A band with a multi-cultural mission. That’s how Eccodek can be described in a very few words. The far-reaching project launched by Andrew McPherson in Guelph, 100km West of Toronto, back in 1999 has become one of the best examples of music inclusivity.
After two decades, Eccodek has indeed grown into a good-and-proper global collective, counting on dozens of members/collaborators from all over the world, who jazz up the sound of the band with their diverse background, traditions and musicianship.
A few days ago, Andrew released Recalibrate, Eccodek’s eighth album. That was the primary pretext why we reached him for a Q&A and also retracing the story of the project, shining a light on the enthusiastic Canadian music scene, and reflecting on the weird times we are all living in.
More than 20 years of career, eight albums, an undefined number of remarkable collaborations, a palette of styles and sounds that covers the entire world… In a few words, who are/what is Eccodek?
Eccodek is a musical treasure chest where I collect and then explore my multiple loves of diasporic musical traditions spanning the globe, within the stylistic framework of funk, dub, jazz, electronic and fusion music. It’s like a catch basin that absorbs and is inspired by the music of distant cultures, and offers up an expressive canvas that seems endless in its permutations and interpretative possibilities.
After a 7-year hiatus, what was it like to reset the Eccodek’s music engine in motion?
I’d been doing so much listening and discovering of cultural music in the 7 year ‘retreat’ from Eccodek that it just seemed time to step back into that creative world again. Back in 2015, I just felt like I’d said everything I needed to say from the perspective of the project, so I turned to my next love, ambient music. In that 7-year hiatus, I created Peppermoth, produced, recorded and released 4 albums in 5 years and was able to firmly establish myself in the world of ambient instrumental music. It was a musical itch that had to be scratched. When the world went crazy due to the pandemic, it became increasingly clear to me that we all needed to reconnect with joy, our bodies and the positive, uplifting spirit that Eccodek always represented to me. There was a lot of pain out there and I’ve always felt music’s power to shift the cultural dial and bring people back to a place of harmony and happiness, so I decided that making a new Eccodek album was my way of contributing to that paradigm shift. Once I started to demo ideas, it was so clear this was the right time and the right energy. And when the guest collaborators started to sign onto the project it was a slam dunk.
At the same time, what was it like to re-set in motion and bring forward a similar collaborative and global project in these pandemic years? How much have the Covid-19, lockdowns and regulations affected Eccodek?
Oops, seems I anticipated the next question. To provide some further context I, like so many, experienced a profound dread at the state of the world, the conflicts that arose and what Sam Harris called ‘an ambient level of anxiety’. It was pretty debilitating for a while and to some extent, my ambient project Peppermoth gave me a huge gift in its peacefulness, gentleness and contemplative vibe. It almost acted as a musical shield. But the realisation that the pandemic and lockdowns could just become the new normal, helped me to realise that now was never a better time to bring Eccodek’s positive vibes into the world. We all needed to feel that, even if it was all going down the toilet globally. Because so many musicians did an about-face on how they connected and created their art, due to isolation, I embraced the strategies that many others did, which was to work with the conditions available to us. All the singers and players were so keen to contribute, even if it meant file swapping and remote recording was the only way to capture the performances. The reality is I think this is one of the most fully realised and cohesive records we’ve ever made. Who would have thought making an album with folks who are countries away would yield such intimacy and power?!
I guess that choosing a title like Recalibrate for your new album didn’t happen by chance… Can you explain to us what it refers to?
At the risk of repeating myself, Recalibrate meant a number of things which I’ve loosely alluded to in the previous questions. It was a reset in every regard. Artistically, I wanted to dig deeper into my craft, write better songs, be more ruthless with my musical choice-making by being a more vigilant critic of my ideas. Lots got tossed out that I just wasn’t feeling. Knowing we were heading into our 20th year as a project also felt like a recalibration. I wanted to make the best record of our lifespan, in case I never got to make another. I also wanted to push our musical mandate of borderlessness even further out by finding and working with creators from musical traditions I had yet to fully embrace. I’d always wanted to work with a Persian artist as I absolutely adore the Persian musical traditions, so Mahsa Vahdat entered the fold…and what a performance she honoured me with! I wanted to keep pointing Eccodek’s compass in new directions while still keeping a firm eye on the horizons we were known for, so this album was a chance to reestablish our musical commitment while offering the world some uplifting music to help ease the trauma of what we were experiencing as a global population.
From a musical perspective… How would you introduce/describe the album and what are the main differences with your previous works?
