Interview with George Stevens

George StevensFolkWords talks to multi-instrumentalist, composer and instrument maker George Stevens about his music, making Renaissance instruments and his debut album‘A Toad in the Hand’

FW: What prompted the choice of instruments you play on ‘A Toad in the Hand’?

GS: “A couple of tunes on the album go back 20 years or so when I was at college on an instrument making course. One of my colleagues in another workshop was selling a bouzouki and I bought it with the intention of accompanying Irish music. He had it tuned ADAD as an open chord and I kept it like that. It makes you play in a certain way and enables me to play partial chords and melodies. That is not so easy on a long scale instrument tuned in fifths because the stretches are too long to play fast melodies when you have to keep getting up to the fifth or seventh fret. So I left well alone.”

“The bagpipes I’ve only been playing for five or so years in earnest. The first track I recorded was ‘Gallows Birds’, which appears on the album, using two sets of bagpipes the Hummelchen and Border Pipes. I used the Hummelchen to get a contrasting drone sound. The melody is played on Border Pipes with the Hummelchen Pipes used to get a fifth across the drone - the Border Pipes are mainly a G drone with the Hummelchen in D. Although in practice it’s not quite as simple as that because I’ve got a three-part chord going on with the Border Pipes with two Gs and a D in the middle, strengthened up with a D coming from the Hummelchen.”

FW: What was the impetus that pulled this group of tunes together?

GS: “I’ve always played music for other people over the years and started thinking that I wanted to record some of my own music. The problem is I never write down my own tunes. I’m not very good at notating tunes so if I don’t record them they tend to get forgotten. I began to realise that I had a lot of my own tunes and wanted to record them. That was what kick-started the album. Also, at the time I wasn’t doing anything musically and it depresses me if I’m away from music for a long time, so I decided to start a solo album.”

FW: Was there an overall plan for the album or is it just a collection of favourite tunes?

GS: “Not really, the tune selection almost fell together, but when I had a final selection of tracks I spent a lot of time thinking about how theya toad in the hand would fit together on the album. There’s a relationship or progression of one to the other and a conscious decision about the order the tunes appear.”

FW: Perhaps that’s where the ‘Tubular Bells’ feeling comes from as each track moves into the next.

GS: “The ‘Tubular Bells’ remark is a flattering observation but it’s not one I had in my head, on the other hand it’s good to hear you say that. I wanted to achieve a continuity of music across the album to give it a flow. I hope other people feel there is logical flow to it.”

FW: You commented earlier that you ‘always played music for other people’ can you expand on that?

GS: “I have played in a lot of bands over the years and across a wide range of styles.  I was in my first band at the age of 15. It’s taken me this long to concentrate on my own material. Perhaps it’s taken me this long maybe to become good enough to do it, or perhaps I needed time to work in all the influences I wanted to combine. Most of my musical life I’ve played drums for other people. The album is just something I had to do, and now the time is right.”

FW: How did you find the other musicians on the album?

GS: “Not easy. I’ve frequently struggled to find people in the same head-space as me musically. I have ideas on how I want a tune to sound and it’s sometimes hard to express them, so finding the right people to help with the album took time.”

FW: So how did you find people in that same head-space?

GS: “I’d heard Jennifer Bennet playing violin and thought she was extremely good. I didn’t know her previously but asked her if she fancied coming in and helping me with the tune. In the end she wrote the violin part and that’s why I credited her as co-writer. On the track ‘Flint and Steel’ I play the chords, which come across as more of an accompaniment, and Jennifer put the melody over the top. The resulting tune turned out exactly as I had in my mind, so that was pretty special. It’s the same with Mick Mepham on ‘Age of Empires’. I play all the rhythm parts, the bouzouki, bass and drums, while Mick wrote and played the guitar solo. That solo and his contribution are so much part of the tune I wanted him to have co-writer status.”

FW: Do you find influences in traditional music?

