Chris Redmond, Tongue Fu Founder

Cast aside any thoughts of clichéd poets, nonchalantly perched on stools in smoky half-empty rooms telling tales of woe in iambic pentameter. Prepare yourself for Tongue Fu. An event, nay experience, that has taken the literary scene by storm, Tongue Fu is ‘a live experiment in spoken word, music, film and experience’, as quothed by its founder and charismatic host, Chris Redmond. We spoke to Chris about the Tongue Fu mission to bring the (spoken) word to the streets.

What inspired you to bring the two worlds of spoken word and live music together?

‘I’ve been making music and writing stories since I was a wee lad. A love of music and words has been pretty constant in my life. It’s been a natural progression.’

Spoken word has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late with artists – and Tongue Fu veterans – like Kate Tempest, Polarbear and Scroobius Pip becoming household names; do you think there’s a reason for this now more than ever?

‘I’d guess it’s a confluence of a number of things. We have generations who’ve grown up with hip-hop, clever wordplay and stand-up comedy as a continual cultural backdrop. I think spoken word combines these elements with poetry, theatre and all kinds of musical influences.

‘So much entertainment is dumb; pop music is now a constant reworking of what’s come before. Stand-ups have grown from outspoken underground provocateurs in the early ’80s to being millionaires who sell out arenas. I think, increasingly, people like entertainment that still feels real, that’s not so shiny with showbiz and sparkle that performers can still be people rather than personalities. We live in a time of much spin and horseshit and maybe we’re tired and cynical as a result. I think spoken word at it’s best attracts those who enjoy being asked to think as well as being entertained. There’s an honesty to it. I hope.’

The Bestival shows this summer were one of my personal festival highlights; how does it feel to see the same kind of energy in the crowd for poetry as for the music gigs?  

‘It’s amazing. I did a lovely set just before Scroobius at Bestival, so he essentially leant me his audience and they were bang up for it.  There were about 500 people who not only came for Scroobius because he’s obviously a big name, but who were engrossed in every other performer. He’s been generous like that – he’s used his popularity to raise the profile of spoken word and the artists working within it. It’s a great time to be doing what we do. Saul Williams sold out the QEH recently, Kate Tempest the Old Vic – that’s extraordinary.  There are some great spoken word nights in London regularly attracting large audiences – Chill Pill, Poejazzi, Word House, One Taste.’

One of the great things about Tongue Fu is the spontaneous nature of the show; what’s the best (and worst) audience reaction you’ve ever had during a performance?

‘I think we’re incredibly lucky with our regular audiences at Rich Mix; they are the most enthusiastic, generous and responsive audiences we could hope for. I guess the audience is complicit in the experiment. None of us knows quite what’s going to work and what won’t, so audiences tend to be really engaged rather sitting back saying “entertain me”. Some of the trickiest audiences are festival crowds because although generally good-natured, they’re transient and unpredictable. It’s not bad, you just have to work harder to keep them there. I say work, but it’s not mending roads or waiting tables is it?’

Tongue Fu recently collaborated with BBC’s free online arts platform The Space to create Tongue Fu Flicks; how do the films differ from the live show?

‘We commissioned six poems from Kate, Scroobius, Salena Godden, Zen Edwards, Shane Solanki and… erm… me… We were all filmed with improvised music from the Tongue Fu band. Our visuals boys – Design Studio CR&D – had access to the BBC film archive so they made some really beautiful collage animations to accompany each piece. We also made recordings of the poets on their own, the band playing instrumental response pieces and a bunch of other stuff. It all sits within a media player where you can mix and match between versions. At the live show, there’s a lot of stimulus – words being spoken and sung, improvised music, film and animation. We wanted to create digital content that allowed the viewer to focus on whichever of these aspects they chose.’

You’ve also recently released your first book, Liminal Animals; how have you translated the Tongue Fu experience into a book?

‘We haven’t really. It’s a chance to sit and read the words from some of the artists who’ve performed at Tongue Fu on the page rather than have all the bells and whistles of a performance, so it’s kind of the antithesis of the full show. It’s nice to make something simple.’

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their journey into spoken word?

‘There’s a famous Jim Jarmusch quote that I have on my wall: “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.”’

Where in London do you feel most creative?

‘Anywhere. London always inspires me but if I had to choose one or two… I love BAC.  Whenever I’ve been there to work I’ve felt productive and inspired.  The way it’s used and the people who use it make it a vibrant place in which to create.  I also genuinely love Rich Mix as I have had so many good times on stage there with the Fu.’

You have 24 hours to show someone the best of London – what do you do?

‘Take them to Tongue Fu! Walk the streets dressed as pirates. Ride bikes everywhere. Talk to everyone. Drink coffee. Eat Caribbean food.  Eat Indian food. Drink Caiprinhas. Take them to You Me Bum Bum Train. Go to Hampstead Heath and Abney Park Cemetary. Follow our noses all around east London through cafes, galleries, warehouses, pubs and parks.’

What is London’s best kept secret?

‘That under the slightly surly demeanour of its inhabitants, there is always a story and bit of banter.’

Stay tuned to the Tongue Fu website for details of the next gig in the New Year.

You can watch Tongue Fu Flicks for free on The Space.

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