Bai Kamara Jr interview

Interviewing Bai Kamara Jr

SRM: Thank you for your time, Bai, it is much appreciated. You grew up in Sierra Leone, where you were born, as well as in the UK before establishing yourself in Brussels, Belgium. Is all this travelling and mix of cultures what shaped you into the ‘Urban Gipsy’ of today?

BAI KAMARA JR.: First of all, I should say today that I’m more of a citizen of the world than an Urban Gipsy. People started calling me the Urban Gipsy because I lived in different boroughs of Brussels. Every year and a half I would live in a different borough, and back then I would mostly use public transport to get to my gigs. To answer your question, yes indeed, all this travelling and mixture of cultures played a part in characterizing the name which became the title track of my second album.

SRM: 11 years of conflict, war and the derived terror have castigated the people of Sierra Leone in unimaginable ways and proportions.

You have been visiting your homeland after 15 years of absence and in fact it has been this visit that sparked your inspiration for your work in‘Disposable Society’.

As clear and rotund as the titles and lyrics of this work describe the message that you aim to deliver, would you be so kind as to tell us what were your first impressions in arriving to Sierra Leone after all this time?

Do you think the people there will ever be able to heal completely? What are your views on international intervention of any kind?

BAI KAMARA JR.: My first impressions were of initial shock because the country looked different from when I had left it. Even though I could see the smiles on the faces of people, I could also see the scars of suffering and of pain. And of course certain infrastructures that I had left were nonexistent. For example, certain buildings and roads were destroyed.
I do think they will be healed completely, but it will take some time, maybe a generation. But having said that, what will be a catalyst in this healing process will be if prosperity, political stability, human rights and the rule of law are respected. I can see the healing process being completed in the foreseeable future. As we know, the nature of Sierra Leoneans, we are very forgiving people. We reconcile easily, so this will also help. And as we are a small nation of 5 million people, we can actually turn things around to our advantage for this and the next generation.

If I give any answer now, I don’t think anyone will be satisfied with it, because international intervention is such a delicate issue today. Sovereign nations are always suspicious of outside intervention because they think other nations will use this intervention as a pretext for their own policies. On the other hand, it is clear that in the case of natural disasters it is expected of neighboring nations to pitch in. I guess every country should be looked at on a case by case basis; you can’t have one formula to deal with political unrest, as the dynamics are different in every region of the world.

SRM: Before getting back to your latest album, we’d love to revisit some of your previous work. Right after releasing your first EP, ‘Lay Your Body’, you collaborated with Youssou N’Dour and the Refugee Voices for the ‘Building Bridges’ – UN Refugee Agency project – released in 1998. How did you get involved in this project and what is your best memory from this humanitarian collaborative effort?

BAI KAMARA JR.: I was given a call by one of the organizers who was in Brussels, because someone mentioned that my profile fit the desired image of this special event.

One of my best memories was performing in Geneva with other very talented artists from around the world for the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR, but I must also say meeting Youssou N’Dour was a very special moment because I had always loved his music and when he chose me as one of the musicians to work with him in Senegal, I was totally honored. It was a very special moment for me, going back to Senegal, even though it was not my country, because my country had refugees and was at war, so I felt a certain kind of fulfillment contributing to this project in the best way I knew how.

SRM:  In ‘Living Room/Intrinsic Equilibrium’ you explore the concepts of social and romantic interactions, mental and social equilibrium, power games, social injustice…and your sound mixes effortlessly folk , jazz, melodic, with ballads that are both honest and beautiful such as‘The Wrong Words’.

What were you going through at the time that served you of source of inspiration for the album?

