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The Great British Barbershop Boys - The IndieLondon interview

The Great British Barbershop Boys

Interview by Rob Carnevale

THE Great British Barbershop Boys, four ordinary working guys based in the North of England could not have been more surprised when they realised they would be signing a record deal with Sony Music, home to Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen. But that’s what they did and debut album, Christmas Time, is released on December 6, 2010.

Tenor Alan Hughes talks exclusively to IndieLondon about their journey to stardom so far, the joys of barbershop singing and their hopes for the coming festive season and the future…

Q. Congratulations on your record deal! Can you quite believe you’re sharing record labels with the likes of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen?
Alan Hughes: Not at all! We’re all waiting for it to sink in really – it’s like we’re going to wake up any day now! But it has been fantastic fun so far.

Q. First of all, how did you all meet?
Alan Hughes: We all met about four years ago as members of the National Barbershop Youth Chorus. We formed good friendships and one day decided to have a go at a song in quartet, and it sounded good so we stuck at it. Nine months after forming we won the British Quartet Championship, and it’s been a roller coaster ride since then.

Q. What do you love about the Barbershop sound?
Alan Hughes: The barbershop sound is pretty unique in that it’s a cappella – there’s no instrumental backing. That allows us to focus on our voices, and we try to blend them as well as possible. When our voices are perfectly blended and matched you get ‘overtones’, which is where frequencies are heard way higher than any of us are singing. This is our nirvana and when we hear them, we know we are singing well.

Q. I gather it’s quite a tricky one to perfect – lots of rules and regulations. Which did you find the hardest?
Alan Hughes: There’s a number of rules you have to adhere to when entering barbershop competitions. For instance, harmonically our songs should follow the circle of fifths, there should be a predominance of Dominant 7th chords (the ‘barbershop seventh’), and the melody line should stay with the lead.

Similarly, our content can’t be overly political, religious or risqué. None of these are too hard to follow if you go out there to entertain as many people as you can and have fun – we have done this from day one and it has worked!

Q. How tough was it to achieve UK champion status?
Alan Hughes: Pretty tough – they don’t just give out those gold medals! There’s around 60 male barbershop quartets in the UK. The first round is in November, where the 60 gets whittled down to 16. Then in May at our convention, 10 quartets get knocked out in the semi-finals to leave six in the finals. So, you have to sing six songs perfectly to win. Again, we just tried to have fun and entertain the audience, and it worked.

Q. And subsequently, what was it like representing the UK at The International Barbershop Convention in Philadelphia? How was that experience for you all?
Alan Hughes: A fantastic experience, if a little nerve wracking! About 10,000 barbershop singers from all over the world descended on a big sports arena, where you go and sing your songs in front of a huge panel of judges and a huge crowd. It’s such an honour to be representing our country, so the pride just takes over and you forget about the nerves a little. We were really pleased to score the highest ever score of a British quartet, and it also led to all of this!

Q. We’re told that the barbershop sound is widely recognised as the original boy band experience? Is that doing it justice do you think?
Alan Hughes: I think so. The boy band in its simplest form is a group of young men who sing songs together in harmony, much to the adulation of their fans. Back in 1900s America, before recording really kicked off, each town would have barbershop singers who did just that. Obviously, the idea of the boy band has really taken off and has massive commercial appeal, but I think it’s fair to say that barbershop quartets played a big part.

Q. And what forced it underground?
Alan Hughes: The advent of recording technology really. The crooners of Tin Pan Alley won favour over the local quartets and it pretty much died out. Then, in the 1930’s, a small group of American men got together to celebrate the barbershop sound that they remembered from a few years back. That kind of nostalgia has stuck really, although now it’s developed and is enjoying a bit of a revival.

Q. How do you feel to be at the forefront of the UK revival?
Alan Hughes: It’s fantastic. We only do this because it’s great fun to do, so to think that more people are ‘getting it’ is fantastic, as we feel this hobby has a lot to offer. There’s around 6,000 barbershop singers in the UK at the moment and we are very proud and humbled to be representing them as this style of music gains popularity.

Q. Would you ever be tempted to give up the day jobs? Or do you like to hold onto them because they keep you grounded?
Alan Hughes: We’re just taking things one day at a time at the moment. Like I said, this has always just been a hobby that we do as good friends. We never saw a career in it, but now there may be – who knows!

Q. So, what do you each love about your day jobs?
Alan Hughes: Like every job you have good days and bad days – but we’ve all got good friends in our workplaces (who we are forcing to buy the album!), and also our bosses are being very understanding at the moment!

Q. Alan, what do your pupils think of your success as a tenor?
Alan Hughes: They all think it’s great! They’ve been quizzing me about what has been going on, and are very excited to think that their teacher could be ‘famous’.

Q. Likewise, Zac, Joe and Duncan… what do theirr colleagues and respective communities/customers think?
Alan Hughes: Everyone thinks it’s great. At first they didn’t quite understand the scale of it all, but now it’s starting to sink in. Still, they are very good at keeping us grounded!

Q. How did you go about deciding which songs to record as part of Christmas Time?
Alan Hughes: There was a long list of around 50 Christmas songs that we put together with our manager and with the label. We gradually then whittled this down to around 20 as a bit of a team effort, judging them by what we liked, what would work well as a barbershop song, and also what would fit well with the album – we wanted it to be fun and happy-making, as this is what Christmas means to us.

Q. Which proved more tricky using the barbershop style?
Alan Hughes: Some of the songs are, musically, quite simple, so we had to come up with original ways of making them exciting and fresh. For instance, we have mashed together We Wish You A Merry Christmas and The Twelve Days Of Christmas, which really livens up those two standards.

Q. What makes a great Christmas record in your opinion? And why do Christmas themed albums continue to be so popular with the great British public?
Alan Hughes: Christmas is a time when you see friends and family and catch up, have fun and forget your troubles. We feel it is supposed to be fun, light-hearted and loving, and that a great Christmas album should reflect this. This could be why they are so popular, and why we hope ours will be!

Q. How do you follow this? Are there plans for more albums? And what sort of music would you like to tackle?
Alan Hughes: As I’ve said before, we’re taking it one day at a time, but of course we would love to release more albums! There’s a wealth of ‘standards’ out there that people know and love and we’d love to record some of these. On this album there is a collaboration with Jodie Prenger, and we’d love to do more collaborations with people in the future. We’re happy to take requests!

Q. What are some of your favourite live memories so far? And what plans do you have to tour this album?
Alan Hughes: We’ve had some fantastic live experiences so far. Great ‘big ones’ include the Albert Hall, London Palladium and St. Pauls, although we’ve also sung at some really intimate events like birthday parties and weddings, where we always seem to go down very well, and where it’s very humbling to be invited into someone’s special day.

Due to our tight schedule, there are no plans to tour this album on the run up to Christmas, unfortunately. However, if it goes well, we hope to play at more shows in the new year and over summer.

Q. How do you all intend to spend this Christmas?
Alan Hughes: Having fun with our loved ones. It’s been a crazy few months so it will be great to go home and fall asleep on the couch after too much turkey!

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod players at the moment?
Alan Hughes: There’s obviously a lot of barbershop that we listen to, but we also love our chart music too! Artists that spring to mind that we all enjoy listening to are Weezer, Muse, Lissie, The Guillemots, The Maccabees, Kings of Leon, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, and any other good chart music!

Read our review of Christmas Time