How are you doing and I must begin by saying what a real treat it is for everyone to see yourself and The Demon Barbers are making a return to the Costa Del Folk Festival.
The Demon Barbers played at the inaugural Costa Del Folk Festival in March 2014, and you certainly looked like you were all having a great time. Did you enjoy it as much as you appeared to on stage and what are your thoughts about appearing again in Portugal in October?
Damien: We had a fantastic time! We always enjoy gigging but it was great to combine gigs with sun, sea and sand, particularly in March! We did a bit too much sun on day 2 though, challenging Black Beard’s Tea Party to a beach volleyball match, and we were all a bit bleary eyed for our second show. Something to bear in mind for Portugal! The line-up is great by all accounts it’s a really nice hotel. Some of us are making the most of the trip and staying for the whole festival. We don’t often get a chance to see many other acts at folk festivals so I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sun and listening to some good music.
You have spoken in the past about growing up in folk clubs in the 1970’s, as a kid famously learning how to ‘suck crisps’ during intense sing a rounds. Do you think the Folk scene in the UK has changed a lot since then and in what ways?
Damien: Without a doubt. There’s a lot more focus on headline acts (usually bands) at festivals, the artists who can grab media attention and sell tickets. Festivals are driven more by the market than in the 70s when line-ups were was primarily based on the music rather than bums on seats and media attention. The festival fringe is doing really well though (sessions, singarounds, Moris displays etc) which is vital for a good festival vibe. I think people take this for granted though. The folk club scene seems to be making a comeback which is great as there was a real decline during the 90s. There’re some really strong clubs around and audiences seem to be rising although there’re not so many young people attending.
Growing up in Norfolk, you were surrounded not just by rural beauty by a wealth traditional story tellers, talented musicians and singers, can you tell us about some of your early influences and ultimately what made you make the decision to become a professional musician?
Damien: My first influence was my dad, a strong traditional singer, who I used to accompany on melodeon. Walter Pardon was probable the most well-known of my early influences, he was one of the 3 main traditional source singers from Norfolk along with Sam Larner & Harry Cox. Sam & Harry were long gone by the time I started going to folk clubs (in 1976 aged 5) but Walter lived in the village next to us and went to the same folk club, the Orchard Gardens in North Walsham.
I became a professional musician after being a finalist in Radio 2’s ‘Young Tradition Award’ in 1989. This gave me the confidence to pursue a career in folk music and later that year I toured with The Kipper Family on their ‘Norfolk & Good’ tour. I then started touring folk clubs on my own and after 11 years of solo shows I decided to form The Demon Barbers.
Your work throughout the late 1980s and 1990s clearly set you out as a traditionalist, can you tell us then where you got the idea to blend Folk with electric and Hip Hop music and form The Demon Barbers?
Damien: The scene was changing during the 90s, the club scene was struggling and folk festivals were booking fewer solo acts. I knew I needed to change what I was doing to keep up and I’d also started touring in the USA s house concerts were thriving over there. One of my hero’s, Peter Bellamy, had some ground work for me over there so it was easy enough to pick up shows. On one tour I came across a band called Cordelia’s Dad who performed traditional Folk material, Rock and mixed it up too. I loved that and decided that was what I was going to do.
Those of us lucky enough to have seen The Demon Barbers perform in the past have been treated to very high energy shows, stunning musicianship, passionate vocals, everything from Clog to Hip Hop dancing, even smoke machines and UV lighting. How do you manage to fuse all these varied and different styles into something that is so thoroughly entertaining?
Damien: I think one of our strengths is that everything we do is genuinely performed with passion. All our artists are grassroots performers, everything they do on stage they do socially, away from audiences. For instance you’re as likely to see Will Hampson & Bryony Griffith dancing and playing with Huddersfield’s White Rose Morris at a festival, as on stage with The Demon Barbers. And you can go and see our Hip Hop dancers virtually every weekend at Jams and Battles around Yorkshire. This means that when we come together on stage there is a real passion in what they’re doing, it’s authentic. Everyone we work with is open minded and we’ve been fusing folk & Hip Hop dance for around 10 years now, so mixing up the different styles comes naturally to us. We try not to take it all too seriously either and are more than happy to perform for the sake of entertainment itself, the more smiles we get from an audience the better!
Last year I managed to catch your wonderful dance show ‘The Lock in’. For those unfamiliar, can you tell us a little about the show and where did you get the idea for it?
