The Comet Is Coming on Trippy Technological Transcendence

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on March 17, 2019

The Comet is Coming’s music is as enigmatic as it is captivating. It is simultaneously impossible to encapsulate this music using the labels that immediately come to mind—psychedelic, Afrofuturist funk-jazz—and yet it is catchy and consumable enough that their tracks are being played on repeat. The London-based trio recently signed to Impulse! Records, and it’s easy to see that they both honor the label’s prestigious jazz roots (some of the label’s first signatories were Ray Charles, Gil Evans and John Coltrane) and push music forward into the beepy, boopy techno future.

By melding electronic music influences with funky impulses, the Comet is Coming’s music manages to sound as though it’s both from the past and the future, a feeling that the band’s drummer, Max Hallett (a.k.a. Betamax), says is no accident. We spoke with him as he and the rest of the band—saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (King Shabaka) and keyboardist Dan Leavers (Danalogue)—were preparing to embark on their first American tour.

Have you three been preparing a lot for the upcoming tour?

We’ve just done a whole bunch of rehearsing, which is great, actually. We don’t often rehearse. We normally just play. It’s nice to be able to learn some new stuff.

So recording sessions are improvisational?

Yeah, kind of. We go in with pretty much no ideas and then [record] as we go. You’ve got to be really open and start writing together. Improvising a lot [is] always good [but] you know that you’re making a statement, you’re trying to make a record. You’re thinking less like, “Oh, this is what the most fun thing to jam would be,” [and instead] trying to think like, “What is the next sound that is gonna happen?” It’s really fun. It’s full of surprises, and we just record as many things as we can. Then you end up with lots of stuff you can sculpt [and] edit down to make a record, trying to tell a story with it.

The Comet Is Coming has a manifesto that mentions “transcending” and “manifesting higher realities.” Is that part of the story you’re trying to tell?

We’re just generally interested in that stuff, and I think that music is really a good way to experiment with these ideas. I see it as a kind of tool of experience. I think music is really about trying to connect to an experience in a full way, and as a musician you’re trying to bring that to the listener as well. I think there are a lot of parallels with philosophy and truth and stuff.

Where our heads have been informs what we like to listen to and the states of mind that the music is bringing us into. It’s an expression of our intuitions, which is a quite sensitive instrument in itself. It’s fine-tuning what music does, what it sounds like. That’s all it is, really. What does it sound like and how does it feel, you know? If you can [explore] that honestly, then you’ll learn a lot about how you actually feel.

I think in a way that’s kind of our approach to making the music [and] the message in the music as well: surrendering to a feeling, an intuition, an understanding that there are important things in that space that need to come out. [Feelings and thoughts] that can be true.

With music where you don’t have any words, it’s like a personal interpretation. You can use the music. It can either be healing or it can give you some belief or something. [Ours is] music about belief and a self-belief. I hope that is kind of the feeling that people get from it. I hear it can give people some energy to just overcome something and be resilient. It’s that kind of power that excites us.

Somewhere you mentioned the matter of “life transcending biology.” Can you elaborate on that idea and how that plays into your music?

That’s the point in history where we are. We can start to see the rate of the evolution of our technology, our integration into it and the rise of AI and the actual direction of upward momentum that’s accelerating towards the future. This is known as the singularity, the point where life kind of moves into another form, [that] of artificial technology.

It makes you kind of think—what is life, really? Is it just information? Is it just patterns? If we’re going to live through that thing in our lifetimes and we’re going to live through a lot of steep changes because of the new world that is coming towards us, [if] it’s going to keep coming and changing, we need to have some kind of stability or some kind of cornerstone of principles for ourselves that we can use to navigate through as a world [and] also as individuals.

Do you feel like your music establishes a creation myth for this kind of attitudea foundation for the stability that we need for the future?

I think in a way the idea of creating myths about what is happening [aims] to make people aware, or [to] experience our world as myth—[it] changes the way we look at things. You can [see things differently] by projecting into space and projecting into the future in terms of imagination.

Maybe that itself becomes a safe place to discuss and imagine how to overcome challenges. The space is like a canvas: It’s blank so you can really project ideas into that, which can be political or psychological or musical, imagination and new possibilities, becoming open to the change.

King Shabaka said something about a “life-force energy” that comes through during these music-induced trances that you guys have. You mentioned projecting. Do you feel that an alternative consciousness affects your work or helps you out?

