Mathew Jonson on the essence of live improvisation, and returning to Room 1 as Cobblestone Jazz
Ahead of the antipciated return of Cobblestone Jazz to fabric this Saturday (22nd July) we sat down with one-third of the outfit; the talented, accomplished anddeeply thoughtful musical mind of Mathew Jonson.
Made up of the formidable Mathew Jonson, Danuel Tate, and Tyger Dhula, Canadian group Cobblestone Jazz have made a name for themselves with their unique approach to electronic music and captivating live performances. With a focus on spontaneity and what Mathew Jonson calls “orchestrated mayhem”, Cobblestone push the boundaries of what can be achieved on stage by unexpectedly blending the ethos, energy and unpredictability of jazz, with a playful approach to live techno.
Formally formed back in 2002, originally with collaboration and input from The Mole as The Modern Deep Left Quartet, Cobblestone have retained a revered and unique presence in electronic music now for over 20 years; and their latest release 'Hip Waders' on Life & Death speaks back to his original collaboration with The Mole stepping in for a hypnotic jam and seeps layers and layers of intricate tremolo chords that ripple across a jazz-like skittish electronic groove, for a full 13 minuetes. Now, off the back of their exciting recent projects and in wake of the trio's reunion with us this weekend, we sat down with one-third of Cobblestone; the formidable creative mind of Mathew Jonson.
Mathew himself has been far from a stranger of fabric over the years, first making his live debut with us way back in 2003. His mischievous and unmistakable stamp has been part of the very ‘fabric’ of the club, ever since, releasing his visionary live set recorded during our 15th Birthday for the ‘fabric 84’ CD, and most recently having played for us during the 20 Years of Crosstown Rebels celebrations in May. This weekend will see the return of Cobblestone Jazz, a trio specialising in something a little different to Mathew’s typical solo sets. He delves into the essence of live improvisation – the core component of Cobblestone’s ethos and performance – and the unexpected surprises that come with it, as well as touching on how the trio stay creative and motivated; from jamming and joking around, to shirtless group hugs and tequila shots before a set.
Offering up insights into the transcendent nature of music and sound as tools for exploring different realities, Mathew’s interview with us deep-dives into the tools and unplanned beauty that makes Cobblestone a one-of-a-kind-live act.
For our readers that might not know, can you tell us how Cobblestone Jazz first came together as a trio, and what is the story behind the group's name?
Mathew Jonson: We have witnessed a remarkable transformation of the world we inhabit. When we first joined forces, none of us possessed computers capable of recording audio. Ableton Live was unheard of. I had a 909 and SH-101, which enabled me to create essential rhythms and basslines. Tyger Dhula was fascinated by sampling back then and had an MPC60 and an impressive record collection to draw sounds from.
It was Danuel who initiated the idea of forming a group. He had been playing Jazz for many years and wanted to explore beyond the electronic-based work he and Tyger had established when I was still a teenager. The Mole was also involved in the beginning as The Modern Deep Left Quartet and added layers of textures and vocals by scratching with a turntable and effects. Cobblestone Jazz emerged from the remaining members after The Mole relocated to Montreal. The name reflects the diverse and dynamic nature of improvised music.
What is the creative process like when you're producing music as a trio? How do you collaborate and combine your individual styles?
MJ: Our creative process varies from session to session. Sometimes we just jam and discover new things. Other times we compose one part at a time. There is a lot of joking around and trying to irritate each other. Sometimes we get into arguments. Sometimes we have shirtless group hugs.
“We are fully live and it’s more like orchestrated mayhem…”
Cobblestone Jazz is known for its improvisational approach to live performances. How do you maintain the balance between planning and spontaneity on stage?
MJ: We have abandoned the notion of balance. We are fully live and it’s more like orchestrated mayhem.
It’s all about spontaneity. It’s akin to a boxing match or plunging into a frigid lake with no clothes on. You get to witness all your expectations shattered and receive some kind of musical embrace as a reward.
But does improvisation always work?
