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Bellowhead - The IndieLondon interview

Bellowhead

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SEVERAL members of Bellowhead – including Pete Flood, Jon Boden and John Spiers – talk exclusively to IndieLondon about their latest album, Hedonism, and the stories behind some of the many excellent tracks.

They also talk us through some of their favourite live experiences (including a surreal experience with ostriches!), why they feel the music industry could do with taking more risks and which tracks – if any – they would personally like to cover.

Q. We really enjoyed the new album from your good selves… was it as fun to put together as it is to listen to?
Pete Flood (Percussion): Definitely! Some of the early rehearsal stages took place during mini residencies at Bristol Old Vic and the Southbank Centre – two of our favourite places to work. And we made sure to road test all the material live to get an idea of what worked best. The thing that I’m most proud of is the sense of community that came about over the making of the album. Without even really talking about it we just pulled together and got on with it.

Q. Why did you come up with the name Hedonism?
Jon Boden (Lead vocals/Fiddle): Initially we quite liked the name Bellowheadonism, but then we went off it. Lots of the songs ended up being about lust and indulgence so Hedonism seemed to fit, and it also fits with the aim of the band to be a euphoric live act.

Q. What was it like to record at Abbey Road Studios?
Pete Flood: The sense of history that you get at Abbey Road is staggering – you feel really privileged to be working in a place so iconic that people come from all over the world to see it. But at the same time, it’s a functional studio, not a lifeless monument, and we were there to work hard. So, it was a strange and lovely combination of the magnificent and the mundane.

Q. What do you like about working with each other, Jon and John… both when it comes to playing live but, more importantly, when it comes to writing the songs?
John Spiers (Melodeon/Concertina): We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s pretty instinctive as a duo. It wasn’t always that way – when we started out we had a few long, hard years reconciling our conflicting styles which shaped our sound a lot.

I get a big kick from the duo because we’re able to play with time and tempo in a way that sometimes seems telepathic to the audience. Of course, that’s not the case! We just know each other’s body language very well.

We don’t really write material together from scratch – most of our repertoire being traditional and learnt orally – but the way we arrange it is pretty organic and tends to grow from an idea one of us (usually Jon!) has had.

In the context of Bellowhead, the early stuff was just an extrapolation of our duo arrangements, but Hedonism has only one track (New York Girls) that we worked on as a duo first. With the big band, of course we have nothing like the same musical freedom as the duo, but that’s more than made up for by the exciting sound Bellowhead make.

Q. Of the tracks we love, New York Girls is a fantastic entry point. What inspired it?
Jon Boden: I was looking around for a traditional song that could provide us with a good upbeat, rabble-rousing number. New York Girls is a fairly well known trad song but is often done as a slightly whimsical, comic number. It actually has a good, driving tune and a rowdy chorus so I figured we could make it a bit saltier and aggressive than other versions.

Q. Likewise, how much of a challenge was Broomfield Hill? So much seems to have gone into that song… it’s cinematic, it’s got elements of Robin Hood, it incorporates bag pipes… where do you begin with a song like that? Are there rough drafts of it waiting to be discovered?
Jon Boden: I’ve been thinking of tackling Broomfield Hill for a while. There are loads of versions, all of them good. In the end, I came across the chorus from a different song (a Robin Hood ballad) and nicked the tune from another traditional song (Bogie’s Bonny Belle), taking the words from a few different versions in the Child Ballads collection. I wanted to make it quite joyous and vernal, and give a sense of the magical elements of the story.

It actually came together pretty quickly as an arrangement – I don’t think there are any rough drafts kicking around (unlike something like A-Begging I will Go, which ended up going through about 20 drafts!).

Q. The Hand Weaver & The Factory Maid provides the listener with a refreshingly tough female character. Who or what inspired that?
Pete Flood: The song comes from a time when textile mills were wiping out the traditional hand weaver’s trade. But the great spin to it is that the factory maid in question is the object of the hand weaver’s desire. I did a double take when I first heard it because where I would have expected a misogynistic rant about women robbing men of their jobs, instead there was this paean to the working woman. Admittedly, a lot of the hand weaver’s admiration is of a lascivious kind, so it hardly strikes an early blow for sexual equality, but I still love it.

Q. How much fun is it getting the band together? And how much input do they have when it comes to deciding which instruments to use on which songs?
John Spiers: I think I would have to describe Bellowhead as somewhere between a very large family and a football team. When we get back together after a long absence it really does feel like a brilliant reunion – and I know that we all look out for each other which makes you feel very safe. Because it’s so expensive to get the band together, we normally only meet up with a definite purpose, usually a gig or tour, so we’re usually quite driven when we’re together which is great.

As for input on which instruments people use – all music by Bellowhead is composed by one of the band members – and they have an idea which instrument they want in any given place. However, quite often individual members will tweak their bit of the arrangement and that has sometimes included instrument changes. Basically, any member of the band can bring anything to the table and that’s why it feels so much like a team.

