Jono Ma: Throwing parties, rediscovering vinyl and wielding the wisdom of Andrew Weatherall
We chat with the man from Jagwar Ma ahead of his set with 77 residents Phil Smart and Reenie.
There are many all-rounders in the music world and then there's Jono Ma. Multi-instrumentalist, award winning film composer, producer, mixer, promoter, musical director - Mr. Ma has, by and large, seen and done it all. He has also collaborated with some of the most esteemed names in the industry, including Foals, Flight Facilities, Underworld, Earl Sweatshirt, King Krule, Tracey Thorn and Genesis Owusu, to name but a few. Hell, the guy even shared a London studio with the late, great Andrew Weatherall.
Though perhaps best known as the creative force and founding member of the ARIA-nominated band Jagwar Ma, Jono is also one damn fine DJ. In the midst of preparing for his impending back-to-back set with 77 residents Phil Smart and Reenie, we catch up with the musical polymath from his home base of Byron Bay to chat Glastonbury adventures, throwing parties, rediscovering a love of vinyl, and what he learned from the Guv'nor.
Hey Jono, how are you doing?
I’m good. I’m getting into cooking mode as I'm having a few people over for dinner tonight, so I'm just prepping.
Very nice. What have you been up to this last winter? Did you stay in Byron or did you head up to the Northern Hemisphere summer?
I ducked over to the UK for a quick little stint. Made it to Glastonbury, which is one of my annual pilgrimages when I can make it.
There's a stage there you play every year, right?
I've played a few stages there, but yeah, there's this little secret one, The Crow’s Nest, which I used to always close out with a DJ set on the Sunday.
What were some of the highlights there this year?
You know what, it was a bit of a weird one this year in terms of the lineup. I felt like when they announced the headliners for the big Pyramid stage, I thought it was a little weaker than usual. So I spent most of my time in the outer orbit of the festival which is where there's a lot of interesting, smaller, hidden stages. I spent a lot of time at The Crow’s Nest where I saw Beth Orton do a small intimate set to 50 people. There's another hidden stage called the Joe Strummer stage, which had all these kinds of wild, punk, cold wave bands. I was really enjoying that as a sort palate cleanser to the big pop stuff that was going on at the Pyramid stage. And then I obviously spent time at Block Nine, which is the dance area. Ben UFO was amazing. Oh, and I saw this guy Shabaka [Hutchings] perform. He did an hour-long performance on these different ethnic flutes - he'd just make a song up on each different flute.
You’ve been living in Byron Bay for five years now. Why did you decide to move there and what makes it such an ideal place for a musician and creative such as yourself?
Well, for a bit of context, the reason I moved here was actually for my health. I'd been living in London and was sharing a studio with Andrew Weatherall. I was so happy there; I was touring a lot, my management was there, my label, everything was in London. Then when I came back here for the ARIAS, I got really sick and ended up in hospital for months. I wasn’t physically well enough to fly back home to London, so I had to find a sort of in-between space. I decided to come up to Byron, get some vitamin D, eat well and get my health back.
I then realised it's actually a brilliant place for a musician seeking that kind of balance. Byron also has three of the biggest international festivals in Australia - Falls Festival, Bluesfest and Splendour - so there’s a lot of international activity moving through what is essentially a very small rural/coastal town. Byron felt like it had the best of both worlds in many ways - I got to see a lot of my friends from London who were touring through here and I still felt connected to the international zeitgeist to a degree. It’s got the cultural activity I need while still being a small community, which I think for my physical and mental wellbeing was what I needed at that time.
You’ve been booking some big names up that way as part of your Space Is The Place party series, hosting DJs like Ben UFO, Jamie XX, Peggy Gou and Leon Vynehall. How did that come about and do you enjoy it? It must be a different kind of buzz compared to performing and making music.
I'm not sure that I do enjoy planning and throwing parties to be honest! [laughs] I definitely have a love-hate relationship with promoting. There are some great local parties here, but I didn't feel like anyone was bringing great international electronic artists through and I felt like I was in a position to do that. I'm friends with a lot of artists having lived in London and toured with Jagwar Ma, so I guess it came about from, not necessity, but more from an opportunistic sense. I also got asked to help curate a local bar, Locura, that had just been set up by the Three Blue Ducks guys, who are foodies but know very little about music. They had a 3am licence, so I saw it as a great opportunity to start a club, which I never really wanted to do, but I was intrigued because it was a new thing. I wanted to get the venue punching above its weight in terms of the acts that we had coming through.
