A Frenchman, a Swede and an African meet in a junk store …
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but in reality it’s how the Very Best became a band. One of the more acclaimed international groups of the last few years started almost by accident, bringing together three disparate personalities – French DJ Etienne Tron, Swedish producer Johan Hugo (formerly known as Karlberg) and Malawian vocalist Esau Mwamwaya.
Their accidental meeting led to a genre-shattering 2009 album, “Warm Heart of Africa,” which featured Mwamwaya trading lines with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koening on the title track. A recent follow-up, “MTMTMK” (Moshi Moshi/V2), fits the multi-culti songs with a bigger sound, placing Mwamwaya’s incandescent voice at the center of huge, arena-worthy choruses.
Hugo and Tron were a successful London-based production team. Mwamwaya was a singer born in Malawi in southeast Africa who had moved to London in 2009 to seek new opportunities. He ended up putting his musical career on hold while working a succession of odd jobs, eventually running the second-hand store where Tron came shopping one day. Tron not only bought a bike but struck up a conversation with Mwamwaya and invited him to a party, where the singer met Tron’s musical partner, Hugo.
The trio began working informally on some music. “If we’d sat down and tried to plan it out, we would’ve done nothing” because the partnership seemed so improbable, Hugo says. “It happened very naturally.”
Mwamwaya’s vocal skills gave Tron and Hugo no second thoughts from the start.
“We met him and enjoyed his personality, but when we got into the studio and heard how he sang, the way he interpreted our music, it was super exciting,” Hugo says. “We weren’t working toward making an album for a long time. We’d get together about once a week for four or five hours, because Esau had a job that kept him very busy. After half-a-year, we had a bunch of songs, and at that point we thought maybe we should do a proper album.”
After “Warm Heart of Africa” was released, acclaim started to roll in.
“Initially there were a lot of people who said we weren’t going anywhere for a project not sung in English (Mwamwaya sings primarily in his native Malawian language, Chichewa),” Hugo says. “Esau was an unknown. We were fighting for our survival in the music world because we were not the most conventional group out there. So we didn’t have big expectations. But the musical reception was amazing. We had no bad reviews. I remember telling Esau several times, ‘This is not how it normally is. (laughs) We’ll get some bad ones eventually.’ ”
In the years since, Tron and Hugo split, and Hugo continued to work with Mwamwaya on recording a follow-up album.
“We went to New York for six weeks in a big fancy studio and it didn’t work out very well,” Hugo says. “We were used to recording in hotel rooms. The first album was done on such (cheap) terms. We thrive on that. We ran out of money in New York, so going to Malawi became a good option. There no one would bug us. It felt like the old days, with me and Esau doing exactly what we wanted.”
There were obstacles too. The erratic power supply in the studio, for starters.
“Malawi is a very poor country, but it was an amazing experience,” Hugo says. “You end up being very isolated in a good way. The Internet connections are bad -- if you have any at all. You’re always working against the clock because electricity runs out for a few hours a day. There were a lot of challenges, which creates a very different environment. We’d go to a club in the capital (Lilongwe) on weekends and give the new tracks we were working on to the DJs to test them out. The response shaped what we wanted to do.”
With its mélange of African, Jamaican and Euro-disco sounds, “MTMTMK” builds on the international scope of the debut, and adds a more pop-savvy sense of songcraft.
“What always fascinated me about African music is how people play or program drums, how percussion is treated,” Hugo says. “But the melody in African music is what I loved above all. Esau is incredibly good at that. On the new album we explore that and blow it out. It’s bigger, more pompous than on the first album. I can put down a melody that’s not huge, and I know already how Esau will interpret it. We went all out with the epic-ness. The more we toured on the last album, the more I realized the potential he had in him to go massive in his performance. He has the potential to go up next to Coldplay in a stadium and not back down.”
As dire as that may sound to some who appreciated the first album’s nuances, there is no cause for major concern. Mwamwaya imbues the material with a natural warmth that keeps things grounded.
Hugo says sometimes he still can’t get over their fortune in meeting each other: “I’ve worked with Esau for a good six years now. When we toured the first album, I’d stand on stage sometimes and think, ‘How the hell did this happen?’ How we met in that junk shop is still amazing to me. I work on so many other projects, but the Very Best is the most joyful of all because it’s all been so unexpected.”
The Very Best: 10 p.m. Aug. 17 at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $15; lincolnhallchicago.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye