Interview with Harp and a Monkey
FolkWords recently caught up with Martin Purdy (that's him in the middle of the line up), singer of songs and player of glockenspiel, accordion, harmonica and keyboards and one third of electro-folk storytellers Harp and a Monkey, so we asked about the band, their music and their album ‘All Life is Here’.
FW: We have to ask, how did the band name come about?
MP: It’s one of those unusual situations, Simon, Andy and I have known each other for more years than I care to remember. During that time we’ve been involved in all sorts of projects, both together and apart from each other. And when we got together on this project we looked for a name, the digital age being what it is, you come up with what you think is an original name only to discover there’s a band in Scandinavia or South Africa with the same name. So the first objective was to go for something that we knew no one else could possibly have and I think we’ve achieved that.
Next, because we do like a good traditional local pub we had the feeling that the name smacked of a cosy place nestled away somewhere in a corner of the West Pennines where you might go and hear good music, find a good pint and enjoy a tipple or two. And finally, well we do have a harp, which Simon plays, and Andy has this saying: “Everything in life goes better with a monkey.” So that was that.
FW: How did you develop your style of music?
MP: Like lots of good things it happened by accident. I’m a classically trained pianist and Andy is a long-time bass guitarist - now you’ll notice that there’s no piano or bass guitar on our albums. That’s because when you’ve been immersed in an instrument you almost become ‘too good’ or maybe that should be ‘too predictable’. You start to play automatically - ‘we’re playing this chord so we’ll automatically go to that chord, we’re playing a middle eight so that next step is this’ - which is all very well if that’s what you want to do. We didn’t. We were bored with that. We felt we’d become almost too proficient. Too slick if you will.
So we decided to go out and each buy an instrument that we’d never played before and use them as the basis for the sound. We also knew that we wanted to avoid high-maintenance kit in terms of live performances, and limit the amount of gear we were lugging around. We didn’t want a drummer so we decided to use electronica, which we were familiar with anyway. So we replaced live drums with electronic percussion and ‘glitch stuff’ and started messing around with instruments we’d never played before. Andy gave up his bass and picked up a banjo, Simon got hold of a harp and viola, I decided on an accordion and various other bits and we just started jamming.
FW: So Harp and a Monkey grew out of an unfamiliar instrument mix and the resulting jam?
MP: Yes, pretty much. The instrument set up changed what we were doing, in a good way. It simplified our approach and Harp and a Monkey came out of that. We knew wanted to work within the tradition, if not musically then in narrative terms, to tell folk stories. That remains central to the band. The melodies may not be purely traditional but they’re played on traditional instruments. If pressed, I suppose I would describe it as ‘quite clever simplicity’.
When you can’t play an instrument very well, melody is usually your natural default position. And in learning to master our new instruments that was a good route. For us melody is essential. We always search for strong melodies or a strong rhythm. What you then have to do is find ways of weaving those together so you’re not clashing. We’ve developed a ‘liquid’ way of playing that works for us. One of us comes up with an idea and immediately the others start finding counter rhythms or melodies that just work. It’s very rare that you find us all playing the same thing. We’re always weaving in and around each other. To do that requires a lot of practice it also demands mutual understanding.
FW: Do you consciously decide on a strong song continuity across your albums?
MP: I hear many albums that appear to be a collection of unrelated tunes brought together without any relationship to each other. Personally, I find that rather hard to absorb. I’m not from the iTunes generation where people will happily listen to a heavy metal track followed by pop, followed by jazz or whatever, which is fine for them. And, of course, it’s great that people are open to all sorts of music. However, I don’t like to listen to music in that way. I want to sit down and listen to something as a whole, when I’ve enjoyed that experience I might move on and listen to something different, but I can’t do that in a three-minute sound bites, and I don’t want to. Music is more important to me than that.
Music for all three of us is about a mood, we strive to achieve a mood in our albums. The songs work as an integrated collection to create a single mood-piece. On the other hand, I’d hope that if you hear one of our songs on it’s on own on the radio it will work as a stand-alone item but I feel that moods are not transient, short-term feelings – ‘three minutes I’m depressed, three minutes I’m happy’ - moods don’t work like that. I want to feel a mood and inhabit it for that time.
