Interview with Folk Police

FolkWords talks to Nigel Spencer, founder of Manchester-based folk label Folk Police Recordings (FPR)

folk police headerFW: What is the drive behind starting FPR? NS: There’s a certain amount of lunacy involved but this is something I’ve been planning for years. I’ve long been a fan of folk rock but I’m constantly disappointed by how crap most of it is. I loved the old Pentangle and Mr Fox albums – that sound is more interesting than the folk rock of traditional folk songs with plodding bass and drums crafted on. I wanted to include broad influences and wider tastes. That’s one of the drivers behind the Woodbine and Ivy Band, which is why we originally started the label, to release their album. And having set up the infrastructure I decided to release other recordings.

FW: So you founded FPR on what you don’t like as much as what you do? NS: Yes that’s true, I was constantly frustrated listening to folk music that left me cold and wanted to bring those few good albums to peoples’ attention. Folk rock has followed traditional folk in many ways in that much of it has become formulaic and everyone follows everyone else. Many of those bands make fine music but to my mind it’s stadium folk that doesn’t work for me.

FW: Choosing the name ‘Folk Police’ will make some people think that you’re having a wry, possibly half-hearted ‘go’ at a label. NS: Probably, but I wanted a name that people will remember and to some extent it fits in with my approach. It’s folk without a straight-jacket. And make no mistake, FPR may be a new label but there’s nothing half-hearted about it.

FW: Does FPR look ‘outside’ folk for folk artists? NS: I’ve always been interested in bands that come from outside the folk tradition. They know their traditional music but are 21st century folk artists. They assimilate their new-found love of folk with other influences. There are lots of young folkies that grew up with folk parents and went to all the clubs and festivals, they are often superb musicians but many have a limited palette. Folk lovers will doubtless recognise some of our artists but there will also be unfamiliar names too. There’s a place for archives and libraries, and a place for preserving styles and approaches, equally there’s a place for new and different.

FW: How would you summarise FPR’s approach? NS: I’m not interested in Folk-Mafia or Folk Gate Keeping – I’m interested in good musicians playing music, using their imagination, thinking outside the box and daring to do something different. FPR is more ‘Radio 6 meets Radio 3 Late Junction’ than anything else. We aim to release about six albums in the first year.

FW: Would you say that FPR only features fringe folk? NS: Not really. I would point people in the direction of the ‘Oak, Ash and Thorn’ album that we’re bringing out. It’s a tribute to Peter Bellamy; we have fringe artists on there but we also have Jackie Oates, John Bowden and the Unthanks. These are bigger names but carefully chosen – they are names that are doing something interesting and prepared to step outside any self-imposed limitations on what folk should be. I think may traditional artists like stepping outside of that and get involved with modern folk. I’m not bothered about where someone comes from it’s what they’re doing with what they’ve got.

FW: Do you think that folk has too many rules? NS: That’s one of the things I liked about new folk – there didn’t seem to be any rules. People were referencing all sorts of things like the Wicker Man soundtrack and the Incredible String Band; they threw away the rule book. There was the potential to shake things up. Then that too fell into a formula and too many bands started following each other. I think bands like Espers still have an excellent way of referencing that material and it’s a shame that Sharron Kraus isn’t better known because she would knock the socks off many such bands.

FW: Do you think that certain traditionalists still frown on new folk? NS: Yes I do. Perhaps it’s because they don’t like the language or the sounds, possibly they feel threatened by it, often they express annoyance with it. Whatever the reason there are some definite barriers, especially if someone isn’t performing in the officially sanctioned way. I’d rather just have good music whether the people producing it are ‘authorised’ died in the wool folkies or some young upstart that’s been inspired by listening to an old Martin Carthy album.

FW: Do you think some established clubs and organisers make it hard for young folk to develop? NS: I think that does happen. Often something that’s outside of the established tried and tested sound is ignored. Many parts of the folk scene tend to go with what works because it’s easy. That leaves a lot of other potentially excellent artists that could interest audiences ‘out in the cold’. I think some clubs can be proscriptive in what they ‘allow’ and that’s a shame.

FW: Does the rise of music sites on the Internet help or hinder? NS: I have a problem with some of the music sites in that some are not fit for purpose, but I like the idea that someone can sit in their bedroom and put out music. You end up with lots of rubbish and they may only have an audience of three but at least they’re creating music.

FW: Can you expand on your ‘North Western Series’ project? NS: For a start it’s about folk music that’s close to home. I’ve always been interested in good local music that just wasn’t getting ‘out there’. It will be a series of short-run CDs featuring traditional and alt-folk artists mostly from North West England. We’ll see how it goes.

FW: Do any labels put marketing over content? NS: I think there’s possibly some truth in that. There seems to be an increase in airbrushed pictures of young folk artists on a number of albums. Possibly that’s a commercial decision. How someone looks has no influence on whether I’ll release a record by them. I suppose if someone looks good on the packaging that might catch the eye but I will always go for content over image.

FW: How do you want FPR to influence folk? NS: There has to be good quality music with roots in tradition but not hamstrung or bound by it. I've never liked my music bland or mainstream or striving for the ‘easy listening lowest common denominator’, whether it’s rock, indie, jazz or any other genre. I don't see why I should accept anything different for folk music. There are plenty of labels out there pandering to the Radio Two demographic and I've no desire for FPR to be yet another addition to that already crowded marketplace. There needs to be tradition but there also needs to be a place for folk singers with an iconoclastic, almost punk rock attitude, who aren't afraid to take risks and push things forward. I also have a sneaking suspicion that if a record was released today that sounded like Shirley Collins' ‘Anthems in Eden’ or Ray Fisher's ‘The Bonny Birdie’ or Mike and Lal Waterson's ‘Bright Phoebus’ it would be considered far too edgy and leftfield for mainstream 21st century folk sensibilities! But these are just the sort of records that are a major inspiration for FPR, and if we are lucky enough to create a body of work that even comes close to those sorts of milestone albums, we'll have done our job.


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