Interview with Greg Ireland (Green Diesel)
Following on from reviewing ‘Now Is the Time’ from Kentish folk rockers Green Diesel, we thought it worth spending some time talking to them about their take on British folk rock. In between rehearsals for Broadstairs Folk Week we caught up with Greg Ireland composer, guitar, mandolin and bouzouki player with Green Diesel.
FW: Let's start with a 'must ask' question, the similarity – although tenuous – between the cover art of ‘Now Is The Time’ and Angel Delight, an homage or accidental?
GI: It wasn’t a deliberate decision but as Angel Delight is one of my favourite albums perhaps it was lurking somewhere in the back of my mind and seeing the statue triggered off a memory. The photograph was taken in our accordion player’s garden. There were all these great statues there and when we saw them we thought one would look good on the album cover.
FW: How did Green Diesel come about as a band?
GI: Some of us had played together in various bands for years one way and another and as we did so various people were drawn into the circle. We experienced a fluctuating line up for a while, which then solidified into the six of us that recorded the bulk of the album. There has always been a musical connection between the various people in the band.
It all came together in a roundabout way rather than as the result of a conscious decision to form a band. It just came about as we played music together and messed around with song ideas. Three of us have played together for years – myself, Colin my brother on drums and Ben on the bass. We used to play in a blues band with another friend when we were at school, then other friends slowly moved into that group.
I had steadily developed an interest in late 60s and early 70s folk rock, and wanted to involve a violin. Colin knew Ellen played violin and then Matt got involved on electric guitar. From there on it just seemed to work.
FW: Do you ever come up against any immediate categorisation with the word folk?
GI: Like many people, I believe that folk has always had a fairly wide definition but we find the ‘folk’ word does cause confusion. We get everything from expectations of ‘finger in the ear’ renditions of Sir Patrick Spens to expecting us to turn up with a glockenspiel and ukulele knocking out crystal-cut harmonies and pretty-pretty songs. People still get confused and ask why do you add an electric guitar to ‘folk’ music? Some consider it an act of heresy to take traditional music and play it in a folk rock style and others get confused that we’re not the second coming of Mumford and Sons.
FW: Whatever instruments you include surely the question should be: “Why not?”
GI: Absolutely. The same applies to your musical background and influences. Personally, I wasn’t brought up in a folk background and only found folk music in my late teens. All the band members bring their various influences to the whole. And although we predominately work in the folk genre everything we do is coloured by different styles of music.
None of us want to become hidebound by the conventions and any perceived restrictions of a style. Subconsciously, you might hear the stimulus of our particular influences from jazz through heavy metal and prog-rock to dance music but they combine to create the entire sound. We don’t sit down to write a rock or jazz-style song it just happens in the mix of who we are and the music we’ve played.
FW: For my money that eclecticism is one factor that gives that fresh edge to your music.
GI: All the little influences impact on what we do. If we have a different take or an ‘edge’ then it’s that mix of musical heritage and experience that naturally happens when we work. For instance, between us there’s a lot of interest in funk and soul music and that comes across particularly in the way the rhythm section works. We tend to like something with a touch of swing to it rather than a more staid rhythm. As musicians it’s good to embrace a broad spectrum of interest and wrong to close off any avenues just because they don’t ‘fit’ with a specific genre. Within every musician there’s always those little differences of experience.
FW: Was there any specific early folk rock influence on you – Fairport or Steeleye for example?
GI: The good point we have is the spectrum of influence. I started by listening to Fairport Convention, and then from there The Albion Band, Mr Fox and Trees. I’m probably the only one with that background. Ellen our violin player and lead singer was brought up in the folk world (her father’s a concertina player in a ceilidh band). Some of the other guys are not especially folk fans, they came into it through what we were trying to do with the band and the style we were trying to create.
FW: Your drummer and bass player clearly take lead roles and feed off the rhythm structure.
GI: Colin, my brother is the drummer and particularly likes roots music and you can hear a lot of that influence in his style. And Ben on the bass cites one of his big influences as John Entwistle, well known for taking the bass into lead areas. With myself on the rhythm guitar and Matt on the accordion, we lay down a solid framework that gives the bass and drums more space to play around and experiment. Having played together for so long a symbiosis evolved as we went along, it was not a conscious decision but it works.
FW: Is there a story behind the two tiny 'piano interlude' snippets?
GI: They just seemed to fit. And they break up the album. Originally, the idea behind the second piano interlude, which is based around the fast fiddle tune that comes at the end of the instrumental, was a kind of ‘calm between the storm’.
FW: Tell us about the intriguing instrumental ‘Roy’s Presbyterian Catharsis’.
GI: We just wanted to put a different instrumental together. Ellen has always liked 3/2 hornpipes and she was very keen for us to try one. Generally, when we develop instrumentals Ellen will play some tunes to me and when something grabs my ear, we see what develops. Also, last year we were working with a local fiddle player, Fred Holden, and although he’s moved on to other things now, Fred knew this tune ‘Catharsis’ by a fiddler called Amy Cann. It took a bit of work to blend it all together but when we had the instrumental sorted we asked Fred to join us on the album – and the interaction between the two fiddles gave us exactly what we wanted. Almost from the first time we played it the tune sounded pretty much like it sounds on the album.
FW: Should folk musicians write in the tradition or write for the 21st century - and just happen to sound like the tradition?
GI: I’m a believer that there’s no clear distinction between writing in the tradition and writing for today. Take for example, the song ‘The Saga of John Ward’ off the album. That song is based around the old tale from Faversham history - a local pirate called John Ward.
