Talking With London’s Far Out Recordings Founder Joe Davis on His Brazilian Music Love Affair
BY J.C. TRIPP
The only possible explanation for why we connect with music that is of other cultures and global regions is that music truly is a universal language. Or that deep inside us all is a curiosity and love for other cultures. What else would could explain young Joe Davis’ passion for Brazilian music—a passion that would take him at age 17 to Rio de Janeiro and lead to the founding of London’s far-reaching Far Out records.
Davis grew up at a crossroads in England, when ears were opened by Jamaican ska and reggae, American soul and Latin and Brazilian vibes. With his older brother leading the way, Davis was turned on to these sounds. This music of his youth would resurface in the ‘80s as London’s acid jazz and rare groove scene, in which his role as purveyor of Brazilain music was seminal. For without Davis’ journeys to Brazil there would have been no constant stream of rare Brazilian vinyl to fill the crates of London’s DJs and collectors.
It was Davis’ treks to Brazil that laid the foundation for today’s global Brazilian scene. Davis would return from Brazil, laiden with rare vinyl that had never been heard beyond the country due to its military dictatorship. At first Davis was treated in an almost flippant manner and the strange sounds he presented weren’t loved as they are today. But as ears opened people realized the significance of his discovery and soon the music was embraced by music tastemakers and London’s fashion crowd.
It was at about this time that Davis, tired of supplying the music to DJs and the like, with little credit, formed Far Out Recordings. What had started out as his desire to feed the UK jazz scene’s taste for rare Brazilian jazz, manifested into a label dedicated to all angles of Brazilian music: Jazz, electronica and beyond and which has arguably become one of the most essential Brazilian labels today.
But nothing comes without risk and prayers. Davis’ first projects for Far Out were leaps of faith and possibility. In the UK his reputation had solidified with all things Brazilian. So, in 1995 he made the plunge and hired a studio in Brazil for a month, recruiting some of the “dons” of Brazilian music, as well as some of Rio’s most exciting young musicians. They spent the time recording an album of new material and old classics called “Friends From Rio”, which featured Marcos Valle and Wanda de Sa. And, thus, Far Out was born.
With next project was a re-mixed album of ‘Friends from Rio’ called Misturada (Portuguese for ‘mixing’). The project was a great success, fusing Brazilian rhythms and melodies with dance beats, and re-mixers like Da Lata, Pressure Drop and APE. Once again, the feedback was massive, convincing Davis that there was a market for Brazilian music. For Davis this was like drinking a six-pack of Red Bull, and since then Far Out Recordings has become recognized as the most important Brazilian label outside of Brazil.
In addition to its original productions Far Out has also been responsible for making rare Brazilian classics available once again. Reissues of Joyce’s seminal ‘Tardes Cariocas’ and ‘Roberto Quartin’, the long-awaited compilation of 70s jazz from Rio based producer Roberto Quartin, featuring Victor Assis Brasil, Piri, Paulo Jobim, Danilo Caymmi and Jose Mauro. This release was launched with a party and a photographic exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London.
The dance side of the label has also flourished, with the Misturada project becoming an unreserved success and is now into the 4th Volume – the series has produced many underground and mainstream club classics, ‘Ponteio’ by Da Lata, ‘Jazz Carnival’ by Azymuth, Global Communications re-mix. These albums have given some of the most innovative dance producers a chance to reinterpret classic and contemporary Brazilian tunes, most recently Kenny Dope re-mixes Azymuth. And so the musical evolution continues.
Another notable Far Out release celebrated Brazil’s two favourite pastimes – samba and football. The spirit of both was captured on ‘Samba do Futebol’, analbum of kicking sambas and batucadas recorded live in Brazil during the Latin American cup. The record provided a soundtrack to 1998’s World Cup and featured some of Brazil’s percussive legends including Dom Um Romao, Wilson Das Neves and Dom Chacal. Batuques’ recent album ‘Africa Brazil’ is a step in the direction of Africa with its super charged percussion and is an exploration of the African roots of Brazilian music.
