A few weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to screenwriter and composer Robin French, founder of the British band Sugarcane. We talked about how he got into music, how he played the bass in Mr. Hudson & The Library, his inspirations and lyrics !
Most of all, we discussed the upcoming projects for the band and how Brazilian music got into his life. Also, you might not know it, but he’s the co-creator and writer of the BBC/Netflix Series Cuckoo. Not bad, hey ! Let’s dig in.
Farouche : Who are the members of the band ?
Robin French : In the live band, there’s me on vocals and guitar, Sian Herbert on backing vocals, steel pan and flutes, Xande Oliviera on Drums and Teddy Niesyto-Bame on percussion and backing vocals.
Our debut EP “One Specific Thing” features the actress Antonia Thomas (from The Good Doctor, Lovesick and Misfits) on vocals. Our producer is Raphael Mann.
How did you all meet ?
Well, Sian and I live together so it was easy to find her. I’m lucky to have a steel pan player and flautist resident in the house ! I met Xande through a Brazilian diplomat buddy called Igor. And I met Teddy after our bassist friend Rosy saw her in an Open Mic.
How and why did you decide to work on Brazilian music ?
Well, I would say that it’s English indie music – but it’s got a lot of influences – from the Caribbean, from France, but yes, especially from Brazil!
A long time ago, I was playing the bass in Mr. Hudson and the Library. We supported Amy Winehouse on her UK tour, played Jools Holland and we opened the Other Stage at Glastonbury. It was a ride, and I adored playing the bass. But on the tour bus, I started playing a lot more nylon stringed guitar – and got interested in the possibilities of that instrument. Playing bossa nova and samba felt excitingly different to playing indie guitar, which I’d grown up on.
When I was growing up, there were barely any mixed-race people around – so I think some of my attraction to Brazilian music was that there were lots of mixed-race people on the covers of the CDs. I felt an identity link to it.
I was lucky as well – that my brother Alistair and Sian brought a lot of Brazilian music into my life. Sian had been living abroad in Argentina, and recorded me a great CD of Brazilian classics, and was friends with tons of Brazilians. Alistair had recorded me an old cassette tape of Brazilian stuff about ten years before – which lodged somewhere deep in my consciousness. He also lent me a bossa nova songbook – so I could learn all the chords and progressions. I used to take the book away with me everywhere I went – I got obsessed.
How did you meet Antonia ? Also, how did you know that she was singing ?
I met her maybe ten years ago. She did a reading of a play and we became friends after that. I knew she could sing as we had dinner parties and she used to sing then. Because we were friends, it was a natural fit.
Why was she the right person for the vocals ?
I liked the fact that I was a writer and she was an actor. I was messing around with a samba version of an old Mr. Hudson and the Library song. When she sang it, I was like: “OK, let’s do this”. It was sort of a happy accident.
Did you go to Brazil ?
Yes! I’m blown away by the musical culture there. Brazil is huge – and every area has got its own musical style. Every time, I’ve gone there, I’ve taken a guitar. I can barely speak any Portuguese – so if I’m silent enough, some of them mistakenly assume I am Brazilian.
“The weird thing about songwriting is that you can wait for two years and then suddenly write the good lyrics for it. Things from the past can just come back suddenly and you can find the right way to do it.” – Robin French
How do people react to your music and when you say you make Brazilian music ?
Well, I would say the music I’ve written is a big jumble of influences really. There’s a lot of Brazilian rhythm in there, and instruments that you’d usually only find in vintage bossa nova and samba – like the cuica, which I love. There’s also steel pan there – which is from Trinidadian Calypso. But I think a lot of my songwriting sensibilities come from classic British indie. I love The Smiths and Blur. There’s also quite a lot of Serge Gainsbourg. I love him – he was absolutely mental – but his instrumentation – particularly on the late sixties and early seventies records – was so gorgeous.
Maybe it’s not surprising this sort of mixing is happening – we live in an age when all eras of music are available. I miss old record buying culture – but I love the way you can go down rabbit holes on Spotify and investigate entire genres of music. After my samba fixation, I got myself a very serious calypso habit.
What about the EP ? When did you start working on it ?
