Paul Epworth's lockdown listening: 'People recommend me records that don’t even exist'

The Oscar, Grammy and Brit-winning producer talks about his spiritual jazz quest and ‘the greatest drummer ever’, Tony Allen

I don’t have a studio space at home because of noise levels, so I’ve brought a laptop home and am working on headphones, and it’s been a challenge. But I’m not on the frontline of the NHS, so it’s a moment of gratitude in many ways. I’ve got two young kids who are out of school, and the opportunity to give them 110% attention is amazing. And it’s a moment for us as a species to pause and think about what we’re doing, and everyone’s going to appreciate everyone they love who’s got through this period.

I’ve been listening to Khruangbin’s last two albums – this playful Meters-meets-ESG ambience rolling in the house has become a soundtrack to this experience. Also Arthur Verocai, a Brazilian composer; really creative stuff with amazing brass and string arrangements. His self-titled album [released in 1972] is one of those weird languid atmospheres we’ve been living in as the sun’s shining. Plus a bit of Lonnie Liston Smith.

I’ve rediscovered Jimi Tenor and what a mercurial genius he is, including his album, Exocosmos. I don’t know that many people who have managed to forge a career in the last 20 years that is truly as good as the film score greats: he’s got that mad 60s Lalo Schifrin thing, and that Brian Wilson or Joe Meek sense of ambition. The music I’m about to release is like a 70s concept album about space, but an updated one. So going back to these really virtuoso moments has been part of the journey: rediscovering this weird and wonderful music with a combination of overt musicality and eccentric production that I find fascinating.

As far as newer stuff goes, I’ve discovered 100 gecs – it’s like future mutant indie, bits of trap music, a bit of Crystal Castles or Sleigh Bells dystopian 8-bit … Super modern production but it’s quite lo-fi.

The Paul Institute’s records – there’s a sense of real honest integrity to the fact that no one but Jai Paul and AK Paul could have made them. They’re part Daniele Baldelli, part Phil Collins, part J Dilla, part Bollywood film score and part D’Angelo. If you sat down with a piece of paper and said, “This is what I want my music to sound like”, you could never do it. It doesn’t feel self-conscious, and it’s effortlessly cool.

I’ve been listening to Tony Allen, who died recently – possibly the greatest drummer who ever lived. I was obsessed for about 25 years with the music he made with Fela Kuti, but the newer electronic records he made with Jeff Mills, Moritz Von Oswald Trio and Motor City Drum Ensemble are all amazing, too. I would never call myself a drummer, but I have played drums on a few records people don’t know I’ve played on, like Paul McCartney’s Queenie Eye – it wasn’t on my bucket list, but I’ll take it! It takes learning a bit of drums before you realise how amazing Tony Allen was, how he changed a rhythm and feel from track to track so subtly.

There are loads of players who have been inspired by him, like Yussef Dayes who I was lucky enough to play with recently. He also has his own amazing, unique style; by the time he’s Tony Allen’s age, he may have had the same impact. To take it to another modern context, you could also look at the way the rap producer Mike Will Made It does hi-hat programming – it always seems to lead a rapper to the bounce of their flow. From my experience of watching people listen to a beat or a drum track, the subtleties of the hi-hat or the way the drums are played, that’s what an artist is going to use to find the melody and the rhythm. I’m some way on my journey to study it, and I still feel like I don’t know anything!

I’ve spent the last few years listening to loads of spiritual jazz, obsessing over Sun Ra and discovering Alice Coltrane; growing up I also listened to a lot of jazz, the Miles Davis electric stuff and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Once you go into that world, it’s infinite. People start recommending you records that don’t even exist – you have to go to some record market in Brazil to find them and they only pressed 10 copies. It feels like an adventure. The idea that music is a spiritual pursuit, a representation of an artist’s consciousness, and the idea of spirit as universe – all this really struck a chord with me, as did the infinity of possibility.

The interest in jazz has reignited over the past few years more generally, from kids rediscovering musicianship as a way to push the envelope more than production. By the middle of the last decade, every production trick in the house had been used on every single record. So for musicians around the world, but particularly in LA – Thundercat, Flying Lotus, that whole Brainfeeder scene, Dorian Concept – jazz ceased being a dirty word and it was something to be nurtured and respected. The magic of playing together with a bunch of musicians who are really great, when you get that feel together and you click, it’s something you can’t put your finger on, and that in itself feels like a sort of spiritual connection. It’s like Frank Zappa said: music’s always out there, you just have to reach out and plug in.

• Love Galaxy by Paul Epworth (feat Lil Silva and Jay Electronica) is out now


Interview by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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