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"A Transatlantic Trio with feet firmly set in the UK, but wings spreading into mainland Europe.!"
Blues Matters! - UK
BLUES MATTERS! – March 2011
Interviewer: Alan Harvey
A Transatlantic Trio with feet firmly set in the UK, but wings spreading into mainland Europe. The Spikedrivers have one new CD out and another on the way. Blues Matters! spoke to guitarist / founder Ben Tyzack, bassist Constance Redgrave and drummer / percussionist Maurice McElroy about the band’s current activities and their views on the Blues scene in general. Our meeting was a personal treat, not just for the chance to discuss all matters music with such lovely people, but to witness the recording of a live studio session for the BBC. This was an enormous pleasure and cemented by view of the band as three masters of their respective crafts…
BM: The new CD is titled ‘Seven’. Is that purely a numerical reference or is there any deeper significance?
MM: It came down to the idea of simplicity. What do you call an album? A bit like what do you call the band? Ben came up with the lovely design and it just seemed appropriate.
CR: ‘Seven’ was the working title anyway.
BM: As a musical work how does it compare to previous CDs?
CR: It took longer! There was quite a long gap there.
BT: We hadn’t done a studio album for a while. We had a live CD which took a long time to produce and release. A lot of the material has been around for a while, but the band had changed really. We’d started doing a lot more harmony singing. That was becoming a feature which we wanted to use on the recordings.
CR: We didn’t record analogue this time either. That’s another change.
BM: How does that affect the way you record?
BT: It’s more to do with sound. Our engineer, Phill Brown, says you can put it through old valve compressors and it’s not going onto tape, but you can get a warm sound and we just went with his advice. It’s a lot cheaper and digital gives you options as well.
CR: He likes big old desks as well.
BT: Having just done the live album and there’s another on the way we’ve got a studio album sandwiched between two live albums. So to make us sound not like a live recording in the studio we’ve expanded a little, so there’s a few guitar overdubs and a few more bits of percussion. We approached it slightly differently.
MM: I think also that our song-writing has come on. There’s a marked improvement to my ears. I think our playing has also come on, both as individuals and in the way we work together as a unit.
BT: I think all the albums feel different, although ‘Ain’t It Real’ and ‘Blue Trash’ were recorded quite close together so they are somewhat similar and almost feel like one body of work.
BM: Variety still seems to be the watchword?
BT: We’ve always liked that. When we were interviewed on Spanish radio recently they asked how difficult it is to blend our different styles, but we’ve always done it, there’s no effort at all. Maybe we think about what else can we bring in new, but you have to be careful not to smash in a new sound for the sake of it. Is it working for the song, is it working with the sounds of the other instruments so we’ve been pretty careful there. We have Constance playing flute on this album and I’ve played a bit of twelve-string which I haven’t done before.
BM: And Clive Ashley on sax. I’ve seen him with Ben Waters, is that how your connection came about?
BT: There have been several occasions where we’ve been on the same bill or jammed together, but we first met at a Banbury Music Festival a long time ago. We were on before Ben and he got us back up at the end.
CR: I have experience of Clive from days playing with Colin John.
BT: During the tour we did with Ben we both did sets then all joined on stage at the end. As we went round and got to know each other it was great fun and I just love the way he plays so when starting this album we discussed bringing him in as a different player rather than just us doing something different. I love what he did.
CR: He was kind of the magic ingredient.
MM: Whether you’re thinking of adding a player or just another sound you have to ask whether it adds something. If the answer’s yes you keep it.
BT: In the end we didn’t even rehearse with Clive. We sent him some demos of the new songs and planned to do some rehearsals, but we couldn’t ever get together. We were a little bit nervous, but Clive is a great improviser and he picks up on things so quickly.
CR: He was incredible and did the lot in a morning.
BM: The new songs fit in perfectly to your live shows. Do you get nervous when you play one for the first time?
CR: Sure, that’s the fun! There’s a line between excitement and fear which are two sides of the same coin. Once you understand that you take that energy and go.
BT: I get nervous playing songs that we’ve played a hundred times. Lately I’m forgetting lyrics and inventing new ones on the spot. I don’t look at the others, but can feel them staring at me! It’s always really exciting for us when introducing new songs because you develop, practice and record them and they can then add a whole new dimension to a performance.
MM: This is really the first time you’re going to find out whether people like it. With our other stuff we know what they like.
BT: We did learn not to play all the new songs at once. After Blue Trash we played the whole album at one gig and we got some good feedback from emails saying that it was too much and you have to mix it in.