BAI KAMARA JR.: To start off with, ‘Living Room’ was my second album, even though it was released before ‘Urban Gipsy.’ Two years after I had finished recording ‘Urban Gipsy,’ my then-publisher at Universal couldn’t find a label for it. In fact, I wanted to get out of my publishing contract, but my contract stated that i had to do two albums for Universal. I did ‘Urban Gipsy,’ which no one took interest in at first, so my lawyer told me I could just make an acoustic album, without a band or anything, to satisfy the terms of the contrac

At the time I was going through a period where I was absorbing a lot of stuff around me. ‘Living Room’ was a reaction to ‘Urban Gipsy’ because with ‘Urban Gipsy’ I worked with a lot of different musicians that made contributions, so for me ‘Living Room’ was an album that had to stand by the merits of the compositions without the big band around it. ‘Living Room’ was also made at home and it was a personal challenge, in the sense that I was confronting myself without the pressure from others of having to make an album. It was also an album that I could escape with, in the sense that I could put all my thoughts into it without having other people around to do arrangements and so on. I was bearing my soul through my voice and my guitar, so there was nothing contrived about it at all.

The recording was very low key and I would invite a few of my close friends to play on particular songs, for example my longtime friend and guitar player Eric Moens, Nader Hamid, and Thierry Rombeaux.

And the criteria of this record was also not having more than two musicians on one song.

As for inspiration for this album, I was inspired from my everyday life, in the sense that I was not in a studio where I had a fixed schedule.  Because I recorded at home, I did what I normally did at home and recorded when I felt like it, because my recording engineer lived in the same house at the time. This is what really made the difference.

Photo by Michael Pierrard ©

SRM: ‘Urban Gipsy’, another of our favourite albums of yours, gets you touring with Vaya con Dios, with whom you also covered the almost painfully delightful ´Substitute´, one of your most famous songs. What other artists/groups have you admired? What particular album from any other artist has influenced Bai Kamara Jr, in the same way that ‘Urban Gipsy’ can inspire others?

Sade, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Sting, Anita Baker, and Steel Pulse are the artists that first come to mind. ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ are the two that really stand out. ‘What’s Going On’ is definitely an album that documents the period that America was going through in the 70s. Basically, it gave a narrative of what was happening at the time with black Americans — their anxieties, financial woes, allegiance to their country, and so on. It was in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and I think Marvin Gaye documented it extremely well. This album was eye opening for me and also gave me the courage to talk about these kinds of social issues, and showed me that you can talk about these hard socio-political topics while still making a great album.

With ‘Exodus,’ what I admired the most was how Marley balanced beautiful ballads with strong imagery of the Rastafarian movement, and also showed Marley’s skill as a songwriter who could write about the more human side of life – the individual experience – and he struck the right balance between a socially engaged album and an album with love songs.

For example, when you go from a song like ‘Turn the Lights Down Low’ to one like ‘Exodus,’ he shows that a person can be passionate both as a lover and as a revolutionary.

As I grew up partly in Africa, Bob Marley was in a way part of our life there, because his music was really popular in Africa.

He considered himself an African as well, which is why he gave a lot of hope to Africans. This is something I have in common with other Sierra Leoneans, and in a lot of ways, Marley was somehow a part of my childhood memories. If there was a soundtrack to my childhood, Bob Marley would definitely be on it.

SRM: We can definitely see it. Personally, when I was a child, I would spend weeks and weeks playing Bob Marley on repeat when and where nobody else did around me. His music and core message transcend form and connect directly with the substance of the human spirit.

Alongside collaborations, you write and produce for several artists and currently work with Nader Hamid, an electric guitar player and singer-songwriter. Is 15:15 your duo together or is it a parallel permanent collaboration with another artist? What type of love is ‘Stoned Love’?

BAI KAMARA JR.: First of all, I do love to collaborate with different kinds of artists because you always learn something when you work with different people and it sort of gets you out of your own routine, your own habits.

Also, it’s challenging to produce for other people because you have to tailor your work for them, and sometimes you have to compromise, but if you compromise too much, the work loses its personality, so you always have to work with people you can strike a nice balance with.

Nader Hamid is for sure a great friend and I will always work with him on different projects, but as for 15:15 itself, it was just a side project we thought we would have fun with, and I’m glad it got the attention that it did because stylistically it was a departure from what I normally do. We might have had a little too much fun making that record, in fact, since we didn’t really have a defined style and it wasn’t as cohesive as I wanted it to be. Essentially, fun was the whole point, but we learned a lot from making it as well.

In regards to ‘Stoned Love,’ this project was more of an exploration of other styles than a soul searching journey, so you can imagine us relating to the cliché of people who do crazy things when they’re in love.

