The Folk Award ‘Best Group’ nominees for 2016 were caught for a pre gig chat at The Met in Bury on 3rd March (LTW review here). Seated on some very comfy pouffes while Andy Cutting soldered away at a poorly accordion in the dressing room, Sam Sweeney and long term partner in crime, the vastly underrated concertina maestro Rob Harbron, took the first round of probing from Mike Ainscoe.
Although there’s a new album and tour and a recent trip to the US to mull over, the fact that Leveret was almost formed from the friendship and musical partnership of Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron was an obvious starting point. Back at The Met at the 2014 English Folk Expo event saw one of the first, if not THE first gig, Leveret played through a PA.
Sam Sweeney: Yeah, it was one of them. It was bloody loud too!
Rob Harbron: We’d done about five little acoustic things hadn’t we?
SS: We’d done a house concert as part of a little run of gigs to see if the band worked and then we came here to the Expo by which point we had an agent and we were touting for gigs. We came here without a sound engineer so Terry (house sound man at The Met) did it. I watched a video of it afterwards and it was proper loud!
RH: And then Spiro were on after us and I work with them as a sound engineer so I just ran up the stairs to do their sound.
You love Spiro don’t you?
SS: They’re my favourite band, but I remember it being really cool and people saying “you can’t programme two instrumental bands in one evening, then lots of people said it was the best gig of the whole weekend.
After trying desperately to recall who else was on the same bill and failing miserably, research tells us that the gig was opened by Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker – so no surprise then that it was such a highly rated bill.
But talking about favourite bands Sam – you’ve gone on record as saying Rob is your favourite musician!
SS: I was known to say that!!! The thing is…..
RH: It’s changed now has it?!?
SS: Rob taught on the EAC (English Acoustic Collective) summer school the first few times I went which Chris Wood set up. Chris invited me first when I was about fifteen and I became obsessed with the EAC album ‘Ghosts’. Rob and I started playing together in The Remnant Kings first – Jon Boden’s band – and it’s just a cool thing to work with a musician where it just works. We did a random duo gig at Derby Folk Festival last year – because they programmed it without asking us – and it just worked. It’s great to be able to play with another musician you can just do stuff with and Rob is that.
So, if it works so well as a duo, let’s play Devil’s advocate a bit and ask how the trio with Andy Cutting came about?
SS: It came out of Fay’s (Hield) band. When she formed The Hurricane Party for the first time, Andy was in it. It was us two, Andy and Roger Wilson and we got to do a tune set in the first half and a tune set in the second half and the way that Rob and Andy work kind of spawned his band really because they don’t play tune sets where you play the thing twice, then there’s a key change and then there’s a stop and then there’s a harmony or whatever. So with that band we got the tune set and we’d play a few tunes, decide on them just before we went on stage and we’d just play them and whatever happened on the night just happened. After a year or so of doing that with Fay we then thought “you know what – no one’s really doing that” at the moment with English tunes so let’s do it. We got together in my living room and just jammed out a load of tunes for hours and hours on end; playing just one tune for hours on end exploring every corner and nook and cranny of these ancient tunes and it just seemed to work.
RH: You had played with Andy before that and I’d played with him so if me and Sam are playing and it’s cool and it works then it might be lacking in layers and suddenly Andy is providing a lot of potential layers between the three of us.
SS: And the other thing that’s magic for me is that we went in and did the album (2015’s ‘New Anything’) after doing not many gigs and Rob and Andy – if you think about it, Rob’s totally chromatic and Andy is pretty much a wizard and pretty much there in terms of playing whatever he wants – we went in and did the album totally live and they didn’t play clashing chords once. And it’s something about the chemistry of the band and the brains that work in that sort of way.
RH: The concertina and the melodeon don’t always work together but it’s less about the instruments and more about the players I guess. I have a pretty good idea usually of where Andy’s going to go if not in terms of exact notes, then in terms of general feel or whether he’s going to build it up or whatever and he has the same sense of when I’m going to do that. If each of us does the thing we’re going to do it’ll be apparent to the others that it’s going to happen. When this band doesn’t work is when we’re too polite, but me and Andy have never agreed a chord – “let’s go to the major or a drone or…” or whatever. As soon as you do that when you’re playing, what you’re thinking about is “did we say it was going to be this time or the next time” and you’re not playing but just recreating something. There are loads of ways of flagging up to the people you’re playing with that you’re about to do something. Some are subtle, a nod or a foot, or just in the thing that you are playing; you can play – you play the end part or the ‘b’ part of a tune in such a way that it just says that you’ve got something going; not always what the thing is, and the three of us just understand each other’s signposts.