I was in Mr. Hudson & The Library and we were about to play Glastonbury and I got a call from Disney. They wanted me to go to LA to make a sitcom I’d written with my friend Kieron. I thought I had to take that opportunity. But I missed doing music so much – so the songs started appearing in this samba style. I started making demos at home. Then I got Antonia on board.
A vital piece of the jigsaw was the brilliant producer Raphael Mann. When he came on board, everything clicked into place. After the EP was recorded, I really wanted to play it live – so I put the live band together – which has been so much fun.
Your music sounds like Gilberto Gil and Serge Gainsbourg. How do you mix all those sounds together ?
I don’t know. I suppose everything you are listening to filters into your songwriting – and spending time playing the nylon-stringed guitar, pushes you towards certain types of playing. I’m always fiddling on the guitar. I’m kind of an annoying person to be around because even when I’m watching TV, I’m playing the guitar.
Why choose Sugarcane as the name of the band ?
It just felt right. It brings Brazil together with the Caribbean – so it encompasses the samba and calypso influences. Maybe mostly, I like the fact that it’s both sweet and harsh. It’s like a nasty stick you have to get the sweetness out of. Sweetness and toughness. That’s within the songs – a lot of romanticism and a lot of world weary cynicism as well.
How do you compose your songs ?
You would think that I would find lyrics easier as I’m a playwright. But I find lyrics hard to do. Usually, I have to wait for a sudden moment of inspiration. I have so many half-written songs that have melody lines but no lyrics. I was just in Trinidad and I wrote some songs I really liked – but no lyrics yet!
The weird thing about songwriting is that you can wait for two years and then suddenly the right lyric will appear. Fragments of music you wrote a long time ago can suddenly find their final form.
Why did you call one of your song “Bethnal Green Blues” ? Is that a way to include London in your songs ?
Sort of! I’m not from London but I’ve lived in London for a long time. And I love place name songs. There’s this old calypso song about a fight at ‘Green Corner’. I was just in Port-of-Spain, randomly walking around, and I looked up and I happened to be at ‘Green Corner’ – I loved that. When I first arrived in London, I used to love going to Primrose Hill because it’s mentioned both in the Madness song, and in the Blur song “For Tomorrow”.
Who would you like to make a featuring with ?
So many people! Damon Albarn, Erlend Oye, This is the Kit, Beach House, Devendra Banhart, The Last Shadow Puppets, Rodrigo Amarante. And of course, the master Jorge Ben Jor!
When did you decide to learn and play an instrument ?
I have two brothers and I’m the middle one. When I was about ten, we discovered my Dad’s collection of seven inch records in a cabinet, and the three of us starting getting into them. It was a great selection – including some Jimi Hendrix, Byrds, Beach Boys, Elvis. From then, rock and roll seemed like the answer. They both learned the guitar, so just to be different, I learned the bass. I spent quite a lot of my youth learning Andy Rourke’s bass lines from The Smiths.
So, would you be a bassist who moves on stage or not ?
I do like to move a bit. It’s not as easy to throw guitar hero shapes on a bass, but there’s a way to do it. You don’t have to move at all – I like how the guy from The Strokes is completely still. But I think Paul Simenon from The Clash absolutely nails it – especially in the “Rock the Casbah” video.
Movie related question! If you could compose a song for a film soundtrack, what film would it be ?
I love the French new wave, especially the 60s Truffaut films. I fell in love with them when I was a teenager. I’ll always think they are the coolest thing in the world.
What are your next projects ?
I can’t wait for people to hear the new recordings – they are sounding really exciting – much more uptempo. I think Antonia is going to come back and feature on another single this summer. She’s still in Vancouver for the moment, but when she’s on British soil, I need to try and kidnap her and take her to the recording studio.
Do you do the recordings on your own or do you have a sound engineer ?
I work very closely with the producer Raphael Mann. He knows his stuff. You need to be a perfectionist with recording, and I’m way too slapdash.
You have to record one instrument at a time and the voice, right ? When I was a kid I thought the whole band would record in one room at the same time.
You can still do that. That’s really good fun as a musician to do. If you can make it work, then there’s a real magic to that. The band needs to be very tight before you try that though.
But Sugarcane records have been done track by track – which I like, because it means I can layer lots of instruments on myself. On the last EP, I got to indulge myself, playing lots of guitars, ukuleles, keyboards and double bass – which was a dream come true.