x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Groove Armada song to get first road test at Sandance

Andy Cato of Groove Armada tells us about the band's unusual gig locations, collaborations with Richie Havens and his new affection for farming.

Groove Armada members Tom Findlay, left, and Andy Cato. Kristian Dowling / Getty Images / AFP
Groove Armada members Tom Findlay, left, and Andy Cato. Kristian Dowling / Getty Images / AFP

Only at the end of my chat with Andy Cato does the major revelation emerge. After a candid discussion about Groove Armada's best and worst gigs in Dubai, their work with the late, great Richie Havens and the wild and wonderful exploits that fuelled Cato's solo album, he announces an unlikely new direction.

"I'm trying to be a farmer," says the long-time DJ and producer, now residing in Southern France. "That's the plan, to be self-sufficient - the 'good life'. It's not always necessarily good, especially when you're trying to learn it all. But it definitely has its moments."

Agricultural pursuits are quite a change of pace for Cato, and you can understand the attraction, given how much time he spends in noisy nightclubs (and being six-foot-eight, he is nearer to the speakers than most). Groove Armada, the chart dance act he formed with a fellow DJ, Tom Findlay, in the mid-1990s, have performed in myriad exotic locales over the years, many of which are commemorated on Cato's debut solo album.

Times and Places is a collection of tunes he composed or recorded on the road between gigs, with suitably evocative titles such as South of Mexico City and Moscow to St Petersburg by Train. The latter track has a particularly spicy back-story, involving a gig in a basement club featuring dwarves, dancing swordsmen and, when Cato complained that the swordsmen were making his records jump, an angry promoter wielding a handgun. The beats that poured forth on the next day's train ride reflected a "relief at being alive", he admits. "It had been booked as a club gig but from the moment I walked in the door it was clear that you were dealing with the underworld."

A track recorded in Woodstock, New York, brings us on to Richie Havens, the great folk-soul singer who opened that town's legendary festival back in 1969, and went on to play at Glastonbury with Groove Armada 33 years on. The 72-year-old Havens died suddenly in April and his death came as a horrible shock to the British duo. They worked with him on several tracks, and had planned a more substantial partnership.

"The sad thing with him is that his live performance was absolutely unsurpassed," says Cato. "But I don't think that any of his recorded albums ever got close to capturing that. We had a few conversations about how we should do that one day, but never did, which is a regret."

Cato - a multi-instrumentalist - has particularly high hopes for one collaborative new track. Based around his piano riff and featuring vocals from another great soul veteran, Candi Staton, the as-yet unnamed composition "will be getting its first road test" during their DJ set at Friday's Sundance Festival. "I think it's a big tune, so fingers crossed," he says, evidently a little nervous about whether the international audience will share his enthusiasm. Having played in the region several times before, he comes with an open mind. "We've done some shows there where the atmosphere has been really up for it," he says, "but you do get it where there are too many VIPs and not enough ravers."

Almost two decades in, then, how do the duo deal with frosty crowds? Do they strive to win them over or stick to their guns?

"We've always started from the point where people work hard all week, spending a lot of money on a gig, so it's no use you trying to be too cool for school," he says. "We've always been well into playing music that we think is good. That doesn't mean it's got to be always underground. Just good."

As that Moscow basement proved, going underground isn't always a wise move.

artslife@thenational.ae

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