Stingray DJAZZ's editor-in-chief Rokas Kučinskas sits down online with expatriate British jazz saxophonist and flautist Chip Wickham, who shares his well-informed perspective on topics as wide-ranging as the Spanish jazz scene, climate change, and the future role of the music industry.
Wickham's music is often categorized as spiritual jazz, yet his latest, atmospheric album Blue to Red is firmly grounded in the conviction that the here and now are the right time and place for humanity to stand up for our future.
In this second of three interview parts, Chip discusses his inspiration for Blue to Red, the jazz community's stance on climate change, and the opportunities for development that open up in times of crisis.
RK) Let's talk about your recent album Blue to Red. It was influenced or inspired by the climate crisis, right? I wondered if that came recently – that all of a sudden you became more aware of it and then you thought: “I need to do something about it”?
CW) Just jumped on board you mean? (laughs)
(laughs) Well, maybe you've always been an activist, like a Thom Yorke?
No, I’m somewhere gently in the middle of those two things. I really wanted to write a deeper, sort of more spiritual album. My music gets classified as spiritual jazz, and the first two albums have got definite elements of that, as well as lots of other stuff. I’ve managed to pull together lots of different things, but it was always lumped under this spiritual jazz title – which I kind of like, as well. It is a bit more open-ended than saying this, that, and the other.
I thought: for this third album, I’m gonna go deeper into it. I’ll get more down to sort of Sun Ra, Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane sounds. So I changed the line-up: I put the Rhodes piano in, I put a proper harpist in, and I concentrated on the flute and some effects. Stuff like that. Musically, I was heading down that road.
And of course, that road is all about the stars and planets, you know? Sun Ra’s stuff, for example, has a sort of otherworldliness to it. I grew up looking at the stars, seeing the astronauts – the sort of pinnacle of technology. I started to daydream get some of those music inspirations and bring all this together.
But the more I did that, the more I felt sort of stupid. I thought: actually, you know what? This is just navel gazing, isn’t it? This is just pretending, this is stupid. All these amazing planets and the Solar System… Actually, the most amazing planet is the one we stand on. It’s the only one we’re designed to live on.
Yet people go on about putting people on Mars. It’s a joke, a massively expensive joke! Mars is not designed for human beings. And yet, all the time and effort we’ve spent on putting people on it - probably for all the wrong reasons, just probably because there’s something we can dig up and sell back here, or to put the first McDonalds on Mars. Do you know what I mean? It’s so vain. Human beings become so vain.
We completely overstepped our own ability to see what’s clever. All our good efforts and all our wonderful technology – not all our technology is wonderful – are just designed towards the wrong things. We’re thinking too hard about the wrong things, and our greatness is being wasted.
I was watching a lot of documentaries about planets and stuff like that, and I watched one about Mars. Four billion years ago Mars was a blue planet. It had seas - it’s Earth’s sister planet – so it was blue. It had an atmosphere and a very similar climate to ours. And it lost it. It lost its magnetic pole in the middle, its gravity. You know, we’ve got the northern lights - that’s things hitting the Earth and bouncing off the top. Mars lost that and lost its atmosphere, because the solar rays were too strong. Without that, Mars went from blue to red. Ironically, that happened about the same time we started having life here. So that sort of blue-to-red, it’s something we’re doing - we’ve got this beautiful blue planet and we’re basically stripping it and ruining it, so it will also end up red.
And it was just that feeling that actually I couldn’t seriously write a load of songs and dream of planets when our reality is so obvious, isn’t it? It just seems fanciful. And then Christopher Nolan’s film 'Interstellar' - one of the tracks is called 'Interstellar' and I really like it. And that sort of sums it up. I’ve watched that film about 20 times. I love it. And it is just that kind of battle between our greatness and our ability to sort of think ahead, and plan, and create, and invent - it’s wasted if we don’t protect our own planet. It's just... We literally are going to create something that eats ourselves.
Did the idea of incorporating Fender Rhodes and a harp come before or after you chose the solar angle for the album?
There are two different things going on there. Musically, I wanted it to have that kind of a spiritual sound.
When I write, obviously I don’t have lyrics. When you write instrumental music you don’t have words, so it is a little bit difficult for some people to get into. I get that, because I like songs as well – we like words, don’t we? Words give meaning. When you have instrumental music, you’ve only really got the titles really. If you really want to imply something, you’ve only got titles of the songs or the titles of the album to imply something, or give character to a song, do you know what I mean? So the titles were very much designed to be reflective about that kind of idea that we are going from blue to red if we’re not careful.
