Interview: Five minutes with ISQ

                                                          Image credit: Carolina Mazzolari Shawcross

If you wander down the streets of London for long enough, at some point you’re likely to encounter the colourful group of characters that make up ISQ. The alt-jazz quartet has been performing together for just under 10 years, taking their time to evolve and polish their sound into a creative force to be reckoned with. Their most recent album, Requiem For The Faithful, caught fans attention in 2019 when it was released for the first time. The success of this album sparked the band’s curiosity: what would happen if they put their music into the hands of other artists and allowed them free reign? We’ll soon be treated to an answer as the Requiem For the Faithful 2.0: The Remixes album will be released on the 21st of May this year. Ahead of the album release, ISQ will be sharing a series of singles – the first of which is ‘L.A.S. (Urchin Remix)’, recently premiered and due to be officially released on the 5th of February. Catch the original here and pre-save the remix below:

Pre-save ‘L.A.S. (Urchin Remix)’

Take a moment to sit down with lead vocalist Irene Serra and double bassist Richard Sadler as we learn more about the band behind the original creations.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Richard: I think, once you have created ‘art’ (or whatever you want to call it), it’s difficult to go back to doing anything else. It seems pointless, somehow.

Irene:  I agree! If you can be part of the arts, why choose to do anything else with your time?! I grew up in Denmark and we had a really good music programme at our school so I’ve been singing and doing music since I was a child. I remember at one point thinking that if I could do music full-time, how brilliant that would be and why would I ever want to do anything else?! I think that’s the leap of faith that you need to take to become a full-time musician. And doing anything else would have always been the second choice so…

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

Irene: The writing is a very collaborative process in the band so it varies. Sometimes I’ll think of a vocal idea, melody, lyrics, and then we’ll produce it from there or sometimes one of the other band members sends through a great riff or instrumental track that I think I can work with. With the composing side of things, we really try not to overthink it or put any pressure on the creative process. We never go for a specific sound, we just try to create what resonates with us in that particular moment and go from there. We could feel completely different the next week and so our music will reflect that. Though we have been told that there is a definite thread throughout the albums, an “ISQ sound”. That’s definitely what we’re aiming for. 

Richard: It depends, sometimes I will have a definite idea, other times its good to sit and just see what happens. I may be practising and will play something unconsciously and think ‘that sounds ok…’

Does your material feature any collaborations?

This new release is a complete remix of our third album, “Requiem For The Faithful” which we released in 2019. We had always wanted to experiment with our material from a production point of view, and when lockdown happened, we thought it was a perfect opportunity to get in touch with some amazing musical colleagues and friends and ask them if they would like to “reimagine” some of our songs. Artists as diverse as house-music legend Arthur Baker, Faithless’s guitarist Dave Randall and classical and film composer, Vince Pope amongst others. They all said yes and “Requiem For The Faithful 2.0: the Remixes” was born. 

What’s on your current playlist?

Richard: I’m typing and listening to Mac Miller. Too much to list – depends on the day! You can never have too much Tom Waits. I loved Taylor Swift’s last album, ‘Folklore’. 

Irene: Everything and anything! Our playlists are pretty eclectic and mirror the diverse musical tastes within the band. Everything from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Bill Evans to Joni Mitchell, Fourtet, Bonobo and FKA Twigs. And a good dose of Prince to top it all off. 

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

Irene: Playing live is really one of the best things about being a musician, the moment that you can share that energy and creativity with your audience and vibe off their feedback. Our music encompasses jazz and improvisation so each live performance is unique and part of the excitement of getting on stage is never really knowing how the show will pan out. I think, as improvising musicians, we are always aspiring for that golden moment onstage, that perfect moment when we are all connected through the music and state of flow happens. The most beautiful moments happen when the audience taps into that state as well and then, that’s where the magic happens. I find those moments quite spiritual actually. Wasn’t it Hans Christian Andersen that said: “Where words fail, music speaks”?

Richard: Something that jazz musicians seem to forget is that music needs to be about communication – not just with each other on stage but with the audience too. If you can bring them not the experience, it’s enriching for all concerned. ISQ is blessed to have a singer who excels at this (holding the mic helps!) but none of us are frightened to crack jokes, talk to the audience during performances, respond to comments etc – we’re not in church here!!

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

Richard: Hmmm – being not frightened to try anything. Influenced by everything – anything goes!

Irene: We use a lot of improvisation in our music, exploring the melody but also trying to create individual soundscapes within each song. Someone came to watch us live and reviewed us as “songs and soundscapes” which I think is absolutely true! We also try to push the limitations of our instruments and are not always concerned with making the most beautiful sounds but we’re more into finding what is most appropriate in that musical moment. For our third album, we decided to experiment with electronic instruments and take that concept a step further. We also played around with the production of our material much more than the previous 2 albums, which were mainly acoustic. 