Far Out’s wide-ranging output reflects the richness and diversity of Brazil’s musical culture old and new. With 2004 being their official ten year anniversary, Far Out aren’t slowing down with releases from Milton Nascimento, Troubleman and the fifth in their compilation series “Brazilian Love Affair”.
JC Tripp: Congratulations for ten years of great music. As somebody who has been a fan of the label, let’s hope for many more. After ten years are you amazed at how far you have come?
Joe Davis: Yeah, it’s been quite funny actually because from my point of view, with the music, we’re getting to the point where we want to be, where we’re getting the right kind of tracks and getting the right material and there’s been a kind of explosion in the kind or world music and the acceptance of world music. The scene has become a lot better since we started ten years ago, in terms of being able to promote a Brazilian label and doing things like this. One of the biggest dilemmas that we’ve had to deal with these last ten years is where we ’ve just seen the market disintegrate, you know what I mean? So, while we’ve been going forward it’s become so hard not to go backward because the market is so depleted for CDs.
JC: I’d like to start with the foundations of Far Out, and the scene you came out of which was I suppose is early ‘80s London. That’s a long time ago at this point. And it seems like it has had such an influence.
JD: Yeah, basically there was always a healthy kind of jazz music scene in the U.K., which is where I came from, being a kind of soul boy growing up with black music all around me, which was quite a rare phenomenon in the U.K. at that time. You know, you had to travel pretty deep and far to hear good black music. The latest black music that was coming out in America and so forth. It was very hard to get access to that. Of course, we had Motown and all the big kind of R&B labels of the ‘70s and ‘60s, but good underground black music, deep soul music and jazz were really quite hard to come by. There were some hardcore black clubs that you really wouldn’t go to. And I’m 35 and I had a brother who was quite seriously into that. So, he was buying a lot of records so I kind of knew and had a grasp of decent music when I was very young and had it around me and as far as I can remember I can remember throwing around singles with a hole in them. These imports from America, James Brown, Bobby Byrd, and whatever.
So, I had black music growing up around me, as I was growing up I always had it around me. And in the early ‘80s when I started buying records, the disco movement was happening and there were some really cool radio shows dedicated to it: one in particular on national radio, kind of alternative black music really. I just remember that that was great and I was old enough to go to clubs and whatever and I was old enough to buy records because I was 13 or 14 years old. And it was just at the time that electro and a lot of the early B Boy stuff was out. This was ’82-’83 and the developments in production and chording and technology had become quite electronic. And there was almost a kind of revolution against this, you know? Lovers of soul and black music started to go to what was beginning to be the acid jazz scene. And there were clubs dedicated to jazz music. Literally playing hundred-mile-an-hour jazz fusion from the ‘70s and ‘80s. And then this whole kind of record collecting culture started then, more or less. Because even in the soul music scene people started referring backwards even then. And going backwards and collecting vinyl and collecting ‘70s grooves.
JC: How did this lead into Brazilian music?
So, that’s how the thing started and this jazz scene, even on the radio, there was a big movement to this. And then clubs started playing this and at the same time they’re playing latin fusion, because fusion had a lot of latin elements. The DJs were kind of researching latin music, Brazilian music, whatever. And when I was old enough to go out I was going to gigs which were totally dedicated to this scene and this music. And it just happened to be the same time Gilles Peterson was coming up, so I started going to a lot of his clubs and I got to know him around 1984. And because I’d already been buying records, I already had this thing for vinyl and I started going around the place buying records, buying old jazz stuff and researching the music. I just had a particular kind of dedication and love for Brazilian music somehow. Cause there was a lot of music recorded in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s by artists like Marcos Valle, and Airto and like that. And I already had these records, and had already become quite curious about Brazil. And meanwhile the whole thing was moving on, the whole acid jazz thing and the rare groove thing sort of kicked in. Again, the rare groove scene was very much a development of this kickback from this horrible fucking dance music coming from America.
JC: It was a reaction to that?
