Words: Lee Fisher / Prince Reelfoot
With their debut Newcastle show this month, Lee Fisher spoke to Nicola Kearey and Ian Carter of Stick In The Wheel about those typically folk topics of autotune, mixtapes and pirate radio.
(this is an extended version of an interview that first appeared in NARC.Magazine)
Stick In The Wheel are important. What they’re bringing to folk music is important. Their second album proper, Follow Them True, is important. And, obviously, brilliant.
Picture credit: Toby Amies
Their debut From Here had a sparse, stark beauty but the follow-up has added more textures, not least a subtle use of electronics. It seems this was always the intention, as Ian Carter explains.
“For me it was always part of the plan, strip it right back then gradually build it back up. Now that doesn’t mean that there’s no more room for stripped back stuff and all it’s gonna be from now on is long synth workouts. It means we’ve been able to expand our palette to the point where it hopefully actually reflects the breadth of creativity that exists in the musical communities that surround English folk music.”
One thing it does have in common with the debut is the deeply felt politics, seldomly explicit but ever-present. As Carter points out, “Our very existence is a protest, sometimes you don’t need to state it explicitly.” “We wrote and recorded the album in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.” adds Nicola Kearey. “So it reflects that feeling of being fucked, helpless, feeling that nothing you do is making any difference. And making a record, a soundtrack to these times, it’s all we know how to do. Being English, as a country everyone hates us, as a country we hate ourselves.”
One of the notable things about the album is the use of autotune on the title track, which in an act of pure wish fulfilment on my part I decided was some kind of trolling of the folk establishment. But that was never their intent. “Nah, I have a rule to never make music that’s a negative reaction to something, it’s like damning yourself by making you as bad as those people.”, Carter explains. Kearey picks up the theme. “Some people’s only reference to autotune is that Cher record from years ago. So it’s a big deal for them. Other people are familiar with it as just another texture, so although we were aware it might be like a flaming beacon to some people, we’re still just doing our thing. ‘Does it sound good?’ is the only criterion by which we live.”
Another notable track is The Weaving Song, which they actually heard first in Bagpuss. As Kearey sees it, “Everything is valid, it’s all up for grabs if you do it right, for the right reasons.”. “Folk music for us is more than just searching for unheard tunes in some old library,” continues Carter, “Although – like crate digging for samples – it’s an important and vital part of the culture, it’s just part of that learned melody and style that you absorb as a child. People of a certain generation have folk music burnt into their heads (whether they like it or not) because of Sandra Kerr & John Faulkner’s work on Bagpuss.” In fact, they got to perform an impromptu version down at Sidmouth Folk Festival.
“I was against it at first, just because of not wanting to fuck it up or it be cheesy. But I’m over the moon we got to do that.” says Kearey. “I love Sandra Kerr,” Carter adds. “She’s right on and maybe sorely overlooked in favour of some other people – the work she and John did on Bagpuss is responsible for certainly my playing style. We never did it on stage, but it was a really important moment for me. She’s one of the people I respect the most.”
Stick In The Wheel’s next release will be that most un-folk of things, a mixtape (released this month, there’s even a limited cassette run alongside the CD and download which you can preorder here). As Kearey explains, “It’s just nice to get a bunch of ideas down, without too much fuss or procrastination. We’ve been taking the opportunity to hook up with other musicians to do the odd track, rather than commit to a whole project together, it’s quite a low key thing I guess and we take inspiration from the scenes that inspire us – for Ian, it’s the beats scene where people are generally very supportive of each other, making good work always comes first. And you know, why the hell not?” And is the first folk mixtape? “We did one for the BBC Freakzone radio show a while back which no-one heard,” laughs Kearey. “So not really, I mean maybe folk people don’t necessarily put stuff together as a continuous piece but it’s something we’ve always done. We might be known for folk stuff but that’s only one part of the story.” Titled This And The Memory Of This, after the David Bray painting that provides the artwork, the mixtape flows wonderfully despite its diversity. “We’ve done some collaborations, remixes and tunes with people like Anna Roberts-Gevalt (from Anna & Elizabeth), Lisa Knapp, Om Unit, Jack Sharp, Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp, and a couple of new tunes. It’s a mixture of trad and original stuff.”
In fact, the track with Roberts-Gevalt – in The Morning – is one of the most intriguing things on the album, an immersive blend of her speaking and singing (in that high lonesome mountain style) with drones, beats and violin. It’s something of a gem and draws attention perhaps to the similarities between Anna & Elizabeth and Stick In The Wheel. Their recent Smithsonian Folkways album The Invisible Comes To Us feels like such a companion piece to Follow Them True. “They’re from Virginia and Vermont, and do the most beautiful understated old-timey music, which is delicate but not fragile, and Anna is heavily involved in the New York experimental music scene.” says Kearey. “We didn’t know them but met up when they were first over here, I think we recognised each other as people keen to do good work, so we got together when she was last over here, we literally had a day hanging out at our studio and she brought this trad song in. What I love about her is she is ready to try anything and is unafraid to get stuck in and do stuff. Then Ian is also really good at being in the moment and trying stuff. Letting the music come together, and being free about it is what we aim for always.”
Perhaps given Kearey and Carter’s background in urban / electronic music, a mixtape isn’t that surprising after all, and that culture still informs Stick In The Wheel and their approach to the folk scene. “We’re all about the culture, I can’t stress that enough.” explains Kearey. “Some people in the folk scene find our work challenging, like they are really actively against it, and that’s fine, you don’t have to like it. Sure, there are some incredibly frustrating things about it, but there is much to be celebrated. People are often very generous with their time and hospitality because they can see we are really into what we are doing, and that it’s for the good of the scene – we are still anti-commercial BUT we are doing what we can to bring this music of the people to wider audiences. That can be difficult when the scene is generally risk-averse. It can mean that nothing feels very exciting. I hope we have been able to start putting a spark in places where it is needed and the places that can’t take change for whatever reason will wither and die.”
Carter expands: “Anything that limits the creativity of a scene is bad. People need to support each other. Remember I come from the London urban beats scene (jungle, D&B, garage, grime, dubstep) and people take this shit seriously. In the 90s, these people climbed up the side of tower blocks to erect aerials so people could listen to music on pirate stations. WE take our shit seriously. This is everyone’s culture, it’s important. It’s not something you can use for your own bullshit vanity projects. It’s our fucking culture. I won’t be happy until we can all take our traditional culture as seriously as those dudes climbing up the side of a tower block just so they could hear a bit of good music. Take it seriously.”
Stick In The Wheel are clearly at home with the contrasts. “We’re touring through the Autumn and already it’s been banging rock venues with sticky floors one minute and ‘This is Mary’s chair you can’t sit there’ folk clubs the next.” says Kearey with some relish. “There’s never a dull moment when your audience is so varied. Last night someone got up and sang ‘My brother Billy had a ten foot willy’ and the other night someone booed because we’d cut a 17th century ballad down from 64 verses into 12.”
Stick In The Wheel’s autumn tour brings them to Newcastle Star & Shadow on November 30th. This And The Memory Of This can be pre-ordered here.