INTERVIEW: Cath & Phil Tyler | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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We meet, appropriately enough, at The Cumberland Arms, and it’s Phil Tyler’s first pint in a pub for a long time. (Me, not so much). We’re here to talk about Some Heavy Hand, a collection of rarities and compilation tracks released on the Tylers’ own label, Ferric Mordant. But first, I wondered how lockdown has been?

It hasn’t been too busy, I’ve been working so it hasn’t been too different for me. We managed the odd gig in the middle, when the rules were relaxed. Me and Cath did a Globe livestream gig, which was pretty good, and we had one gig for each of the bands we’re in, just by chance [Phil is also in Yakka Doon and Bad Amputee while Cath is in FRET!], which was quite nice, a reminder that life exists beyond just staying in!”

While for a lot of artists lockdown has seen a surge of activity, some health issues that Cath suffers from means that wasn’t really their experience. “That’s why we only put out an album every eight years, it takes a long time. We don’t rush these things, it happens when it happens. That said, we did a digital only Café Oto release [To The Dust, released in late 2020] and we were like ‘oh, we haven’t got any songs! Oh yes we have – there’s one!’. We recorded it at home and sent it over.”

The songs on the new collection date back to 2005: “The very first demo thing we did, there’s a couple of tracks from there, recorded with my brother, we guessed at the date. Like it says in the sleeve notes, most of the songs get better as they go along, but a couple of them are quite nice from back then, so we used them.”

I was interested in the way the couple find and work on their material, since they don’t seem the types to be found rummaging through the Cecil Sharp library. “If you listen to a lot of folk music, it’s just in your head. It’s never like, ‘we need to do another record, let’s find some songs’. If you wait long enough, they drift into your net slowly, We did a gig a long time ago and in the middle of the set some guy in the audience asked about a song and we didn’t know. At folk clubs, some people do try and show what they know. And I’m happy with people doing that. Like Jeff Warner [American folk song collector], his parents were collectors in the thirties, he did shows that were very informative, very entertaining. But I don’t feel the need to educate when we’re doing trad folk songs.”

the best definition of folk music is that it’s something you can do here, now

A lot of their songs seem to mine the connections between English and Appalachian folk tunes. “There’s loads of kind of transatlantic crossover, people make whole albums about it. We don’t really do it on purpose, it’s just stuff we like that works. Sometimes we’d like to do a song but we can’t make it work. Or we like the lyrics but the tune doesn’t work, so I’ll use a different one. It’s…well, I don’t want to say organic because that sounds shit, but it’s not thought out in that way, it just comes together. We don’t really write any of our song lyrics, I write some of the tunes.” Such as the version of You Are My Sunshine on the new album? “It’s the second time I’ve done that song, there’s a version on one of my obscure banjo albums that Cath also sang on. And the melody is just something that came out of the guitar one day…often I just make a tune up with no set of words in mind but the meter of it suggests words that would fit. It’s such a creepy song too, it’s not the nice song people think it is.”

Another unusual song on the album is the a capella Our Fathers Of Old, a haunting number which is based on a Kipling poem. “The setting is by Peter Bellamy [of the Young Tradition], who was a bit of a Tory I think.” Phil explains. “But he did a lot of Kipling stuff, he reckoned a lot of Kipling poems were supposed to be songs, that they had tunes but nobody knows what they were any more. So he did quite a few Kipling albums. This label called Folk Police did a compilation called Oak Ash Thorn a few years ago with a lot of people like us and The Unthanks on there.”

As well as their folk duo, both Cath and Phil have their other bands. “I always thought we would have our own noisy band, but we never got it together. We had a few jams but it never gelled…Cath did do one Bad Amputee gig when our bass player couldn’t make it and afterwards we thought, ‘oh we should do a noisy band’ but she’s too ill really to do more than a one-off stand in.”

I was curious about Phil’s thoughts on folk, and the Tylers’ place in it. He says he was always surprised when they get labelled as experimental folk, that they’re just playing folk the way they know how, but admits he doesn’t mind the support from places like The Wire, Café Oto and TUSK that the label has earned them. As for folk, Phil says that “the best definition of folk music is that it’s something you can do here, now.”

Cath & Phil Tyler release Some Heavy Hand via Ferric Mordant on 4th June


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