UK producer Will Holland shot to fame as Quantic with a blend of lush electronic beats and fiery Afrobeat rhythms. Then a trip to Colombia changed his life and persuaded him to move to the country.
After years making live funk, reggae and cumbia influenced by his experience there, he's returned to the Quantic moniker and to the world of electronic music. But as he explains, that live Latin feel is still the engine that drives his sound today...
Whereas in many parts of Latin America it’s difficult to move without getting someone’s backpack in your face — or actually glimpse any of the landscape beyond all the cameraphones being waved around — Colombia, as Will Holland points out, is still largely off the beaten track for all but the most adventurous travellers.
“Colombia’s famous for having quite a violent past and being very politically unstable,” he says of the country he called home for six years. “People generally haven’t had it in mind as a tourist destination for 20 years because it’s had so much conflict, but that’s meant it’s developed without that many external influences, which makes it really interesting. But what surprised me was how friendly everyone was! You’re much more likely to be killed by someone driving crazily down a winding mountain road than shot by a guerrilla.”
It was a welcome as warm as the climate, that meant Will’s initial plans to stay for a year stretched out to six, until he moved to New York a few months ago. It’s also an experience that left him very much a changed man.
When he left the UK for Colombia in 2006, Will was best-known as the man behind the cut-up jazzy breaks and quirky broken beats on Quantic albums like 2004’s ‘Mishaps Happening’, and the lynchpin of barnstorming Northern Soul revivalists Quantic Soul Orchestra. Yet his immersion in South American sounds subsequently led him to collaborate with some of the continent’s finest musicians on the Combo Barbaro and Ondatropica projects, alongside making forays into tropical dub as Flowering Inferno and penning 2012’s ‘Look Around the Corner’ album of old-school funk with British soul singer and long-term collaborator Alice Russell.
He might now have returned to his solo Quantic project for the first time since 2006’s ‘An Announcement To Answer’, but Will’s new album ‘Magnetica’ still thrums with the life, soul and sound of the parties in the Colombian capital Bogota where it was mainly recorded: the very things that drew him there in the first place.
“I’m a record collector so I originally went there looking for records,” he explains. “I’m really interested in Latin music and got into Colombian music through finding old 45s, and got hip to the sounds that they were putting out. But those records are very difficult to find on eBay so you had to scour for them in the country.
I made a few trips after I’d been touring the US and in 2007 it just became convenient to move there. It’s an amazingly diverse country and Colombian music is just vast. It’s very wrapped in the folkloric identities of different regions. The main styles are bambuco and cumbia — accordion-led music which most Colombians would think of as their national heritage, and there’s a real sense of national pride in their bands.
That was one of the most interesting things about being based there and also recording in other places like Panama, Venezuela and Brazil — realising that there’s this whole alternative network of gigging and production that isn’t Eurocentric and is just doing its own thing. It’s important to witness this whole different world because you don’t get any idea of what’s really going on in Rio or Bogota if you’re in London.”
Travelling through that world led to Will meeting many of the artists that would join him in the Latin soul Combo Barbaro group and the sprawling Ondatropica ensemble of 42 musicians playing traditional Colombian grooves.
“It’s a really social scene,” he elaborates. “You meet people all the time or you’ll get recommendations from friends saying ‘This is a great baritone player — you should have him on this record’. You’re constantly looking for people if you need a really good clarinettist or something, so I’ve built up quite an arsenal of musician contacts.”
A few familiar faces from Quantic’s previous work appear on ‘Magnetica’, such as Alice Russell lending her mighty lungs to the sea shanty-style ‘You Will Return’ — “It was important to have Alice on the record because we’ve both gone away and done our own thing, so it was nice to come back” — and Nidia Congora from the Combo Barbaro adding her smoky tones to ‘Muevelo Negro’, Quantic’s interpretation of Colombian curruloa folk music.
But there are others such as Brazilian singer Iara Renno on ‘Caruru’s brass-splashed skank and septuagenarian Anibal Velasquez from the Colombian city of Barranquilla — who squeezes energy from both his accordion and vocal cords with the vigour of someone a third of his age on ‘La Callajera’ — that might be largely unknown outside South America but are stars on their native turf, meaning ‘Magnetica’ is an authentic portrait of Latin music rather than just an image seen through Western eyes.
“In Britain there’s this concept that Latin American music is this suave lambada smoochy romantic mulch,” Will believes. “But it becomes much easier to identify with once you’re actually there and see people playing this music in the flesh.
Then once you understand the language and know what they’re talking about you realise both the beauty and simplicity of the lyrics. There are songs that have been sung for generations and there’s a lot of innovation lyrically.
But what really attracted me was the fact that I’m really into Jamaican sounds like reggae and ska, and listening to cumbia I realised it was kind of the same. The bass and percussion is so heavy and it was very easy for me to get into this slow lilting rhythm because I could see how it related to reggae and dub.”