FW: Where do you find the subjects for your narratives?
MP: I’m a historian and an enthusiast of cultural things, so I always have an eye for interesting little historical quirks and facts in stories. I’m also a big hill walker. I see things and they strike a chord and wonder what the natural conclusion would be. The other day I was crossing from Salford to Manchester on a bridge over the canal I saw a plaque that told the story of launching a boat on the Manchester Ship Canal, which broke from its moorings throwing the mayor and other dignitaries into the water. This chap, no one knows who he was, took off his clothes and dived in. He saved a number of people, but someone stole his clothes and he died of hypothermia. Nobody knew who he was. Little things like that touch you or stir emotions.
FW: So your songs are primarily historical?
MP: There are many historical songs but more importantly they have to resonate. I don’t want to tell historical stories just for the sake of it. There has to be a personal element. There has to be a connection for me. It’s the same if we write about an episode from history like ‘Gallipoli Oak’ or our own experiences such as ‘Tupperware and Tinfoil’. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a story about going to the seaside or war, the one thing that overrides the timescale is the human element and that’s what I strive for.
FW: Is that why some of your songs include a voice recording?
MP: That’s definitely deliberate. As a historian, I’m always interested in personal stories. When you watch television you often hear historians talking about subjects that are clearly long before their point of birth, which is fine but sometimes it’s nice to have someone contemporaneous add something. It’s a relevance that means so much. It’s good to have history underpinning things and let your imagination run wild, but it’s also good to root a subject in the moment, especially if you can do that with someone who was there.
FW: Some of those voices have a truly haunting quality.
MP: The journey over the Pyrenees described in ‘Walking in the Footsteps of Giants’ was desperately hard. These men from Lancashire and other places, walked across the mountains in the pitch bloody black and to listen to someone that made that journey makes you think what it must have been like. The spoken narrative evokes something extra in the songs. In my opinion, there’s much to be gained from not losing those first-hand views.
FW: Does that infer a reverence for those people?
MP: Reverence may be too strong, affinity is more accurate. The future is definitely built on the past and it colours our views. It’s interesting that with the coming centenary of the First World War there’s going to be a lot of looking back. The experiences of our forebears have a bearing on the people that we are. Your forebears and mine fashion us in many ways. They have shaped the world we live in not simply for great world events but individually, culturally, emotionally and socially. We shouldn’t see people from the past as only sepia tinted prints – they were real people with real feelings and those still impact us today.
FW: Do you ever reach a point where you ask am I doing this narrative justice?
MP: I don’t usually start writing a song if I haven’t already been involved in research around the subject. ‘Walking in the Footsteps of Giants’ is the culmination of different ideas and it’s a good way to show how a song forms. I’ve done the Kinder Trespass Walk so it’s a story I know, when the British Workers’ Sport Federation decided they would make a public mass trespass on Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District and many were eventually arrested. Then when I was researching the Spanish Civil War about people from the Lancashire area that had volunteered, I found the link to the Kinder Trespass and put the two themes together. They could have been two separate songs but the link forged one song that I believe does justice to both narratives.
FW: Ultimately when you strip back the stories the human elements engage.
MP: Precisely, the narratives remain. As a band that does ‘mess’ with the folk-template a bit it’s good to hear you say that. We want to remain true to our understanding of folk music. We realised from the outset that there would be certain aspects of our music that people might find strange. Even from the early days when we first began playing around with instruments and electronica we wanted to be true to what the music meant to us. It’s always about narratives.
I hate it when people become precious about their view of folk just because Cecil Sharp logged this version of a particular song, on this day, in this particular community. He could have gone back two weeks later, four miles down the road and met someone else who would have given him a different version of the same song with different words. You find that all the time in Lancashire, and I’m sure elsewhere, depending on which part of a place you visit. You’ll get a different lyric or narrative to the same tune even though it might have the same chorus or general theme. The troubadour tradition was telling stories long before modern communication and everybody had their own versions of songs.
