Feb 262020

Duncan Harley reviews Hamish Napier’s new album, The Woods.

In this, the third part of his Strathspey Pentalogy musical journey, composer Hamish Napier celebrates the ancient forests of the Scottish Highlands.

I’ve ranted on about the man’s music on a few occasions. Once or twice in the, now defunct Leopard Magazine, a couple of times in Aberdeen Voice and in the blogosphere.

So, here I go at it again.

The first album dwelt on vivid sonic images of the River Spey – The River, and part two of the five-part journey – The Railway, was dedicated to railwaymen all around the north-east.

In this new collection there are 21 new tracks which according to Hamish incorporate 28 new tunes and pieces in a folk-tune cycle. Legends, folklore and a heady mix of jigs, reels, marches and slow airs inhabit the album.

Themed around the medieval Ogham alphabet, there is says Hamish:

“A track for every letter of the Scottish Gaelic tree alphabet.” 

Venus of the Woods, an upbeat polka, reflects the cheerful mood of the ash while the elm, a coffin tree, is celebrated in a melancholy lament – The Tree of the Underworld. Birch, gean, holly, alder and rowan all get a mention as do willow, oak and hawthorn and more.

Hamish recalls his childhood playing in the Anagach Woods over at Granton as being the primary inspiration.

‘What I viewed as simply the woods is now a gathering of characters and personalities … my work is about celebrating my homeland, finding hidden gems and stories in the surrounding landscape.

“I have used the Scottish Gaelic alphabet, which is centred around Scotland’s native trees, to explore the folklore, natural and social heritage of Strathspey.

“I’ve composed tunes for all 18 Gaelic letters. There’s also music for the people who lived in the woods locally, and who explored, worked, foraged, mused, trained, flourished and died there.

“I explored the flora and fauna of the Caledonian forest, riparian woods, montane scrub and other woodlands, in particular the properties and uses of our twenty or so native trees.’

Hamish is joined in this new production by an array of talent including Calum MacCrimmon, Steve Byrnes, Ross Ainslie and James Lindsay.

All in all, this is a quite splendid album. Go buy/download.

The full 21 track album will be released on 20th March (the Spring Equinox) and is available now for pre-order @ http://www.hamishnapier.com/

Aug 122018

Duncan Harley reviews  Far, Far From Ypres at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen.

It’s difficult to adequately classify Far, Far From Ypres.

Described as “the story of the Scottish war effort during World War One” with “its excitement, hope, suffering, endurance, humour, fear and disillusionment in the face of horror told through the eyes of fictional, prototypical soldier Jimmy MacDonald” this ambitious multimedia production sits oddly – and please excuse the pun – with its feet astride two camps.

A strong documentary-styled historical narrative, delivered by veteran broadcaster Iain Anderson, frames a broad range of popular song from the period whilst overhead a mix of trench imagery combines to add poignancy to the performance.

We are told that the fictional Jimmy is from any town or village in Scotland and that when issued with his tin hat and his rifle, he heads off to the continent in search of medals for the victory parade and of course for a great foreign adventure.

An acceptable figure for Scottish war dead has yet to be calculated – some put it at between 100,000 and 146,000 – and the enthusiastic Jimmy is portrayed as one of those who did not return.

Killed in France or Belgium, not by bullets nor by shells but by an influenza better known as Spanish Flu, he certainly died in uniform but is probably not numbered amongst the roll of the war dead.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, “Far, Far From Ypres” is laden with familiar and not so familiar song.

Within the context of the narrative, most are a good fit for the performance and most are delivered strongly by a cast of largely familiar folk-figures. Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Alan Prior, Tam Ward, Ian McCalman and Mairi MacInnes are just to name a few.

In fact, there are around 27 performers on stage at any one time making for a crowded performance space and indeed a difficult place for the soloists to excel in.

It was perhaps the male dominated chorus which brought the intent of the production solidly home. Decidedly appropriate and atmospheric of the era, Pack up your Troubles and When this Bloody War is Over vied with Tipperary and Armentieres to tug the heartstrings.

All in all, this is a largely successful attempt to track and trace changing perceptions during the course of that First War to end all wars through the songs of the day.

From hopeful beginnings through to eventual despair, the song list bravely traverses some four years of the bloody history of that hundred-year-old conflict in which young men could take the boat-train to the continent, stick a bayonet into the skull of a youngish man from a neighbouring land and, if he were lucky enough not to be stuck in his turn, return home with a medal in time for the local victory parade.

At the close of the night and indeed during the performance, not a few tears were shed.
Stars: (4/5)

Following last night’s performance at HMT, Far, Far From Ypres heads off to Oban, Skye, Ullapool, Stirling, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh.

Jul 282018

By Duncan Harley.

To my complete surprise and astonishment that’s a short story of mine heading towards the Aberdeen stage in a few weeks. And I have to say that I am humbled.

A call for entries came via Rachel Campbell at APA and after a day or so I got to thinking that, although I have no realistic idea regarding how to even pronounce Ypres, I do have an intimate store of first war recollections albeit at second, third or even at fourth hand. 

A grandfather, now long missed, left a family story regarding his first war experience.

A regimental quartermaster, or so he had us all believe, he recalled only that following a long and muddy march through France and then Belgium he played some football then marched all the way back to Glasgow. 

