Fiona Ross Interviews…Shakatak
The English jazz funk band Shakatak are a household name. Formed in 1980, with several top ten hits and entries into the Guiness Book of Records, everyone know the sound of Shakatak. They have been performing consistently, worldwide and are still going strong! I had the great pleasure of interviewing the mighty Roger Odell, drummer and founding member:
FR: Where does the name ‘Shakatak’ come from?
S: We recorded 4 tracks and made “white label demo” vinyl copies of one called “Steppin'”. A shop in London called Record Shack sold copies via mail order and also sent copies to DJs around the UK. That’s when Polydor heard it and they offered us the recording contract. We did not have a name for the band so as a “thanks” to the Record Shack we decided to use Shack as part of the name. A graphic designer friend of ours added Attack and then came up with our name and logo as Shakatak.
FR: You recorded a song ‘Day by Day’ with the legend that is Al Jarreau. How did that come about and what how was the experience?
S: We had already recorded the backing track and we were jokingly saying that it would be good to get Al singing on it. Our producer Nigel Wright got in touch with Al’s manager and much to our surprise Al wanted to be involved. So, Jill (Saward) and Bill (Sharpe) went to New York to cut the track with Al. As the backing track was already completed I didn’t go but I met Al when we did the video and also when we did various promotional TV shows around Europe. We have also shared the billing with him at jazz festivals. He was an amazing musician and a great guy.
FR: Your first studio album ‘Drivin’ Hard’ was in 1981 and many wonderful albums later, you are still going strong and releasing albums. How do you find working in the music industry now compared to when you first started out?
S: The industry has changed radically! We were picked up by Polydor Records and had only moderate success with our first album and the first half dozen singles. Today a record company will drop you if the first single bombs! The A&R man at Polydor really believed in us and I think he was as relieved as we were when “Easier Said Than Done” entered the Top Ten and the album “Nightbirds” became a massive seller world-wide.
Fortunately, we now record for the Japanese label JVC and control all the rights to our music via our UK record company Secret Records. On the positive side, the internet allows us to have a very close relationship with our fans and any promoter of festivals, clubs, etc., can easily get in touch directly via Google and email.
FR: You have a very strong and loyal fan base in Japan – how different do you find the audience over there compared to the UK?
S: When we first went to Japan on tour back in the early 80’s the audiences were very quiet and would hang on to every note. That was a bit scary! Now they still listen very attentively but I think they have loosened up a bit since those days. I don’t feel there are any major differences in our audiences now, wherever in the world we might be playing.
FR: You all have successful individual careers along with your work all together, as a band. Does that make it challenging or does it in fact, support the work you do together?
S: It certainly doesn’t create any problems. We all appreciate that if it wasn’t for Shakatak none of us would have the luxury of producing our individual albums. Our keyboard player Bill first had the opportunity to record in LA with some superstar musicians back in the 90’s and that didn’t seem to have any adverse effects on Shakatak’s music. I believe Jill & George were next to produce their own album.
I guess our manager at the time felt sorry for me and asked me to do something!! Fortunately, my son Jamie is a keyboard playing, producer, DJ, etc., with his own studio so with his invaluable help I made the first Beatifik CD “The Blue Window”. In fact, Jamie came up with the name Beatifik! I made the second album “Intrigue” and I’m now working on a third. It’s a great opportunity to not only work with Jamie with his brilliant keyboard playing, production and engineering skills, but also Beatifik includes Jacqui Hicks, Mornington Lockett, Keith Winter and my wife Larraine. A great team.
FR: Any pre-gig rituals?
S: Yes. Meet in the hotel bar!
FR: Can you talk us through your writing process?
In the early days of Shakatak I only wrote the words to music composed by Bill. Sometimes he would write the melody and I would come up with a lyric that I thought matched the sentiment of the tune. We had discovered the unique instrumental/vocal balance of our early hits so I found myself writing short chorus ideas only – like Nightbirds, Invitations, Easier Said Than Done, etc. Sometimes I would write a lyric and give that to Bill and there were a few complete songs on our early albums where the words came first. Interestingly, our big hit “Down On The Street” started as a lyric which I called “Fool To Myself” and as Bill and myself were beginning to place our songs with other artists I had envisioned getting the song to Michael McDonald as a follow-up to “What A Fool Believes”!! (in my dreams). We tried it with Shakatak but obviously, the lyric did not fit the Shakatak vibe so our producer asked me to write some “up/party” words. I don’t think “Fool To Myself” would have been the amazing hit that “Down On The Street” became! With Beatifik I write both the music and the words having gained some chord knowledge via my Grade 5 vibes playing! Sometimes I just think of a good title and work a lyric out from that or I think of a melodic idea and develop that. I even steal a couple of opening chords from a song I like and then see where those chords take me – hopefully somewhere different. I then write the chords and melody out on manuscript – I’m real old school!!
FR: Everyone talks about your unique sound – did you try to do this or did it just happen?
S: When people talk about our unique sound I think they mainly think of the vocal/piano combination of our early work. Our very first recordings were instrumental only, mainly featuring Bill’s piano and then we thought of adding some scat-type vocals to a track called “Brazilian Dawn”. That worked so well that we added vocals with words to some other tracks either using the Vocoder or the two girls Jill and Jackie Rawe. Pure instrumentals are a minority taste in popular music so I think the vocals broadened our appeal. The formula for most pop records is to have complete songs where there might be an 8-bar instrumental intro and possibly a short instrumental solo, so I think the combo we stumbled across also helped us stand out from the crowd. Our hit “Down On The Street” helped establish the importance of Jill’s vocal and that is probably more apparent in our current recordings.
FR: If you had to do a gig and could only do one song, not considering what the audience may want to hear, which would it be and why?
S: That’s a hard one! With Shakatak it’s very difficult to forget the audience because they are so much a part of our live performance. However, as a personal choice I would probably go for “Streetwalkin'” because I really like the unusual groove with the kick drum playing a variation every bar. It also has dynamics! Incidentally, there’s a great quote from drummer Peter Erskine – “Dynamics? What do you mean, dynamics? I’m playing as loud as I can!”. The original “Streetwalkin'” which featured the late great Dick Morrissey is also one of my favourite Shak tracks on record. It still sounds very hip today.
FR: Can we hope to see you play in the UK soon?
S: There are various venues in the UK where we play on an annual basis. We usually play The Hideaway in Streatham a couple of times a year and The Stables is a favourite annual performance. We always do 4 nights at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho every year as well as their venues in Maidstone and Birmingham. We are also playing at quite a few festivals in the UK so it’s best if people check our GIGS page at www.shakatak.com to see where and when we are performing in the UK. There’s also info on our foreign trips including Japan, Thailand, Holland, Germany, Spain, etc.
Thank you so much for talking to me!