<center>Pete Cunningham of Ishmael Ensemble</center>

Pete Cunningham of Ishmael Ensemble

I grew up just outside of Bristol but always looked to the city for inspiration, so I moved there as soon as I could. I guess back then it was more the classic groups from the area such as Portishead and Roni Size Reprazent that got me excited about music, but it wasn't until seeing musicians like drummer Clive Deamer and saxophonist Andy Sheppard that my head was turned to the jazzier side of what the city had to offer.

As a kid I loved my parents’ Pink Floyd records, they had all the early albums like Meddle and Ummagumma, I’d listen to them religiously. There was also a lot of Nick Drake, Joan Armatrading, and Joni Mitchell on the stereo as well as Van Morrison and Ravi Shankar, all artists very dear to my heart that I still look to now for inspiration. I started on guitar, my dad is a big folk fan and was always collecting songs and singing them around the house, he showed me a few chords as a kid, I was probably about 6 years old. I slowly started to learn on my own and just got obsessed with it.

I’ve been playing around with music since my early teens, there was a cracked copy of Cubase floating around secondary school which me and my mates would spend every opportunity playing with. It was pre—YouTube era, no tutorials to be found so we were at the mercy of finding someone who knew how to use it or, more often than not, some good old trial and error. I was always a big drum & bass and hip hop fan so i mainly just wanted to discover how on earth that sort of music was created.

I'll now usually start by recording loads of random stuff with the various musicians involved in the project and then use that as a sort of sample pack to build ideas from. I’ll then start to think about getting vocalists or soloist involved. However, the more we play live I think we’d like to experiment with doing more traditional writing and recording as a whole band. To be honest, I only have a couple mics in my studio, a trusty SM58 and a Se XIR ribbon mic for sax. For the drums, I’d much rather trust an engineer. I worked with the fantastic Ali Chant at Playpen in Bristol on the new album, he brought some amazing ideas to the table and really helped bring the record to life.

I’ve used Logic for years, I’ve dabbled with Protools and Ableton but they never quite clicked. I also never use any fancy plugins or VST's, I prefer to use outboard gear and Logic stock, something that’s appeared on everything is my WEM copycat tape delay, it’s a lot of fun to play with.

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge where you’re at in your own musical journey and I, like everyone else, often suffer from imposter syndrome; so to have artists and labels you respect so highly like Carl Craig and Blue Note records want to work with you is a massive boost of confidence. Whenever working on early demos, if it didn’t fit that image in my head, it wasn’t put on the album. I was looking at Samantha Keely Smith’s paintings a lot as well, they’re so vast, you can get lost in them. I knew I wanted to find something similar for the album artwork but more graphic so when I saw first Lesley Harry’s silk print I knew it had to be on the cover. 

Overall, I think I’m mainly just interested in making music that excites me and I'm ultimately proud of. That seems to me the most obvious way of finding your own voice, just make sure you’re enjoying what you’re doing. If it’s made with genuine passion and not because somethings en vogue I think it’s naturally going to sound authentic and true to self.

As for COVID, as much as it was quite a drastic change, I kind of feel the albums better for it. I naturally had much more time and less pressure to make it the best it could be. It’s also given me the chance to really think about what the project means to me, the headspace has been most welcome and I’m super excited to get stuck into what’s next.

Published: In Print Issue Nº 09—2021
Interview by Vice Lesley, Thinkbabymusic Collective
Photography © Ishmael Ensemble