"There's a whole group of people all over the world that still love these songs and want to keep them going..." - hmv.com talks to The Longest Johns
In perhaps one of the more unlikely viral sensations in recent years, the early months of 2021 witnessed a sudden and somewhat mystifying revival of the humble sea shanty. Initially spurred on, in part, by the hit game Sea of Thieves, there was soon a wave of sea shanty fever that saw the likes of Ronan Keating, Ant & Dec, the cast of Saturday Night Live and even former US president Barack Obama delivering hearty renditions of songs such as 'Wellerman' - a traditiional sea shanty that had recently been revived by a group of four friends from the UK calling themslves The Longest Johns.
Formed as a little more than a bit of fun nearly a decade ago, Andy Yates, Dave Robisnon, Jonathan Darley and Robbie Sattin have found themselves at the forefont of the shanty / traditional folk revival and, after 'Wellerman' became a viral hit, were quickly snapped up by Decca Records.
After several self-released albums, The Longest Johns deliver their major label debut this week and ahead of its release we spoke to the band about putting the album together and riding the sea shanty wave all the way to America...
How did you all meet and get into sea shanties in the first place?
“So that was just under 10 years ago now, it'll be 10 years in June. We'd all been a group of friends working together at a performing arts charity just near Bristol. We pretty much happened to have been listening to sea shanties at the time, we were together at a party discussing the music that we liked. The topic of sea shanties came up and we just thought we'd give it a go for a bit of fun.
“That was the initial foray into it and from there we discovered more artists and more songs, we just kept on having a go, joining in and loving the sound of all that stuff, that's where it all spurred from.”
What was it about all that stuff that appealed to you? It's quite an obscure genre of music these days...
“You could say that, although we're happy that it's now not as obscure as it once was. I think we all kind of got into it for different reasons, but we all like harmonies and that was probably the linking factor. In this music you find some bands with beautiful harmonic structures and I think there's a simplicity in these songs as well, that speaks to our love of things like punk rock and the simple, working class songs of the past.
“But after doing it for a while we really got into the community sprit of the thing, and discovered that there's a whole group of people all over the world that still love these songs and want to keep them going, and it feels amazing to be a part of that.”
Were you surprised when ‘Wellerman’ started going viral? Did you have any ambitions for what you were doing up until that point?
“We almost felt like we'd seen it peak a couple of times before then, which was really weird. Obviously we've been going for almost 10 years now and we'd been gigging across different places around the UK, overseas quite a lot in Europe too, and things seemed to be growing there and doing really well.
“There were loads of moments when we thought: 'This is really cool, we've reached this level now, we're spearheading the shanty wave!” For many years there have been different things that have happened, even back in 2018 just before Between Wind and Water, which 'Wellerman' features on, we had big viral moment back then because of the game Sea of Thieves, which then started the whole 'Wellerman' thing a year later as well. It's been this bizarre journey, and even then things kept on happening where we kept thinking 'OK, we've peaked at this point, this is crazy.'
“We must admit though, we never thought it'd get to the point where we were seeing it done on SNL, or TikTok duetting with Ronan Keating. That was interesting. That was definitely not in the gameplan.”
At what point did record labels start getting in touch?
“Pretty much immediately after that.”
So this is your first ‘major label’ album, how was it getting to record these songs in a proper studio with a full band? You've done a lot of a capella stuff in the past...
“We did have a lot of instruments and percussion and stuff on the last album, not a full band per se. But this is the first time we've had drums and bass. Well, this is the first time we've had a drummer and a bass player outside of us. We've only got so many limbs.
“But it was great being able to feel that we'd scaled up the operation. The last album we did on quite a shoestring budget, it was recorded quite quickly over five days. This time were able to and take a bit off time off to think about these songs that we wanted on it. We came up with a list of 30 songs that were possible options and managed to whittle it down, we were able to get a proper producer in and work on the songs, to figure out what we wanted. We hadn't really had that option before, so that was great.”
When did you start putting all of these songs together for the new album?