I have his war medals and one at least appears to be a military medal plus bar from his Black Watch experience.

Based on a Greentrax double album of WW1 songs, Far, Far from Ypres is an acclaimed production of songs, poems and stories, following the terrifying journey of a Scot to “the trenches” and back. 

A Scottish squaddie heads off to the continental adventure and is given a tin hat and a rifle in anticipation of heroic deeds and victory over the unwholesome Hun. Told largely in songs of the day, the performance lays bare the squalid fate of the boy next door who marched off to adventure amongst the jaws of death.

I concluded my recent book – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire – with a tale, not of the trenches, but of the unexpected bombing of the Garioch by the young men of the Kaiser’s Zeppelin squadrons and Ann Wells of gov.scot seems intent on sharing my tale.

She writes:

“Many thanks for sharing this with us.  I knew about the Edinburgh raids but had never heard tell about those further north.  Enemy or not these guys were incredibly brave to venture up in those things.

“I would like to add this into the programme for the performance at Aberdeen and possibly Dundee and/or Inverness.  Is that OK?  We are starting to get quite a few stories in now, really interesting tales, but this one is slightly different.”

Naturally I replied in the positive and my tale of the 1916 Zeppelin night-time terror-bombing of the Garioch features somewhere in amongst the programme for the night.

The blurb for the performance informs only that:

“The show features the large screen projection of relevant images throughout the evening, enhancing greatly the audience’s understanding of the story unfolding before them. The format of the evening takes the form of two fifty-minute halves with an interval.

“It has a cast of ‘folk singing stars’, who remain on stage throughout the performance, singing the ‘trench’, ‘marching’ and Music Hall songs of the time. From that chorus, groups and soloists come to the middle of the stage and perform songs, both contemporary and traditional, about the Great War.

“The narrator, Iain Anderson, brilliantly links the songs with stories about the hero of the show, Jimmy MacDonald, who was born in “any village in Scotland”. It tells of Jimmy’s recruitment and training then follows his journey to the Somme and back to Scotland.

“It would not be a Scottish tragedy without laughter, so there are also stories of humour and joy that take this production well away from the path of unremitting gloom.”

Produced by Ian McCalman and with a huge cast of performers including Barbara Dickson, Siobhan Miller, Mairi MacInnes, Dick Gaughan, Ian McCalman, Iain Anderson and Professor Gary West, Far, Far from Ypres plays at HMT Aberdeen for just the one night – Thursday 09 August 2018. 

Seats are becoming scarce for the Aberdeen performance but can still be had via the Aberdeen Performing Arts booking site @: http://www.aberdeenperformingarts.com/events/far-far-from-ypres

Do go, if only to hear about the Zeppelin bombing of the Aberdeenshire villages of Insch, Old Rayne and of course Colpy.

May 242017

Review and Photographs by Dod Morrison.

Iron Maiden were formed in 1975 by bassist and songwriter Steve Harris.

They’ve released 38 albums including 16 studio albums, 11 live albums, 4 EPs, and 7 compilations – probably making them the world’s most famous heavy metal band.

The band were returning to Aberdeen after a five year gap as part of their ‘The Book Of Souls’ tour.

Released in 2015, this was the band’s sixteenth studio album as well as their first double studio album and at 92 minutes, their longest to date. It also contained the band’s longest track, ‘Empire of the Clouds’ at a staggering 18 minutes.

The album was actually recorded in 2014 but the launch was delayed to allow Bruce to recover from the removal of a cancerous tumour on his tongue.

The album was a commercial success reaching number 1 in 24 countries. They started the tour in February 2016 and it will go through until July 2017.

When Iron Maiden come to town it’s not just to play a gig, it’s an EVENT!

They are known for  their extravagant stage shows which usually feature a huge Eddie The Head (the band mascot). Eddie is a perennial part of Maiden, appearing on all the covers of their albums, and he appears in the live shows in various guises.

Unfortunately, a pending dispute about ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ song credits means that the fan’s favourite song (and my own favourite) had been removed from the current The Book Of Souls tour set list.

The Book Of Souls tour came to Aberdeen where the faithful filled the AECC and prepared to worship. The stage was made to look like an Inca style lost city. A half rectangle shaped wall surrounded and contained the stage with several braziers along its length and moving backdrops, flanked by pyramids on either side.

After a rousing version of ‘Doctor, Doctor’ by UFO was played to get the crowd going, the set commenced with Bruce Dickinson standing on the wall above and behind the drum kit.

Bruce inhaled the vapours from a cauldron on a pedestal as the first chapter of Book of Souls plays.

He then launched into a magnificent, energetic rendition of ‘If Eternity Should Fail’.

Flames erupted from the braziers along the city walls as Bruce dashed across them from side to side. Beneath him Nicko McBrain was drumming up a storm on his impressive and very shiny drum kit.

In front of him guitarists Janick Gers, Dave Murray and Adrian Smith covered the stage, adopting the usual foot on monitor poses.

Janick used the furthest forward set of speakers as a seat, and also enjoyed giving it the odd kick just to show it who’s boss.

Of course, amid all of this, the iconic figure of Steve Harris strode across the stage brandishing his bass.

