It might be an exaggeration to say that Laroca make music like nothing you’ve ever heard before – but it’s pleasingly/confoundingly/ thrillingly impossible to describe their heady, uplifting mix of cinematic grooves, global beats, chilled moods and exotic funk.
Turntable culture and digital wizardy mix promiscuously with real instruments played live in the studio. Lush electronica and chopped-up 21st century beats fuse effortlessly with exotic gypsy flavours, tango rhythms and timeless Sufi soul. Chilled flutes and muted trumpets flirt wantonly with funky, choppy guitar riffs and brain-busting bass lines. It’s music that is one minute reflective and profound – and as playful as a new-born kitten the next. On Valley of The Bears, Laroca didn’t set out to defy the straightjacket of convention, simplistic categorisation and close confinement. It just turned out that way. Influences there are a-plenty, from Massive Attack to Gotan Project with a thousand musical stopovers in between. And yet Laroca still manage to sound like none of them. Rob Pollard and Olly Wakeford, the duo behind this rich, swirling musical pageant, met in the mid-1990s. Classically trained, Olly studied piano and flute at the Royal College of Music. Rob had a spell as a singer-songwriter type before reverting to the bass. Both then played together in various indie-rock bands. ”Clubbing and all the other stuff you do at that age” led them into electronic music. ”I think we were just excited by the infinite possibilities of the technology,” Rob says. ”We started with a cheap sampler and we got deeper and deeper into it, looping and layering stuff and working and reworking it. The classic bedroom set-up, really.” By the time they signed to Just Music four years ago, they had already spent five years ”looking at a computer screen and chopping up drum loops” as well as playing sporadic live gigs around their local manor (Oxford/Northampton), topped by an appearance at the Big Chill in 2004. Their debut album ‘Friends In Far Away Places” appeared in 2006 and its luxuriant mix of electronica, muted beats and global flavours was well-received. NME called them ”cinematic groove merchants” and amid the chilled, downtempo moments there was enough funk in the mix to attract the attention of Blues and Soul magazine, which called the album ”a magical piece of work”. Fast forward three years to the follow-up, Valley Of The Bears and it becomes swiftly obvious how much Laroca have matured and grown. ”The first album sounded like a lap-top bedroom creation,” says Olly. ”On this record we tried to capture more of the spontaneity you get from playing live in the studio. We wanted to sound like a band, although the cut-and-paste afterwards is still what shapes the final outcome.” The result is a seamless hybrid of live instruments and digital manipulation in which it is impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. ”We begin by working together to create the initial sketches,” Rob explains. ”Then we bring in musicians to work in the studio and it morphs into something else. Finally it goes back into the computer and becomes something else again.” The whole process was complicated by Rob disappearing off to China for a year in the middle of making the record. His imminent departure forced a highly creative focus in a hectic bout of writing and some urgent recording. The diverse crew corralled to join them in the studio included keyboards-player Matt Derbyshire and drummer Mike Reed (both of whom also play with Rob in Introducing, who are performing DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing” in its entirety live at various festivals this summer); Egyptian oud player Tarik Beshir and trumpeter Steve Preston from Oxford band the Brickwork Lizards; Ricky Fabulous (gtr) from Belleruche; French import MC Accord; sax player Johnny L from ska band the Nine Ton Peanut Smugglers and conga player Mr Smiff from the Breakin Even Collective. While in China, Rob spent most nights chopping up and mutating the raw material on his computer, ”taking out some of the clutter” and bouncing mixes back to Olly in the UK. On his return in 2008 – complete with a recording of the Chinese bullfrogs croaking outside his window which has also found its way on to the album – they finessed and fashioned it into Valley of The Bears. From the opening track ”Brassic” with its wild, lurching gypsy waltz-to-the-end-of time vibe via the mutant Afro-funk of ”Unit 125” and the fractured Gallic noir of ”Carpe Diem” to the jazzy shuffle and muted trumpet of the penultimate track ”Pluck”, it’s an album that conjures such vivid images that you’re left thinking ‘someone really ought to make a film to go with this’. Hollywood wouldn’t know where to begin. But a Kusturica or Almodovar, perhaps. ”Our one ambition was to make the kind of record that we ourselves would want to hear,” Rob concludes. There’s a growing crowd that already agrees.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Dave Knapik