Damien: The Lock In is a development of a show called Time Gentlemen Please which is a project we worked on with Yorkshire Dance and a dance director called Bush Hartshorn. I’d been talking to YD about an idea I had to look at the similarities between traditional English folk dance and Hip Hop / Street dance. I suspected that they both had similar social roots and so we ran two research and development projects in 2006 & 2007, created the full TGP show in 2011 and then developed it into The Lock In in 2013. The show is set in an old English pub ‘The Fighting Cocks’ and has a cast of 16 musicians, singers and dancers who perform various routines based on traditional Folk dance, Hip Hop dance and a fusion of the two. The show is great fun and we really love performing it when we can. It is a bit of a beast to tour though with 20 people on the road and with the set and technical requirements it isn’t an easy show to produce at festivals, hence our new show The Demon Barbers XL. This show features many of the cast from The Lock In and presents it in a more usual concert format, making it much more festival friendly.
Your new album ‘Disco in the Tavern’ has been receiving a lot of praise and some outstanding reviews. Can you tell us a little about the making of this album and what it was like to work with Grammy Award winning producers Donal Hodgson and Kipper.
Damien: This year we are celebrating 15 years together and so we wanted to produce a really high quality recording that encapsulates all of the energy from our live shows. We’ve always produced our own albums and so we weren’t really sure how to go about getting a good producer. We came across Donal & Kipper really by chance. The other half of my duo, Mike Wilson, had just returned from a USA promo tour for Sting’s ‘The Last Ship’ musical with his brothers (The Wilson Family) and I mentioned we were looking for someone to produce our next album. He said he’d ask Donal if he knew anyone who might be interested an he said he’d be interested himself! Donal then asked Kipper if he would be up for co-producing the album and the team was complete. As it was a brand new relationship we thought it would be best to run a pilot and we recorded 3 tracks in June 2014. Everyone got on really well and so we went for it, producing the other 8 tracks later that year. Donal & Kipper are amazing to work with, very professional but at the same time completely off the wall! Kipper was instrumental in getting the best out of everyone while Donal focussed more on the engineering side of things, a really great team. They’ve been really engaged throughout the process and are regularly in touch to see how the album and live show are doing. Really looking forward to working with them again on our next album, hopefully in a year or so!
A huge part of the success of The Demon Barbers is the songs you choose to arrange. Damien, you have an incredible knowledge of Traditional music and with such a wealth of songs available in the tradition, how do you go about choosing material for The Demon Barbers?
Damien: For our early albums it was relatively easy, a lot of the songs we recorded were songs that I was familiar with already, songs that my dad used to sing when I was young and some that I had performed as a solo artist. All the songs I sing either with the band, solo or with Mike have to mean something to me. There has to be an emotional connection, otherwise I feel like a recording, regurgitating songs for the sake of it. I guess that’s why in 26 years in the business I’ve only recorded 9 albums. The connection may be direct like with Go Boys Go as I used to perform it with Ron Angel, the guy who wrote it, 20 years ago in some of the Irish bars in the North East of England. Other times the mood or the lyrics of a song might remind me of a place or person.
You have been entertaining audiences for decades now Damien, as a solo performer and as part of duets and groups. Can you tell us about some of the highlights of your career to date?
Damien: A couple of years ago Nic Jones made his comeback at The Southbank Centre, London and I was asked to perform. I was a big fan of Nic’s when I was young and it was the first time I’d met him. I was asked by Pete Coe to join him in some Banddogs numbers along with Nic and Chris Coe filling in for Tony Rose (another hero) who is sadly no longer with us. I was also asked to sing some of Nic’s songs and I chose Little Pot Stove, Barrack St & Farewell To The Gold. I was a bit nervous as it was the first solo gig I’d done for some years and so I invited my old friend Tony Hall who accompanied my on Melodeon. Tony was the original accompanist on Nic’s best-selling album ‘Penguin Eggs’ so was a very special night for me.
Neither yourself or The Band are known for relaxing your musical efforts, can you tell us have you any exciting plans or projects in hand for the future?
Damien: We’ve got so many plans it’s sometimes difficult to know what to focus on first! We’ve started work on the material for our next album and we’re also looking into funding for The Lock In 2. I also want to pursue a project called ‘The Sleepover’ a children’s version of The Lock In. These shows cost a lot of money to produce though so it’s a matter of getting the funding in place. Like most artists the finances are the limiting factor in our work and we have a much larger cast than most acts on the folk scene. We’re happy to keep going though so long as our audiences are up for it!
Thank you so much for your time Damien, can you pass on our regards to the rest of the Band and our congratulations to Bryony on her stunning debut album ‘Nightshade’. I know I speak for everyone on the Cost Del Folk Team when I say we are all very much looking forward to meeting up with you all and seeing you perform Live in October.
All the very best