SRM:  2010 saw you, as we mentioned at the beginning of this interview, releasing your latest and third solo album, ‘Disposable Society’, in which you delve once again in the ever so important subjects of social injustice, the state of political and economic affairs and the environment, as well as interpersonal relationships. We’d love to know about how you envisioned this as the multimedia project that it is and about the making of the great video clip for its single.

First of all, I wanted to document the making of the record:  the rehearsals, the brainstorming of the videos, and so on, and as time goes on we will slowly release these clips online, because when I made the two previous albums, I never had any visual documentation about what I did, but as time went on and with the growth of the Internet, I decided to document all of this stuff and make videos of this album to put online, because as we know today, videos aren’t limited to MTV, for example, where it’s only aired regionally, but you can put material online that gets shown worldwide.

I was very fortunate to find Avalon Studios and record this album there because it’s a multifunctional studio that has compatible audio and video sections, so I would be stupid not to work with them. In fact, we still have footage that just hasn’t been edited yet, sitting in the studio servers, but as I said, we’ll release those too. As for the making of the videos, I’m fortunate to be working with the talented Michael Pierrard, a good friend of mine who directs the videos, and we’ve been working together now for several years.

SRM: Bai, we know, first-hand, that your live sound is formidable, what are your touring plans for 2011? Or are you having a well-deserved break?

BAI KAMARA JR.: We’re definitely working on a project that’s going to incorporate our live sound with images. We’re going to explore new territory as far as visuals, Internet, and even the concert experience goes. This project is the brainchild of Michael Pierrard as well. But I’m not allowed to talk about it that much.  In 2011 I’ll also be working on two different albums, so let’s just say that no, I’m not taking a break.

SRM: Well, we wish you all the very the best with these and any other future projects. Thank you for reminding us that music can serve not only for inspiration and enjoyment but also for education and evolution.

BAI KAMARA JR.: It was a pleasure doing this interview with you and thanks for the genuine interest and support in my work.

SRM: Likewise!

Interviewing Dan Konopka (OK Go)

 OK Go, revealing their true nature as time travelling cyborgs, as you can see.

Their video for A Million Ways, released in 2005, which featured the band in their back yard performing a dance choreographed by lead singer Kulash’s sister, Trish Sie, became the most downloaded music video ever with over 9 million downloads by August 2006. With Here It Goes Again, released in 2006, they reached over 50 million views in YouTube.

It’s been up since then in terms of their musical career, but, then again, it’s not surprising, since musically, visually and technologically, OK GO LIVE IN TODAY’S WORLD and guess what, they also care for others, including the four-legged furry types.

SRM: Dan, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. You’ve been with the band since its ‘official’ formation, back in 1998. Yours is some the most solid, earth-shattering drumming we have heard in a while, especially within the indie-rock scene. What circumstances led you to meet the other guys, Dan? Had you already been playing or jamming with other musicians up to that point?

DAN KONOPKA: Thank you very much! Super brief OK Go history: Damian and Tim have been friends since they were in elementary school. I met Tim (and original guitarist, Andy Duncan) while we were attending college. When Damian finished school he moved to Chicago IL and that’s when OK Go started. Prior to the band starting I studied music at Columbia College for a few years and played in a couple of rock bands around the city.

 Dan Konopka focused on an Earth-shattering mission.

I played with as many people as possible in those days, with whoever was interested in jamming. A few years into OK Go I got very serious about getting better at studio drumming and started taking lessons from a few great teachers in Chicago. When I get down time now, I try to get in for lessons and keep growing as a drummer.

 OK Go caught entangled in threads of  what could very well be various time-space dimensions.

SRM: It’s widely known that your creativity as a group, also with your music video clips, have gained you millions of YouTube hits and even a downloading breaking record, a Grammy Award and an MTV Nomination, amongst other accolades. How do Trish Sie’s choreography skills come into the picture?

