To Everything a Season: The Full Interview
Oct 12, 2012
Issue #42 - The Protest Issue
The Invisible's second album, Rispah, is a dark, claustrophobic-sounding follow-up to band's Mercury Prize-nominated self-titled debut from 2009. The 11-track song-cycle, completed with the passing of frontman Dave Okumu's mother in mind, features a wash of electronics swirled into the band's big-city grooves. The tunes stretch from the ambient hum of opener "A Particle of Love," to the guitar and voice anchored "Surrender" where Okumu warns, "This could destroy me" over an increasingly frenetic bass line.
Under the Radar caught up Okumu for a heavy—yet hopeful—conversation about the redemptive factors of life and death and how music truly unites us all.
The Invisible also features bassist/keyboardist Tom Herbert and drummer Leo Taylor. Rispah is out now on Ninja Tune.
[An article based on this interview appeared in the digital/iPad version of Under the Radar's Protest Issue, which you can download here. This is the full transcript of the interview.]
Laura Studarus (Under the Radar): I heard that you broke your leg recently.
Dave Okumu: Yes, that's right, I've been immobile. I sustained an electric shock. It was a byproduct of that horrible incident. There was a point during the electric shock—I was conscious throughout it—there was a point where I felt all the energy shooting down the left side of my body. They did confirm that the current was strong enough to break the bone, and that's what it felt like. I felt this excruciating pain in my ankle, and the next thing I knew I had broken my leg in two places. Yeah it was pretty intense! But to be honest, compared to what might have happened, it seems like a small price to pay to be alive. That's the main thing; I'm really not that concerned about the leg. I'm really reveling in that state, the state of being alive. That's definitely my preferred state.
It sounds like you're definitely an optimist.
I think I definitely am. It's really important to stay connected to life, really. There's going to be difficulty in life. It's unavoidable. I'm surprised when I think of people that I admire and my role models and stuff, they've all had an ability to stay in touch with hope. I'm a big believer in that. I've had experiences in my life that have been awful. But I've seen them transform into positive things. That to me is what lies at the heart of getting through life. So I really try and embrace the things that serve me really well. I just want to get better and better at doing that. It just makes sense to me.
You mentioned role models. Anyone in particular?
Yeah, there are tons, really. I guess in having lost my mom recently, I'm seeing her in a new way. She continues to be a role model to me. It's that thing that we all start to experience, when you really start to see real depth in their absence. I'm starting to realize things about my mom. I was always her biggest fan when she was alive. Now that she's gone, I've realized more than ever how much she's equipped me in life. Just through example, not through any heavy-handed instructions or anything like that. She was such an incredible example for me, the way she made her way through life. She's someone who went through life with grace and a world of love and acceptance. I suppose if you see that in your life, for me it had an enormous impact. It was so encouraging. It showed that it is possible to live your life like that. It makes me aspire to that. She's number one. But there are many, many people in my life: my friends, my family. They're an example to me as well. Yeah, I'm surrounded by a lot of good people.
Was your mother a big supporter of your music early on?
Funnily enough, I always felt that she was a big supporter of me, in whatever form that took. When I discovered my passion for music my parents were slightly bemused by it. My family is musical in the sense that they enjoy music and they love it, but I was the only one that got the bug and wanted to make music. They were always slightly bemused by that. They were quite hands off about it. I never got the feeling that they would stand in the way of what I wanted to do. I guess I've always felt an acceptance and celebration of me as a person. They supported me in whatever I wanted to do. That was kind of the journey and as there was more evidence of what I was doing, I'd feel a deep sense of her delight just in me expressing myself. She really enjoyed it because she knew how much I loved it. I think that was more important to her than anything else. I didn't have the feeling of, "Go and get a real job!" or, "What is this sound that you're making?" I think she could see that it was ostensibly me, and that it made me really happy. So that's definitely a big reason why I was able to do what I'm doing.
I have to say, Rispah is a beautiful tribute. Where did the name of the album come from?
