Welsh blues-roots rockers bring the good-time vibe. Joe Whyte catches up with the band.
Pitlochry in the Scottish heartlands isn’t the type of place you expect to find a band that mixes the New Orleans gris-gris of Dr John with the sensual, deep groove of The Band and the sizzling, red-hot rockin’ of the best of Sun Records, but find them I did.
March Into Pitlochry is an annual multi-venue festival in the (normally) tourist-friendly, tartan and shortbread environs of the town. The festivals organisers have been bringing the best of local music and a few surprises to the festival for a few years now and whilst the bill often has an Americana-country-blues-ey feel, they’ve had some oddly left-field choices that have set tongues a-wagging and feet a-dancing.
I’d been up there playing with Jericho Hill, a Johnny Cash tribute that I’m a part of. It’s pretty much music for very drunk people, Johnny Cash material, so Pitlochry was ideal that night. Following us on the Town Hall stage were a bunch of piratical cut-throats who looked as if they’d be more at home in downtown Detroit or some smoky Amsterdam dive bar.
Ladies and gents, I give you Johnny Cage and The Voodoo Groove.
Coming from a similar wellspring as The Urban Voodoo Machine and Jim Jones Revue, they look sharp, they sound like the slinkiest, rockin’-ist thing on ten legs and they stripped the paint off the roof of the old venue. It’s a sweet thing to see a band do their thing without giving a monkeys whether people like them or not; they’re having a whale of a time and are literally lost in the maelstrom of sound.
Incidentally, people do love them; the rhythm is hypnotic, the choruses rarely miss and the musicianship is completely on point. Dreadlocked bass man Morgan Gohar is grinning broadly as he supplies the four string thunder and the tinkling bar-room piano flourishes of Dr Wrong add a flavour of Tom Waits at his most after-midnight. Providing the pulse at the back is Andy Hughes, a man who’s sole purpose in life appears to be beating the crap out of his drumkit and driving the bands surging, propulsive rhythm.
With a front line of Johnny Cage on guitar and vocals and Peanut Shoestring Williams on main vocals and guitar, the Voodoo Groove have a focal point as well as two guys who spark off each other and seem almost intuitive in their interplay. Williams is barefoot and be-shaded; Cage is suited, booted and uber-cool, licks colliding with each other in the songs.
I spoke to Mr Cage (his real name is Dan, by the way!) about the band and their hometown scene.
Tell me a little about the formation of the band- how did you all meet, what brought you together, common influences etc?
Ooh, kind of a long story that one..
I had put on Cardiff’s first night of Burlesque & Go-Go back before it re-emerged into popular culture. I was only supposed to be the organiser & host with my ex-wife, an emerging performer. The event wound up falling on the day of my mothers funeral. On the road back from the service I get a call from the house band, there’s been a breakdown. I’m not in the best of shape but I get on the phone & after several failures in recruiting a replacement act I call up a double bass player I know & give him a setlist to learn in 4 hours.. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, that kind of thing.. It was my first time singing to an audience. It was a bit of a baptism of fire that night. I knew I could get a thing going & I knew just the guys I wanted to do it.
Peanut Williams (Lead Vocals/Rhythm Guitar) & Doctor Wrong had both been living in the same neighbourhood as me, on & off between our teens & twenties. I used to buy coffee from Doc at the local caffeine fixer. It had an upright piano in the window. It looked like he was friendly with that piano. We talked blues & boogie & Brother Ray & he got on that thing & began to play. That was that; brothers for life. We said one day we’d do a thing. We did a thing. It was a good thing! Peanut I heard go from feral man-dog to God of the living room at an hour no voice has any business owning. He sang in a way that made sense of everything. My mission had to be get the man heard! I had the tunes & they had the grits to make them into the monster mash.
We had a triple cycle of rhythm sections join up & take the joyride, all of which were brothers of mad & brilliant character. Pete the Wolf, The La, Carlo The Centurion, Olly Van Damn, Sippo Sanders.. 3 year stints ending in exhaustion & a lifetime of ridiculous memories. All the guys were friends first before the music & no one ever auditioned until our last change of guard. We were up a murky Creek without so much as a pedalo. I was convinced that Morgan the Goharian was the bass player for us as I’d been a lifelong fan of his playing & his punk band Dirty Revs had just split up. The time was now, in a minute.. I asked him. He thought I was joking. Took that beast a month to get back to me & I thought it was coz I didn’t meet his standards.
