"We knew we had to try something different" – hmv.com talks to Bellowhead
Folk undectet (that’s an eleven-piece band) Bellowhead are quite the unlikely success story. Initially formed in 2004 simply as a way for the band’s members to play live shows and bring to life traditional folk songs, over the last 10 years they’ve grown into a band who consistently sell thousands of records and sell out huge venues.
Their new album Revival (their first for major label Island) is released on Monday (June 30th) and features a selection of traditional English folk songs arranged with strings, brass and percussion, including ‘Roll Alabama’, ‘Gosport Lane’ and ‘Let Union Be’. We spoke to drummer/arranger Pete Flood to find all about the unusual way the band record and their hopes for their major label debut…
Revival is about to come out, are you feeling nervous?
“I do get quite nervous actually, I always end up obsessively reading reviews and I really have to hold myself back from tweeting at reviewers, it’s a really bad habit, I need to get out of it.”
You must have seen a real growth in the amount of presence coverage from album to album?
“Our first EP only got reviewed in the folk media, which isn’t exactly extensive. It’s grown a lot since then, for sure.”
When did you record Revival? And where did you make it?
“It was recorded back in January, February and March, so quite a fast turnaround time. The first studio we did it in Monmouthshire, in the middle of all the flooding, it was right by the studio, it was like being in a natural disaster. That’s where we did the rhythm section. The strings were done in Leicestershire, the brass was done in London and the vocals in Guildford, so we pretty much covered the whole country.”
Why did you record it in so many places?
“We knew we didn’t want to make a live album, we’ve done that and it was time to try something new, so it was more down to people’s availability, so that’s how we did it.”
You worked with Rupert Christie this time as a producer, what was he like?
“He was great. He’s our age and he’s from a more mainstream background and had a huge clutch of great stories, he really kept us entertained. He’s also got serious arranging skills, a lot of us in the band arrange, but because we’re in the band it’s hard to critique each other, Rupert was able to be the outsider and really work on each track.”
You did your last couple of albums with John Leckie, what did you want to change this time?
“Working with Leckie was great, he was brilliant at live sounds and he knew how to capture the spirit of a performance, which is what we needed. We’re still great mates with him, but that’s a different set of skills, he’s great at sound, but he’s not an arranger. Rupert was great at getting inside songs and tweaking them.”
This is your first record on a major label, how has that been? A big change?
“Yeah a massive change. Navigator, who put out our last album, are mates, we know exactly what they can do, it was a very comfortable relationship. It was a known quantity and it felt like time to change the formula. We knew we had to take this step, we knew we had to try something different, it’s all been exciting.”
How did you go about picking the songs?
“We were first told back in September that we’d be making the album, we’d thought we were having a year off, we decided to really go for it at that point and put together as many arrangements as we could. We ended up with about 25, we recorded 16 of them and then we ended up with 11 on the album.”
Do you anchor that process?
“No, not me, I contribute a lot of the arrangements, as does John, the singer. But in terms of the choice of tracks, I have no say, I’m very used to having my suggestions rejected. There are 11 of us, it’s hard to make an objective choice, so we’re actually quite happy to leave picking the album tracks to the record label. Rupert helped a lot with that too, he knew what he wanted to record.”
Are there songs that you fight for that end up getting cut?
“Oh absolutely. I had this funky afrobeat tune that had these weird chords and was all about this lady and her relationship with her pig, called ‘Lady And The Swine’, which I really wanted, but no-one else liked. It got cut, which was a shame, but I understand.”
Is it hard to cede that much control?
“I know it sounds awful, but it’s more that it’s so hard to be objective when you’re so close to the songs. There are tracks on the album that I wouldn’t have chosen in a million years, one is even a single that’s been playlisted on Radio 2, guess that’s just the way it goes. I know I’m wrong, but I do need someone else to tell me.”
You’ve got a lot of touring coming up and a lot of festivals, what kind of live show are you bringing out with you?
“We’re still working on that. A few of us went to see Arcade Fire recently and got quite inspired by what they did with their live show, there’s talk of lots of things, we just need to narrow it down to what’s possible."
Could you have pictured in 2004 that you’d be sat here discussing a new album on Island Records?
“No, God no. Initially it was just designed to be a festival band which seem too big to work, every day is still a surprise.”
What’s been the biggest ‘Pinch yourself” moment in the band?
“That would be in Canada in 2009, we were playing festivals to 30,000 to 40,000 people every night, going on after Glenn Campbell and before Mavis Staples, the whole thing felt like a total fairytale.”
What will make this a successful album to you? Will it be how many it sells? Or something else?
“A lot of radio play and a lot of foreign touring. I’d love for us to go to Europe and North America, I’d like to be recognised further afield. Bands like Buena Vista Social Club have done so well across the world and I feel like people in North America look to Scottish and Irish folk music before they do to English folk. We want to try and change that.”
Bellowhead’s new album Revival is released on Monday (June 30th) and is available to pre-order now in hmv stores.