In an exclusive chat with the British soul icon, we chat about his life, his career, and his love of music.
It’s 6PM on Tuesday evening and I can’t get Skype to work. Normally, if Skype isn’t working I’m not bothered: it means less people can annoy me at work with mundane questions.
But tonight is different. Tonight I’m supposed to be interviewing British music legend Jean-Paul Maunick, better known as Bluey from the group Incognito.
It’s an inauspicious start to the interview, but once we’re connected Bluey is thankfully too kind and forgiving to be bothered by my ineptitude.
When I spoke with Bluey he was in the middle of another successful tour of the United States, and he was enthused by the reaction Incognito had received: ‘America a is a total success at the moment, it’s like the gigs we’ve been doing, the moment we finish a concert they want to re-book, they want to kind of have more dates than we’ve done. I never thought I’d be, at time in my career, on a crest of a wave.’
And what a career it’s been. First formed in 1979, Incognito emerged from the group Light of the World: when the group split, half went to form Brit-funk specialists Beggar & Co, while while Bluey and Paul “Tubbs” Williams formed Incognito, perhaps one of the greatest British bands of all time.
Not that Bluey ever thought the group would go this far. ‘When you’re younger 40 years seems so far away,’ he says. ‘In terms of a career, you don’t even think of living that long, you know, let alone being in a successful band and being in such a creative mood and having that energy.’
‘I remember when I stopped playing football I thought I would play football forever. But my body hasn’t allowed me to play at the level I used at, I can still kick a ball for 10 or 20 minutes, but I can’t play the game I used to. But with music there is no limit.’
‘I feel I’m more creative than I’ve ever been, I want to play harder, more, I want to get into more instruments, and my ideas of arrangements are just taking me somewhere else where I never expected to be. So, you know, it’s a very giving thing the music world.’
Bluey has certainly made a name for himself in the music world. Not only has he released and produced 18 albums with Incognito, he’s worked with anyone who’s anyone in the soul world. You name them, he’s probably played with them, and it’s something that clearly still excites him all these years later.
‘What you have to realise is, I’m just like this music fan, this music nut who collects recorded from a young age. I was the kid who sat in class drawing pictures of Stevie Wonder on keyboards, George Duke on keyboards with the mics in front of them and they’re both singing.’
‘Then I’ve got Chaka Khan in the middle, as my cousin had the new Rufus album. I had Steve Gadd on drums. Me and George Benson were playing guitars and sharing vocal mics. You know, fantasy stuff. And the only the person in that picture I didn’t end up working with was James Jamerson from Motown who had died. You know, all the rest, Benson, George Duke, Stevie Wonder I’ve worked and recorded with all of them.
‘So for me, I’ve been living that dream, that reality’.
Since their formation, Incognito have become synonymous with British soul, funk and jazz. They’re about to celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, plus they’ve got a new album out, Tomorrow’s New Dream (spoiler: it’s very, very good).
The new album boasts many collaborations, including a brilliant duet between Maysa and Phil Perry. As it turns out, Bluey’s admired Phil Perry since he was in the R&B group The Montclairs.
‘I mean around 1972, ’73, I was at this guy’s house because my cousin wanted to go somewhere and buy weed, and I remember I was a kid, I tagged along and it was all mystery going into this building, and meet this guy and he’s gonna give him this thing. And when I ended up going there they put me in this room because I was a kid, and they said “Sit here” and they put on a record. The record was by The Montclairs, and it had such a massive effect on me. The guy came back and asked do you like this, and I said “Can I put it on again?” And he was like “Woah, this kid is into music”. I left there thinking “Man, it’s like human beings can sing like this! They can hit those notes, they can make you feel this way the feeling I’m feeling right now”, and [since then] I always wanted to surround myself with great singers.’
And if recording a new album with such great singers wasn’t enough, Incognito are also playing a special 40th anniversary show at the indigo2 in London. With such a special anniversary, can we expect any surprises?
Well, firstly, Maysa is back with the group. After spending a year as a singer with Stevie Wonder, she met Bluey in the early nineties and became the group’s lead singer for a while. Now, she’s back recording and performing with the group. Her return is something Bluey is thoroughly enjoying and enthused by, going to far to say that when he discovered her, ‘that changed my life completely as a songwriter, as I had finally found that singer who could take my songs worldwide.’