GS: “I have so many different influences. A lot of the album is influenced by European folk music and these days I’m very much into that. I don’t so much play traditional tunes as listen to traditional tunes and use them to give me ideas to write my own music. It’s the same with traditional instruments. ‘Sasha’s Wedding’ is a great example because that tune is directly influenced by playing bagpipes. I would not have come to that tune on any other instrument. It’s simply a product of the notes that Border Pipes offer. It’s also a case of ‘muscle-memory’ – remembering little shapes and patterns – I don’t think about the notes I’m playing I figure out shapes and patterns all based on rhythm.”

“I feel it’s innovative and refreshing to develop a different take on a tradition. Surely that’s what folk music is all about. It has survived by people listening to music and reproducing what they thought a particular tune sounded like and doing it all by ear. That’s how tradition continues and evolves.”

FW: Does it matter if a tune changes in that way?

GS: “Not at all – it’s a bit like Chinese whispers. That’s one of folk’s enduring qualities – being able to do what you want to do and interpret what you hear. That’s why I play minor tunes. I like how they sound and want to play them.”

FW: Your website concentrates on your instrument making rather than playing music.

GS: “Yes. The instrument making came out of the fact that I never thought I’d be able to make much of a living out of playing music. But the website is scheduled for a revamp soon.”

FW: Is there a difference between ‘George the instrument maker’ and ‘George the composer’?

luthier GS: “I’ve always worked with my hands and wanted to expand my knowledge and skills on something that involved music, so I found an instrument making course. I also thought that studying early instruments of the Renaissance would be interesting. Originally, I was trying to find out how to make drums but I couldn’t find anywhere that offered a suitable course. Back in the 80s when there was no Internet it was harder to find things, now it’s easy.”

“The course I took involved some practical music but it was mainly research and making things at a workbench. The course was a BSc rather than a BMus so the concentration was strongly on the science of making instruments rather than making music. However, as a musician everything you do and every experience you have can influence the music you make.”

“I tend not to play the instruments I make. I can play them up to a point but I’d rather hear them played by the really good musicians that buy them from me. I feel there’s a distinction between the instruments I make and the ones I play. The two functions are separate fields. It takes many years to get good at making something, the same as it does to become good at playing something – there’s not enough hours to do both.”

FW: Tell us a about the powerful track ‘Shadows and Dust’.

GS: “As it says on the album, the tune is inspired by the character Proximo and the ‘shadows and dust’ speech he makes towards the end of the film Gladiator. I thought the speech was profound, full of longing for understanding. I also thought what a great name for a tune. In the end the tune arrived with a certain amount of longing wrapped into it. As I said earlier, if you play bagpipes, certain tunes just fall out of the instrument and that one did. Incidentally, it was one of the first tunes I came up with on the pipes.”

FW: The tune ‘Polesworth Abbey’ has a touch of French-folk about it.

GS: “That tune is much-influenced by French dance. It’s a three-time tune that you can dance to. It’s kind of a mazurka with a syncopated section and two different counter melodies going on over the tune. I wrote it a while ago for the Bagpipe Society Annual Meeting at Polesworth Abbey in the Midlands. The nature of that French music just gets to you. It doesn’t follow the patterns you expect and constantly intrigues.”

FW: Do you see another album in the near future or will we have to wait another twenty years?

GS: “Hopefully, not that long. The next one should arrive much quicker. With this album it was a steep learning curve and once I started I realised how difficult it was going to be. Initially, I was toying with the idea of recording an album of pipe tunes that I had composed but I thought it would be pretty boring and have limited appeal. So I decided to have fully orchestrated tunes with lots going on. That took more effort to achieve exactly what I wanted. You can keep tinkering with something forever, constantly making changes along the way but eventually you have to decide to finish. I’m pleased with the final product and the way it turned out and that’s pretty much all you can hope for.”

FW: And what’s next on the horizon?

GS: “My next immediate step is working with Mike Mepham and fiddle player Christine Adams, under the name Steven’s Racket, to translate some of the album into a live set. That way we can take those tunes to a wider audience. After that who knows – when I find out I’ll let you know. So if there are any venues out there that would like Steven’s Racket to play for them then get in touch with us at:

FW: Thank you George - we look forward to a Steven's Racket gig.


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