As the set progressed the huge backdrops behind the band changed to reflect each new song.

Bruce also changed costumes to suit the songs.

At one point he sported a gorilla mask and brandished bananas at the other band members! For ‘Power Slave’ he wore a leather mask, which must have been incredibly sweaty on the warm May night, but it didn’t slow him down at all.

He charged across the city walls above and behind the rest of the band.

As all of this unfolded before our eyes, our ears were treated to a very well chosen set list which covered the entire career of this magnificent band. They played oldies such as ‘Wrathchild’ and ‘Iron Maiden’.

During a magnificent version of ‘The Trooper’ Dickinson was clad in a red ‘Trooper’ jacket and he charged along the walls brandishing a huge Union flag.

At one point he amusingly draped it over Janick Gers as he played his guitar below. It was hard to discern how much ‘playing’ Janick actually did as he spent a lot of time throwing his guitar around on its strap, dancing with it.

We were treated to ‘Fear Of The Dark’ and then on to current masterpieces from the ‘Book of Souls’ album, including a blistering rendition of ‘Speed Of Light’ during which the crowd sang impressively along with the chorus.

It was a well chosen, well thought out set list.

You didn’t want to look away even for a second in case you missed something spectacular, such as the huge sporadic flames that erupted from the braziers along the city walls, or the massive inflatable Eddie figure that floated up from behind the set.

During ‘Book Of Souls’  a giant Eddie figure appeared on stage and ‘attacked’ the band.

Janick ran through its legs, then when Eddie tried to chop him with his axe he responded by hitting Eddie between the legs with his guitar.

Eddie then moved on to attack Dickinson who fought back and pulled out Eddie’s heart. Bruce squeezed the blood from it before throwing it into the crowd – most entertaining!!

At the end of the song Bruce said “this isn’t something you see every night, the stage on fire” – and it was! There was a flame about 2 feet high burning up on the top of the set! The band carried on regardless whilst the fire was put out.

The main set finished with ‘Iron Maiden’ before an encore of ‘Number Of The Beast’ (which involved the appearance of a huge inflatable Satan figure), ‘Wasted Years’ and ‘Blood Brothers’.

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Oct 062016

theatre_of_hate_by_nic_attwood2With thanks to Suzanne Kelly.

Legendary 1980s band Theatre of Hate will release its first album in some 30 years on 14  October.
Theatre of Hate were formed in the 1980s, but only recently reformed to tour. Original members Stan Stammers (bass) and John Leonard (saxophone) will join Brandon in the current line-up which will be at Krakatoa on 4 November.

The album ‘Kinshi’ (from the Japanese meaning roughy ‘forbidden’) is being crowd funded and offers a wide range of incentives to those who donate to the project and preorder the album which will be available on several formats including vinyl.

Details can be found here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/theatre-of-hate

Vive Le Rock has awarded the album 9/10 in a full page review with a headline that reads:

“Mighty return from post-punk legends”

and goes on to conclude

“Kinshi is the sound of a band who have grown and developed, but never lost sight of what brought them together. It’s intensity and sense of purpose is relentless and it demands attention, but then Theatre of Hate was never meant to be back-ground noise and that’s why so many years on, it’s so good to have them back”

There are a whole host of Pre-Order goodies to be had when getting your hands on a copy of ‘Kinshi’, from Gold Dinner Packages to Double Vinyl versions to

Download only editions. And remember ALL Pre-Orderer’s will receive a download of ‘Kinshi’ direct into their inbox on the release day morning FRIDAY 14TH OCTOBER 2016.

We have not One but Two Pre-Order sites for you to peruse:

To Pre-Order direct from the band, go to http://theatreofhatekinshi.bigcartel.com
To Pre-Order from PledgeMusic, go to http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/theatre-of-hate

The full ‘Kinshi’ Tour is selling well. Advance tickets can be found here:

THEATRE of HATE – ‘Kinshi’ UK Tour 2016


Wed 26th LONDON Exclusive Pledge Show
Thu 27th BRISTOL Fleece
Fri 28th BEDFORD Esquires
Sat 29th BUCKLEY Tivoli (Dark Wave Alldayer)
Sun 30th BIRMINGHAM o2 Academy


Tue 1st LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Wed 2nd NEWCASTLE The Cluny
Thu 3rd GLASGOW King Tuts Wah Wah Hut
Fri 4th ABERDEEN Krakatoa
Sat 5th DUNFERMLINE PJ Malloys
Sun 6th MANCHESTER Academy

Tickets & Info


Those who have pre-ordered are receiving updates, videos and mp3s.

Sep 292016

The Mission release their new album, ‘Another Fall From Grace’ on 30th September 2016. They play Glasgow’s ABC 02 on 3 October, with Peter Murphy the opening act. Suzanne Kelly was one of the many who helped crowd fund this new work, and will be on hand for the Glasgow show.

paul-grace-25-min2Another Fall From Grace was produced by Wayne Hussey and Tim Palmer and features guest backing vocals from Gary Numan, Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Ville Valo (HIM), Julianne Regan (All About Eve) & Evi Vine.
On September 2nd The Mission release the gloriously melodramatic Met-Amor-Phosis, the first single from the new album.

