Total Refreshment Centre | Steering the UK Jazz Scene To New Horizons

Total Refreshment Centre was set up in 2012, originally a Jamaican social club. Since then the centre has evolved, and has been taken over and shaped by like-minded music aficionados, offering a large multi-use creative space, used as a recording studio, rehearsal facilities, and a variety of custom studio workshop spaces, adaptable to film, gallery events, showcases photography and beyond. That TRC have recently teamed up with the Jazz café – one of the most iconic jazz brands in the UK – shows how well respected the project is in offering a fresh musical landscape in a competitive marketplace.

TRC Founder Lex, who’s been working tirelessly on the concept of TRC for the past 5 years, has stayed true to his musical identity while realising what it takes to successfully run an operation like TRC. Not only does Lex have an uncompromising knowledge of worldwide music, as well as well as a deep understanding and panache for what it takes to run a successful musical project, he crucially has the space that allows him to combine those invaluable ingredients to idealise, experiment and execute superb showcases that are personified by diligence and know-how.

The diversity and open-mindedness of London and its people has provided Lex with the perfect melting pot to achieve his ambitions: “I needed somewhere where I could have a studio and invite all my favourite musicians to come and play. I’ve always enjoyed hosting and presenting things in a particular way, it goes from the way something sounds to the of lighting on stage, to not even using a stage at all… it all matters a lot to me. And to have complete freedom to do it your way gives me the flexibility to play around and experiment.”

Having the freedom to ‘play around and experiment’ has been typified superbly with TRC’s new series in cooperation with Milestones, an event which celebrates classic jazz albums with live renditions performed by the Jazz Café house band and friends. Ahead of their forthcoming show on Monday – Dave Brubeck’s Time Out with Ezra Collective – we caught up with Lex to for an in-depth conversation about his journey from Paris to London, his musical background, ideas on what it takes to run a successful project, his relationship with Gilles Peterson, as well as much more. This is a really great insight into the passionate mind of someone who is realising his vision. ‘Less is more,’ Lex says, the same premise with which he has built and delivered his ideas.

What can you tell us about the clubs, labels, and releases that first inspired your interest in music?

In London, the places that inspired me the most in creating TRC were alternative spaces like this super creative squat in South London called Colorama, where they turned the basement into a music studio / tiny club, and the ground floor was a gallery space/ cinema; there just was something going all the time in this space. Before that, I’d go to warehouse parties down in Hackney Wick before, that would be a good 8 / 9 years ago, when it felt like it was the wild west!

Where did you grow up and how has that period influenced your move into music?

I was born and raised in Paris, and I am very aware that my love for jazz and hip-hop comes from my cultural background.

My first ever gig was the Beastie Boys and from then on I just went and saw all the best underground hip hop legends from the golden era, the crowd is so alive for this kind of stuff over there, as well as being mixed.

Jazz and funk came soon after. Paris has always loved jazz, so when Guru decided to mix hip hop with jazz, French rappers and producers went in…. Mc Solaar and Jimmy Jay just to give two examples.

I also used to go religiously to this jazz-funk jam that use to happen in the basement of a place called ‘Le Caveau des Oubliettes’; for hip hop I’d go to Le Nouveau Casino and l’Elysee Montmartre, Le Trabendo…

The New Moning remains my favourite venue in Paris.

When and why did you make the move to London?

I moved to London 12 years ago for personal reasons, with a vague idea of what I wanted to achieve there, a sort of to do list. The pretence was to go study, but really I just wanted to explore a new music scene. The to do list keeps on growing every year but things have been moving forward since then, so I’m keeping at it. 

What do you think is so great about London?

London is great because of its diversity. People are open-minded and recognise genuine passion when presented correctly to them.

The musical history is like none other as well… One of the strongest places for graphic design, some of the best labels is here. I could go on…

Why did you decide to open a new creative space?

I needed a space to be creative. It’s going to sound cheesy but I just needed a space where I could be free again. When I decided to go for this crazy dream, I was 28 and had a really boring office job in a label and realised I was miles away from the action. I’ve always craved being surrounded with like-minded people that were dedicated to the music, 100%.

I love meeting new people and listening to their ideas, but also watching them convey their thing within a creative space, everyone feeds off each other’s creative, and it works.

I’ve also needed somewhere where I could have a studio and invite all my favourite musicians to come and play. I’ve always enjoyed hosting and presenting things in a particular way, it goes from the way something sounds to the of lighting on stage, to even no using a stage at all… it all matters a lot to me. And to have complete freedom to do it your way gives me the flexibility to play around and experiment.

