Thursday, 20 February 2014

HARP AND A MONKEY

Interview

Martin Purdy of Harp and a Monkey

You may not be aware of it but everything goes better with a monkey, well that's according to Mancunian Andy Smith who is one third of Harp and a Monkey and if you go by their growing success it's a philosophy which is hard to argue against.

Guess who?
The name stems from what could easily be seen as an urban myth about a group of friends who had already spent many years playing together and then six years ago deciding they would change direction; go and buy instruments they had never played before and learn how to play them.

"That's true," says Purdy another of the thirds while on his way to pick up the gear for a gig in Liverpool where they were due to do a ridiculously early sound check. "We did just all go out and buy something we had never played before. We did actually do that!"
"I am a classically trained pianist and have been playing the piano since I was about five or six years old. Simon Jones (the final third who is from St Helen's) was a very avant-garde electric guitar player - a Robert Fripp type and he went out and bought a harp and a viola and he'd never touched one of either before in his life; Andy, who now plays banjo and various other bits and pieces, he was a bass player.
"So we did make a conscious decision that we wanted to challenge ourselves as musicians and simplify what we did. This may sound ridiculous but I do think you can get too comfy with what you are doing and with that comes predictability and we wanted to do something that wasn't predictable, more for ourselves than anything else.
"The sound of what is H&M evolved from that, because we have been doing H&M for about six years now and have become more proficient with the instruments we picked up. But that was the spirit of it, we wanted to deliberately do that.
"We didn't originally see ourselves as a folk band but that's where we were embraced."

And the name?

"First obviously we had a harp," Purdy explains enthusiastically and in his distinctly, strong Lancashire accent, "and Andy has this saying, 'Everything goes better with a monkey' and as we are in this digital age you have to be very careful about a name, if you go for anything that someone else has gone for.
"This has happened in the past and it was a nightmare. We have had a couple of recording contracts and then there was another band with the same name and people were going on Google and putting in the name and getting the wrong band.
"You have to be aware of people who are sourcing their music via the internet. You have to make sure if someone goes on the web that the name isn't going to be confused with anything else so it's got to be different and that was part of the logic behind that.
The new album All Life Is Here see the link for a full review
"So we were playing a harp but we couldn't just be called Harp, so harp and a something? and Andy just came up with monkey because everything in life is better with a monkey.
"A few people have said to us since that it kind of works and, you know there might just be someone looking for the monkey playing the harp in some kind of dodgy pub in the Pennines."

This may sound like a rather haphazard way of deciding a musical path but while there is something different about the music and methods of H&M, Purdy and his fellow musicians have clear ideas of what, why and how they want to do things.

"Our view on it (folk music) is if we go to a local folk club I don't want to hear people in singing Celtic reels and jigs, not that I don't like that kind of music but there's a place for it.
"I love it when you go somewhere and you hear something which is representative of the area. You think that was great, and I would never hear that anywhere else other than here; I would never had heard that song if I hadn't been in Wolverhampton or Birmingham because it's a midlands folk song. I think that's really important, that's what folk should be about.
"We all have a responsibility to try and keep those traditions, but of course we want to move things forward. I hate the thought of that kind of music that has been preserved in aspic. Folk music not a museum piece, it should evolve but at the same time there is a very proud tradition behind that we all want to preserve.
"The way I see it is, if I am from Lancashire, then if I am not singing things which are representative of my area then who the hell is?
"We were once described as northern separatists, we don't mean to be that. I know what we do is quite northern and rooted in Lancashire but it's about themes, it's just generic. I don't think there is anything we do which isn't common to most people."

What comes across from listening to Purdy is a passion for folk music, the traditions of which it speaks, the histories it records and more than anything the stories it tells but without necessarily obeying the restrictions any genre can impose on what you play.
It's not entirely surprising when you consider he is an academic historian with two books to his name already, one of which is also the title of a track on the new album, and his doctorate is in the research stages where he is focusing on a village in Lancashire which was specially built to treat casualties of the First World War, a subject in which he specialises.

One of the books Purdy has written
"What we wanted from the folk tradition were the narratives, the storytelling because that's what's at the heart of the folk tradition. Long before instruments were invented people were getting up and singing unaccompanied and telling stories, it was like an early form of bloody newspapers.
"The instruments came along and you started adding music to it. You can imagine that when people first picked up a harmonium or an accordion there was some old git in the corner going 'this is sacrilege!' They didn't have music to it when I was a kid.
"What we saw as the key element to the folk tradition was the storytelling and narratives more than instruments.
"So we thought we would use instruments which you would traditionally associate with folk music, but we won't play them in that way which people might expect. So in that respect, we do kind of mess around about with songs much to the horror of some and the delight of others."
This willingness to 'mess' around with songs is what has marked them out as different among those who have become fans and as 'to be viewed with suspicion' by others. We are yes, but that all depends where you see folk. You see to us when we thought what are we? We weren't going to be a traditional folk band in the sense that most modern folk think of traditional folk music.
"I don't think we ever actually decided we were gonna be a folk group. We knew we wanted to change what we were doing and we knew we wanted to do something that had a bit more tradition about it, and we wanted the narratives, but I think the sound just evolved."
"If you try to deliberately set out to break new ground it doesn't always work, but if it's what you do and people say it's original then that's what every musician wants. People do seem to be saying it's different and that's brilliant but it's not without its problems.
"We live in a world where marketing and branding is very important, music stations and music magazines have increasingly compartmentalised themselves and if you don't obviously fit into those compartments you can find yourself slipping through the middle and in a sense I think that's what happened with our first album.
"The 'folksy' magazines were very wary of it because there was electronica in there and they would say we are not sure whether this is folks or roots enough for us, and then all the mags that were doing rock and indie were like 'this is too folk for us'.
"We found ourselves stuck in the middle."