JD: Yeah, I guess so because I think the people somehow were more into that then what was coming out you know? When people started to make sense of it all was when the Detroit techno thing started, and Trax and Nu Groove labels started to have an impact. That’s when they understood it a bit more and started to appreciate the electronic thing. Myself, I didn’t appreciate the production of early ‘80s music. At the time it was very strange for a lot of people, I can promise you. They can say what they want now but there’s a big kickback, there’s only like the hardcore London black DJs playing that kind of stuff that was coming out then. Like, early hip hop and electro; there were very few people playing that. Although there was a kind of underground, it was a very urban thing. What I was involved in was very much a jazzier thing, and it was a kick-back of the soul boy kind of disco scene that happened in the ‘70s. So, I just had this love for Brazilian music somehow because I was connected to Brazil through growing up loving Brazilian football, looking at the girls and thinking ‘this is a fantastic country’ and listening to the music and stuff. It just seemed like a really cool, happy place that I was somehow connected to and curious about.
JC: And then you had some fortuitous connections that kind of led the way, right?
JD: Yeah, I met a guy at a record fair and I decided to go to Brazil and I went there in 1986 when I was 17 and I just discovered so many records there. I bought like 1,000 records and I was just seriously into them, since I’d been there and heard what I had heard. It just freaked me out.
JC: So, you first went to Brazil by yourself when you were just 17?
JD: Yeah, that was a very odd thing to do without experience, especially at that time.
JC: That must have been completely transformative for you then?
JD: Yeah, it kind of changed my life in a way, really. I mean, I basically bought records in Brazil and then I’d have to go back to England and I was in and out of college, and I was DJing. It was like three dimensions, you know? And my DJing always had a sort of Brazilian element, but I was still playing jazz music, acid jazz, rare groove, jazz funk, whatever. I was still playing a lot of Brazilian music in my sets. Then slowly and surely I started getting asked by other DJs about these records. So, I started to go to Brazil more frequently throughout the end of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And, as I was going I was developing my knowledge and what I knew about Brazilian music and I was buying more and more records for myself all of the time. And eventually I started up the Far Out label in ’91. In the early ‘90s there was like five years of work of going to Brazil and giving records to DJs. I was selling to people all over the world, to DJs in New York, Italy, Japan, whatever.
JC: So, you were the filter or the connection for Brazilian music for the international crowd at that time?
JD: Yeah, exactly, up until about ’95 when I really dedicated myself to just doing the label. So, I was going backwards and forwards to Brazil, but during this time I still had a strong connection and links with the street music scene as well, which kind of explains why we work with people like 4 Hero and Jazzanova and people like that because some might find that a bit odd. But we work with these people, we get them in on production and for remixes because I have always had this connection with dance music and street music scene, whatever it may be at any given point. But I just kept going to Brazil and researching the music and there was a big boom about 1991 and then I started to get asked to do compilations, I started the Brazilica series with Gilles Peterson and Talkin’ Loud. Then a compilation called “Blue Brazil” with Blue Note and there were several others that I’d done in Japan. And by now I was DJing all over the world, and going around the world selling records.
JC: Were you surprised at the momentum at that point?
JD: Not really. My biggest problem was being seen as a record dealer but actually it was a lot more effort than selling records, you know? To go to Brazil and find records wasn’t play, it was a lot more effort than just selling records. It was selling records but with a lot of creativity and a lot of work put into finding records in the first place.
JC: How did the Farout Records get its start?
JD: I wanted to start up a record label working with Brazilian music but I wanted to initially do it with a major or get some funding and do it separately. Which I’m glad I didn’t do in the end. It’s partly getting sick of selling records and sick of this attitude with people. And this thing with the major record companies that I wanted to really set up a label with. It was those things that really drove me in the end, plus obviously my passion and love for the music, to set up a record company and see what would actually happen. Because as time went on, between ’91 and ’95 I had made quite serious contacts with producers and some of the artists that I now work with like Marcos Valle and Joyce. Actually, we’d done at party in ’93 with Joyce; we’d brought her in for the Talkin’ Loud 5th Anniversary. We really started doing things and then I’d gotten commissioned from a Japanese company to produce a few records in Brazil. And I got paid very well and I recorded my first album which was “Friends from Rio”. I actually went to Brazil and recorded this album, this was like my first major job as a producer. I’d recorded that with a view for settting up the label, and also I had a few links with U.K. producers that were already developing. Like, we set up Da Lata, their first single was on Far Out. So, we’d already put a network in place of people that we wanted to work with. Also, on one of my trips I’d met Azymuth and said ‘I want to sign you because I want to put you guys back together again and put you out on my label’. So, I’d already started putting the strings in place and everything around ’93 and the first releases came out in ’94.
