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BELLOWHEAD: FIDDLES, BAGPIPES AND FRYING PANS – INTERVIEW BY MIKE AINSCOE

 
Eleven piece purveyors of  ‘English World Music’ Bellowhead started life as the brainchild of renowned folk duo, Jon Boden and John Spiers who dreamt up the notion after a conversation between the two which took place during a traffic jam, concerning musicians with whom they would like to work with. Clearly it was a long traffic jam.

Following a debut performance at the 2004 Oxford Festival and the release of their debut E.P. Onymous, they produced four more albums. Containing a plethora of talented musicians and a vast array of instrumentation, the band have continued to go from strength to strength, recently picking up the ‘Best Album’ award for Broadside at the 2013 BBC Folk Awards. Melodeon player John Spiers (rhymes with pliers) took time out of their current tour to answer some questions.

MIKE: First off, many congratulations on the Best Album award at the 2013 Folk Awards. Is it a bit more meaningful when it’s an award which is voted for by the public rather than the usual Folk Award panel?

JOHN: Absolutely - ultimately we're making the music for everyone, not just people in the music industry and it is lovely to get recognition from ordinary people.

MIKE: Was there was a deliberate shift in recording Broadside

JOHN: We made a conscious decision to record Broadside in a different way - we treated it much more as a studio album rather than the live take method we've used before. It's an impossible task to try and capture everything on recording that's in the live show because that has elements of visual, audio, comedy and drama ... so we thought using the studio to layer up the sounds in a different way was the right way to go.

MIKE: There has been a school of thought which has Broadside as much punchier and dare I say, mainstream. Is that a deliberate shift to broaden the Bellowhead sound and pull in a wider audience?

JOHN: It's partly that, and also partly the way in which we recorded the material that has given it that feel. But we are actively seeking to get the genre of traditional folk music as far in to the public as possible.

MIKE: How about pushing out a live album? Maybe even as a stop gap during a lull in gigging and recording?

JOHN: The thought had crossed our minds!

MIKE: Bellowhead is often referred to by its members as a democracy, a collective. Is it contentious to ask if there are there sometimes some voices more heard than others?

JOHN: Not contentious at all. We are a democracy - one member one vote. But obviously we all have different skills and we have a couple of prolific and talented arrangements on board. We discuss everything that we need to get a consensus on and if necessary we vote on what to do.

MIKE: Lots of the members of the band record and gig together in other projects – Spiers & Boden etc.  Do you ever get sick of the sight of each other at times?  

JOHN: I think if anything it helps to have these other projects on the boil. If we were on the road as Bellowhead all the time then we'd either go mad or kill each other. If we didn't have other projects on the go we'd starve.

MIKE: Is Bellowhead becoming a bit of an established national institution? The band’s now approaching its Tenth anniversary and nominated annually since 2005 in the best group/live act/album categories in the BBC Folk Awards.

JOHN: It doesn't seem like that. Obviously we've been on the folk scene for nearly 10 years now, but for a lot of people who come to our gigs only discovered us in the past year or so - that helps keep it fresh for us. We are currently working on our 10th anniversary bash as we speak ... we'll let everyone know once we've worked out exactly what it is!

MIKE: What comes with the recognition both artistically and commercially is the much higher profile - promo videos, magazine cover features, TV opportunities etc  -  Where is it all leading? 

JOHN: I can't answer that question - I think you can't predict that kind of thing at all. My motto is enjoy it while it lasts.

MIKE: Talking of making promo videos, did you ever get the custard pie out of your nose?

JOHN: Yes I did as quickly and violently as possible! I hate custard.

(For those in the unknown, the promo film for the track 10,000 Miles Away from Broadside featured the band playing out a pirate raid on a riverside picnic. Melodeon player John Spiers, while playing the role particularly devilish pirate was subject to a custard pie attack amidst the pranks and japes during the raid. The end of the film saw a post script with him struggling to breath and almost drowning in the aftermath of a custard pie attack to great amusement....)

MIKE: As for playing live, there are quite a few seated venues on the upcoming tour. Do you prefer seated/standing/festivals on the whole?

JOHN: There is an intrinsic energy about a standing audience that makes for the most exciting kind of gig - when an audience is free to dance un-hindered then we get instant feedback from watching them and it spurs us on. With the seated gigs it's a little more relaxed - but from a purely listening point of view it's probably easier to concentrate! I like both personally.

MIKE: Despite the endless nominations and awards in the mainstream, how did you feel about picking up the ‘best tie’ award from the Spiral Earth ‘View From The Bar’ awards?

JOHN: You will never fully comprehend the irony of me winning anything related to smart dressing! But it was nice to get a mention.

MIKE: Any chance of hearing Rambling Sailor in the live set again? In the Oct/Nov/Dec 2012 Properganda feature, Pete had it as his favourite Bellowhead track.

JOHN: We're slowly looking back over our older recordings and bringing some back in to the set once we remember how to play them so there is always a chance!

Thanks so much for your time in answering these questions. Good luck on the upcoming tour. I will be paying my dues in Liverpool - fingers crossed for Rambling Sailor.........

Interview by Mike Ainscoe - www.michaelainscoephotography.co.uk