Copyright is fRoots,
Wrods by Colin Irwin, pictures by Dave Peabody et al.
days it looked like the back end of a
particularly dodgy car boot sale. But that was then, this is now and we're talking the near completion of a throbbingly modern Euro city bustling with suits and industrial shenanigans. We're talking an international metropolis and seat of government to boot. We're talking the brand, spanking new
Millennium Stadium. We're talking open-top bus trips to Tiger Bay and other points of local interest.
And here we are on the trail of a second Welsh fRoots cover in a matter of months [Dear Ed, I'd like to point out that Julie Murphy is actually from Essex, England - A. Pedant] We find it in a house in a back street on the outskirts of the city, where Blue Horses greet guests in a noisy welcome of big hair, bright shirts and buckets of tea.
We're swiftly installed on the sofa, presented with something hot and steaming, and treated to a revised Blue Horses manifesto. "We're fluffy bunnies," announces Liz Prendergast, daring you to challenge the statement. Fluffy bunnies, Liz? Surely not! You are Blue Horses, famous leather-clad butt-kicking strutting'n'bowing foxy babe-fronted sweaty folk-rock band of this parish. You are the descendants of Beelzebub determined to crucify our eardrums with your screaming 500mph hoedowns, your laddish and laddette japery, your wild dancing choruses, your thrash metal... ooops! The room suddenly goes quiet, the tea is confiscated, the yellow card brandished. The forbidden T word was mentioned. Say it once more, son, and you'll be back across the Severn Bridge so fast you won't have time to say "Steeleye Span - big influence on you, were they?" You don't mention the T-word in their presence. And that's an order. See, here's the thing. Blue Horses have been together in spirit -and quite often in body as well - for four years. Or was that five? Time flies when you're the saviours of electric folk. A disproportionate amount of that time has been spent playing a diet of dives, dives and dives. Not a bad grounding, as it happens, though few will admit it at the time. Blue Horses swiftly learned the art of befriending an unruly mob with copious pints inside them. They played fast, they played furious, they worked at putting on a spectacular show, and their teeth rarely missed the jugular. 8 Occasionally they even indulged their collective passion for the works of Led Zeppelin. Blackleg Miner back to back with Rock And |o//... why not, they can't hang you for it? There was indeed folk frenzy whenever the Horses landed on your local planet.
So Blue Horses swiftly established a formidable loyal following -one of the more bizarre sights in music today is guys in Blue Horses t-shirts playing air violin - and even some modest press. The T-word featured prominently and they still laugh very loudly at some of the more outlandish attempts to classify them. "Pagan rock...", "Celtic speed machine...", "post-modern roots fusion...", and best of all and most recently, "Corrs on cocaine". The mind boggles.
Inevitably their case came to the attention of the folk police. The folk police weren't amused. Folk-rock died years ago, didn't it? They were dismissed as retro, lowest common denominator fodder, trading on chundering rhythms and cheap thrills. We can't possibly allow their sort around our precious folk scene, can we? Too brash by half. In truth, their first two albums Cracking Leather, Skin & Bone (Native Spirit, 1997) and Live Album (Native Spirit, 1998) did little to deflect this image, both resoundingly full-on affairs giving only fleeing glimpses of a deeper band trying to get out. But that band finally got out a couple of months ago with the release of Dragons Milk & Coal, an album of such strikingly fluctuating moods and emotions it ought to blow whatever images you may have had of this band clean out of the water.
Or, as Lizzy puts it rather more succinctly, "we're fluffy bunnies... and don't you dare use the T-word!"
