Boy Azooga interview: Band leader Davey Newington unfolds the experiences and influences that informed the ambitious debut album
On Friday Heavenly Recordings released 1,2 Kung Fu!, the diverse and multi-faceted debut album from Cardiff’s Boy Azooga. We called up band leader Davey Newington get the low down on the band and the album.
Despite being in the middle of an exhaustive nationwide tour at the time of speaking, Davey was fully involved in the conversation, happy to expound about the influences and recording of each track that make up the album. He told us about the seeds for the lyrics of each song, the recording process with “phenomenal” producer Eddie Al-Shakarchi, inviting his dad in to play violin, and hints at what he’s got instore for the already underway second Boy Azooga album.
During our extensive chat I was surprised by just how many different musical touchstones he mentioned, from the more obvious influences like Black Sabbath and King Gizzard, to the subtler like Caribou and Bernard Herrmann. Our shared adoration of Ty Segall cropped up a few times too. More than anything, what really resounded from talking to Davey was his deep devotion to music – listening, recording, discovering and recommending. It was an infectious energy that will hopefully seep into readers as you enjoy our lively discussion of 1,2 Kung Fu!.
For those of us just getting to know you, tell us about the name Boy Azooga.
When we were young, my cousin and I would go to our gran's house and watch The Little Rascals, and in that film they have this chant that's like "Azooga azooga azooga." So when I was naming the band I thought it would be cool to have that in the title, as it fits the theme. And then I was going to call it Bo Azooga after Bo Diddley, but my girlfriend was like "don't call it Bo because of B.O." so I made it Boy instead. Then I googled it and nothing came up, so I thought it was a winner because people would be able to find it.
And is Boy Azooga a solo project or a band?
It's a band. It started off as a solo project just out of circumstance because I made the record with a guy called Eddie Al-Shakarchi, who's a musician and producer and he's a phenomenal talent. We just made it the two of us up in his house, for about 5 or 6 years. It was kind of like the escape from the other things I was doing. It never really was intended to become a band; it was just an album I'd made. But then when we finished making the record I was like "oh yeah, I really wanna start playing it live." So I asked Daf Davies, Dylan Morgan and Sam Barnes, the other guys in the band, who are just amazing musicians from Cardiff. But now we're very much a band.
You started off as a kid playing drums, do you still feel like that's your primary instrument?
Yeah, totally. I'm still trying to get used to doing the whole front man thing. But yeah I still play them regularly as well, I play in cover bands in Cardiff to make money, and I play in a band called The Keys as well, which are kind of psychedelic rock band. They're a great band, I've basically ripped them off massively in Boy Azooga. They were like one of our favourite bands in school. I think I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable with the guitar, but I've been playing drums since I was 6 years old, so it feels natural to me. Guitar was a little bit later, like 12 or 13.
When did you start writing songs?
I wrote some dreadful songs when I was about 14. I remember I was obsessed with Nirvana, and I used to have my Nirvana chord book. My mum's a clarinet teacher, and she had a little tape recorded that she used to help her pupils to record stuff, and I used to go in there and sing on the cassettes Nirvana covers. I found a bunch the other day, and I used to have this really cheesy American accent, I sounded so bad. I was writing songs then. I can't even remember what they were about, just really terrible bedroom poetry; very very earnest and very depressing [Laughs]. I've been going out with my girlfriend for 10 years, we met when we were 16, but I remember I wrote a sort of Kinks-style song when I met her, and I was like "oh actually, this is not shit, totally," and from there I started to take it a bit more seriously. But I was drumming in bands all the time, and the writing thing was more something I did for fun.
And when did you start to feel you were ready to release your own music?
I actually released some GarageBand recordings when I was about 16-17, and I did about 5 gigs on my own and put them on Soundcloud. I had a couple of good gigs and I had one really bad gig in Cardiff. People were talking all the way through and I got really embarrassed and I was like "right, I'm not gonna do any of my stuff now, I'm just going to work hard on making a record I'm really proud of." Maybe it was only upon completing the album a year and a half, two years ago, that I thought I felt ready to release music. I felt there was enough variety in the songs, some dancey stuff and some Black Sabbath stuff, and I felt like it showed what I was really into pretty well. I felt like I'd done the best I could.