So from what sort of musical traditions did these two Mancs and a Scouser bring with them?

"We are of the generation where we grew up with that kind of northern working men's folk music people such as Bernard Wrigley and Mike Harding which had to be a mixture of entertainment where they had to do joke songs because of the audiences they were playing to, we were all steeped in that.
"There is a bit of an element of end of the pier about it but, we wanted to get rid of that element and we were listening to all kinds of stuff; the Penguin Cafe, XTC, Scott Walker alongside Bert Jansch, Bjork, Aphex Twin and Nick Drake etc. We have just always been into music that's not pop music or which has a folksy element to it but went more towards indie/folk.
Mike Harding
"The music always comes first. Let's put it like this we are the sum of our parts. If one of us left it would change the band immeasurably because everyone has a very unique element which they bring to it
and it does always start musically and it can come from any one of us and it can start with something like a riff and that will grow into a mood and a narrative .
The one tradition the band is continuing, whether unwittingly or not, is that of the folk singer doing their thing regardless of any success; being motivated simply by wanting to sing and play.
"We do what we do and because we had been playing a lot and we got feedback from audiences, and the feedback we got was brilliant, that gives you the confidence to say we are sticking with this. I don't want to sound conceited here, but we are a good live band and perhaps it comes across. We got the message across to a degree with the first album and we got it across more with the second, that this is a band which is a little bit further down the line and is quite settled about what it's doing.
"We have always had great responses from audiences and as a musician you get a sense that this is working and people are responding to this.
"We were involved with the Folk Police label and that label was committed to the idea of left field folk music so they just licensed what we were doing and took it as it came, but sadly the label is on indefinite hold at the moment.
"So we are doing it ourselves at the moment. It's very much a cottage industry and we are answerable to no one which means we can do what we want and having the freedom is great to be able to do anything. We are realistic about how far we can go with it and where we want to go with it.
Andy Smith
"We have reached that point in life and are of that age, where of course we would like to be successful, but we wouldn't stop what we are doing now regardless. We have been going that long now to such little audiences and for such little acclaim that we would carry on regardless, it’s so much a part of our lives.
"So to get the response we have been getting over the last few years is great. Some blokes play football or go down the pub with their mates; we get in a room and make H&M music.
"We are great friends who make music together it's just what we do and we will still be doing this in 10 years time regardless of whether people wanted to listen to it or not.
"There are times when you do get disheartened, where you turn up somewhere and it's just a crap gig, but that's all just part and parcel of it. At the end of the day, we just loved playing and so even if it was just the three of us in the room we still enjoyed it.
"We always take the view that if we go somewhere and there are two people there well then it's like rehearsing in front of two people. We are having fun with what we do and there are two people there who like it and they might tell a couple of mates and the next time there might be four. We really did see it that way.
"What is really interesting about H&M is there has been a clear progression with it. We are six years in now so it's taken a while to get to this point, which is a good point. It is what it is, good or bad because of those six years. I don't think we could have made that record without having had the experience that it's grown out of."

So what is Harp and a Monkey?

"Whatever H&M is, and it's hard even for us to nail it down, it's not a formula. Whatever it has developed into that's been put down over the last six years and people seemed to have really embraced int on our album, because perhaps on the first record, although we loved it, we were finding our sound, whatever that was and whatever that sound is we are clearer on it now. And perhaps that has made this record a little more cohesive."

You soon get a sense that Harp and a Monkey is Martin, Andy and Simon and vice versa it's hard to see it continuing without anyone of the three or by adding to it.

Simon Jones with The Harp
"We've known each other for a long time and we are good friends. We are all strong personalities and we all have strong views and there are times when, as you would expect, we get on each other’s nerves. But because we're a bit older we know what we are doing.
"We've all got egos, everyone has, but I think we know when to let that ego take a step back and we're all quite good at listening to each other, none of us are precious.
"We do work very well together as three different people. I don't know why this works and I don't know where it came from but I know it just does. It would be a completely different band if any one of us were to leave.
"You can replace a singer or a guitar player, I don't know if in this case you would find someone who can play in the way we play because we all play in a way that's complementary to each other.
"People will come and see us, and some will be musicians, and they will be surprised at the way we approach our music and I don't know where that comes from but because we have grown the sound together, it's very much tied to experiences unique to us and it would be difficult for someone to fit in with that.
"If we acted like a collective in the vein of Bellowhead then it wouldn't be H&M because it would sound very different, you might recognise elements that one person would bring to it but without the other two it just wouldn't be H&M."

