It’s nearly 4 o’clock on a Friday morning in mid-November. The venue closed hours ago. Ben Fitzgerald and Ted Harbot from the Tea Pad Orchestra stand alone on the stage, guitar and double bass in hand, ” time to get our funk on” says Ben purposefully. At the opposite end of the bar Paul Archibald and Colin Nicholson discuss single malt Whiskey. “The thing about the Select is the nose” Paul says thrusting his face far into the glass and inhaling before encouraging Colin to do so too. Rob Heron himself stands another round of coffee flavoured tequila for us all, whilst behind him Pete Seccombe the guitarist from Yorkshire based band The Buffalo Skinners precedes to climb on a table and start to take his clothes off. Only Tom Cronin, the Tea Pad’s mandolin player extraordinaire, stands off to one side, a serious look on his face. This is how far the night has descended.
Just over five hours earlier there were all six members on the stage and “getting their funk on” was far from anyone’s mind. At that time Rob Heron was in the middle of a blistering set, hell-bent on showing the world just how relevant his world is to everyday Britain, and Ben, Ted, Tom, Colin and Paul were right at his back helping him to do that. From where I’m stood in the middle of the audience it is a wild ride, and watching all six members of the band completely at ease with their performance is a treat and privilege.
If you have not seen or heard the Tea Pad Orchestra, it would be easy for me to describe them as revivalists. A band that saw an angle, mixed up Jazz, Western Swing, Cajun and Country, put on the right costumes and hit the road to make a few bucks. But this would be lazy, and wrong.
What they are is an echo of the past made relevant, they sing about the controversial HS1 rail link, asking questions of the people spending our tax, bemoan the woes of gambling, living in small towns, loving the wrong women. Universal themes everyone can relate to.
So for the last few years they have been touring relentlessly. Although based in Newcastle, the length and breadth of the British isles is no longer alien to them, Ireland is a frequent destination and this summer the band has made a couple of sorties into France. Couple this with playing festivals such as Boomtown, Larmer Tree and Wilderness, appearing on Radio 4’s Loose Ends show and hundreds of gigs in between for good measure. They play with pinpoint precision, technical ability that is second to none and a dose of good humour thrown in for good measure.
The night ended. I was supposed to interview him. It was 4am. We were both drunk. It didn’t happen
Fast forward 12 days. The Tea Pad Orchestra have been playing a show in support of a documentary called ‘The 78 Project’. In the film a 1940 Presto instantaneous recorder (it records by cutting a groove into a blank vinyl 78 rpm record as you play into the microphone) is driven around the United States and field recordings are taken from all manner of musicians, from guitar playing Reverend’s through film stars to traditional swamp dwelling Cajun players.
And afterwards the Tea Pad boys take us on a romp through highlights of their repertoire, including a Balfa brothers waltz, on a stage in front of the screen high above the sloped floor of the Curzon Picture house. The lights kept low for the setting is a 1920’s cinema, decked out in luxuriant red velvet, high deep red walls reaching for the sky, clad in Art Deco tile work. It’s all very much in keeping.
But the mood is different now, after the audience have departed, you would have thought an after show hush might descend. It hasn’t. Most of the band are crowded around the vintage Christie cinema organ located in front of the stage. Colin and Ben sit side by side on the stool and are playing what appears to be a boogie woogie version of Jerusalem, whilst Ted crouches on the floor pressing a lever that operates a drum roll and cymbal crash. Various other sound effects (all physical, digital is for Sci-Fi comics around here) from waves to train whistles and boat horns are pressed, But Ted is fascinated by the drum crash, almost obsessed. He presses it again and again and again. Rob asks him to stop, he looks up, quizzically staring at us through his glasses before stooping and continuing to press the button.
Again I was meant to ask some questions but I got distracted by the row and the thought of a burger on the way home and forgot.
So we arrive here and because I live in the digital age and not the 1920’s I wrote Rob a quick e mail. Modernity has its advantages, and can get your arse out of a hole sometimes.
Being a modern working musician, do you think touring still offers the same rewards that it did to your musical ancestors?