The new album is, I believe, the most cogent and cohesive musical statement of our catalogue. The writing feels much more refined, the sounds feel contemporary and forward thinking and the blend of cultural touch points feels very complementary to each other. Recalibrate is very much a classic Eccodek album with its mix of funk, jazz, dub, tribalism, electronica and groove. I think one of the things that is most striking about this album is how much of a band it sounds like and not just me directing a talented team of interpreters and players. A lot of intention went into what people played, being sure the ideas supported the overall tone of the individual tracks and then, most notably, played with love and commitment by each person involved. I also think that after 20 years of playing together with most of the core live band, we all knew what our job was, so we just got down to work once the songs were created and it was time to record. I have the best band in the world.
Since Eccodek’s debut, you have constantly worked and collaborated with talented musicians. How do you “pick” them and can you introduce us to the special guests enriching Recalibrate?
I’m so glad you feel that way. I love all the people I collaborate with and would call many of them friends. Over the years, I’ve learned to keep my radar up as many times, the guest singers are only in Canada and near me for a brief time, so I try to act quickly if I know they will only be here temporarily. However, the internet and people’s willingness to work remotely really has been a game changer for a project like Eccodek. I guess the first thing I’m looking for, specifically as it applies to singers, is the suitability of their voice quality to the Eccodek sound. It’s not very academic, it’s really instinctive. Sometimes they are recommendations from friends, label contacts or just someone I’ve stumbled upon in my listening. I feel so fortunate that so many of them pick up on and get very amped about the fusion vibe that I’ve created. It’s such a huge validation especially from artists whose work operates in much more traditional or classical contexts.
Recalibrate boasts some returning guests who have appeared on previous releases and are dear people to me. Kiran Ahluwalia and Onkar Singh appear on the album and are familiar to fans of Eccodek. And the newcomers are Nigerians Oranmiyan Ajagundade and Charleston Okafor, Persian Mahsa Vahdat, Trinidadian John Orpheus, and fellow Canadian and Balkan specialist Brenna MacCrimmon. Kiran and Onkar pull from their deep love and schooling in both Pakistani and Indian traditions, Oranmiyan is a powerhouse singer who sings in both his native Yoruban dialect and English, Charleston draws from his deep Igbo roots as well as English, Brenna has split her musical life between Canada and Istanbul where she is widely loved for her talent as an interpreter of Balkan musical styles, while John Orpheus channels his roots as a Trinidadian artist fusing beautifully with Eccodek’s island vibes and Afrobeat leanings on 2 tracks.
As a matter of fact, Eccodek has always made cultural fusion and inclusivity its credo and strong points. How does the blending process work both under a musical as well as social point of view?
It makes me happy to know that you’ve recognised our culturally inclusive mandate. Honestly, my whole producer mindset is, if it sounds good together, it is good together. The only thing I’m mindful or wary of beyond that is making sure I don’t manipulate or misinterpret the guest singer’s dialects or language in my editing and mixing process. Because I don’t speak any of the languages the singers perform in, I’m very much in their hands to let me know if a lyric has been either carelessly edited or misinterpreted. In almost every case, they compose the lyrics and I’m very respectful of the source. I went through some cautious years in the early days of the project, fearing I’d be criticised for being another white guy mingling in cultural waters that were not mine to claim. My comfort in those situations was always that the guests offered me not only their full artistic support, but also their complete enthusiasm for the fusion concept, as it was often a musical sphere they had never worked in before. I’ve always believed that musicians at their core are open to anything that moves them, or inspires creativity. One thing that is essential to me in the mixing of these many diasporic traditions is that they are never just the window dressing, as it were. They are the focus of the listening experience and my reverence for their artistry is first and foremost in the blending process. It’s really important to me.
As we mentioned, you collaborated with dozens, if not hundreds of amazing musicians. Can you recall one or a few collaborative highlights?
It has been a long road, hasn’t it? Probably one of my favourite moments was having both Mansa Sissoko (Mali) and Jah Youssouff (Mali) come to my studio in Canada and lay down vocals and ngoni parts on Voices Have Eyes and Shivaboom. To hear the crystal clear power of their rooted voices and the glorious chiming harmonics of their ngoni or kora was a chills moment for sure. And probably my many sessions with Onkar are also highlights as he has both appeared on several Eccodek records, alongside projects of his that I have recorded and produced, but also because he is just a wonderful human being. We call each other ‘the brother from another’. His voice is like a velvet blanket that wraps you in its embrace and transports you heavenward. Of course, I think all my collaborators possess something truly unique but those moments definitely pop for me.
Since Eccodek inception, the Canadian music scene has become more and more diverse and far-reaching. How do you feel about it and what are the reasons behind its all-embracing development?