So the album was completely finished two years ago?
Yeah, I think there was a couple of mix things, but yeah. But it was a pretty big gap because I really wanted to get the live band tight and stuff before we gigged. We did our first gig at the end of 2016; we’d kind of been learning the songs and just trying to get it together for a little bit. But it's weird, one of the songs, 'Hangover Square', I wrote when I was about 19, and that one was finished quite a while back, but we saved it until we could send people a full record, rather of sending one song and people being into it and being like "where's the next song?"
I'm glad I waited as well, because I've got the second one pretty much written, and I want to get into that one soon. I don't think I'll ever be as prolific as King Gizzard or people like them and Oh Sees and Ty Segall who are constantly putting stuff out and creating stuff - I'd love to do that.
Yeah, some of them blow my mind, especially Ty Segall - and he seems to be touring constantly!
Yeah it's absolutely ridiculous. I've seen him play a bunch of times now and he never seems he's going through the motions - it always seems like he's having the time of his life.
I've seen them a bunch too, they're definitely one of the best rock shows you can see in the world right now, Ty and his band.
It's heavy and it's got a proper good spirit to it, I think.
Yeah! Alright, back to your music, and let's dive into the album. Do you still feel connected to these songs now or is there some distance?
I'm definitely itching to get the newer stuff I've written out, because I feel - it's a cliché - but I feel like they represent what I wanna do now. I've got a bunch of new songs and I can't wait to get them out, but I'm sure when they come out I'll - hopefully - have another bunch of new songs I'll be itching to get out.
I've lived with the songs [on 1,2 Kung Fu], but it was only really my girlfriend, my mum and dad and Eddie who produced it who actually heard the songs for a long time. So it's still really fresh and exciting to me, people's responses to it. People don't know who we are or what these songs are, so it's kind of cool to imagine it being heard for the first time. I feel confident about it just because Eddie who produced it is a fucking amazing producer, and he totally got what I was going for; all the mixing side I'm really pleased with. I thought I was going to be more tired of it than I am, but the last time I listened to it I thought "yeah, I'm pretty happy with this," [Laughs] But it doesn't really sound like music anymore, it just sounds like noise [Laughs].
Well, I really like it, and I have questions about every song, so I hope you're ready.
Aw, thanks man, that's fucking great.
But first, you said Eddie really got what you were going for, so if you had to sum up what you were "going for" what would you say?
I wanted it to really feel like a record, and I think there were certain production choices and drum sounds and different things. We decided to just record the drums in his house, we thought for a bit that maybe we should go to a proper studio or whatever, whatever that is. His place is amazing, but we never really recorded drums there, but then I saw that Caribou documentary from when he was making Andorra, it's on YouTube and it's a BBC thing, but Dan Snaith's just in his flat and he's talking about how he wanted to make a record at home that didn't sound like it was coming from home, it's got otherworldly elements to it. I'm pretty sure William Onyeabor did home recordings too, there's pictures of him where it looks like it's his own spot. I'm pretty sure Melted by Ty Segall was done in a house as well, and that's just how I wanted to do it.
I just wanted to be able to sit on the couch and do a vocal take and not have to worry about time or money or anything. But if I'd made it in my bedroom it would've sounded shit, but Eddie's an amazing producer whose home has loads of good gear. So it wasn't meant to be a bedroom album. I would play him a King Gizzard track or William Onyeabor or whatever, and he had the skills to know what kind of compression and stuff was necessary to get it how I wanted to sound.
The other broad question, before we get into detail, why is it called 1, 2 Kung Fu? Is it just the lyric from 'Loner Boogie' or is it something else?
I just kind of said it when we were doing the vocal take for 'Loner Boogie', and I think I'd written it in my notes in my phone when I was pissed and I saw it and thought it was funny so I just said it. Then I thought about it some more, and some of the songs [on the album] are quite melancholy so I was worried it would seem too serious, so I thought I'd give it a fun name.
Right, because the album starts with 'Breakfast Epiphany', which is kind of like a meditation on mortality...
Yeah, totally! That's wicked that you got that.
Was it a literal 'Breakfast Epiphany' that you had?
