Interview: Bellowhead


Photo by David Angel

As an 11-piece outfit, you’d be forgiven for thinking Bellowhead were a travelling orchestra rather than a folk band.  Currently touring their third studio album, Hedonism, they took a break to talk numbers, Abbey Road, awards and residencies with FFS.

FFS: You’re in the middle of a lengthy tour promoting Hedonism – how difficult is it taking an 11-piece band on the road?

Andy Mellon (AM): I think it’s all in the preparation, for which we have our excellent manager Mark Whyles to thank. Once all the transport, accommodation and venues have been booked we can simply get onto our tour bus and be whisked away on a whistle stop tour of the UK! Simple.

Is 11 a big enough number or might you take it bigger still in the future?

JON BODEN (JB): It’s surprising how often you want someone in the band to be able to do 2 things at once – I think however big the band you would always find a reason for adding one more instrument. But actually having limits is very important creatively and in that sense 11 is quite big enough. I would love to get a saw player in though…

With everyone having their own careers outside of Bellowhead, scheduling tours must be a nightmare?

AM: We book tours quite far in advance to alleviate any major scheduling issues. We’re already holding a period late next year for a UK tour, which means we can ensure we’re able to tour with the original Bellowhead line-up.

How would you describe your music now – you’ve clearly stepped beyond the bounds of ‘Traditional Folk’?

JB: Someone once said we were taking traditional folk songs on their holidays, which I think is a nice way of looking at it. We’re not trying to set up models for how folk songs should be done – we’re just taking each track as it comes and seeing what styles and approaches would work with that particular song or tune to give it a bit of a makeover.

When it came to recording Hedonism, how hard was it to decide on which tracks would go on the album?  Was it a democratic process, or did someone have the final say?

AM: Making decisions in a band of this size can sometimes be tricky. We took the decision to put all our faith in our producer – John Leckie, whose opinions we highly valued and trusted. We therefore left it to him to decide which tracks were to go on the album and in which order.

Is there a feeling of everyone having to have their bit on the album?

AM: We would never do anything musically for the sake of it – just so someone got to do their thing. Obviously the band works to the strengths of each individual musician and when we’re working on arrangements things might change, musically, to play to those strengths or because of limitations of certain instruments. Everyone in the band is committed to Bellowhead the band, rather than their own individual moment in the sun.

Were you pleased with the experience of recording at Abbey Road with John Leckie?  What did that add compared to your previous albums?

It was an incredible experience recording in studio 2 of Abbey Road. Despite all the history associated with the place and the seminal albums and the phenomenal bands who have recorded there, the whole experience was really relaxed and fun. That was largely down to John Leckie, who has a long history with the place and seemed so happy to be there, which completely put us at ease.

Working with John was a huge pleasure in itself. He has the most incredible set of ears and was able, quite quickly, to really get into the nuts and bolts of what we were trying to achieve. I think in the end he probably knew our arrangements better than us.

Compared to our previous albums, we made a conscious decision to try and make a more commercial sounding record that would, hopefully, appeal to a wider audience. We were so lucky to get John involved. He added clarity to our sound, and a kind of commercial sheen on top creating a noise that we’re really proud of.

Does it irritate you that some people see Bellowhead as a Spiers & Boden project?

AM: I think on the whole the band find it irritating. It sometimes feels like lazy journalism and does a huge disservice to the remaining 9 members of the band whose commitment, musical talent and creativity makes Bellowhead what it is. I’m sure John and Jon would wholeheartedly agree.

JB – I’m not sure people do any more, or at least not so much. We’ve always been careful to make it clear that the band is a band, not a project. We still perform a fair few S&B tracks with Bellowhead so obviously the link is there, but the band has totally moved on as well and the difference between a Spiers & Boden gig and a Bellowhead gig now is enormous – two totally different experiences.

To Jon Boden:  You’re currently doing your A Folk Song a Day project – how is that going?

JB: Very well thank you! I’m enjoying it, we’ve got lots of subscribers/website users who all seem to be enjoying it. I’m on tour now so need to be learning loads of songs if I’m going to make it to 365.

To  Jon again: apart from Bellowhead being Best Live Act of 2010 at the Radio 2 Folk Awards 2010, you also won Folk Singer of the Year – that must have been a great thrill?  Will there be a follow-up to Songs from the Floodplain?

JB: A fantastic thrill and quite unexpected. I am planning to write a follow-up but it will need a long incubation period. I’m really enjoying performing all the Floodplain material with The Remnant Kings (touring again in February) and I do feel that the songs on Floodplain need space to be out there. Engaging creatively with the future is a long term continual process, not just a one-off project, so it’s something I will be exploring for a long time to come.

Are you still one of the ‘Artists in Residence’ at the Southbank Centre – what does that involve?

AM: We are still the band in residence at the Southbank Centre, and are extremely proud and honoured to be able to say so. It means so much to us. It enables us as a band, and as individuals, to experience creative music making and artistic endeavours that stretch and challenge us whilst having a great platform to express ourselves.

After this tour, you’re all back to your separate careers, what does the future hold for Bellowhead?

AM: More projects and performances at the Southbank, more tours, more records….. We’ve only just started!

FFS looks forward to seeing what the future holds for Bellowhead, who perform this Saturday 20th November at Shepherds Bush Empire.

Interview: Colin Boag & Helen True