Co-Produced by Tim Palmer and Wayne Hussey, Met-Amor-Phosis features backing vocals by HIM front man Ville Valo and marks a return for The Mission to their classic anthemic swagger and bombast.

The Met-Amor-Phosis digital only single includes a haunting acoustic version by Wayne Hussey and a high energy club version called, ‘The Black Star Remix’ by Evansson.

Met-Amor-Phosis emerged following a coastal drive from LA to San Francisco, explains Wayne:

“Bowie had just died, and whilst the first verse is mostly autobiographical having also recently read Kafka’s novel of the same title, the second verse is certainly flavoured by Bowie’s passing’’

Of the new album, Wayne commented:

“For me, this new Mission album is the long lost missing link between the Sisters Of Mercy’s First & Last & Always and The Mission’s God’s Own Medicine, both albums of course that I was heavily involved in making. I set out this time with the intention of making an album that sounds like 1985.

“The fact that I feel this has largely been achieved is down to my renewed love for the jingle jangle shimmer of the electric 12 string guitar which featured heavily on those two previously mentioned albums and now the new Mission album.

“This is a dark album although I didn’t set out with that intention, it’s just the way things unfolded. I know I did go a little crazy and even a little paranoid during the recording of this album, certainly my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well being all suffered during the course of it. And I think that has informed both the music and the lyrics.

“So much of this was done in isolation – from the world, from my family, from my friends, and even from my band mates. I can’t say it’s an album I enjoyed making but it is an album I needed to make.

“It is with huge relief that I can now say it is finished and maybe it’s like an acute pain that you have that once it’s gone you can’t remember how it felt. I hope so as I would like one day to feel the fondness for this record that it maybe deserves.”

Another Fall From Grace will be available on CD, DL and 180 gram vinyl plus ltd edition DELUXE double CD and DVD.

The deluxe version contains full album on CD, an instrumental version of the album with bonus remix track ‘Met-Amor-Phosis’ and a 93 minute DVD featuring never before seen footage from 1987 of The Mission performing at Elland Road, Leeds, supporting U2, Aston Villa Leisure Centre as The Metal Gurus and The Royal Court in Liverpool for the Hillsborough benefit gig, both from 1989, producer Tim Palmer’s home footage of the recording of ‘Carved in Sand’ /’Butterfly on a Wheel’ video, and the promo video for new single Met-Amor-Phosis.

A new video ‘Met-Amor-Phosis’ – can be found here:  https://youtu.be/f3LVWnHhzNA

Aberdeen Voice will review the Glasgow date. More information on The Mission here: http://www.themissionuk.com/wp/

Sep 012016

A well-respected member of NE Scotland’s impressive and eclectic musical community, united in its determination to preserve and enhance the area’s cultural heritage, Pete Coutts’s solo debut album Northern Sky, sees him dig deep into Doric melodic and vernacular traditions. David Innes reviews.

pete couttsNorthern Sky falls almost naturally into the complementary spheres of song and tune, with the track sequencing naturally alternating between both, pleasing on the ear, avoiding the intensity of instrumental overload, and giving the contents welcome breathing space.

It’s no surprise given the collaboration of the cream of NE traditional musicians on Northern Sky that there is ensemble playing of great aplomb throughout.

‘In & Oot’, with Coutts’s own scintillating mandolin, Jonny Hardie’s fiddle and Brian McAlpine’s accordion, is a sumptuous traditional piece, whilst ‘Allathumpach’ impresses in its instrumental precision and interplay as the melody winds itself around a punchy rhythm.

‘Villa Rosa’ serves up much of the same, its stabbed rhythmic punctuation supporting an angular, almost-geometric spiralling tune. And whether intended or not, the sparkling coda of ‘Strichen Gala – The Road To Aikey Brae’ has the precision and spikiness of that other Pete’s ground-breaking ARP parts on Who’s Next.

When it comes to Coutts’s songs, he displays masterful understanding of folk and bothy ballad structures, sentiments and feel. ‘Belhelvie’ documents a motor-age agricultural tragedy voiced in Coutts’s Doric phrasing and timbre with Ali Hutton’s bluesy whistle underscoring the mood. There is a stamp of authenticity too, given that the ballad’s protagonists are the singer’s own direct ancestors.

‘Sail & Oar’ is carried on a fine melody, sweetened by co-writer Jenny Sturgeon’s harmony and it evokes the atmosphere of Peterhead’s labour-intensive fishing industry, with well-crafted instrumental passages honed to the narrative.

‘Casting The Peat’, celebrating the endeavour employed in cutting fuel in Coutts’s own Cyaak (some say New Pitsligo), the global epi-centre of peat production, is narrated in the farm bothy tradition, but Coutts’s obvious affection for his subjects on both land and sea makes these arduous and dangerous operations sound almost pleasurable.

And whilst the life of a farm servant was tough, and bothy ballads written for local entertainment often coarse, Pete’s original ‘Will Ye Byde’ touches on the familiar tale of the unscrupulous farmer, but its theme is tender and caring as the worker, departing at the term end, gently declares his passion for the quine he’s leaving behind.

Nick Drake’s ‘Northern Sky’ provides both the album title and the opportunity for a faithful interpretation of a landmark song, but subtly-added Celtic inflections and flavourings ensure that it fits seamlessly with Coutts’s theme on an album which will prove to be a worthy addition to the cultural library of NE Scotland.

