Owain Hughes is joined with the rest of his 10-piece band for their blasting instrumental album Topiary as Freshly Cut Grass. Combining jazz, funk, soul and groove, they have you moving to their tones and getting down before you know what hit you. Written and recorded remotely, the album captures the chemistry of the band which was never meant to be a long-term endeavour. To find out more about the band and the album, we sat down with Owain Hughes to chat about it and a few other subjects!
OSR: The band came together as a final performance at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. What made you stay together and record?
Hughes: Yes, the band was formed as part of my final recital at RWCMD. The recital had to be given online, so we had to record it all remotely. I was sceptical at first, but it went extremely smoothly. All the guys are super musicians who can read music (which is especially good for remote recording), and luckily Luke our drummer is a whizz at Logic and Final Cut. We’re all from different courses at the college, mainly the Jazz and Classical courses and when we put it all together it just worked. I knew this was a band I wanted to go forward with.
OSR: Your debut album Topiary is a groovy melting pot of sound. Was the sound you achieved what you were looking for when you first started?
Hughes: Yes, definitely. I wanted to be as musically diverse as possible and reflect my musical tastes. The album is a mixed bag of songs and instrumentals and I hope defies genres. I always think of the Frank Zappa interview when he was talking about his influences etc and he said he was listening to all kinds of music, but he didn’t put it all in separate boxes/genres, he just thought it was all good music. I am very happy that the debut album sounds like it does and it inspires me to go forwards now and write more music and not be too selective on style or genre. It’s all good!
OSR: With a 10-member band, what is your creative process? Does one person take the creative lead or is it more a joint venture?
Hughes: So, I write all the music, and then myself and Lee our vocalist work on the lyrics together. The music I tend to write out as we are all in different locations and as I said it’s good that the guys can read so they can grasp my ideas more firmly; they also have great feel, which is very important and they can add their musical personalities! We have also recorded some tunes of just me on a guitar for example and built it up that way, with no music written. The track ‘Life I’m Working On’ was written this way and it really shows how the guys think musically. We take different directions depending on the song, but ultimately the tunes need to sound authentic and I make sure that everyone has added their musical stamp to them.
OSR: How did you choose the tracks that make up the album? Do they have a common theme or are they the ones you enjoy the most?
Hughes: These tunes are a mixed bag and they are all the results of writing over lockdown. I had a huge creative spree during lockdown, I had to keep myself busy in the first lockdown especially and in order to get through those uncertain times. There’s no real theme they are just a reflection of my creative mindset at that moment in time.
OSR: The album was written and recorded remotely, what challenges did this present and how did you overcome them?
Hughes: It was a challenge initially, but then as we got into the process it started moving pretty smoothly. I think Luke had had enough of me by the end (laughs). I suppose some of the challenges were everyone having different levels of access to music software like Sibelius and DAWs such as Logic. There was a lot of cross-format stuff being sent that we had to keep an eye on! All in all though, once we got into the swing of it, we had a production line going on and it kept getting better every time! I take my hat off to Luke for being the wizard behind all the remote online stuff.
OSR: If people could listen to only one track on the album, which would you recommend and why?
Hughes: I would say ‘Funk Enigma’. The title sums the band up and so does the music. I describe the song as misunderstood funk in the introduction, funk that could go in any direction! This for me is the epitome of Freshly Cut Grass.
OSR: If the band were pack animals, what do you think they would be?
Hughes: (laughs) Interesting question! I asked the guys and they said all sorts of animals. I’ll just say a group of chameleons. As the music is always changing colours and textures!
OSR: What are the biggest influences on your sound?
Hughes: I am a huge Frank Zappa fan. I love how he was never bound by genre and composed for his band as if it were an orchestra. Also bands such as Snarky Puppy and Bela Fleck have really broadened my mind in composition and improvisation. I also really love great songwriting bands like The Grateful Dead, Steely Dan and The Band. Classical music plays a big part too, I really love the Romantic and 20th century composers as they have so many tools they used to push composition and harmony; over the last year or so I have been taking score study classes with an amazing tutor in LA called Steve Rothstein. This has definitely played a part in the sound of the band. I urge anyone interested in composition to check him out.
OSR: What would you like listeners to take away from the listening experience?
Hughes: I just want to broaden peoples musical minds. I’m hoping that there is something in there for everyone, whether you are a musician or not. I also hope that people will come away from it having liked something maybe they didn’t like before
OSR: What else can we expect from you in the coming year?
Hughes: The coming year, well….
As we formed over lockdown we will be booking in our first rehearsals and shows when it is safe to do so. I really can’t wait to get playing this stuff live with people! Also, I am currently writing the next 3 releases which will be an instrumental EP, a full band songs EP and then a more stripped back EP. I am also doing arrangements of music by artists we like and we are collaborating with them to produce a different take on their tunes; our first one is coming at the end of the month and that’s with the amazing bilingual Welsh singer-songwriter Kizzy Crawford.