The Very Best, who perform at Rock & Roll Hotel tonight, won widespread acclaim for its bubbly, bright mesh of Afropop vocals and electro, indie rock and hiphop music on a 2008 mixtape and 2009 debut album The Warm Heart of Africa. Then a UK-based trio including Swedish producer Johan Hugo Karlberg, Malawian vocalist Esau Mwamwaya, and French producer Etienne Tron, the unit was aided by guests Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and M.I.A. With the departure of Tron, The Very Best is now down to a duo, and just released its second album MTMTMK, and a new mixtape, Anzanga.
MTMTMK includes more Western and African club beats and electronically distorted vocals than prior efforts. Mwamwaya‘s buoyant vocals shine on “Moto” and “I Wanna Go Away,” while other cuts hide the harmonic contributions he offered in the past. “Kondaine” evokes Vampire Weekend through the guest vocals of London-based Nigerian Seye Adelekan, but the duo are mostly eager to do something new here. They try Auto-tuned vocals on “Rumbae,” noisy synths on “Adani,”and add Amadou & Mariam and Baaba Maal on “Bantu,” a Malian jam session. They insert dub reggae beats on “Mghetto,” and “Yoshua Alikuti” starts with an “Age of Aquarius” sounding melody before transforming into a Malawian one over techno/disco club beats. They return to pop at the end on “We OK,” written with Bruno Mars, and featuring Somalian rapper K’Naan. Karlberg spoke with Arts Desk via email regarding their current approach.
Washington City Paper: Where was the new album recorded and how long did it take?
Johan Hugo Karlberg: We started in Sweden in the middle of the forest in 2010. It was good but sounded too much like the Warm Heart of Africa album so most stuff got left behind. Then we tried New York for six weeks at the end of 2010 and we got a bit closer to the sound we were looking for but most of these sessions got scrapped, too. After that I think our label gave up on us and left us alone, so I went to Malawi and rented a studio with Esau in the capital Lilongwe. It was a small place with long electricity cuts every day, some days up to six hours per day, but no one could call us and there was no Internet. Just me and Esau in a room making music like the good old days. So we were there working for about five weeks recording most of what became the new album MTMTMK… Seye came to visit and record and so did Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend.
WCP: Why did Ettienne Tron leave? How did that change the sound?
JHK: We just wanted to do different things. He moved back to France and wanted to push his Secousse club hard so we decided to part ways. I don’t think it changed the sound in itself, but we were already moving toward a new sound for MTMTMK, we really wanted to make a album that would sound great at festivals. We wanted to make an album that was made to play live.
WCP: Does Esau Mwamwaya write all the lyrics?
JHK, everything that’s in Chichewa. But we do collaborate on choosing the subject matter.
WCP: Have you been listening to coupe decale and other current African programmed beats?
JHK: Yea of course, we’ve had a long love relationship with modern African dance music and this new album definitely had more of these influences. When we were recording in Malawi we would go to the clubs every weekend and listen to music and dance and get the DJs to play our new songs and DJ with them to try things out.
WCP: What does the album title mean?
JHK: It’s still a secret. For legal reasons we weren’t allowed to name it what we wanted so we did an abbreviation of the real name. There’s a competition starting tomorrow for people to guess the name and you can win this amazing handmade The Very Best jacket by Sooph. Then, after the competition we’ll reveal the real album title.
WCP: How will the live show this time differ from the live show the last time you were here?
JHK: It has a lot more energy. We just got back from Fuji Rock festival in Japan which was our first live show with new music and it was amazing. We have more of a band with us this time too, combining the electronic sound and the organic elements in the live show. It’s a happy, crazy dance party… I guess it always was but I feel that we’ve finally become a real live act. That’s why we’re so excited to come on this America tour and share this experience with people. It’s been way too long making this record and not touring!
The Very Best, Seye, and Sol Power perform at 10 p.m. tonight at Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H. St. NE. $16.