Gill Sutherland gets aboard the ‘trans-Europe express’ with Stratford band Scratchy Beard ahead of their gig to promote their debut album on Thursday at The Other Place
Is there a music genre invented that has the power to please all ears, no matter the long-established taste of the ears’ owners?
You would think not, but having heard a few tunes from Stratford-upon-Avon band Scratchy Beard’s debut album, I think they may have cracked that most allusive of achievements. They really are genre-straddlingly, toe-tappingly irresistible… which you can find out for yourself at the band’s album launch next Thursday at The Other Place.
Scratchy Beard include core members Spesh Maloney (singer, composer, guitar), Greg McLeod (drums) and Laura Stevely (clarinet, organ, melodica and tin whistle).
Over breakfast at favourite indie coffee shop, Box Brownie on Henley Street, the trio tell Herald arts about themselves and their sound.
The band were formed a couple of years ago following what might safely be called an epiphany in a Spanish drinking establishment. Spesh takes up the story: “About ten years ago I was in a bar in Barcelona and heard some gypsy jazz and fell in love with it. I began to think what would happen if you formed an ensemble, taking the swing and feel of hot jazz and blended it with storytelling songs inspired by English and Celtic folk, and throw in a pinch of bluesy roots?
“And then I stumbled across these guys,” finishes Spesh, by way of a story shortcut.
Have they come up with a name for this intriguing melange of genres?
“We’ve been trying to put a name to it – when you hear it you know what it is!” offers Spesh. “It definitely comes under the banner of folk – jazzy rootsy folk, with a bit of polka too; it’s a sort of Parisienne street café sound… On our website we’ve gone for ‘trans-European roots music’.”
So there you have it, the next time you’re asked about your musical tastes, you now know what to say: ‘I’m really into trans-European roots music, y’know like Scratchy Beard’… then watch the enquirer stroke their own chin in puzzlement. Anyway back to the band’s story…
“I pushed my way into the band,” laughs Laura. “Our kids all go to Thomas Jolyffe School. Instead of going for the usual summer fair, we were putting on one that had more of a festival vibe… and Spesh and Greg were meant to be playing it, but their cellist couldn’t make it and they were looking for a third instrument, and I suggested the clarinet. They were like ‘Well, who plays the clarinet?!’ And I was like ‘Er, me,’ and so my first gig with them was at the school. Afterwards I just started rehearsing with them. I was too scared to ask if I was officially in the band.”
“We’re still trying to find a way of telling her she’s not in the band,” jokes Greg.
The circumstances of Greg’s joining of the band also seem appropriately haphazard.
“I was in a proper heavy rock band and then that all came to an end,” he explains. “I wasn’t really looking for anything at the time, and musically this is so different to anything I had done before… I’m not a tapping-along jazz drummer type.
“I’m a fan of John Bonham [of Led Zeppelin fame], and drummers like that who play a big groove behind the beat. Basically I’m just doing that, but less loudly – using brushes on a tiny sensible kit… Although I’m bringing in sticks, and I have got a much bigger kit!”
“Sometimes we have to give him a look when he goes too ‘Animal’,” says Laura, namechecking the bonkers-prone Muppets drummer.
The three Scratchy Beard members, it must be said, are a tremendously talented bunch, and could safely rely on their day jobs keeping them fully occupied on top of their band duties.
Mastermind Spesh is a graduate of the Royal College of Music, and a multi-instrumentalist, composer and sound artist. For the last decade he’s worked on creating music and sounds for film and TV, as well as working with arts organisations, including the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and British Museum. He’s also a session musician and been in a number of other bands, but, he adds with frustration, “always playing other people’s music”. With Scratchy Beard he’s addressing that with aplomb.
Many locally will know Greg (“Everyone knows Greg,” chant his bandmates with mock eyeball rolls). With his writer brother Myles he’s one half of the McLeod Brothers and a celebrated illustrator, working for the likes of Aardman, BBC, Disney, Dreamworks, the RSC as well as creating a BAFTA-winning short film.
Laura is no slouch in the arty talent department either, she too is a classically trained musician and also went to drama school. As an actor she has appeared in such films as The Duchess and Holmes and Watson, as well as numerous commercials.
The band have earned their gigging credentials playing a host of local venues and festivals since their inception two years ago. They’ve now been inspired by positive audience reaction to ‘lay down some tracks’ and record their first album.
Laura explains: “People like to dance to our music, it’s infectious. We’re the kind of band where people will come up to us after a gig and say ‘I love that, I’ve never heard anything like that’ – and want to buy our music.”
The album is called Volume One: Folk With Swing, and was recorded at the Dream Factory, Warwick, as the theatre space could accommodate guest musicians on big instruments – such as the double bass – and allowed for that live band sound.
Spesh explains the debut will take listeners on a musical voyage. “It does a trans-European journey. It starts in France – that kind of Django Reinhardt gypsy player sound; then it gets a little bit jazzier – some nice afternoon easy swing numbers; from there it gets a little bit more Eastern European, and as it goes towards the Balkans it gets more danceable with that oompah backbeat; heading north again it becomes more Bavarian; before crossing the Channel with a number called The Tempest – which is based on a recording I did for one of the RSC a few years ago – and finally goes more folky back on British shores.”
The album comes with a small beautifully illustrated booklet, created by Greg, with plentiful sleevenotes like in the old days – which you can ruminate on as one’s ears enjoy the delightful union of European sounds.
For the launch gig at The Other Place, the band are being joined by more local musician pals, including: Mathew Forbes, Samantha Norman and Emma Capp on an array of stringed instruments, which promises to add to the barnstorming qualities of the evening.
Before our breakfast meeting ends, I ask the band a fantasy question: if they could play any venue with any artist, past or present, what would be their dream gig?
Greg has clearly given the matter some thought previously, as he is straight out of the traps with: “The Oh Sees, the San Francisco garage rock band, at CBGB in 1979 or the Whiskey, 1968.”
Laura and Spesh both agree on their choice: “Scratchy Beard playing the Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on BBC2 on New Year’s Eve.”
There is a pause, then Laura adds: “I have pop inclinations, so Lady Gaga could join us.”
After a think, Spesh says: “It would be great to play with Stevie Wonder, but I’d be too nervous…”
Greg again: “Oh if we’re going soul, I’m going with Otis Redding at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967…”
And so we leave Scratchy Beard chatting heroes, historic gigs and legendary venues.
When and where: Scratchy Beard launch their debut album, Volume One: Folk With Swing, with a concert at the RSC’s The Other Place on Thursday, 6th February at 8pm. Entry is free. Find out more about the band at www.scratchybeard.com