Speakers Corner Quartet: “Sincerity reigns supreme”
This is Signing Off, our year-end series with the artists who defined 2023
In 2021, Speakers Corner Quartet, a relatively unknown band that had never released an album, achieved the remarkable feat of selling out the prestigious Barbican Hall.
Made up of musicians Raven Bush, Peter Bennie, Kwake Bass and Biscuit, the group has been a mainstay of the south London musical community for over a decade, frequently collaborating with like-minded experimental artists such as Sampha, Coby Sey, Tirzah, Joe Armon-Jones, Kae Tempest, Mica Levi and Shabaka Hutchings – and that’s only to name a few.
Though this iteration of the Quartet has been playing together since 2011, the band itself began to coalesce five years prior, in 2006. Biscuit and Kwake, two of the original members, first crossed paths as musicians for the house band for Speakers Corner, a hip-hop open mic night at Brixton Jamm – the renowned local event that set the foundations for their collaborative, improvisational approach.
This year, their long-awaited debut album, Further Out Than the Edge, captured their unique alchemy on record. Across 13 tracks, they never allow themselves to be confined to a single sound, with spiritual jazz effortlessly transitioning into experimental R&B; and orchestral ambient and spoken word dialogues comfortably sitting next to hip-hop production. As Kwake succinctly puts it, they’re just “trying to go further out than the edge”.
Crack: 2023 is nearly over. How does looking back on the year feel?
Kwake Bass: Mad.
Peter Bennie: Extreme ups, and extreme downs.
How did all of you meet?
Biscuit: There was a call out for musicians at Brixton Jamm for Speakers Corner. Loads of people turned out. What remained at the end of the jam was a cello, flute, double bass and drums. Raven joined in 2009, with Pete joining two years later. We would just meet, eat food and chat for hours. When we later picked up our instruments, it felt natural playing with one another. It’s more of a gang than a band – we’re family. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for these guys.
What do you mean?
B: My mum died and I fell off the wagon hard. I was lost, unfocused. The guys scraped me up and drove me back to London. The last song on the album, Karainagar, is dedicated to her.
You released your debut album the same day you played to a very packed Roundhouse, after already selling out the iconic Barbican. What are your reflections on these landmark moments?
B: It was a very, very special show. We worked hard. It was a lot of rehearsing – 17-hour days. It taught us that we need to keep going and never take no for an answer. You don’t know, after how many years, it’s going to come good.
At the Roundhouse, there was an incredible choral section at the end where every guest featured on the record came out and sang together. Was that spontaneous?
KB: It was structured improvisation. The last jam with everyone before the Barbican gig was over that beat. We took the main melody, applied the vocal line and had everyone just run with these lyrics: “Out there, in here, further back than the beginning, further out than the edge/ Out there, in here.”
It was a mantra.
And then you went off to Glastonbury to perform at the West Holts Stage. Was it you, Kwake, or Kae [Tempest] who spoke about jumping the fence 20 years ago?
KB: That’s classic Kae! It’s funny because on one level, that’s the vibe, but I don’t want it to come across that we were struggling to be able to do this shit, because there is a lot of privilege. On another level, it’s good to rile up the fact that it’s a gentrified environment. That’s why I said what I said at the end, even though I said I wouldn’t talk. I thought, “Let me just add to that.” All of what you’re seeing and hearing [with Speakers Corner Quartet] is real and a testament to what the band is trying to achieve. This also goes back to what Kae said – without being able to own that kind of rebellion, you don’t have the drive to be on a bigger stage.
Your next show is in Manchester with an orchestra.
KB: It was always part of the plan to do an orchestral album. For us, the opportunity has arisen a lot earlier than we thought it would, so we’re rolling with that energy and relinquishing control. We’re just trying to go further out than the edge. When you’re talking about jazz, you’re talking about survival in every sense.
KB: Resistance and a reaction to the diaspora. These are educated brothers being told that they’re fools – you understand? Through a musician’s lens, there’s a level of survival, so you can keep doing stuff and keep growing.
You’re still here 20 years after the quartet formed. Is that a testament to your resilience?
KB: A hundred percent.
What is the biggest lesson 2023 taught you?
KB: Sincerity reigns supreme.
B: Take everything we’ve got and be straight with all of it. We’ve had some success this year but we can’t let that get in the way of where this can really go.
What has been your favourite musical discovery of 2023?
KB: Jon Bap aka Maurice II, Léa Sen.
If you could describe 2023 in five words, what would they be?
KB: Further out than the edge.