This almost philosophical approach to what they do and how they are received clearly comes from their experience, all three are at least in their late thirties, and they have "put their time in".

Martin Purdy 
"When we were starting out there can't be anywhere in the north west of England where you could squeeze us into where we didn't play. We played everywhere, we played for free, we would literally turn up and ask people if we could play for them.
"We would play wherever we could, just to get ourselves out there and perfect what we were doing and it's perhaps only in the last two years where we are getting people paying to come and see us.
"Everything has to grow, I think a lot of young bands if they think it's not growing quickly enough perhaps get worried about where it's all going.
"Because we are a bit older and we had some level of security and we were settled in that respect so we have been able to grow it organically rather than under pressure.
"I couldn't have written this kind of record as a lyricist and song writer and I couldn't have told these stories when I was in my twenties. We're a product of our situation and we don't have that pressure to make an immediate living out of it that gives us the freedom to let it go the way that it does.
"It might have been called a midlife crisis except for the fact we have all been in bands since our teens. I think it's one of those things that's in your blood, I know that sounds a bit naff but it is.
"For some it's like a phase they go through when you are young and they think they are going to attract some girls and the like but in truth they were always destined to be some sort of successful accountant or whatever or the band is like a hobby,.
"Music has always been absolutely central to what we do regardless of how successful or unsuccessful the band was.
"It's a lovely thing when it starts to take off like H&M has, but I don't really know what our expectations were when we first started out, we didn't have a clue and I don't think that was important to us.
"It was just that we were doing music and this was right for us. The fact other people have responded to it in such a positive way as it's naturally grown is wonderful. but it's not something we could have planned for or foreseen.
"If we had thought we were going to be really rich or really famous we wouldn't be doing folk music out of left field. we would be trying to do something else.
"I do like that about folk music in respect of playing you know, when with musicians there is a completely different feel around folk music, there is more of a sense of supportiveness, camaraderie and interest from other musicians."
While fellow musicians can be supportive experience has shown the band that audiences can be a little harder to cope with.
The band's first album
"The folk audiences tend to be a little bit older and passionate about music in the same way that we are. It's where you reach that point where you are doing it because it's in your soul, it's in your core and you just do it and I think you find in a more folk and roots type audience they've stuck with music, music has remained as important to them as it did when they were younger.
"Like musicians, audiences go through phases, yes they are into the music when they are younger, they were into the fashions and trends that went with it but now they are older they probably haven't bought a contemporary record, or new record or been to see a gig for years or if they have it's been more of a nostalgia trip, more of a reunion than it is to see something new.
"So I think folk and roots audiences are great audiences in that they tend to be a little bit older but they are really serious about music, like us, to who music has remained as important as it was when they were younger. They've never grown out of it.
"Music is a funny thing with the different ways people have of appreciating it I suppose. Some people think what we are doing is sacrilege because we dare to mess around with a lyric or lose a verse or add a chorus. There are certain people who definitely see that as absolutely appalling.
"It's not necessarily vocal but you can tell. There was once where we played one of the well known folk festivals where you could have almost split the audience in two.
"You could see it in the faces where one side were thinking God this is fabulous and the other half were thinking this is bloody outrageous. But that's the way it goes, we do what we do, we are not going to change what we do because certain people don't like it, we do what we do and we hope enough people like it for it to sustain itself."

So does the band think they have overcome the "curse" which is often seen as afflicting a second album?

Work it out for yourselves
"We have done some traditional songs, albeit, we have changed and messed with them they are traditional which perhaps we should have done on the first album just to kind of give people more of a marker as to where our music came from, perhaps we have shown a little bit more of where it came from on this record and that's why it seems to be getting more broadly embraced.
"Perhaps those markers are there because we have done some more traditional songs, I don't know.
"I do know the response to this record from the feedback we seem to be getting from the folks and roots community is perhaps more accepting than it was for the first.
"We are very happy with it. I love the first record it was a great record but this record is different. We're a couple of years down the line and we are really pleased with it. But there are certain things where you always think that could have been a bit different or that could have been a bit better but that's life isn't it?
"Ultimately we were really happy with it, we think it's a really good CD and we like that if flows really well as a whole album.
"We are from the album generation so we are not just trying to write a couple of hit singles and then a load of filler around them. I suppose folk music and hit singles would be a ridiculous concept anyway but we're trying to get a collection of songs which are strong enough to stand up in their own right but then stick together to make a whole experience and we are really happy that we have done that. We had plenty of other songs we could have put on that record, but we felt we had to leave off because it might have spoiled the flow of it."

It may not be a philosophy which changes the course of history but is has worked for three musicians who enjoy and are passionate about what they do and have done it the traditional and often the hard way, so to all would-be musicians who feel they are not progressing quickly enough perhaps the secret is get a monkey, because as we all now know things go better with one, don't they?

All Life is Here is released on March 24

Other links:
http://folkall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/folk21-part-three-of-three-newhampton.html