Mattafix are back. After an extraordinary 18 months that saw the duo tour the world (30 countries and counting), sell records everywhere from South Africa to Australia to the Eastern Bloc and back and score a Europe-wide chart-topper with classic debut single proper 'Big City Life', they've headed back to the studio and are ready to unveil the follow up to 2005's Signs Of A Struggle– called Rhythm And Hymns.
"Our sound has moved on," says Marlon Roudette. "We've kept the positive element from the first record, that laid-back sound. But touring is a great opportunity to see what rhythms affect people. Your sound starts to evolve in a different way."
"Music has always been a great force for pulling people together," says musical partner Preetesh Hirji. "Whether through hardship or celebration, music is a uniting force for good. That's what's so great about having our music accepted everywhere. One of the best things you can do for anyone is make them smile."
It's an appropriately Mattafix kind of message. Formed by the apparently disparate forces of a steel-pan playing virtuoso from the West Indian island of St Vincent (Marlon) and an unashamed computer geek of Indian/ Harrow Road heritage (Pree), the band has always stood for bringing people together, preaching a positive message and showing everyone a good time. Their name, lest we forget, is an evolution of the St Vincent take on the popular Caribbean expression "No problem" – "Matter fixed".
"There's a quiet confidence with this album," explains Marlon. "With the first album we knew we had something special, but our songwriting on the new album is unique."
"Going to 30 different countries does change you," adds Pree. "It makes you grow. But in other ways we're still the same people. It's what links us together: we're still two cool guys."
Indeed, Mattafix have pulled off that uncommon trick of crafting a new set of songs that's a bold step onwards and upwards, while still being instantly recognisable as the work of the same band ("That's Marlon's unique voice," observes Pree. "He's a very good singer").
So listeners will immediately recognise classic songwriting that brings together elements of hip hop, blues, pop, jazz, reggae, dancehall, calypso, even house, yet note a new harder edge to a track like 'Shake Your Limbs' which powers along on a thumping beat, soulful new vibes on 'Living' which utilises South African Zulu singers to remarkable effect, plus newfound emotional depth to 'Far From Over'.
In keeping with Mattafix's concerns as a truly global band, eager to embrace bold new sounds, Rhythm And Hymns features talents as diverse as the aforementioned Zulu singers, the South African rapper Zola, a west London flute boxer (someone who beat-boxes, but with a flute), samples recorded in Poland, plus Marlon's trademark steel pan. "The first instrument I played in the Caribbean," he notes. "People love it, everywhere we go. In many ways it's a sign of struggle – made from an oil drum at a time of upheaval in Trinidad, so for me it has all sorts of ramifications."
"We strive for international appeal," says Marlon. "Regardless of language, creed and race." It's this same open-heartedness that has attracted big-name production talents such as Jim Abyss (returning from Signs Of A Struggle), Jason Cox (Damon Albarn's production right-hand man with Gorillaz) and Big Apple mastering legend Howie Weinberg (Nirvana, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Beastie Boys). "The great thing is, they all got involved for the right reasons," says Marlon. "They loved the music and where we were coming from. There was none of that 'I'll-get-my-people-to-call-your-people'. I find that such an impersonal approach."
Big fans of the social commentary, story-telling ethos of blues music (notably Nina Simone), Mattafix have always been regarded for their intelligent, thoughtful lyrics – Marlon travelling everywhere with a notebook to hand. Their new album is no exception, with tracks being directly influenced by their travels over the last 18 months.
"Socio-political commentary is important to us," says Marlon. "I keep a notebook in my bag at all times, just travelling around taking note, noticing things people say in conversation. Some of them I keep for years before they end up being used in a song. But they all end up being used in the end."
Mattafix's recent experiences in Tel Aviv are a case in point. "We did a couple of shows in Tel Aviv, just before Israel started bombing Lebanon," says Marlon. "We made a lot of friends while we were there and, when we left, most of them were getting drafted back into the army and sent to the frontline. Others were indirectly affected by the situation in northern Israel. We were very conscious of both sides of the conflict. When you're in your teens you are quite idealistic – you think that right and wrong is clear. As you get older you realises there are many situations where both sides have a point. What's needed, actually, is restraint." Immediately on their return to England, Marlon and Pree wrote 'Shake Your Limbs', inspired by their experiences. It's one of the album's stand-out moments.
Meanwhile, the stunning video for lead-off single 'Living' was shot in Darfur. "We were approached by some human rights lawyers and Crisis Action to get involved and the result was a video we shot in a refuge camp in eastern Chad," says Marlon. "It was unbelievable. We flew into the capital of Chad and chartered an eight-seater, single-engine plane into the refugee camp. We shot everything on 16mm film with four camera crew and a producer." Mattafix saw 'Living's late October release as too good an opportunity to ignore. "The video's geared towards raising awareness for the United Nations conference in November. 200 governments descend on New York to decide various things: one of them will be a vote to put more pressure on the Sudanese government to sort it out."
Mattafix have a unique ability to deliver important ideas with irresistible music. "I'm much more at ease with writing what might be termed 'pop music' now," says Marlon. "I'm getting more and more comfortable with bigger tunes. On the first album we often tried to bring it back to an underground sound. 'Big City Life', the biggest hit, was actually written last. So we were just learning how to strike the balance between saying what I want to say and putting it in a way that was easily communicated."
"You've got to enjoy what you're doing," notes Pree. "I make bizarre 15-minute pieces that no one will ever hear unless they happen to be in my vicinity and I feel comfortable with them. But it doesn't mean we have to go down that route. Why not make music people can get behind, but music that still has a message? If you've got a message, but no one understands it, there's not much point in doing it, is there?"
So, Mattafix might bring the party – but they take their role seriously. After all, music can be the most powerful medium there is. "Young songwriters have more influence than most politicians put together," says Marlon. "They're listened to more. Songwriters have a responsibility to keep that in mind when they're penning music that's going to have an effect."
That's Mattafix: big tunes, big ideas, a big noise. It's good to have them back.
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