On a wet London afternoon before their sold out show at Islington’s Union Chapel, Simon sat down with Steve Knightley and Phil Beer of British folk rock titans Show of Hands to discuss their current tour, plans for the coming year, and the future of the English folk scene…
So how’s the tour going so far?
Phil: Pretty well really, I suppose we’re coming up to a quarter of the way through at the moment.
Halifax, yeah, generally speaking very well. I know there are tales of doom and gloom and falling audiences and stuff, but we do seem to be doing alright at the moment; they have been some fun gigs, we’ve had some lovely audiences.
So it’s different being on the road without Miranda (Sykes, double bass), or?
Phil: Yes, it’s different, but the original plan was for it to be a four-piece incorporating Cormac (Byrne, percussion), but we thought for a while and thought we’d just go with what we’ve got. Cormac’s a very old friend of ours and obviously he’s one of the world’s finest percussion players, and it’s given the thing a very interesting slant and a bit of a sparkle, really. We’re having great fun in actually doing it, and that sort of leads us to wonder what it could be, or will be like, when Miranda finally comes back again. In fact, there’s now a not-so-secret four-piece gig just before Christmas for when she’s gonna be ready to play again. That’s gonna be back down in the West Country.
So when Miranda’s back that’s gonna be a long term thing as well, with Cormac?
Phil: Well for our major concert tour which is in the winter. We diversify greatly in the beginning of each year, and we do quite a lot of solo gigs, and then we generally do a tour, then it’s either the two of us, but in fact next year we’ve managed to – or Steve’s managed to – persuade our old friend Richard Shindell to come out on the road with us for the smaller-scale gigs in April and May, then there’ll be a slightly different summer. I’m sort of taking the summer off to finish some slightly different recording projects and they’ll all be doing solo shows, but then we’ll all be coming together in September next year to rehearse. The idea is…
Steve: Fingers crossed!
Phil: Yeah, fingers crossed, that the four of us can go out together as a very complete band, which will be marvellous.
At the end of next year kind of time?
Phil: Yeah! This sort of time next year.
Is that gonna incorporate any new material, a new album, anything like that?
Steve: Yeah we’ll be recording the new album in Spring, we hoped to have it for this tour but it wouldn’t have worked out. So, getting Cormac-type songs, we’ll bring in Miranda, recording probably April-May sort of time, and release it for the Autumn. As Phil says hopefully with the ability of having a four-piece on the road.
That sounds like fun, so anything you’re playing new from that album on this tour at the minute?
Steve: Yeah we are, we’re doing at least five numbers tonight. We’re doing “Battlefield Dance Floor,” “Dreckley”, we’re not gonna be doing “Make the Right Noises”?
Steve: We’re doing a new one of mine called “You’ll Get By”, and we’re doing “My True Love”, which we’ll all be recording, so yeah.
Well, looking forward to hearing the new material! So, Union Chapel’s quite a famous prestigious venue and everything with the beautiful inside and everything, so does that factor into the setlist for tonight as well?
Steve: It’s gonna be tough tonight with percussion in a room like this, it’s the first time we’ve worked in such a percussive space, but it’ll be fine. But, there is a natural reverb in the room and normally we’ve used quite sophisticated reverbs before, beautiful ones, but it’s gonna be fine. Naomi (sound) may wanna wind off some of the bottom end resonances, she’ll tune it, but a lot of people when they come into a space like that they think it sounds great anyway because they see it and they hear it through their eyes, if you see what I mean. They can be quite easily seduced by the beautiful space into thinking it sounds good as well, they go in a cathedral which could almost be a swimming pool, and they go “ooh it sounds great”; if they opened their eyes and you were playing in a municipal bath they’d want their money back. *laughs*
Maybe you can leave the swimming pool tour for next year.
Steve: Swimming pool tour? What, on lilos? *laughs*
Could be fun! So when you come and play somewhere like in London, obviously a much bigger city, and you’re playing more folk music about the countryside or whatever, does that also factor into setlist choosing? What are the reactions in London like compared to in the countryside?
