On a chilly March evening just over two years ago, I went with a few friends to a charity event at Wharf Chambers down near the canal in Leeds. It was raising money for Student Action for Refugees (STAR), way before the refugee crisis had reached its most critical point, or had even entered into public view. This unconditional love and respect for a marginalised community, and the endeavours made to support their cause, extended into the party: the vibe was intoxicating, passionate, heartwarming. And part of this atmosphere was cultivated by Chris Knight aka Cervo of Banana Hill. Stepping up to the decks, one couldn’t really foresee the universalising force of his record bag (he’s just another white house DJ, surely?). But what ensued was a fired-up foray into sounds from around the globe. Forget cultural appropriation: we need DJs like Chris, just as we need charities like STAR, to break down national borders, and celebrate diversity. Two years later, and it seems that Chris’ love of music from other continents, particularly Africa, is paying off; his music is being taken to an even wider audience than before. We spoke to him about his current projects, and exciting times ahead, before he plays for Pretty Pretty Good on 14th April at Wire.
I saw you play as Banana Hill as Wharf Chambers in Leeds around two years ago at a really small charity gig. A lot has changed since then, both for you personally and for the party. Firstly, with regard to your Cervo production project, you have just been signed to Lumberjacks in Hell. How does that feel? And how did it come about?
That was a great night! I love that venue actually. Yeah it feels very surreal…I followed the label for a long time, and to sit alongside those people who’ve released on LiH is really odd, especially as I feel I’m inexperienced a producer. I sent Marcel a track last summer which I thought might suit the label, and was totally surprised when he asked me for two more to make up an EP. I definitely felt the pressure at that point, and it took me a while to pull the rest together!
What have you got lined up for release on LIH? Your original sound was based on edits of tracks from around the world. What direction are you taking your sound now? Are you forging more of a personal aesthetic?
So it’s a 3-track EP called ‘The Antlers of God’. Each track is quite different, though I feel it’s a good indication of the different developing parts of my sound. Two of the songs are heavily sampled and I had a lot of fun deconstructing a load of stuff, adding my own parts and creating something new – it was a very different approach to the straight up edits I had done previously. The final track is for me an indication of where I see things going…we’ll see. At the minute I feel I have a lot to learn so it’ll be interesting to see which directions I end up heading.
You often pair up with Thris Tian of Boiler Room fame to form the Global Roots Soundsystem. Can you tell us a bit about this project? What is the dynamic like between you two?
The main idea behind the project was to build a regular residency at Soup Kitchen in Manchester after playing a couple of shows together and it going really well. From that we’ve done a few shows in different cities and it’s been really fun. We are quite different DJs but have a lot of similar tastes so it’s really starting to work well as a back-to-back.
You seem to be a very busy guy, balancing running parties, DJing, producing and more. Do you have a day job? How does it all balance out?
I do at the moment! I studied Civil Engineering so I currently work in a design office during the week. It’s been hanging in the balance for a while now to be honest haha. I think I’m perhaps nearing the point where I could consider moving full time into music, which is quite daunting but super exciting.
I believe you recently visited Ghana. What did you get up to there? And what did you take from the visit? Did you do much digging?
It’s an amazing place – I went only went for a holiday really, but did end up finding some great music and doing a lot of field recording. We travelled around a lot of the country and basically chilled out most of the time. It came at a good time for me personally to clear my head and I came back with a lot of inspiration.
Had you visited Africa before? Where did the ‘Afro-centrism’ of Banana Hill come from? Where did the fascination begin?
I had been to Tanzania when I was in school, but it was unfortunately part of one of those self-congratulatory ‘World Challenge’ type things haha. While at university me and JVC (who I run BH with) became obsessed with afro-electronic music from mainly Angola & South Africa, plus the crossover sounds from European & US producers. We had fairly different tastes before that and it was kind of a meeting point for us. From that point we’ve dug as deep as possible across the massive spectrum of music from Africa & South America and that’s sort of shaped what we’re doing with Banana Hill today.
You wear a Newcastle shirt in your profile picture. Is that an indicator of pride in where you come from? How did Newcastle shape you musically?
I just loved that strip so much, I was gutted when I grew out of it haha. I’m not sure if it’s an indicator but I do feel a big connection with Newcastle for sure, and I love going back. I was in a band in school and had my first clubbing experiences there. We were part of a great scene of bands with a certain steely edge to their music – grunge, post punk, garage rock. I’m pretty sure it’s a Northern thing. There was a weekly night called Dragnet we used to go to every Saturday, which I’d say put me on the road to a love of electronic music. They’d play disco-not-disco, house, post punk, hip hop, electro, soul – it’s still going actually, so big up to Andrew & Kristian.
On top of being one of the North’s most established and well respected club nights, Banana Hill is set to become a label. Can you reveal what’s in store for that?
Thanks for the kind words! Yes it’s something we wanted to do for ages and it’s finally coming to fruition. It’ll be great to have something physical & tangible to sit alongside the nights. The details of the first release are being announced in the next couple of weeks, and features two of my edits of Moroccan musician Majid Bekkas. After that we’ll be looking to do a release every couple of months or so. Genre wise…it’s similar to how we run the parties. It’ll just be music we love.
After five and a half years of running Banana Hill, what have been your most memorable nights? And can you see it running for another five years?
We’ve had some pretty special big parties, this one [Gilles Peterson, Funkineven and Romare] probably standing out (http://bit.ly/2nglmZt). But truth be told, we’ve had a lot more fun with it after scaling things down last year. Promoting is so risky, and having such large sums of money & stress involved definitely took a toll on my mental health. Now we’re able to work with two great small venues in Soup Kitchen (Manchester) and The Yard (London) and focus on bringing lesser known acts to the UK. Playing back to back with Marcellus Pittman last year was a definite highlight for me, and bringing over Analog Africa a few weeks ago was amazing too. I’d say we’re both more driven than ever so another 5 years isn’t too far-fetched!