INTERVIEW

After the initial media frenzy of 2009, Egyptian Hip Hop went to ground and ditched the pop.

egyptianhiphop

When Egyptian Hip Hop started making waves in 2009, they were the epitome of the ‘Buzz Band’, a term replacing such previous accolades and tags as ‘flavour of the month’ or – such was the pace of the churning blog-machine of hype – ‘flavour of the week’. A new cultural phenomenon was in full swing and it was one that Egyptian Hip Hop was locked in at the helm, whether they liked it or not. Singles and an E.P were released, all to an ever-increasing wave of fevered hype. For some time they seemed omnipresent. At a frightfully young age they were sucked into the gut of the industry machine, chewed up – being offered a record deal from Universal, who disliked the album, fired the A&R guy that signed the group and sent the band on their way – and spat out with the same force and gusto they were initially consumed by.

At the other end of this journey they sit in front of me today, all the better and wiser from their experience and with a new record that their earlier material didn’t suggest they were even capable of creating. Time, it seems, has been more than kind to Egyptian Hop Hop. Signed to R&S records, the A&R man that had taken their talent to Universal had stuck with them and brought them to his current label.

I sit down with singer Alex Hewett, drummer Alex Price and keyboardist Louis Stevenson-Miller, a staggering departure from the band we met in September ’09, not surprisingly considering they were then school leavers. We meet in a bar nestled in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a fast rising kind of place that offers good quality beer at ever-escalating prices. “This area has become so gentrified,” says Louis.

Initially the most talkative of the group, Louis talks of his hometown of New Mills, a bizarre-sounding, time-lapse town that lies equidistant between Manchester and Sheffield. “We’ve been trying for ages to arrange a gig in a burnt down cotton mill,” he tells me, “but the guy is really health and safety conscious, so I’m not sure it will happen.”

Talk flies back and forth between Alex P and Louis about the odd creatures that live there, while Alex H quietly sips tea. “Do you remember last time I was there?” Louis asks Alex P. “That guy just rode his bike straight into me, shouting ‘Michael Jackson’ at me,” he deadpans. He continues to explain this increasingly bizarre sounding place: “Because it is equally as far away from any major city or culture, they just get everything really late, there,” he says. “People still had curtains (the ’90s haircut) up until a few years ago, and they only quite recently got chavs and because they are so far behind the times, they try really aggressively to fit in, so you have a lot of really angry chavs there.”

As talk turns from the League of Gentlemen-like New Mills to the band’s music, a role reversal occurs. Louis becomes silent, at times looking painfully bored and later on even whistling and humming to himself to fill the time (I’m later informed he has been rather ill recently, which may explain it), while Alex H suddenly sparks into life and seems endlessly content to talk about his band’s debut – and really rather great – album ‘Good Don’t Sleep’. By the way, the amount of times the word ‘mature’ will have been used to describe the album will be hitting five figures by Christmas.

From 2010 until now it seemed as though Egyptian Hip Hop had disappeared. No interviews. No shows. Nothing. As it transpires, during this absence Alex H became a touring band member of Connan Mockasin and subsequently Charlotte Gainsbourg for some time. So, did the oddball, wonky nature of Connan’s pop have an impact on EHH’s new material or writing process?

“I think the process is just so different, being a part of someone else’s band,” says Alex. “I was touring without the pressures and expectations of it being my own band. It’s not really relatable or transferable in that respect, so our stuff was always a separate entity. Besides, we had already pretty much written the record.”

When I ask if the album delay was label related, Alex P looks over cautiously at their manager who gives him the nod. He goes ahead to explain their flirtation and almost inevitable sour experience with a major label, albeit, one must add, that has ended up in a better situation for all. “To be honest, with the Universal thing, by the end everyone we knew there that had expressed an interest or believed in us had been fired or left. We’re really happy at R&S, they have a great roster and there is a feeling of respect and having a little more attention where their roster is a bit more selective.”

Like there was for certain people at Universal, for early fans of the band disappointment may loom ahead. While not only are previous singles and material dropped altogether from the record, stylistically it’s a vast departure from their rather surface-level entry, earlier material. The ‘next MGMT’ tag doesn’t apply here, and the album’s arguable highlight is rather a Brian Eno-like tangle of weird, electronic, almost dub-paced atmospherics – ‘Snake Lane West’. It acts as just about the most glaring antithesis possible to the earlier likes of ‘Wild Human Child’, ‘Rad Pitt’ and ‘Moon Crooner’. “I mean, you’ve heard it,” says Alex of the frustration of people wanting to hear old material. “You know it already, why on earth would you want it on something new? It’s even stupid from a value for money sense too.”

An undeniable and apparently invaluable contribution to the album is the inclusion of producer Richard Formby, whose handy work has transformed Wild Beasts from idiosyncratic, archaic oddballs into fully-fledged pop stars through his silky production skills. “We wanted Richard because he has covered all aspects and territories,” says Alex H. “He’s done weird experimental music, jazz, ambient and pop music like with Wild Beasts.”

“He brought a lot of analogue equipment with him,” says Louis.

“And he was just great to work with,” adds Alex P. “He allowed us a lot of room and flexibility whilst also being quite guiding and supportive.”

The album seems to exist in a state of flux between relative pop convention and breathy, ethereal textures. There are moments that resemble a more electronic-tinged bleak-meets-pop fusion of The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ or ‘Pornography’.

“I don’t think we specifically had it in mind to divide the songs up into ‘this one’s a pop song and this one’s a slow or experimental one’,” says Alex P.

Alex H continues: “Yeah, especially when we came to sequencing the album, we wanted a bleed between the tracks rather than thinking in terms of convention or in a calculated way.”

The desired effect has worked; in many senses the album feels mixed and – for want of a better word – floaty, as sonic atmospheres link the songs, creating a record that while varied and prone to experimentation, is remarkably coherent and complete. So fresh is their return to action that the band haven’t even really had time to play the material anywhere outside of the studio.

“We recently played a festival in Tunisia (pop in Djerba) but that was the first time we’ve played in almost two years,” says Alex P.

Ironically, the gap in which EHH have left since their last EP release is almost so long (in today’s music age) that any element of not giving a shit about a previous ‘buzz band’ has now passed and recycled itself into genuine intrigue again. “Well, I hope that’s the case,” says Alex H. “Knowing how fickle things can be, we did wonder if anyone would give a shit when returning with this album.”

Perhaps most to their credit is how Egyptian Hip Hop have coped with the extremities that come with buzz band boom and bust. They remain uncynical; perhaps more upbeat than ever. “We’re not bitter at all,” smiles Alex P. “We certainly don’t hold any grudges or resentment towards anyone, certainly not in the press. It’s just an unfortunate part of the industry we sampled. The rest has been great and we’re really looking forward to what happens next.”

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