The Very Best
When approaching The Very Best one can’t help but recall the aesthetically-similar Lion King soundtrack and smile. The trio – formed by European production outfit Radioclit and the Malawian-born Esau Mwamwaya – crack a knowing smile back. After all, their debut album cover art depicts a majestic lion spirit gazing down on a couple of cubs lazing about the African Savannah.
Fusing together Swede Johan Karlberg and Frenchman Etienne Tron’s slick production skills with Mwamwaya’s native Chichewa vocals and the percussion-heavy Kwaito influences, The Very Best have managed to create something authentic yet innovative, fresh, and infectiously joyous.
Karlberg talks to FasterLouder ahead of their Australian tour for the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival this February.
First off, where did the name, The Very Best, come from?
It comes from Etienne; his little cousin had a band called The Very Best. When we needed a name for the project we asked him if we could use it because his band had broken up. We promised to give him a guitar if he let us use the name.
The project came about when Etienne met Esau in his furniture/junk store and bought an old bicycle, did you ever buy anything else from him?
Well, I’d never been there before Etienne got the bike and we started working with Esau. Afterwards I bought a pool table from him, I’ve still got it in my house. Etienne bought some massive toy shark from him, it’s a cuddly pink one. I think he still might have it...
Why do you think Vampire Weekend have been criticised for using African influences and Diplo for using Jamaican/Brazilian influences, but The Very Best have largely avoided that kind of response?
Yeah, we haven’t really gotten that criticism. Vampire Weekend had a lot of it. I guess it’s because we’ve got Esau, the music is for him, it’s all about him, at the end of the day we did it with him. He’s a Malawian singer, it’s the music he wanted to make. Production-wise, we didn’t want to make an African album. We wanted to bring our kind of production to his thing and meet halfway, we made friends and it just worked out.
We had the same criticism in Sweden – where I’m from – a bit, would you believe. I don’t think it’s fair to make that criticism. I think people like to analyse music too much, especially journalists, and they become too critical, a bit too cynical. They missed the point a bit.
Do you think people are uncomfortable with the concept of – “white people making black music?’
Yeah. Music has gone back and forth from all different cultures, so it’s silly that it’s still an issue. It seems particularly sensitive when it comes to Africa though. It’s a lot easier to borrow from Western countries, swap influences between the Western world. Africa is more difficult.
Tell me about playing in Malawi for the Lake Of Stars festival.
It’s an amazing festival. It’s for music lovers; there’s a really good vibe. It’s the only place we played locally in Malawi, but it’s just amazing, you have to see it for yourself. I really love the people. It’s a crazy-poor country in a very bad state but it still has lovely people. It’s quite a culture shock to come to a country that poor, and they have so many issues. But the show, that was the highlight this year. We also shot a video not far from Esau’s house, in a little club, which was really cool.
I’ve heard their airport security is notoriously difficult there.
Actually, Esau’s brother works in the airport, so I just walked straight through!
Where you expecting the great response to your mixtape that you got?
We really had a super-good feeling about the project, we weren’t really
surprised. We’re really happy with it, it did what we set out for it to do.
Why did you decide to release the mixtape as a free download? Do you think it’s important for artists these days to adapt to the fact that music can so often be leaked/freely downloaded on the internet?
Yeah, to some extent. We do that a lot with Radioclit stuff, we like to give something away for free, build something as quick and smart as possible. And particularly when it’s a non-English language we needed to introduce our musical universe to people as smoothly as possible. To give it away for free first and then next time release an album more traditionally, people hopefully appreciate that they got the first thing for free. You just have to be clever about it.
I read somewhere you’re mad about animals, and wanted to be a nature photographer when you were growing up?
When I was little, I was really into leopards. I really had a love for Africa, it’s nature an animals and stuff like that. Also I had a lot of reptiles when I was growing up, like turtles and snakes and things.
Has this project made Esau famous back home?
He’s getting there, the first sign of it was at the festival. A lot of the journalists picked up on it, so he started appearing on the TV and the radio. He’s still not the biggest artist in Malawi though.
The Very Best brings the good vibes to the following shows this summer.
Thursday 28 January – Beck’s Festival Bar, Sydney
Friday 29 January – Brisbane Laneway Festival
Saturday 30 January – Melbourne Laneway Festival
Sunday 31 January Sydney Laneway Festival
Monday 1 February – Auckland Laneway Festival
Friday 5 February – Adelaide Laneway Festival
Saturday 6 February – Perth Laneway Festival