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

Irene: They can massively vary! Recording an album is both a wonderful experience and quite stressful. Something happens when that red “record” button is pressed which makes it the exact opposite feeling of a live performance. A day in the recording studio is always brilliant fun though. It usually takes a couple of hours to set-up, mic the instruments and soundcheck so that everyone is happy and comfortable. All the while drinking loads of tea and eating biscuits, that’s the staple studio diet. We will have some sort of setlist written out,  easing our way into the trickier tunes or sections during the session. Songs in uneven time-signatures are usually left till the end. We’ll do a few takes of every tune and then we go in the control room to listen back to it and decide whether we have the definitive take. We usually go with one of the early takes as the magic and musical spontaneity always seems to happen then. The later takes, although they might be performed better from a technical point of view, always lack a certain something. 

Richard: Coffee, laughs, concentrate, listening, more coffee…

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

Richard: I was 7 – at school (class 3) we had to write a ‘what do I want to be when I grow up’ essay. I wrote ‘Pop Star’…never even got close…!!

Irene: Pretty much from when I opened my mouth and sound came out. I remember going to my mother when I was around 6 years old and holding up one of my sisters’ Madonna CD’s and informing her that that was what I was going to do. Madonna always looked like she had so much fun, I thought it didn’t look like a bad life! 

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

Richard: My bass. Water.

Irene: Water, lip balm, the set-list and a few jokes in case I need them! 

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Richard: Loads. The recent doc on TV showed the AfroBeat influenced London scene. There are so many young (and not so young!) musicians around the country putting out interesting original music. Getting it heard is the hard part these days!

Irene: There is so much great music at the moment that even though it’s generally been a really tough time for musicians, there doesn’t seem to be a lack of inspiration. 

What gets your creative juices flowing?

Irene: Anything and everything. It can be a book, a poem, a phrase of an overheard conversation, sending time in nature or by the sea.  I’m a big fan of walking and think London is a fantastic town seen on foot. I live near the canal in East London and have been taking long walks along it. Before lockdown, I used to get a lot of inspiration when I went on the tube. So many different faces and situations. I used to always try and imagine a day in the life of a stranger. All the similarities and differences we have as people. 

Richard: Generally, playing live with other people. I feel I stagnate if I can’t do this. 2020 was difficult. Sending ideas back and forth is great – easy these days due to technology – now that everyone can have a recording studio on their laptop it’s easy to collaborate that way! 

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

Irene: We started as an acoustic line-up, a very traditional jazz quartet in that sense. Vocals, grand piano, double bass and drums. When we toured the third album last year third, we expanded our set-up to include electronic instruments and enhance our sound palette. I added a TC Helicon Voice Live 2 which is a vocal effects processor to expand the vocal soundscape during our live sets and a Microkorg synth to double up some of the melodies and harmony. Richard added bass pedals to his set-up, Naadia Sheriff (piano) added another layer with her Roland synth and Chris Nickolls (drums) added an electronic drum pad. It’s been great experimenting with this new set-up in a live setting and exploring the possibilities of a bigger, more layered sound. 

Any side projects you’re working on?

Irene: We all work on different projects when we’re not playing together as ISQ. I have a jazz band that I perform more traditional jazz standards with, anything from blues to bebop and beyond. I also have an electronic music project called “Wolf And I” that I am working on. I produced one of the tracks on this album and hope to do more of that in the coming year. Chris Nickolls (drums) is also a very talented electronic music producer/composer, performing under the moniker Kmodo. He also produced one of the tracks off this new remix album as did Richard and Naadia Sheriff (piano). Richard also sound engineers and writes library music. We also all play in different bands, when gigs are allowed! Naadia plays in Yazz Ahmed’s band, who’s an incredible trumpet player. 

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

Richard: I’ve just carried on though I like to think I’ve got better – whatever better means! Mind you, I listen to some things I played on 30 years ago and wonder if that’s true!!

Irene: The industry has changed so much since we became full-time musicians and it keeps evolving really quickly. To succeed in this industry, you definitely need to master a lot of skills that aren’t necessarily related to music-making but are essential in this new music business, such as marketing and content creation. However, we still try and carve out practise time when we can because it’s really important to progress both as a player and composer. So yes, lots of practising and writing! 

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

Richard: This remix album being released! The idea was to use the lockdown and get mostly friends who we’ve worked with or ‘admire’ to remix the songs from the original “Requiem For The Faithful” album – ‘no holds barred, do what you feel remixes’. Each ISQ member did one and a couple of collaborators did 2 so it’s a real eclectic mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. 

We’re writing new stuff too. Maybe a new album, maybe a stream of singles. With the present situation, no one can quite see where the ‘music industry’ is heading so maintaining contact with your audience (which used to be done by live performances…remember them?) Is the only way to go forward. 

Irene: Lots of new music, hopefully some live gigs and experimenting with our sound. I think this year will be really important for us in terms of writing and producing. This remix album has really inspired us to think about the different possibilities within our music as each collaborator has done such an awesome job in reimagining our songs and putting them in a different context. We’re already thinking about our next album so we like to keep busy. 

Famous last words?

Irene: Listen to your mom. She’s always right!

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