In Conversation With: SOTO

We continue our little batch of in-depth interviews by having the wonderful Brighton based trio SOTO join me for a cup of coffee and a chat. This was the first ever time I did the interview over Skype so it was quite a different dynamic than I’m used to. It was yet another enjoyable experience and we babbled away for around an hour. This is what came of that:

About The Band:

SOTO are a new up and coming Jazz trio coming out of the woodwork down in Brighton at the moment. The three of them are housemates and all are in their final month of medical school. God knows how they fit in time for both music and medicine but they are making a great go of it. They have just released their debut EP titled Shogun very recently and are busy gigging between London and Brighton. I received the title track off the EP last week and was blown away by the chilled out nature of their creations. I just had to get them involved for a cheeky interview.

The band consists of:
Calum Barnes – Vocals/Bass
Sanjay Noonan – Guitar
Alex Evans – Drums

The Interview:

I hear you are all about to become fully qualified doctors. How do you manage doing the band stuff on top of the full time commitment of studying medicine?

Calum: I think the band has been very necessary for the three of us as we come to the end of medical school. There is a lot of pressure to start out a life in medicine directly afterwards which is a very intense and full on thought. To handle the stress of the course, it has been pivotal to have a creative outlet in which we can forget those stresses for a while and concentrate our minds on something different. This stress follows the six years we went through in school and we never really stopped studying since.

Alex: As Calum said, we’ve been a very long time in education and it’s nearly time I get to take the year out next year to focus on the music. When I’m doing the music, I’m at my happiest. For me, it’s been a very necessary project too. In terms of how we manage our time of working between the studies and music, I think it’s just a case of putting the medicine to the side for a while after we finish our finals and put our entire energy into really getting this up and running.

I’ve heard and read a lot of things about the music scene down in Brighton but I’ve never been down there myself. As three guys who live there, what is it like?

Calum: it’s a funny one. Some would say it is non-existent, while others would say it’s vibrant and growing. It has been growing for quite a while without much direction really. The problem with Brighton is that there are a few small venues and a few big venues, but nothing in the middle. A lot of bands can struggle a bit. In saying this, it is quite a vibrant city and there are probably more people coming to gigs here than other bigger cities. It’s got a real small community feel. I think it is slowing down a bit but with labels like QM Records thriving, the scene is generally quite stable.

Sanjay: Being based here has given us a really good space to test the water with our material and find our feet. When we were starting off, we were given a half hour set each time and back then we were didn’t even have enough material to fill the time. It was a great thing and we thrived at the gigs in Brighton in the early days. We were getting a lot of gigs and experience where we certainly would have struggled getting the amount of gigs had we started out in London.

In terms of getting your foot inside the door, Brighton is a brilliant place to begin. The only downside is that when you have a full bank of work ready to go, it’s hard to progress onwards when you are here. That’s why we feel London will open us up to a lot more opportunities if we relocate. It is hard to get a paid gig in Brighton, it seem a little bit more common in London. Having said this, it is one of the only places in the world that you can see live gypsy jazz, seven nights of the week. In my first two years here, it was the best place in the world for me.

Alex: I agree with the lads, Brighton is a very encouraging place to start out in. It’s got this reputation as being kind of left-wing, stuck in a bubble and filled with crazy people. It is never ever frowned upon being in that beginners stage here. It certainly has that ethos and sense of place that makes you feel comfortable as a new musician. However, if you study the people from here that are doing well, they all end up taking their projects into London to grow from there. To make a living from it, it seems you must transfer the project to the big city. Brighton certainly does have a big music scene for the size of the city. It’s great to be part of it and it’ll be hard to leave. 

Sanjay: I remember, years ago, I was in a different band before SOTO and recorded a clip of a rehearsal on my laptop. This just depicts up the community feel in Brighton. I remember carrying the laptop with me into a venue and showing them the minute and a half long clip. ‘This is my band’ – They were like ‘yeah, cool, you can have two 45 minute slots’. It was so laid-back – it’s probably the complete opposite of the London gig searching process. My music was terrible back then too.

We went on to speak about the debut EP Shogun and some of the ideas behind a few of the tracks.

Jekyll & Hyde:

Alex: The song started in a rehearsal one day. We invited a spoken word artist called Lo Kai Poet to come in with us as we jammed. He brought a big notepad filled with poetry in with him and it just happened from there. We all thought it was amazing and by the end of the session we had written the riff that became Jekyll & Hyde. At the end of the session we all looked at each other and realized that we had made quite a nice little song that day. The feedback has been good on that one and we are really grateful to have had that opportunity to work with him.


Alex: I think there can be a lot of pressure to pigeon hole a particular genre to fit into. When we are rehearsing together, sometimes it feels to us that some songs don’t require vocals at any point. On Shogun, you wouldn’t expect a vocal to come in because you’ve got the big drums, spacey guitar and intensity of the bass. None of us expected vocals to come in on the track so we didn’t touch it. When we perform live, we are quite happy with the split of vocal and non-vocal tracks. There is a lot more space for creative flow on the instrumental tracks. We challenge each other and revel in the freedom. The vocal songs, we have to make space for and the key thing we have to do is to keep our own stamp on the songs.

Calum: We were a little bit worried with the EP that people wouldn’t understand the diversity of it. One track is RnB – the next Jazz – the next hip hop. But that’s the way we want it.

Going forward, Will you be sticking to instrumentals or keeping a balance of vocal work in there too?