That's my mom's name. It's a Hebrew name. It was a really big decision to name the record after her. It was the ultimate test to whether I felt if we had made something that worthy of carrying her name. I guess it's a pretty strong statement about how we feel about the record, that it's named after her. It makes me really happy that it bears her name. I know I wouldn't have been able to make that choice if I didn't believe that every single thing on that was on the record, if I didn't feel that somehow it was part of her in some way. It made a really clear framework for us to work in.
Does her name have a specific meaning?
There are a few translations. "Like a hot stone" is what it boils down to. "Like a burning coal." I find that really intriguing. My mom was an incredibly tender person. She was very soft, she didn't have any edges. She was very approachable. But there was a real resilience to her and a real strength. It kind of made sense to me, that name. I like that idea. She was tough and courageous and had a real warmth to her. I really like what that means and what it represents.
With this being such a personal project, is there any fear of putting out the album and having it misunderstood?
Yeah for sure! It was a pretty scary thing. She died when we were quite deep into the process of making the record. The tone of everything kind of changed at that point. I didn't really know what I was going to do after that.
I went back to Kenya to lay her to rest. I remember speaking to the other members of the band and saying, "You guys just keep working on the record. I'm not sure what's going to happen, and I'm not sure if I'm going to want to make music anymore." I came back to London having buried my mom, and the others had made choices about the record. They had whittled it down. We had been working on loads of tracks. They selected nine tracks that had a clear mission. I just found it was a really appropriate context to make Rispah how I was feeling at that time.
I actually remember feeling really afraid of doing that, and not really knowing what the implications of connecting to a project like that would be. But I didn't really feel that I had a choice. All I wanted to do was grieve her properly, and honor her in everything that I did. I continue to have that feeling, and I'm sure I will for the rest of my life. I remember having a very clear voice guiding me through that process and compelling me to do that. I did have big questions as to what that would mean. At the time, I couldn't really say to them. I didn't really know what it would feel like. Everything was brand new, I was recalibrating. The universe had changed, this beautiful soul had departed. I was just trying to conform to that. Nothing really made sense apart to looking at that, and addressing that, and trying to confirm what that all meant. What I discovered is by doing that, it actually allowed me to connect to what I believe music is for. I was really concerned about it being self-indulgent, making something that's private be shared for the rest of the world. But actually, what I've discovered is that's kind of what I've been doing all my life, making music. All great music that I love has, at the heart of it, people really expressing myself. That point of releasing that into the world is the way of putting up a much wider dialogue I suppose. You can use something very personal to feed into the human experience. I'm so grateful for all the people who have done that before me. It's really helped me through my life, and it's brought me a lot of pleasure and inspiration. It's helped me deal with things, and it's helped me understand myself and my place in the world. I think that music has the power to do that. I really want to be a part of that when I make music. It's been really great to put this record out. The point when it comes out into the world, it's no longer yours. I've said what I want to say, and expressed something really personal, but now it's not mine anymore. It's something that I can show people and they can interpret it however they want. They can use it to express whatever they want it to express. I really believe in that process. Some people might think that it's a bit glib, but I don't really mind. That's what music has the power to do. It's done it for me, and I hope that it can do that for other people.
It's really interesting to me, the relationship between the personal and the musical. I think it's two sides of the same coin. We all experience grief, we all experience lust, and hopefully everyone will experience love. These are all things that are part of what it means to be alive. It seems appropriate to express those things. It's what I try to do.
You said something very interesting: that at one point you didn't know if you wanted to make music again. What made you realize that you did want to continue?
It was at my mom's funeral. When I got the news that she had passed away, I disconnected from music. It was really bizarre since music is such a big part of my life. I just sort of lost the desire to listen to music. I stopped listening. I just couldn't do it. Even though music was all around me, I just felt a disconnect. That lasted quite a long time. It didn't panic me, it just felt like that was where I was at, and I just had to accept that. I went back to Kenya.