As for any more London surprises, Bluey is playing it coy.
‘I think there may be one or two [surprises], but it’s mainly the fact we’ve got Maysa back and she hasn’t done the London show with us for quite a while, and we’ve just been doing this America tour, and we just enjoy each other’s company so much I may just keep what’s really working for it, you know. Rather than try to kind of bring on people and it’s always taxing and always worrying, and I don’t know what’s going on until it’s all over, and I think “Wow, I’m glad we got that over and done with”. I want it to be more present in the situation this time. So I may keep it more tight, more storytelling, more, you know, giving about the history of Incognito.’
That history of Incognito is really Bluey’s life story. While members and collaborators have come and gone, Bluey has always been the heart of the group, surrounded by handpicked, talented musicians.
It’s a role he seems completely happy with, as he says, ‘For me, it’s a strange life. Not many can have that in their lives. Only a handful of people that this happens to, and I’m one of those people. I always wake up and think I need to pinch myself, what have I done, I’m not of that level!’
As Bluey tells it, he’s been a very lucky man. But it’s certainly more than pure luck that he’s one of the greatest musicians and producers Britain has to offer. He’s still a fan of these greats, but he’s also one himself.
He’s also incredible humble, and his lack of ego is refreshing in the modern world. At one point during our interview he even described himself as an ‘average guitarist’. In the traditional British, self-deprecating style, it’s never about Bluey, but the people around him.
I suggested that, apart from being an excellent musician, producer and songwriter, his real talent is that he’s able to find the talent in others.
‘I’m good at putting people together’, he agreed. ‘I’m a better record producer than I am anything else in my life. One of my successes, I’ve always understood that you should surround yourself with people that who are better than you, who can elevate your game and who find, by being that humble about it and having knowing that’s helping you, in turn, because that’s your truth and you’re living your truth, that’s going to resonate with them and going to feel like “I want to work with Bluey, he’s going to give us that space, he understands my voice, he’s listening to me, he heard me tell that story and he’s written it in a song. He’s given me that lyric because he knows I’ve lived this”. That’s my success, that’s what I’m good at.’
We then turn to the success of Incognito. Where other Brit-Funk bands of the seventies and eighties have either split up or focus on touring, Incognito have released several albums this decade alone, each to critical acclaim. Unlike other band leaders or musicians, Bluey is not content to let Incognito simply become a touring nostalgia act.
‘The thing is you cannot rely on something which you did which was successful back in the day. You know, that means you stopped living your life at some point. or you’re resting on your laurels, or something. I don’t feel that way. I feel that every year there are new things to be said, new stories to be told, there are connections to be made. There are generations that are inspiring you.
‘I’m living at a time where there are people like Thundercat around, when I’m listening to Hiatus Kiayote, so these are rich times for music. You don’t need to be emulating them, but you feel inspired and you feel like you have to have your voice.
‘One of the things, well part of it is luck, but part of it is also what you strive for. We created a sound. When you hear something that opens up a tune and you go, ‘Oh that’s Incognito’. When people say to me on this new album, “Right from the opening bars, I knew that was you guys”, I think to myself okay, I don’t even know what that is but you recognise it, but it means that we have a vocabulary, a language, and that is what sets successful bands apart from non-successful bands. People understand your vocabulary, your history, they want to be a part of it. it gets to a level where people don’t really need to go to listen to your new album to go and get it, because they know it’s going to be of a certain standard. They know there’s going to be stuff in there that is part of their lives, and that is rich and feed them.’
And it’s not just the old fans that Incognito continues to please, the group has a legion of newer, younger fans coming out to see them.
‘The people that used to listen to our music back in the the nineties, the people who listened to “Still A Friend of Mine”, the people who went clubbing with” Always There”, they played it at home and their children and grandchildren are coming to my gigs now.’
At this point I confess to Bluey that I’m one of those children (I even took my Mum and Dad to see them at last year’s performance at the Roundhouse).
‘There you go! You’re the reason why we’re still existing and have a purpose in life. Knowing that people like you are in the world, I surround myself with great musicians. When they play you stuff that at home, or your mother in the womb, you become connected with it and I make sure I keep feeding people those vital things. For me, it’s vital as I’m eating food but I also, I buy £100 to £200 pounds of records a month. You have to [buy them all] – it’s part of your drug!’