But hey! How rude am I? Haven't even introduced you to the band yet. They always do that in the best features, don't they? Well, if you know anything about Blue Horses at all, you'll know Lizzy. She of the bright red hair, flailing fiddle, impossibly infectious laugh and a pretty decent singer, though she admits in a rare quiet moment she only took on the job to protect the world from having to hear any of the others doing it ("I was the only one who could pitch a note, basically.") Most things Blue Horses start with Lizzy, who studied classical violin at the Welsh College of Music and Drama for seven
(years and once played a Celtic harp recital for Prince Charles. Brought up in the Rhondda Valley, she's introduced direct experiences of her own background into her songwriting with devastating effect on a couple of tracks on the new album. She nominates Robin Williamson (or did she mean Robbie Williams?) as her prime inspiration in the switch from classical to folk music. "I grew up in the valleys and mostly what they listened to there was
Saxon and Status Quo, so it wasn't till I got to Cardiff that I heard all this other stuff. Robin Williamson was really my first exposure to any folkie stuff. Not Incredible String Band, but it was his bardic solo stuff that got me. Took a bit of getting used to, but who else could sing 'I'm sitting on your head like a telegraph pole because I wish I was a wicker hat!'? I thought 'Great, so this is folk music, eh? I can go with this one...'"
Lizzy's co-founder is Nic Waulker, drummer, graphic dancer, songwriter, arranger, chief decision maker, native of Kent, England and - whisper it - a rare creature who knew the Oysters when they were a ceilidh band. "Actually," says Nic, musing this bizarre, cobwebbed past, "my brother sold Alan Prosser his first guitar." Getaway! "Yeah, he did. We used to go and see their gigs with the ceilidh band so I was a big fan of the Oysters from the start. Still am..." And if you're not falling off your seats in awe at this priceless chunk of folk-rock triv, chew on this: Nic Waulker began his career as a professional drummer at the age of 15 and has played with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins! Oh, and another thing... if Nic ever got on Desert Island Discs he'd choose nine Vaughan Williams tracks and one by Led Zeppelin.
here were some odd false dawns before the Horses galloped with any real intent. The initial plan concocted by Liz and Nic was a band that entertained the eclectic roots ambitions of Blowzabella and somehow tie it in with the strident rock of Led Zeppelin. A frankly tall order that one and they had absolutely no idea how to do it, so enlisted a variety of waifs and strays to help them. The joke in Dublin is that every musician in the city appeared in The Commitments. In Cardiff it's that every musician in the city has been in Blue Horses. Most
memorably, especially in terms of the 'Blowzabella for the '90s7 vibe, were the 6'8" Alaskan blues guitarist Dave Salmon and the inimitable multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Shorland, now to be found doing extraordinary things with Fernhill. For reasons never divulged, not even into the 19th mug of tea, Shorland is no longer on the Christmas card list, but remains a primary source of anecdotes. "He was wearing Chinos when he joined but after two years with us he was into bondage gear!" says Liz. "He went through a mad medieval stage which was quite good fun. He was always good at looking seriously mad and he was into all sorts of instruments. At one point he was playing a pyro horn, which was a tube he played by using a blow torch and then one day it caught fire."
"I wanted to use a confetti cannon, but the roadies banned me," says Nic. "Jonathan always made me laugh, but the marriage between him and us didn't quite work. It was a messy divorce..."
Then there's Rob Khoo, Cardiff born bass player of Dutch and Chinese descent. His fluid playing is an important factor in the formidable layers of sound that serve as such an inspirational springboard for the extrovert musical gymnastics going on in the front. Oh, and don't forget the man with the teapot, the exceedingly charming Martyn Standing, explosive guitarist of the electric, acoustic and slide persuasion. From Cwmbran and now living in Cardiff, Martyn was originally roped in to help out on the band's first album, Cracking Leather, Skin & Bone, and basically never left. When they turned up for their next gig, he was there giving it all with the T-word. Ask him what his first introduction to this folk type thing was and he says, in all seriousness, "Blue Horses". We laugh. "No, it's true. I knew nothing about any of this until the band. I've since heard a lot more and I do really like Steeleye Span." His new folkified status has been confirmed by a sighting at Trowbridge Festival wearing a straw hat and playing the banjo.
Martyn's also developing into a nifty songwriter, too. His ballady Summer Has Flown has long been a stage favourite, Liberty on the new one is another powerful song of his, while he's also contributed a moving lyric to Passer By, inspired by a homeless busker who plays the crowds in bustling, vibrant Cardiff.
