INTERVIEW: A Chat with Neil Jones of Stone Foundation | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Stone Foundation emerged from the West Midlands music scene over two decades ago with a sound dripping in soul, funk and post-punk attitude. Respected and championed by everyone from Paul Weller, Peter Capaldi and William Bell to Mavis Staples, Nolan Porter and The Specials, Stone Foundation seamlessly shapeshift though sound and sonics to stand head and shoulders above their contemporaries within the UK soul scene. On the eve of their excellent new long player Outside Looking In hitting the shops, and a live date at the exquisite Hoochie Coochie on Friday 8th April, I caught up with affable SF front man Neil Jones to talk about the past, the present and the future for Atherstone’s finest funkateers.

The first thing you notice about a Stone Foundation record is that no two releases ever sound quite the same. Despite a trio of top 40 albums, they’re never content to rest on their laurels, steadfastly refusing to retrace former glories, they consistently move forward in search of an ever-more contemporary take on soul and funk. “It’s a definite decision that we always want to try and push the band. We have discussions with each other before we start a new record, what we’re thinking of or what we’re playing, and what direction we want to go in – we’re always sending each other music, more than anything else, we ‘re just massive music fans – and then when we go in to the studio, which I can sort of compare to the process of someone who’s sculpting; you go in with this massive lump of clay, and all these things in your head that you’re going to come out with, and then you slowly chip away at it until you kind of end up with the thing that were hoping to get…but, you also usually end up with something different to that as well, you know.”

If you’ve ever caught the boys live, you’d be under the impression that they’re perhaps one of the last great musical gangs; in the vein of classic Soul Rebel period Dexys, but delve a little deeper and it’s Jones and musical partner Neil Sheasby that take on the heavy lifting of songwriting duties and production, and any collaboration, either within the SF ranks or otherwise, comes later in the process, I asked Jones he if thought that was a fair assessment, “Yes, I’d say so, that’s mainly how it works. We sometimes demo little ideas ourselves and then we’ll take it to the band and we’ll say we’re hearing this or that, but obviously, for all the ideas in your head, I’m not a drummer, I’m not a keyboard player, so Ian [Arnold] and Phil [Ford], who are fantastic players by the way, will take what you’re suggesting to them and then they’ll put their own stamp on that…the horns in particular have evolved from me, Neil and [Steve] Trigg sitting in a room together going this is what I’m hearing, this is what I think should be played, through to the latest record, where it was us just sending stuff to Trigg with just a few suggestions, and he came back with fully formed horn lines, and that was really quite exciting.”

we’re on our tenth studio album and we’re coming up to our 25th anniversary as Stone Foundation, and it’s definitely to be celebrated

Always a band keen to colour their sound with as wide a sonic palette as possible, their recordings are positively scattered with a mind-boggling number of incredible collaborations. I enquired how they’d managed to secure the services of a significant selection of soul’s most influential artists, “Usually, if we’re writing something, we’ll come to the table with suggestions. We generally just get in touch and ask if they want to do it, and eight times out of ten they say yes, we’d love to because, quite simply, they love the music. Our strike-rate is pretty phenomenal really, all things considered. For example, the Melba Moore track on the new record. I remember me and Neil demoing that idea in the studio and just saying to each other this must have a big disco diva, and Melba Moore was literally the first person we thought of. We were saying wouldn’t it be amazing if she would sing on it, this would be perfect for her, and as luck would have it, she said she loved the song and would really like to be involved. We don’t force any of the collaborations, we just want to make the best records possible and if that means that I don’t sing on everything because we’re hearing a different colour or idea for vocal, so be it.”

Without question, the most influential collaboration of the past decade has been the one and only Paul Weller. The British icon’s input on tracks such as Deeper Love and Your Balloon Is Rising presented Jones, Sheasby and co with a musical mentor, and whose belief in the collective further projected them forward with an unwavering confidence that the sky really is the limit for what they can achieve. “We use Paul’s studio [Black Barn] for recording and he always makes himself available when we’re in. He always just wants to get involved in the music. I think he really loves the band, so we don’t even have to ask him now. He’s absolute gold, his ear for music is impeccable, so it’s always great having his input on stuff.”

Toward the end of last year, exciting news emerged across the web that a documentary celebrating the collective’s quarter century anniversary was to be released in 2023. Jones seems visibly uncomfortable and a little embarrassed at first about this. “I absolutely hate talking about myself…” he then bursts out laughing, the Jones laugh is an infectiously charming guffaw that bellows with joy. After a few seconds of recomposing himself, he explains how the documentary film idea came about, “[acclaimed filmmakers] Mono Media floated the idea to us; we’re on our tenth studio album and we’re coming up to our 25th anniversary as Stone Foundation, and it’s definitely to be celebrated. I sometimes really hate hearing my own spoken voice or hearing me talking about the band, but, when I saw the first trailer that they put out I did think wow, because you forget about some of the things that we’d done, and I was thinking bloody hell, we actually did that! You forget about all of the collaborations, the mile-stones, the small victories along the way that have kept the band going as well as the massive pit-falls we’ve had, the whole thing has been a massive learning curve, but also a fantastic adventure as well, and I’m just looking forward to it. We’ve literally just left Lee [Cogswell] who’s been documenting our stuff for over a decade, and Mark [Baxter] alone to get on with it and make the film they want to make. My intention is not to see it until I walk into one of the cinemas that they put it on at, and I’ll watch it then and see my life flash before my eyes.”

Stone Foundation release Outside Looking In on Friday 25th March via 100% Records. They play Hoochie Coochie on Friday 8th April.

 

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