Jade Wright meets folk group Bellowhead to find out more about their new approach to ‘dusty old music’
WITH four studio albums, a glut of prestigious awards, sell-out tours and a trail of acclaimed festival appearances under their belts, Bellowhead have helped to transport traditional folk music into the mainstream.
Now, with their new album Broadside, as well as a nomination for the BBC Radio Folk Awards for Best Group and Best Album award – to add to their seven years as Best Live Band – they’re heading to the Philharmonic for a typically energetic show.
“Bellowhead are a big band – there’s 11 of us and so we always make a big noise,” says melodeon, concertina and bandonion player John Spiers.
“The music we play comes from the folk tradition and some of the tunes and songs we play are well over 300 years old – but we bend and shape them with all the modern influences, the stuff we grew up listening to. I’m partial to a bit of funk, some of the other band members are jazzers, one or two have a world music background, some, classical, theatrical etc.
“The stories in the songs are often pretty extraordinary, some of them quite dark, but as the evening gets going we generally get carried away with the party spirit. Joining in by the audience with singing and dancing is encouraged – folk is supposed to be a participation sport!”
John and the band are looking forward to being back in Liverpool.
“The last time I visited I was playing a duo (Spiers & Boden) gig at St George’s Hall with Jon Boden,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe the intricacy and beauty of the interior of that building – it was just beautiful.
“Someone mentioned to me recently that Liverpool had more listed buildings than anywhere else in the UK. Is that true? I’m not normally prone to enthusing about interior architecture, but it was lovely.
“As a band we’ve only had the chance to play Liverpool once before – but that was a great gig at the Academy in 2009.
“The audience was great. Generally the best audience at a Bellowhead gig is a slightly drunk one.
“It was chaos because we were on at the same time as a Battle of the Bands was in the other room. There must have been about 30 bands backstage there. I’ve never queued for the backstage loo for so long.”
Back in 2004, big bandŠBellowheadŠwas originally conceived for the fun of a festival field, not the recording studio.
Dreamt up in a traffic jam in as bit of a wheeze,Šthe band quickly grew to include like-minded friendsŠof friends of friends, each hailing from virtually every corner of the UK.
Within no time at all the 11 musicians began to create a raucous, richly coloured mix of folk, funk, music hall, jazz, classical and improvisational dissonance, spiked with a penchant for creating wild and inventive new arrangements for traditional English dance tunes and ballads.
Their first gig in Oxford – only weeks after forming – famously resulted in a broken dance-floor, such was the enthusiasm of their audience.
From those early years,ŠBellowhead haveŠgone on to perform live in front of thousands, making folk music for people who love it and people who think they don’t.
TheyŠhaveŠbeenŠartists in residence at London’s South Bank Centre for five years, have hosted a Christmas special for the BBC and featured on Later with Jools Holland, have launched their own real ale,Šand, at the request of the producers,Šcomposed new theme tunesŠfor both TheŠArchers and The Simpsons.
Despite their rising star status, Bellowhead don’t arrive with a long list of backstage rider demands.
“It varies from gig to gig,” says John.
“On the last tour we were playing up north and I got given a coconut and some chicory. I didn’t ask for it, just got given it presumably because they thought that’s the sort of thing southerners eat.
“Someone played the coconut on stage, but the chicory baffled all of us. We’re not actually very demanding.”
Are there some songs they always have to play?
“We always try and keep the favourites in like New York Girls, 10,000 miles and Sloe Gin,” says John.
As a collective, different members bring in ideas and arrangements for songs, which are then, like a good spirit, put through a complex filtering and distilling process.
He adds: “The appeal of this music seems to be quite universal and doesn’t have much of a geographical bias.
“We try and keep it fresh and juggle the music around. The process is usually that we argue for a few hours about what to play before the first gig on a tour and then once it’s decided, very rarely change it – unless something isn’t quite working in the set.”
After years of being the poor relation, now folk is one of the coolest genres in music.
“It’s always funny when your favourite interest becomes reasonably cool, especially when it used to be so unfashionable,” he laughs.
“I hope it gives us the chance to show lots of people how great some of this dusty old music can be – and encourage the country as a whole to stop taking the mickey out of their rich and varied musical roots.
“When it stops being trendy I’ll still be playing the squeezebox because it’s the best instrument in the world.
“I own about 25 squeezeboxes – and eBay – it’s basically a squeezebox porn site.”
Bellowhead play the Philharmonic Hall on February 18.