JC: So, you had the vision at that time and you’re gradually realizing that vision of producing artists, of continuing with compilations.
JD: Yeah, sure. I must say that the label is pretty much artist-based. Eighty percent of the releases are artist-based, there’s only the ‘Brazilian Love Affair’ compilation. About twenty-percent of the releases have been compilations, so most have been artist based: Joyce, Marcos Valle, Azymuth, Grupo Batuque, and there’s been some electronic releases like Flytonix and Kirk Digiorgio, which was done with Azymuth so that had more of a connection with what is going on with the label. Ten years isn’t a great deal of time if you’re really seriously recording music and developing artists. Because in that time you can only do like one album every two to three years if you’re serious. And that’s all we’ve been able to do but we have had a consistent flow of releases from those artists. Also, I’d like to say when we started people weren’t at all kind of adventurous in their tastes. People were territorial in their tastes, in a sense, it was very hard to present our music to the general public and even to the kind of general music scene. People would almost laugh at us. Labels that are putting out Brazilian records now have it easy, you know, at the time just laughed at us.
JC: So, you had the public that was resistant, and then you had the Brazilians that were kind of wondering ‘what’s this guy up to?’
JD: Yeah. To be honest, a lot of the people that I was talking about, from where I came from, like the over 40s market. The people who were into jazz, funk, soul, they’re very much into our label. But I’m talking about the sort of fashion, kind of cool music scene which kind of accounts for nothing today but perhaps then like ten years ago, you had to really be in fashion to sell records. I don’t know if this works like that in America. And those people would kind of laugh at us, but those same people are probably making Brazilian compilations now. So, it was quite interesting and a lot of the relationships that I have with my artists like Marcos Valle, Os Ipanemas and Joyce – they’re not relationships that happen over night. They were things that developed over quite some time. I knew Joyce for five or six years before we ever got into a studio to record. The same thing with Marcos Valle. Going back to my initial point, ten years ago it was quite hard and we had to tailor the records for the European market. I’m talking about even the authentic Brazilian recordings that we make and release. They were always produced for a specific market and for a certain type of customer really and for the market in Europe. Because you couldn’t present what you could now where people are so much more open-minded about music, and about life really. You couldn’t do that ten years ago. I think a lot of our records, like the Grupo Batuque records stuff in particular was very ahead of its time. And if it was released today it would work a lot better, in particular this “Africa Brazil” album which is a really great record. We’re in a great position after ten years because now it’s easier for us to release records because we’re not the only Brazilian record company trying to release this stuff.
JC: People are more receptive to it.
JD: They’re so much more receptive now and in the UK we have a very good connection and really good friends in the press who are very receptive to the recordings that we’ve made.
JC: Well, you’re clearly a very serious label, you have got the packaging and quality that reflects vision, which I suppose goes back to you and your passion for the music.
JD: Thank you.
JC: You’ve played a pretty substantial role in revitalizing some careers. How do you feel about that role?
JD: I feel good about it, obviously it’s great to have done that. I don’t know if you know Brazil particularly well or I don’t know how people feel about Brazil because it’s kind of closer to the States. But people tend to think that everyone’s living in a shanty town, forgotten about. And my artists are very famous in Brazil, and they still work a lot. Even Azymuth, they’re always doing sessions, they’re always arranging things for other artists or performing, you know? Joyce, she presents a program on TV, she’s doing alright. They’ve always had this kind of steady connection and steady work. They’ve always been working in Brazil, as artists or in the entertainment business at quite a high level. So, people always think ‘oh, you found this guy blah blah blah’. But it’s not the case with my artists. Sure, there are artists like the Grupo Batuque guys, they’re a bit more earthy and not known or whatever. But, generally speaking, the people that I work with have had their careers going since the start in Brazil.
