Green Label Live, Northside: The Very Best on Recording Outside and Being the Björk of Africa

The Very Best are a world music duo composed of Swede Johan Karlberg and Malawian Esau Mwamwaya. Their latest album, Makes a King came out in April, and we recently blogged the music video for its title track, an unbelievably dope tour of Addis Abbaba through the eyes of youth skate organization Ethiopia Skate.

We caught up with Karlberg and Mwamwaya in advance of their June 12 stop at Green Label Live in McCarren Park, for the Northside Festival, in Brooklyn.

If you plan on coming out for the show Friday be prepared to move, or at least “stand, move and shake” as Karlberg put it, the songs are pretty epic. Scroll and read what the guys had to say.

How’s the tour going?
Karlberg: Yeah, it kind of just started. Chicago was a bit of a tryout. We haven’t done a show in over a year. We got a new setup, so we’re finding our feet.

I wanted to ask you guys why you went to M’dala Chikowa to record?
Karlberg: I live in London, Esau lives in Malawi. Unless we’re on tour, Esau doesn’t have a visa to go anywhere, so to try and get him visas to come and work with me anywhere is really expensive and tedious and constricting, you know? So the easiest way is for me to always go to Malawi. We recorded part of our album MTMTMK in Malawi, but we did it in Lilongwe the capital, and it was just a bit dry and distracting. So we had this idea about going somewhere really nice. Like, bands with a budget, they go to like Bahamas to record a record on a beach. We were like, ‘Why don’t we do something like that?’ We found this house, actually on Airbnb, believe it or not. If you go on Malawi Airbnb there’s about three things on there. One is a house on Lake Malawi. But it’s in a small village, so-

I was going to ask you about if you ever swam in the lake, because I was looking at the map—
Every day, man. Every day, every night. Until—this is a bit foreign to us Westerners, but like in Malawi they have something called “watchmen,” they kind of look after your house at night, especially if it’s a house of any real value, so basically you’ve got a couple people hanging out. We had three watchmen every night. They slept on the porch basically, and they would drag us out of the lake at night because of the crocodiles. They didn’t want us swimming at night. I’m from Sweden. I grew up in lakes so I actually swim all the time.

So did you record in the house then?
Karlberg: In the house and mostly outside of the house on the lawn going down to the beach. That’s where we did most of our stuff. That was another idea we had for a couple of years, of recording a whole record outdoors.

How does that work? I haven’t heard of that before.
Karlberg: We ran the setup from inside with long cables, everything stretching out into the garden basically, just to kind of get the atmosphere of nature and the women washing the clothes on the beach and kids playing around, and at night mad insects.

And that’s where Esau was singing, too?

Cool. Because you always think of the studio as this closed-in, this like shut-in space.
You know, that’s the thing. There’s nothing inspiring about sitting in a dark room all day. It was the most magical place ever. Like I have never been to such a creative spot in my life. Like on the other side of the lake were these massive mountains in Mozambique, and every night these massive rain clouds would roll in over the mountains and usually hit us after midnight, so we’d have a gap between three in the afternoon and midnight to record before madness started, basically. Again it comes with a lot of constrictions, recording in Malawi. Electricity’s not reliable. We had one mic—our main microphone got blown out because we got lightning one night. You never know what’s going to happen. There’s no Internet. There’s no phone working or anything like that. You really put yourself in a position where it’s just you and the music when you’re allowed to.

Esau, had you been to the town before recording there?
Mwamwaya: Not in the village. It was my first time to go there. I know the town, but the village I’ve never been there. My first experience by the beach for a long time as well.

Because you were living in London for a long while too.
Mwamwaya: I used to live in London but moved back to Malawi eight years ago.

Okay, crazy. So it was a new experience for you then, for everyone going to this place?
Yeah, it was. But you know actually in Malawi, it was my very first experience to live by the lake.