Sails, wind, flat seas, the works, & a festival not 6 weeks away. Our friends Afrocluster sent word they’d auditioned a drummer who was too wild for them. This young man at the end of his rope, about to chuck in playing drums comes into the jam room, a bit more pissed than intended in an effort to bust the nerves on an empty stomach, plays the drums like an orangutan in an electric chair & the drums literally collapse in the last 12 bars of the song. He grabs a jembe off the shelf & rocks the last of the song on that. Andy Hughes was in. The next day Morgan calls me up.. Yeah, sorry bro, I had to have a word with myself. I’d given up on the music. What was I thinking? I’m in! It’s been the greatest time of our lives musically, even though we had to start from scratch.
What’s the scene like in Wales- is it a case of creating your own vibe? I believe you have ahem, quite a stage show including dancers?
At the moment we have a hotbed of incredible bands & artists. Some amazing venues, one whole street of which is under threat. The street in which Peanut, & I first started playing as teenagers in other bands, & still play regularly is under threat from new residential properties & the Wetherspoons who intend to develop their pub into a hotel right opposite & next door to what is essentially the heart of the Cardiff music scene. We have the legendary Clwb Ifor Bach, Fuel Rock Club, The City Arms, The Moon Club, The Bootlegger, The Fire Island, & until last month, Dempseys AKA The Four Bars Inn, (which I first started playing in 24 years ago & me Peanut & Doc played the closing night last month, RIP).
Our main haunt, The Moon Club put on a yearly multi venue street party festival called HUB Fest, we play every year & the line up involves pretty much all the Cardiff talent you can possibly fit on one bill. It just won the CMA (Cardiff Music Awards) honour of best Cardiff Festival, & it beat a few good uns. Cardiff has it going on. There’s good people about & the sun is doing it’s thing today too. We don’t want to lose something that brings together the good & the great & the creative, the weirdos & the peaceful all together in something amazing, stopped by something like Wetherspoons. I’ve boycotted the place until the fight is won & urge everyone to do the same. I’ll have a can in the back garden & stick my fingers up at the ballbag, even if I was partial to his Welsh Dragon sausages. #savewomanbystreet
(NB During the course of writing this interview, our favourite venue in Cardiff, our home from home, where I asked Morgan to join the Groove, where both Morgan & Andy worked, where Morgan answered the phone call that got us on National TV, The Moon Club has just been closed down. Cardiff is now in mourning & completely crushed by this loss. This venue was literally the HUB & hearth & heart of our live music scene & brought so many people together, created Rock & Roll legend & was the first port of call for us going out & usually the last too. It was the Star Wars Cantina of Cardiff & today our Skull & Crossbones flies at half mast & Johnny Cash is wearing black)
The ladies of the all swinging, all dancing Voodoo-Revue show put an extra growl in the howl of the groove. I’ve always been captivated by the dynamics of the Go Go / Rock ‘n’ Roll relationship from the 50’s & 60’s. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a mating dance. It’s the call of the wild. They’re the birds of paradise with the plumage & we’re throwing sticks together, tweeting about getting it on! Lou Leigh Blue & Ophelia Wild, Naomi Woods if we’re lucky. These girls are the boys you want to rock with. They don’t have the dangly bits, but they’re all definitely one of the boys. The energy of the band always expands when they get in the groove & let the sweat fly. They rock a stage with as much guts as us & we love that, plus they look 10 times better than us bunch of sweat soaked hairballs up there. I find it easier to rock a stage with them beside me that’s for sure. It’s a dynamo thing.
The album is great. Tell me a little about the songwriting process and the recording of the record?
Thank you! The songwriting process is inconvenient & willful. I’ve been trying to do the interview, but have two competing songs come at once, like buses. I’m getting more excited by the one than the other. Who do I prioritise & will I remember either by the time I finish this? I’ll tend to burn myself out after furious short spates of writing. Peanut does much the same. It’s an emotional & mental process. A processing & an offloading, like going to confession, only God is Rock ‘n’ Roll, & he invented this great herb. I wrote Human Remains after I went through some crazy stuff & pissed Peanut off, he wrote Brass Monkeys after me & Doc pissed him & each other off. I think we write best when we piss Peanut off, plus it’s fun. The songs come from experience. Sometimes the songs are the only reason you went through the experience at all. Writing from experience alone is really unprofessional. We make no excuses. There’s a couple of covers in there. Waits & Dylan, re-imagined in a muscular way. In a way that gets to the bones & the loins of it but sticks a dynamite up it & jumps in the air.
