end. When the money was pouring in back in the mid-90s you think ‘this is going to be forever’ (laughter). At that time, we didn’t have kids, mortgages or school fees to pay, and at that time I had no idea what I was going to do if The Heavies didn’t last forever. So, what can I say, I’m glad that we did (laughter). We all got into property development, we all became landlords, and I simply can’t imagine life without The Heavies. I have been doing it since I was nineteen years old. I don’t know anything else really (laughter).

Regarding the lead singers, did you always intend to keep it fluid thus allowing the ladies to drop in and out of the band as they saw fit?

Never (laughter). In my mind N’Dea (Davenport) was always the lead singer for me. For me, she has the most unbelievably unique and incredible voice. And I always wanted her to be the singer of The Brand New Heavies. We would have probably been a bit bigger, and we would have had a lot more successful albums if she had stayed. But, without going into the reasons as to why she didn’t want to stay, let’s just say that she wanted to leave. At that time there were some internal wrangling going on, all revolving around egos and jealousy. But we carry on, we keep going, the music and the name of the band are stronger than the individuals in the band so, I can’t believe that we have got away with it really. We have had seven singers in the band since we started (laughter). I think it’s because the songs are very strong, we do a great live show, and we have got away with it.

A couple of years ago now I was fortunate enough to interview Maria Muldaur and asked her what she thought of your version of Midnight At The Oasis. She said that whilst she would never say that one version was better than the other, what she did say was that your version was every bit as good as hers.

Seriously, wow, that really is unbelievable. After we have finished, I am going to call Simon and tell him, he will be totally blown away. Next year we are launching a brand-new marketing campaign and it would be great if we could get a quote from her which we could use on that. I have watched some black and white TV performances of her doing that song repeatedly and realised just how slow her version of the song is. Once you get used to The Brand New Heavies version, you think that is the speed of the original, but it’s not (laughter). I will tell you a story about that, our rhythm guitarist Lascelles Gordon had a massive influence on the band back in the early days.

He was a big DJ in town with Barrie Shape, and it was those two who actually gave us our very first live concert in Leicester Square, at The Cat In The Hat club which was the ultimate, rare groove club back in the early 90s. Lascelles put together a cassette tape with lots of different artists on, including Maria, with lots of incredible music and not just rare groove soul and funk. When I first heard Midnight At the Oasis I thought ‘this really is an amazing song’ then the record company said “guys, we need a cover” and I thought ‘we have got to try to cover this song’. When I suggested it to the rest of the band, I got laughed at (laughter).

What you must try to understand is that unless you can imagine the song in a different format, then it’s a weird song to suggest for a soul or funk band to cover. However, we went into the studio, we got a groove together, and it ended up being our biggest song. It got us onto the Capitol Radio A list, and we sold in excess of six hundred thousand copies here in the UK. You must have a vision I think, in order to be able to hear things in a different context. We are thinking of doing a big show next year at either the Royal Albert Hall or the Hammersmith Apollo, and wouldn’t it be amazing for her to walk on whilst we were playing that song. What a moment.

The funny thing is that people honestly believe that we wrote that song (laughter). I didn’t want to do a Stevie Wonder cover or an Earth, Wind & Fire sort of thing. I wanted to choose something that was completely different, which was powerful musically, and just add a funk beat to it. I really did have to endure the laughter, so in the end I even offered to cover the cost of the studio time in order to work the track out. I have to say that Jan instantly got it. When you break the song down it really is quite jazzy. It really does have a jazzy chord progression.

What was the first record that you bought?

That’s easy, that would have been La Freak by Chic. Because I was so young and I literally only had my pocket money, I split the cost of it with Jan (laughter). We paid £1.75 for the 12” version back in 1979, and we used to share it. I had it for a week and then I would give it Jan for a week.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That was Imagination back in 1986 with my second ever girlfriend called Sally Scott (laughter). It was her elder sister who got the tickets for it and she absolutely loved it.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Wow, where did that come from. Give me a couple of seconds to think this through. A friend of mine recently filmed Gladys Knight singing at one of her shows here in the UK and it was Baby, Don’t Change Your Mind. Just hearing that voice; she may be looking her age but, she is still going. That really did bring a tear to me eyes when I saw it. Watching her singing it was just incredible. My all-time favourite Gladys Knight track is Bourgie’, Bourgie’.

That song was written by (Nick) Ashford and (Valerie) Simpson back in 1977 and first appeared on their album Send It on Columbia Records. In 1980 Gladys Knight & the Pips covered it on their About Love album, and it was produced by Ashford and Simpson. It was also released as the B-Side to Taste Of Bitter Love (laughter).

(Laughter) god Kevin, you certainly know your stuff. I now know who to turn to if I need any information.

Andrew, on that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. It’s been fantastic. Good luck with the album launch and I will see you in sunny Northampton at The Roadmender on Saturday 23rd November.

Thank you so much Kevin. You take care and I will see you in Northampton. Bye for now.