Of course, musical decisions, you can’t reflect that in the actual sort of... in the change in the instruments. I still wanted to write a very spiritual sounding album, with a like post-Alice Coltrane kind of sound. That didn’t change my musical approach particularly. But it certainly gave me a little more bite in some of the songs, a little bit more aggression in there, a bit more attitude, do you know what I mean? Again that’s all very easy to say, isn't it? (laughs).
But it’s our biggest problem. We’re all facing it. It's stopped becoming a middle-class coffee or dinner table conversation now. Everybody in bars, people on the streets are talking about it, because it’s real now and it’s going to become more real with every step we take towards it. It’s not just me, is it? And it’s not a fad or a course you can jump in and jump out of. It goes to the heart of our system.
It goes to us as human beings - we need to evolve, we need to stop doing what we’re doing in the way we’re doing it because we’re eating up our own planet. We’re eating up our planet from underneath us. And that goes to the heart of every area; our economic systems, our capitalism, you name it – it goes to the heart of everything, because that’s where effectively the problem starts and you can’t protect the planet if you’re constantly trying to monetarize it.
The biggest wars in the future are going to be fought about the Amazon. People are going to be invading Brazil to save the Amazon, do you know what I mean? That is what we’re looking forward to, isn’t it? Stuff like that. The geopolitical map is going to be very interesting if we don’t find a way of adapting ourselves economically to the issues that we’ve got, because at the moment we’ve created a monster, haven't we? We’ve got huge companies that have more power than countries, and we have political systems that can be bought, and we have individuals that are more powerful than entire countries. That’s really bad news for everybody, isn’t it? It is! Nobody wants to talk about that, but it’s not good for the future.
As an individual, do you have things you try to avoid doing after becoming more aware of the climate crisis that is happening?
Well, I think I don’t need to be like Greta [Thunberg, ed.] and get the boat everywhere, do you know what I mean? I think it’s more the political power that we assume.
For example, if a political party is pushing the fact that it wants to ban all petrol cars or shut down certain power stations because they’re a huge drain on resources, or control industry and stop the practise of flying a bag of oranges across the world to be sold somewhere else – that’s where I think I can make a difference. But I don’t think there's much an individual can do, apart from buying an electric car or whatever. We can all do our day-to-day recycling; all the little things that we know.
But the real issue is way bigger than that. It’s about resources and the fact that you’ve got countries still relying on coal, and oil, and gas, for extraordinary wealth and that they’re extraordinarily powerful as the result. You’ve got to somehow change that. That’s the issue, isn’t it? It's very hard for individuals.
The right to vote is probably the single biggest power we have to elect the right government officials.
It’s power in numbers, it’s ideas. If all of a sudden people are driving electric cars and the electric charge car points are being installed everywhere... But they could’ve done that 10 years ago, or perhaps even before. The development of electrical technology could have been done a long time ago. It’s that kind of stupidity: this could actually have been done a long time ago, but the political power stops that. It’s the serious wealth that owns those resources that doesn’t want that to happen.
And so all we can do as individuals is say: “I don’t want single-use plastics. I’m not going to drive a petrol car. I’m not going to take unnecessary journeys on a plane until they find a way of redesigning them.” But it all has to come from the framework of this rampant capitalism, where making profits and stock exchanges are more important than a hospital, do you know what I mean?
It’s ridiculous: economy has always been measured by how the rich are doing and not how the poor are doing, and that’s the trouble. We always talk about gross domestic products, economic growth and stock exchanges – we’re talking about rich people and people that have money making money. We’re not talking about the average person in the street, about wages going up, or health care being more comprehensible or effective, or all the things that are good about society. Or trying to help people with housing. All the real day-to-day stuff is never talked about, because it costs money, doesn’t it? Governments have to decide to do that as opposed to doing something else.
It was very interesting watching the Governor-General of New Zealand in this lockdown. She’s just gone - boom! “No, we’re doing this, no we’re doing that.” And she’s been fantastic! Really making brave decisions in a way that you just wish other governments would do it. And then you suddenly realize that other governments won’t do that, because they’re not in a position to make those moves. They’re too controlled. It’s a shame – good ideas are squashed until there’re enough of us to push them out again and then they have to deal with them. It’s a bad thing in a moment of crisis – whether it’s the crisis we’re in at the moment, or the climate crisis. It’s a bad thing, because time’s against us.