Q. The fiddle seems to be a popular element in your music… what makes it so special?
Paul Sartin (Fiddle/Oboe): The fiddle has a long and honoured pedigree in traditional music, not only in England but around the world – so it seemed logical to incorporate it in the band. Plus, the fact that four of us band actually play it! It’s also an extremely versatile instrument. At one moment we can be scrubbing away at a Morris tune, the next attempting ’70s disco stabs. Never a dull moment for us fiddlers, and always a challenge!

Q. How was working with John Leckie? What did he bring to the Bellowhead sound?
Pete Flood: John’s got such a wealth of experience that nothing fazes him – he brings calm and relaxation wherever he goes. His influence on the arrangements was minimal – a perfectly-judged tweak or there, but he really left his stamp upon the way the band sounds. The fact that it was all done live in one lovely-sounding room gives the music a natural cohesion which isn’t far off the Phil Spector wall of sound.

Q. How do you see your own progression as a band? How do you feel you’ve improved, or how much have you learned, over the course of the three albums you’ve so far delivered?
Paul Sartin: We’ve certainly gelled as a unit, important as we are 11, but also inevitable after so much live performance and with such skilled and sensitive musicians. Although we incorporate ideas from a plethora of genres, I think with the last album we’ve attained a higher level of consistency and ‘band sound’.

Q. You’re renowned for having a good time live, which is infectious… so what are some of your favourite live memories?
Sam Sweeney (Fiddle/Bagpipes): Playing Cropredy this summer was an amazing gig. I have been going to this festival on and off since I was born, so I have very fond memories of being at Cropredy and watching Fairport Convention from afar, but to actually be on stage headlining the Friday night was an amazing spectacle. Looking out and seeing 20,000 people enjoying our music was something I’ll never forget.

We tend to play Towersey Festival every other year, and every time we go back the crowd gets better and better. The last three times we have gigged there, the audience has broken the dance floor, which isn’t a bad record for a folk band.

Touring Canada in 2009 was an amazing time for the band. Their folk festivals are more like our rock festivals, so we played to tens of thousands of people all over the country. The highlight would have to be Winnipeg where there was a strict ‘no standing’ rule until the headline act. Half way through the gig, Brendan (our sax player) told the 40,000 strong crowd that they would enjoy themselves a lot more if they stood up. So they did, and watching the stewards trying to get them to sit down again was very funny.

My favourite ‘non-live’ memory? ‘Borrowing’ a golf cart in the middle of the night and driving into the middle of a German forest to discover a deer enclosure and a couple of ostriches – no contest!

Q. You’re also known for refusing to conform to expectation – is that a label you enjoy indulging?
Paul Sartin: Either that or we’re incapable of sitting still or towing the line – a musical version of ADHD? We even occasionally surprise ourselves…

Q. What do you think of the mainstream scene? Do you think there is enough risk taking in music nowadays?
Pete Flood: It’s harder to survive, and I think that’s bred a certain desperate conformity amongst musicians. It’s rare to see performers these days who look natural and unaffected – too many look worried that they might be getting it wrong. Too many look like they’ve learned stagecraft out of a book, rather than just getting on stage and playing the fool. It’d be nice to have a little more danger, but danger’s not a bankable commodity, and the profit margin’s slim to non-existent, so we get lots and lots of safe instead.

Actually, even Simon Cowell’s been saying something similar of late, which is rich given his enormous influence on the current state of affairs. I wish people of his ilk would think a little about the cultural legacy they’re leaving behind, but one interesting thing I’ve learned recently is that incompetents seldom have the tools to judge their own incompetence, so perhaps it’s not entirely his fault.

Bellowhead

Q. Which artists inspire you?
Paul Sartin: I’m indebted to the tradition bearers who have gone before us, and preserved, nurtured and furthered our music. And the many practitioners in the folk scene now – it’s an inspiring community to belong to. In my Oxford days, Ian Giles and Graham Metcalfe were the two leading lights in the sessions, and were a big influence in musical, and other recreational ways.

Pete Flood: S.E. Rogie, Scott Walker, Clouddead, John Hartford, Shibusa Shirazu, Henry Threadgill, Astor Piazzolla, Morton Feldman, Deerhoof, Julian Cope, Jonathan Richman, Kevin Ayers, Efterklang, Joanna Newsom, Os Mutantes, Harry Beckett, Sparks, David Ackles, Danny Kaye.

John Spiers:: Salvador Dali, Vic Reeves, Tom Baker

Jon Boden: From the folk scene… Peter Bellamy & Martin Carthy are the two singers who have inspired me most; Bellamy as a vocal technician and Carthy as a story teller and great editor of traditional material. Steeleye Span (at their best) set the benchmark for narratorial arrangement of traditional ballads. And I’m also a massive Tom Waits fan and love the juxtaposition of extreme musical violence with extreme sentimentality and melodic beauty. The piece of music I listen to most is The Curlew by Peter Warlock.

Sam Sweeney: The nature of the English folk scene means that I know and play with a lot of the people who have inspired me (and continue to inspire me). Being able to meet and play with the people who you look up to is one of the main reasons the folk world is so great to be involved in. The man who inspired me to play the fiddle was Dave Swarbrick. For me, he is undoubtedly the best folk fiddle player there has ever been. Whether he’s playing with Carthy, Bert Lloyd or Peter Bellamy, or playing on early Fairport Convention records, his ornamentation and song accompaniments are phenomenal.

