Music Features

Extra Golden's Alex Minoff (Interview)

Sure, Vampire Weekend hit it big by adopting African influences for its hook-heavy indie-pop, but their music is no adequate preparation for the hard-hitting Afro-rock synthesis of Extra Golden’s latest album Thank You Very Quickly. American guitarists Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff have spent years studying and incorporating aspects of Kenyan benga music – a guitar-heavy dance genre – into their playing, and it shows in the music’s maturity. Eagleson even spent years in Kenya studying the music for his doctorate, but the resulting band – with its relentless, foot-tapping energy – is hardly an academic project.

Thank You Very Quickly catches the listener in a crazed storm of single note guitar lines. The opening rhythms of Gimakiny Akia start the album off with a stampede, and, on Anyango, the blistering slide solos streak along like dust devils across a desert. On the surface, some of the influences seem to diverge, but given how much rock music owes its roots to Africa, it’s amazing a band like Extra Golden has never before charged onto the music scene.

Sung alternately in English and the Luo language, Extra Golden’s music is both politically charged and personal, which is not an easy balance to maintain. The title track is a letter of gratitude to all the fans who, in the wake of violence following the Kenyan elections in 2008, donated money to the African band members and their families.  

Minoff could have picked an easier gig as a rhythm guitarist. The background parts in African-based music are endless expanses of moving, single-note patterns, with not even a mirage of a power chord in sight. This is one of the reasons why there is so much to unpack in Extra Golden’s music with every listen. The most important reason, though, is that all the band members – including Minoff – have experienced music, cultures and challenges that most musicians only hear about.

No Ripcord: Extra Golden just came off the African Soul Rebels tour. How did that experience compare to tours you’ve done in the past?

Alex Minoff: Musically, it was really great, because we were kind of the wild card of the bill, and getting to play with Baaba Maal and Oliver Mtukudzi was great because those guys have been around since the seventies. They’re totally professional, and we really learned a lot from watching them every night. Especially considering that most of the shows were in concert halls that were seated, and we’re a band that’s pretty much used to playing in nightclubs and bars where people are standing and drinking, and this was people sitting in more of a concert hall environment. It was really foreign for us. We rely a lot on feeding off of a crowd, and we didn’t really get that in that environment.

How did the other artists on the bill inspire you?

I think the biggest thing was seeing how they dealt with that situation, because, if they’re playing in their home countries, it’s not going to be like that, either. But they have done it before, and they were really good at turning that situation to their advantage. 

Were there any social or political themes to the tour?

The inclusion of a band like Extra Golden is made on purpose by the organizers of the tour as a means of trying to change people’s perceptions of what is African music, or what is Africa. With so many people, their idea of African music is seeing a group of guys in robes playing acoustic instruments and seeming very regal. And that’s what they perceive as African music.

And when they see a band like Extra Golden come on stage, they’re usually immediately disappointed, or they think, this isn’t African music. But the truth is that Africa’s a huge place, and it’s not in a vacuum. There’s so much different stuff going on there all over the continent that’s not what a 55-year-old British person thinks of as African.

How did you learn the benga styles and techniques for guitar?

I think it would be important to say Extra Golden’s music, in the guitar playing, is not straight-up benga guitar. So, there’s certainly elements of it in there, and there are elements of lots of other African guitar styles. There are certain things that a lot of African guitar styles, including benga, have in common. The way that I learned that was from years of listening to it and trying to figure out the parts. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by ear.

When did you go to Kenya to play with Ian?

He was there and studying and doing research for his PhD on benga, and he was in Kenya several times, and when I went there, it was 2004. And he was there for a year, at that point, doing research and working with some musicians.

The thing that he and I really shared was a real passion for African guitar playing. So, we had always talked about trying to go over there together. I learned some things while I was there, but I wouldn’t say that I went over there, and that’s how I learned to play African guitar.

So, you and Ian had been playing with African styles for a long time before that.

Exactly. He and I had both been into lots of different styles for a long time, so it was kind of like building towards when we were able to be there together and hang out and play.

What are some of the techniques or stylistic elements you take from African guitar?

I think something that’s pretty common in a lot of African playing that you’ll hear in Extra Golden is – and this is something that, for me, personally, has been a really, really big inspiration – is the way that the guitar players will play through those chord changes, but not by playing chords or strumming. But they’ll play through those chord changes with a series of melodic patterns. For me, some of my favorite players are actually rhythm guitar players.

That style must make for some interesting rhythm guitar parts.

I love it. I mean, that’s what really drew me to African guitar playing in the first place, was the rhythm guitar. If I come up with a rhythm part that I like, I’ll play it forever. A lot of African music is based on repetition, but the really great playing is such that you’re repeating the same thing over and over again, but it’s never the same twice. When you’ve really got it, it’s like you’re playing the same thing over and over again, but it’s different every time. But it’s not necessarily a conscious decision.

So, who are the heroes of benga guitar?

I guess probably the classic benga guitarists would be Owino Misiani or Collela Mazee. Those are probably my two favorites, and then they’re both really important figures in the beginning and development of benga itself.

Let’s talk about the new album. Thank You Very Quickly has a very cohesive sound. What different approach did you take to recording this album?

Sure. I think the difference this time around was, partially, we had just come off a two-and-a-half-month tour, and we just had a lot more experience playing together. You know, when we made the first record, we never played together until the recording session. When we did the second record, we did, like, a two-week tour.

But this time around, it was just a better division of labor, where someone would have the general song idea, but then everyone else put their stamp on it. And I think we just had more of an idea of what we were trying to do this time around.

There is such a strong political element to your music. How does that come about?

You know, the political element of our band is something that we’ve never sought out. But – just in our nature and in the way things have happened with us – it’s been unavoidable. And I kind of think it’s cool in that way. Because they’re issues that are actually real to us and affect us, as opposed to just writing a song about capital punishment. It’s certainly valid to write something political that’s not a directly personal experience, but I think that the fact that we have been able to be political while really just addressing what happens to us – I think that’s a pretty interesting, unique element to our band.

How did the political turmoil affect the band, personally?

Our singer was in Kisumu, which is in West Kenya. He lived in Nairobi and his family was in Nairobi, but he was in West Kenya with a band, and they were there to play in celebrations after the election. And, of course, that didn’t happen. So, he was actually separated from them, and, for several days, he and his band were just stuck in this room. They couldn’t go out. They didn’t have any food, or anything. He actually made it back to Nairobi, which was really quite a dangerous proposition at the time. His house was looted.

So, Ian and I were just here, and we knew we needed to give those guys some money, but we didn’t have much money, so that’s why we started asking our fans for donations of five dollars. And it worked. We were able to put together enough money so that those guys could get food and their families could get food, and they could move to a safer area. It was super hectic. I hate to think about what would have happened if that hadn’t all worked out.