Wu-Lu: community spirit, post-genre creativity, and rose-ringed parakeets
Miles Romans-Hopcraft can't wait to show you what he's cooking in his big mixing pot
Miles Romans-Hopcraft can't wait to show you what he's cooking in his big mixing pot
All is dulled until a flash of verdant lightning illuminates the imperious grey of the South London afternoon. “Have you seen these before?” asks Miles Romans-Hopcraft, aka Wu-Lu, as we dawdle up Brixton Hill. I have. The “these” in question are the rose-ringed parakeets, the green tropical birds that have made London their home over the last few decades, converging on St Matthew’s Square.
“Reckon they’ve been here around half of my life now,” says Miles, Brixton born-and-raised. “Apparently a pair escaped from a zoo somewhere, and just spread.” Electrically charismatic, he’s mapping out a proposal for a Dragonball Z tattoo on his achilles as we walk and talk.
In London, change is inevitable, and this is certainly evident as a pandemonium of parrots encircles our heads. No one really knows how they got here, but The Parakeeting of London by gonzo ornithologist Nick Hunt bristles with theories, each enlightening folk tale more tantalising than truth – they escaped from the set of ‘The African Queen’, Jimi Hendrix released a breeding pair of too-loud pets, etc.
It’s certainly amazing to see tropical birds making London their home, and as long as they’re not destroying the ecosystem – which, contrary to popular hearsay, they are not – then they’re a joyous addition. An enriching invasive species. But change isn’t always this welcome, and Brixton, and areas alike, have seen rents skyrocket. Generations of residents – and usually residents from minority ethnic backgrounds, at that – swept aside by “cool capitalism”. Generations of culture torn apart by property developers, and local family businesses replaced by eateries with names like “Bukowski Bar and Grill”. Gentrification? Plutocratisation? Fucking shit, that’s what it is.
Miles Romans-Hopcraft has lived in Brixton his whole life and has witnessed the area change. His first track of the year as Wu-Lu, ‘South’, confronts this and articulates the malignant disgust far more eloquently than I ever could: “Priced out forced change / More rent to pay.”
In an earlier interview he said: “It’s a feeling that your area is losing all the things that make it what it is: the smell, the look, the taste, and most importantly, the people.” The track has everything; urgent fingerpicking guitars, a monstrous feature from North London rapper Lex Armor, and a grindcore-scream meltdown.
“Yeah, I was angry on that track,” he tells me as we scramble up a ladder onto a roof terrace, a couple of blocks away from The Windmill. All of Brixton, all of creation, suddenly feels very far down – we are higher than the parakeets dare to venture.
“Driving. REVVING. It comes from an angry, angry place.” Miles cracks open a can of delicious Czech lager and points in the direction of the flat he grew up in. He doesn’t seem fazed by how high up we are, relishing the view of familiar settings at a whole new angle.
Wu-Lu is Miles Romans-Hopcraft, producer, multi-instrumentalist, tamperer, but he doesn’t make all the music on his own. He’s the head chef, with a cast of chefs de partie in the wings. “Sometimes,” he says of his compositional style, “it will be me, in my bedroom, with the MPC, getting all close. That might transpire into something I’ll show to the band – they might play on top of it, or incorporate it into our set.
“Or,” he continues, “I’ll get together with the guys, hang out, chilling and jamming in my studio, then I’ll go away and chop it up.
“Or, maybe, it could start as a voice note on the phone, a little sound, random stuff that will make its way onto my computer, and then become something.
“It’s a big mixing pot,” he grins, “and you wanna see what comes out the oven.”
It’s not just the Wu-Lu compositional process that feels like a big musical buffet. His musical influences were diverse before he could walk, and his output is a reflection of this. Miles comes from a very musical family; his dad, Robin, is a touring musician and producer, and twin brother Ben Romans-Hopcraft plays in Childhood, Warmduscher and Insecure Men.
“My mum’s a contemporary dancer, that’s her vibe,” he continues. “And my dad plays the trumpet, he’s in his own band called The Soothsayers with a guy called Idris Rahman. Me and my brother always grew up around music and creativity. It was always a positive driving force.
“Growing up we had a lot of Angie Stone, a lot of reggae and dub, hip hop and salsa, rare groove and afrobeat, and as me and Ben got older, we got into our own stuff. Ben went more indie, I went more heavy metal. Skateboarding and graffiti were the backdrop for my teenage years – I still skate when I can, but the injuries last a lot longer these days.”
