Southern Tenant Folk Union
I had arranged with Pat McGarvey, their Leader & Banjo player as well as one of the vocalists, to do an interview with him, which ended up being a chat for an hour or so, with not only him but also Pete Gow, (Guitar, Harmonica, Vocals & Washboard!) & Oliver Talkes (Guitar & probably the best vocalist in this musical genre bar none!). It was unfortunate in some ways that the conversation followed their incredible afternoon electric performance at the recent Maverick Festival. When I met them, an hour or so after their set, I was still trying to come down from the emotional plateau they had built. For most of their set all you could do was sail along with the incredible range of emotions that their huge musical talent generates. At times their communication with each other is almost telepathic & I was not the only audience member with a lump in my throat & a tear in the eye for much of this emotional roller coaster. They have that rare ability to play just the right number of notes to get the best out of all of their own original songs. Obvious, you might say, but you often find that groups playing anything akin to Bluegrass go over the top with their showing off the speed of their playing end up playing so many notes that everything sounds the same. Neither Pat, Pete nor Eamon take enough lead vocals but how can you possibly cut back on Olivers superb voice. He has the ability to sing high lonesome on one song then almost make you think he is Gene Clark on the next. Afterwards I spoke to a number of people who had witnessed this set & all agreed with me. Having said that; they played an unplugged acoustic set later in the day that reached the same plateau, although Pat told me he thought it was better!
Pat & Pete met through bumping into each other whilst playing around the London circuit as well as at other peoples recording sessions. Pete was & still is a member of Case Hardin, although his work with them is on hold due to his commitments with the Southern Tenants; this despite the fact that Case Hardin released a superb album ('Some tunes for Charlie Spencer') several months ago. Oliver moved from Southampton to London & was playing solo around Folk clubs. Pat also knew Eamon (mandolin & vocals) who played (& still plays) in Foghorn Leghorn, the Bluegrass band. They felt they had something special so they advertised for bass & fiddle players in a trade paper. Matt Lloyd & Frances Vaux were the first & only musicians to auditon on their instruments, it being obvious as soon as they played with them that the perfect blend had been found.
Anyone who has their first album will notice that it was dominated by songs written by Pat McGarvey. This is not because he feels he is better than the others but simply that he, at that time, had more songs ready, “Having had a couple of months when I just hit a great streak”. He said that the main priority was recording good songs that they all loved irrespective of who wrote them. Matt wasn't in the band at the time & Pete was working abroad (for CNN in Iraq), so Oliver & Fran were getting together to practice with Pat & he was thinking he needed to have something ready for them to rehearse each week. He was finishing off things he had already started & getting ideas for new songs, then if they didn't work he would fiddle around with it over the next week until it was what they wanted. That is how 'A little deeper' happened'. He can't remember what it was like but the finished article is entirely different to how it started. The beautiful 'The cold flagstone' started out much faster, but then worked out better by being slowed down & adding the fingerpicking. Pete added, “Mesopotamia was a full band bluegrass song but just wasn't working & nobody enjoyed what we were doing with it. Then either Ollie or Pat suggested doing one part with just guitar & it was transformed into what is now a lot of peoples favourite band song”. Pat added that the song is actually about voter apathy & the 2004 American election. As professional musicians they have more chance of witnessing politics at work due to all of the travelling they do. During the 2004 U.S elections he was actually in America with the Coal Porters during the election run up, performing at a big Bluegrass showcase in Nashville, so he could almost taste the atmosphere. Every song they have written has got some personal experience or something that is true about it. The general feeling is that for a song to really work it's story must be something that the listener can understand & relate to, other than just the melody & the playing.
They use many of the themes used in Old time/Hillbilly music & early Bluegrass, such as tragic death (the cold flagstone) & the almost mandatory themes of lost love, but with what seems more of an edge than most other alternative country bands manage to achieve, probably because they are using bluegrass instruments. On most of the lead vocals is Oliver. He really gives everything he has on every song, then the others come in with their outstanding harmonies for the real killer blow on the songs. It must help that at least four of them are capable of & actually do carry out lead vocals. It could possibly even be five, with the acquisition of Roddy Neilson as replacement for Frances Vaux on fiddle & vocals. We need to hear more from him before knowing, but he certainly can harmonise & is a superb fiddle player.