SS: And to say it wasn’t a steep learning curve for me! When I started doing that sort of playing with them, it was apparent that we were never going to work with arrangements or have anything set in concrete – I had to learn pretty quick! But it’s magical and when a gig goes well for Leveret it’s like nothing else – it’s the best feeling because it’s completely spontaneous! We’ve had a few times, like when we’ve played here we had Neil Pearson (from the EFDSS) who said he nearly fell off his seat as he was leaning in trying to hear what you were going to do. The other day we played a candlelight gig in London and our agent Mick was the same trying to work out what was going to happen. It’s so exciting when it works.
You record pretty much the same way doing things virtually live…
SS: The first album was completely live yeah. For that we went to Red Kite Studios in the Brecon Beacons – a lovely wooden room .
RH: It’s a room that’s designed to play music live as opposed to a room designed for separation so we sat pretty much as far away as we’re sitting now.
SS: And what was cool about it and actually a blessing in disguise for us is that we recorded almost all of the album in the first day and a half and listened back to it, and through nobody’s fault with something that happened in the studio, we had to ditch the whole lot. So what happened was that we didn’t try to recreate anything that had happened before , we just had one day left so we just went in and practically all of it is first take apart from a couple of them. No auto tune, edits and stuff, it’s just how it was, which is so exciting!
In terms of the lifespan of the band – you started playing live in October 2014, had the first album out January 2015 and the gig when you recorded the new album (‘In The Round’) with a new set was….
SS:…Four months after the first one came out! But we had to get more material to tour. The first album’s fifty minutes long and we had loads of extra material anyway and the nature of the band is that we wanted to do it while it was new and we were still exploring these tunes so it didn’t get stale. We had all these tunes and just thought we’d just record it and if it works out, it works out! And so we ended up releasing it exactly 365 days after ‘New Anything’
RH: The funny thing is that as we were going home that night, none of us thought that we had an album in the bag. It was “oh well, it was worth a try!” and then a couple of weeks later when Neil (Ferguson – recording engineer) had done the first mixes, it was more a feeling of “oooh, I quite like this – we could do this one!”
Did the venue (St Martins Church, Stoney Middleton) add something to the atmosphere and the ambience to that night as well?
RH: A church is always an exciting place to play. That particular place is octagonal so doesn’t really have that church-y acoustic feel where if you clap your hands it’s still going ten seconds later. As churches go it was quite a close focussed sound. As a player, you realise how much the room is doing but if you get it wrong and you play too much and the room does to much stuff with it, it becomes busy and it’s a write off. We didn’t have to play very much at all to make quite a big sound and the room definitely did something to it which is quite exciting. It probably wouldn’t have worked to play the stuff we did on our first record but some of the repertoire like the ‘Good Old Way’ tune which is a hymn tune originally – playing that in a church just felt sonically right.
Did it help playing in the round as well? Did playing that way add something to the feel?
SS: It’s always great for us to do that. When we played the Abingdon Unicorn, I can’t remember which tour it was, but whole of the first part of the tour was in the round and we went ot the Unicorn and there was no PA so there were no monitors and we were in a line and it was awful because I couldn’t hear Andy so I missed loads of changes, I didn’t get his signals and it was really difficult. But playing in the round is great because you can hear everything which is going around you – it’s like a session in that sense I guess.
RH: There’s not many places you can do that and give the audience a good experience of it, but that’s how we sat for the first record, we sat in the round. But it’s funny playing on stage in a line as I’m usually in the middle just because that’s how it worked out and I don’t know who to look at! So that’s why we end up with our eyes closed because you want to hear the whole thing, what everyone is doing.
