Stick In The Wheel’s self-released debut album From Here has been something of an obsession of mine in recent months, affecting me in a way that most folk rarely does (save, unsurprisingly, for such north-east artists as The Horse Loom, Cath & Phil Tyler and Richard Dawson). Something in the rawness of the sound, the intelligent but understated politics – never hectoring but always there – and frontwoman Nicola Kearey’s winning curmudgeonly presence really strikes a chord and this seems to be a common experience. So when I got the chance to interview them – en route to Boomtown Festival – this crossover appeal seemed like the obvious starting point.
First off, you probably get sick of getting people saying things like “I don’t usually like folk, but… “ when they talk about Stick In The Wheel but it really does seem appropriate. I find so little folk I like and find too much of it mannered and bland, but your stuff hit me like the proverbial hammer. So do you take this as a compliment, or find it confusing, or simply proof that people haven’t done their folk homework properly?
Nicola Kearey (vocals and concertina): “I don’t usually like folk either, so I get where they’re coming from – we’re not really taught to value our own culture but I still found it weird when we started this project that there was barely anything of a similar approach, or at least there was so little of it that was listenable. When we do find like-minded people we grab on to them with both hands. English folk music to me struggles with its own identity, and it’s really difficult to have that conversation about your own culture without nationalism creeping in, we just don’t have that awareness of our past in the way that maybe Scotland and Ireland does. So it’s no surprise to hear these comments.
Ian (Carter, guitar, vocals, accordion): “To be honest we take it as a compliment, collectively we all pretty much feel the same about the current trend in folk music so it’s nice to find like-minded people. It’s important though to point out that it’s not just a folk problem, music in general is becoming increasingly bland and homogenised in the face of mass market media. It would be unfair to infer it’s only a problem in the folk scene, although yes, it is a concern when it’s your traditional culture that’s being whitewashed.”
You give so little away on the website and album that it was a genuine shock to me when I realised (on a bit of digging around) that you were involved in Various Production. I adored that stuff, especially Hater, and the connection makes perfect sense, especially when I remember being pleasingly confused by the folk songs. Can you tell me a little more about what the impetus was to move from VP to SITW?
Ian: “Well, Various Production ended about 2009. But from about 2003 to till then I was producing all the music and Nic and another girl Rachel were singing. In that project I wanted to explore what you could do with traditional material and electronic music, without just sticking a beat under it. Nic sang on tracks like Foller and Don’t Ask. When that came to an end I wanted to continue working with them both, so we decided to dial it right back from the experimentation we had done in VP and start from the beginning, stripping it down to the bare essentials. The day Rachel left because of other commitments, we met Fran at a folk club, she only sang one song unaccompanied but we loved it so we asked if she fancied doing some singing with us, and she said ‘Yeah… alright then’”.
Nic: “The whole thing with VP was that our identities are pretty arbitrary – I mean we didn’t even have any photos – and that’s kind of carried over into SITW…I guess that whole provenance thing is a big part of folk music so it’s at odds with how we operate. It’s not important who we are, it’s the music that gives you all you need to know.”
I loved Nic’s quote that “A lot of people who try to do this sort of music claim to be evolving the culture, but often do really stupid things like just add a drum beat to it” – for me there’s nothing worse than that kind of ‘ceilidh with a breakbeat’ festy nonsense. So was it a deliberate decision to go for something raw and stripped down?
Ian: “Yeah absolutely, there’s so much lazy practice when it comes to trying to ‘update’ the folk sound, people don’t seem to really understand or properly respect the disciplines in the UK’s electronic music scenes. Like Nic says, you can’t just stick a drumbeat under it and call it new, that’s fucking lazy. I wanted to create the attitude and hard sparseness of the music I had come from and grown up with. Folk music at its core has a lot of parallels with certain UK music scenes so I wanted the sound to reflect that similarity. Taking those influences of directness of message and stripped down rhythms and arrangements and performing them with acoustic instruments, rather than sticking a loop underneath and leaving it at that.”
Nic: “Garageband has a lot to answer for. And don’t get me started on the festival norm of folk + reggae beat.”
In a previous conversation, Nic mentioned getting grief over the way she sings “goose fevver bed” in Seven Gypsies. The awards and acclaim suggest you have had an impact on the folk scene, but do you get much resistance in terms of how you approach things?
Ian: Yeah we definitely get resistance, but at the same time it would be disingenuous to paint ourselves as complete outsiders. You can quite easily fall into the trap of thinking everyone’s against you and letting that inform your work. We’ve been warmly welcomed by the scene and a lot of people we really respect, which is something that really means a lot to all of us. The awards are always a nice surprise but none of us make music to receive awards.
Nic: We just get our heads down and get on with making our work, sometimes that’s at odds with convention but who cares.”