They seemed to arrive on the scene with their sound fully developed & pretty much where they wanted it to be. They played their first ever gig in May 2006 & then played mainly around the London area apart from supporting James Hand at the Hanbury ballroom in Brighton. Pat was in the Coal Porters at the time & thought they needed a really strong lead vocalist. He felt that all good bands had strong musicians & good songs but that a strong lead vocalist, someone who could really express the emotion, was at least as important. He knew that the Coal Porters were all good vocalists but without being outstanding. By now he had met Pete & Olly & really liked their voices but it didn't work out with the Coal Porters. He & Olly had made a three track demo & liked it, so they thought they could do this band on the side. They were contacted by 'Ugly Nephew Records' on the strength of the demo recordings which were on myspace website, but were told they wanted the album completed in a couple of months despite the fact they had not yet played a gig. (Not only was the demo on myspace but they were handing out hundreds of self burnt copies at gigs as well, thinking this was a great way to spread the word). By this time Pat had left the Coal Porters because schedules were probably going to soon be clashing, so Sid Griffin got in a different Banjo player & Pat has not played with them since June 2007. He played on most tracks on the recent Coal Porters album 'Turn the water on, boy' & even has a song on it, 'Here in the dock', which had also made the first S.T.F.U. album .
It was Sid Griffin, in about 1999, who suggested Pat should learn the Banjo, although he had been playing bass in the Coal Porters. Pat said “We had a transitional album out in 2000, 'Western Electric', which whilst being a good album didn't sell very well. At the same time Sid was producing a Lindisfarne album so he started to get into acoustic instruments & began learning the mandolin. Sid had an old banjo at home that he had bought from the Beach Boys studio when they had a clearout sale in the early 1980's. It had a paisley back on it & was almost unplayable, so I bought one on my next American visit & started annoying the hell out of everyone by playing it”. By about 2004 he realised he was not as good as he needed to be & started putting more work in. (He now takes it with him everywhere & was to be found playing anywhere there was a jam session at the Maverick festival!)
Most descriptions of this band label them as Bluegrass, although I have never really concurred. Pat responded, “We only really called it bluegrass in the early days, but we feel we have gone way beyond this genre now. The first album was more like bluegrass but the second is much wider in scope. At the genesis of the band none of us had really written bluegrass but we had a vision of the band going to & beyond it”. I commented that the problem with labels is that although necessary, they can push you forwards with one hand while holding back with the other. Pat agreed totally & recounted the tale of a critic for the Irish times who had gone to a gig (last year) expecting pure bluegrass & when she didn't get that, gave a highly critical review, simply because what they played was not what she expected. Pat's attitude is that they are not interested in just bluegrass or just alt.country, but if the song is good & they can all relate to it they will play it in their own style. The only no no is comedy songs. As he pointed out, playing comedy songs on a banjo puts you on a very slippery slope!
Asked about their favourite albums & influences Oliver cited Tom Waits 'Raindogs', with very little hesitation. Pete said, “In the context of the band Steve Earle's 'The Mountain' has relevance to our music, having been recorded as a rock album, that approached a traditional music form in much the same way as we try to do”. Pat loves a lot of 70's punk & soul plus has a love of movie soundtracks. His big turning point album was the Louvin Brothers 'Satan is real' “I'd heard of the album & knew 'Christian life' from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I first heard it at a friends house & was impressed with the weird cover. Managed to get a vinyl copy a few years ago & just played it to death, feeling that not only was the musicianship great but so was the songwriting. Ira was a troubled man who felt he should have been a preacher, was married four times, had manic booze binges & was then torn apart by regret. Because he was such a dark character there was that dark undercurrent to their material”. I mentioned 'old time' music & artists such as Doc Boggs & that I loved listening to this dark, eerie, almost sinsiter music, many of the qualities of which are evident in the Southern Tenants writing & playing. Maybe this is why I love their music so much. They are one of the few bands that actually create 'that old weird America' atmosphere but without it sounding contrived. When they are playing onstage everything seems under control but in a totally natural, convincing way. As Pat said, “We've been playing the songs for a long time now & can play the chords & the lyrics without too much thought, so we can concentrate more on the feeling & creating an atmosphere. Everything is geared to the group playing together but with our individual strengths coming through within the confines of the band & everything being kept fresh by playing just the right number of gigs to avoid staleness”. Pete added, “With Roddy being a new member he has been replicating Frans parts but we're recording a new album soon & as he is a songwriter he will have his input as well”.
Their varied musical tastes ensure they don't seem to put the genre they play in above any other, yet importantly, this is the music that comes out naturally when they get together. Maybe this is the key to why they are so good. They are not trying to manufacture a sound; it just comes completely naturally. Many good bands struggle to master three part harmonies: This band regularly use four & even five parts; not to show how clever they are, but simply because it gives their music that extra power. I mentioned this & Pat responded, “We work incredibly hard in rehearsals & go over it again & again to get these things to work until we get to the stage when we can master the harmonies. I work out each harmony part & email each individuals part to them so they have a good idea at rehearsals what they need to do”. Oliver added, “In a way you have to ignore everyone elses part & concentrate on your own. It is down to practice & concentration. It is really rewarding to get good voices singing well together & makes all the hard work worthwhile”. Last words to Pat, “It helps that we found the right people at the right time & that we all work well together” Allelujah to that!
Note: For photos, see links page & go to either of their sites, or have a look at myspace.com/americanablues