We return to Bluey’s musical upbringing, and in particular about the songs that he has covered with Incognito. After all, “Always There” was originally gone by Ronnie Laws; “Don’t You Worry About A Thing” by Stevie Wonder; and “Nights Over Egypt” by The Jones Girls. For me, the mark of any band or artist to look at their cover songs: the very best cover songs in way that adds something different and worthwhile from the original. After all, who needs a re-hash of classic songs?
So how does Bluey manage to balance imitation with putting his own spin on some of these classic songs?
‘You know, those records that I covered they mean something to me. They were part of my history. I remember when I walked through the door and I heard “Always There” in my friends house for the first time, the Ronnie Laws version. I remember being in different bands and playing that.’
‘ “Don’t You Worry About A Thing”, I remember that seeing me through a kind of period in my life where I thought this girls not in love with me anymore at school, but then I met another girl the next day, you know. It was playing, and it was like the sun is always going to be shining if you allow it to. And you know, different things, different times.
‘ “Nights Over Egypt” by the Jones Girls, I used to do a dance move to that that people used to shout “Oh man! Do that move!” in the club. Now I’m no great dancer, but I used to have my little move when The Jones Girl intro hit.
‘Then, also, I did it for other reasons. I’m a selfish buggar, you know, I wanted to meet the guys from Earth, Wind & Fire when I did “That’s The Way of The World”. I wanted to meet Stevie Wonder. I’ve met them, I’ve worked with them, I’ve produced members of EWF, worked with them, I’ve written records for them. I’ve had Stevie Wonder on stage with us doing “Don’t You Worry About a Thing”. He invited us to his house, you know! I’m a fan.
‘So the reason for me to do those songs is one, because I wanted to meet them; two, I wanted to say thank you; three, it means so much to me I want to tell the world about it; and 4, I heard a version in my head. I heard how I could do it my way.’
That music in his head has been there since he was a child, growing up in Mauritius (he moved to the UK when he was 9 years old). His grandmother would take him to the beach, where musicians would gather of a night to play music which would, in turn, give the young Bluey a love of music that burns to this day.
‘I was a child and sitting next to my grandmother, and she used to take me to the beach and I was a sick child. I had various illnesses and I had to have various injections in my body to keep me alive. So my grandmother kind of tried to be as sweet as possible to me, and knowing that I loved music and where they played music I came alive.
‘So from a very, very young age she took me to the beach and I would watch the people coming from the fields, working in the sugar cane fields, and the people coming from the factories. And they would come on the beach to rest and relax after their work. They would drink a little rum, and they would sit there in the shade of the tree. But then the musicians would arrive, and the musicians would make their broken bodies transform into energised beings like from another world. They weren’t the same people that walked out the fields. They would be spinning around, jumping, laughing, throwing their hands up in the air. These were the same people that looked like they were knocking on deaths door.
‘So I kind of said to my grandmother, “That’s magic!” And my grandfather used to make a coin disappear up his sleeve, I didn’t know it was up his sleeve until much later, then it would appear behind my ear and stuff, and he’d say that’s magic. Now that was something that was like one minute it’s there, the next it isn’t, and how did that happen. And I convinced myself that this [the music] was also magic. You know, what the musicians were doing [was magic]. And in a way I’m not wrong: music is magic.’
From there on, music would be the dominating force in Bluey’s life.
‘Music is an education to some people. I did not know anything about the Vietnam War until I heard [Marvin Gaye’s] “What’s Going On”. I did not know that those emotions of break up and make, until I listened to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and understood what that soul music was about. I did not know about America and Brazil and those places until I listened to music from those places, that was my education… All this history and geography [in music]. Music taught me all those lessons. ‘
Rarely do you speak with someone who has such love for the job they do. Bluey is lucky for that, but he’s worked for it. He may be a bit older than when he first started the band, but it’s clear that there’s no end in sight for Incognito. It’s Bluey’s life work, and he’s not through with it yet.
Incognito’s latest album Tomorrow’s New Dream is out now, and the group play the indigo2 in London on Wednesday 4 December 2019.