Currently, Miles is sporting a hoodie from ‘Fela’, the West End musical. Obviously, I compliment it. “My dad and Idris did the music for the London run of the ‘Fela’ shows. That’s where I got this, I just nicked it off him.”
He often talks about DJ Shadow’s Entroducing as a seminal discovery, but his eyes are lit up when a litany of favourite artists are mentioned. Outliers like Mica Levi and Slauson Malone, Sorry and Pink Siifu are on heavy rotation, while he can count figures from the worlds of London’s jazz, rap and guitar music scenes as accomplices and collaborators.
Miles’ music takes all of this on board and spins out something entirely new – the grimy bleeding knees aesthetic of skate-punk meets lo-fi hip-hop, while he forays frequently into plunderphonics and textural jazz. Maybe a reflection of changing tastes, so many emerging artists today defy and eschew traditional notions of genre in favour of something far more patchwork. No one listens to just one genre anymore, and before me is a guy whose first record was either a jungle white label or Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, he just can’t remember which.
‘South’ was the first of a triptych of genre-hopping 2021 songs for Camden label Ra-Ra Rock that have shown Wu-Lu to be an artist finding his voice. It was followed by ‘Times’ in April and ‘Being Me’ in May, a welcome progression from 2019’s stellar S.U.F.O.S. EP. They were all recorded at The Room in Hither Green, a studio and rehearsal space that Miles runs alongside friend and mentor Kwake Bass; a real hub for music in the local area.
The latter two tracks are more reflective than ‘South’, showcasing a much more meditative side of Wu-Lu. ‘Times’ features primitive Sonic Youth guitar squalls, a rumbling bassline and a rattling drum performance from Morgan Simpson, Black Midi’s virtuoso sticksman, whilst ‘Being Me’ has phases of dream-pop euphoria swirling behind dense textural miasma. “‘South’ is like ROAR,” he says, doing his best velociraptor impression, “and then these recent two tracks are more like roar-aw-oh.
“Times is a bit more solitude-y,” he continues, “and then ‘Being Me’ is a proper in-your-own-head tune.”
To Wu-Lu, community is everything. His life and his output has been shaped by it, and he spends his time trying to give something back. “These tracks are all based around the perspective of a younger me,” he says. “Or a younger person in general, marrying a lot of stories together that relate to each other. Via youth work, and just growing up around here, there’s recurring headspaces and situations that I feel like need a bit of addressing.
“‘Times’ touches on mental health and masculinity. Not talking about it when you’re down and out. Covering things up with, ‘I’m cool, I’m fine, I got this’ energy. It’s kinda like talking about confidence, and that place of knowing that you’re not made of glass. When you’ve got it all out, said what you need to say, and you’ve got the shit out of your head that’s weighing down a lot on you, it’s fine. The world isn’t going to break.”
He regularly runs music workshops for local youth from tough upbringings – “That’s how I met Morgan (Simpson) actually. It was at a youth club a little outside of London, with Moses Boyd. A friend of ours, Nicole, wanted to put on a little masterclass. Me and Moses were having a little jam, and Morgan came on as second drummer. He was holding down really well so I asked him to come and play a few shows with us.”
Wu-Lu also boasts recent collaborations with Lianne La Havas and Lex Armor, but perhaps the standout of this kind in his back catalogue is a Nubya Garcia feature on ‘S.U.F.O.S. Pt. 1’ – the title track from his 2019 EP. The London tenor sax virtuoso embosses Wu-Lu’s winding musings with a silken sax line, astral in majesty. “She came in, did one take, and BANG. ‘Leave it like that,’ I said,” Miles recounts, almost awestruck recalling it. “I said, ‘in the next few years, you are going to fly’, and she did.”
Perhaps now, like many of his friends and associates, like the green birds perched on the Ritzy Cinema, it is time for Wu-Lu to just fly too. Underground success is something he’s achieved in abundance, but this wake of singles feels like the time for his star to rise.
“The first thing I want to do after lockdown ends is scream in someone’s face.” His eyes gleam. “Then I want to see the world and make artworks. And I want to bring all my people with me, and create opportunities for the ones after me, basically.”
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