Feature: John Spiers
Proof that folk isn't a dead thing …
On the eve of the release of their fifth album, Revival, Shire Folk spoke to the person his Twitter followers know as SqueezyJohn, aka Bellowhead’s melodeon player extraordinaire, John Spiers. We discussed life after Spiers & Boden and the difficulty of making instrumental-only sets accessible for non-players, but first we discussed the thumping beast that is Revival.
SF: The new album Revival is out on Island Records. How does it feel to be on such a prestigious label after having been on a small independent one?
JS: It’s sinking in now, but initially it was incredibly exciting because all the best albums on my CD shelf have got that famous Island logo on the bottom of them. It’s uncharted territory for us, but hopefully it’ll be an amazing thing. Coming from the folk world it’s brilliant to be doing loads of good stuff in that, but there’s a whole other world out there who don’t get what folk music is at all, so the fact that we’re on Island will really help us to get some of these old songs played where they wouldn’t normally be played.
SF: There is an element of Bellowhead being the ‘folk band that non-folk people will like’, isn’t there?
JS: Yeah absolutely and it’s not an accident either. The rest of the stuff I’ve done has been very traditional, very English traditional-based as well, so it’s fantastic to be involved where, the fact of the matter is not all the members of the band are folk people, and everyone has equal input into it. Folk is present at all stages of arranging the tunes and is the source of most of our material, but we want to actively to engage with as many people as possible. This is the voice of the people.
SF: How do you decide on what songs and arrangements to include on a new album?
JS: Our standard method for arranging album tracks for the band is we all go away and write stuff and it’s possible now to write it out musically on the computer and hear vaguely what it’s going to sound like – it gives you an idea of what’s going to work and what isn’t. That’s only a really early step. So we send those around, have a listen, learn and play and with this album we demoed every idea and track that came up. Technology’s allowed us to do that a lot quicker. We can record our parts and share them by email. The person that arranges it does a quick mix and that’s where some of these extra tracks come from. We all sit down together to see which ones work and which ones are worth working on further. We have to rely on people outside the band to stop us from squabbling. We’ve been through that stage. We realise it’s impossible to be objective about it ourselves, so we have to have a producer on board – to listen to them and say which ones will work.
SF: Bellowhead was originally yours and Jon Boden’s baby initially though, wasn’t it?
JS: Oh yes. It was very different at the first gig [at Oxford Folk Festival], and the first year or so of the band’s life was very much taking the material I was doing with Jon and trying to find parts for other people. We had a clear idea of what we wanted to do back then. We got a few more gigs off the back of the Oxford Folk Festival gig and we recorded the EP and we realised it had legs and might go somewhere. Quite early on we said let’s not do this as us leading a band. We wanted to make the most of everyone’s talents. It showed potential in the first place because everyone was such good musicians. I know what it’s like being in bands where you’re like a hired hand; you don’t have the same level of interest in the music. You sort of take a step back. Whilst that’s easier to manage, it doesn’t necessarily give you the best music you can possibly make. So the rest of our career has been trying to learn the minutiae of how everyone else plays and trying to write better for the people who are in the band and play as a unit a bit better.
SF: When you were deciding on songs for the album, who decided on ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’? Was that a contractual obligation for being on Island Records?
JS: The reason we chose to do it was based on being on Island and making us think of who else had been on. We were considering doing a cover version of a more modern track – not a strictly traditional track – like we did on Hedonism with ‘Amsterdam’, and it seemed to fit because it had been a folk club standard for a long time as well as a hit record for Richard Thompson. We like the idea that folk isn’t ‘a dead thing’ that’s always being saved from death. After all, somebody wrote all of the songs originally and Richard Thompson wrote that song, but because he wrote it after 1910 somehow that makes it different to one that someone wrote in 1890. We’ve often forgotten who the person who wrote it in 1890 was. The ‘Old Dun Cow’ was a music hall act. There’s a tendency in the folk world to say ‘this is traditional’ and this is ‘written’ and you have to draw the line somewhere, but we like to play with that line a bit.
SF: Some of the best things are those that come out of twisting a modern song, like Jim Moray’s version of XTC’s ‘All the Pretty Girls’ as a sea shanty.
JS: Yes and, do you know what, I didn’t know the XTC song before he did that and I thought it was a folk song, which was a surprise because I love XTC. It sounds like someone’s done a modern adaptation of an old folk song to me and then I realised someone had written it in the 1980s. Again it reinforces that there isn’t a line, it’s just an artificial one.
SF: I’ve just been reading Singing from the Floor about the English folk revival and there’s a split in that between the purist, some might say puritanical, view of, say, Ewan MacColl, and others who do something very different with the same material.