There was no food, I was getting up for work and in the shower, and the lyric just sort of came in my head ["Gotta take my time ‘til time takes mine away"]. I was really panicked that I was going to forget it so I was just singing it again and again and again, then I managed to dry off and go into my room and record it on my phone. Then I'd had the melody and the chords for ages, and the lyrics perfectly fit the timing of the melody that I had. I was just at home and thought "that was a little breakfast epiphany," and then chuckled to myself because of the obvious pun. But I thought it would be a good name for it because the song is quite serious if you read the lyrics, so I gave it a daft name.
Did you always know it would be the first track?
Yeah. We did like six versions of it, and some of them started in a different way - not with the drum thing - but when we did the drum thing, me and Ed were sat on a couch and we put two mics between our laps, and we were just clapping on our laps and clapping our hands and we were super excited about the sound of it. When we put it on, we thought "that sound is the intro to the album" and then I couldn't ever change that in my head, it just felt like it should be.
It works brilliantly. And also breakfast is the start of the day...
Yeah, that was a sort of happy accident. I didn't think about that, but then the last tune as well has the thing about "getting better at goodbyes," so it's accidentally bookended with the breakfast thing and then the goodbye.
'Loner Boogie' comes next, is this a literal story of you going to a party and lurking in the corner?
Nah, I'd had the party lyric for years. But, I didn't really know what I was doing when I was 18-19, and would always end up way too pissed. My girlfriend went to university in London for a few years, and I stayed in Cardiff, and I hadn't quite worked out who I was or whatever, so I would always get far too pissed at a party and end up on my own.
I think I had changed quite a bit by the time I wrote the song, when I was about 24, and it was more about feeling anxious. We used to live on a street in Cardiff that's not the roughest part of the city, but there was always some fucking mad stuff going on outside. And then I was one of these people who was always super paranoid about North Korea and stuff; constantly waking up and checking google to check what the latest was. And then there's just general feelings of anxiety, so I thought I'd write a rock song about it, more in line with The Cramps or Oh Sees or The Stooges; quite mundane and not wanting to go outside. I love 'I'm Bored' and how simple that lyric is.
The production on the guitar in this song is so fucking big.
I had the riff for like a year and couldn't get into shape that it wouldn't sound like it had just been done in my flat. It was actually my friend Steff Pringle, he did the additional drumming on the record, amazing musician and producer himself as well, and he'd shown me this digital guitar distortion that you get by turning the gain fully up on the compressor, I think people like POND do it, and I kind of just want it on everything I do now because it's just so crispy, I really like the sound. There's actually two basses on that song as well, panned left and right; if you hear it in isolation they slightly warble in and out of tune a bit. That was really exciting recording that one because it's the fastest and most upbeat one on the record, and when we play that one live the energy goes up - so I've written a few more songs in that kind of speed and energy because they're so fun to play live.
'Face Behind Her Cigarette' comes next, which was the first Boy Azooga single, why did you put this one out first?
I really wanted to put 'Loner Boogie' out first, but everyone else was like "you should totally do 'Cigarette'," because I think it's more true to what the rest of the album's like. It's got a bit more flavour and it's a bit more melodic, and it's got a groovy side too. I thought about it and thought it would be wicked to do it first. But it's pretty weird, because when I was writing the songs it was never like "this is going to be a single." Literally Dylan from the band, he showed me William Onyeabor and I was like "this is fucking amazing" and just loved the songs and the production and the whole story, and I was completely obsessed. It really was just me ripping off William Onyeabor and 'Planet Caravan' by Black Sabbath because I really love the vocal in the chorus of that song. Much like the rest of the album, obviously I wanted them to be good songs, but it's more just me just indulging in stuff I'm into.
Were you worried that people would think all your songs would be William Onyeaborish? Because that's what I thought, with a name like Boy Azooga and a lead single sounding like that.
Not really, but I started to get a little bit worried just before we put out 'Loner Boogie', I was like "this is quite different, I hope the people that liked 'Cigarette' like 'Loner Boogie'." But then I also just tell myself as long as I'm into it that's all that really fucking matters. I'm not one of these people that loves loads of people to love us, I think ultimately you have to treat yourself. I'm not trying for any kind of accessibility, I think that's bullshit, I just want people to be coming to the gigs and having a good time. That's what it's all about I think.