In my view, it’s not what instruments or electronics you use, it’s to do with telling stories. And it’s important to understand that stories evolve. There’s an enduring folk-process of evolving stories. I find it odd when people are outraged that you’ve altered a lyric or two or added a chorus. Why not? As long as the original versions remain, folk music has to evolve. It’s a creative art. It would be totally ridiculous for folk to become nothing more than a re-enactment society.
FW: Do the album covers deliberately reflect the band’s unique musical approach?
MP: We’re lucky that Simon is a talented artist and designs the covers. The first album set the precedent, we wanted a particular picture which we couldn’t get but we chose another by the same artist. We came across it and thought that works. We don’t want pictures of us nor anything that’s immediately recognisable. The covers are more obscure. They are intriguing. We want to make people think. We want images that are magical or maybe disturbing.
FW: Talking of disturbing, this album seems less dark than its predecessor.
MP: The first album was rather darker I suppose. Perhaps it has more disturbing narratives. This one takes a different journey although some of the narratives still tell tough tales. I suppose with ‘All Life is Here’ we’re coming from a somewhat different place. All that matters is that people like it. As long as they like what they hear we’ll be happy.
FW: ‘All Life is Here’ seems tighter, yet equally engaging and rewarding.
MP: Perhaps that shows how we’ve developed as a band. The first album was more experimentation. We we’re trying to find our sound, with ‘All Life is Here’ we’re more certain of what Harp and a Monkey sounds like. We’ve played together more since the first album so this one is more of the product of a working band. It’s interesting that you said that it sounds tighter, we’ll have to be careful – perhaps we should go out to buy more instruments we don’t know how to play - seriously though, it’s good to hear that you think we’ve taken a positive step with this album.
FW: Lancashire seeps through every pore of your music, is that deliberate?
MP: It’s where we come from. It’s our heritage. It’s our everyday lives. Take the last song on the album - ‘The Pilgrim’s Cross’ - I go hill walking and there in the middle of nowhere on the West Pennine moors is the Pilgrim’s Cross and that inspires me. I’m proud of where I come from and if that means I write about it then that’s no surprise. I do enjoy going to folk clubs and listening to songs from a specific region or area that I haven’t heard before rather than another Celtic folk song.
We were slightly dismayed, mentioning no names, when a publication labelled us ‘Northern Separatists’. We would hate to be seen like that. We want to be seen as inclusive. We want our stories to transcend Lancashire and reach out with tales that people want to hear. Then again, why not sing about what you know? People may sing about Tyneside or Perthshire or wherever, it matters not one jot, as long as you sing about topics that mean something to people.
FW: So what’s the next step for the band?
MP: I think with a first album people don’t know who you are. Do they take you seriously or not? Will they like what you play? They have to find out about you. I think that because we were doing something different it was quite hard to show people the accessibility of what we do. However, I’m pleased to say that we’re already getting a sense that people are embracing this album. The next physical step is we want to take our sound beyond Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Merseyside and Lancashire where people are aware of us. We need a wider exposure and that’s a plan for the future if you will.
We want a chance to increase the numbers of people that hear us through the media and follow that up with opportunities to perform live. However, it can be bit of a Catch 22 situation because a lot of promoters are reluctant to consider you without a tangible profile. Although, the support that’s coming for this album may help open some of those doors.
FW: Do you find it difficult to ‘open doors’?
MP: It’s a problem because we are coming from slightly left-field. When people say you’re ‘original’ and ‘different’ it’s wonderful, that’s what every musician would love to be, but that’s a double-edged sword. Promoters, magazines and radio stations work in niches. If you don’t fit into their ‘box’ it can be hard to get them to listen. When they first hear about the ‘electronic’ element they sometimes can’t see beyond that. That’s why we want to get more exposure and let more people listen to our sound. It’s a proud point for us that whenever we’ve played a venue we’ve always been asked back to play a repeat gig, and that will do for me.
FW: Martin, thank you for your time and your comments.
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