You have been working on the concept of TRC for last 5 years. The last year especially has seen some amazing artists through the door. What have been the main challenges – if any – you have faced in keeping it ‘fresh’?

The hardest for me has been to keep my focus where it’s supposed to be, on the creative side. It’s easy when you start a creative space to get caught up in all the management problems that come with it, especially if you are the dreamer / musician type that I was when I started.

After having learned the main ropes on the job – wearing various hats like venue manager / booker / security / lighting & sound guy – I came to realise that I forgot the reason I came here in the first place. It’s easy to end up wanting to please everyone, and forgetting the core reason you are doing it all in the first place.

2 years ago, at the peak of the ground floor venue, as a booker and venue manager, I was finding it hard to stay creative and fully enjoy the shows.

I decided to stop it altogether and focus on the upstairs space, which is the one we started with. In retrospect, this was a blessing in disguise as putting on less gigs meant that I could spend more time researching quality acts and could afford to take the time thinking of the best way to showcase them. Less is more!

Apart from that, in order to keep the shows fresh I’ve just tried to be as true to myself in terms of the music I showcase, it’s 100% stuff I dig.

Very much like selecting records for a djs set, ‘No fillers, just killers!

In the current climate and threat to so many venues in London, how hard is it to locate and maintain a space in London? And what are the main obstacles?

There are a few things that represent a threat to venues; the one that has plagued us is a new neighbour moving in who starts calling the council about noise, at 9pm on a Saturday…

Then there’s the constant threat of the big land owners selling the property to the highest bidder who’ll generally knock a creative space down to make way for luxury flats… A couple of spaces I occupied in the past have been knocked and are now expensive student housing. Where are those students going to go out, freak out and meet other creative types?! Such bad urban planning…

It’s very likely that the building that houses TRC will have this fate one day… or at least they’ll try, we’re ready to hold our ground.

Has the move into releasing records been a natural progression or was it always the aim?

I’ve always wanted to run a record label, the creative process behind it excites me a lot: from the recording, the design of the artwork, making music videos, to commissioning remixes – I feel like I’ve geared myself for this job all my life, and I’m surrounded with all the right people to make it a reality.

Our first release is coming in spring, an EP of the brilliant Vels Trio, all recorded and produced at TRC by DAnalogue (Comet Is Coming /Soccer 96).

We’re also releasing a cassette tape that will act a kind of statement about what we’re about, featuring the Ashley Henry Trio, Collocutor, Orphy Robinson and Vels Trio just to name a few; it’s a mix of recordings made either at TRC, Jazz Café and Church Of Sound. That’s came out on the 25th of February for TRC 5th birthday.

Jazz has always been about a representation of the time, what do you think about the current cultural climate and its influence on the sudden resurgence and interest in jazz?

I see jazz as a platform for individual expression – witness a coming back to life – especially in London. I believe has a lot to do with a few certain schools and tutors who have introduced the genre to a bunch of unstoppable forces of nature.

Also having absolute dons like Shabaka Hutchings, Yussef Dayes and Tenderlonious spicing up the genre by venturing into some next dimensions has given confidence for the younger cats to do their thing.

Looking over at the US, Hip-hop in general has brought jazz back into the light.

People like J Dilla must have influenced more than half the jazz drummers of the 21st century! Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, have also paved the way for more freedom and genre blending in jazz.

Have to give props to new cats on the scene as well, Theon Cross Trio, Joe Armon-Jones and Sumochief, Moses Boyd, Yussef Kamaal, Maisha…

It’s just popping from every corner at the moment.

We went to last weeks Milestones at Jazz Café; it was great to see it so busy on a Monday night. Apart from showcasing classic albums, what is the aim of the series?

As for our Church Of Sound series we’ve been doing, the concept is to pair talented musicians to a classic repertoire. This pairing is not decided at random, we try to find who in the scene has the best sound for the covers the songbook in question – someone that will both understand and appreciate the music, but also bring something new to it.

The other thing that is nice to see is the variety of people that come to these gigs, the younger generation ccome to see the musicians and discover a repertoire while the older generation comes to hear a well known repertoire while discovering new young London musicians. There’s a bit of a generational crossover that is nice to see!

How significant is the collaboration with an iconic venue like the Jazz Café?

When I fist moved to London, Jazz Café was the venue I associated with the most prestigious line-ups, both in Jazz and Hip-hop. So for a freshly landed Parisian kid this totally was the mecca! It’s now been refurbished and looks stunning, the sound is on point too. Selling out the venue for our Vels Trio gig on a Monday night is definitely a highlight of 2017 so far! 

What new talent is exciting you at the moment? Do you have any tips on artists you feel worthy of recognition?

