After 12 years The Cinematic Orchestra are back with a new release – a powerful call for critical self-examination scored with stellar collaborations
It takes time to get things right. Having last released an album 12 years ago, The Cinematic Orchestra are back with a new release – ‘To Believe’ – a wistful, richly layered, strings-soaked collection of collaborations with some of the finest musicians working in contemporary jazz, hip hop, classical and electronica. Founding member Jason Swinscoe and long-time partner Dominic Smith are supported by artists such as Roots Manuva, Moses Sumney and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson across seven tracks, each offering a satisfying variant of the bands powerful, melancholic and technically accomplished sound.
All the songs, unsurprisingly, feel cinematic in scope and grandeur – swooning, hypnotic, transcendental. Opting for emotionally charged, abstract lyricism, the album resists offering definitive answers of ‘what to believe’, instead calling for critical self-examination. It seems to suggest that absolutist answers to that fundamental question often breeds division and hate. The stretch of time since their last release is characterised by the band as being comprised of “Births, deaths, success, failure. Money, drugs, temptation, rejection. Trump, Brexit, fear, hope. Art, relevance, pressure, belief.” Although not explicitly political, it’s impossible not to contrast the meditative quality of album against the current vitriolic political landscape in the UK and US.
The Cinematic Orchestra have their fingerprints across dozens of films, tv shows and adverts, have garnered half a billion streams – and although they’ve taken their time in the studio – have consistently been performing around the world. We spoke to Jason and Dominic about the benefits of taking your time, musical influences and the importance of live performance.
How did the collaborations come about and can you talk a bit about the process – what’s the give and take in musical partnerships?
The Roots Manuva collaboration obviously has history which goes back to our work on All Things To All Men, and it just felt like the perfect time to get back in touch. For that track, he listened to the instrumental for a couple of months whilst he was touring and literally walked into the studio and recorded his part. So that collaboration was building on familiar ground. In contrast, our friend Brian B+ who’s been instrumental in working with us on the concepts for the record, sent us a music video he’d filmed of Moses Sumney – Replaceable. He sent it to us early on and he was just like ‘this guy’ and we were both like ‘yeah!’.
Why has the album had such a long gestation period? What are the benefits of taking your time like this?
I think with all our records, there’s a sense of wanting the body of work to exist beyond a passing musical trend, which happens ever so quickly these days with contemporary music. Longevity is really important – we want this music to last forever. If the process of writing a new record takes time, then so be it. We wanted to push our musical ability for this album and together, rediscover each other’s creative patterns.
We also tried to hand-pick vocalists who are open to lyricism and metaphor in their songwriting, so that the layers of music become locked and intertwined. Finding those suitable collaborators who want to work together, rather than fight for an individual idea, takes real trust and understanding – both of which take time. We’ve always strived to have that mind-state in the studio, where people really do feel that they’re contributing to the conversation in music, not something which is individually motivated.
How has the musical landscape changed around you over the past decade?
Electronic music and club culture in London grew from an underground, critical movement, and over the last 10 years it’s turned into a huge commercial entity. People are also beginning to return to more serious forms of music like jazz, wanting a scene that provides critique. Listeners are looking back to music which is much more questioning, rather than simply dancing along with it and saying, ‘everything’s fine, nobody worry’.
Why are live performances important to you?
The live show and studio are very symbiotic, they inspire and inform each other. When you put some of the studio ideas on stage, you get an immediate response and feedback from the audience, you can see which parts of songs truly communicate and translate in real time. It means you can then go back into the studio and finesse, so it’s a real open development. Naturally, the audience will always let you know what is working. Our live shows are tightly structured, but have a lot of improvisation in them. They become interpretations of album tracks and allow the band – all of which are incredibly talented – to freely explore the dynamics in the music.
Who would you include in a list of artistic influences?
We often say there’s no music that we dislike, whatever the genre is. We can find inspiration in almost anything. A few that come to mind though – Bernard Herrmann and his string work, Bach, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s minimalism, John Coltrane is a big part of our soul.
How has our current social landscape informed the new album?
We definitely tried to address the things unfolding in the world around us, but at the same time, we don’t want to give definitive answers about what’s going on. We’re all grappling with the new landscape of social media and personalised broadcast, and unsurprisingly, some people are fucking it up a bit. It’s an important time to contemplate, to think more deeply, to be less quick to come to a conclusion. It would be easy to be negative about the technology that’s created some of the division happening at the moment, but there is a mirror moment here, where it reflects our nature. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from it and adapt. We’re just as bad as we’ve always been, but this is a moment in time where we’re revealing aspects about ourselves. Hopefully we’ll evolve from it.
To Believe was released by Ninja Tune on 15th March 2019