“I think it was May or June last year. But actually, to be fair, we'd either known about or done some of these songs in some form for a while, we have a massive repertoire now of something like 150 songs. It's big, although it's not necessarily that big for a folk band, but it's pretty big for a regular band.”
“But we went away to live in a house for three weeks, just going through loads of different songs that we'd bookmarked to see if we could make them 'album ready.' We had a shortlist of over 30 songs to begin with, we tried them all out and demoed them, and eventually we found this set of 14 which just felt really natural together. We all had a vote on what the best set was, and we pretty much all agreed unanimously right off the bat. That's how this album came to be as it is, really.”
How do you go about choosing material? A few of the songs are quite well known, but a lot of it is probably quite obscure to most people – where do you find it all?
“A lot of it we hear about via word of mouth. It's usually at a folk festival or a gig or something, somebody will sing a song I've never heard before, then we'll research it and dive into the history of it. The internet is also really great for finding songs, there are a few websites that just catalogue tons and tons of folk music and folk songs, but most of it is quite organically passed down via the oral tradition."
Seth Lakeman makes a guest appearance on the new album too, how did he get involved?
“That was a bit of surprise opportunity that came about through our manager, who is friends with his manager. I've been a Seth fan for years an his album Poor Man's Heaven is still one of my favourite albums, and was my first introduction to traditional folk music many years ago as well. So as soon as that became a possibility we jumped on it and we ended up doing a really great collaboration together.”
Are there any other artists besides Seth that have had a big influence on what you're doing?
“A lot of them are dead, unfortunately, which sort of comes with the territory of singing old songs, I suppose. There's a cover on the album of a song by Stan Rogers, who is a Canadian singer-songwriter. He has been a huge influence on us, unfortunately deceased, but he's got such a way of songwriting, they're hopeful and upbeat, he's got a great way of telling stories that we all tend to appreciate, as a band. Someone said in a documentary about him that he wasn't a fisherman, or a farmer, or any of these things, but when he wrote a song he was, and he wrote it entirely with the passion of that job and very much put himself in the shoes of the person he was writing about. That's definitely a great thing to try and emulate, for sure.
“But there's loads of bands that we've gotten to know over the years and love to listen to. I'd say El Pony Pisador, who are a Catalonian group, who've inspired us to try lots of new things. And it would be remiss not to mention Kimber's Men as well, who are sort of like us in 30 years. They've been instrumental to the way we do things, as well as just bringing us into that community.”
It seems like there's still a real scene for all this kind of music, doesn't it?
"There's a really big, very active community that does all of this stuff, but if you didn't know it was already there you wouldn't know it exists. I guess that's the struggle that things like folk music and shanties have in general, and we're trying to change and adapt what we do to actually try and get in front of people for the first time. Because we've seen that when people actually hear it and give it a chance they're like: 'This is really good!' But having that opportunity in the first place is the challenge, usually.”
Where are you taking the new album on tour? Anywhere you’re really looking forward to?
“We're actually starting this one off in the US, which is different for us, it'll be the first time we've played over there, we're there for a few weeks in February and March, then after that we're off around the UK, and another short run in France after that. So it's going to be a great start to the new touring year.”
What kind of live show can we expect? Will you be taking the band on your with you?
“For some of it. The dates in the US will just be us four, but the UK ones and the dates in France will be with a full band, yes.”
What are the audiences like at your shows? We've always thought of sea shanties as 'drinking music'... does it get rowdy?
“It certainly can do, yeah. But we've had a very wide mix in the audiences at our shows, it's quite incredible actually, people from every age range and culture, it's great. Our sets definitely cover a few different ranges though, I'd say. There'e the rowdy party stuff, and there are some amusing songs in their as well. If you haven't heard 'Moby Duck' before, you will enjoy. But then it goes all the way down to actually quite deep, introspective and quite sad songs as well. It's a fun thing to get to do. Sometimes with these songs stuck in the set next to each other you don't know what to do, you're laughing one minute and crying the next. It's a real emotional rollercoaster.”
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