Last week I was lucky enough to talk with Brian Leiser, otherwise known as ‘Fast’ from Fun Lovin’ Criminals. Fast, together with lead vocalist and co-writer Huey Morgan, has made out a career out of blending an eclectic mix of hip-hop, jazz, funk and rock to create a soundscape influenced by the streets of New York. 2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of their debut Come Find Yourself, with singles off the album such as ‘Scooby Snacks’ and ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal’ launching them into the mainstream. To celebrate, the band has started a European tour, which includes the Newcastle O2 Academy on 5th February. Here’s what Fast had to say:
So first off, what’s it like to be doing a European tour again and how does it compare to touring across America?
You know, we’ve always been touring, we haven’t played across Europe a while, you know we love doing shows, it’s what we’ve been born to do, to record music and go play it live. It’s just a great feeling to be playing music for people you’ve never met and they live in Slovakia or Australia, or York, and it’s amazing that after twenty years people still really connect with that album. Every show we play songs like ‘King of New York’ or ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal' or ‘Scooby Snacks’ they really like it but it’s great that they really get into songs off the later records as well. And it’s awesome that if you’re a fan of our sound, you kind of relate to everything that we do. There are fans that just like ‘Scooby Snacks’ but I don’t think they come to our shows. I think people that come to our shows it’s more about the ideology of Fun Lovin’ Criminals, and not taking yourself too seriously, and just enjoying good music that isn’t afraid to mix genres and all that. We tour a lot less these days but that’s just the nature of the biz’. We’re looking forward to this UK, Irish and European run, it’s just going to be fun to get back out. It’s the right way to pass the winter because as soon as we get back it’s going to be the spring, and then summertime hitting the festivals. It’s a really good time for us. We’re very lucky and blessed to be able to keep doing it after twenty years.
I would love to do something like that.
So you’re in Newcastle you’re a Geordie then?
I’m not a Geordie actually I’m just a student, I’m from down south!
Well Newcastle’s a great town, been there many times. An old merch guy, a friend of ours, is a Geordie and they know how to party up there, I’ll give ‘em that!
We wanted to get inspired by an old groove, even a sample groove, but then we play it, change it, make it our own
When was the last time you came to Newcastle?
I don’t think we’ve played there for years. I know we played close to there but we haven’t played in Newcastle for probably about five years. When we did the last record Classic Fantastic I definitely remember playing there many times. I remember it being a good time because I remember having a hangover the next day and not remembering anything! There’s something to be said for when you’re going up north and shows at Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh there always tend to be crowds that don’t take themselves too seriously, they just want to have a good time. But when we play in London…
…I mean love London I lived south-east of the river, but when you play in London, everyone’s either a musician as well or a critic, or everyone’s so stressed because they spend all their money living in London and that it makes it hard for people to let loose.
That's why I’m at university here because I love the vibe in this city.
It’s great going to university. I didn’t spend my four years at university. I did a year and a half then I moved to New York and got lucky, but it’s so nice to enjoy the freedom of it. Unfortunately, instead of going to class I would go to my friend’s who had a couple keyboards and a sampler. That was the education I preferred, but the school didn’t like that, so they kicked me out. My parents liked it because they didn’t have to pay the ridiculous over-the-top fees that they charge in America to get a good education.
It worked out well for you in the end.
I got very lucky!
It takes time to create something that’s gonna be timeless
How does it compare playing to an audience now to an audience twenty years ago?
