Avant-garde Afrobeat 12-piece The Shaolin Afronauts will drop 29 songs simultaneously this month. Ahead of the titanic release, the band’s bass guitarist and composer says the box set is an experimental marvel and a declaration of war against singles.
The Shaolin Afronauts on releasing five albums at once
“Some people might say that it’s self-indulgent. I don’t think it is,” composer and musician Ross McHenry tells CityMag over the phone. He’s talking about The Shaolin Afronaut’s impending mammoth release.
“It’s certainly not intended to come from that place; it’s actually coming from the place of this is the work that we wanted to make, this is the story that we wanted to tell and this is the music that we have written.”
After a temporary hiatus, illusory band The Shaolin Afronauts recently announced they would release five limited-edition albums – totalling 29 songs – at once.
Titled The Fundamental Nature of Being, the new catalogue will premiere live at the Adelaide Festival Centre from 16—17 September, before the ARIA-nominated band will tour the music across Australia.
The tracks were recorded over five days in July 2019 at Adam Page’s Hendon recording space Wizard Tone Studios, with engineering by Tom Barnes and mastering by Mick Wordly (of Mixmaster Studios).
Looking back at the recording period, bassist Ross says they were “really long” days. But it was worth it. Over a generous period of time, the outfit grew in the studio and melted into the music. The result is a heady amalgamation of colourful and chaotic jazz, psych-rock, soul and Afrobeat spanning five albums.
“It’s an important progression of our shared identity and language that we’ve built up over playing together for a really long time,” Ross says.
“We’ve been more experimental, and that’s to showcase different things that we’ve definitely done live before but I don’t think we’ve necessarily captured.”
The box set’s first two albums are designed to take the listeners on a spiritual journey via the dance floor. Think dizzy, big orchestral arrangements with bouncy guitars and horns underscored by chunky bass lines. These are party compositions.
The remaining three albums are “esoteric” examples of the band slipping and sliding between sound and space. They’re generally more introspective, jazz-oriented, languid and sporadic – punctuated by strange phrasings or beats, and serving as a springboard for more cerebral experimentation.
“That came from the central influences of the group from the beginning,” Ross says of the latter releases.
“There’s Coltrane, avant-garde ‘70s artists, the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and Anthony Braxton.
“We didn’t want to just keep doing the same thing.”
While the box set is an opportunity for the band to explore the boundaries of their identity, it also gives The Shaolin Afronauts the opportunity to push back against conventional music marketing techniques through its sheer gargantuan format.
As CityMag highlighted recently in our analysis of 12 months of Best New Music, it’s standard practice for artists and musicians to drip-feed singles – to magazines or radio stations – to whip-up hype.
Ross thinks it is “an affront” and “demeaning” for musicians to only give audiences one song at a time rather than a larger body of work.
“Where’s the space for experimentation in that place when you’re trying to create these market-driven micro-offerings?” he says.
“Who cares what’s commercially successful or viable or whatever? Honestly, the idea of putting out 10 singles before you put out an album is, artistically, a really stifling concept to me.”
Ross says The Fundamental Nature of Being’s inaugural performance at the Adelaide Festival Centre will be special, as the ensemble has a habit of only playing club-based venues or festivals.
Prior residencies at The Exeter Hotel on Rundle Street allowed the group to refine this new material, while the Centre’s big-production benefits will take it to a new level.
“It’s over two nights, so we can really play the full spectrum of the work and that’s really exciting to me,” Ross says.
Almost aware of the big ask of audience members – to listen to five whole albums across two nights – the musician says he trusts punters want this different, developed experience.
“We want them to be at the heart of what we’re doing because we believe that the power of improvisation is actually in the interaction between audience and ensemble, and in that shared space,” he says.