In a sense for me, [the life-force energy] is like being there in the moment and being present. If you can truly be present in the moment, you will get a lot of energy and a lot of clarity.

I think a lot of playing music is about trying to get into the right mindset to play to the best of your ability but also to play the right music that will somehow [have something] to do with you. You know what I mean? Somehow it’s relevant and it’s an impression of you. And if it isn’t an expression of you, then the experience isn’t right.

Like it’s disingenuous?

It’s still fun, but I think that after a while, all artists start to really wonder what they want to say. This album feels like a good, honest thing that we said. (Laughs.) That’s at least where we were at when we were making it.

What inspired the sound of this record?

Nothing particularly musical happened. I think it was more how life happened to us. I remember when we did the recording, we hadn’t actually seen each other in a while, and we’d been doing our own stuff a bit. It’s like everyone had been in another world, everyone had changed since the last time we recorded so [it was] just like understanding how the group [members] changed individually and how that affected the whole curiosity of the project and what it starting to sound like.

Then as we began to listen to what we were playing, we could see that it was heading into a sound so we started to follow it. It was a kind of experiment. And then through just following that kind of thing, we ended up making an album with what came out the other end.

That sounds almost divine, the way you describe it.

Yeah, it means that we don’t really have to talk about very much. We don’t really talk a lot in the recording sessions anyway. We talk more in rehearsals, but when we’re writing, no one really judges anything, everyone just tries to flow together. And then on the last day it’s like, “Right, we just need to do something different.”

Speaking about the end of the process of making the album, how do you feel about mixing and producing compared to when you are engaged in this sort of speechless, unified state of writing?

Dan and I will sit down and do the mixing and recording. And [during that process] there are two things going on. You’re really thinking about structure and some kind of narrative to make the thing make sense. But you’re also thinking about sound, so you’re thinking about energy in a different way. It’s very different.

I know it sounds really stupid, but we try to keep the same mentality of going with the flow [throughout the process], and it becomes a deep process as well, even the mixing. Even though it’s more tedious and pernickety, if you’re engaged with it as [being] another kind of creative task, then you have to be very sensitive to how you’re feeling when making something.

Do you feel like those processes take more of an awareness of the end-goal than writing the music does?

Yeah, exactly. It’s a bit like making a movie, I imagine. You have to create meaning through the timeline, you have to bring out that meaning. Sonically as well, you can really push it and see the effects and changes to the music.

It’s really so much fun. It changes the way you play music as well because you know what the second process is going to be like, and you’re a bit more aware of how it sounds when you mix it. It definitely opens up other ways of playing. When you play live, you’re trying to project, so you can’t do so many detailed things. [Whereas] we made the record imagining people listening to it on headphones, you know? Kind of in an intimate way.

How important are visuals to what you guys do as a band, both in music videos and live performances?

We’ve had the pleasure of working with some great filmmakers. I also helped make one of the videos too. I used to be a film editor as well, briefly, [so] there’s a lot of crossover. Essentially it’s a timeline-based art form so you [work with] a series of events. I know a lot of editors who are also musicians, and it does cross over, I think, just like any creative stuff.

When we do our live show, we tend to not have projections. We go more for lighting and stuff like that. For the type of thing we’re doing, we don’t want people to go into a kind of state. It can be quite hypnotizing when you watch visuals at shows, and I do love it, but I think that for what we’re trying to do, we realized that we need to keep people in the room. (Laughs.) I’ve seen it. It’s great, but we just hypnotize the whole room, and then it’s, like, gone. [So instead we use] flashing lights, lots of strobe lights, to keep people focused.

How are you feeling about the upcoming U.S. tour?

Super excited. It’s gonna be so much fun. I say slightly stressed as well because we’ve got to get visas in time for some of the shows, and it’s really down to the wire. For some reason this always happens playing the States: We don’t get the visas sorted out in time so that’s a real stress, but it’ll be a big payoff if we get them in time. We’ll be coming back to the States more and more because our label is based there.

What city are you looking forward to playing the most?

I think we’re all really excited about going to Los Angeles since we haven’t been there as a band before. There are lots of artists we like who live there. I’m really interested to see more of the States and meet the people. I’m interested to hear how [our music is] received [in America] because it really is such a rich musical landscape in the States, you know? It’s a real honor to come and play there. Just to see how it goes down will be really interesting.

Charlie Tetiyevsky is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Find them on Twitter @charlie_gfy. Photo credit: Fabrice Bourgelle.

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