You’ve also got quite a few original tunes on the album this time Rob and there are quite a lot of tunes from this area as well…
RH: Yeah, quite a few originals and it’s funny as of the three of us in the band, Andy’s the one with a reputation as a tune writer; he’s written dozens of great tunes. The book ‘John Of The Green – The Cheshire Way’ – which is a fantastic book – it turns out that not all of the tunes in that book aren’t from the area as we thought they are. I can’t explain why it’s such a hotspot for historical tunes but it clearly is.
SS: What’s magic for us is that I’ve never met John Offord who put that book together but I met him at Folk East this year and he said that since we’d been talking about this book he’d sold a load more copies of it and someone said it to us in London the other day who knew John really well and told us he’d nearly sold out of the first edition of the book. It’s not entirely down to us of course but we have been using that book and we’re telling audiences that if they play tunes to go out and get this amazing book and it’s totally brilliant! But now that book is being bought and people are delving into these tunes as well. We had another guy come to a gig and come up to Andy and say that their local session is now the first Leveret album! They just play all the tunes on the first Leveret album so not only are we doing this on a stage where there’s an artist and an audience but people are taking the tunes which we’ve dusted off and playing them. It’s not our mission to take English music and out it back into sessions but it’s great that people are playing these tunes!
RH: And the other thing about it is that it’s not us saying “this is how this tune has to go”, it’s just us saying “this is how we want it to go but it’s your tune so play it how you want to” so it’s really exciting that people are playing stuff that we’ve dug out. And hopefully it’ll encourage people as there’s loads of stuff there – hundreds, thousands of tunes in these books and loads online now either in the original form or edited and for a player to pick your own repertoire it’s really exciting. In a way it’s more exciting that writing a tune, to find one that’s been there but no-one’s played for a couple of hundred years.
Having got the accordion working, Andy Cutting joins the chat!!!
You’ve been spreading the word out in the USA recently haven’t you? How was Folk Alliance?
SS: It was completely bizarre. For those who don’t know, it’s the largest folk industry conference in the world and we went to Kansas City where it was held in a hotel. It’s a bit like English Folk Expo here – you have a gig and you’re showing people what you do, touting yourself around. But then floors 5, 6 and 7 of this hotel of which there are about 18 floors are full of unofficial showcases from about ten at night to about four in the morning. 1,100 gigs in five days…
Andy Cutting: And unlike the thing over here, the longest gig is half an hour and the unofficial showcases about 25 minutes and some of those (there’s loads of singer songwriters) they’ll be doing in the rounds with two other people for 25 minutes so they might get a song, they might get two but probably not.
RH: Even the official showcases there are six separate rooms which are running concurrently so it’s a whole different thing, a bit bonkers!
SS: But for us it was quite crazy – a lot of people didn’t know what to make of it – like, at all! A lot of people don’t know what English traditional music is full stop, so they presume you’re part of the Celtic thing and don’t know that English music actually exists. So there was that and also the fact that we’re playing this ‘chamber’ style of music that’s not arranged, so we stuck out a little bit. Maybe about 80-90% of it isn’t trad music so we stuck out in that sense anyway but also the way we do things was completely alien to a lot of people so that worked very much in our favour. We’ve had interest from Canada and the States which is cool.
The idea of selling yourself and touting yourself – does that sit alongside the expectation that delegates will use the event to pick up acts for their own events?
SS: It is really. People come to book their festival programme . It’s enormous, about 2500 people there, musicians and delegates in total in one hotel. The public can buy tickets on a couple of days…
RH:…but to a much more limited extent that the Expo over here and people can’t buy tickets to the private showcases.
Does it make for quite an odd feeling when there’s no audience as such and it might not feel like a regular gig but more showcasing your thing?
AC: We went to an introductory thing for first timers there, which seemed like the sensible thing to do, and they told us that we had to go and we had to introduce ourselves to people, everyone’s got lanyards with their names on – including a guy we found from a place called Leveret, Massachusetts – and there are that many showcases on that people don’t go to the showcase, they don’t go to see you do a gig. I saw many people literally open the door to a room, stick their head in, give a nod and then go to the next one. Or people walk in right in the middle of something, listen for two minutes and then get up and leave. There’s no waiting for the applause or the song to finish. That doesn’t exist. It’s expected that people walk in and out all the time.
