With his latest project Sowetan Onesteps' debut album out now, we catch up with the most prolific deep, soulful house producer of them all
You know where you are with chickens: they lay an egg every day, sometimes two. If only musicians were so reliable! Some artists churn out an album a year, others can go a decade or more between releases. But few are as prolific as Rurals and Peng main man Andy Compton, who's chalked up 30 album releases in just 17 years. Admittedly, that number includes albums he's produced for other people, not just his output under his own name and as (or as part of) The Rurals. But still, it's a hell of a lot of music!
Andy's latest opus is the self-titled debut album from his current project, a four-piece called Andy Compton's Sowetan Onesteps, which came out yesterday. So a couple of weeks ago, with spring in the air, we met up with Andy at a cafe bar on Bristol's Harbourside to find out more...
Sowetan Onesteps are… who, exactly?
"Sowetan Onesteps are myself, plus three South African guys called Shamrock, Bongani and Mpho."
How did you come to hook up with the rest of the band?
"By pure chance, really. I was playing at a gig in Johannesburg and Shamrock was the resident guitarist, and Bongani was the percussionist. The gig went really well, so I suggested we recorded some jams the next day. Mpho does some spoken word on the album, and he also helps deal with the project logistics."
The album was recorded over the course of several visits, is that right? Tell us how that worked…
"That's right, it was made over the course of several tours, mainly in the daytimes. Basically, I go to South Africa every four months or so, and every time I was over there I’d grab my computer, soundcard and so on, and head over to Shamrock's studio/home in Soweto to get some music recorded.There was no remote collaboration involved, it was all done the old-fashioned way with a bunch of guys in a room."
What should people expect from the album stylistically?
"It's a bit of a mixture of everything, really. It has deep house, Afro soul, some broken beat... basically it’s deep and groovy with a large African influence!"
It’s your 30th album… could you even say, without looking, what those 30 albums are? And do you have any particular favourites?
"No, is the honest answer. I do have them all written down somewhere, but no, I couldn't list them all off the top of my head!
"As for a favourite… that's like asking a parent to pick their favourite child! It's really hard, because I look at each album like a chapter in my life, so each one means a lot to me. But The Rurals albums Sweeter Sounds and Emotional Feelings were the ones that put The Rurals on the map, so they're a bit special."
Making 30 albums in 17 years is a hell of a work-rate… what's the secret behind your being so productive?
"I work fast! The two Rurals albums I mentioned above, for instance: each of those was written and wrapped in under two weeks. I've got ADHD, which means I get bored really easily, so for me what’s important ist just to catch the vibe. Most of the time, the first sound/chord I play is the one I go with: it’s like I empty my mind of any ideas and just see what happens.
"I don’t really do much editing, either: for me it’s important to get the audio recorded and to keep it all as human as possible. I normally spend two or three hours on the music for a song, then send it to a vocalist to work on. I've worked with other people, or seen other people work, who'll go to the opposite extreme - they'll craft and shape and sculpt sounds till eveything's clinical and perfect. And you can make great music that way, I'm not knocking anyone else's way of working, but it's not for me."
What’s in your studio, then, and what DAW do you use?
"It's mostly analogue gear: a whole stack of synths, plus guitars, FX pedals and so on. I’ve been using Ableton now for a few years, but to be honest I mainly just use if for recording the audio, I'm not into messing about spending days applying different filters and stuff. As I said, I like to get things laid down and then move on to the next thing.
"My MacBook is also very important, as it means I can be portable if needed."
Your label, Peng, has been around since 1999. How's that doing these days?
"The label's just me now, plus a designer, which is why I'm basically only putting out my own music. I was doing Peng Africa as well, with a guy up in Leeds, but it got to the point where sales were so low it wasn't worth doing. It was a shame, because we did quite well for a few years and helped to break some African artists."
Do you plan on keeping it that way, or would you like to sign other artists again?
"To be honest it's not really worth my signing other artists at the moment. If I had some financial backing then yes, I'd love to, but right now this is my living so I just need to concentrate on my own music."
Are you strictly digital these days, or are you still releasing physical product?
"Peng is digital-only now, except that we'll license the odd CD to Japan or South Africa. I was thinking about doing some vinyl again, but to be honest I've just had to get rid of 3,000 twelves from the back catalogue which were just hanging around. And we're reaching a massive audience now by streaming, so I think that's the way forward. I looked at my stats from our distributor, and for the last four months from iTunes Connect, Spotify and YouTube we had 497,000 streams!
"For me, I'm not focusing on the money, I just want people to hear my music. My mission in life is to make people happy with the gift that I've been given, so if I can get the music to people and get by with money from gigs and so on, I'm happy with that."
So are you getting paid for those streams?
"Well, we get paid for the ones through our official channels, obviously. But also YouTube has a recognition system now, so every time anyone puts up a Rurals track, our distributor picks up on it, gets YouTube to put an advert before it and they monetise it that way. I'll be honest, even for 497,000 streams we hardly get any money - less than 300 Euros. But we do get something, which is better than it used to be.
"Also we license tracks here and there, bits get used for TV background music, that kind of thing. It's harder than ever now, but we get by because we have a pretty decent hardcore following. We're also starting a monthly event at The Lanes in Bristol. That's what you need to do these days - get yourself a little slice of all these different pies. You can't just do one thing any more."
Back to South Africa… you tour there every three months, so does there come a point where it would make sense to relocate?
"No, not least because I've got two boys living in this country but also because I'm not sure I'd want to live there, much as I love it.
"And also, part of the reason I've been concentrating so hard on South Africa in the past few years is that I haven't been able to go to America as much. Now I'm getting my visa sorted out, I should be able to go to America again, and then I'll probably only go to South Africa twice a year or something. They really love my music in South Africa, they love the Rurals sound, but I don't want to get pigeonholed into making just that type of music. I want to do another boogie album, for instance, and when I do a DJ set I like to play soul, funk, disco, house, whatever I want, but in South Africa it's always just straight-up deep soulful house. So for that reason I'm going to concentrate a bit more on Europe and America again.
"I'm also thinking about doing another Acid Andy album and then taking it on the road - just grab a bunch of analogue synths and do it live. The wheels are in motion for that already: the album should be ready in three to four months and I reckon I'll have a live set ready within six months. So I've got a few ideas on the boil."
What else do iDJ readers need to know about Andy Compton in 2016?
"Erm… well, watch this space, cos I'm gonna be kicking some ass! I've got to a point now where I've been doing this for 21 years - my first release was in 95 - but I honestly feel I've got more energy than I've ever had. Because of the way I've tapped into positive thinking and worrying less, I'm working harder than I've ever worked. So there's lots more to come!"
Andy Compton's Sowetan Onesteps is out now on Peng Records.
Words: Russell Deeks