JS: The English folk scene is deeply interesting all through its history because they were doing something very virtuous in that they were bringing stuff back that wasn’t being performed and likely to be lost in memory, but because some of the people had a very archivist approach to something that, for the people they were collecting it from, it was a piece of entertainment. The old chaps weren’t singing in the pub from some kind of feeling of noble virtue; people just wanted them to sing a song. It’s easy to lose sight of that when it feels like it’s slipping through your hands. It’s got a much more stable footing now, having been one of the genres of music that people dip their toe into and use as a part of general mainstream music, and the fact that the folk scene in England is strong and thriving. It’s never going to be a majority thing, but it’s nice that everyone’s got a general awareness of it, as well as the people who really like it.
SF: I guess the likes of yourself and Kate Rusby have now broken through into the daytime Radio 2 schedules as well.
JS: Breaking free of the dedicated folk show on Radio 2 is a real luxury really. We’re honoured to be played on stuff like that. The Folk Show has a remit to fulfil on Radio 2 and it’s got a lot of different kinds of folk music ... all the Scottish and Irish stuff. People who’ve made up songs on an acoustic guitar!
SF: Yes Mark Radcliffe’s widened the scope further to include things like singer-songwriters as well.
JS: The problem is, the term ‘folk’ means so many different things. It’s not useless if you know what it means to you, but it’s very broad and it’s a tricky thing having that handle. When the Folk Show moved from Mike Harding to Mark Radcliffe I was absolutely delighted that the second guest was John Kirkpatrick. We were the first and I was wondering how the show was going to go and then they have my squeezebox hero. He’s not young (I think he’ll admit that!), but the show does do a great job of getting a lot of music into a short space of time.
SF: For the new album you’ve changed producer. John Leckie did the last couple and it’s Rupert Christie this time round. Why the change?
JS: John Leckie wouldn’t deal with us again! No, I’m joking. We wanted to make a different kind of record yet again. We’ve only had five goes at it and making a record with eleven people and such complicated arrangements: it’s actually much harder to get the excitement of what we do live over. Working with John Leckie, who did an amazing job on Hedonism and Broadside, he would literally record us live. On Hedonism we played everything together in one room and he recorded that using his skills of doing things the really old way. He didn’t have many tracks to record us on and we had to get it right. We had to play it well and we had to play it a lot. It’s a great, classic sound, but it still doesn’t carry the excitement of the live show. A recording can’t obviously, so we thought we’d go for the more pop approach this time. Rupert’s an expert at that and he’s an arranger as well. He’s attempted to use modern techniques of recording to make the sound big, but using just us as the source of the sound. We certainly pulled the arrangements apart much more in the studio and rewrote things as we were doing it. We’d record one instrument at a time sometimes, just to get it absolutely right. So it’s more like the process I imagine most bands go through in the studio, which we’ve never really done before. That’s a big change for us. He’s done the job, I think.
SF: It certainly packs a real punch.
JS: I know what you mean, it’s a got a real ... well he’s applied that technology and he’s done the job, as I say. He hasn’t resorted to changing the tuba for a bass guitar, though, or anything like that and it’s still us playing.
SF: So you and Jon have gone your separate ways. What’s in store for John Spiers in the future?
JS: Well, I’ll be quite busy dealing with the band record for most of the year! The solo gigs I’ve done so far have been something I’ve been planning for a very long time, but I haven’t had time to do. I did one in Cecil Sharp House in January and I’ve just done Maddy Prior’s festival in Cumbria and I’ve been playing around with my own compositions instrumentally. I love the squeezebox to pieces and I love exploring the boundaries of the instrument. On the last tour with Jon I got loads of offers, people that I’ve known through the fourteen years or so Jon and I have been playing. So I’ve got a lot of cards to go through and to get into some sensible order. The duo was getting audience figures that were so big that we could only play the larger folk clubs and the bigger the gig the further away from the audience you get, and I do like folk music because you’re right in there, there’s not really a dividing line. On a massive stage with Bellowhead and thousands of people in the audience, you feel a long way away from them.
In some ways it’s less intimidating. In a folk club with forty or fifty people you’ve got plenty of time during the first number to get to know every one of those faces. You’re playing directly to each person in the room, which is far more to do with the pub background that I come from. I get a lot more back. It’s easier to tell if it’s working or not. If you’re playing something that you think is great you can pretty much look at everyone’s faces and see if they think it’s great. So I’m looking forward to doing some gigs like that.
SF: It’s interesting to see what Leveret are doing.
JS: Yes I was intrigued with what they were doing – it appealed to me a lot. The danger with playing instrumental music is that so often you’re playing it for people who play instrumental music. The thing about songs is that they’re very much easier to engage with for people who aren’t musicians themselves. I’m attempting to address that in the set I’m putting together as the moment. I’m aware how it is, even as a player, to be in the audience of a purely instrumental set. It’s possible to do it – they do it on the continent the whole time. I don’t think it’s endemic to English people that they won’t listen to that, but it hasn’t been explored thoroughly. You can make fantastic instrumental music based on the English tradition, but I just think it hasn’t been pushed enough.
SF: Mind you, you have to be careful about too many really long songs in a set.
JS: The thing about the duo that was great was that we could flip from one to the other so easily and it gave a nice balance to the set.
Bellowhead’s album Revival is out now on Island Records.