Sam Sweeney: ‘I love making a lot of noise’

After having won the Musician of the Year award at this year’s Folk Awards and playing with almost everyone from Jon Boden and Eliza Carthy to Hannah James and Fay Hield, as well as being a permanent member of unplugged trio Leveret and the folk rock leviathan that is Bellowhead, Shire Folk caught up with Sam Sweeney in the downtime between the end of his hugely impressive Made in the Great War show and setting off on Bellowhead’s farewell tour, so we asked him …

SF: You seem to be the busiest man in folk, what with Leveret, Bellowhead, etc. and deservedly winning the Musician of the Year award; how do you balance it all out?

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Sam Sweeney

SS: It isn’t anywhere near as difficult as you may think because most of the bands I’m in work to the same timetable every year. So everyone in Bellowhead knows that we have to keep November free and we always do a spring tour, usually in April, so we know to keep those free. Then October’s always Leveret and Faustus always go out, so I know that Bellowhead won’t do anything then. There was a time a few years ago when it would be the Fay tour in February, the Remnant Kings tour would be March, and Hannah and Sam would be April, so for four or so years it was the same calendar for me every year. It was only last year when it completely started to change – there was no Remnant Kings, I stopped playing with Hannah and Sam, so it all started to change. And it’s all starting to change again with Bellowhead splitting up.

SF: Do you have a preference for the ‘unplugged’ approach of Leveret or the ‘full on’ approach of Bellowhead?

SS: Basically there are two sides to me. I love making a lot of noise – I’ve always been into loud rock bands. When I was in school I was in loud rock bands playing the drums. I also adore going to rock gigs and gigs that make you jump up and down like a lunatic, so actually being in Bellowhead is a part of me that’s always been there. So actually, even though it is folk music, that satisfies that part of me that has the making a lot of noise and jumping up and down urge.

SF: At Folk by the Oak this year you were on one stack and Jon Boden was on the other, before you made your leap into the crowd. It struck me that this is pretty much like a rock gig.

SS: That was quite painful actually .[laughs] I thought I may as well go for it.

SF: It looked like a long way down.

SS: I realised how far down it was halfway through doing it. Funnily enough I don’t actually listen to very much folk music. I listen to music you can go and see in a rock venue. I will miss that so much when Bellowhead finish – playing for two thousand people every night.

SF: What sort of music do you like to listen to?

SS: That’s such a difficult question! My favourite band in the world is Arcade Fire …

SF: I seem to remember you tweeting a picture of yourself going to an Arcade Fire gig wearing full make-up …

SS: Yes that’ll be the one! Most of what I listen to is loud music and I really like intelligent pop music as well. With Leveret, the thing for me, if you could listen to what my head sounds like in folk, if you let me create it, it basically sounds like Leveret. I can’t imagine making folk music better than that. I’m not saying ‘we are brilliant’, but I don’t know … Leveret sounds like the inside of my head. For me the Leveret thing is incredibly thrilling because as well as having the small intimate feel that it does … and these days we often play in the round so we’re completely surrounded by people in a concert setting. The other thing with that is Bellowhead is largely the same every night – we always start from an arrangement and go from there, it does evolve, but the thing is with Leveret is that’s completely different every night. We have a list of tunes, but apart from that we have no set list and no arrangements, so when we start a tune we don’t even know who’s going to start it and how it’s going to go. For me I’ve become so much better a musician since joining that band.

SF: There’s nowhere to hide, I suppose.

SS: Yes and it does fall apart because it’s so seat of the pants and so exposed. Someone might try something like a … throw in a music idea and someone might not pick up on it and we have on a couple of occasions completely fallen on our arses! But that’s the thrill of it – you’re witnessing three musicians basically baring themselves completely in front of you. I think it’s a thrilling thing. You can see Leveret ten nights in a row and it’ll be a completely different show every night.

SF: So will losing that ‘rock’ side be the thing you miss most about the end of Bellowhead?

SS: For me, especially the last two years have just been so gorgeous socially – I will miss every member of that band so much. The thing is there isn’t actually anywhere we will encounter each other as people, as friends, so actually it will be a huge lack of each other in each other’s lives when it happens. From 1st May next year there’s no reason I should see any of those people unless I make an effort to go and see them. I’m not in any bands with any of them. Apart from Paul and Benji, no one’s in any bands with each other. So it’s going to be crazy – from spending one in four days of every year with each other and sleeping a couple of metres from each other on a tour bus, to never ever seeing each other unless we go off for a social visit.

SF: Made in the Great War was superb – very moving.

SS: Yes, it was supposed to be!

SF: When did you realise you had a story?

SS: Well, when I actually got the fiddle I was in the middle of doing my A levels and when me and my dad realised there was this name inside it and this story that was clearly a bit odd, I didn’t think too much of it. Fascinating, but I got to pass my A levels! So my dad did the bulk of the research to begin with and as it unfolded it became a little bit crazy. I told people this story and they said, ‘You have to tell people! This is too good.’ I was encouraged to ask for a performing bursary from EFDSS. I was successful in getting a small bursary from them, which was supposed to help me develop this idea into a show. So originally Made in the Great War was me and Hugh Lupton in a one-off performance in front of a small invited crowd of friends and family in Cecil Sharp House. That was all it was supposed to be. The way it developed into the show and the national tour was I was playing with Sam Carter in the Purcell Rooms in London a few years back and I told his agent Terry O’Brien the story of Richard Howard and she said that’s incredible, you must tell everyone, I’ll help you to write the Arts Council application and we’ll get some tour support from them. So she was the one that said you have to tour this. She really kicked me up the arse and made it happen. She helped me write the application and we were very fortunate to get this massive tour support grant from the Arts Council and from there it went from one tiny performance in Cecil Sharp House to me writing loads of music with Rob Harbron, getting Paul Sartin in, getting Hugh to write it all out. We recorded the album and then it became a 23-date tour with national press coverage. Amazing! It was never supposed to be that, but I’m so happy that it became that because the story deserves it.

SF: How did you get to meet Hugh Lupton?

SS: I’d seen Hugh at various festivals … a story-telling festival called Festival at the Edge when I was kid. I’d seen a couple of things he’d done with Chris Wood that was really where I got to know his work. Chris is a massive hero of mine and he’s really my biggest inspiration, so when I used to go and see Chris and Hugh together it used to blow my mind. I knew that Hugh was the best storyteller I’d ever seen. All we had was a list of facts about this man’s life and I thought, who can do this man’s story justice, it has to be Hugh. So I rang him up and said ‘Hello, my name’s Sam Sweeney, you probably won’t have heard of me, but I’d like to talk to you about a story’. Anyway, he had vaguely heard of who I was and he jumped at the chance – he thought the story was amazing. I was so happy that he said yes because I don’t think anyone else could have done a better job really.

SF: You’ve got the Leveret and Bellowhead tours coming up, have you planned further ahead than that?

SS: I’ve got tours up to next autumn, but obviously things are changing. The biggest change in my life is that I’ve just become Artist in Residence at The Convent in South Woodchester in Gloucestershire. It’s an old Catholic convent that this guy and his wife bought and it’s a venue in an old chapel, it’s also a hotel. It’s an incredible place. They’re pioneering Netgig there. I was thinking of moving to the South West. My girlfriend’s from Cornwall and I’m in Sheffield, so Stroud seemed a good mid-point. I was invited to live here for a year as Artist in Residence and create some stuff. So after the Bellowhead tour finishes in November, I’ve got December and January with no work really, so I’m going to think about what to do as part of my residency here.

Jonathan Roscoe

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Sam Sweeney