This review was written for the reviewer’s own webpage/blog (he’s not really sure which – it’s an age thing) www.bluesandmoregain.com

Apr 222016

Hamish Napier’s debut album The River is now on general release. Duncan Harley reviews.

hamish-napier-the-river-1280For the past three years Hamish has
been Musical Director of big folk band Ceol Mor at Aberdeen International Youth Festival.

This year at Celtic Connections Ceol Mor celebrated the music of the North East with a programme of ballads, Scots songs, storytelling, and braw tunes by Scots fiddle and accordion legends of past and present.

What is the The River all about?

“Well,” says Hamish, “growing up next to the Spey, I spent many hours of youth practicing to the roar of the river in the background, so it’s always been there in my music.

“The River brings to the surface vivid sonic images of occurrences, past and present, along the mile-long stretch of the Spey that flows past my childhood home.

“One of my brother’s fishes it, the other canoes it, my Uncle Sandy photographed it, my mother paints it, and there’s my Father’s daily fascination with its erratically changing water level. It will always symbolize home and a strong connection to nature. No mortal’s relationship with the river can ever be truly harmonious, its ever-changing micro-climate, mysteriously dark depths and unrelenting power are both merciless and enchanting.”

The themes of The River range from the epic journeys of the Atlantic salmon to the river as home to local characters including fishermen, bailiffs, spirits and children. Hamish grew up on the banks of the Spey and spent many hours practicing to the roar of the river in the background

“Its always been there in my music … and brings to the surface vivid sonic images of occurrences, past and present,” says Hamish.

“For this piece I wanted to make use of all my musical resources … I am a huge fan of every one of the musicians on this project.”

Alongside Hamish on piano, clavinet and harmonium the album features Martin O’Neal on bhodran, Sarah Haynes on alto-flute and James Lindsay on base. Pitcaple born James was winner of the 2014 Martyn Bennet Prize for Traditional Music Composition.

Using backing vocals from natural sources including Oystercatchers, Heron and Curlew this is a groundbreaking album reflecting, says Hamish on the rivers “mysteriously dark depths and unrelenting power.”

A crackin’ album, The River is available from digital download stores and direct from Hamish at http://www.hamishnapier.com/

Dec 242015

Gordon_Duthiefeat Reviewed by Duncan Harley.

Described by Tom Robinson on BBC Radio 6 as “Wildly different but never not interesting”, Gordon Duthie has yet again hit the sweet spot with the release of his new album Dunt Dunt Dunt Dunt.

In this, his fourth album release, the NE singer/songwriter/musician reflects on work-related themes and engages in an often humorous take on club dance music to get his point across.

A year in the making, this new offering looks deeply into the soulless existence of those micromanaged Gen-X Millennials who, says Gordon:

“will IM you. Then ignore you to your face … Millennials have no empathy and are socially a bit awkward … social media has pretty much changed the world”.

The noun ‘dunt’ can of course be used in various contexts.

“In Aberdeen at the moment lots of people are getting the dunt and it affects everyone engaged in the oil business either directly via job losses or indirectly to do with the threat of redundancy,” says Gordon.

It can also be a wake up call. The pounding lyrics of Hadephobia refer to the sky falling in – a clear reference to getting the dunt big time:

“I looked and saw the fear in your eyes, like a long hot summer, burning the sky.”

Dead Dreams reflects on “Sitting for hours in a solid chair, listening to a man who sold his life … dead dreams inside us, fight an old child’s mind.”

“It’s about PowerPoint Hell” says Gordon, “we’ve all sat through it.”

In Young Kenny – A melodious but slightly mournful piece – Gordon describes a composite character struggling with isolation and loneliness. “Young Kenny didn’t know who he was … it all came to a head … the mystical beauty of the coast, brought his mind back again.”

With previous albums Thran, Shire and City and Multimedia Monster under his belt, Westhill-based Gordon’s new release is a powerful mix of social comment set solidly within a framework of electric ambient club music.

As Gordon himself says, the lyrics

“Wink nicely at local events.”

Mixed and Mastered by Thaddeus Moore of Sprout City Studios, Dunt Dunt Dunt Dunt is available from most digital music stores and also direct from Gordon at www.gordonduthie.com

First published in the December Leopard Magazine.

Aug 252015

Koozie Johns has a musical career spanning decades and genres; he’s worked with a wide spectrum of the UK’s top talents. His latest offering is the recently released Folk Grinder album, ‘The Devil’s Mariner’ produced by Kirk Brandon. A second single, ‘Captain Johnny Clash’ is set for release shortly. Koozie talks to Aberdeen Voice’s Suzanne Kelly about music, muses, outlaws, his personal battle with Fibromyalgia and more.

Koozie Johns (4)Koozie Johns sounds pretty happy and relaxed when I phone. What I thought would be the 15 minute interview I normally do turned into 40 minutes, and could have gone on longer if not for my having another appointment. Johns has been in and out of various bands and musical projects for many years.

How do you get from a childhood near the Forest of Dean to creating punk rock songs of the sea for the 21st century?

