By David Hennessy
“It’s a well known term especially on the English folk scene because whereas the Irish tradition’s been a continuous thing, it has had ups and downs but it’s always been happening,” begins John Spiers of the stars of the English folk world Bellowhead of the band’s new album, Revival.
“Also, it applies to us as a band, it shows a change in our attitude in being very much more outward looking, picking ourselves up and saying: ‘Let’s tell as many people about this music as possible because we enjoy it so much and it’s everyone’s history. It’s your songs, it’s not just us, you can take those songs and do whatever you like with them at home. They’re yours, that’s a feeling we’ve got at the moment: That feeling of awakening and revival.”
Revival, released this week, is the band’s fifth album and their first on the major label, Island and the momentous move has seen John and Bellowhead partner Jon Boden have called time on their duo, Spiers and Boden, for now: “We’re putting it in a box, we’re not saying it’s forever but because of the transfer to Island Records, they expect us to take it a great deal more seriously than we did before. I’m not saying that we weren’t taking it seriously but to be honest you with an eleven piece band, it’s quite hard to make a living out of just that, we had to do other things but the duo was taking a lot of time and also a lot of ideas for music diluting them on two different projects so at least now we don’t have the problem of having to make a duo album to take on the road. Now I can just work for Bellowhead exclusively.”
It’s 10 years since Bellowhead first assembled and in that time they’ve gone on to become the most successful folk act in Britain, winning countless BBC2 Folk Awards. However, they have also enjoyed mainstream success and headlined the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year.
“It’s a long time, eh? I remember the first rehearsal that we had for the band. We were given an opportunity to showcase a new project that we thought would probably only happen at that festival. There was no inkling although we enjoyed the music and it was very exciting, we didn’t know if anyone in the folk world would get it let alone anyone outside the folk world.”
It was while sitting in a traffic jam with his partner Jon Boden a decade ago that the two musicians came up with what they would require to create their big sound which of course arrived at the eleven members that their fans now know: “We just thought: ‘What’s this band going to have in it?’ We had to decide what instruments we wanted to try and bring together the sound we were looking for, what we wanted to do that was different.
“The reason it arrived at such a large number of people is that our duo act has always been viewed as sounding massive for two people and sounds like a full band. The only way we could top what we were doing at the time was to put together something ridiculously big with a lot of versatility that could turn its hand to anything. I don’t think we realised quite how lucky we were to have randomly picked people who were so good.”
But was it really random? Surely John and Jon knew what the musicicans they were selecting could do? “I have to say in some cases we didn’t, people from the folk world we knew very well and had played with them a lot but we also wanted trumpets and trombones but we didn’t know anybody who played them. I’m still amazed how lucky we were in coming together because I think everyone in the band is an amazing musician.”
Although John himself doesn’t have Irish roots, the Irish influence has always been there with bands like The Waterboys being a huge influence: “When we grew up playing music in pubs like everyone does, you had to learn all the Irish tunes otherwise you would have to sit out half of it, go sit at the bar. Having played folk/trad music, we have a lot of Irish connections, friendships and musical friendships because you go to a pub session anywhere and there’s bound to be some Irish tunes being played.
“As Bellowhead, we’ve spent embarrassingly little time in Ireland. The last gig we did there was at The Button Factory in Dublin and that was just a brilliant gig. We’ve always said we wanted to do it because Irish crowds are famously really forthcoming and up for it and there is that slight English thing at the back of our heads: ‘Do we really want to go over and chance it, playing folk music to a country that kind of feels they invented it?’ But we sat down a long time ago and said: ‘We like what we do, we think most people could enjoy what we do, let’s try and go as many places as possible’. And it’s just never really worked out in Ireland and I really hope that in the future, we can make it a tour destination rather than just those one-off festivals.”
Would Bellowhead like to collaborate with any of these Irish friends? “We can’t afford anyone else,” the melodeon, concertina and accordion player laughs with reference to the eleven members already in the band.
“There’s loads of people we would very happily work with. I might put myself out of a job being a squeezebox player but we did a double headed tour with Sharon Shannon and it had her sister Mary in the band as well. Not only were they amazing live but they were also such good fun to hang out with which was important really so I think we’d probably have to take it in turns.”
The album Revival by Bellowhead is out now. For more information, go to http://www.bellowhead.co.uk/.