And there isn't really one song to represent the album anyway, as it's quite diverse.
Totally, I can't even tell if that's good or bad though. Maybe the second album will be more cohesive.
I think it's cohesive!
Nice one, man. All my favourite bands, even like The Beatles, were never afraid to try different styles. I think it makes for a more colourful listen.
I love the simplicity of the lyric of 'Face Behind Her Cigarette', just a kind of repetitive chant. Where did it come from?
I was always quite fond of that lyric and put it into different songs, but could never really find the right home for it. But the inspiration on that tune was some film stuff, like Henry Mancini and Labi Siffre, and I kind of liked the idea of it being almost like a 60s instrumental thing. At first I thought it would be fully instrumental, but then I thought that lyric works with it. It was a combination it'd be arty to only have that lyric, and also just being fucking lazy and not coming up with any other lyrics for it. I noticed that with Caribou sometimes there'll just be one word repeated, but it never feels boring.
His song 'Sun' is the perfect example.
Yeah, exactly. That was the one where it feels like there's enough in it, there's enough of a mood, with just the one word. I thought the line in 'Cigarette' said everything that needed to be said.
Let's go on to 'Walking Thompson's Park', which takes the central lyric from 'Waitin’'; "waiting on you/ it feels like waiting is all I do." But it feels and sounds like literally waiting on someone in a park.
[Laughs] That was really weird, it was just a little guitar thing that I had, and I thought I needed a transition out of 'Cigarette' to go into 'Jerry' because they're quite different, so I thought it would be cool to have that and link it to 'Waitin’' as well. It sounds pretentious, but I thought the visual of it would be setting the scene for 'Jerry', like this is Thompson's Park and then in 'Jerry' we're there as well.
Yeah I definitely got that. So you think about sequencing a lot?
Yeah I always knew I really wanted to have that be a big part of the record. I don't think I'll ever make an album that doesn't have that, because I just love it as a start to finish experience. Especially that last Avalanches record, I think some of the interludes I prefer to the singles off it, they're so smartly done.
So let's talk about 'Jerry', which is a song about your dog.
He was my girlfriend's dog, yeah. I spent a lot of time at her mum's house and we used to walk him along Thompson's Park and Victoria Park in Cardiff. He passed away and I just wrote a song. It was also a little bit inspired by Futurama, there's the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode where they find Fry's dog and they go back in time and he's been cryogenically frozen or something - it's really stupid - but I thought it was a really sweet thing to give a tribute to a dog.
That's nice. And there's such a nice beautiful organ sound on it – is it organ, actually?
It was like a blend of a Juno with electric guitar. We were trying to make it hard to tell what it was by blending the two. I think the melody is a Juno synth and then a guitar doing the same thing, but Ed mixed it in a way that you can't really hear the difference between the sounds. And then in the bridge when it goes to the half time drums, that's just the Juno synth, and that was inspired by seeing Metronomy play at Primavera with my friends around 3 in the morning, and when they were doing 'The Look' there were these big synth washes that went in time with the lights and it was just fucking unbelievable. We were all having a great time, very merry, but I remember being sat on the floor, watching across the crowd these lights illuminating the whole crowd, and I remember writing in my phone "for 'Jerry' do that in the bridge."
Wow, cool, because I was going to ask what the musical touchstones on this song, because it takes me back to 90s alternative pop, something like The Lightning Seeds - I can't quite put my finger on what it is.
Totally, like Teenage Fanclub as well was one of the big ones. And also Ewan from Younghusband posted a song called 'Do I Get So Shy' by this Chicago band called Shoes, and I heard that song and was blown away, and I stole the backing vocal for the "ahhh"s in 'Jerry'.
Following that you bring back 'Breakfast Epiphany' in instrumental form - was this another one just made for transitioning between songs?
Yeah, before 'Taxi To Your Head', which is quite a long song, I wanted something quite melodic and easy. But that whole thing was inspired by the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy; there's that scene where he takes LSD for the first time, and he's lying on the grass and the flowers start blossoming around him. Then they use the isolated instrumental of 'Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)', with vibraphones and surfy guitars and stuff, and I remember watching that and being like "fucking hell, I really want something like that on the record." And that one was really cool to do with my dad, because he got me into The Beach Boys, so he would come over my flat and we would work out the string parts for it. That was really cool.