SS: A weird experience but great fun and it’s worked I think. The PRS foundation fund a certain number of people through EFDSS to go over there so although you can pay (thousands of pounds) to go and play. We were fortunate to have that but most people are just one person and a guitar and they go over and they have to tout for their gigs and most people don’t have an official gig, they just play in bedrooms. So we were very fortunate to just waltz in as a bunch from England!!
AC: Another interesting thing they said in one of the seminars was that just because you might be big in one territory doesn’t mean to say that when you want to go and play somewhere else that anyone’s ever heard of you so you’re going to have to start again. Unless you are…Bruce Springsteen, that kind of thing.
SS: For me one of the most rewarding things was having musicians there because of course half the people who watch you in the private showcases are musicians who are in between their own gigs anyway and having musicians watch and go “wow- that was totally amazing!” was as much a reward if not more than having people from the industry see it because it was musicians appreciating it.
So with the Folk Awards, where Leveret have been nominated for best band, was that a surprise as a new-ish outfit?
SS: It was totally unexpected. I remember finding out about it and being a bit…Uh? What? I remember we released ‘New Anything’ right at the beginning of the Folk Awards year which is January to January and it came out in January, but we didn’t expect it at all – AT ALL in fact and how beautiful that in our first year of doing stuff as a band that people have liked it and thought it was good enough to vote for.
AC: It’s lovely and it’s great and I think that for promoters, if you’ve got that behind you and you’re a winner of something – then it’s a point which you can use to sell stuff.
RH: But you’re not going to change what you do just to get on a shortlist or get an award…
AC: Although there are some who deliberately make and release records when the award nominations come out, but who gives a….. It’s like writing music for other people, to please an audience. If you don’t particularly like it and you’re just writing for them to love it and they don’t love it then nobody likes it! If you’re doing your thing and you love it and you’re really into it, if the audience like it as well – brilliant! If nobody else liked our thing, then I’m pretty convinced that once a year we’d probably meet up and have a weekend where we just play ourselves tupid!
SS: It feels really nice actually because we are literally just doing our thing and if people like it that’s great and they seem to and this tour’s going really well; the audience seem to be getting it.
There are of course plenty of other projects on the go for all three of the guys. Andy will be picking up again with Martin Simpson and Nancy Kerr, making sure that the billing is correct after a misprint on their debut tour.
AC: Oh yeah, it was brilliant, Nancy Cutting and Andy Kerr! Exeter. I have got a copy of that actual programme – the page opposite Paul Daniels and the lovely Debbie McGee. We’re doing things that aren’t on the record and we’ll be getting together before the tour to work out some new stuff.
Rob is also doing some work with Emma Reid – an album out – worked with her in the past??
RH: We’ve been working as an on/off duo for years. We did a record about ten years ago and some really small scale under the radar touring. We’re playing the Green Note in London in April which is sort of an album launch gig for the new record – ‘Flock & Fly’.
Sam has just been appointed as Director of Youth Folk Ensemble and has touring commitments with Fay Hield’s Hurricane Party plus the final leg of Bellowhead’s farewell tour in April.
SS: I know yeah – horrible. I’m not looking forward to it at all. It really is awful. Eleven people are never going to get on all together all the time but he last eighteen months or so, basically since ‘Revival’ happened have just been incredible and they are my friends. And when we’re on tour it’s incredible; I love the gigs and making an enormous racket and playing in front of that many people jumping up and down and I just basically adore everything about it. So for me it’s totally heartbreaking and it is for most people in the band and an enormous part of our lives is just going to disappear. So it’s crazy and I’m not looking forward to the end. In Oxford (the final gig) it’s just going to be the last time we ever ever play – and people keep saying that we’ll get back together again in two or three years but it’s not going to happen. That will not happen I can tell you right away.
AC: It’s a very hard thing to do as time is a very strange thing. You can absolutely believe that’s it, but that old saying, you can never say never. Time’s a funny thing. People change and who knows. If the intent is absolutely that and you all feel exactly the same about it, then that’s it, it is the end and it’s not going to happen again then that’s honest.
SS: But that’s not how most people feel at all but if Bellowhead decide to reform in 8 months time I’d be absolutely there in a shot but it ain’t gonna happen. It’s really sad and I shall be a wreck for weeks after 1st May. But there we are.