CR: There’s some songs on albums that maybe aren’t live songs, they’re album songs. You’d have to create a different arrangement so we have songs which we’ve never played live.
BM: When writing your songs which comes first, the words or the tune?
MM: I’m an inexperienced songwriter so my experience is you sit down to write and you get what turns up. You really don’t have a lot of control. For this album I sat down intending to write a solid rock tune and I ended up with a song about a chicken (‘My Rooster Stopped Crowing’). I’m working on something, but something in the back of my head keeps showing up and I think, right, I’m going to get this down so I can get on with what I’m doing. What’s in the back of my head turns out to be the better song.
BT: It could be that when you’re working hard on something it releases the sub conscious and you realise that that is much more interesting.
MM: However it works you take what you can get and say thankyou that it leaves with something to work with. Usually lyrics come first, but sometimes a melody line comes along.
CR: My writing tends to come from pictures in my head or from things I see. I get a lot of rhythms from cars, trucks and trains, but I write a lot of poetry. A lot of it’s visual, dreams or actual people. I like playing with words so I tend to keep a notebook and scribble.
BT: I’m like Constance, I always have a notebook. I feel slightly nervous if I don’t have a notebook, even if I don’t use it. The slightest reference can be a seed for a whole song. For me sometimes lyrics come first, sometimes it’s the guitar. Fitting a melody onto a lyric, or vice versa, can take you different places
BM: Who is Natalie?
CR: Natalie is a friend of an Irish percussionist we met. She is French and an interesting woman. They live in France in a fallen down chateau, where the top floor is for ghosts. On our first trip I was trying to learn some French and this song about her was like a nursery rhyme in my head and I couldn’t get rid of it. In the end I had to do something with it.
BM: You seem to like to include some tongue in cheek. Is humour important in your music?
MM: That’s something you used to get a lot in old Blues, you had to use different words to sing about what you really want to sing about. You don’t need to now, but it was fun to do. The humour is just something that happens rather than a conscious thing.
BT: It’s just another emotion really.
MM: It works. Audiences enjoy it, we enjoy it. I don’t think you can sustain a single emotion for too long. You can get blanded out. We do variety. We get bored if we don’t, why would an audience be different?
BT: It’s a bit like volume. A constant tugs at one part of your heart string for too long and stops being effective.
BM: Your live performances appeal to all age groups. Is this the same for CD sales?
MM: Yes, I think we do. We’ve had a lot of people saying they don’t like Blues, but they like us.
CR: People come and say they’re buying their third copy of “Blue Trash” because their kids keep stealing them!
MM: We’ve signed a lot of CDs for a lot of very small people.
BT: It would be nice to more play to teenagers / young adults. We have had a good response from them, but that’s an age group who don’t really want to listen to what their mum and dad listen to.
MM: When we do schools at that age there’s the question of whether this is cool or not. It’s difficult, but I think it’s shifting.
BM: Apart from Constance’s famous sales pitch on stage how do you go about marketing the band?
MM: A lot of bloody hard work.
BT: We have a deal with the distributor Proper. In the States we have a company called CD Baby.
MM: As well as physical CDs they are what’s called an aggregator, so they digitise the albums and put them out on iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster and so on. In the States we make more money from digital sales than we do from CDs. On this album we decided to really sit down and have a proper go at it. We thought about a publicist, and whether we could afford one, but we had conflicting stories so we decided to do it ourselves. We’ve been working a lot further ahead on this album to allow for colour magazine turnaround times for example, to give them time to review it before release date. Some magazines won’t review albums which are already out. We’ve also spread our wings a bit, sending copies of the album to lots of people we haven’t done in the past, like the Sunday magazines. A lot have gone to Spain and France.
CR: We’ve also always done a real grass roots thing. We have some wonderful people out there who are just so loyal, so keeping in touch with them is important and it’s word of mouth. A lot of where we are today is due to those people, including persuading venues which don’t know us to book the band.
MM: Particularly if you’re promoting a festival that sort of feedback is invaluable
BM: Who do you like to see when you get the chance?
CR: I love Connie (Lush). She just makes me smile. Giles Hedley, there are some amazing musicians.
MM: We saw Earl Green recently. I love the man’s voice, he’s a wonderful singer. Clearly Ben Waters. I particularly like Ian Siegal. He’s different. I worked briefly with him with the Lee Sankey Band and Ben had worked with him at Ain’t Nothin But. We want to see Guy Tortora, but when he has a gig we always seem to be somewhere else. Then there’s the bigger names like Dr John. The last gig I went to was Lo Jo and they were brilliant.