Yeah, it sounds really lush. What's the instrumentation on it - did you get an actual vibraphone?
Yeah, there's vibraphone, guitar, the kick-drum sound is off Eddie's MP3, it's like a vinyl crackle kick, that we just discovered, there's bass in it, and then my dad's violin but we pitched it down and multi-tracked it so it sounds more like a string quartet than a solo violin.
So that song was inspired by the LSD scene in Love & Mercy, and the next track 'Taxi To Your Head' definitely sounds like the moment the drugs kick in as well.
Yeah, that was definitely the idea. Especially 4 or 5 years ago I was going out a lot and was introduced to... going to long dance nights and stuff. I was super excited, I think that was about the time when I first wrote that party lyric [from 'Loner Boogie'], I just had a couple of mates and didn't really know how to have fun [Laughs], it seemed really weird.
I had an awkward phase, I didn't really know what I was doing, and then my old band we all lived together after that. Then there was a wicked period for about 2 years when we would go out every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and that song was just about getting in a taxi on the way to town and going out and having fun [Laughs]. The "dancing on the rooftops of the people all asleep in bed" it was one of the first times I'd ever... done that, and we were at a house party and we climbed out the window and we were having a little dance on this rooftop at 6 in the morning. So I got home and wrote that lyric in my phone.
This song is just pure happiness, I love it. But then we go to the other extreme with 'Losers In The Tomb'.
Yeah, it's sort of meant to be the day after [Laughs].
Why do you characterise it as a tomb?
I think it was sort of the risk element of doing that stuff, then you'd wake up on a Sunday and you'd wake up and be like "fucking hell."
"Sweeping up bones with a golden broom" is such an interesting line, can you tell me any more about it?
I think it was these characters still at the party but they should've really gone to bed by now. They're just kind of sweeping up the party, and there's bones and stuff - it's like a weird Egyptian tomb where there's been a big party and everyone's lying there worse for wear. It made sense in my head. I think it's changed a bit now, because there’s a bit of death on the record in a lot of the songs, so I overthink sometimes, just being worried about my friends. You go out and it's always fun, but you just hope everyone's OK.
Which brings us on to 'Hangover Square', which is obviously inspired by the Patrick Hamilton novel - which I love as well - but you said you wrote it when you were 19, so it must have made a big impression.
Yeah, it was just after I'd moved out. My dad is a Bernard Herrmann obsessive, he loves the music for Hitchcock's films and Taxi Driver and all that stuff. The reason he gave me the book is that Bernard Herrmann had done the music for the film of Hangover Square, and my dad didn't really recommend the film but he was like "you should definitely read the book." I was then kind of going around and getting a bit too pissed, and it felt quite relatable. Not that I'm gonna go and dash myself at the end [Laughs], but it was quite dark and moody and stuff, and I just really loved that book. I really haven't read many books in my life at all, I try to read more but my attention span's really shit, but that one I was properly captivated by it from start to finish. It was probably one of the easiest songs I've ever written as well, because the story is already there, it wasn't like I had to put the pieces together, I was just trying to capture the mood of the book. Some of the chords and the harmonies I listened to some Bernard Herrmann stuff because some of it's a bit atonal and a bit weird, and I thought it would be cool if some of the song would be similar to his style.
Cool! And then you got your dad in for the strings, which are so good.
Yeah, it was sick, that, it was so much fun. It was wicked to introduce my dad to Eddie and show him how Eddie worked. We basically just mic'd up my dad, but we made him do 8 or 16 takes on top of each other, and then Eddie there and then - he did a lot of work on it in post - but pretty much on the spot had created this little world really quickly with just my dad's violin. It was wicked - I filmed loads of videos of him doing that.
Do you know the band Protomartyr? They have a song called 'Maidenhead' that is also inspired by Hangover Square that I would recommend to you and anyone who’s reading this.
I've heard the name everywhere but never listened to them, but that's fucking amazing! That's so fucking cool. I can't wait to check that out.
