Life & Culture

In Conversation: Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes on Their Collaborative Album

One is a bashful singer-songwriter type; the other is a supremely talented jazz drummer – here they discuss their relationship, living in isolation, and their collaborative debut

It feels weird talking about jazz in a time of isolation, perhaps like discussing carol singing in summertime. There’s an absurdity in talking about an art form that places such emphasis on collaboration while we’re all holed up with no company but the people we live with. Fortunately, Tom Misch and Yussef Dayes sowed the seeds of their partnership long before the coronavirus crisis hit, and their collaboration is now bearing fruit.

27-year-old drummer Dayes made his name as one half of Yussef Kamaal, whose 2016 album Black Focus remains a touchstone of the quietly burgeoning UK jazz scene. In 2017, Yussef Kamaal were due to play SXSW festival in Texas when Dayes was refused entry to the US under President Trump’s travel ban. Soon after Yussef Kamaal split, for reasons that are still unclear.

Dayes won’t talk much about that, preferring instead to focus on What Kinda Music, his and Misch’s first collaborative album, which comes out on April 24. Misch began his career at 17 when tracks on his Soundcloud account began getting picked up by YouTube channels like Majestic Casual. Now 24, the guitarist, singer and producer has always fidgeted uncomfortably with the pop star image. We talk today on a three-way Zoom call, both of them speaking from their respective homes in south London.

Sam Davies: How are you both coping with isolation?

Yussef Dayes: I’m quarantined with my girlfriend and my daughter, who is two months now. It’s been alright because we’ve got the flat sorted out and I ain’t really been stressed about other stuff. I’ve been with her every day.

Tom Misch: I’m with five schoolmates living in Deptford. It’s not the nicest house to be quarantined in – it’s like a student vibe, so the kitchen’s disgusting. In terms of being clean and nice at this time, it’s not the best. But it’s alright. I’m being creative, playing a lot of guitar. I’m actually at the studio right now.

SD: Is that an essential trip?

TM: Well ... It’s just round the corner and I got myself here, without contacting anyone. I’m here by myself, so ...

YD: Oi, put your mask on because I’m there tomorrow innit. Put your mask and gloves on.

TM: I’m gonna disinfect everything, don’t worry.

YD: Alright, say no more.

SD: Alright, let’s park the corona chat there. When did you two first cross paths?

TM: I have a memory of seeing Yussef in a talent show when I was eight or nine. This insane drummer who kind of looked like Yussef ... I think it was you, man.

YD: That’s not even me [laughs]. There was quite a few sick drummers in my school.

SD: Has the area you both grew up in – south London around Peckham and Forest Hill – changed much since you were kids?

TM: I guess Peckham has become a lot more gentrified hasn’t it. Especially in the last five years. I lived on Peckham High Street for a year and that was pretty intense, seeing it change.

SD: Is Peckham’s jazz scene a product of gentrification or a reaction to it?

YD: I’ve been playing this music since I was five, man. I think maybe when the media grabs onto something they make it into a thing but ... I’ve been performing in Lewisham, Camberwell, South London since I was 12, so I never thought about it like ‘this is the Peckham, South London jazz scene’. There’s just a lot of sick musicians from London.

SD: Have you changed much since you achieved some level of success as teenagers? Tom, you’ve always come across as something of a reluctant pop star.

TM: I think I’m still quite reluctant in a lot of ways. That’s always gonna be my character. I really don’t feel particularly comfortable becoming very well-known. There have been points where I’ve been like ‘maybe I’ll stop making music’ because I don’t want it to affect my personal life in that way. I think being 21 or 22 was quite a hard age to become well-known because I’d meet people my age and they know who I am already. That’s just a weird dynamic. But I think it has got a lot easier.

SD: What was the first thing you recorded from the album?

YD: It was probably I Did It For You. We did that on the first day we got into the studio. We was recording that track for Loyle Carner, Angel, and then that same day me and Tom stayed on at the studio, just fucking with some sounds. At that time we didn’t know it was going to be an album, but after that day we had four or five tracks that sounded sick so we was like ‘fuck it’. We still got loads of tunes that didn’t even make the album. Obviously now it’s on Blue Note, but when we was recording we didn’t even know about that stuff.

TM: We were just messing around. I think that’s why it feels the way it does.

SD: Who produced the record?

TM: I produced most of it but we did produce it together. It’s kind of how do you define production really because Yussef was ... present for a lot of the album.

YD: I was the vibe maker. 

TM: He’d be sitting on the sofa saying, ‘Yeah ... sick’. Like DJ Khaled vibes.

SD: Yussef, are you still in touch with Kamaal Williams?

YD: Nah, man. I keep my circle small. That record is there, a piece of art that’s gonna live on forever. That is Yussef Kamaal. Everything outside of that is irrelevant.

SD: What else have you got planned?

TM: I might make a little quarantine album. They’re mostly going to be covers – I’m gonna do a Bill Withers one, I did a Solange one, I did a Nirvana one.

YD: I’m working on my solo album. It’s going to be a lot of instrumental stuff and then there’ll be a couple of features, too. We were meant to be playing Glastonbury. The live shows was going to be a big thing around the album. We’ve had to reschedule the tour and stuff.

TM: It’s going to be weird releasing an album during quarantine.

YD: Yeah, but at the same time I think people need music, man. It gets people through difficult moments.

What Kinda Music by Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes is out April 24, 2020 via Blue Note.