Helena Summerfield interviews Manchester-based Secret Night Gang (SNG), a soul jazz band started by two friends, saxophonist Callum Connell and vocalist Kemani Anderson, who came up through the Manchester education system. They have just been signed to Brownswood Recordings and one of their tracks has been picked up for use in Grand Theft Auto.
LISTEN to SNG secretnightgang.bandcamp.com/track/the-sun
Helena: Am I right in thinking that you were about 14 when you started writing music together?
Callum: Yeah, I was about 14 but we’d actually known each other for a lot longer before that. We first met playing football. We played for a couple years together every week at Manchester City soccer dome and then we lost contact for about three years.
Kemani: Ironically enough, we ended up going to the same high school. For a good year, I didn’t even know that he went to the same high school as us. It wasn’t until about year eight, where we started playing steel pans that we started to recognise each other. We never looked back since and developed a love for music properly from the age of 14.
Callum: The first musical thing that I did was singing in a choir in primary school. We used to go to churches around Manchester singing in different choirs and at Christmas. Then when I went to high school, I started to play piano and steel pans. They were the first things that I started to play.
Kemani: I was brought up in the church and was heavy influenced by gospel music. But I remember being a six, seven-year-old kid sitting in the back of his dad’s car listening to Smooth FM and soul tunes, like ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ and ‘Part Time Lover’ and that was my real exposure to music from a young age. My mum’s a singer and my brothers are also musicians, so it all contributed to that love for music.
Callum: I loved playing classical music, classical piano. Then I didn’t want to play classical music anymore because there was a school jazz band, and everyone got to play in that because that was the way you got to do a concert – playing an instrument that was used to play in a jazz band. Unfortunately, I was only playing classical piano. So that’s when I then picked up the saxophone and I was taught by Helen Pillinger. She developed me into the person that I needed to be by getting me into the records and into the music. She was a really big influence on me and my learning. She brought me into all the jazz courses that were going on in Manchester and got me involved with the right contacts. My musical career started developing and I started playing saxophone to a really good level.
Kemani: I did steel pans in primary school and carried that on for about eight years from year two to year 11, about eight or nine years. But then in that space of time, I also developed a love for singing. I sang in church for a few years and it was cool, but I was hearing all these other artists like Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway who weren’t necessarily doing gospel music, they were doing soul music, which still resonated with me. I have always wanted to make music like that, or in tribute to that. Meeting Callum exposed me to all kinds of music. I remember the first concert that we properly did was at Band on the Wall and ever since that day, I knew that this is what I wanted to do.
Helena: This brings us nicely to your band. Can you tell me a little bit about SNG?
Kemani: It all started in the summer of 2018 when me and Callum went to Love Supreme Jazz Festival. We saw some of our favourite artists like Earth Wind and Fire, George Clinton and the Funkadelics and Level 42 and we were just so inspired. We wanted to write music after we had seen all of that. It was a life changing weekend. Then a week later, we go to Jam Street and meet another founder of the band, Stuart Whitehead. We had a discussion and he showed us previous things that he’d done and we digged it, we liked the vibe that he was on.
Callum: Me, Kemani and Stuart used to have a rehearsal room next to the old Tranmere Yard in Old Trafford. We used to go there super late at night. We’d all been to college or whatever else all day and we’d turn up at about 9 / 10 o’clock at night, and we’d rehearse until the early hours in the morning. Then Stuart’s son came home one day and was like, “Dad, I’ve joined a gang like yours”, and Stu asks what it’s called, and his son says, “the Secret Night Gang”.
Kemani: And Stu says, “That’s fantastic.”
Callum: So, that’s where the name came from because that’s essentially what we were doing. We were writing albums and writing music, the three of us together in the rehearsal rooms late at night, and it stuck with Stu’s son and that’s where the name ended up coming from. No one knew that we were writing music, no one in Manchester knew, it was all kept a secret for quite a long time, Everything’s come out now and great things have happened for us this year.
Helena: Who else is in the band? Can you talk me through the lineup?
Callum: Kemani Anderson on vocals, myself Callum Connell on saxophone, Stuart Whitehead on bass. We switch between Aaron Wood and Elias Atkinson, on trumpets. Mikey Wilson, the legendary Mikey Wilson is on drums, Jack Duckham on guitar and Kemani is playing a lot of keyboards at the moment for live stuff. But also featuring on the album will be John Ellis and Al Scott.
Helena: It’s a who’s who of Manchester music that, it sounds amazing.
Callum: Running the whole project and our producer and engineer is Yyonne Ellis.
Helena: Fantastic. And I hear exciting news about the band getting signed to Brownswood Recordings.
Callum: Yeah, that’s right. We’ve released two singles and the second single, The Sun, Giles Peterson picked up and absolutely loved it and played it out on BBC Radio 6. The whole eight minutes as well, which is quite remarkable to get an eight-minute-long track played nowadays. After that we started having talks and Giles offered us a deal to be part of their team and work with them and we couldn’t say no really! Giles is an absolute legend on the scene and for me, the London scene wouldn’t be what it is today without him, because he’s helped so many people form this new London jazz scene, and it’s blowing up across the world. It’s nice to see great artists coming out of London now and touring the world.
Helena: I’m glad you guys are there representing Manchester and our northern jazz scene.
Kemani: Always, every day.
Helena: And can video game addicts catch your song The Sun on a game?
Kemani: Yes, they can, oh yeah.
Callum: We had talks with Rockstar Games and they loved ‘The Sun’, our new single. Giles Peterson put it in his Worldwide FM GTA (Grand Theft Auto) playlist so you can listen to the playlist on YouTube or if you’re playing the game, Grand Theft Auto, you can go on Worldwide FM and listen to our new single.
Kemani: It’s the very last song of the playlist.
Helena: Save the best ‘til last. Kemani and Callum laugh.