Martyn gloried in his role as the baby of the band, but has since been usurped by the recent arrival of a new second fiddle player Debs Peake, the replacement for Em Grainger who decided that a life on the road was not for her during the recording of Dragons Milk & Coal. It was a blow. Em, a fellow classical student at the Welsh College of Music & Drama, had been one of the original Horses and as one of the dual fiddle prong, an integral part of the band's rise. The others knew long ago, however, that she wasn't really cut out for the rough and tumble of it all.
"Em didn't like camping," says Nic cryptically. Luckily Liz is there to interpret. "Basically if she couldn't sleep in her own bed with her fluffy cushions and her cuddly toys and her hairdryer and shower and baby wipes then she couldn't sleep! I've ended up sleeping head to toe in bed with her because she's said her bed was lumpy. She just can't sleep anywhere that's unfamiliar. It wasn't the life for her."
|The blokes at the back:|
Martyn Standing, Nic Waulker & Rob Khoo
Debs immediately squeaks "I'll sleep anywhere." Debs is from Portsmouth and had been playing classical violin from the age of eight and seemed destined for a classical career. Then she found
herself in the Clwb Ifor Bach one night when Blue Horses were playing. "I'd never seen anything like it. I went up to them at the end and asked Liz if I could have some fiddle lessons off her. I wanted to find something different and not go down the road of college and music college, there wasn't enough in it for me."
This unleashes the pair of them on a diatribe about the iniquities of classical music education and the rigid denial of all freedom of expression.
"There's no passion!" says Liz. "You have to regurgitate everyone else's music and you have to do it in a certain way. You have to stand in a certain way, hold your bow in a certain way and play Bach absolutely as Bach would have played it. It was awful -that's not interpretation, that's learning something parrot fashion. My advice is if you don't want to be a classical musician but want to move into a different area of music then don't go to a conventional music college because it will destroy you. The politics is horrible - all these people wandering around in their Laura Ashley dresses with Vivaldi on their headphones."
"Cliquey then... not like folk music," says Nic dryly.
Liz: "At least there's freedom of expression in folk music. You get handed down the tunes and you interpret them in your own way, that's how it all progresses and evolves. It's word of mouth, not all dotted music which has a crescendo on the 14th bar..."
Debs: "That doesn't mean you forget about technique in folk music but it's a very different technique. When you stop worrying about technique, that's when you can really get into the music. I'm a better player since I've been in the band because it allows you to let go..."
Debs returned to Pompey but went to seethe band whenever she could and stayed in close contact with them. Sod's law was that when Em Grainger handed in her notice, Debs was away in Spain. "I actually put in a call to Carleen Anglim because I knew Debs was out of the country, but Carleen couldn't do it, so when Em got home at Easter I phoned her. i said 'Em's left the band and we're looking for someone to take her place'. She said 'Oh... I don't really know anyone.'
"I said 'We were thinking about you' and there were all these squeals, which 1 took as a yes."
"We didn't want to change the line-up. This idea of two females at the front playing lead fiddles is very much part of the band, but to find somebody who could play to the standard we needed, who was female, looked good and wanted to do it was a bit of a daunting task. We're very lucky to have Debs and she's fitted in perfectly."
It wasn't as if they broke her in gently or anything. Her second gig with Blue Horses was at Glastonbury Festival and she also helped out in the final stages of recording the album.
It's always acutely dangerous to say this sort of thing, of course, but there are clear indications that Blue Horses are ready for a major breakthrough. "A lot of people have said they feel we're on the verge of something," says Nic. "A very high cliff?" says Liz.
If they are or not, Dragons Milk & Coal has certainly breathed life into the whole folk-rock melange that appeared to have withered and died long ago. Fiddles at the front, standard drum and bass at the back, they do perhaps represent the last great yahoo of the folk-rockers of old. Direct lineage can certainly be drawn from the likes of Steeleye and Fairport - despite their protestations that they barely heard these bands until they were firmly ensconced on the road themselves and made a point of listening to those '70s records because so many people kept telling them how much they'd been influenced by them.
