Extra Golden “There’s not a lot of African music that’s contemplative or music for music’s sake; it tends to serve a purpose.”

Extra Golden came about through the meeting of two initially very separate and perhaps unlikely entities: Kenya's Orchestra Extra Solar Africa and American rock band Golden. The beginnings of the project were fairly casual, almost a chance happening when Ian Eagleson was in Africa studying musicology. Starting out jamming in an apartment in Nairobi with African musicians Onyango Wuod Omari and Otieno Jagwasi, they've since released three albums on Thrill Jockey, most recently Thank You Very Quickly, and occupy a unique space in both esoteric music scenes and the wider international landscape. Playing a sunny style of rock that combines elements of one of Kenya's native Benga sounds with a Western aesthetic, it turns out there are plenty of parallels between the two.

I talked to member Alex Minoff in a venue's dressing room before they opened the first show of the African Soul Rebels UK Tour, a prominent showcase of contemporary African music headlined by Baaba Maal and Oliver Mtukudzi, who are by all means much more well-known than Extra Golden. Interestingly (or ignorantly), Extra Golden were the only ones of the three I was familiar with, thanks to coverage of the band in independent media. We discussed this phenomenon, along with Vampire Weekend, major chords, and Barack Obama.



A lot of the coverage you guys get is from indie media or alternative magazines. Is it a different sort of sphere from where you're coming from?

Ian and I had played in bands before, and we've always been in the ‘rock world.' This band is interesting, because it allows us to be in two worlds at once, especially with this tour, due to the fact that we have African musicians in the band. But then we can still do things like play the Pitchfork Festival, which is pretty cool.

With the indier sort of sphere, it seems more insular in a way, compared to the more public or mainstream sphere.

You mean better-known?

Well, in a way, but more the type of information/content. Not that, say, a large website like Pitchfork is super esoteric, but it's certainly not mainstream.

Right, right. Yeah, I mean, sort of “world music” or the African branch of that isn't necessarily that popular in a broad sense of things either, but it definitely has a different audience, so ideally we can have more than one audience.

I thought it was interesting how The New York Times had asked what you guys thought about Vampire Weekend and you hadn't really listened to it. To draw that link or assumption seems quite funny in a way.

That kind of started when this guy wrote an article for it about 18 months ago. He interviewed Ian and I for a really long time. That was before Vampire Weekend even had an album, but they were already huge. I'm not really sure how that happens. I've certainly never been fortunate enough to be part of something that huge without doing anything [laughs], but yeah, so at that point, it was just a little bit weird, because I wasn't even sure if this band had even played a show outside of their hometown, you know? [laughs] Obviously, since then, they've gotten a lot more well-known. But I think of them as a pop band, really.

That's kind of the crux of that comparison being a bit off.

That's true, yeah. I think people are curious what we think of it because, well, for different reasons; they think that we're way more “authentic”, because we have actual African musicians in the band, or some people ask us because they see our band as doing the same thing. I definitely wouldn't say we're doing the same thing. It's not that one is better than the other, of course -- it's just different.

"To our ears, a minor chord is something that instantly implies some sort of sadness. But that's not the case in Kenya, or in other places too."


With that idea of authenticity, it's almost a risky area, as in, people can put their own ideas of what it is to be authentic onto it.

Yeah, I think there are a lot of people who don't like us probably because we're not authentic, because we're not just Africans.

Do you ever cop any flack for that?

No, not really. I mean, we get a lot of people asking us what we think about that [laughs], but no ones ever really -- at least that I've seen -- accused us of anything. But you know, music is music; the people that are concerned about that kind of thing have different concerns from musicians, you know. Musicians have a lot more of a laissez-faire approach to that sort of thing. It's not something we ever really sit down and talk about when we're working on music.

Okay, well, that stuff aside -- I guess that's kind of journalistic-focused – with a track on the new album like “Obama,” which seems overtly political...

Well, it's actually not political at all. When we wrote that song – that's actually not on Thank You Very Quickly by the way.

Oh. Right, sorry [laughs]. That's pretty good journalism right there; I must've got mixed up on iTunes before.

Oh okay [laughs]. Yeah, we wrote it a few years ago. It was actually because Obama and his office helped us secure visas to get the other guys into the U.S. It's pretty normal in Kenyan music to sing songs thanking people for doing something. So, that was really just a song saying “thanks for helping us get these visas,” so there wasn't anything political about it.