One thing in all the reviews I’ve read, they say the progression is this unique sound and I’m sure the location influenced that, but then there have also been criticisms about the “stadium anthems.” Do you feel you’re expected to have that stadium bigness in your sounds, even now that you’re recording in this small place?
Yeah, it’s the kind of thing we’ve been speaking about over the years, Johan and I, going into the forest and recording these sounds. So to record in this beach in Malawi we had a great experience because we could hear some sounds of monkeys and the floods from the lake as well, crickets, all that. We had that in our background, which is what we look for most of the time.

Karlberg: What we felt we hadn’t done before on the last two records. We don’t plan so much, but the one thing we tried to plan was to make a record that would be played by a band more. We even went to Malawi in February and rehearsed the whole thing with a Malawian band, but in the end we couldn’t afford to bring them. So yeah, the organicness, a lot more guitars, live bass on a lot of the stuff. Chris Baio from Vampire Weekend played a lot of the bass. Justin played a guitar and sang. We just wanted to bring in more of a live feel to the record, plus all these traditional instruments. Again, step away from the synths, step away from the programming as much as we can.

Johan, had you been to Africa before meeting Esau?
Uh, yeah, I’ve been to Morocco and Egypt but that doesn’t really count. It’s not the real Africa.

The first time you went there to record it was because of the visas strictly?
No, that’s not true. There’s a festival in Malawi called Lake of Stars. It’s been running for about ten years. We played that eight years in a row now. It started when Esau moved back from London to Malawi. I went there straight away and we played the festival together. Anytime we do anything in Africa, whether it’s shoot a video or record music or play something, we always meet up, whether it’s Malawi or Kenya or Uganda. At least a few times a year we’re somewhere in Africa together.

Mm, true. How popular is The Very Best in Malawi?
It’s getting there, it’s getting there. I think, and this is something I’ve started to say lately, for me Esau is like the African Björk in a way. [Laughs]

He’s a bit misunderstood, and people are just like, ‘What the hell is this, and who’s the white guy he’s hanging out with?’ People know it. Our videos get shown and we’re on the radio. People know who we are for sure, but the music, it’s not what people normally listen to, so people are.. Yeah, it’s still a bit of a funny one, but in a nice way.

How’d you get involved in the Ethiopia Skate program to do the video for “Makes a King”?
That was a funny one. I mean, I used to skateboard my whole life until seven years ago when I broke my knee. But skateboarding has been a massive part of my life, and then when Ethiopia Skate put out their first mini film on The Berrics I saw it. I was like, “We need to do a video with these guys.” I contacted them, got to know the guy out there who does most of the films and gets all these kids boards and has all these things going. We basically just asked, “Would you mind going out there, if we pay for it, and shoot another documentary-type thing that’ll be a video?”

Are you guys featured in the video?
No. I actually was in Ethiopia around the same time. But that day they were up north in Ethiopia, so the plans for me to do one trick in the video didn’t work out.

Have you guys performed in Brooklyn before?
We played Manhattan. I don’t think we’ve actually ever played in Brooklyn. I think we’ve always played in Manhattan.

Okay true, I’m just asking because it’s Green Label’s stage in Brooklyn, Green Label Live, when you guys perform Friday.
Karlberg: For the Northside Festival. I think it’s our first Brooklyn-Brooklyn show. For the MTMTMK album we spent six weeks in New York recording. We’ve been to New York a lot and played New York several times, but actually in Brooklyn no.

What can fans expect?
It’s a very dancy show. Unless you’re prepared to move, and stand, move and shake, there’s no real point in showing up.

New Yorkers have tons of energy, c’mon.
Yeah, but it’s a lot more of an organic show. We’ve tried to strip back as much as we could possibly from the computer. There’s more live elements, drumming. We just try to bring the organic vibes to the set. It’s a very upbeat set, I guess.

Nice. Well that’ll be fun. I hope it goes well.
Karlberg: Me too.

Image: Johan Hugo, courtesy of The Very Best

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