I think if I could guess I’d say probably three-quarters at least of our audience at any show are people that were in their twenties, like us, when we first started playing ‘Scooby Snacks.' They’ve grown up with us, and the record. It’s seems we got lucky because the record came at a time when people listened to that album [Come Find Yourself] they get nostalgic about the nineties, as opposed to it just being a record that they liked at the time. It’s a record that represents a use, and like so many other records. I’m sure there’s tons of other bands that people can say the same about. But for us to have that album as part of that collection is just amazing. So, playing ‘Scooby Snacks’ or any of the old songs-or new songs-there’s not really a difference. We tend to play more the older material just because we like it better live. Unfortunately, out last few albums we haven’t really been able to tour that much for them. We’ll do little bits and dates in the UK and Europe and that’s pretty much it. So we don’t really have as many opportunities to perform new songs live. People understand that we pick so many different genres. We could play a song off our last album like ‘El Malo,’ which is a very groovy song, but why play that when a lot less people have heard it when we might as well play ‘I Can’t Get With That’ because everyone knows it? When we do our set-lists, we kinda go "alright well here’s what we’re gonna play, a slightly more soul, jazz song. Do we wanna play ‘Back on the Block’? Do we wanna play some other song from a newer record?" So it kinda always just ends up being the older material, not because it did better, but just because we love playing it. For us, we don’t wanna just play new stuff and especially with this being the twentieth anniversary we’re gonna come out, we’re gonna do two sets, we’re gonna spend the first hour playing all of Come Find Yourself and in the second hour we’re gonna play all the other songs people like. So they get their money’s worth. They’re spending all this money to come see us play, we’re gonna give ‘em their money’s worth.
You’ve mentioned this a few times now about the mix of genres. When you released Come Find Yourself what were your main influences, and what lead you to release such an eclectic mix?
I think the main influence would be living in New York and working at this nightclub, The Limelight, where Huey and I met. There was like five different rooms in this club and every room had a different genre of music. So there was usually house and dance music on the main floor, but there was a room called ‘The Chapel’ that would have hip-hop and would have reggae. Just through working at this club you heard and were exposed to this music, and through neighborhoods of New York, especially back in those days (not so much anymore), you’d hear all these genres of music blasting out the windows because you just had such a mix of cultures living together. That was the main inspiration man.
As far as when Huey and I started writing music, I had a sampler; I had a cassette of drumbeats. I just said to Huey "bring all your CDs" so he brought like fifty CDs. That was everything from Van Halen, to Buddy Guy, to Pink Floyd, to Paul Simon. He had such an eclectic mix. If you listen to Huey’s radio show (BBC Radio 6 Music, Saturday 10am), he’ll be playing Slayer, and then be playing The Bee Gees, and then he’ll play something else. Not having rules we were never a band that said” “let’s start a band because we love rock music.” We didn’t make any rules. We said the band’s called Fun Lovin’ Criminals, which was based on a graffiti crew that was multi-ethnic. That’s the kinda cultural connection to the sound. Whatever sounded right was cool and that was mostly old music.
When you play in London, everyone’s either a musician, or a critic, or everyone’s so stressed because they spend all their money living in London. That it makes it hard for people to let loose
You never found yourself constrained by genre or anything like that?
Never. Never, and to this day we don’t. When we write new music we don’t feel limited, but we don’t wanna be pigeon-holed into writing a song and going “ok this is the next ‘Scooby Snacks’” or “this is the next ‘King of New York’”, we just write songs. You know James Brown if you listen to his music, a lot of it sounds exactly the same but the lyrics are slightly different. The groove is slightly different, and no one grows tired of it. I could hear all his music all the time, and even though it sounds similar I’m not gonna not listen to something if it sounds the same. For us, it’s kinda the same formula when we write music. Every now and then, yes when we play live we may leave out some of the sequences and not play some of the sounds and we’ll just do a bass-guitar-drum rock song, or a rockabilly or a blues number. That’s what I think separates us a lot from a lot of other bands, and the only other band I know that did that were a band we loved, The Beastie Boys. They would come out and do hip-hop songs, just the three of them rapping, and then they’d come out and play their instruments and do stuff. I think they got a big influence from living in New York as well. Having punk-rock roots, and living in New York in the eighties, nineties and the influence of hip-hop, this new amazing genre, samplers, this new awesome technology, and the fact that they could play instruments. I think that’s why we get a lot of comparisons. That and three white guys for those who are as narrow-minded as that.
I think that rap should be open to anyone so long as you’re good at it.