Yeah, he wasn't a presidential candidate back then, of course. I was wondering, though, if you did treat any of the stuff you do as being political?

We don't overtly try to be political, but a lot of our existence and a lot of things that have happened to us, it becomes political because of what has happened or draws attention to certain issues. Whether it be immigration, or -- I mean, what we had to go through to get these guys to the states, it took months and months to make that happen.

Right, I mean that was exactly around the time when Bush was so focused on homeland security.

Yeah, definitely. Without Obama's office, we never would've been able to get them over, especially with the time issues we had. You have to provide a lot of stuff, like press that shows that these guys are actual musicians; you have to have letters of invitation and also recommendation as well. So they came back to us after the initial application and said, “we want more,” so that's when Obama's office really helped out.

Yeah, it's certainly a nice way to say thanks; a nice sunny pop song. Actually, I was thinking that the general sunniness and optimism in Extra Golden seems personally political in a way -- in a loose way.

It's pretty interesting, actually; the style of music that the Kenyans play is all in major chords. The subject matter that they're singing about is not necessarily positive or optimistic. But because they use those types of chords, to someone like you or me -- a Westerner -- we associate it with happiness, like beach music or something.

"We don't overtly try to be political, but a lot of our existence and a lot of things that have happened to us, it becomes political because of what has happened or draws attention to certain issues."


Totally. The G major chord is inherently a happy sound for us.

Exactly, and to our ears, a minor chord is something that instantly implies some sort of sadness. But that's not the case in Kenya, or in other places too. If you think about some weird traditional Asian music, to you or me, it's really weird-sounding and bizarre and might not make any sense, but that's just what their ears are used to. So, to them, they don't listen to it and say “yeah man, we make some really weird shit.” It's just what they grew up with.

Another thing I had read was that there are a lot of similarities that you found with Benga music and Western rock music?

Right, yeah. Well, the chord progressions that they use are 1-4-5 progressions, which are the basic rock ‘n' roll/blues chord progressions. So it's very similar in that way, and also just in the context, with electric guitar, bass, drums, singer; it's not like there are too many weird instruments being thrown in there.

Is it more of a dance music than, say, rock music?

It serves a purpose. There's not a lot of African music that's contemplative or music for music's sake; it tends to serve a purpose. So Benga bands, their function is to play and clubs and to make people dance.

Okay. I guess Benga isn't a sort of style that a lot of people who listen to your music are overly aware of, [at least to] the more indie rock sort of audience. When did you noticed the attention from those media?

I think really the whole idea of indie music starting to use African sounds, it seems to me that kind of coincided with Vampire Weekend, and we'd released two albums before they'd made an album. Honestly, there's some truth to the idea that maybe indie rock people are broadening their scope, but I think it's something that is perpetuated or made bigger by people trying to find something to write about.

Do you ever feel like you get misconstrued by that?

Well, I guess I would just say that I kind of see ourselves as maybe a little outside of that, just because we're a different style from a lot of that stuff, and because we've been doing it for longer and because we have people from Africa in the band. Ian and I were listening to African music a really long time ago, that was just kind of a shared passion back there. There's been a growth in the availability of reissues of older African stuff.

Yeah, Soul Jazz are pretty good at that.

Yeah, and that stuff in general tends to focus more on being music that sounds like American music, but wasn't made in America, say, beginning with Fela [Kuti], whose records were all reissued in the last 10 years or so. And that's music as a starting point for someone who's never listed to African music because it's very comfortable; it's like you're listening to James Brown or something, but it's just a little different. But the structures and the rhythms are not anything that's going to confuse anyone. But like I said, that stuff seems to focus on a more genre sort of thing. There's almost like a kitsch value to it.

Definitely, it's often made out as quite an esoteric collection of sounds, but it's never super abstruse or anything really. I was wondering, with Extra Golden, was part of it ever about giving other people a voice that they might not otherwise have?

It's like with the politics thing; it's just something that's been an offshoot of it. When we made that first record, we weren't planning on making a record or starting a band. I think that's one of the nice things about our band, because if we'd gone there with a laptop and tried to find some guys and we're gonna make a record, I think it would've come off a different way.

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