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Bellowhead Interview

Jo Cox


Paul Sartin of folk supergroup Bellowhead took the time to talk to More Than The Music about the band’s third album, Hedonism, due for release in October.

More Than The Music: How did such a large ensemble come together and did you all know each other before Bellowhead?

Paul Sartin: The idea of an English ‘big band’ had been floating around in the folk ether for some time, until the the two Jo(h)ns had a now legendary epiphany on the M1 on the way to a gig. There they drew up a hit list of folkies, most of whom knew/had worked with/slept with each other and invited them to join up. Jon Boden’s friend Pete Flood (actually their mothers are friends, not them) brought in the horn section, whose musical and social ties are not disimiliar, if marginally more professional, to that of the folkies.

MTTM: There are few bands boasting an oboist, how did you end up with such a diverse range of instruments?

PS: I’m not sure ‘boasting’ would be an appropriate term. Actually, if grants were given for minority instruments we’d be loaded. Most folkies, members of Bellowhead included, play more than one instrument, and some, like the English concertina and English bagpipes, have low profiles. Brendan doubles on saxes and bass clarinet, which seems logical; Pete is a percussion kleptomaniac with an increasingly bizarre collection of oddments; the helicon, played by Ed, is not only sonically but visually splendid. Having the means to change instrumentation allows us a wide palate of textures and timbres.

MTTM: Your material features old English folk songs with the Bellowhead twist, how do you pick them and does everyone get involved in the arrangements?

PS: As a rule individuals bring songs or tunes, ready-arranged, to the band. Some songs are traditional in both text and melody, some are new settings of old words, and some dance tunes are brand new. At this point the material is accepted or rejected. The latter is rare as we all have a general understanding of what suits the band style. If the former, sometimes tracks can be then mauled out of recognition  until they sit comfortably.

MTTM: Your third album, Hedonism, comes out next month. What are your highlights?

PS: For me, Captain Wedderburn is a beautiful and haunting track. Our live performances tend, especially at festivals, towards the up-beat party vibe, so the slower, more lyrical numbers on the album seem all the more precious. Also, it’s great to have a track (Parson’s Farewell) from our latest recruit, young whippersnapper Sam Sweeney.

MTTM: You’re so well known as a great live act, is it hard to recreate the feel of your live performances for an album?

PS: This is a problem faced by all bands who are real, live musicians, not just us. Our producer, John Leckie, stuck us (such a hardship) into Abbey Road Studio 2 where we were able, to all extents and purposes, to give live performances. Of course a dose of fairy dust is needed to make the recordings bearable on repeated listenings, but we feel that John captured some of the energy that we give in front of audiences.

MTTM: A lot of folk acts record a mixture of traditional and completely new material. Have you ever written anything together from scratch?

PS: No – not yet. Or perhaps ever!! Some of our material is brand new – generally the melodies rather than texts – but we’re not brave/foolish enough to try out something both original and communal.

MTTM: What advice would you give to young folk musicians who want to put together a project as complex and brave as Bellowhead?

PS: Wait until we’ve finished our natural course as a band as we can’t cope with competition. Or – as we did – just go for it and see what happens. None of us in any of our wildest dreams imagined Bellowhead getting where it is today, and some of us aren’t as young as we were…