Another thing that took me by surprise is the role of the jazz community in all this: you’re one of the few musicians that address the topic of climate change in a creative way. Do you know why that is? Are you aware of any movements among jazz musicians regarding the climate?
I really don’t know. The trouble with jazz is – as I said before, it doesn’t have lyrics. And I think it’s very difficult for jazz musicians to have a message when it’s instrumental music. It’s very easy for Bob Dylan to do protest songs, because you get it (laughs). He’s got the lyrics and there’s a meaning to it. But as jazz musicians, it’s very hard. You have to approach it in a very sensible way, because there’s a limit to what you can express. All you can do is just allow your music to be used by people in that world. Or doing concerts for certain charities or fundraisers…
I guess the issue is: you have to be very careful in coming across as a bit crass. A lot of people jump on things, which you asked before: “Do you mean it or don’t you mean it?” There’s a lot of scepticism, about people that talk about it because it’s such a hot topic. But I think in reality we’ve passed that point.
It is a topic that ordinary people should be talking about, because it’s going to directly influence them more and more each year. Whether it’s the weather, or whether it's the cost of things, or whether it’s people they know in other parts of a country that are having problems because of it. Climate change is affecting all of us and will just get worse - exponentially worse. It won’t just get a little bit worse every year. It will get worse and worse quite quickly, and that’s the trouble.
The rest of the world seems to be talking about it – so do you think the jazz community will start talking about it more and more at some point, in the (near) future?
Well, I hope so. At the moment, with COVID, everybody has something else to talk about, which is a bit of a shame, isn’t it? Because this problem is not going anywhere, is it? I guess with anything as big as COVID and the global nature of this crisis, the issues are going to be economic rather than environmental for the next two or three years.
A lot of people have already been talking about taking the chance to restructure environmentally through this, after the lockdown and the intervention the governments were doing –they are capable of intervening, isn't that shocking? (laughs). They are capable of spending money on things that they have to! People are saying, “Why don’t we take this opportunity to change this and that?”. You can see that after a war or after any great world event there’s always a lot of change and restructuring. I think there’s possibly an opportunity to do something.
But whether this opportunity will get lost in the recession that will probably knock the stuffing out of everybody and will create a lot of poor people... while the rich get richer and Amazon still don't pay tax and all the rest of it, do you know what I mean? It’s hard to see this opportunity work out, because the system is so controlled. They’re very good at distracting people from what the real big issues are, and distracting them with nonsense.
People have gotten used to the showbiz side of politics these days, you know, the whole Trump-ism thing... People watch politics for entertainment, and as much as it’s nice to see some entertainment in politics, it’s a serious thing! It is life and culture and our futures being mapped out in little five-year blocks. It’s shocking… it’s shocking to watch it at the moment. For anybody that's slightly grown-up the whole world must seem a very strange place right now.
I agree - it starts looking a little weird, yes…
And it’s shameful as well. It’s shameful that you see things happen that people don’t react to. Like in the UK this week. They’ve had a vote in parliament to not give poor kids free school dinners in holidays. They did that over the summer holiday but they’re not doing it over this one or the one at Christmas. The MPs have voted against that. But it doesn’t cost them anything to do that, in the big scheme of things. Somehow, amid all of this, their lack of humanity is shocking! They can’t look after the poorest kids, who, when they don’t go to school, probably don’t eat during the day. At the same time the UK MPs spent 12 billion on a contact tracing app that didn’t even work... Do you know what I mean? That’s shocking!
I am not getting party political here – this should be absolutely shocking to people. They should say, “Hold on a sec, all that money - where did it go? We want it back!” But of course it’s all gone. Who are these people they paid it to? Who are all these companies that suddenly appeared and said they could do it? That said they could make personal protective equipment? It's shocking! When it comes down to it, they can’t pay for kids to have school meals. This lack of humanity is mind-blowing, it’s horrible. This is not a world we should be proud of…
Next on Discover: in the last of three parts, Rokas Kučinskas invites interviewee Chip Wickham to talk about the future of the music industry in light of the challenges independent musicians are faced with. Wickham fills us in on the current role of streaming platforms and suggests an alternative system. Enthusiastically, Wickham discloses some of his artistic endeavors for 2021 and beyond.