Then on the flip side, I was getting a little frustrated with some of the oversights when I was DJing at other people's parties. People weren’t spending enough money or attention on sound quality, lighting, the atmosphere, nor curating the crowd properly. Those things pushed me further into the idea of throwing my own parties, so that the environment was how I liked it for when I play. And, by proxy, great for other artists like Floating Points, Four Tet, Ben UFO and Peggy Gou to play here as well.
Putting on parties is hard work. I remember a promoter used to always tell me he was working on his last event. Then when the party was in full swing and going amazing, he’d be like, ‘Fuck yeah, I can do another one!’
If I'm honest, I really want to be making music and DJing, but I feel like if I don't throw events in a town as small as this, then there's a bit of a hole in the entertainment quota. I definitely get a buzz from it – I love hosting people and showing the area to artists from all over the world, taking them to waterfalls and surfing at beautiful beaches. I love that aspect of it. But yeah, throwing events is just so stressful and you need to be quite selfless to a degree. I struggle to have a really good time at my own party because I’m in total focus mode, especially when it's at a venue like the Beach Road, which is almost 1500 people capped, so there's so much ops going on. There's always chaos at the door - not in a violent way - but just guest list and all that sort of stuff. And I just want to be on the dance floor or in the DJ booth.
During Covid you brought to life your MYSTICS shows with Jonti and Pat Santamaria, which was born out of the Teenage Wasteland show for Vivid. Will you be pursuing more of these kinds of performances? Or was that more of a Covid project?
MYSTICS actually started prior to Covid. It was originally Jonti and myself just making music together, but we didn't release anything or play any shows. Then during Covid there was this film night up here in Byron and I was asked to pick a film and create a performance out of it. I chose Blade Runner and then got Jonti and Pat involved. That grew into Teenage Wasteland, which we then brought back to MYSTICS. So the project is pretty open-ended at the moment. Jonti and I have written a couple of albums worth of material, but I guess he’s so busy with Genesis [Owusu] at the moment, Pat's busy with Motorik and I'm busy up here doing my own thing. We haven't quite worked out how to focus the platform and get something tangible out into the world, let alone more shows, but it's definitely being talked about.
What have you been working on lately music wise?
To be honest I've been in a little bit of a cold patch after Glastonbury. When I got back, I got really sick because the same illness had kicked off again. So I've just been trying to get my health back. We also had those really severe floods up here and I actually lost my home. It's been a really long process to recover from that. I'm only just now in the middle of rebuilding my house because it’s taken so long due to fighting with an insurance company. That’s been really draining a lot of my time and focus. I've never renovated a house before, so I'm finding it difficult to find the time and energy to make my own music. I've been doing little bits here and there when I can - I've been writing and producing some material with Vera Blue who is a really great pop singer. And I’ve been buying records and spending a lot of time listening to music, which is something I don’t get the chance to do often.
"I've really been enjoying digging back through my records and finding all these house records from ten or twenty years ago."
Are you able to listen to and appreciate music without thinking about it from a creative angle?
That's a good question and I think about it a lot. Normally when I'm producing, I find it difficult to listen to music without pulling it apart and listening to the mechanics of it; analysing it and hearing it as a production. But lately I've been finding it really easy to just put a record on, enjoy it and experience it as it was intended. I suspect once I start to get my groove back on in the studio, then that enjoyable passive listening experience will maybe change back to more of an active listening experience.
What kind of music is inspiring you as a DJ at the moment?
When I was in London I did an eight-hour set back-to-back with Sam [Floating Points]. It was at Giant Steps – a super high-end, horn loaded, touring hi-fi sound system that is vinyl only. Sam was playing everything from Theo Parrish to Brazilian bossa nova and Detroit techno. It was a really fun experience and got me back into handling and mixing records again. I found when I was limited to just records, it weirdly broadened my horizon of what you can play, in a strange way. I found when I was playing with a USB stick on a CDJ, I was just defaulting into my playlists of tech-house and techno or whatever. Everything felt play-listed and almost pre-mapped out. And once I was back on vinyl it felt like I could just mismatch stuff more, if that makes sense?
