As the name suggests, it appears The King's Will are compelled to get their message across. More hearts and minds were won at a sold-out launch night for new album The Swords Are Coming at Shoreditch's The Macbeth, when even the old hands were put into a headspin.
"Great show tonight by @thekingswill!" tweeted Scroobius Pip, also on the bill, afterwards. "Ole @Okwonga managed to get tears out of me again. Damn his skills..."
Vocalist Musa Okwonga and his musical partner Giles Hayter comprise The King's Will, and make no apology for trying to sweep up the audience, rather than just try to subtly charm. "I've always liked the idea of building atmosphere," explains Musa in a north London pub. "When you're talking about big themes, if you don't create a sense of spectacle, people feel like they're being preached at. People can take it on different levels; they can come away saying I had a good dance, or I liked it visually."
There's the sense of putting on a show, rather than just a gig, as the eclectic and dramatic gait of the music demands – in hip-hop, Musa points to Andre 3000 for having "pushed things in such a brave direction." It tallies with the characterisation of The King's Will; Musa as The Fool and Giles as The Vassal. Like with, say, Eminem, the use of third person conduits gives them liberty to explore quite personal themes in the music.
"Whenever you're doing social commentary – some of them are personal and some are more political – it helps to have a more satirical thing on issues," explains Musa, "that have a serious side on. You can't stay out in the sun too long, so we almost try to refract that through comedy and humour. We go between the two extremes and that's expressed in the lyrics as well as in the style of the tunes.
"It's easier to talk above yourself and the things that really get to you," Giles admits. "If you speak through those characters, there's not the feeling you're limited in what you can say.
From Giles' perspective, it impacts on the nuts and bolts of the production, too. "It also gives you ammunition for the tunes," he continues. "For this live show, I've written a whole bunch of the music again, because you get inspired by these characters. You think, 'I'm going to be on the stage wearing this massive death costume', and you start thinking Shakespearian, Richard III battle speeches and stuff. If you're not just taking a break between tunes but carrying on in this different world, you forget that you're playing characters in you're actually in their world."
Musa cuts in. "I'd also say the characters are just amplified versions of ourselves. The Vassal is scientific but also contemplative, artistic, mathematical...and that's who Giles is; he's a painter, he plays piano, makes electronica, he's a maths teacher too. And The Fool is me. I try to draw on all the great tricksters," he says, arching an eyebrow before reeling off a list of examples encompassing Abraham Lincoln and Brazil forward Ronaldinho. "You look at Giles, and you just don't know if he's good or evil. I'm still not sure," he grins.
The pair speak like they make music; as a completely entwined entity. There's no composition by post here, something that's evolved since they started writing together in a spare room in Giles' house, which they jocularly call The Electro Shed.
"At the beginning, I sent Musa a beat," says Giles, "he'd send me back the vocal and I'd figure out how it'd work. Now the whole thing's a lot more of an integrated musical experience." A classically-trained piano player, Giles admits this is a move from a very personal approach to making music. "He's like Usain Bolt," Musa laughs, "training by himself. He hates being influenced."
Fortunately for Musa, Giles' preference is for "epic, grand things" – which is every rapper and performance poet's dream, surely? Musa's face lights up. "That Roots Manuva and Cinematic Orchestra thing, All Things To All Men," he exhales, "it's like this wave's coming up behind him. When I wrote the lyrics to The Swords Are Coming, I imagined Aragorn (in The Lord of the Rings) when Helm's Deep is about to kick off with the orcs out there clashing their swords, that groundswell."
"It also made me think of that Mike Skinner tune, Turn The Page," he continues, "one of my favourite album intros, and imagined what Aragorn would do if he was listening to that... if he was listening to dubstep, it'd be this." Giles smiles and pulls back a little, pointing out more of a universal theme. "Profound or epic doesn't have to be orcs or whatever; it's applicable to everything."
Musa runs with it. "The Swords Are Coming is about sticking to your guns. You could just be in the playground outnumbered by four bullies... (intimacy) is the most important thing that there is. You know in The Matrix, where the sentinels are coming in, and you have the little kid clutching the machine gun... everyone has these private struggles. If the album has a theme, it's don't cack yourself, struggle on."
All of this brings us back to the King. Who is he? "There are a lot things that are out of kilter and not right," says Musa, "economically, politically. So we have the King who's increasing reckless and erratic in his judgement, and we're his servants trying to bring it back on an event keel. Metaphorically, he's the world..."
"But he's an individual too," Giles jumps in. "He makes decrees now and then. He tweets too..." Of course, Twitter. How else would he choose to spread the word about his servants' good work?
Words: Andy Brassell
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