Steve: Well, you can get that almost as important is what night of the week. Because when we get to Friday or Saturday, wherever you are, people get into that weekend mode. Wednesday can be quite hard, you can force it too much and people aren’t ready for the weekend yet, they just wanna listen and enjoy. But tonight, it’ll be, wherever in the country it’ll be a fairly raucous night, you can just sorta feel it. But it’s nice because the urban audiences tend to be a bit younger, a bit cooler, and a bit more aware of different types of music. But we don’t change the set, because once it’s routined and it’s in-line with all the lighting and all the desks and pre-programmes. You know, we’re not using backing tracks, but the scenes are fixed, so we tend to go with what works.
So you don’t try to mix up the set to make it a bit more interesting for you doing the same thing all the time, or?
Steve: Not really, there’s a great comfort in slipping into good habits, you know? After two or three weeks, if things aren’t working or need moving you’ll do it, but it’s nice to just drive and drive and drive, and there’s the set. It’s like the play starting, you know what you’re gonna say in the right part of the evening.
So pretty much a rehearsed thing ready to go when you hit the road?
Steve: Yeah exactly.
Okay, so speaking of being on the road and on tour and everything, what’s the typical day like for you when you’re on tour?
Steve: Typical day will be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday is what tends to work, so we will wake up in some hotel somewhere, we don’t normally have to leave until midday. England’s not a big place.
Yeah it’s a nice thing, that.
Steve: Yeah and we don’t meet a lot of traffic, typically, and we arrive at venues at four before the traffic’s got really bad. So, we might do a couple hour drive, there’s always an addiction stop for Costa Coffee or something like that, but you know, we come to soundcheck and take it in turns, Cormac’s out there now. Six o’clock, maybe six-thirty, finish that, and then the guys sound check, then one of us – we take turns – to introduce the opening act, then it’s into our set for an eight o’clock show, maybe nine.
So no long days on the tour bus or anything like that?
Steve: No it’s not ridiculous, not sort of getting in a tour bus and driving five hours. Though it’s Plymouth tomorrow that’s still only four and a half hours away, so you can leave at lunchtime and get there. It’s really not a big country. The worst place is trying to get to Norwich from Exeter. *laughs* But those are journeys you have to do.
Phil: Well that being said today was an exception. We got here yesterday because it was a day off, so I went to The Harrison last night to see a bunch of young singer-songwriters and fly the flag for them as it were, and Steve’s been a keynote speaker at a music conference today, orchestrated by Tom Robinson, so we’ve had a full day, it’s been good.
And mostly when you’re on tour it’s just touring England and a little bit of Wales and Scotland, not most of Europe?
Steve: Yeah, we had to pull out of Scotland because we didn’t sell any tickets. So, we had a couple gigs to start off with, but… We’re doing Cardiff, and occasionally we’ll go to Swansea or somewhere like that, but it’s mainly England. Though we did do Germany as a duo for the first time earlier this year, which was good fun.
Phil: That was very enjoyable.
Just with the Danube cruise, or what was that?
Steve: No it was just people kept going on and on about us returning, and we didn’t do any bigger gigs than we’ve done for the last ten years there, but it was nice to go and reconnect with the scene. I’ll go back and do it solo then we may reapproach it again.
So there is some element of international touring as well?
Steve: There is a bit, but America’s a no-go for us, in terms of just the whole visa nightmare and that sort of stuff.
The usual difficulties there?
Steve: Yeah generally, so it’s a little bit to Germany, and of course we got to Costa del Folk, but that’s very much an imported audience twice a year in the Mediterranean.
Alright. So, when you’re coming up with new material for an album or a setlist or something, how do you find the balance between doing traditional stuff and doing stuff that you write yourself?
Steve: Umm, well we’re not doing any folk songs tonight, we normally have at least two.
Phil: This is very interesting, because the closest we are to this is to Adrian Mannering’s “My True Love”, which may people mistake for a trad song.
Steve: And “The Galway Farmer”.
Phil: Of course, which is Steve’s, but of course they’re both written by people who are still living. So yes, possibly even the set of tunes we’re doing – we’re not a tunes band but because we have Cormac it’s inevitable we’re doing a set of tunes – but they’re all mine. So in fact there’s a lot of trad influence but there’s actually nothing trad in the- yes there is actually! “Blackwaterside”, sorry, Irish folk song in there.
