Baba Ali: Blowing Up

Interview Baba Ali: Blowing Up

Refining their dance-punk hybrid on second album ‘Laugh Like A Bomb’, Baba Ali are concocting a late-night world worth staying up for.

Baba Ali’s recent single ‘Burn Me Out’ crashes into life on the back of a razor-cut, filthy post-disco synth beat, accentuated by a skittering, shuffling percussive rattle, with a spider-fingered keyboard melody crawling around in the background. Maria Uzor, singer with the dance-punk duo Sink Ya Teeth, joins Baba in an immaculately aloof, arch double lead vocal that acts as an incantatory call for the world to be brought down in flames. The track gathers a sadistic, nocturnal momentum; one of the most sordid slices of subversive pop music you’ll hear in 2023.

It’s a typical representation of the duo’s second studio album, ‘Laugh Like a Bomb’: a record that captures the strange alchemy that binds these two musical minds together. For the project, Baba - a native of New Jersey who relocated to London in 2016 - is joined by Nik Balchin, a British record producer and multi-instrumentalist; while their debut LP, 2020’s ‘Memory Device’, promised much, ‘Laugh Like a Bomb’ sees them arrive for good. “We’re making bolder choices now, both visually and sonically,” says the vocalist. “People are starting to get familiar with what we do and who we are. It’s exciting.”

The central dichotomy of the duo’s music, and the contradiction that is writ large across LP2, is the combination of the late-night, underground dancefloor energy that they channel through their electronic production, and the jagged, maniacal attack that stems from their use of raucous guitar parts. The icy, insouciant character that Ali embodies on tracks like ‘I’m Bored’ - pitched somewhere between the cool slick of Grace Jones and the seductive animation of David Byrne - contrasts with the red raw production of ‘Make U Feel’ or ‘Hold My Hand’, where Nik’s guitar parts rip through the detachment and set the tracks ablaze.

“We’re making bolder choices now, both visually and sonically.”

“Growing up, generally I was quite focused on guitar-led music: The Stooges, The White Stripes, The Kills,” says Nik. “As I’ve got older, I’ve obviously become more open, as I feel like you should, but I come from listening to music that is guitar-heavy.” “There was always the electronic element, but fundamentally, I grew up as a hip-hop kid,” counters Baba. “I played piano, but in terms of making my own music, my first instrument was a drum sampler. That’s still to a certain extent how I create music now, with drum machines and stuff like that.”

It’s the fusion of the two, a balance they’ve been working on since they joined forces in 2018, that pushes Baba Ali’s music into elevated territory; these days, they describe their relationship as “telepathic”. The two met when they shared a job behind the bar at The Hope & Anchor in Islington in 2016, pulling pints together and playing songs on the house iPod. Realising the differences in their respective tastes, the moments of revelation came when they selected songs from each others’ wheelhouses: Nik impressed Baba with a choice J Dilla cut, while the latter surprised his soon-to-be bandmate with his love for the late ‘70s French no wave pioneers Casino Music and Athens, Georgia indie band Pylon.

“A lot of the other bartenders were also music students,” remembers Baba, who himself was studying at the time. “Nik didn’t study music, so I naturally gravitated towards him.” “It still took him about two years to ask me to be in a band with him, so I guess there was a slow build,” Nik jokes.

Their first album was produced by Al Doyle of Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem, a connection the duo had been particularly enthusiastic about establishing after the release of the latter’s 2017 opus ‘American Dream’. “He was more involved on that LCD record than anyone else has ever been [on an album of theirs],” says Nik. “So on that level, I was interested to work with him just to see what he picked up working so closely with James Murphy, both in the studio and live. We weren’t disappointed.

For ‘Laugh Like A Bomb’, the duo took on production duties themselves, but were afforded the opportunity to do so in the studio that Al hand-built during the pandemic. “Obviously, his synth collection is very much part of that place – we tried our best not to use them, but we were easily enchanted,” says Baba, smiling. “One of the biggest gifts that Al gave to us in allowing us to use the studio was trust – trusting us to go in there and just do something with it. That gave us a lot of confidence and positive energy. We just had fun with it.”

This inquisitive sense of fun is winning them supporters in high places, and it’s not just Al that’s predicting great things for Baba Ali these days. In the past year alone, they’ve opened up for Self Esteem, Yard Act, !!! and The Go! Team, however as they prepare to release ‘Laugh Like a Bomb’, the duo are champing at the bit to headline their own tour. As with everything else, they’re overflowing with ideas about how to make it stand out.

“We’re moving more and more towards putting on shows that are later and trying out club environments, while still retaining what we do,” says Baba. “It’s cool [because] what we do appeals to a dance scene, but you still have this guitar that takes you out of it every now and then, momentarily. It’s all about creating the atmosphere that serves the music we’re making.

“The most exciting thing is when our shows really do come together,” he continues, “because we can be louder and crazier than our recordings ever allow us to be. In those moments, we know we’re doing something worthwhile.

‘Laugh Like A Bomb’ is out 28th April via Memphis Industries.

Tags: Baba ali, Features, Interviews

As featured in the April 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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