Some bands have one thing that’s truly remarkable about them. Some lucky ones have two or three. Formation have too many to count.
For one thing, they only began as a band when their sonic experiments in improvising three-minute pop songs - verses and choruses, yes, melody and arrangements, no - exploded into something deeper and darker.
They’re as comfortable discussing Guy Debord and Arthur Schopenhauer as they are John Coltrane and Black Sabbath. Their Twitter feed thrums with hymns to Mei Leaf tea and conscientious vegan messaging alongside plugs for Notorious B.I.G. and tributes to legendary jazz-funk drummer Alphonse Mouzon.
Will Ritson (vocals, lyrics) is a visual artist, writer and poet and has his own book publishing company. Multi-instrumentalist Matt Ritson (keys) is a stellar photographer. Jonny Tams (bass) spent his teens fiddling with broken synths before going on to work with producers like Spike Stent and Stephen Street, as well as artists including Björk and Russell Haswell. Kai Akinde-Hummel (drums) is fluent in three languages, and his grandfather was part of Nigerian trumpeter Dr Victor Olaiya’s band, the same one Fela Kuti played with. Sash Lewis (synths) has patched modular synths with the likes of Four Tet, Caribou and Floating Points, and has, as they say, “a history…”
As Formation, they make a noise that is the single most explosive and joyously angry thing you’ll hear for a long time. So that’s numerous remarkable things already and we haven’t even mentioned Yes or the Wu-Tang Clan yet.
Brothers Will and Matt grew up in a South West London household where one parent loved Northern Soul, disco and funk while the other loved choral music, opera and Queen. For seven years, Will and Matt sang in church choirs four times a week – church being a venue they appreciated more for its acoustics than its message.
In his youth, Jonny worked in a record store in Wimbledon, recommending classic albums that would inspire the brothers. Later the three would work in a warehouse together, sucking down every great record they could squeeze onto the shared iPod, quietly brewing the first Formation EPs.
Meanwhile, Kai shared the brothers’ orchestral upbringing, playing with orchestras and jazz bands, sporadically working on projects with Matt, until he was drafted into the band while still living in Spain. Sash was sharing studio space with Jonny and joined the live set-up to “tune” the synths before a more serious involvement with the band was born.
A local scheme - the Merton Music Foundation - allowed the brothers to rent affordable instruments and so drums, clarinets and saxophones entered the house at an early age. Up in Camden, Kai was already playing in - and touring Europe with - orchestras and jazz bands.
“Playing in orchestras and in churches opened us up to so much more music,” Kai nods. “It was those places that taught us how to communicate.”
Others took a less conventional approach. Jonny, whose young mind was being blown by early music software, would record things falling over until he’d perfected the art. Meanwhile Sash would sit around in his mate Kieran Hebden’s bedroom, discovering samplers and drum loops as “pure magic” unfolded.
In their early teens, the boys soaked up Pink Floyd, Free, Yes and Jimi Hendrix. And it’s here we meet the very heart of Formation: on the left; groove, on the right, power; and in the centre, know-how. And while metal helped shaped them as teenagers, you’ll not hear that influence on Look at The Powerful People as the record doesn’t feature a single guitar. What you will hear is the bass as lead, percussion as lead, drums as lead, vocals as lead, the groove as lead – everything where it’s needed.
And now there’s an album - named after Gino Vanelli’s 1974 pop-soul masterpiece. Co-produced by the fast-rising Adele and The Strokes engineer Ben Baptie and genre-defining house producer and DJ Leon Vynehall, Look At The Powerful People shares the same redefining air that lit-up Andrew Weatherall’s work on Screamadelica. And while Look at The Powerful People might appear to be flashing its arse at Trump and May, it’s about flipping that drive around to create a gang with an inner power.
“People have a collective power,” Kai says. “We’ve always been on the fringes. We’re misfits, never a member of any scene. So we’ve built our own gang and if people want to join us they can.”
Take “Back Then,” a euphoric ball of heat and fire, bejewelled by Jonny’s production skills, bouncing on a thick Motown-like groove. It skirts time-wasting nostalgia but still thrills to the memories of being care-free enough to spend weeks building skate-ramps and stealing trolleys. “Buy and Sell” is sheer aggression, a fantastically nasty, jagged piece of commentary tackling consumerism and advertising.
“Drugs” pulses wildly, it’s not an anti-intoxicant song as such, more of a be-aware-of-what-you’re-doing song. Elsewhere, “A Friend” is a lunatic pop blast, like a psychedelic Killers stripped of their showbiz glitter and jacked up on cheap coffee and cigarettes.
If any song were to sum this brilliant group up it would be “On The Board”. It’s actually about chess, which puts it in a small group with “Your Move” by Yes and the Wu-Tang’s “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’”.
“Us, Yes and Wu-Tang,” smiles Will. “That’s the magic pyramid of Formation! The first five Yes albums and the first three Wu Tang albums - I could throw everything else away. It doesn’t get more ‘us’ than “On The Board”. I wanted to make a tune someone else might sample - and this might be the one…”
Formation are something else. Something real. Something you can trust. They bleed Stax and Curtis Mayfield, Pantera and Sly Stone, Gil Scott Heron and Vaughan Williams. They’re built on the bones of visionary musicians and the desire to connect that’s within us all. Look at The Powerful People is “a diverse record from diverse people for a diverse crowd,” Matt says, summing it up to perfection. 2017 just got a whole lot brighter.
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