Our children have been fans of the big band inspired traditional folk tellers since they were very young and now here at the Larmer Tree festival we were due to meet them. Paul Sartin and John Spiers agreed to do a short interview and being family men themselves they were happy to take questions from one shy 3 year old Gwilym and more talkative 5 year old Hazel. She started off by asking them
How did you learn to play your instruments?
John talked about how he started off playing the piano but moved to a room where he couldn’t fit a piano in and chose the accordion instead. This amazed Hazel as she had an accordion for her fifth birthday present and John told her that he uses the one she received for workshops. Paul had been taught by his mum on a variety of instruments and when he was old enough learnt to play the oboe. There followed some discussion regarding the prominence of the instrument in the band and whether or not it’s a good thing or not! John Spiers likens it to marmite….
Gwilym wanted to ask could they could play a cheese grater?
Rather than storm off at the frivolity of the question Paul gamely tries to blow the cheese grater without grating himself and John clangs the ‘instrument’ rather like a cow bell. He even suggests playing it on someones arm which would get a sound.
Hazel asks ‘How many times have you been on stage?’
Paul suggests that it could be around 500 times which John is slightly surprised about. They both agree that it is their fourth time at Larmer tree. (It was in 2008 that we first discovered them, again they supported The Levellers) They remember the first time in 2006 and were amazed by the peacocks, as are most people who go to the festival!
Whats your favourite instrument?
John has a think and plumps on the concertina, while Paul thinks the melodeon and not the oboe. He then thinks again and goes for the cello. John agrees that the cello is great when played by Rachael (the bands cellist) but horrible when he played it at school. Indeed his daughter is learning to play it now.
This inspires us to ask if their musical nature has rubbed off on their children?
John thinks it isn’t necessarily the teaching but more the fact that music was always around and so their children got the chance to pick instruments up. Having a go at playing instruments and learning a little themselves is a great way to explore music. Paul’s son was always around music as well and got into sound engineering and mixing. Both agree that having their children watch them on stage from an early age has been enough to put them off being professional musicians. Paul thinks it a funny old life style, waiting around, being away from your family for long periods, and precarious financially.
So from the family point of view would your kids come with you?
Both agree that it’s just not practical unless they were some massive rock band with tutors in tow. In summer they would likely have some of the bands family around for festivals, the kids all know each other as the band has been going for 12 years.
How did you come together as a group?
The original idea came from John Spiers and Jon Boden who worked together as a duo and thought of putting together a big band. It wasn’t just an expanded version of the duo but time for an English big band. Consequently they thought of some people, invited them to join and then got booked to play the Oxford Folk Festival. It was only meant to be a special gig for the festival and because it went so well they continued.
Were you surprised at the success?
John and Paul tell us that it was meant to only be a one off for the folk festival and were amazed at their reception. Indeed they were told they would only last six months! To help publicise them to get more gigs they decided to record an EP. It ended up getting nominated for a folk award and even got a 5 star review in fRoots even though they had told them not to review it.
Why do you think you appeal to all ages?
Paul is quick to suggest that there is something inclusive about folk music especially the dance stuff. Playing traditional English music and having a laugh on stage has helped as well. Most bands are trying to be cool to someone while Bellowhead couldn’t be cool if they tried. They are crossing the footlights and saying we are just like you.
Even though they have performed on massive stages they have retained that attitude.
Do the more seated venues pose a problem to people having fun?
They both agree that they need to put more energy in to make up for it. However by the end everyone is standing. John mentions how the size of venue plays a part as in many towns there isn’t the venue that will accommodate a large number of standing people only.
Hazel proceeds to show Bellowhead another way of playing the cheese grater. Paul suggests playing it with a bow.
It’s a protracted leaving do….
It’s given us time to get another job says John. With Jon Boden not singing anymore the band isn’t the same, even though some have done it like Genesis. Everyone has other jobs anyway and has to be as Bellowhead isn’t a full time job and couldn’t be. John puts out a request that he is open for bookings! Both play in caleighs and have some time to work out what to do. Unlike other bands they are not breaking up under a cloud of animosity.
Caroline’s Dad asked us to pass on the question ‘when will the reunion tour be?’
The split is still really news for themselves and wouldn’t like to guess as to what they will be doing in the future but maybe one day a reunion could happen.
We then congregate for the obligatory photo and later on that night are treated to a tight and energetic set that has our children in fits of delight. At one point we thought Hazel was going to fall off our shoulders such was the excitement when ‘New York girls’ came on. Thanks must go to the band members who shared their time with us. John and Paul are truly lovely blokes who happen to make amazing music as well!