Everyone! I loved LL Cool J and I love Run-DMC but then in the early nineties with like A Tribe Called Quest, they were really the ones and De La Soul, ‘The Native Tongues’ they were all called and the Jungle Brothers and Brand Nubian. They were just doing something so next-level to me, because it was intellectual, it was groovy, it was soul-inspired. They were raiding their parents soul vinyls for samples, and that made me really go "there’s something to be said for that". It’s really clever. Which then, when the corporations and all that realised they could be taking all the money, because it is old music they’re sampling fair enough. For us, we wanted to get inspired by an old groove, even a sample groove, but then we play it, change it, make it our own. Not just for legal reasons but that’s what everyone does! Watch any Tarantino movie there’s direct inspiration and influence from other movies, other scenes, other shots of movies. But yet you know when you’re watching a Tarantino movie, and that’s something with our music I think is very similar.
It’s interesting you mention that because of course ‘Scooby Snacks’ features some Quentin Tarantino samples, what was the thought process behind that?
We got our record actually before that song was even finished so, it’s amazing that the first and most well known song is a song that didn’t even get us a record deal. When I write the music I’m usually sitting at home, so I’ll be having the beats playing, it’s all instrumental music we always write our music first. I always have movies on in the background, usually with the sound off, but because it was Reservoir Dogs I was watching on a LaserDisc player, and I had the Pulp Fiction soundtrack because the movie just came out in theatres. I was playing Reservoir Dogs over this instrumental and the original-original version, that I sent to Huey, the whole song was filled with dialogue from Reservoir Dogs, and dialogue from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction. Obviously Huey said, “let’s lose a couple of these bits so I can put some lyrics on it” and we just got lucky. We didn’t have rules and back in the nineties you could still get samples cleared without them taking a hundred per cent of your publishing.
Once, Puff Daddy sampled The Police for ‘I’ll Be Missing You’, and Sting was like “cool, you know that’ll put the kids through college.” I think that was one of the things he actually said, so he owns that song. Puff Daddy owns very little of that song; Sting is making all the money. So that’s cool! Sting and the boys they wrote it. But that also set a precedent where all publishers and corporate-people in ties and sharp suits said “yeah, let’s just take all the money from anyone sampling, because they can’t come up with anything themselves.” They’re missing the whole point because they’re driven by money, where creativity is not driven by money. It’s just driven by this desire to make something new, not just make money off something.
when people listened to Come Find Yourself they get nostalgic about the nineties, as opposed to it just being a record that they liked at the time. It’s a record that represents a use, and like so many other records
It’s so hard to clear samples these days through corporations and all that.
Don’t take big things! Look back in the days when I first started sampling in the late eighties it was all about finding obscure shit no-one knew. And then, you got your Professor Green sampling a song from INXS ['Need You Tonight'], and it’s a huge fucking hit. To me, there’s no creativity there, and not knocking Professor Green. It’s like anyone, but for us it like you grab a sample, you manipulate it, you chop it up, DJ Premier is amazing at doing that. And it’s just a real clever thing that nowadays you can’t do as much because everyone uses a laptop. It’s funny ‘cause Fun Lovin’ Criminals Frank (Benbini, drummer), his younger brother Daryl has a bunch of different groups. One’s called Boy Kid Cloud. He’s so state-of-the-art with his laptop and his Logic software and all his virtual synths I mean the guy writes some crazy electronic music. He messaged me a couple months ago going, “d’you have an MPC (Music Production Centre) because I’d love to buy an MPC.” I love that, because he now has all the technology that makes things easy, doesn’t give you the idea, or the originality, but it makes things easy to perform it and write it. He now wants to go old-school, and that I love because I use it all the time.
Don’t you find using MPCs from the nineties a bit derivative, considering we have all this new technology and it’s there to be used?
I don’t think so because it takes time to create something that’s gonna be timeless. When movies are made like the new Star Wars film it was made, produced, all the effects in under two years, and that’s why to me I wasn’t blown away by it. I liked it, but I much preferred Interstellar which took years to make and get all the facts straight, do all the effects, and I watch that movie and go “I haven’t seen anything like that for years.” And that’s the difference. So an MPC forces you to slow down, to chop up, to put the sounds on different paths and ‘oh! a mistake,’ and you got something new that makes something timeless.
(At this point, the woman from the PR office, who was running the line, asked us to draw the interview to a close)
Well you’ve been great to interview, it’s been nice talking to you.
Thank you my friend, thank you so much for allowing us to do this.