Over the past year, the band that has inspired me the most is Spiro. Lightbox is one of my top three albums ever, and hearing it for the first time was a revelation. It’s a record of instrumental music, some traditional, some not, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s hypnotic and deeply involving – I recommend it to everyone!

Q. And if given the chance, who would you like to collaborate with, either in the studio or live?
Paul Sartin: The Band. Though, sadly, half of them are no longer with us.

Pete Flood: Elvis Costello

John Spiers: Nigel Eaton, as a hurdy-gurdy player – he’s so far ahead of anyone else I’ve ever heard and I love his last solo album.

Jon Boden: Mary Margaret O’Hara, Kate Bush, Ed Harcourt.

Sam Sweeney: Fyfe Dangerfield. His mind works in crazy ways, and Through The Windowpane by Guillemots is one of my favourite albums, so it would be cool to see what he’d do something with Bellowhead in the studio.

Q. What’s the greatest piece of advice you’ve learned in reaching this point to date?
Paul Sartin: Wash behind your ears.

Pete Flood: Never turn your back on Mother Earth.

John Spiers: If someone doesn’t hate what you’re doing – you’re not doing very well. From Martin Carthy.

Jon Boden: Always have at least two ideas when working on an arrangement.

Sam Sweeney: Get a sat-nav.

Q. If you could cover any track, what would it be?
Paul Sartin:* Close To You by The Carpenters – might feature in our New Year’s Eve set.

Pete Flood: Townes Van Zandt – No Place to Fall.

John Spiers: The concept of a cover is very odd to me because I mainly play traditional music, which by definition is music that you’ve heard someone else doing. Traditional folk music is about survival of the fittest song just like evolution is about survival of the fittest organism and generally the more times a song has been passed down the generations the more brilliant and concise it becomes as every link in that chain can add something good or remove something unnecessary.

Jon Boden: Ruby’s Arms (with orchestra!) – Tom Waits

Sam Sweeney: Last year at our New Year’s Eve party at the South Bank Centre, we did a covers set. The highlights were slightly folked-up versions of Disco 2000 sung by Jon, and Pete taking the lead vocal on Ring of Fire. I have always thought Bellowhead could make a good attempt at Penny Lane, or a number of other songs from Magical Mystery Tour for that matter.

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod players at the moment?
Paul Sartin: I haven’t got an IPod (can’t afford one) but in my car I have CDs by the aforementioned Graham Metcalfe, Athlete, Dave Clark (conductor wizard from Canada with whom we have collaborated), Robert Plant and Alan Bennett reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

Pete Flood:
Joanna Newsom – Only Skin
Arvo Pärt – Credo from Berliner Mass
The Wraiths – Welcome, Stranger, to This Place
Everything Everything – My Kz Yr Bf
Material – The Western Lands
Constant Lambert – Concerto for Piano and Nine Players
Jonathan Fire-Eater – The Search for Cherry Red
Les Frères Jacques – L’Orgue de Barbarie
Abelardo Carbonó y su Conjunto – Palenque
Golden Girls – Kinetic (David Morley remix)

John Spiers:
Donald Fagen & Walter Becker – Brooklyn – Let George Do it
Goldie Looking Chain – Greatest Hits – Half Man Half Machine
John Kirkpatrick & Sue Harris – Facing The Music – John Locke’s Polka/Three Jolly Sheepskins
Kate Bush – The Whole Story – Babooshka
Kid Creole & The Coconuts – The Best Of – Maladie D’Amour
Nobsta Nutts & Lews Tewns – Poverty is Thirsty Work – 80’s History Lesson
Saltfishforty – Netherbow – The Cock O’ Byam
Tommy Orchard – Voice of the People vol.11 – Two untitled stepdance tunes
Milladoiro – A Galicia de Maeloc – A Bruxa
A budget European version of Faurés requiem – nothing can beat full on vibrato from sopranos singing the top line instead of the emotionless load of little boys from privileged backgrounds, which most of the UK recordings give us.

Jon Boden:
Jethro Tull – Heavy Horses
Doris Day – I Could Write A Book,
Kate Bush – Under Ice
Tim Erikson – Garden Hymn,
Mary Hampton – Because You Are Young,
Ed Harcourt – You Only Call Me When You’re Drunk
Tom Waits – Misery’s The River Of The World
Enrico Caruso – Serenata
Peter Warlock – The Curlew
Mary Margaret O’Hara – You Will Be Loved Again

Sam Sweeney:
Spiro – Darkling Plains
Cordelia’s Dad – Granite Mills
Abba – Summer Night City
Bell Orchestre – Icicles/Bicycles
Bjork – Hyperballad
Nancy Kerr & James Fagan – Queen of Water
Triakel – Lilla Hin / Gammel Sara
Led Zeppelin – The Wanton Song
John Martyn – Head and Heart
Dolly Parton – Travelin’ Prayer

Read our review of Bellowhead’s Hedonism