I think Canada sits in a very unique place in the world because of its clear commitment to multiculturalism, a function of the fact that we are such a young country. While we clearly have deep roots in colonialism, it’s been my experience that our vast geography means we think nothing of travelling great distances to discover and experience not only stunning natural beauty but very diverse cultural creativity. Montreal is an absolute hot bed of African culture in part because of its French language speaking environment. And the French Canadians are very open to fusion, not to mention some of the best metal and jazz artists in the world. It’s nuts. And not to go all national pride but Canadians are by and large kind and inclusive by nature. Maybe it’s the wide open spaces that keep us grounded or the fact that the geography could squeeze us like a grape at any time. We’ve developed a kind of cultural humility that opens us up to people from other parts of the world. We also are one of those lucky countries that ploughs money into our cultural community in the form of grants, artistic bursaries and funding. It’s a big part of why we make art here, beyond personal motivation. We actually allocate money to foster and grow our cultural voice, and now with the focus finally on our indigenous populations and communities, those incredible stories have real support and momentum behind them that just simply did not exist a decade ago. It’s a very powerful time for this country’s creators.
Despite featuring sounds and elements from all over the world, Eccodek are based in Guelph, a city not far from Toronto, which enjoys its very own distinctive music scene all the same. Can you help us to explore the scene a bit and let us know what goes on there?
I moved to Guelph in 1997 from Toronto, seeking a smaller community and more open spaces. While I love Toronto and acknowledge it as a crucial hub in Canada’s artistic community, I really needed some place with less urban compression, as I call it. Guelph was it. After arriving, I soon remembered why it’s a bit of a jewel of a city. We are very close to the land here and take our relationship to food source, the environment and community engagement very seriously. There is a palpable sense of people wanting to create a better world here and everyone that comes here picks up on it. It seemed like a brilliant place for me to dig deeper into my art, without the distraction and occasionally competitive feeling of the big city, where it is easy to get lost and discouraged in the fray. It took very little time for me to also see that it had an insanely rich and varied arts community that went beyond music. Crafts people, writers, film makers, painters, actors, dancers, not to mention two world class music festivals that draw the cream of international talent to them, were all the evidence I needed to know I’d landed in friendly waters. And as real estate becomes increasingly unreachable in cities like Toronto, we are experiencing a wave of new arrivals who still need the nearby access of a city like Toronto but want the intimacy of a smaller city where they can hone and explore their craft.
We know that, as well as Eccodek, you launched and are working on quite a few other projects. How do you make them cohabit and how do they influence each other?
I guess the simple answer is that I just love music. Polka and metal might be a stretch for me to work on and new country is a hard no, but I feel like I can find the art in most genres. I’m pretty clear that I won’t work on something if I just can’t ‘feel it’ as I’ve long believed that my lack of commitment is not what any artist wants guiding their project. I’m always happy to help people find the right fit if I’m not the guy. Perhaps because I was trained as a classical flute player in university, I come at production and songwriting from a very different end of the forest. And I know that discovering the widescreen expressive palette of classical music has had a huge influence on how I hear music and what I think is possible when it comes to developing an artist’s vision. I’m also such a sucker for strong, melodic, crafted pop music that it seeps into everything I do, even my ambient project Peppermoth, which is fully instrumental. Send ’em home singing, I always say. I also know that I have a bit of a reputation for texture, again a holdover from my classical music studies, that worms its way into a lot of people’s records in the form of putting odd instruments side by side or a treatment on a voice, things of that nature. The studio to me is like the ultimate orchestra because of the richness of sonic and textural possibilities that it affords me. It’s a canvas with an infinite supply of colour at my fingertips.
After Recalibrate releases, which is happening on the 20th of May … What are your other plans for the near future?
Well I’ve had to put on the back burner this idea that really had been sitting there right in front of me for years. I’ve gone back into the Eccodek archives and chosen songs from every one of our releases and am working up Peppermoth ambient mixes of Eccodek gems. The difference being that Peppermoth never employs vocals on any of the albums, so this is my way of delving back into the gauzy sonic world of Peppermoth with Eccodek being the material that is reinterpreted. I’m absolutely blown away at how well the two projects compliment each other and also the way the voices are so much more naked and exposed because of the ‘less is more’ creative aesthetic of Peppermoth. We really get up close and personal with the singers in the way that the more groovy earlier versions of these songs sometimes swallowed up their vocal performances. It is an entirely dreamy, trippy record that fans of both projects will hopefully gravitate to. Beyond that I’ll be assembling a remix record by some of my fave producers who will apply their talent to the Recalibrate material. We already have a Gaudi mix that is insanely good.
Eccodek's new album Recalibrate was released on the 20th of May. You can listen to it and buy your copy HERE