BT: We saw a fun duo in France when we were doing a festival. They were called Blackberry and Mr Boo Hoo. They were sitting down with guitar and harmonica, but were hitting self-made boxes. They had a brilliant rootsy sound, kind of country blues roots, amazing musically. Visually it’s like they’re running at you, but they’re sitting down.
MM: They’re different, and you have to be. If all albums cost the same why would anyone buy ours if it sounds like BB King, they can buy BB King. If you look at all the big names of the past they all did a variety because they were trying to find an audience. Robert Johnson is known for the Blues songs he recorded, but when you read about him you find that that wasn’t all he did. That’s what was recorded because that’s what people wanted.
BT: Mike Sanchez would be right up on my list. He deserves recognition. A friend gave us a CD by Hazmat Modine. They have an infectious sound with twin harmonicas.
BM: You have been compared to Seasick Steve. How do you feel about this?
BT: I think it’s great that that style of playing has been exposed. I don’t know who his manager is, but I’d like to meet him! People see that as a different way of playing Blues and roots music and there’s a good reference point there.
BM: So what’s the difference between what he’s doing and hundreds of artists?
MM: Sometimes it will take something or someone to break through and that opens the doors for other people. There’s now more notice being taken of what’s going on in our field and that can only be a good thing.
BT: The thing with Seasick Steve is he got known for the raucous boogie thing that he does, but someone I’m teaching guitar wanted me to teach him a song called ‘Walkin’ Man’ and it’s beautiful Country Blues and I was amazed it was the same guy and that there’s a lot more than we see on TV.
MM: BB King said the reason he and others got back into big pay days was because the Rolling Stones were having hit records. Anything that can break through that formulated, moulded scene has to be a good thing.
BM: Are there any of the crop of young Blues musicians who you think will keep the genre alive, and perhaps move it forward?
BT: I haven’t heard enough, just a few bits on record. They’re young and talented so we’ll see what develops.
MM: The potential’s there. There’s a guy called Sam Hare who’s just put an album out. I like it because it’s songs. Whatever the future is it’s going to be in songs. I’ve heard a couple of (un-named) guitarists and they are talented and they have put the work in, but I’ve heard every single lick before and from several guitarists. So they’re ok, but why would I get excited about it because I know people who can do it better. If they can change that and find their own voice I would hope, but I’m not sure whether they’re the future.
BT: They need to be encouraged to develop. One that does stand out is Andy Cortes. We met him in Finland several years ago, a really tasteful player. He sat in with us once and he didn’t over play. He had that sense of composition. Very talented.
MM: I repeat that, however good anyone is technically, whatever the instrument, without the songs there’s nothing to play.
BM: Do you feel that young American artists are better than their British counterparts or is there another reason for their greater success?
MM: It’s difficult. I’ve seen an element of patronisation of people like Ian Siegal. But the bulk of the music and the weight that’s behind it comes from America and everything wants to slot into something that’s easily digestible and easily sellable. I think that people like Joe Bonamassa do. The man can play, undoubtedly, but what he does is easy to grab hold of. I think what an Ian Parker or an Ian Siegal does is harder is harder to get hold of and that’s why the American magazines don’t do it. One possibility is the likes of Blues Matters! writing it here and selling in the States. Sometimes people like certain acts, but it’s not the real thing, but as Paul Jones once said it’s music, not a social context any more.
BT: James Hunter did quite well in the States so it can happen. So much of it is a business thing and how things get promoted and who’s backing them and things like that.
CR: You also have to understand there are simply a lot more Americans so there’s a lot more American musicians and a lot more American record companies with money to put behind those musicians. Just the sheer proportionality means it’s heavily weighted that side and it’ll probably stay that way. One possibility is to create a British Blues scene and sell it to the world, but nobody’s done that yet. It hasn’t become the hippest thing in the world yet. I don’t know what we would sound like if we went to the States to tour. I don’t think we would sound American, I think we’re somewhere mid Atlantic now.
BT: It would be nice to go over there and get a reaction
BM: What does the future hold for the Spikedrivers?
MM: Learning languages! Quickly, if we can.
BT: Learning how to deal with baggage and airlines.
MM: That’s a serious thing because it makes touring difficult. They’ve changed all the rules.
CR: It’s suddenly got very expensive.
BT: We have an acoustic live album coming out, recorded at The Hawth Theatre in Crawley, that’s next in the pipeline, probably early next year. It might be a double album.
MM: And to just continue to spread our wings. We want to expand our work in France and Spain to Holland and Belgium.
BT: And more in the UK. It sounds silly, but it’d be nice to play some of the Blues festivals in the UK. We played Ealing recently, but we’ve done more Folk festivals.
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