Then 'Waitin'' brings us back to the hook that we had in 'Walking Thompson's Square'. The line "I found you by the Walls of Caramel" really reminds me of Adventure Time.
[Laughs] I sort of grew to really hate that lyric, and I changed it, but that's quite a personal song for my girlfriend and I played it to her without that lyric and she was like "no, no, you ruined it!" She wouldn't have been happy if I didn't use it; so even though I didn't like the lyric I felt like it needed to stay. I'm into you saying it reminds you of Adventure Time though, that makes me feel better about that verse.
Right, it's totally something that would be in the Candy Kingdom.
[Laughs] Yeah and it's got that kind of sweet adventuriness to it, some of the keyboard sounds are a bit spacey.
I really love the beautiful ending too, where you're repeating "And I'll wait forever more (I'll be waiting here for you)" - do you think of it as two people or just one internal voice?
It's all meant to be directed at my girlfriend [Laughs].
But then we go to 'Sitting On The First Rock From The Sun', which is such a nihilistic ending to the album.
Yeah, I dunno... I just remember being really down about something, I was pissed off and this is just a bit of a "fuck you" of a song and I thought it would be a cool ending. Actually it didn't have the Sabbathy ending bit for ages, it ended just with the melancholy thing. And then I got into WAND and got heavily into Black Sabbath, especially the first record, and I felt like the album needed one more... If I was doing it again now I would put one more heavy song on it. But yeah, I wanted the end to be like 'Time' from Ty Segall and White Fence's collaborative album Hair; I remember being sat in my room, quite stoned, listening to it and thinking "this is cool, it's kind of like Neil Young," and then that riff comes in at the end by surprise and I was like "fucking hell," proper hairs on the back of the neck moment. I just wanted to have a song where there's a big change up halfway through.
Cool! It's been ages since I heard that album. That was the one that got me into both Ty and White Fence.
Yeah, same! I went to Spillers in Cardiff, a guy called Ben was working there, I think I bought a Nuggets compilation and he was like "if you like psych stuff you should check this out." That's actually my girlfriend's favourite record as well. They're playing it live too, in America. If I ever became super rich I would start a festival and book them.
Yeah, they have the new collaborative album coming out this summer too!
Yeah! I heard the song 'Good Boy'. I'm excited.
So, we've finished going through 1,2 Kung Fu, can you give us some hints about the next album?
Yeah! I'm still into loads of silly stuff. Hopefully there'll be as much variety in the sound, but I kind of want to make the record "up" for a longer period of time. My only thing with this album [Kung Fu] is that the second half goes down - though not too much. There's still some of that though, there's a song called 'Oh Silly Me', which is probably one of the most melancholy songs I've ever written; I'll probably have that and another and the rest will be quite upbeat. I've got a song called 'Squat 5-0' which is like an Oh Sees style thing. A couple of them are similar to 'Cigarette' in the drum beat. I've been getting obsessed with David Axelrod, particularly the Release Of An Oath album he did with Electric Prunes; I'm gonna feature the strings loads more I think. I want to change it up. I got really into The Go! Team as well, and I wanna get some other vocalists on it. There's one song I want to get a girl to sing, and there's another where I wanna do a Gorillaz style and get some kids. So there's a similar flavour to the first album, but I want to experiment more with other sounds, so there's an obvious difference.
Wow, well it sounds like you have no shortage of ambition.
[Laughs] Well it's cool to think there's a few people out there who might be excited about hearing it. Before it was literally just me and my close friends and family. So I hope that I can deliver a few surprises. I love with Ty, with each record he surprises, I remember when Emotional Mugger came out I was like "what the fuck?" And he did that KEXP Session with the mask on and stuff, that's quite a bold move, I'd love to do something like that. Then Sleeper, being all acoustic - I really admire that fearlessness of being like "nah, this is what I'm doing and if you're into it, wicked, and if you're not then no worries."
Right! And Emotional Mugger was so weird, especially as the successor to Manipulator which is arguably his poppiest.
I just don't know how he does it. Just writes good songs all the time.
Boy Azooga’s debut album 1,2 Kung Fu! is out now on Heavenly Recordings.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 13th June 2018.