Michael Slater: ‘Octave Inc like to get loud’

Octave Inc are often described as a ‘jazz-pop’ band, but I don’t get it. Yes, there are pop elements in their music, particularly when it comes to the structure of their compositions, but what they do is definitely present their own take on the modern ‘electric’ jazz idiom, as it is championed by acts like Go Go Penguin, Portico Quartet and BADBADNOTGOOD, which they state as an influence. Octave Inc have a very balanced, full-bodied, meaty sound, with ‘soft’ touches here and there; they play a lot with space, adding ambient elements to the ‘fusion’ mix. Having just released their debut album, the quintet is currently on a tour around Australia, which is a greta opportunity for an interview with the band’s saxophonist and co-leader Michael Slater. 

What is the Octave Inc backstory?

The current form of Octave Inc has been around just over a year. The band was originally formed by myself and our guitarist, Andrew Jeon. Andrew and I met in a music store, where I was tutoring saxophone at the time. Andrew was buying equipment and we hit it off. We started having little duo jams at my place and songs were created that needed more instruments and Octave Inc was born. The name ‘Octave Inc’ was thought through by chance. In no way, shape or form did I want to be called the ‘Michael Slater Quintet’. I wanted people to know us as a band. I knew I wanted the logo to be an octopus (it was already created by the incredible Sydney artist Cathy Lane) and so Octave Inc was created. It’s much more a play on octopus and their ink rather than octaves in a scale, but I thought it worked well across both fronts.

What are you presenting at your current tour?

Our current tour is our debut album tour. We have a self titled, 11-track album that we are stoked about. We are presenting a majority of songs from the album, a few tunes from our two previous EPs and a load of new stuff, with a couple of killer standards in there for good measure: ‘Sing a Song of Song’ , ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’, etc. The tour is going well, we just kicked it off recently at Django Bar in Sydney. We’re headed to the Blue Mountains next and then off to Brisbane and Melbourne. People should expect a more rock/pop heavy jazz set.

If you are interested in a little bit more of a jazz fusion vibe, we have that covered for you. We like to get loud, a little bit wild and set the groove from the very first tune.

How would you describe your sound?

I would describe us as a jazz fusion band. We tend to play more towards the rock/pop genre than traditional jazz genre. All the guys in the band have different musical backgrounds and it creates one hell of a good time when we come up with new tunes. I love playing around with just a few chords underneath harmonic melodies that float on top. I’m a big fan of tempo changes, groove changes, etc. I like to break the tunes up into sections that allow the melodies and harmonies to breath rather than confine them to one set piece. I also love to mess with effects on sax and effects in general across the band. I think it adds elements to playing that you would not otherwise get, or hear, in a traditional jazz quintet. We don’t overdo it, the use of fx has to be subtle, but it can be a real effective in certain sections of a song. From delay to harmonies to loops and reverbs; we like to experiment with our sound.

What has been the greatest challenge you faced while making your album?

I think the biggest challenge was playing live. We wanted to record all in one room, all in one take. Rehearsals were quite stressful leading up to the recording, because we knew everything needed to be perfect. Some of our tracks are ten minutes. You can’t muck up nine minutes into a tune. There was a lot of pressure there.

What is the album’s narrative?

Without intending, the album turned into a seafaring concept. We did not mean for that to happen, but the tunes we wanted to record and the way the album flowed in, turned into that. We wanted to try as much as possible to capture our live sound. We play big, honking sets and we wanted to recreate that as much as possible in the studio.

How do you see your place within the Australian jazz ecosystem?

The Australian jazz scene is really hip, there is so much diversity in it. I think we fit in there somewhere, in that post-modern, indie type of group. We want to push the boundaries on sound and free form solos while still sticking in the jazz roots. I’m originally from Nashville, TN in the U.S. When I moved to Australia in 2011, one of the first things I did was buy music from Aussie jazz artists. Evans, Nock, The Necks, etc. are in my ears often. It was important to me to immerse myself as much as possible in that Australian jazz culture. It is different than back home. There are many traditionalists back home (there are many futurists as well) and I think the one thing Aussie artists do best is push the envelope. We like to think we are part of that group that will push jazz and Australian jazz forward.

What are your influences?

The biggest influence for the band are the Yellowjackets. I love their sound, their tone, harmonies, melodies, etc. I could go on and on. We love 70s/80s Miles Davis. Bitches Brew is my all time favourite album. I come back to that one a lot. The sounds, the feel… those guys got it. Other influences are Kamasi Washington, BADBADNOTGOOD, Grover Washington, Snarky Puppy. We are big fans of creating soundscapes more than traditional ‘head, solo, head, finish’ type of tunes. We want to create an experience with each track. These guys all create experiences.

If you could invite anyone – no restrictions whatsoever – to be part of the band, who would that be?

Clarence Clemons. I know this might be a strange choice, but I have been compared to Clemons many times. I play in indie pop/rock/synth groups Ernest Ellis and Shining Bird. I try to reincarnate Clemons as much as I can with those bands, because that is what they call for. But I have been a big fan of the Big Man for a long time. I love his his big, bold sound. He owns the saxophone and it is something I always strive towards owning the instrument. I would love to jam with Clemons.

How did you get into jazz?

I first started playing jazz when I was in year 9 of high school. My high school had a big band that rehearsed after school twice a week. The great Jim Williamson led those groups and he was a huge influence on myself and my improvisation. I remember early on, I was playing a first tenor part and there was an improv solo, of which I had never improved before, and he told me to make something up. So I did. And he looked at me and said: “that was great! now do it again in the right key!” And boom, I was hooked. I went home and listened to jazz intently. Started to practice scales and modes over chord changes so Mr Williamson wouldn’t get upset again. My private tutor at the time, Ken Ozimek, had me play through the Charlie Parker Omnibook and I just took to jazz. When I went to university, I focused more on classical saxophone but even modern classical saxophone music is pushing that genre forward and I took away many concepts from that idiom and relayed that into my own jazz work.

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz is me, jazz is everyone, jazz is rock and roll, it’s hip hop. Jazz is not chords or improvisation; jazz is your heart and soul in sound form. Jazz means hope and fear to me, all at once. That anything is possible and nothing is ever certain.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

BADBADNOTGOOD – Confessions, Pt. II (ft. Colin Stetson)

Octave Inc are currently on tour around Australia. They are playing at Aunty Jack’s in Katoomba on Friday 30 November, at Doo-Bop in Brisbane on Thursday 6 and at Lido jazz room in Melbourne on Friday 7 December