Interview: Five Minutes with Ancient Astronauts

    Image credit: Rob Myers

German DJ duo and Switchstance Recordings founders, Ancient Astronauts have released their latest collaborative EP Kampala Fire. Featured on the EP are promising underground artists from Uganda (Blessed San, C Wyne Nalukalala, Spyda MC, Bani Fyah, and Nilotika Cultural Ensemble) that have made a great impression on this acclaimed act. Through the years the duo has collaborated with the likes of Thievery Corporation and has even shared the stage with them on their USA tour.

We find out more about these renowned talents in this exclusive.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Kabanjak: Music has always played a big role in our lives. Through music, I guess we have learned a lot. We’re able to travel the world and expand our horizons many times, as musicians and human beings. I think that’s what still keeps us going for over 20 years now, and it’s a privilege to be still working as an artist after so many years. We´re happy we can do what we love and hopefully spread a positive vibe through our music.

Dogu: Music has changed my vision of the world, it has touched my soul with conscious messages like nothing before was able to touch it. When I heard bands as Public Enemy, Gill-Scott Heron or Bob Marley for the first in my life it hit me hard. The impact of those lyrics was something that had a huge effect on my life and really gave me a reason to become an artist and get involved in the music business. I actually started deejaying cause I could not stand the commercial music on every corner and in all the clubs in my home area. I wanted to change that by playing music that really matters and has an impact on society.  

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea?

Kabanjak: That´s hard to say. I think both evolve simultaneously in a way. It really depends on what triggers the creative process the moment you start making music. It might be a field recording sound or a drum loop that gets you going. You never really know. Of course, your daily mood also defines the direction/sound of a song in a strong way, too.

Dogu: I would say both. You always should know what you wanna do, but it is also important to just freestyle around with sound ideas and take it from there. For ZIK ZAK it was the idea that came first. Through my travels and family visits in Uganda and also through talks and sessions with African friends in Cologne I came to the idea of the ZIK ZAK album. When Kabanjak and I talked about it then we directly knew the direction we wanna go with the music. And started working on the first sound ideas and recorded drums and percussion in Cologne with friends from Togo, Senegal, and Guinea.

Does your material feature any collaborations?

Yes, it does. The album features singers, rappers, and musicians from Uganda, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Togo, and Guinea. And of course the collaboration with our partner label East African Records where we recorded most of the Ugandan vocalists.

What’s on your current playlist?

Anandar Shankar, James Blake, Dirty Art Club, Telegraph Avenue, Pharoah Sanders, Midnite, NST & The Soul Sauce meets Kim Yulhee, Sly & Robbie meet Dubmatix, Sampa The Great, Blay Ambolley, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Enrique Nicolas Noviello, Robert Glasper, Oddisee, Ebo Taylor, Aesop Rock, BANTU, Dadawah, Karl Hector & The Malcouns, Joe Gibbs, Mungo´s Hi Fi, Public Enemy, Sly5thAve, The Sacred Soul, RJD2, Man Son Bulubembe, The Congos, Fela Kuti, Damian Marley, Mononome, Pressure, Count Ossie And The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari, Lee Perry, Subatomic Sound System…

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

Dogu: Fans of our music are fans of conscious music and heavy riddims and grooves. We do not play live but we perform as DJs and we wanna make our crowd dance and forget their troubles. But forgetting their troubles does not mean we want to place them in a non- thinking state of mind, we wanna trigger their brains with music and messages that makes them think about what is going on in this world. Life is not just a party, but we love to party in a conscious way. As the title of that song by UK Hip Hop crew THE NEXTMEN, it´s a “Thinking Man´s session“. Of course, we address the women too ��.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

Kabanjak: We love to experiment in general when it comes to our sound. While most of the production happens in the box, we love to run our instruments through tape machines, cassette recorders or reamp our bass with an analog amp to get a more authentic feel. When sampling we always achieve to make it our own by a lot of editing, resampling and using a ton of plugins to get it to the point we want. In the end, our sound is a blend of both worlds – analog and digital – and we try to combine them in our own special way.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

Dogu: Wake up not too early after a good round of sleep. Have breakfast and after that some sport. Check what´s on today´s list, more coffee, and off into the studio. Currently, we were mixing the songs for our album ZIK ZAK and the debut album by Nilotika Cultural Ensemble. That was our priority :-). When you feel your ears are getting tired after some hours, it´s important to take a break. Listen to music, stretch out, relax. The second half of the day, which mostly lasts past midnight, we compose, create a sample, or write a melody. Depends on what´s next.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”?

