I think it was when I first heard Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs album that I realised how good Folk music could be. Before that point I’d always imagined it being a desolate wasteland of Morris Dancers, knitted jumpers, roll-ups and unkempt facial hair. As someone who spent his formative years trying to look like I was in the Cure, then The Smiths, Then the Happy Mondays, this was a prospect that was unthinkable. After Nic Jones, I realised I could look like I was in The Happy Mondays, and like Folk Music. My world opened up then to include bluegrass, American blues and folk songs, Dylan and Nina Simone.
I heard an extraordinary concept album of stories and observations, told in song and from the standpoint of a mid 19th century American recently. Suprisingly it came straight out of England, from Sheffield’s The Payroll Union. It seemed to me to have little flavours of all the things that I had liked and discovered about folk music, and indeed perhaps all the above mentioned artists (well, maybe not The Happy Mondays) and was delivered in a modern and accessible way. I spoke to singer/guitarist and songwriter for The Payroll Union, Pete David, to find out more.
Can you introduce those people who don’t know you to the members of The Payroll Union.
Pete: I play guitar and sing, Paul plays bass, Tom’s on lead guitar and Ben bangs the drums.
How did you all meet?
I was playing old bluegrass numbers and a few of my own country songs with a banjo playing friend of mine. It was really good fun but I definitely wanted to expand things so when Ben offered his services on the drums, I jumped at the chance to get him involved. He brought along his friend Paul and the four of us performed our debut gig a few weeks later on Valentines Day at the now defunct Stockroom. A couple of years later, our banjo player moved on and we got my old friend Tom in on electric guitar. Inevitably, the sound has evolved a lot after we lost the banjo but so has my songwriting.
What influences your music? Or does it change as time goes on?
Oh there are constants but it definitely changes. I love the bit in No Direction Home where Dylan talks about not getting too comfortable with what you do. It’strue, it’s easy to become stagnant by thinking you’ve arrived at a designated point and the best way to avoid that is to write more and the best way to write better is to listen more. If you’re talking about specific artists, my constants are probably Chuck Berry, Dylan and Nick Cave with Grandaddy and Midlake added to that. More recently I’ve been completely consumed by the last Sun Kil Moon album, which is easily my record of 2012. I also picked out an album from my collection a couple of weeks ago that I bought about seven years ago that I’ve barely listened too – Get Happy by Elvis Costello – turns out it’s a brilliant album! We’ve already got 100 years of recorded music out there to pillage and then there’s so much great stuff being made all the time – it never gets boring discovering new (or old) music.
You tell stories (in your songs) in the good tradition of country and folk artists, is this an important aspect to you?
Absolutely, the folk tradition of storytelling is really important to me. Old folk tunes like Matty Groves spun these very effective narratives but were also very subversive – that one in particular is obviously an attack on the wealthy landowners of the time. And whilst I’m not writing about contemporary events,continuing that tradition of story is vital to what we do and to hint at broader themes than the events themselves.
Tell us about your new album, ‘The Mule and the Elephant’?
Well, it’s primarily set in 19th Century America, though is underpinned by four or five songs that are specifically set in the 1830s and ‘40s. ‘South’ is taken from the perspective of a patriotic journalist, as he documents western expansion on the eve of the war with Mexico; ‘Peggy’s Tavern’ is about a sex scandal that split Andrew’s Jackson’s cabinet and essentially decided the next President; ‘Men ofRank’ looks at the story of William Morgan, who threatened to expose the secrets of the Masons and was subsequently kidnapped and murdered – this in turn inspired the creation of the Anti-Masonic Party who were very influential, if only briefly. It’s an attempt to explore how democracy was being worked out in this period and to highlight some of the contradictions at play. I think the lyrics are much stronger than the previous two EPs we did, and the album has a boldness, a confidence to it that I’m really proud of. I love also that while it hangs together well, it turns from the dirty, dark and epic of songs like ‘Out of Missouri’and ‘Mary Lamson’ to the tenderness of ‘The House on the Hill.’
The Payroll Union – Peggy’s Tavern
Where did you record it?
We recorded it at Club 60, with the wonderful Paul Blakeman. He’s been fantastic, a real help to us and his enthusiasm is infectious!
How long did the album take to write?
Most of the songs come from the year before we recorded but a couple are old ones we hadn’t played in a few years – Imitation of Life is probably the oldest, we were playing that not long after we first got together. We stopped playing it a while back but then I didn’t want to lose it forever and it seemed to fit well with the album. Then we had two songs that I wrote a few weeks before we went into the studio – Peggy’s Tavern and Through the Trees. That was fun, recording something really fresh. I think we’d played Through the Trees about three times before we recorded it.
.…and the recording? How was that?
Great fun! You find yourself very quickly in this gang mentality. The seclusion element of recording is very attractive – feeling separate from what’s outside the door – but it can also send you a bit loopy. A couple of times people had to tell me to go for a cigarette or take a walk round the block – it’s pretty intense! We recorded it in five days and it was all live takes with a handful of overdubs. We wanted to try to transfer the energy of our live show onto record and I think it works best with those that were least tinkered with! Through the Trees was completely untouched. I don’t think the boys knew it was a proper take – you can hear that at the start of the song.
The Payroll Union – The Mule and the Elephant
You’ve played at quite a few places and festivals –have you been living the rock and roll lifestyle?
Er, well, Paul’s wife went into labour whilst we were at a festival in 2011. My girlfriend drove him back down to Sheffield (that was the end of that car). It was certainly memorable. Ben and I played that afternoon without him and needless to say, we were shit
Your going on a mini-tour?
We are indeed. 6 dates in a week, it should be a lot of fun. Manchester,Liverpool, Brighton then three dates in London.
Excited? How important is playing live?
Well, it’s basically what we do! It’s the most important thing of being in a band, absolutely no doubt about that. If you don’t enjoy playing live, you don’t enjoy being a musician. Also, I obviously love records but I don’t believe in definitive versions of songs, they just keep evolving and that happens on stage.
Who are you playing with on these dates?
A mixture of people. In Hackney, we’re playing with Cut A Shine, who are described as an “anarchic hillbilly dancing squad”. We played with them a couple of years ago in some warehouse in Hackney Wick and they’re a lot of fun so looking forward to that one. Then there’s a bunch of other bands – The Elevaters in Brighton; a very eclectic night in Hoxton, lots of art and weirdness that should be ace. Then some local bands in Liverpool and Manchester who I don’t know a huge amount about.
Future plans? Any more releases planned this year?
We’re hoping to collaborate with the University of Sheffield on a project that should produce an album on antebellum Philadelphia which I imagine will be more songs about religion and violence! No, that should a lot of fun and we’ll be producing a film to go with it plus some other little bits ‘n’ bobs. More to be announced soon! I think we’d also like to go back into the studio before that to record some other songs but we’re going to have to see if we can fit in all in. We’ll be travelling to Sweden in August for a festival run by friends of Ben and are hoping to confirm some Europe dates for around that time. Apart from that,we’ll be playing festivals in the summer and spreading the good word as much as we can.
How can we contact you?
The Mule and the Elephant tour Dates