Interview: Bellowhead

Bellowhead originally formed for the Oxford Folk Festival. “Our first appearance was the first festival as well.” Paul tells me. “That was six years ago now – this is our sixth birthday. It’s quite exciting.”

Band member Paul Sartin meets me in Oxford’s Old Tom. I warm to him immediately when he buys the drinks. He studied in Oxford, as a choral scholar at Magdalen, doing music. “Truth be told, I studied music in theory but never really went to any lectures or anything. I spent most of my time on the Cowley Road going to folk sessions at the Alm Tree and the Bullingdon Arms. There’s an influx of students coming through, so there was always something new happening in sessions and the scene has always been exceedingly vibrant.”

So is Paul’s advice not to go to lectures…? “I didn’t say that! I just want to clarify…”

Before he can, I ask Paul about a live show that Bellowhead have done performing Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “Bellowhead are currently artists in residence at the South Bank Centre. So we’ve done a number of projects, one of which has been a production of the Rime with school children and community choirs. It involved pirate narrators. The residency at South Bank’s very exciting because it’s given us a chance to sort of spread our wings and go into musical directions that aren’t necessarily ‘Bellowhead’.”

Bellowhead’s innovation lies in their radical reinterpretation of traditional material. I ask Paul how at liberty the band feels to alter songs that purists and traditionalists hold as near sacred.

“I think we are on the whole very respectful of the tradition. The song has to come first but the way we present that is very much up in the air as long as the sense of the song comes through. We don’t actively try to manipulate or misuse the material, but I think to convey a song the arrangements have to be something that is communicable and accessible to a modern audience.

“And it’s got the jazz element. I mean jazz in the broadest sense – we’ve got guys with North African influences and Eastern European influences and blues and so forth. Because of that the listener is, perhaps, challenged to where you put us in the tradition.”

Since one of Bellowhead’s spots on Jools Holland alongside the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Californian rock band have become perhaps Bellowhead’s most high profile fans: “I think they have incredibly good taste personally!” says Paul in a sort of mock boast. “We are musicians’ musicians. We like all sorts of music and it’s very fulfilling to know that bands from different genres feel the same way about us. It’s just a really nice thing. And it’s gratifying. But it hasn’t gone to our heads. Honest.”

On a table behind us are two friends of Paul’s, who he is meeting after our interview. They mention to me the band’s “hard-drinking reputation.”
“We’re not hard drinking,” Paul insists, “we just like to have a good time. You know… [He makes a point of drinking from his pint] we’re a very moderate…” He continues: “well, one thing we do, is whenever we go abroad we try and find the local tipple. So we’ve had some very nasty drinks – we’ve had Japanese plum liqueur and nicotine alcohol, which was the worst thing I’ve ever drunk in my life.”

But after Paul’s drinking story we come back to talking about the state of the folk genre – is its supposed revival a myth?

“I think there is definitely something. I think it’s part of a larger thing – there’s a hunger for live music. People are sick and tired of synthetic, manufactured, industry-led music and want the real thing. The folk tradition is part of that general wave, or has been caught up in it. There is resurgence in people’s own interest in their traditional heritage as well. It’s not a myth. It definitely is a fact. And what I see, what I hope, is that it will be something that is long lasting.”