I've been really enjoying digging back through my records and finding all these, what feel like faceless house records from ten or twenty years ago. Listening to lots of B-sides and seeing how a certain sound has come back again and could work. So that's been pretty inspiring. But it’s so hard to find a club that has turntables set up properly and carrying around vinyl is always a bit of a pain. So I'll tend to rip them to digital and then do my own edit, which makes it feel like I have something new that maybe no other DJ has.
"Just keep loving music and the rest is easy."
You mentioned Andrew Weatherall earlier and I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about him. What was it like to be his friend and be in his orbit? Is there anything he taught you that you always come back to?
Oh my God, where do I begin? There was a saying amongst the DJ community in London; What Would Weatherall Do? I think about that a lot. When I feel conflicted about which path should I take, or if I’m in the studio and have a creative decision to make, his influence is always there and always will be. Actually, it was there before I'd even met him, by just listening to the way he remixed tracks and all his productions and DJ sets. I was obviously a huge fan before we became friends. I was very intimidated by him initially. I was thinking: ‘Fuck, I'm in his space, this is fucking weird. One of my absolute all-time favourite DJs, remixers and producers of all time and I'm this Antipodean hack just shitting all over his space. What am I doing here?’ I don't know if he picked up on that or not, but he was always very quick to go out of his way to make me feel really comfortable.
He would start calling me on a weeknight just for a chat. One time he saw this film, Animal Kingdom, which is an Australian crime drama I worked on the soundtrack for. This was maybe two weeks into sharing the studio with him. And he called me up after dinner at like 9pm and he was ecstatic. He was like, ‘Oh my God, I just watched this amazing film, and I'm sitting there watching the credits thinking, who did the music for this? And your fucking name came up!’ He was constantly filling me with confidence and inspiration. Every Monday when I walked through the studio doors, he’d run out, pull me aside and go, ‘Listen to this record! Have you heard this?’ And then he’d hand me a bunch of stuff to listen to.
He was just so enthusiastic about music every waking minute of his life. That for me was the biggest takeaway, the biggest lesson. Because in the past I’ve had a tendency to sometimes get, not jaded, but deflated, or feel like I have imposter syndrome. Or I can't find any music that is inspiring me - melodramatic stuff like that. Andrew had no time for that. He always believed there was an endless supply of brilliant music that can make you feel things and you'd be a fool not to be accessing that as much as you can. Just keep loving music and then the rest is easy.
Can you tell us about the gig you’ve got coming up at Club 77 with Phil Smart and Reenie?
It's a very significant gig for me actually, because I think 77 was the first proper nightclub that I ever went to. I have an older brother, so I had a fake ID and I'd been to happy hardcore raves and stuff like that. But then one Friday I went to the Tweekin’ party at 77 and Phil Smart was DJing. It was one of those pivotal moments, because at the time I was a guitarist playing in bands and was into punk music and not really that deep into electronic music yet. And I think because I'd mostly been exposed to commercial dance and happy hardcore, the set that Phil played blew my mind. It was like he bridged this gap for me between the dirtiness of punk, grunge and dance.
I started to go there regularly around that time. When Tweekin’ ended I think the club changed hands and then Bang Gang moved in there from Moulin Rouge. I had just replaced Kirin J Callinan on guitar in The Valentinos and my first gig with them was at Club 77. Suddenly I was in that space again, in a completely different context but equally as exciting. It felt like the next generation of the scene was thriving in there. I also played there with a dear friend of mine, Stella, the drummer from War Paint. We were in a band at one point and we played a gig there on a Wednesday night. Then later on Pat [Santamaria] and I performed there as a DJ duo called Knife Machine - we ended up playing at Starf**kers a lot on Saturday nights.
So I feel like I've had a long history of playing or having my mind blown in that space. It’s been a long time since I've actually been in there so it's really exciting. It’s also the first time I've played there with Phil. I’ve played with him in Byron a few times, but to actually play with Phil Smart in the room where I first saw him blow my mind is really quite special as a music fan. And I'm a huge fan of what Reenie is doing as well. She’s a really great DJ who has a bright future ahead of her.
Jono Ma plays back-to-back with Reenie and Phil Smart on Saturday 7 October. More info here.