We got to work with Producer Paul Durrant, who’s previously engineered with Manic Street Preachers,Catatonia, Super Furry Animals, Funeral For A Friend, in STIR Studios, our musical home. He’d been battling with the big C & we knew we had to make the shit out of this album. We wanted to give the man something to proud of. He loves it too. It was like working with Yoda at the helm of an intergalactic spacecraft. All his stories of London in the 60’s when he was knocking about with the Who & his knowledge of Rock ‘n’ Roll made us feel like the right man had the wheel. He is always a star, & a major dude. As Steely Dan says, any major dude will tell you. Our man Lawrence was a shine eyed mister Zen as engineers assistant & always had his wild front ear pointing West, listening in for the whistling wind. We loved making that album!
How would you guys describe the group? It’s very much a mixed-up gumbo of influences, yes?
I would say it depends on what song we’re playing at any one time. Wild, Cuban injected, Swamp Rock & Roll, Rockabilly, Punk & Soul, trashy electric stomp box blues. It’s got slink but it’s got voltage. Raw but sassy. People dance to it. Sometimes they throw their underwear on stage to it. Sometimes I catch that underwear in my teeth. Sometimes that’s day 5 underwear at a festival. Sometimes there are bad ideas, & sometimes there are BAD ideas. I would say the group is a mixture of knicker flinging, beer spilling, tequila swilling music & turning yourself inside out for the sake of being the vessel of the song. It has to hurt for us to reach the place where the song hears you play it & says hey, you’re alright by me. Nothing worse on stage than a song looking at you like, is it in yet? That’s a rarity, but no one’s above a brain fart.
Have you had much support from the music industry (if there is one, nowadays) or have you done this off your own bat?
We’ve had support from our friends. We’ve got some great friends. We’re a self made entity, perpetuated by our fans who are loyal & keep coming & keep growing. I saw one 8 feet tall the other day. We’re in the market for the right label, if there is such a thing. We’d all love it if a TV series picked up a song & threw it at people’s telly’s for few months. We’re not doing butter adverts though.
Other local (or not) bands you’d recommend the readers check out?
We gotta go loco locally & big up the Cardiff clans out there. Afro Cluster, Dead Residents, Jr Bill, Railroad Bill, MILK, Them Deadbeats, Chroma, Lacertilia, The Johnstown Flood, Maddie Jones, Thorun, Godbomber, Hogslayer, Cosmo, Cakehole Presley, Thee Manatees, Kid Cosmic, HARAN, Orbits, Cosmic Nod, Featherjaw, Xervas & Peppa, Bella Collins, Jack Ellis, Slowly Rolling Camera, Tendons, Dave Morris & the Knock, STAGGA, Graveyard Johnnys, Jason Doghouse & Flapsandwich, Ninjah, The Top Shelf Band, Kilnaboy, IncA, Miss Mauds Folly, the list goes on. Check out a HUB Fest line up should have been the answer to that one.
Other than that, John Lee Hooker.
How did you enjoy your trip to Pitlochry?
Pitlochry was just brilliant thank you. We can’t wait to do it again, though next time with Alka Seltzer. Everyone was mad & brilliant & received us beautifully. It’s a gorgeous place & the drive from Pitlochry to Edinburgh is stunning. Roll on next March! We have to thank March Into Pitlochry & our Pitlochry sponsors Ingrid & Sandy Fyfe for making it possible. A fine example of support from without the industry if ever there was.
Touring plans for this year? Festivals?
We have Big Love Festival in Hay on Wye, Chaos Fest Guernsey, Audio Soup Scotland, Womad, HUB Festival Cardiff, Truefest, also Hay, One Tribe Festival, & a mother-load of gigs in between it all. Find us on Facebook after reading & we’ll bombard you with all the gigs you can’t come to. It’ll be lush.
How do you get yourselves into a voodoo groove before hitting the stage?
You put your right foot in..
You get on the good foot.
The rest is history.
Thanks for having us here on Louder Than War amigo. Good luck out there. The worlds going mad.
All words by Joe Whyte. You can read more from him in his LTW author archive.