Folk Grinder’s website http://www.folkgrinder.com/ describes the music:

“There are songs about pain and addiction, love and loss, songs that will embrace you with nautical tales of the sea and far away shores, sailor dives and dancing girls. Songs to redeem your soul to, to start over to, Songs for fallen comrades and long lost loved ones, songs to drink and be merry to or drown your sorrows to, you choose in fact there’s a song for everyone.

“A blend of upbeat shanty rhythms, punk folk, skiffle rock’n’roll, shades of rockabilly and Americana tremolo.’Skulls and bones stitched and sewn all by the hand of a drunken sailor’. HEAVE HO!!!”

The recent material seen in the two Folk Grinder albums is where a traditional sea shanty gets into bed with punk, folk, rock, cabaret and a bit of country. But how/why/how did this unique genre spring to life?

Koozie, how did sea shanties come to inspire your writing?

“Some years ago from 2005-07, I was living in Los Angeles – a place called Redondo Beach – in a lovely old 1920s wooden beach house. From the porch I could see the ocean and I used to sit there, play guitar and I’d drift off into a fantasy world of 18th century sailors, to the time of sail and tall ships.

“I wrote a batch of shanty-esque style songs like ‘England Dreaming’ which is on the first Folk Grinder album, a song I wrote about missing home my beloved, and dear old Blighty. Before I knew it I’d ended up writing an album’s worth of shanties and songs of the sea . I was inspired, living within the sound and sight of the ocean. 

“In some ways the life of a musician is not that dissimilar to being a sailor I guess, with regards to being away from home a lot, missing one’s loved ones or sometimes not….. looking for the unexpected or escapism and I’d say drinking certainly plays a part at some point. Every voyage, tour and show an adventure that holds something new just like a sailors tour of duty.

“When I was 17 I worked as a house painter with a former WW2 naval veteran a character by the name of Blondey Jackson a cockney that spoke old school rhyming slang which I had to learn fast in order to keep up with conversation. Every lunch time he’d tell me sailor stories of shore leave adventures, show me the faded tattoos on his arms and old faded war time photos, I look back on that time very fondly I learnt a lot from him and remember the stories well.”

The album is mainly songs of lost and found loves, and Johns’ personal experiences seem to inform most of it. I mention this and comment ‘you must have been busy.

“I’ve had quite a colourful life. With every relationship I have I do on average get about three songs out of them. [ We have a laugh over that]. 

Koozie Johns (3)“It’s not what I wanted. I wanted to meet the right girl and be with the right girl, but it’s never worked out for me for whatever reason.

“It’s hard having relationships being a musician and I guess I ain’t that good at them or easy to live with [laughs].

“I’m better off with a dog I think, if only human beings had the hearts of dogs …..  forever pleased to see you, loyal and total unconditional love …… maybe the next album will be an album of sea-dog songs.

“When you’re in a band and in that world you’re in a bubble – your own universe – sometimes it can be very hard on your partner as well as hard on yourself stepping in and out of two worlds so to speak.

“The trick is to find the right balance and the right girl I suppose ….. but not all the songs are about a failed love life ….. there’s other types of songs to drown your sorrows or rip it up to like the new single release ‘Captain Johnny Clash’ which is an upbeat folk punk shanty dedicated to Joe Strummer and other artists I’ve been inspired by that used to dress in black a lot.”

 I ask him about Folk Grinder’s live line up

“We’re a trio at the moment but the fG crew changes about sometimes pending on the type of voyage and who’s available at time of enlistment. On skiffle snare, percussion and bv’s there’s my old friend Chris Musto; who I’ve played with in a number of bands, working with him before with former Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock in a band called The Philistines as well as in past bands Shot and Sinnerstar.

“Chris is a very talented musician, drummer, artist in his own right. He’s played with Joe Strummer, Kim Wilde and Johnny Thunders to name a few and currently plays with The Bermondsey Joyriders who I really like. The man’s even been blessed by the Rock’n’Roll legend ‘Little Richard’ now how cool is that?

“On accordion, trumpet and bv’s is Helen Kane – who has recently come on board taking over accordion live duties from Folk Grinder’s Miro Snejdr. Helen was a former Marilyn Monroe cabaret performer/singer and session player a very talented lady indeed. Then of course myself on acoustic guitars and lead vocals.

When I saw Folk Grinder play in May, it was something of a first – a girl singing backing vocals and playing accordion with a three-piece doing updated sea shanties. “There’s definitely something special about her,” I suggest, “well, with the whole act.” Koozie agrees:

“Yes, we all have a good chemistry together that works very well. On both Folk Grinder albums produced by the legendary Kirk Brandon of Spear of Destiny/Theatre of Hate fame, the albums feature female backing vocals on many songs.

“Kirk introduced me to the idea of having female backing vocals on the recordings and so a trio of talented sirens were brought on board in the form of singer Tracie Hunter (daughter of Mott the Hoople front man Ian Hunter) Former Westworld singer Elizabeth Westwood and singer songwriter and gospel singer Phoebe White collectively known as The Rebelles.

Koozie Johns (6)“The female backing vocals and harmonies really added and complimented to the fG skiffle stripped back sound , they did a fantastic job on the recordings. So when the delightful Helen Kane came on board to play accordion and showed off her vocal talents it was a perfect addition for the live shows with having the female backing vocals in place.