Yes! There is no better way of getting your music out there than touring. There is something a little but more special about a band doing a tour, rather than the odd gig here and there. We always seem to end up doing super long tours, because we like to play as many places as we can, build up the fans one small town, one big city, at a time. It helps you grow as a band, it lets you see the country/world, it lets you meet new people every day; which is inspiring and exciting.
Where does Rob Heron stand on the touchy subject of Spotify and downloads in general? Do you think the increased exposure helps or the lack of recompense hinders a band?
Difficult one! I use Spotify to discover new music, or to listen to something someone has recommended to me. I also buy a lot of music. If I like something, I will buy it. Our music is on Spotify for one reason only; in the hope that people may stumble across us, or to listen before they buy. I would be upset if I knew people were regularly listening to us on Spotify, and not helping us out by purchasing our records. For smaller bands, it can be a helpful, yet dangerous tool. However, there is a better way to discover new music, and that is to visit your local record shop; this is a much more satisfying, fulfilling and supportive way of discovering and buying music.
Do you think the ability to have a more DIY approach to releases benefits a band; specifically self-releasing albums? Or does some element of the label system need to remain?
I think bands that start doing stuff themselves will achieve greater things (or at least more honest things) than artists that sit on their arses waiting for some record label to scoop them up. We have never sat around waiting for a label, nor have we gone out seeking one. We have self -released all of our music on our own ‘label’. However, if/when the right label shows up for us, whether they find us or we find them, I wouldn’t say no to it, if it felt right. A label can benefit a band not only through its financial backing, but also through its already existing fan base, it’s upper hand on PR, its contacts within the industry and of course, literally, the ‘label’. So, in short, both DIY and labels are important.
The Tea Pad Orchestra cross genres with their musical styles, taking in everything from Jazz through Western Swing and Cajun. Does it wind you up any when the audience (or journalists) take the easy route and label the band as just a Jazz or Country band?
We don’t often get that; being called just ‘jazz’ or ‘country’ shows they have some aspect on what they are talking about, and in that case, they would realise that we take influences from other styles too. The two things that do irritate me: when people DON’T see the references to styles, ie. “I wouldn’t call it jazz”. My answer to that is, it’s not trying to be jazz, but that we take a huge amount of influence from jazz. Etc etc. The other irritation n, when people wouldn’t know jazz from country and country from jazz, they see mandolins, accordions, hats and waistcoats and describe us as one thing…Mumford & Sons…that notion boils my blood. I take no influence or inspiration from such music.
With regards to recognition more generally do you see a softening in attitudes in the press towards roots music? Or do you think that people who love what you do would find you anyway?
I’m not sure…I just write and play what I want and hope people like it. They seem to most of the time.
You veer into political comment with your material at times, talking about expensive train routes and corrupt bankers? Is it hard to find that line between preaching a point and just telling people what you think? And what issues are stoking your fire at the moment?
I certainly don’t want to come across as a preacher or somebody with strong opinions, just as a social commentator. Old blues, country and folk songs that touched on political subjects rarely had strong opinion, just an artistic interpretation. If people disagree with anything I say, then so be it. They could try and change my mind if they wanted…I’m just writing about what my head thinks, not what I am told to think. What’s stoking my fire right now? Same things that always have…biased news reporting, illegal wars, wasting money on killing people instead of helping them, the ‘god complex’ of the white West, the EDL and other racists. Basically, people just need to start getting along and not screwing each other over.
2015 approaches fast, what are your hopes for the year, band wise and personally?
I have a few months off now, so I am going to knuckle down and do some writing for a third album. We are touring Europe in spring, going to a few international festivals in the summer. Basically, more gigging and more music. Hopefully we will gain more reputation and more fans, more radio play; it feels like the hard work is starting to pay off, so let’s hope it really does soon. Personally; I need to stop spending so much money on clothes, so I can spend more money on records.
Finally, who do you think the readers at Global Texan Chronicles should be searching out in the coming months?
Justin Townes Earle, Daniel Romano, Parker Millsap, Marty O’Reilly, The Bellfuries, Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Petunia & The Vipers, The Tillers, The Wiyos, Jack Grelle and Lonesome Cowboy Ryan
Marc Griffiths is a musician & co-founder of Screamin’ Miss Jackson & The Slap Ya’ Mama Big Band