Steve: We have got that, normally there’s at least a couple. A typical balance: so if we’re doing fourteen songs would be two traditional ones, three covers, eight or nine of mine, that sort of balance really. There’s at least three songs everyone always wants to hear, you know? They wanna hear “Santiago”, “Cousin Jack”, and “Galway Farmer” if I’m probably honest, and maybe “Exile”, so there are your keynote songs.
The ones that’ll always be in every setlist?
Steve: But what we’re doing on this tour is we’re doing them at the beginning. Just to accustom them to the new sound, you know.
Simon: Mixing it up a bit?
Does that same principle apply when you’re writing for a new album? Try to stick in a trad one or two, or?
Steve: There’s always a couple of covers, there’s bound to be a Richard Shindell song on this new album, try to find a folk song from somewhere or some sets of tunes.
Then everything kind of falls into balance like that?
Steve: Yeah, it does, there’s a sort of mix that we tend to stick to.
On sticking to things, is there anything new that you can see yourself experimenting with the next album, obviously you’re experimenting with the percussion live now…
Phil: Watch this space! I think we’re about to experiment tonight actually. Just a little thing.
Steve: I just met the most extraordinary – I mean I’m not a fan of rap – but I met this guy this afternoon who wanted me to send him some chords and stuff like that.
Here in London?
Steve: Yeah, black guy, martial arts expert, learned to speak Chinese and Japanese, studied law, and now he’s been busking in city centres all over the country just rapping with his grooves, and now he’s selling his own shoes, his own clothes. He’s an absolute ball of energy, and he just said “send me some chords, send me some tones, and I’ll cut and paste” – so that’ll be interesting. The folkies would hate it.
The new Steve Knightley rap project?
Phil: Yeah, perfect.
So, when you’re out on tour do you get any time for socialising and everything as well, from what you’re saying about walking around London and whatever?
Steve: What we generally find is if you try and do something which on another day would be the main thing you did, like visit some and maybe have a lunch or something, it can cut into it. You don’t often get the best of either. We had lunch with an Indian lady, friend of ours, the other day, which was great, and that would have been a reason to go to Preston on its own, but with both when you get to the gig you are sort of like… I’ve tried mixing social life with gig days, and in a way both can suffer, because there you are having a drink at lunchtime and you’re go “well it’s been… but we’ve got to fly”, so you’ve got to just go zombie-like until the evening, and then we’ll see some friends tonight.
Phil: That’ll be nice, and I have come away with Mary’s own special curry powder all mixed and ready to go, and I’ve got enough logs of cinnamon to build a small house, so…
Sounds like a fun thing that happens on tour…
Phil: A little bit of cultural exchange, yeah, absolutely marvellous.
Last thing I wanted to ask, where do you see the folk scene in a decade’s time with the acts that are coming up at the minute?
Steve: I’ll be interested to see what Phil says. The younger audience, the younger artists, have to start bringing their own peer group into it. I was asked today, back when we started playing age sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, the audience was twenty, twenty-five, five years older? Six years older? Now the place is awash with young artist, but somehow purely from a demographic and dying-off point of view, that generation has to bring in an audience closer to their own age to refresh it. If they don’t, I don’t know who’s gonna be left standing to be honest. To be fair, in London, people like Sam Lee, they are doing their best to bring in a younger bunch, aren’t they?
Phil: Well I was just thinking last night, to see Jack Harris, very find songwriter, playing lots of gigs on the circuit, and Jess Morgan from Norwich who’s a very good songwriter, in the basement of The Harrison – lovely smashing little gig. Again, looking at it, I also went with another singer, a relative friend, but looking around I was thinking “okay, there’s a few people under thirty here, but mostly it’s my demographic”, the sixty-pluses. Now, all these fantastic people are coming through, many of them are acknowledging the traditions and basis of what they do, many of them are writing fantastic songs, like Jack Harris last night, there’s a sort of dark comedy about some of the stuff that he does, and certainly a little bit of satire as well, and it’s beautifully driven by his fantastic guitar playing and all the rest of it, but watching him and sort of thinking that all of these people need to be playing to their own age group, and their own age group firstly can’t afford the tenner to come to a gig which is paying those musicians.
Steve: Well they’ll afford twenty-five to go see someone else they’re just not prioritising it, they can afford it I’m sure.
Phil: But there is a problem coming.
Steve: They are getting interaction, and they are meeting a peer group, but it’s their own musicians, rather than them and the audience.
Cheers for the time guys.