INTERVIEW: House Of The Black Gardenia | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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One of the more curious Tyneside demi-mondes is that of the swing-dance enthusiast. Only ever spoken of in hushed tones, these fleet-footed, gin-soaked boys and girls, shuffling and shagging their way round neglected backrooms and ballrooms, have their own styles, codes and sounds. It’s from this netherworld that The House Of The Black Gardenia were born.

Or, more prosaically, Neil Hopper found a double bass in a junk shop.

I had to learn how to play the thing after I’d been asked to join Lady Koo & Her Kooky Kitchen – there’s nothing like being asked to play a gig to sharpen your practising regime,” Neil explains.

Neil and Elise Hopper (respectively bassist/sousaphonist and vocalist/washboardist of The House Of The Black Gardenia) started thinking about forming the band when they were running the highly popular Swung Eight swing-dance night at World HQ. “I guess because we’d been doing swing dance DJing a lot, we’d been listening to loads and loads of this music, from the first half of the 20th Century, so we were immersed in it. We had the idea when we first started that we would be like Tuba Skinny or something, but that didn’t really suit us. A lot of it has been determined by who we could get to play with us, because when we first started none of us really had any idea what we were doing.”

It’s also worth giving Rob Heron a shout-out,” adds Elise, “because he did encourage us to do this, and was briefly in the band at the beginning… He’d bought a banjo and wanted an excuse to play it, it came out of that really. He deserves some credit.”

Meanwhile Elise had never really sung at all. “I still don’t think of myself as a singer…when we first started rehearsing in front of other people, who I thought of as actual musicians, was beyond nerve racking. Onstage now I’m alright with it, I quite like just chatting on a bit and because there’s so many of us I don’t feel like there’s too much focus on me. The phrase ‘jazz singer’ is not something I feel like I am. And when Michael [Littlefield] starts singing…he sings like an angel. The audience must be thinking, ‘Why do they have her singing…?’”

At first the Hoppers found it hard to source the right musicians (“we mainly just nicked people out of the Strictly Smokin’ Big Band, that’s been the strategy really, and other bands in the North East – like Michael from the King Bees”) and they’re the only founding members left. “I do think that the way we sound has very much been shaped by the people we’ve managed to get in. You just play to people’s strengths.”

It was never something we actually set out to do but we naturally gravitated towards subject matter like being buried alive

Put on the spot to describe their sound, both initially just said ‘jazz!’ but when pressed, Elise admits that “even within this genre it’s hard to describe what we do but it’s kind of jazz blues swing”. “It’s more swing than trad, I guess”, adds Neil, “which is nice because there’s not many – if any – people doing that.”

Perhaps the hardest thing to get right with this sort of sound is the arrangements, and while Neil had never arranged anything before, he loved taking it apart to see how it all works. “It’s different to arranging anything else. And there’s space left for free improvisation. What I’d really love would be to have a massive big band and do all that stuff.” (Elise groans) “But it’s bad enough trying to organise nine people, let alone twenty.”

Most of the songs are written by Neil and Elise. “I do the music but we can’t be in the same room together. Even if I’m in the house, I need to send it to her as an email or something and about 30 minutes later she’ll come back down with it all finished…sometimes it doesn’t quite match the genre, which is good because it stops it all being a recreation of stuff that’s happened in the past which is a bit pointless.” Hence songs about unwanted dick pics (Picture Message Blues) and Donald Trump (Big Big Man). “It’s a defence mechanism to write something a bit stupid and a bit funny. The class clown approach to lyrics.” Elise explains. “I’m really delighted that the album is coming out around Halloween, because I feel like we really have that sort of dark element. It was never something we actually set out to do but we naturally gravitated towards subject matter like being buried alive.”

As for a second album, as with so much else, COVID has proved a serious block. “This album has been a record of ‘our early teenage years’,” Neil explains. “Finding what we’re about. I think I have a better understanding of what it all is, and I hope the next album will build on that. We’ve got a lot of songs but they’re incomplete because there’s been no gigging or rehearsals that would focus our minds on getting things finished. It’s nice that other people are writing, being able to collaborate with people who come up with stuff you never would have done.”

While the band are genuinely pleased with the support being shown in the form of album pre-orders, they’re clearly frustrated at not being able to play live. As a nine-piece band, even the current trend towards low-key gigs isn’t really practical, and as Elise adds, “Most of our gigs have lots of dancers coming, what we do is dance music. And that has disappeared entirely. So when it does all come back, I think everyone is going to be really ready for it. To be very close, have lots of musicians onstage…”

The House Of The Black Gardenia’s debut album, The New Lowdown, is released on 30th October on their own HOTBG label

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