“We all vibe off each other very well, which is especially important with a small live line-up.”

Fibromyalgia, the incurable nerve disease with uncertain cause and unpredictable symptoms hit Koozie Johns not long ago. Inevitably it has impacted every aspect of his life including his music. I offer to leave the subject out of our talk, but he had quite a bit to say on the matter. It seems to me that his comments are useful to sufferers and their friends and families.

“I recently played a charity event to help raise awareness and research funding for The Fibromyalgia Association, where I chose to speak publicly for the first time about my dealings with the illness. I got diagnosed at the end of 2009 and I hadn’t heard of it before. I knew nothing about it, so it’s been a bit of a journey. It’s a very debilitating illness with no cure and I’d wish it upon no one it’s life changing and robs you of so much. Doctors tell me it’s a mystery as to the cause. Apparently something traumatic or an intensive stress situation can trigger it.

“Fibromyalgia is basically chronic widespread pain with chronic fatigue, my everyday normal is like waking up with the aches and fatigue of a heavy bout of flu only it’s not flu, you don’t get better. The nervous system constantly misfires wrong messages around the body to and from the brain causing horrendous levels of pain in joints, muscles and nerve endings and if that isn’t bad enough there are up to 200 other symptoms on top. 

“Every day is a roll of the dice to see how well you can be. You caught me on a good day; it can affect my speech, my walking, balance and concentration a thing that’s called brain fog as well as there are severe sensory overload problems. I probably get around 60 other symptoms on top of chronic widespread pain and fatigue.

“My exhaustion rate is five times that higher than a normal person. It’s a very difficult illness to cope with; very tough. I’m learning about it more everyday and one thing I’ve learnt is how important it is to have a focus and to try and keep a positive drive is essential for survival. No matter how hard never give up.

“I’m in and out of pain clinics trying various treatments and learning how to manage an adapted life whilst in constant severe pain 24/7 – 365 days a year. In 2011 I woke up one morning and my legs wouldn’t work properly and for a while wasn’t able to stand, I then lost the ability to play guitar which was even more devastating and sent me off somewhere very dark. I thought my career was done and finished I thought I was finished too. 

“I figured I could either lay there cry and give up or fight back and so i fought back and relearned to play guitar. I did it a chord a day then a few chords building it up slowly until I could play a verse then a chorus and then eventually a whole song it took me eight months until I could manage around ten songs and slowly I improved from there. 

Koozie Johns (2)“My hands can sometimes feel swollen or even be swollen they can feel like they’ve been hit with hammers sometimes it feels like I have gloves on so the touch sensation has changed for me, as well as having stiffness and pain in all joints in my fingers and wrists and hands.

“Same went for singing I had to totally relearn breathing control whilst singing, because when you’re in pain all the time you breathe differently, you tend to hold breath a bit and of course your fighting fatigue too. I decided to book two shows to work towards for the autumn of 2011. One in London and in one in my home town of Gloucester, thinking at the time they could possibly be my last shows. 

“The first show was at the world famous 12 Bar club formally on Denmark Street London WC2H.

[I sigh; it’s about 10 days since I saw the bulldozed space where one of my favourite London venues used to be near Tottenham Court Road tube. A few chain restaurants and stores will take its place. Just what we need]

“After the London show my friend and peer Kirk Brandon who was in attendance came up to me and said ‘I love your songs Kooz and want to produce you’. 

“I was gob smacked and totally honoured. He was unaware of my health condition at the time and the journey I had just undertaken. 

“He told me about when Mick Jones of The Clash approached him back in 80/81 and produced Theatre of Hate (achieving the hit single ‘Do you believe in the Westworld’) Kirk spoke of how that had helped and enabled him to have an ongoing career that led on to Spear of Destiny. Kirk said he’d reached a point in his life where he wanted to return the favour, I was so taken aback.

“He said to me ‘You’ve played with lots of artists, but you deserve to be out there in your own right doing your own stuff, and I want to help you’. We’ve now done two fantastic albums together and he’s taught me alot. He threw a lifeline to me when I really needed it for which I am eternally grateful. I am lucky to have some good people around me – lovely, lovely people – and very talented friends and guests feature on both Folk Grinder albums.”

On the new Folk Grinder album ‘The Devil’s Mariner’, singer, song writer Koozie Johns’ lead vocals, acoustic guitar and tremolo guitars are joined by:

Guest backing vocals – Tracie Hunter, Phoebe White and Elizabeth Westwood collectively known as The Rebelles.
Guest guitar – Will Crewdson (Adam Ant/Rachel Stamp/Scant Regard).
Skiffle snare and percussion – Chris Musto (The Bermondsey Joyriders/Joe Strummer/Johnny Thunders/The Philistines) and shipmates Darrin Stevens and Igor Marjanovic.
Double bass – Kurt Barnes (King Kurt/The Grit).
Guest harmonica and Gothic saw – Jules Lawrence (Fat 45’s)
Violin – Sharon Forbes.
Accordion and piano is performed by fG shipmate Miro Snejdr. 

“I’ve discovered Playing music actually lowers my pain levels by about 40%: the adrenalin and serotonin levels go up as I play– it actually helps; it’s something that keeps me going but I do have to pace myself and be careful as there can be quite a physical payback afterwards.

