Bellowhead Matachin interview #1 - John Spiers

Posted by Christopher Friedenthal 08 September 2008

In the run-up to the release of the new Bellowhead CD Matachin on 22nd September we conducted a series of interviews with the band. Getting the ball rolling is John Spiers, founding member of Bellowhead and their melodeon player. Check back on Wednesday for Justin Thurgur and Friday for Paul Sartin. Photos by Alan Cole of

To kick things off can you explain what you bring to the Bellowhead melting pot?

Ah - I’m the one who plays the melodeon. Actually I like to think that along with Benji [Kirkpatrick, bouzouki/guitar player], I keep the traditional tunes driving along. I always try to play rhythmically and roughly for the tunes and riffs when I’m with Bellowhead because being subtle doesn’t really work with 10 other people playing. Although I have written several of the tunes in the Bellowhead set - I haven’t actually arranged anything for the band yet. That’s going to change soon as I’m due to be working on some new material with Paul [Sartin, fiddler/oboist] in the next few weeks. Fundamentally I’m one of the folkiest members of the band in terms of approach and personal tastes.

Which track is your favourite to play live?

I like a lot of them but I think it has to be the Rochdale Coconut Dance. The way it builds to the last B part of the tune still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like it did the first time we got it together for the band. That was the first time I stood on stage with the band and realised that there was something special going on here.

What’s your personal highlight of Matachin?

The Widow’s Curse. Pete [Flood, drummer] has done an amazing arrangement of what is an absolutely horrible song. It manages to be quite accessible and poppy, which I always like, and at the same time as being sinister and quite avant-garde in places. It’s also incredibly difficult to play which means I’ve heard myself play it lots just practicing!

How did you decide which songs made it?

Well, that’s a hard one. We tried all the new material out in rehearsals earlier this year and the consensus was pretty together as to what we did or didn’t want to record. Jon [Boden, fiddler/singer] withdrew one of the tracks because it wasn’t quite working as well as it should and he needed time to make it better - I’m sure that one will turn up again on future albums. So we didn’t have too much trouble there. One track, Unclothed Nocturnal Manuscript Crisis, we recorded didn’t make it on to the album at the request of the record company. It’s pretty standard practice - not because it’s a weak track - but just because it didn’t seem to fit with the other tracks so well.

Did you have a lot of material to choose from?

Well, when you’re taking stuff from the English tradition you’re never going to run out of material! But seriously - we did have to prune here and there from the new stuff but the band has suffered that fate that happens to most successful bands in that we’ve been so busy since our first album Burlesque was released that finding time to write and rehearse new material has been more difficult than any of us would have liked. We could probably have done about another albums worth of stuff out of what we have left over. Although it would be short.

What does Matachin mean and why did you pick it for the new CD’s title?

Matachin is a tradition from south and central America which involves sword dancing and is very similar to our own traditions of mumming and wassailing. It originally comes from Spain and Portugal and is thought to be of moorish origins (matachin is thought to be derived from the word muttawajjihin, arabic for mask). The reason it was chosen is that it is a very nice indication that traditions that we think are set in stone and very specific to our own regions are far more global - in nearly every case. That in turn represents Bellowhead’s outward-looking approach to English traditional music very nicely. It might also be quite easy to get it near the top of a Google search.

You and Jon Boden are working with the Tacet Ensemble. How’s that going?

We were asked by Adam Bushell if we would be interested a while ago now and he has secured funding for us to rehearse and explore music that is based upon traditional themes. So Adam is really the driving force there. The Tacet Ensemble play a diverse range of contemporary classical music, and have collaborated before with the Copper Family and English Acoustic Collective. This certainly does what Arts Council funding should be doing which is to broaden the horizons of everyone who is involved in the pursuit of new music. It’s definitely pushing me to the limit of my ability (as a scientist who can’t really read music properly and has somehow made a living out of being a glorified busker for a few years). I would tell you more about what the music will sound like... but I’m afraid none of us will know until later this year as we’re only doing our 2nd collaboration day next week.

A while ago there was talk of a solo dance CD...

Yes - it is still ongoing. Two children and being incredibly busy with gigging has meant that it’s only progressed slowly, and it has certainly changed from the ideas I had a few years ago. Nothing has yet been recorded, but I’m determined to make an album that I really want to listen to. Whether the rest of you will like it or not, we’ll have to see. There is no definite timetable for getting this one out. But the way it’s shaping up means it looks like it will be very traditional in approach and real toe-tapping stuff. I’ll let you know when anything’s happening I promise.

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