INTERVIEW: Screamin’ Miss Jackson & The Slap Ya’ Mama Big Band | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Of all the bands that the Tea Pad Presents crew have brought to Newcastle over the years, surely none have made the impression – and won the fans and friends – that Screamin’ Miss Jackson & The Slap Ya’ Mama Big Band have. Their unique blend of string band, jazz, blues, folk and country is pure good-time music and, inevitably, New Orleans plays a part. Vocalist and banjo player Marc Griffiths explains: “Basically, me and April [Jackson, vocals and washboard] went to New Orleans in 2013 for Mardi Gras and saw the street bands and I was like, ‘I just wanna do this!’ I hatched a plan to form a band with people I knew. Howly [Mark ‘Howlin’ Lord’ Legassick], who plays the mandolin, he’s one of my oldest friends and I managed to coerce him. Then I saw Henry [Slim, harmonica] at an open mic and bullied him into doing it – literally – and then I sort of knew Rory who was our bass player at the time, he brought Boggie along, who was his drummer, and then finally April and Becca [Philip, guitar and vocals], she was the last one about a month or so later “

One of the band’s strengths is that it has four very good – and very distinct – vocalists, who all bring something special to the sound. Did that happen organically?

“April had been in The Bow Ties, quite a popular four-piece all-girl a capella group, and she was providing the jazz end of that, like she does now, and Becca had been in that as well, doing the sweet country, folk end. April didn’t have a great deal of confidence but an a capella group is a real good schooling for making sure you’re on your notes. There’s nowhere to hide there. I knew April could sing, and me and Howly had talked a while about putting something together, and April’s name kept coming up.”

The band’s music draws on a broad variety of old-time sounds, but it’s the way they blend them that makes it unique. Each member brings their own emphasis. “Henry is devoted to the blues, but he’s an amazing musician so he can pull on that influence but not make it swamp a song in a different style. And I think we all do that to an extent; I probably span more of the genres than anybody else in the band. Mark is very old-time country, whereas Rebecca is very Americana country rather than the honky tonk stuff, and into folk. April loves 20s and 30s jazz up to rockabilly and western swing. And I love my R&B and soul. So it’s nice that we’re all in the same sort of field but we don’t have that monoculture that some bands have.”

you have to leave something of yourself in there in the tune. Otherwise it’s fucking boring

Similarly, everyone has their own approach to songwriting, April in particular “When April writes her songs it’s all in her head, literally – melody, accompaniment, words… she’ll hum the accompaniments to the rest of us to interpret. That’s her a capella background. She’ll have the complete arrangement in her head. It’s impressive, I can’t write like that. I tend to bring a completed song on the guitar, Mark only ever brings sketches, Becca brings the guitar and vocals and we write the accompaniment.”

Like most bands working in this style, covers were a big part of their early sets, but there’s only one on the album, Oozlin’ Daddy Blues, best known as a Bob Wills song. “The reason that’s on the album is that it’s the song we’ve been playing since we started, and it’s the single number to showcase what we each bring – Henry starts with that mellifluous bass tone of his, then the jazz thing from April, Becca does the folk thing, and then I do the shouty gruff thing and eventually Howly doing his ‘country lawnmower’ voice. When we were talking about whether or not to include a cover on the album it just made sense for that to be on there, it really is how we grew as a band.”

Mark runs pubs in Bristol and it’s clear that both the pubs and the city itself are integral to the band’s development. “None of us are from Bristol, but we are a Bristol band, it wouldn’t exist in the way it does otherwise. There’s a big scene that lets you cut your teeth very quickly, because of the strata of venues, including my pubs. I was in bands and toured up till I was about thirty, and having the pubs was my way of staying in the music business, and seeing lots of great stuff come through. And it helps because you see a lot of people doing things wrong, and learning from it. Like trying to be too authentic rather than being yourself, you have to leave something of yourself in there in the tune. Otherwise it’s fucking boring.”

Whilst the Slap Ya’ Mama Big Band is full of strong, engaging personalities, it’s hard to deny that it’s April – Screamin’ Miss Jackson herself – that catches your attention, with her ever-present grin and her tendency to crowd surf. I wondered if the crowd surfing meant it had been a good gig or if she’d drunk too much whisky. “April can never drink too much whisky, that’s not possible! She’s such a great front person, I can’t praise her highly enough. If there was a flock of geese going across the sky, she’d be the one at the front…in fact, we do genuinely form a V behind her. I was a frontman, Howly is a fantastic frontman, but we recognise what’s amazing in April and we work with it. That’s testament to how great she is…we call her the Fun Seeking Missile.”

Screamin’ Miss Jackson & The Slap Ya’ Mama Big Band play the Tea Pad Summer Medicine Show at Newcastle’s Cumberland Arms on Sunday 3rd July. Their new album, I Heard The Voice of A Donut, is available now.

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