MJ: It’s certainly a unique experience for everyone. For me, the key thing is to listen first rather than play. Then when you do play, pause or change after a phrase or two. Have a conversation. Let other people speak. Allow yourself to be gentle, to be hard, to be loving and sometimes even angry. Don’t expect anything to work or be “good” as it often won’t. Tension is OK and it creates the contrast that makes the release enjoyable. Look at each other and look at your audience. Smile. Have fun. Be a little naughty at times.
“The most impactful period for me was the early days… There were no smartphones or social media to distract people or make them worry about being recorded or judged on their performance…”
Like you said, technology has changed and advanced so much since you first formed. Any memorable performances or collaborations that have had a significant impact on your career as Cobblestone Jazz over the years? Has the crowd has experience of playing live changed?
MJ: The most impactful period for me was the early days. We all lived in Victoria Canada at the time and had a bi-weekly residency at a club called Neptune Sound Bar. It was an opportunity to be completely free and experimental. There were no smartphones or social media to distract people or make them worry about being recorded or judged on their performance. It was all very present. Without this place to learn and grow and perform in a public place mainly filled with friends and locals, I doubt that CJ or my solo career would have taken shape the way they did. I feel so grateful to have experienced that and also had a place to learn so much and test the boundaries of what can be done on stage without much judgment.
How do you stay inspired and continue to evolve creatively as a group?
MJ: Everything changed when we got rid of the samplers and computers. We also don’t have any material when we play that is ready. No patterns, no sequences. This way we are 100% in the moment. We might play a melody or a baseline from one of our songs like “India in Me” but in order to do that we must program and play it on the spot. It’s extremely risky and thrilling. After performing together for over 20 years though, we have reached a place where this is possible. It’s a bit amusing that quite a few people have commented that it sounds very rehearsed, which of course is far from the truth.
As veterans in the electronic music scene, what advice would you give to aspiring DJs and producers who are looking to make their mark and establish a unique musical identity?
MJ: Spend a few years experimenting with different ways to produce sound. Listen to a lot of non-electronic music from various genres and pay attention to how the music changes and evolves. Understand what the rhythm section is doing in a song and how each individual instrument complements the melody. Melodies come from both the heart and your connection to the divine, so find a way to open yourself to both. Learn as much as you can about music and theory, but don’t let that change the notes of the melodies that come to you naturally. Trust the gifts that come to you and do your best to turn them into music.
In a recent interview with Ableton you said that music and sound can be used “'as a tool for time travel' – allowing access to different realities that exist simultaneously on earth.” - what did you mean by that?
MJ: Vibration is the essence of all things. Our brain and body harmonize with the oscillations of our environment, but our reality is subjective and drastically different from others. Sound and music have the potential to transcend our consciousness beyond the conventional three-dimensional world that society constrains us to. There are multiple dimensions that cohabit this earth, and we can tap into them. Dreams and meditation can also facilitate this process, but sound vibrations in particular seem to attract multidimensional entities to each other.
I’ve been visited by beings that resemble hybrids of humans and animals in the studio. I can discern their contours, but they are translucent like the light that refracts over black pavement on a hot day. My visual experience of these guests is almost exactly the same as the alien cloaking devices seen on “Star Trek” or “The Predator”.
Probably an impossible question, but! What can we expect from your performance at fabric next month?!
MJ: I wish I could tell you but we have no idea what we are doing until it’s on the speakers. It will probably make you dance. Once we are warmed up it’s hard to stop us.
“Nothing compares to the anxiety of stepping on stage in front of thousands of people with no music and no plan…”
Is there a certain pressure that comes with live performance? Do you (still) get nervous?
MJ: Nothing compares to the anxiety of stepping on stage in front of thousands of people with no music and no plan. A couple of tequila shots before we perform helps.
And how does it feel to be returning (as Cobblestone) to Room 1?
MJ: fabric has always been and will always remain our London home. We are eager to return! We are immensely grateful to Judy and Andy for inviting us again after such a long hiatus.
Cobblestone Jazz (Mathew Jonson, Danuel Tate, Tyger Dhula) return with their iconic live set to Room 1 on 22nd July.
Find them alongside Truly Madly, Z@p, and Georgia with NorthSouth Records in Room 2 with Lamache, Ron Obvious and label trio Harry McCanna, Sam Bangura and Dale Mussington.
Listen to 'Hip Waders' here.
Words & Interview: Izzy Trott