The thing that first hit me about SITW was the defiance and lack of mannerisms in Nic’s voice. It reminded me of the way Chumbawamba approached English Rebel Songs (that this was the people’s music, to be sung in the people’s voices) and even of some of the bands I saw on the festival / traveller circuit in the 80s and 90s who refused to gussy up their own accents or dialects. How conscious is this?
Ian: “I’ll let Nic answer this, but I’ll only add that the only conscious effort is to be true to what we want to do and what we are, and balls to everyone else.”
Nic: “My accent gets commented on a lot, in a way that other English regional accents don’t. People aren’t used to hearing it I guess, except as a stereotype. My voice is my own, that’s just how I sing, direct, and I can only be me. Performing is utterly terrifying because that is me singing, not an alter ego, but I feel that’s how to get the songs across best, so I push myself into doing it. It helps I’m usually pissed off about something.”
Alongside your own material, you do play a lot of (often very old) trad songs. Are these things you’ve grown up with, with folky parents or something, or through recent listening? Are you to be found squirreled away in Cecil Sharp House trying to beat Becky Unthank to a particular discovery?
Ian: “Ha nah not really we just pick tunes that speak to us.”
Nic: “Some of them are perhaps more well known as being trad standards but I’m pretty ignorant about that. Like Ian says, it’s just what makes sense to us, we don’t have a crate digger mentality about it. We do research if it’s needed, like on the next 7″, which is based on the cries of street traders. I’m really interested in this because it’s a very direct link to normal working people of the past, and how they made a living.”
On that topic, you’ve talked before about maintaining a connection to the past, finding parallels between current gentrification in London and the effect of the Industrial Revolution, that sort of thing. Again, can you tell me a little more about that and what you seem to see as a lot of people failing to make these connections.
Ian: “There’s a serious problem with English culture that we just don’t know our own past, we’re fed a list of kings and queens and nothing is taught about the history of the people. Folk music is just that, the history of the people. So for us a bit of what we’re trying to do is present material in a way that means people can see the links between then and now, like we’ve always been constantly lied to, so we do some other cunt’s dirty work. Gentrification, whilst being a pain in the arse, is just one aspect of the shit we have to deal with in our society.”
Nic: “My thing is, if people had more empathy, they would be less dicks to each other. Understanding how life is the same as it was hundreds of years ago, with the same issues, might help people empathise with their fellow man a bit more.”
You’re laudably DIY – although you have said this is as much economic necessity as any kind of ethical stance. Did you learn things when you were in the electronic scene that you’ve employed for SITW that are perhaps at odds with the way the folk scene usually does business?
Ian: “Yeah, my background in the electronic scene informs practically every aspect of how I approach production / writing / recording. In that scene you do everything yourself, you’re an autonomous unit, you don’t need big studios and flash mics to make good music. Also it taught me that you don’t really need to sign deals with big labels to successfully release your own material, in the electronic scene you can break with one track on Soundcloud that you made in your bedroom (cheesy I know, but true). Perhaps that attitude is at odds with how a lot of the folk scene perceives things. The idea that you need certain things (record deals, big studios, awards) to validate your artistic output. It definitely taught me that that’s all bullshit, just make good tunes. Really folk music should have the same attitude, just rock up and play and tell it how it is, but somewhere that’s got a little lost.”
I first saw you at Sin Eater and you’ve just played Boomtown Festival, and those sorts of events seem to be as much a part of your itinerary as the more obvious folk circuit. It seems the noisy, psych-noise end of things is very welcoming to a band like SITW, but do you ever find yourself wondering why you’re on a bill? And does it make it even sweeter when you win over a non-folk crowd?
Ian: “We approach every gig with the same mindset, to smash it. Having said that we recently played one of John Kennedy’s Radio X Exposure all-dayers – with Traams, Blaenavon and Dinosaur Pile Up – and it was great when we won that crowd over, we were definitely a pleasant shock to their system. But really even in the folk scene we still kinda feel we have to win over every crowd we play to.“
Nic: “I loved the vibe at Sin Eater and I wish we could have stayed longer. That was a festival packed with interesting stuff rather than just crowd pleasers, and yeah, being on those types of bills is very welcome. Pushing it out to other scenes where people will get it, that’s what it’s all about.”
So what comes next? You’re obviously touring hard and putting in the miles, and you recently released the newspaper with Lynched, but should we expect a new album any time soon? And if so, is there any change in your approach to it?
Ian: “Yeah we’ve got plenty of stuff coming. Our approach is so simple that we can’t change it, just work hard and make good stuff.”
Nic: “The Tales from Bethnal Green 7″ is out Sept 2nd through Bandcamp. That’s the street cries thing, it comes with a 16 page booklet and download code, we’ve pressed 300 of those. It’s nice to be able to put together releases exactly the way we want and the next album will reflect that too. We’re also working on some recordings with other artists which we are really excited about.”
From Here, the debut album from Stick In The Wheel, is out now. Tales From Bethnal Green will be released on From Here Records on September 2nd. The band played Allen Valleys Folk Festival on Friday 30th September.