Koozie Johns (5)“Having the focus of music enables me to battle the illness a lot better than without. I had to learn to adapt because I became unable to work with loud guitars and loud drums due to the severe sensory overload problems I get with the Fibromyalgia. In order to continue playing music I went for the skiffle stripped back acoustic approach I have with folk Grinder which I really love, I adore the simplicity of it.

“It’s been a difficult decision whether to open up or not publicly about my illness but the stress of trying to pretend and hide it all the time was making me more ill, especially when I started to use a waking cane due to having daily falls.

“People were thinking I was wasted all the time and drunk. Awareness is really needed, educate yourselves, educate others, anyone that will listen a cure needs to be found.

“I attended a seminar two years ago. A Fibromyalgia specialist Dr from Canada came over to talk; he discovered from his research that 70% of the deaths of Fibromyalgia patients was from suicide and that horrified me – absolutely horrified me. I understand the dark places you go to sometimes from the amount of pain you get.

“But when I found that out – about people killing themselves because of too much pain – I was just so upset I thought I have to do something very positive and show people with chronic pain and other chronic illnesses which are affectively invisible illnesses what can be achieved by having some kind of focus.

I’m stunned by these revelations, and while I had heard Johns had an illness of some sort, I’d no idea it was Fibromyalgia or much of an idea what the issues were. His descriptions of what it is like for him – and the importance of his focus – his music- to him in dealing with the disease provide an insight into this disease I hadn’t heard of before.

The talk turns to music again; We talk about the 12 Bar, and the diminishing number of live music venues. The 12 Bar on Denmark Street in London was a historic, centuries old forge turned into intimate music venue. A petition signed by tens of thousands failed to save this club – but has saved nearby buildings.

“I had a close connection with the 12 Bar club years before it opened as a club. The actual forge (that was the live room) dated back to the mid 1600’s was a store room/workshop, for the famous Andy’s guitar shop that was once next door and who had originally leased it. When playing in bands with former employees of Andy’s i used it as an occasional store room for the odd amplifier and speaker cabinet.

“I remember going in for the first time and thinking – ‘wow what a great little club this would make’. That was in the late‘80s and by the ‘90s it had become a little club that started off as a former gin alley back street word of mouth club and the actual bar was only probably about a metre long.

Koozie talks of old line-ups at the 12 Bar and tunnels underneath.

“[The tunnels] were used during the plague; they were transporting plague victims so as not to alarm people above; and buried plague victims in the area. At one time I was assistant manager there for a while and one day after lock up, we thought we’d have a look. We went down into the kitchen where in a store cupboard there was a piece of timber on the side wall; we pulled that off and behind that was an entrance to the tunnels.

Koozie Johns (1)“Part of it was bricked up and filled with rusty old fridges and stuff, but you could get quite a sense of what it was like.

“I had friends visit me this afternoon who made the documentary ‘The demise of Denmark Street’ and we were talking about the destruction of peoples communities that’s on the increase from all the redevelopments going on in London and one thing people don’t realise is there was a huge community that had its heart ripped out by the loss of the original 12 Bar Club and the music studios that once stood behind in Denmark Place.

“For myself and many others it was like a home from home and a bit of a safe house.

“Like many I miss it very much but have such great memories and a wealth of good friendships from it.

I realise too late I’ve not spent enough time talking about the new album. I think a second interview will be called for in the near future. We discuss some of the songs, and I mention the song from the new Folk Grinder album ‘Ballad of The Black Eyed Man’.

“ Ballad of The Black Eyed Man is a true story about a Texas outlaw by the name of William Longley. A friend of mine [Derry from EMF] his father Dick Brownson had studied and researched this Texas outlaw since the 70’s making several trips over to Texas talking with Longley descendants and then finally wrote this book about him called ‘Wild Bill Longley Texas Gun slinger’.

“He was responsible for getting a plaque put up for this outlaw finding his unmarked grave. William Longley came from a good family but after the Civil War like with so many, he couldn’t settle back into a normal kind of life. He killed a lot of people but in his words they were all bad people. Eventually he got caught, was imprisoned and sentenced to be hung.

“He was a very tall man with jet black eyes and a gallows sense of humour, he joked before he was hung saying to those stood to watch ‘Yes I deserve to die today for what I’ve done, but I am not a bad guy: I never stole a man’s horse’. I got really inspired by what I read and wrote the song which musically lends itself to an Americana genre. There’s been talk of it being made into a Hollywood movie.

The new Folk Grinder album ‘The Devil’s Mariner’ produced by Kirk Brandon is OUT NOW!!

Order your copy now exclusively from www.folkgrinder.com

I have to go; I hope I’m not too fast in closing out our call. If I didn’t have something else to get to – and if I wasn’t worried about taking up too much of his time – I’d have kept talking. I’ll make a point of doing so again sometime soon.

“No probs Suzanne hope this is okay for you and for the readers. I do hope not bland and that its an interesting enough article to read, a bit diverse in topics but hey that’s how life is for me.

I thank you again for your time and support I truly appreciate you listening.

Kind regards and a big Heeeeeeeeeeeave Ho!!!

Koozie x”