A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#38 The Good Intentions: Americana from the UK
First published on the Timber and Steel blog on 5 November 2012
Second published in Trad and Now magazine, November 2012
For 20 to 30 years, I’ve been aware of the UK TV series ‘7 Up’ and its sequels without ever having watched them. I’ve wanted to, but as they’ve come along in seven-yearly updates, I’ve had this chronologically pedantic need to see them in order.
I mean, you wouldn’t start watching Star Wars at Episode IV now, would you?
(I should mention at this point that the ‘7 Up’ mentioned here is not a carbonated beverage, and the ’56 Up’ that will soon be mentioned is not the middle-aged version with added cranberry juice, added fibre and iron supplements for the senior on the go. Click on the above link for a catch-up on this TV series that chronicles the changing lives of a group of Britons at seven-yearly intervals, starting at age seven.)
Fearing I might not live long enough to see them in order, my initiation to the series was the redux of ‘42 Up’ at the end of October on SBS TV in Australia, and then two days later, the debut of the latest offering: ’56 Up’.
My interest was slightly piqued in ’42 Up’ when the show’s host mentioned that a couple of participants had pulled out along the way. I idly wondered whether they would rejoin at a later point.
Sure enough, one of the first vignettes in ’56 Up’ included one R. Peter Davies, and when he quite clearly stated his reason for rejoining the program, I literally clapped and applauded:
Peter wanted to get some publicity for his independent band.
There may be more worthy causes but they’re not springing to mind right now.
Before the segment was over, I was looking up ‘The Good Intentions’ on social media, and through the wonders of technology, mutually agreeable diaries, and time zone differences, just under four days later, I had phone and recording device perched precariously on the compost bin under the carport, and was having a chat with Peter Davies and Gabi Monk, two-thirds of the band that also includes Francesco Roskell.
Peter Davies: Well, the day I first picked up a guitar, I guess, which was when I was a teenager. I’d always loved music and I started playing guitar mainly so I could get girls interested in me.
BQ: It’s a common theme!
PD: It didn’t seem to work!
But it got more and more serious from then on. I started playing in bands and it just went from there. It’s been a hugely important part of my life.
BQ: And you, Gabi?
Gabrielle Monk: I first started playing probably as a teenager, but more in the church choirs and classical music. It was Pete that introduced me to the music that we now play.
We first started playing together in a band before we had kids and then when the kids came along we stopped for a while because it was just too difficult. But we’ve been playing in this incarnation now for the past six or seven years.
And it’s going great!
BQ: How did you both get into the Americana/country/alt-country genre?
And I remember reading an interview with Elvis and him saying, you know if you think I’m good, you should check out this guy Gram Parsons. So I thought, why not, he must be good.
And this was like an epiphany for me. I went out and bought a Gram Parsons record and it was like my eyes were suddenly open.
I thought, I get it now. I see where all this music comes from: rock and roll all comes out of country and blues.
And it just took me from there. From Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris, Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers. The whole thing just took off from there.
PD: Yes, surprisingly bigger than you’d think. It’s never really going to go mainstream – it’s never going to get regular airplay on national radio. It’s a niche market, and I think it’s even a niche market in the US. But we have some good British artists and bands here, and a regular following for these artists.
People have this idea of ‘country music’ here – people think it’s just big hats and rhinestones. If they come along to the shows, they hear good songs with good melodies and lyrics and that’s what it’s about.
BQ: I wanted to ask you about genres and whether people are asking, say, ‘Where’s the line between country and alt-country?’ Do people want to put genre labels on you in the UK?
GM: Yeah, and we have a big folk music scene in the UK – English folk music, Celtic, Irish, Scottish. And some of the folk clubs are quite purist about what they want and what they’ll have. So sometimes if we’re playing in clubs that are used to British music, it won’t go down so well having other influences.
So people are a bit compartmentalised.
PD: We belong to the tradition of old time, Appalachian folk music and a lot of that came out of traditions from the British Isles, which were taken out there by the immigrants to America and to Australia. We feel we fit in there, and we see no problem with playing that sort of music.
GM: We don’t wear rhinestones!
BQ: Ha! I noticed you went to America earlier this year. We have an expression – I’m not sure if it’s Australian or British: ‘taking coals to Newcastle’. What was there something about taking Americana back to America that was a bit daunting?
GM: Oh yeah, absolutely. We’ve been over a couple of times and recorded our last album in the states, and we’ve just recorded our new one there.
But the first time we went, we went to Nashville and played at a bar in the centre of Nashville on a Friday night. And as we got up onto the stage, there were probably about 200 people there and they’d all been drinking beer. And Pete just looked at me and said, “I don’t think I can do this!”
But it was great.
And we found American audiences very appreciative and listening. And they get that what we’re doing is from a shared heritage of influences and that we’re not just copying something; we’re adding to that genre.
PD: Gabi’s right. They get where we’re coming from.