Will’s lifelong fascination with reggae’s low-end theory was most apparent on his two Flowering Inferno albums — 2008’s ‘Death of the Revolution’ and 2010’s ‘Dog on A Rope’ – which sounded like Latin love letters to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
It can also be heard booming through ‘Magnetica’ in the title track’s undulating bass and the spry digital dancehall of ‘Spark It’, toasted with the vocals of Jamaican don Shinehead, whom Will encountered in Los Angeles.
“I just love rhythm and bass,” reasons Will about his reggae obsession. “In music lessons in a Western school you’re generally taught that rhythm is just an accompaniment to melody. But then I started looking at it the other way round — where melody is just an accompaniment to a rhythmic happening — and reggae and dub are the epitome of that.
It’s all about a certain feel where melody is often encrypted in the bass register, which draws you in. I’ve been listening to a lot of King Tubby and the way you just get hints and pepperings of different melodic content in the sound spaces.
The interesting thing about dub is that it was really the prototype of this soundscape culture we now have in electronic music. Those were the guys figuring it out but they had to do it physically rather than with plug-ins — which I think is amazing.”
It’s to computers and plug-ins that Will has turned to produce ‘Magnetica’, although he admits that after years of working predominantly with live bands, he initially found laptops perhaps even trickier to persuade to do what he wanted than a room of live musicians. “The last time I made an album with electronic instruments was in 2006 and things have moved on a lot — it’s crazy what you can do with technology now!
In some ways it’s often quicker to just go into a room of musicians and say ‘You play this’, and that process can be quite fluid if you’ve got the right guys in the room. But patching stuff together on a laptop does mean you can afford to try different things that maybe you wouldn’t be able to communicate to other musicians, or try things over and over again rather than it being this photographic snapshot of everyone who’s learnt their parts playing what you define.
You can have this slow boil mentality whereas live it’s more hardcore — you’ve just got to have everybody ready to play and hit ‘record’.”
But for all the technological trickery in his technique, the live instruments on ‘Magnetica’ mean it still sounds like the product of human hands rather than microchips, something Will was keen to keep. “When DJs try to dabble in live music it often just doesn’t have the complexity for me,” he opines. “It lacks this musical essence and it’s hard to balance the two, but I really tried to integrate them.
I like to hear live instrumentation on a loud club soundsystem and I think it’s really nice when you can marry those two different worlds. When you look at what really makes people move the most, it’s often not this computerised techy sound but when there’s a human feel with the power of electronic music.”
Something Will has recently seen DJing in Bogota — “It’s a very mash-up culture in the clubs. Reggaeton’s probably the biggest sound, and the whole Diplo-esque tropical bass sound has leaked into Colombia as well” he reveals — and what he hopes to create with the new Quantic live show.
“The set-up is Ableton-centric and I’m using synths,” he explains.
“I’m going to have Nidia as the principal singer and I’ve got a Colombian percussionist and a keyboard player from the Quantic Soul Orchestra. I didn’t want it to just be some musicians playing over an electronic backing, so the idea is to present the new material and some older Quantic classics. It’s centred on being high energy with a lot of beats and visuals.”
It’s ‘dance’ music in the most literal sense of the term, as Will emphasises. “I have trouble with the term dance music because it’s just a marketing term for a specific type of music,” he says. “But I love rhythmic music and I guess it’s my approach to introduce music with that feeling, but isn’t mainstream into clubs where it wouldn’t normally be. I don’t really make music for chilling out any more.”
Having said that, ‘Magnetica’ does conclude with ‘Painting Silhouettes’, a psychedelic folk ballad which evokes lazy afternoons in the Warwickshire countryside where Will was raised more than carnivals in Colombia or the clamour of New York.
It has the wistful feel of an exile looking back home, and whilst Will is still fuelled by a certain wanderlust — “It’s something I’ve always done and I’d be doing anyway even if it wasn’t my actual ‘job'” — he says he moved to New York partly to make it easier to get back to his family in the UK.
Plus, despite all his time abroad, Will says he no longer feels like such an outsider in the country’s music scene. “Having got out of it for a while and then coming back to it, I think that maybe genres are less important there these days,” he ponders.
“Before I went it was very genre-orientated and people were very tribal about the music they made and listened to. That was why I left — to just get on with something else and not have to abide by some rules I felt were there — but now that seems to be breaking down.”
He’s never been a man to be constrained by borders, after all.
Quantic's South American inspirations
“A hip-hop artist from Chile with a tremendous following. She’s really original in her lyrics and her approach — very political with great sort of Dilla-esque beats. There aren’t many female rappers in Latin America and she’s really strong.”
“A group from Bogota headed by a guy called Eblis Alvarez. He’s a guitar player but he also sings and plays all these crazy instruments. It’s very Colombian but very modern as well, and I think he’s experimenting with classical music, so he’s got quite a crazy approach.”
“He’s a guy from Brazil who was very progressive in the '70s and he’s got a record called ‘All of the Eyes’ with a crazy story behind it. There was quite heavy censorship at that time and they came up with this idea for the record cover that just slipped under the censors.”