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Werkha From Zapatista to Tru Thoughts

Tom Leah, aka Werkha, had a large 2014. We spoke to him about signing with Tru Thoughts, the new album, and matching beers with beats.

Tom Leah, aka Werkha, had a large 2014. Following a track on a 2013 Gilles Peterson Brownswood compilation, he combined the release of his debut EP for Tru Thoughts, Beacons, with a support slot on Bonobo’s European tour, learning much in the process. His first album, Colours Of A Red Brick Raft, is out in early June and features long-time collaborator Bryony Jarman-Pinto. Having moved to Cumbria from Manchester when young, Tom returned to study in the city and continues to make his mark in various musical circles, not only through his own musicianship, but also through DJ residencies for So Flute and Levelz.

The album’s ready to drop. How are you feeling?

Good! I don’t think it’s something I would’ve anticipated a couple of years ago – to be in this position now, where I’m having an album come out on a label that I grew up listening to, and my own five-piece band to play it.

What have been the benefits of signing with Tru Thoughts?

I was pretty excited when I first went down to speak to them. I knew I wanted to say ‘yes’, but it’s obviously sensible to have conversations about what we were agreeing on. I went down again just after I signed, and they were referencing other artists and their approach to work - like Quantic, who is a massive influence for me in terms of being one of the really stalwart producers who’s got a constant and consistent output. He’s always there and that’s what I admire – that ability to keep going. They have an interest in investing more time and effort in me if I give that back. It’s a really nice, trusting relationship and they’ve been massively helpful in distribution, getting my records around the world and into the hands of different people – into Bonobo’s hands. For the tour last year, he had a bunch of names in a hat, or something, and they managed to wedge my name in last minute.

What can people expect from the album launch show?

We’ve got Matt Davis on the drums – he played with Matt Halsall and Paper Tiger, and was taught by [The Cinematic Orchestra’s] Luke Flowers. He’s on kit and I’ve managed to delegate some samples to his SPD. I’m on keys, MPD, looping guitar and playing bass as well. I’ve got Alan Keary, who produces as Shunya. He’s on electric bass. Also, Simmy Singh, who’s in the Hallé Orchestra. All these musicians who can play better than me! But I’m happy. She’s on viola and violin, then Bryony’s singing on her own out the front.

How do you describe that melting pot of the city to people who aren’t from Manchester?

The size and nature of the city, I’ve always had the impression it’s far more intense musically, per head, than London. London has got more going on because it’s bigger, but I feel like Manchester is really condensed so you naturally get these interesting crossovers. I don’t know how to describe it though.

What have been your favourite tracks to perform so far, at this stage?

‘Highwaves’ has two bass guitars on stage. When I thought of that when I was writing, I thought it might look a little proggy and audacious, but we’ll give it a go. That was one of the motives for writing two bass lines for that tune – to be able to perform and for people to go, ‘You don’t see two bass guitars at a gig every day’. In terms of my favourite – because it’s one of the last ones I finished writing – ‘Border Kite’ I’ve enjoyed. That’s felt like a nice indication of how I can use instrumentation and where I might be able to take stuff in the future.

Do you have a desire to go and hear music in other settings around the world?

I am thinking of doing that at some point in my life, but under my own steam really. I’ve always been quite well-travelled. My family cut back on things they didn’t think we needed growing up so we could go to a new place every year. We went to Mexico when I was 12, walked up a 4,000 metre volcano and started going doolally – that was good. Also, we went into the south, into the jungles, where the Zapatista rebel movement was. After a day of driving along completely knackered tracks through the jungle, we got to this checkpoint of guys with AK47s and balaclavas, who were all perfectly nice. We stayed there, sleeping in hammocks hanging off the rafter of the village hall, for a couple of nights. That was just a structure with a corrugated iron roof, where they did everything. They had meetings. That’s where the kids were educated…

…and they were happy for you to stay in the village?

Yeah, it was just for a couple of days and they took us to a nearby lake where you could see over to Guatemala. I’ve told that to friends and family, and they’ve questioned who would take their children into that setting. Those sorts of things growing up, going to places like that – that taught me loads. I don’t know how that necessarily ties into music, but that sort of experience made me think it’s always important to keep changing, moving around. It’s important to keep refreshing yourself.

Tell me about this ale you’re launching with the album.

ShinDigger, this brewery, they approached me about it. They’re Manchester based. They said it came to them as a good idea to collaborate. I don’t actually know where it will be exactly, but it should be at the album launch. I want to get it in places like Folk [in West Didsbury], nice little places. There are a couple of places in Penrith which will hopefully get it. It’s quite a novelty thing. I never thought I’d have my own ale. We’ve gone for a red ale, as a reference to the Manchester red bricks. I like associations like that. The album is like that, some of them are obvious and some aren’t.

The tune ‘A Revolution Blue’ was because I was sat eating a sandwich in Rustica, staring at some artwork of Edward Snowden [by artist Sarah Lynn Mayhew, aka SLM Art, as part of Manchester’s OutHouse project]. The idea of a revolution of truth, of day-to-day understanding of things, was something I could see as a viable revolution of sorts for our generation. That would be really important.

What’s next?

I remixed Nubiyan Twist recently. I’ve just finished an initial draft for Eska. That was fun. At the moment I’m really busy sorting out the live stuff. I’ve really enjoyed doing remixes, going through those motions and being creative with other people’s ideas. I’d love to release a remix tape one day. I’m five or six ideas into a new album. I’ve got the appetite for the process of making an album and I really want to do it again.

Learn more

Werkha’s debut album, Colours Of A Red Brick Raft, is out now on Tru Thoughts. Werkha plays Tramlines at the Harley on 24 July.

Read an extended version of this interview at

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