Kabanjak: For me seeing Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding play at Montery, at the age of seven, was a moment that changed my life. The intensity of those two performances blew my mind back then – that was when I decided to pick up the guitar. These were my first humble steps towards being a musician myself :-).

Dogu: I think the moment when I first heard the music by bands like Public Enemy, NWA, Kool G Rap and this kind of Hip Hop and then hear DJ´s like Funkmaster Flex, DJ Premiere or Kid Capri mix them together was the first time I really thought I wanna become a DJ. And the The moment when I noticed that you can be as good as you want as a DJ but you will not get far outside of your home area with it without having your own productions to build up your name. That was the moment I realized that I want to produce music and create my own profile as a producer. That was when I started producing music with Protassov in maybe 1998 or 1999. Soon after I started producing with Kabanjak.

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

Dogu: A beer, my sense of humour, good friends, and the vision of what I wanna present and “talk about“ (aka the message) in the songs I play.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Dogu: Nilotika Cultural Ensemble (original Nyabingi Reggae from Uganda, the home and origin of Nyabingi), Enrique Nicolas Noviello (new artist and multi-instrumentalist on my label Switchstance Recordings), Cypher Kabaka (Indigenous Hip Hop from Uganda), Siti & The Band (super beautiful upcoming band from Zanzibar).

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Kabanjak: Other artist´s music is the no.1 inspiration I would say. Getting to know new music is very important for us, and being able to leave your own musical bubble. There´s so much great music out there, sometimes it´s even hard to follow up:-).

Dogu: Yeah so true. I love experiencing music by artists I have never heard of. That feeling when you hear new music that directly touches you is priceless. It gives you a feeling of one-mindedness. You know, it feels good to hear that you are not the only one who is serious about music and a positive message. There is sooo much hollow and commercial crap music out there that it sometimes feels back-breaking, but the more quality music from the soul is out there the better it makes me feel.

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

Kabanjak: The center of our studio is the UAD Apollo, which we´ve been using for a while now. For us, it´s just the perfect interface for our productions. The UAD Plugins are also on another level and we use them a lot as well as Soundtoys plugins, Spitfire Audio, Waves, to name a few.

Analog Equipment:

Rhodes Mark2

MPC 2500

Behringer Model D

Gibson Les Paul

Fender Strat (No Tremolo 1979)

Marshall Bluesbreaker

Fender Pro Reverb

Revox Tape Machine

Tascam Porta MK2

Akai S 2000

Dogu: My dear gear is quite simple, I use Serato Control Vinyl with Dicer controllers, a Pioneer DDJ SP1, Technics MK2 turntables, and Technics headphones. When I am in Africa I use a Numark Mixtrack Pro 2 controller instead of Technics turntables (cause they are rare in Africa). I do not like the Mixtrack Pro 3 controller cause the effect buttons and the way you can combine them is not as good as those on the Mixtrack Pro 2. The only problem on the Mixtrack Pro 2 is that it does not have a lot of power/volume so I use an ART Macro Mix 4 channel to send the music through in order to boost the sound/volume.

Any side projects you’re working on?

Kabanjak is constantly releasing music under his monikers KABANJAK and DEELA. DEELA is currently collaborating with the German/Argentinian singer Paco Mendoza. They are working on the release of their second single. Dogu has started a new project with Brazen Rule from northern Uganda and will release their album Lira City Blues in the second half of 2021. We will also be working on a remix project with the Grand Dame of Colombian Music Ceferine Banquez and hopefully also something similar with Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto. And we have a new project in the pipeline for 2021 where we want to dig deeper into the instrumental side of African music.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

Kabanjak: I think our skills are constantly evolving. Especially Youtube has become an important source for learning new things about creating music. Whether it´s the little kid on a broken laptop or a major artist: There are so many great artists sharing their knowledge and giving away tips and ideas for free. There´s always something new to learn and we try to incorporate this into our productions, to constantly grow as musicians.

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year?

The ZIK ZAK album in December and an EP with legendary Reggae band The Heptones in early 2021. And a new EP / mini album by Kabanjak.

Famous last words?

Spread love & fight the good fight!

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