There’s a scene that is burgeoning in a big way over in South London, most of them play at this night called ‘Good Evening’ at the Royal Albert and other pubs around south. I’ve witnessed some truly amazing bands down there –

Check out Maisha on Jazz Refreshed’s bandcamp, solid band.

Maxwell Owin is also an amazing producer who’s creating some very fresh blends of jazz and broken beat, he is one to watch out for as well.

Joe Armon–Jones is getting involved into so many projects it can only go a long way, him and his collective, Sonic Verse, had an event at TRC and there was so much talent in that room. Check out their soundcloud, in this musical house alone you can find zillions of very fresh material, so get digging!

Nubya Garcia I know has a lot of new stuff cooking at the moment as well.

Can you shed some light on some of your current favourite records?

It has to be a mix of old and new music for me!

Collocutor ‘The Search LP ‘

Sun Palaces ‘ Lost Tapes 1983 – 1989’

Hector Plimmer – Kalimba [Albert’s Favourites]

Peluché ‘ Swim’

Sumochief ‘Cosmic Reaction’

Oribata (DJ Tahira & Fernando TRZ) “Batuki”

Loose Meat – Loose Meat (Whipped Cream records)

Joe Henderson ‘Canyon lady’

Good Father Don ‘Where the Skillz’, amazing mid 90’s moody hip hop with very tasty jazz samples.

Soul Makossa is one of our favourite tracks, we just worked on a feature with Mr Bongo and they included it in their top list of African inspirations, what do you think makes it such a special record and how has it formed the inspiration for your new venue?

There are a few reasons why this track and this record has a specific meaning for all of us music fans; this record is infectious, it’s the perfect mix between Disco and African grooves. David Mancuso picked it up and played it regularly in his Loft parties in 1970’s NYC, and it has since then been played in clubs all over the world, guaranteed booty shaker.

Makossa also “ dance” in the Cameroonian Douala language, being a quarter Cameroonian and opening a new place dedicated to dancing to soulful tunes, it felt appropriate.

As a DJ unrestricted by genre and given the vast spectrum of sounds you draw influence from, how do you approach putting together a radio show or live performance?

Radio shows are very different to live shows. When I’m putting together a set for radio, there is no pressure to have an up-tempo track to make people dance. I generally like to take people on a musical trip, playing tunes that I think deserve more airplay for their inherent quality.

My friend Spencer Martin and I have recently started a monthly radio show on worldwide FM called ‘Church Of Sound’ in reference to our monthly night in St James the Great. Those nights generally revolve around a theme, be it a record label, the repertoire of a specific artist or even a specific instrument, the common thread line is a new UK band that performs a selection of tunes that are significant to this theme.

The radio shows then become a documentation of those shows, as well as a showcase of new material from new bands. I always like inviting the artists for an interview, as I am genuinely interested in their background and influences.

We are also sitting on a goldmine of archives, we’ve got all the recordings from the past gigs we’ve done, so for each show we drop one of these gems.

We’ll be releasing some those recordings down the line, watch this space.

It takes a highly dedicated digger to stack their sets with gems, Where are your favourite places to dig and discover music?

My favourite record shops in London are Alan’s Records, Cosmos Records, Love vinyl, Eldica.

When in Paris, there’s Oldies But Goodies, Croco Discs, Supafly, Betino’s … 

I suppose it is only natural that you will cross paths and align with like-minded selectors like Gilles Peterson. How did your relationship with Gilles come about and what’s it like to work with him?

I met Gilles when we were doing events on the ground floor of TRC, we had a good friend in common and he heard of the place while looking to do an event.

As always, to keep things fresh and different, he came up with the craziest idea: mixing tunes from his vinyl collection with a live band that would pick up on the music he’d be playing and vice versa. I put together a band with Shabaka Hutchings and friends – we hired a quadrophonic sound system, hired 12 Optikinetic psychedelic lights, and the we were off! It was called the Secret Waltz Club and it went down a treat.

We did a few more events after that; I just love how he uses his status to make amazing things happen, like putting together a NYE party with Lefto and The Comet Is Coming, 1 week before NYE!

Not only that, but all the projects that he initiates, from Havana Culutura to the Brownswood bubblers… all very inspiring stuff!

Do you have any ideas for future projects that you would like to work on?

My wildest dream is to re-create a full afro-cuban jazz orchestra like they used to have in 1950’s NYC and bring that music to Havana Cuba.

I’ve started compiling heavy tracks that have been totally disregarded, and putting a band together to re-work them, it’s going to be fire!

As for the gig in Cuba, I’m giving myself 9 years to achieve it.