Internationally, for sure, you’ve got every right to thank us and we’ve been totally responsible for that success outside of Brazil. Because even the old music that they’ve put out, I was the main man responsible for promoting them and showing the records to people. Because they had a ban on vinyl in the ‘60s and ‘70s because of the dictatorship and people didn’t know the catalogues, they didn’t export outside of Brazil. It was so fresh to people, apart from being very new in terms of sound, language, whatever, musical language, people never heard anything like it before. So, my research was kind of important because it was possibly the first exposure for anyone that I knew. Everyone that I was selling records to were influential people, really important because it was the first time that they’d presented it. And there were a lot of DJs that I was selling records to.
JC: And this was far beyond, say, bossa nova or more popular forms of the music.
JD: Yeah, samba jazz, funky ‘70s, catchy club tunes, lyrically good, beat music, deep soulful music from Brazil, MPB, whatever you know? Even rock from Brazil, performed and arranged by really excellent artists. Even Milton Nascimento, who we just had a release from, people weren’t all that familiar with his work. The first couple of albums that came out on A&M sure but there’s so much great music that he made that only came out in Brazil.
JC: Let’s talk about some of your current releases. You just mentioned the Milton Nascimento and you’ve got the Trouble Man release and Brazilian Love Affair 5. Let’s talk about Trouble Man, that’s not Brazilian although it does have Brazilian elements. It’s very diverse, it’s a great recording.
JD: Like I said, I’ve always kept my connection with the dance music and the street music thing. And Mark Pritchard has worked with us and done several productions for us on other things, remixes and what not. And he’s always been very successful with the work that we’ve done with him. I just have a particular relationship with Mark and I’d say he’s one of the top five most respected people in the world for production in electronic music. We wanted to develop a record and it’s taken three years to finish. Kind of tailored for the label and also tailored for what he wanted to do, which is something slightly more live and electronic. And because our label has a kind of name within that business, that electronic side of the business, we put the album together with him and put the album out and backed him. Because I knew for sure it’s going to be good. I don’t know if you’ve heard it yet. To me, the album was made for me, if you know what I mean, because I wouldn’t sign ninety percent of the bands that make that kind of music.
But I had a chance to work with Mark, he’s a great friend of mine, I knew he could make a great record and we just wanted to try. It was a question of that, and I’ve got a lot of friends that want to work with the label, Nina Miranda and Eska the singer, and Spacek, they’re all great friends of mine. And I wanted to put a project together, so you’ve really got a top level electronic project on the label to make a statement. It’s really different and probably they’re going to fuck us really because it’s so different and diverse than the rest of the stuff we’ve got out. But I just felt that we really had to do it as a label and partly because there’s so much terrible music around within the electronic genre. So, we just did it to make a statement with that record more than anything else. And, for sure, we’ve had a brilliant response and people are really kind of opening their eyes. I thought this time, for sure, even in terms of what we’ve got coming out and what we’ve done this year. For sure, we’ve got the best record we’ve ever had in our hands. On the dance music side, on the remix side, and on the CD side.
JC: And your other releases?
JD: We’ve got another 4 or 5 records signed up and ready to go that are all fantastic. Those are more Brazilian, mind you. The Milton Nascimento is an absolute pleasure cause that’s a gem of a record, which contains some of his best work and certainly from his best period. And, again, it was just amazing to have the opportunity to release something like that. “Brazilian Love Affiar” is a kind of reflection on what is going to come on the label and what we’re preparing to put out. It includes some new cuts by Azymuth, Democustico, Trouble Man and a couple of other things that are new like Sabrina Malheiros. It serves as almost a taster for some of the new releases that are coming out later on in the year. And that’s it, we have got a vision and we are moving forward.
Mix for Michael Rutten’s Soul Searching Program by Joe Davis (begins at 1:10)