It’s a shame that it’s not acceptable to review an album that you’ve played a part in making – for me, listening to Gold Has Worn Away is consistently surprising and delightful in a way that listening to one’s own albums almost never is. That’s probably all I can say without being accused of shameless self-promotion, so instead, I’ll list a few of the reasons that I love playing in Benji’s band.
1) Old ties
My first impression of Bellowhead, at the band’s inception in 2004, was that this was a band which didn’t need a percussionist, because the rhythm section was provided by the interplay of the swell of John Spiers’ melodeon and the attack of Benji’s bouzouki (there was no low brass at the very beginning). For once I didn’t need to limit myself to the traditional drummer role of being the glue that held the band together – I could sit out if I wanted to (I never did, being young and keen), or play impressionistically rather than driving the beat. As roles within the band began to settle, Benji’s playing became a key reference point in the maelstrom, and I learned that if I limited myself to guitars and lead vocals in the monitors, I stood a decent chance of hearing every band member to some extent, whereas if I loaded the monitors with too many instruments, all chance of maintaining a workable balance flew out the window. So I spent a lot of time locking in with Benji’s part, even going to the extent of changing sticking on the triple time tunes, in order to match the roll of his playing. It’s great to be able to carry that work into a trio.
2) False starts
In many ways I was surprised to get the call, because of the minor disaster that ensued when I joined Faustus. If ever there was an example of a sound which just didn’t work, it was my attempt to tack drum kit onto their arrangements. People talk of gilding a turd, this was more a case of sewing sequins onto a flower (albeit a very manly flower – maybe the male flower of a dioecious species – like hops for example, although male hops flowers are too weedy on account of being wind-pollinated….anyhow – you get my drift).
There was also a bit of a sense of guilt on my side for the crimes of Bellowhead. If I have a criticism of that band, it’s that sometimes the right to be creative fell disproportionately to those with a mastery of the score writing program, Sibelius, and that (somewhat absurdly, it seems in retrospect) those with other forms of musical mastery often struggled to be heard. As one of those masters of score-writing software I was always aware that my appearance in the arranger credits was partly an accident of fate, and Benji’s omission was a stupid way to treat someone with his abilities. And, being at a nice, uncomplicated point in my life where I’m happy to just play drums and look at flowers and moss, it feels good to be part of a project which is solely about realising his vision, particularly after years of forcing him to play all my knotty arrangements.
In the nicest, politest way possible, Benji is the most demanding, relentless taskmaster. Songs are never finished and done, but instead are in a constant process of evolution. Only yesterday, in rehearsal, he came up with an entirely new way of playing Unclothed Nocturnal Manuscript Crisis, an old Bellowhead arrangement which I thought was set in stone ages ago. It’s tricky, and I may well mess it up come the tour, but it keeps things fun. His music is ambitious, and often quite difficult to play, but the result of all that obsession with detail is a set of songs and tunes that are a pleasure and a challenge to play.
Some folk melodies are possessed of a powerful latent funk, marrying a wayward rhythmic emphasis with insistent repetition. Benji has a unique way of pulling out the funkiest threads of the tradition and transposing them into a rockier sound without it feeling, as it so often does, like an influence tacked onto a style, nestled within a genre. Instead it comes across as an organic synthesis based on a lifetime of deep listening and constant playing. It helps that the electric bouzouki is one of the bounciest instruments known to mankind.
5) The Power
This can be a loud band, particularly when the distortion pedals are engaged. Being part of that wall of sound is really exhilarating – reminds me of another band I was in once…
6) The Bassist
Pete Thomas is an unassuming monster of a player – enough said!
So come see us on this tour, and get a copy of the CD, which is, as I’ve said before, a work of old-school magnificence!
See you in a bit,