I was at my mom's funeral, which lasted a long time. Somewhere between three and five days. At her wake, you stay with the body for three days, and people come in to pay their respects. We had hundreds and hundreds of people coming through our home. I was sitting with my dad next to my mom's coffin. I had been there for many hours. I went back into the house to get a drink. I heard this sound, it was my grandmother arriving, my mom's mother. She was accompanied by women singing. They were singing traditional spirituals. I heard this sound, and it felt like I was hearing music for the first time. It felt like music had been restored to me in that sense. The music kept coming back. I actually went to my phone and recorded these woman singing. That's what you hear stitched through the record at three points: the beginning, middle, and end. It's the sound of the women singing. They came from home, and they went up to my mom's coffin, and sang over the body. They completely transformed the atmosphere.
I was really struck at that point how powerful music is and how it can transform people and how it can allow you to express yourself. Everybody was having a very personal and specific experience, but we were all brought together because of these women and what they were doing. There was an incredible sense of inclusion. People just started singing and joining in and dancing. We were all together, and even though we were all different, we all came together in a corporal experience. It just reminded me how I felt many times, when I've experienced great music. It just followed me back, the essence of what I think music is about and why I think it's so amazing and so powerful. At that point, even though I didn't realize it, in retrospect I reconnected and realized that music is still a really big part of my life and I wanted to continue to make it. It was a really special moment. I feel really lucky. And now that moment is a part of this record, and hopefully it will be around forever.
I'll tell you what did it for me as well. The whole experience of my mom's funeral was such a huge learning curve, to begin to understand what it is to grieve someone properly. It's really amazing that it lasted for so long. It gave you some time to begin to process what happened. I've been to funerals before, here in London. They've only been a couple of hours, but I feel like you need that time to say goodbye to a person. Something that really moved me was that these women who accompanied my grandmother wherever she went, they would continue doing that for the next six months. They'd go to her home every day and sing to her, to help her through her grief. Again, just the fact that that whole notion to me says so much about the power of music and how healing it can be. I love that level of commitment to one person. It taps into the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of musician that I want to be. The gist of music is that you have an experience and it doesn't really matter what the context is.
With being confronted with the idea of death, do you have a concept of the afterlife?
I guess I do, actually. I guess it's been really interesting, since my mom's death, how that affected my understanding and belief in that kind of stuff. I suppose I'm coming to terms with a lot of things. One of them being how her spirit and legacy lives on. It seems to live on beyond the fact that she's no longer here. I guess one of the things that really summarizes my mom is a quote from Tolstoy where he equates death as love returning to the source. That's where the inspiration for the record comes from. I feel my mom's presence so powerfully whenever I experience anything so deeply or anything that feels truthful. I'm kind of overwhelmed by her presence. I don't mean in a ghost hovering around way. I'm not really into that. I know that she's gone and that she's dead. But I feel like she lived a life of love. She was love, basically. She has gone to be with love in a very complete sense. She's part of love, and that continues on forever. I have no doubt in my mind. I don't know what that means or looks like in terms of life after death or whatever. But I feel she continues to exist because she came from love and she's gone back to love. I really believe that with all of my heart. I don't care if anyone thinks that I'm crazy. It's really comforting.
When you listen to the album now, do you hear any sound of redemption or hope?
Definitely. I see the whole spectrum. There's pain, and there's loss, and there's darkness. I also feel a lot of hope is being expressed through that music. Even just through the act of making it and committing to it. I feel that. I feel like a lot of things are expressed in our record. Some pretty profound things. There's a lot coming through for me on the record. Hope is definitely a big part of it.
Are there any songs in particular that you can see that ray of light in?
I sorta do in all of them actually, if I'm honest with you. My experience is very specific since it's coming from such a personal place.
All of the music allows me to see that. In a weird way, that gives me hope. But in a more overt sense, the final track ["Protection"], to me, is a very hopeful piece of music. Even though it passes through some darkness, there's a lot of hope for me in that track. "What Happened" also has a really special place in my heart because it's the first track that I wrote from scratch after my mom died. It takes me to a very specific place. It's a place that I'll need to go back to many times for the rest of my life. It's really wonderful to have something to help you get there. They all contain hope for me in different ways.