Interview: Jagwa Ma at the Crown Courts


Written by Nick Harland
25 Wednesday 25th June 2014

Now, the group are back in the UK and back in Bristol for their third appearance in the city. Tonight, The Old Crown Courts are the venue for this leg of the Nokia Lumia Live sessions, a series of intimate gigs that place up-and-coming artists in off-kilter venues, with tickets only allocated to lucky lottery winners (and lucky members of the press, obvs). It is on the eve of this special performance that we caught up with the band to discuss dinner tables, The Simpsons and university cafeterias. Oh, and a bit of music too.

Though the influence of the 90s Madchester sounds is prevalent throughout their record, the trio are enthusiastic when speaking of the musical standing of Bristol and the influence that it has had on their music. “We love the music here” says bassist Jack Freeman. “My uncles and cousins live here, so I've been coming since I was five. I've always loved Bristolian music, like Mark Stewart and The Pop Group all the way through to trip-hop. When we were growing up we were very much aware of Bristol's musical presence.” Beats and synths man Jono Ma agrees. “Massive Attack and Portishead..were HUGE!”

Although they may have worn that Manchester influence on their sleeve, they see the Bristol sound – and particularly that famous trip-hop sound of the 90s – on an even keel with similar scenes in the likes of Manchester and Liverpool: which is testament to the long-lasting legacy of the aforementioned groups and the influence they still hold over new bands today. Tonight's gig seems a continuation of not only the attitude of Bristol's musical forefathers, but of the aesthetics of the city itself. The Lumia Live sessions tap into that Bristol vibe by turning an old, disused courtroom into a live venue and inviting one of the hottest new bands in the world along. Yet playing such a small, quirky venue such as this may be seen as a bit of a comedown for Jagwar Ma, having just returned from playing to massive festival crowds at the likes of Primavera and Field Day. Not so.

“I love all of it” frontman Gabriel Winterfield enthuses on the question of whether they prefer playing in the bigger venues or more intimate shows. And increasingly it seems to be the former that the group are playing to. Over the past year or so their slow-burning rise in popularity has been striking: it now feels like the whole world is slowly getting to know them. So do they feel the same about their increasingly rapid ascent?

“We see it first hand” says Gabriel. Jono adds that it's 'quantifiable': “We've just seen the crowds get bigger and bigger. It's kinda refreshing, like a direct result of playing live. Every time we play a city and go back there again, the crowd doubles. The record came out over a year ago now, and it feels like the energy of playing a show is getting people to have a really good time, tell their friends and get them to come next time. It feels quite old school in that sense.”

It is not just the size of the crowds that has been increasing – it's also the size of the reaction. Jono says that again, it's something that the three of them see themselves. “The first time people will enjoy it, they'll be watching and listening quite attentively, then the second time people will be singing and then the third time they'll be singing and dancing and jumping on people's shoulders.”

One place they will be returning to this month is Glastonbury. Gabriel describes it as an 'honour' to be asked back. After all, it is rare for bands – especially for bands so young – to be playing there two years on the trot. And Lollapalooza is one major festival they've yet to play, but they're heading there later this year – somewhere that Gabriel has wanted to go to 'ever since that episode of The Simpsons.' It seems more and more boxes are being ticked as Jagwar Ma jet-set around the world – things that other bands of their age would only dream of crossing off so young.

Despite their obvious excitement at a US tour in the pipeline, previous visits across the Atlantic have been mixed. “We once played the cafeteria of a uni” Jono explains. “There was a juggling club outside, and the support band was the official uni jazz improvisation band.” Jono describes it as 'probably the weirdest show we've played'. No mean feat, considering tonight's venue. “But then we played the next night, like an hour away, to quite a few thousand people, which was weird. So you can never tell.”

Yet here in the UK, London in particular has become an adopted hometown for the three of them. Their euphoric set at Field Day – a bit of a watershed moment for them - was much more than just another festival. “It was really bizarre” says Jono. “Playing Field Day felt like playing to our home crowd.” Yet Jack is keen for them not to start feeling too at home in the capital: “We don't wanna say that too loud, or else people in London will be like 'Hey, this isn't your fucking home!'”

After over a year on the road, attentions now must surely be turning to album two. Gabriel was coy, but adamant that they knew where they were headed. “We've got ideas. It's kind of exciting. We were working out our identity in the first album – Jono and mine's writing relationship was growing as we were writing the record. And I think we've hit out stride. It's exciting!”

Exciting is the one buzzword that keeps popping up in our conversation, and it's a fitting one. Tonight feels like the perfect marker between their huge recent gigs and the new territory that they're set to explore. Returning to their roots tonight to play a sweaty gig in The Old Crown Courts, you can't help but think that it may be one of the last times that we're afforded the privilege of seeing them in a space such as this. Jagwar Ma are on an upward trajectory – catching them before they head into the stratosphere is simply a must.

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