"If we didn't have a female vocalist, people wouldn't be making that connection," says Nic. Yet they're also fly enough not to be seen as part of any sort of revival, happy to fly the flag for a 21st Century folk movement but keen to make it an inclusive one, maintaining their contemporary appeal to young rock audiences as well as ageing folkies.
"I don't see anybody in the same sort of field as us at all right now," says Nic, "except maybe the Oysters but they come from a completely different direction to us, they're complete opposites really, and they've been doing it so long they've really established their own thing. We often go to see bands who've been hyped up in the press as cutting edge or whatever, and usually all they're doing is a lot of things we've all seen before. That's fine if people want to see that but there don't seem to be too many people moving things forward. In that sense I do think what we're doing is completely original,"
Dragons Milk & Coal is certainly the most complete album in its field for some time, proving not just their instrumental virtuosity but the quality of their songwriting and a new-found conviction in their own destiny. The album actually opens with Liz playing serene Celtic harp before the band launch into the title track, a song inspired by Lizzy's grandad William Sweetman, who worked down the pit at Abertridwr right up to its closure in the early '70s, It's not a political comment as such, but a social document rooted in the traditional song history. Liz was only seven when her grandad died but the song is an important reference point both for her and for Nic Wauiker, whose father worked underground in the Lancashire mines,
"He went down the pit when he was 14, opening and shutting doors at an age when most kids are just thinking about their 'O'-levels. I grew up with him talking about it and I know he was scarred by it."
The theme is top and tailed on the last track (before the joke secret track!) simply titled Mining Song which depicts the last shift ever at the Abertridwr pit.
Even more striking is In Flanders Field, written by Liz when the band appeared at Dranouter Festival and took time out to go on a trip to the Flanders Fields museum in Ypres. "When we go to places we like going on outings," says Liz. "So we went to Flanders and... it was awful. It pulled no punches and was very, very depressing. They've got one section called No Man's Land and you walk in basically through the front of a bunker and it has a warning outside saying if you are of a nervous disposition don't enter. Inside there are all these sound effects and flashes really really loud and the floor lights up intermittently with these ioud bangs and there's poetry and pictures and the sounds of children crying. When we came out everyone was really quiet. Because we're of a generation that didn't have to go through all that it's easy to become detached from it and not understand what went on, "So I wrote that song following that visit, trying to look at it through the eyes of a Welsh soldier. I imagined him being there dying, thinking of home and talking to his mother. And I put the Wilfred Owen poem Miners on the end of it. It was very, very hard losing it in the studio."
"We're supposed to be upstarts," says Nic grimly. "They seem to think we're jumped up and we get accused of being disrespectful. We've overtaken people who've been around longer and they don't like that sort of thing. We've had some very difficult times on the folk scene in Wales, it one major Welsh festival we were : booked to headline on the Saturday night but they made it very difficult for us to perform. When it came to to our turn the thing had overrun by an hour and everyone disappeared and we were left to fend for ourselves. There were members of the public wandering around backstage and everything. And then the power was switched off without any warning,
"Another time I was at a seminar and there were a number of the South Wales folk mafia there and when I asked a question they all started hissing and booing!"
Then there are the mini-skirts. The sight of two fiddle-wielding women giving it some at the front of the stage with loud hair and daring clothes has also created a fair number of frowns and wagging fingers. "We do get accused of being sexist and that's really bizarre," shrugs Nic. "They assume us nasty blokes are manipulating the women, making them stand up there in their mini-skirts."
"Whereas..." says Liz, warming to the topic, "we get a lot of comments from women that it's nice to see women in charge. We have the lead instruments and the band is built around two females with the blokes doing the boring bits at the back. We've got no intentions of ever being The Corrs..."
You must get the odd leering lad having a pot at you though... "No we don't. They are very respectful towards us. They're probably too scared of us! We've never had any hassle on stage at all. The only thing that happened was once a couple of blokes were laying on their backs in front of the stage looking up our skirts. But they were from Cardiff so they didn't count! I made some comment and they got up and shuffled to the back, very embarrassed. I think that if there was any trouble or somebody gave us a hard time, the rest of the audience would pile into them..."
But aren't you fluffy bunnies?
"Don't you believe it."