DAN KONOPKA: Trish Sie’s ability to understand the threshold of our physical abilities is really the key. We aren’t really (good) dancers. She knows this, and with her experience teaching dance, and being a dancer herself, she really can tell how far to push us. She is such a creative person and when she has such untrained, unbiased dancers at her disposal like OK Go, the choreography can get very weird and I think as a result, totally new and fun.

SRM: Nice one, Trish! Some of the films that include OK Go material in their soundtrack are New Moon, Wimbledon, Normal Adolescent Behavior, In the Land of Women, Unaccompanied Minors, John Tucker Must Die, The Fog, Catch That Kid

TV series such as 90210, Gossip Girl, The Simpsons, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, Men in Trees, CSI: NY, The O.C. and Smallville have also included OK Go songs.

Dan, as an artist, have you ever thought of a particular kind of film or audio-visual project that you would just love to contribute to or score entirely?

And what about OK Go, what’s been their latest soundtrack contribution?

Dan Konopka caught in an undercover mission (not so undercover now).

DAN KONOPKA: Personally, the idea of doing a movie score has just entered the realm of possibility. I’m in the process of learning a lot of new and exciting music production software, to allow me to write and record my own music. So maybe next year I may be thinking more seriously about doing that kind of work. Most recently though for OK Go, we wrote a major theme for the Morgan Spurlock documentary called Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The song is called, The Greatest Song I Ever Heard.

SRM: Great documentary and song. From OK Go’s first self-titled album, released in 2002, to Hungry Ghosts there’s been a progression within the rock music styles from which your distinctive sound as a band seems to have drawn inspiration.

Many will recognize some reminiscence to Prince’s sound in at least two of the songs from your album Of the Blue Colour of the Sky (2010): Was this something that the band was consciously heading towards in the process of making that particular album?

DAN KONOPKA: Yes, I think when we started writing for Blue Colour Of The Sky we had a few focused influences. Definitely Purple Rain, and definitely The Pixies. We wanted to make a record that opened up a little more from the guitar driven sound we normally focused on. We felt like making more of a “dancey” record. Purple Rain was sort of a bench-mark to strive for, and Doolittle had a grittiness we wanted to achieve as well.

The Writing’s On The Wall, from OK Go’s album Hungry Ghosts

SRM: What’s the song writing process like in OK Go? 

DAN KONOPKA: The bulk of the songwriting is done individually by each member, then, when we meet to record, we all pitch in our own ideas to the original demo. Some parts are totally overhauled if needed, and some stay exactly the same. Everyone comes to the recording session with an open mind to see how we can improve and develop the original idea.

SRM: Very organic, it shows. Both Damian with his guide titled How Your Band Can Fire Bush and the group in general, with songs like Invincible and your overall humanitarian contributions, have made very clear that, not only as artists but also as human beings you like to be well informed and act as you can on your own convictions.

When the group gets together, do these types of discussions take place often between you, guys? What are your views on the anti-government and anti-system protests that have been taking place all over the world in recent years?

DAN KONOPKA: We all share the same beliefs basically. If there is a view point any of us, or all of us feel strongly about we usually feel free enough to talk about it through our art or otherwise. Our political views haven’t been a huge focus as of lately. Incorporating the ASPCA in our video White Knuckles to promote adopting pets is something we all were excited and felt strongly about.

SRM: Ok Go is another example of how new technologies and social networking sites can serve creative types. You have also released at least a couple of free covers-records by now… Dan, in your opinion, does the freedom of having independent means surpass in intrinsic value the threat of possible monetary deficit in copyright violations? What are your ideas on these issues?

DAN KONOPKA: That’s an interesting question. Those violations seem to be the norm now. We need to embrace that fact and move around it. We are in a new age for making a living in music. It’s not like how it use to be. Being willing to learn and adapt and to change in every respect has allowed us to stay a band – and to stay successful. It’s the only way you can survive.  It’s new uncharted territory in the music industry; if you don’t figure out how to adapt you’ll probably have to go back to being a barista somewhere.

SRM: True. Many thanks again for taking the time to participate in this interview, and best of luck with everything.

Let’s enjoy another video clip, this time for the single I Won’t Let You Down.

OK Go’s Official Website >
If you are in the US, help fight animal cruelty and/or adopt a new friend with ASPCA >