Welcome to the world of Alfa Mist. It’s full of collaborators, constant creation, a new album, unfailing musical openness, and ultimately, infinite possibilities.
At the time of an interview with the Newham Recorder in 2016, East Ham-born Alfa Mist is talking about preparations for his first headline show St Pancras Old Church. Dig deep enough and you’ll find blurry YouTube footage of the show, with a supporting band including Kaya Thomas-Dyke and Jamie Houghton, school friend Jordan Rakei on guitar, and Tom Misch on vocals. Attendees were treated to quintessential Alfa Mist as he conducted the flow of jazzy chords and improvised melodies, punctuated by hip-hop-esque choruses – all with a heart-wrenching rawness. His debut project, ‘Nocturne’ had been released a few months previously, already with a million listens on SoundCloud, and there was some inclination of the journey that lay ahead for the artist.
In the seven years to follow, the world of Alfa Mist was set only for expansion. Still blending bedroom production and expansive jazz group orchestration, his work since has spanned everything from beat-making and producing for artists such as Loyle Carner, composing neo-classical works for the London Contemporary Orchestra, and reworking tracks from composer Ólafur Arnalds.
There have been some big changes for his original collaborators too, Rakei and Misch have both found huge success in their own right, with streams on their solo projects in the hundreds of millions. Despite the shifts, there is a sense that Alfa’s collaborative community is intact and thriving. He started his own imprint ‘Sekito’ (from Alfa’s real name Alfa Sekitoleko) and 2016 band member Kaya Thomas-Dyke is still a collaborator, set to release her solo projects on Alfa’s label. Firmly situated in a thriving scene, he has credits across the discography of Rakei, Misch, and Carner, performing with Yussef Dayes, Nubya Garcia, Barney Artist (another school friend), and many more.
Admitting he’s “never been a ‘one album every four years’” kind of artist, Alfa’s new LP ‘Variables’ drops this April. It marks the sixth of his full-length releases since ‘Nocturne’. Speaking over Zoom in the run-up to April’s release, asking Alfa how he constructs his tunes seems like a good place to start. I learn that his musical process oscillates between structure and improvisation. He explains how “for some tunes, the majority of the song is improvisation, but it always starts off with some kind of theme.” Alfa’s upcoming album, for example, ends with “BC”, a 7-minute long, fully improvised explosion. His compositions work with “the idea that you write this main theme – the head – then go wherever you want.” “That’s how I’ve been tied into the whole jazz thing”, he reflects, “because a lot of jazz music does that.”
Describing Alfa Mist as a jazz artist isn’t wrong, but there seem to be too many other elements to the artist’s output to enforce this singular categorisation. “I’m a producer first and foremost”, he tells me, “I literally have beat forms of every song I’ve ever released”. He got into music production at school making grime instrumentals, developing an interest in UK rap and hip-hop rooted in a love for deep-diving record samples, before teaching himself piano by ear.
Citing early entry points like Miles Davis, alongside iconic film composers like Hans Zimmer, Alfa sees his broad influences as an advantage: “Coming from making hip-hop and grime, I don’t have jazz allegiances or classical musical allegiances.” He expands, “I’ve spoken to musicians in both of those fields and because they know more, they’re more particular with who they listen to. I’m coming in not knowing anything, thinking ‘Oh, this sounds good. This sounds sick. Who’s that?’”.
We agree on the power of the internet for delving down musical rabbit holes and he recounts, “I used to listen to say, a Miles Davis album and then see who’s playing on it. Oh, Herbie Hancock, who’s that? I’ll go to that album and see who’s playing on that. Oh, this bassist is playing – what’s his stuff like? It’s just endless”.
We move on to a broader discussion of the artist’s relationship with his creative output. Alfa’s previously spoken about music serving as ‘an extension of his own life’ and from the outside, it seems musical creation is intrinsic to Alfa’s very being. He agrees, admitting, “music is tied to my state of mind” before continuing, “Even if I worked in something else, I’d probably just be making music at home, even if it didn’t work out. It’s a constant process that helps me to be a stable human being. I’d be doing it regardless”. As evidenced by the extent and depth of his discography, music is fundamental: “It needs to be like that for me to stay well”.
Unsurprisingly, collaboration is also key to the fabric of Alfa Mist. In his words, “Collaboration is pretty much everything, you won’t get far without it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s music or other aspects of life, you’re going to need some kind of help eventually”. Alfa’s work with the likes of Mansur Brown and Yussef Dayes is a good example of this justification, “There are always people that have dived deeper into their instruments than I have, and I like the way they do things.” The result of these collaborations is that Alfa can release music he “didn’t even know was possible”.
So how do all the ideas, beats, and improvisations become an album? When putting together a project, there’s always a concept or question he wants to explore. If ‘Variables’ were a single jazz composition, the concept of – in his words – “infinite possibilities” would be the head. The album asks the question: ‘How did I get here?’.
It’s the butterfly effect in practice, as he considers all the factors that had to line up between that first album in 2015, and the present Alfa that’s sitting across from me. “Like if I took a different route home from school, then something might have been completely different”, he reflects, “Or, if I didn’t find an interest in sampling specifically – if I was just making beats from scratch – then I would never have come across other music. So many tiny things have happened in my life to get me to this point”.
The recording of ‘Variables’ is a further reflection of Alfa’s commitment to the joys of the unknown, telling me, “The album’s truly made in two or three days”, during which he brings his beat forms to the band. “We just press play on the tape and then whatever happens in the next 10 minutes, happens”. There’s a mutual trust and respect in this musical community of his own curation, and the musicians he surrounds himself with. In those 10 minutes, some of the infinite possibilities are realised, and fans only have to wait till April to hear the results.
Long since that first show in 2016, Alfa’s list of tour dates has grown alongside a prolific release schedule. On consideration, a personal highlight was a headline sold-out show at the London Barbican. At a past visit to the venue, he describes looking around and thinking, “I shouldn’t even really be here, it’s crazy that I’m in this in this place. No one around here looks like me”.
Seeing Alfa Mist live is your opportunity to truly dive into the musician’s world, with a North American tour this April, a headline slot at Cross the Tracks in London in May, and more dates across Europe over the next few months. He’s excited for the Outernet show in November, telling me he’s working on animations and visuals, as “merging visuals and audio” is a “huge thing” for him.
Imagining what attendees might be in for, the nature of Alfa Mist’s recording process means the key themes of his music translate into a live show easily, “there’s not too much difference between what the record sounds like and then performing live”. The improvisations, however, are “always going to be different”. The infinite possibilities are part of the joy, alongside Alfa himself, you never quite know what you’re going to get.