BQ: And like Australians playing in the US, you might sound a bit like them when you’re singing, but in between the numbers, your accent knocks them dead!
PD: Oh, they love the accents; they’re intrigued by them.
GM: We also find that while Pete’s from Liverpool and he’s got quite a strong Liverpool accent, I’m from London originally, but Americans don’t spot a difference between us, which is quite funny, really.
BQ: There’s one instrument I wanted to ask about. Gabi, I notice you playing an auto-harp in one of the videos. Is that something you’ve been playing for a long time?
GM: No, it’s something I’ve been playing for about four years. It’s an instrument that’s not really British; it’s much better known in the states. It’s a lovely instrument and I really like it.
But a lot of times when I’m playing it in the UK, people come up to me and say, “What is THAT?!”
I play the auto-harp and I also play the piano accordion. Not at the same time, though!
BQ: Independent music in the UK: do you have a lot of support structures there, or do you find you’re going out a lot on your own?
PD: We’ve had to do a lot of work ourselves. We have the equivalent of people like you in the UK: blogs, online magazines and stuff. There are one or two agents who specialise in this kind of music, but they’re pretty thin on the ground.
And once or twice we’ve been in the right place at the right time and met the right sort of person. And for the forthcoming record which will be out in [the northern] Spring, we’ve on the verge of nailing a deal with a label.
GM: And the other thing we find helpful is that other musicians are good at supporting each other and building a supportive network. And that’s not just in the UK; we’ve found that in the states as well. They’re happy to share information and resources.
I don’t know if the house concert network is a big thing in Australia, but they’re big in the states and they’re starting to take off in the UK. So we put quite a lot of visiting artists on here, people we’ve met when touring in the states, and share audiences and resources that way.
It’s a great opportunity to see this sort of music and you get to see them up close and personal.
PD: And you’re seeing these bands and these artists in the environments in which this music took shape all those years ago. There’s no amplification, no mics; you’re seeing this music performed as it was meant to be.
I think it’s a response to the corporate arena tours which people are turning off from. They want to be sitting there seeing and hearing music; they don’t want to be watching a screen above a stage. They want to be part of the whole thing.
[At the time, I mentioned to the pair that I was going to see Coldplay the following month in Sydney, and while I enjoyed the show immensely, there was indeed a lot of screen-watching going on rather than watching the guys themselves. Many of the other 49 999 punters had similar issues.]
BQ: Just to touch on the ‘Up’ series briefly, I’d not watched any of it until a few days ago, but when I heard you say on the ’56 Up’ show that you’d come back on after a 28 year break more or less to get publicity for the band, I applauded.
PD: Thanks for saying that!
BQ: Good on you. Coming from the independent music scene, I reckon any time you can get some leverage is a good thing.
With the band going around about the time of ’49 Up’, did you have any thought that you might go back then?
GM: I tried to persuade him back then, but because he had such a bad time back in the eighties, he didn’t want to do it. Because every time the program comes around they come back and ask if he will do it.
But this time around, we’d been promoting the new album and Pete was feeling a bit low, thinking, “Oh God, this is so hard”, and I said, “Well, why don’t you sell your soul to the devil? Why don’t you go on the television and promote the hell out of the album?”
“You can’t complain if you don’t take the opportunity.” So we spoke to a couple of other musicians…
PD: Yeah, we had the new album and we’re really proud of it. We just want to get it out there.
So I spoke to a couple of guys in the states, and they said, “Where’s the down side? Why are you asking? Go and do it!”
And they were right.
We got some great response to it. We sold a lot of records off the back of it. And we’ve got people like you interested.
And I have to say that since it went out in Australia a few days ago, we’ve had some great feedback. We’ve sold some records over there, so it’s been great for us. So we appreciate you saying that.
One or two people were a bit snide about it and said, “Oh, well, you’re only doing this to promote your band”.
And my answer is, “Yeah! Why the hell not?”
Playing this music and working independently, you have to take every opportunity that comes along. Most people have said the same as you: “Good on you; why not?”
BQ: I only found out a couple of hours ago on the internet that there’s been such a delay between the show going to air in the UK and being on air here in Australia – it’s getting on for six months now.
PD: Yeah, which is a really good time for us. We’ve got the new record coming out in [the northern] Spring, we’ve had all this activity since the program aired here, now the activity from Australia, and it’s showing in Canada at the end of this month and then in the states in the new year.
So we’re hoping it keeps kicking over quite nicely until the new record comes out in Spring.
BQ: One final question, and I apologise for it now because it’s going to sound a bit clichéd. When you’re doing ’63 Up’, where are you going to be at?
PD: [Laughs]. Good question! And the honest answer is, I don’t know. It seems like such a long, long way away. Our focus now is entirely on pushing ahead with the band. And making the maximum use of all of the publicity and responses due to the last program.
Who knows? By that time we could have come to a point where we don’t need the extra publicity. At a guess, I would say we’d take the same view again.