Interview with Damien Barber
Talking to Damien Barber - The Demon Barbers
FW: How do you define folk today? DB: Why does the old man singing folk in a local club get laughed at? Because folk always moves on and some performers just haven't. Anyway, I don’t think they care whether anyone likes what they do or not. I think that singing weird old songs in dingy bars was cool at one time but many of those people didn’t change and carried on doing it forever. They became parodies of themselves, they became old. Some sat in upstairs rooms where no one could see what they were doing, which was fine, but the problem is that what we expect from folk music is something different. Folk today is changing and evolving.
FW: How would you describe your work? DB: Traditional folk played on a mixture of acoustic and amplified instruments. Not folk rock. Most folk-rock bands don’t do traditional music or songs, they just do punchy tunes not really traditional songs. Folk-rock has become a specific genre. The Demon Barbers are more electric folk – different to folk-rock - it’s a specific folk sound with folk rhythms. When you hear folk rock you know it’s folk rock. When you hear us you know we're not.
FW: What came first the lyrics or the tune? DB: With our album 'Uncut' it was the lyrics first. I think that’s an obvious way to do it. Rather than play a tune and try to adapt a lyric. The lyric comes first, then the accompaniment is built around it. I find a song and learn the words, and sometimes the accompaniment. Of course there's always a lot of that changes when the band started adding their ideas. Working together on the 'fit' between the words and the tune works well. We help each other out. We’ll jam for 30 mins and work out our own little bits, listen to it and change it. However, If a song doesn’t work after a while we’ll ditch it and move on.
FW: Where do you find your lyrics? DB: I usually find lyrics in poetry books or sometimes listening to songs. I have spent ages wandering through Walter Pardon looking for ideas. Maybe some of what I do these days is less darker, less minor in the keys. For example The Creel is the 'funnest' thing we do. I don’t know what it’s all about to be honest. I sometimes wonder if it’s a piss take, poachers go looking for deer, fall in hole, and wake up saved by the king of the faries. You work it out.
FW Where do the influences come from? DB: Mostly traditional sources. The influences are wherever the song comes from, plus our ingrained influences as people, whatever we’ve done and where we’ve been. Other band members have influences from wherever. 'Waxed' was supposed to be more danceable stuff, that was the influence there - although some of the songs don’t instantly want to make you get up and dance. When we did 'Waxed' it was such a step forward from 'Uncut'.
FW: How did the Demon Barbers Road Show begin? DB: How did the roadshow came about? Well, first there was Damien Barber and friends, then I got involved with the dance world. This added a new bunch of friends, and we formed the Black Swan Rapper and Dog Rose Morris. When we began to perform the sets went down well and as soon as anyone says 'I like that' then we decide to do it.
FW: What do you perform? DB: I have to do it. I am a compulsive performer.
FW: Some people state that pop music is the folk music of the future. Do you agree? DB: Defining the folk music of tomorrow from the pop music of today – that's interesting. I listen to the radio and there’s folk music on it – they don’t call it folk music but it is. Pop got hung up with fashionista thing and the age of celebrity but in certain circles that's changing. I used to hate pop music on radio but some new pop music has lyrics that are worth listening to. Increasingly, the so called 'pop music industry' has had to allow decent bands in. People never wanted musical pap it was just what they were given. There are a lot of folk music influences in today’s pop music.
FW: Is folk growing in popularity? DB: My folk world is getting smaller and smaller - but the tradition is evolving. Although folk music isn’t stuck in folk clubs, the 'museum curator' types who revived folk don't do it so much anymore. It has a life of it’s own. It doesn’t need reviving it’s here already. Folk won’t die now; at one point it could have died, but not now.
FW: Is there an English folk accent? DB: Perhaps once there was, now I'm not so sure. That’s where Artic Monkeys and bands like that have their own weird little accents. Now regional accents are cool – received accents have gone out the window.
FW: Where you think the development of folk music will come from? DB: Almost anywhere that's the beauty of developing folk music. I think new bands will come in from outside the folk scene. I first noticed it in that BBC 4 series about Folk Britannia. Also the rise of clubs where young people are going to sing songs to each other - acoustic possibly, but not nescessarily folk clubs, although they could be called clubs for folk music.
FW: Do you subscribe to the view that folk music is the music of common people? DB: If you're rich and powerful with wealth and position you don’t Morris dance, you don't sing or play 'common music' - much the same thing applies if you're poor. Look at folk festivals - today most of the 'festival goers' are all middle class and upwards. There’s few true working class people in the folk scene – in fact there never has been, that is more of a myth, it’s all middle class. Go back 300 years or so, ballads were written by gentry, then there were pub songs, sailors songs and military songs; not many working class songs. Will a new breed of folk songs come out of the Falklands, or the Gulf War? Possibly.
FW: Are many folk artisits reviving old ballads? DB: Fairport Convention and Steeleye have done their share of reviving ballads and so have a few other interesting singers and bands. Ballads that haven’t been sung for centuries do make an appearance although often they are so modified as to bear little relationship to the original. Not many people want to listen to some old codger on the stage on his own singing a 30 verse balled. Now folk bands - folk rock or electric folk - come out and do it and it’s great.
FW: When you’re at folk clubs and people walk out does it get to you? DB: Often when you play in a club you know the majority of people aren’t listening to you. Sometimes you think why am I doing this? Then you know why because you love the songs and love doing it. You start to think maybe I should be doing something more commercial. Even so, I like the concept that if everyone likes it then I’m doing something wrong. People walking out at gigs is always a bit hard for a performer but I quite like it in a bizarre way. Whatever I want to do is fine by me if not for you. I do it because I enjoy doing it. I've been there. I’ve earned the right to do what I like with traditional music. I like people not liking what I do. I want an edge on what I do. I don’t want to do what everyone else does. Actually, when someone says: 'I think what you do is bollocks' I think that’s great. If you don’t like it, fuck off, you don’t have to sit there.
FW: Are you in love with folk music? DB: Most of the things I do have never made me much money so I suppose I must be to a degree. Perhaps it's an obession although people who are obsessive are scary. Some people look for comfort in their music – it goes in the car CD player and it’s comfortable. Other music you put in the CD player and you drive into things. The question for me is: Do you want to make music that gets on Radio 2 and you sell thousands of albums or do you make music that makes people think 'what the fucks that?' - that’s a decision you have to make. We were scared to do John Riley at first. Then you take a risk. Then you worry what the audience is going to think. Then you go a bit further, take another step and the one that was a risk seems a bit lame in comparison. Every time you take a chance with music you’re always worried that people are going to like it. Sometimes I get bored doing the same stuff, so the risk is appealing - I love getting new sets together.
© FolkWords - 2011