Calum: We were literally talking about this last night. Naturally we are in a stage of progression at the moment. We all kind of agreed on the fact that we love the diversity that the jazz and of the RnB twist, we are looking to keep up with both sides of that. The collaboration route is definitely the way we want to proceed.  We want to try out all different types of collaborations and see what comes of them. Being diverse is what makes music fun and we are keen to find obscure musicians to collaborate with too. Testing ourselves with different types of collaborators, we envision becoming better versions of ourselves musically.

Sanjay: We really have our minds open about our future compositions, I feel that even if we make plans to go down a stylistic route, we will always deviate and try out experimental things. We don’t go into sessions thinking about what methods will be effective in our music, we are very open and free in our ways.

How did you promote the EP after you released it?

Sanjay: Well, every single time I get a coffee, I ask the barista to put the EP on in the shop. One of the most common questions people hound me with is ‘what part of medicine do I want to specialise in?’ – I normally respond by telling them I specialise in music and hand them a SOTO business card. The most important networking opportunities, comes at our gigs. If we are booked we will stay around for the entirety of the night and speak to as many people as we can. This is invaluable.

Calum: Unfortunately there is an awful lot of cold calling involved. We’ve sent out thousands of emails to radio stations, labels and promoters. We spend hours and hours and hours sending these emails and we still do now. We are constantly on social media and in our day to day, chatting about it and handing out business cards. Networking is not a one way street. We try to give back to the people that help by chatting to them all at the gigs.

Alex: Often we show people the music in the wards in hospital. It’s just a constant case of networking in every single facet of our lives. It never stops. It’s important for us to learn from our experiences thus far and really learn how to engage with our audiences to give something back for the support.

What will you be up to in the weeks after your final exams? Heavy gigging?

Sanjay: Nope, we are actually off to Nepal for five weeks, we will probably do some gigs out there and stay out there for life.

Alex: Before we fly out, we have three of our biggest gigs to date coming up in the weeks after our exams. We play The Mesmerist and Komedia in Brighton and we have another big one up in London in April. We are also in the post production stage of a collaboration we are doing with some great Brighton based acts, so that will be getting finished too before we jet off.

Calum: Although it’s the trip of a lifetime, I just want to stay here now and keep playing tons of gigs with SOTO to be honest.

Your music is quite dynamic and unique – are there any musicians you follow yourselves and look to for inspiration?

Calum: I think we all have different tastes really individually. I’m inspired by artists like BadBadNotGood as well as some of the old greats. In terms of UK jazz acts that I’ve been listening to recently – Kokoroko are a standout.

Sanjay: My main influences at the moment are UK Jazz acts like Alfa Mist, Yussef Dayes and Tom Misch is someone that I admire too. Neo-Soul from the States has been a heavy influence on me too, artists like Anderson Paak and Daniel Caeser are big for me. I actually went into a bit of a hole with Daniel Caeser a few months ago where i religiously listened to his Tiny Desk gig exclusively for about two months. Eventually I pulled myself out of that thankfully.

Alex:  I really like RnB drums, particularly Gospel drumming techniques. It isn’t part of my background whatsoever but when I was growing up, I have been observing a lot of what the gospel drummers would do. They have a particular community and the way that they play the drums is very different. They kind of pioneered their own style with these really intense choppy fills. I really got into this style of playing. RnB also was something I loved to listen to. Artists like Aaron Spears and Sean Wright were both huge influences on my drumming. I’m trying to be something in the middle of both American RnB and the UK jazz style.

Any Festival stuff planned for the summer lads?

Calum: Every festival under the sun. No nothing to announce just yet. We are playing a few all day-ers here and there and our next big gig is when we play one of the biggest venues in Brighton called Komedia – when we started the band a year ago, that was so far off the cards, so we are totally delighted to be playing there soon.

Alex: When we first formed we had a chat about what we wished to achieve with SOTO. One of the first things we all agreed on was to play Komedia, it’s unreal that we will be getting that chance soon. To get to do our first ever gig was the first tick in the box but now we have reached the big one in our initial plans. I remember sitting down at the beginning and stating dreamily that if we could play both The Mesmerist and Komedia, it would be incredible. In the next few months, we are booked to play at both. We have kind of hit that now!

Sanjay: We have made a special note to enjoy these two gigs. Six years ago, I remember going to the venues and thinking that playing in them was the pinnacle. I’m really excited and glad to be getting the chance.

Finally, we spoke very briefly about the processes and emotions the band felt after the EP went out:

Alex: I think every musician has that feeling of sheer optimism when they release a new single or EP that it could be the one to make them big, it’s a natural emotion. I think us three are quite realistic in the sense that we understand the slow process of growth. For us, it’s crucial to enjoy the little milestones on the way, like playing The Mesmerist and Komedia, because these are our little signs of growth and we need to enjoy them, however small.

 How do you go about getting your gigs up in London?

Calum: It can be a lot of work, we keep an eye out for promoters looking for bands on the internet and send out our material. There is a promotions company called ‘Underground Sound’ which is a very reputable place to look for gigs in London, we use that sometimes. The difficult thing for us right now is the fact that we have our final exams in three weeks. We want to take on too much at times, we have to be patient. It’s only three weeks now until we are finish the course and we can really make a move.

Alex: Some of the gigs we got recently have been people who have heard the Shogun EP and reached out over Instagram and we have gone from there. That was really exciting.

Upcoming Gigs:

Check out our conversation with Alex Hudson last week:

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