The song is written from the point of view of one of his crew. It’s about thwarted ambition and the desire to be somebody rather than an ‘also-ran’. You could if you want, apply that emotion to anyone in any time. It works within the traditional setting but for me the song still holds true today. It’s about personal feelings and people. You can express that within a folk vernacular but you can take the song out of that style and it would still work.
The best songs work because they speak to people, they can be about anything – traditional, blues, spiritual or music hall - if a song reaches people it reaches people.
FW: Why did you decide to record ‘Fire and Wine’?
GI: Some time ago I was just rolling through folk playlists and compilation CDs. I actually enjoy that experience of not knowing who is playing and just listening to the song. When I heard this song - what I now know to be Steve Ashley’s version of ‘Fire and Wine’ - it seemed to me something we could work with. Although the way it turned out as played on the album it evolved considerably. Like other songs we play, something just seemed to kick in, it worked and we knew we had something. I almost wasn’t aware until we’d started working with it that we were dealing with such a seminal song. I asked Steve if we could record it and he said OK.
FW: Do you have a tune and add lyrics or find the words and fit a tune?
GI: This is a personal view rather than me speaking for the other guys in the band. Music comes to me far more naturally than words. I find myself with a stockpile of tunes and what I need to finish a song is the germ of an idea of what it’s going to be about. Once I have that, images suggest themselves to me and words follow.
There’s a song on the album called ‘Elmstone’ – that took me the best part of a year to finish. My brother helped me no end with that. Sometimes one or two-line phrases will arrive, I’ll store them away and then remember them at a later time. Being a non-driver I frequently sit on buses and trains and watch the world go by – while gazing out of the window thoughts just hop in to my head - and then a more definitive idea arrives.
For example with the ‘John Ward’ song, originally I just wanted to write about this character from history, from Faversham, where we come from. Then I thought it would be a better or perhaps different idea to write a song indirectly about him and create something original rather than some sort of spoof broadside. There’s a whole mine of great stories to use. There’s a song on the album called ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ written about one side of my family who were travelling showmen and part of the lyrics are lifted out of the census records – when an idea like that comes along you have to use it.
FW: Tell us about the guest singer on ‘Rosemary Lane’.
GI: That would be Imogen Dale, she was part of Green Diesel for a number of years but we decided to go our separate ways. Imogen is a brilliant artist and that’s where her passions lie. She also has a fantastic voice and it was a clear choice to ask her to sing this song on the album to mark the work she had done for the band.
FW: Is this album Green Diesel ‘in-the-studio’ or a fair reflection of your live sound?
GI: I believe it’s a pretty fair reflection of the band. When you hear us 'live' there should be little significant difference to the album apart from instances where Ellen is singing and playing violin on the album. In a live environment the obvious difference is some violin parts are not there because she’s singing.
For me this album is an expression of where the band is now or more precisely where it was when we recorded it. When the second album comes round it will be different because we will have moved on from where we are today. ‘Now Is the Time’ is a collection of tracks we’ve assembled from gigging and performing. The next album will probably be more of a collection of songs written for the album. If you like ‘Now Is the Time’ could be called ‘greatest hits’ – although it’s only the first album but you understand what I mean.
FW: Well that’s an excellent display of self-belief – start with your greatest hits.
GI: For me this album is a statement of where we’ve come to now. There may well be a step-change for the next album. There are songs on ‘Now Is the Time’ that we are leaving behind, not in a negative way, but some songs on the album that are quite old. It was right to get them on record. They are songs we like and songs that have become part of the band. You can hear it on the album – a slightly different sound between the earlier and later songs. I’m not talking about massive change but I do feel that there must be a natural progression. As for the next one, we’ll see which way the wind blows.
FW: Do you think you'll look back and consider ‘Now Is the Time’ a signpost, a milestone or perhaps a launch pad?
GI: Whatever you do as a musician there will always be a part of you that thinks you would do it differently with hindsight. That’s a natural part of your art. We are all incredibly proud of ‘Now Is the Time’. In a way we’re proud it exists and the fact that it’s a definite statement about the band. I would hope to better it in the future because you should always look further and never be totally satisfied and complacent about what you’ve done.
FW: How does the band tackle the arranging process?
GI: Generally somebody will have an idea in mind and run it past the rest of us. Then the alchemy works, although what appears often bears little resemblance to the original idea.
FW: Drummers rarely receive a specific writing credit but I notice Colin does on 'Elmstone'.
GI: As I said before, I was stuck on this song and Colin took it apart and suggested I move bits around to create the final piece. He helped me get over an obstacle I couldn’t see round. Colin can hear the band as a whole in such a good way and comes out with good ideas. Although we do have to work with him singing how he thinks it could sound - but we manage. I consider one of the strengths of the band is that we are all good at hearing what the finish sound should be. We look beyond our own individual parts and arrange accordingly. When I’m arranging I hear a full-band sound and play off different musical textures to give a wealth of possibilities.
FW: Would you contemplate recording a ‘live’ album?
GI: It would be good to do but you’re staking a lot on one performance. Personally, I quite like listening to the studio-perfection of albums with all the bells and whistles, equally I like the vitality of live albums. It’s something to consider for the future perhaps.
FW: Has the Internet helped niche music or just opened the door to a load of dross?
GI: In my opinion it’s a bit of a poisoned chalice. It’s good for niche music as it allows bands the ability to reach a wider audience, especially for those artists possibly constrained by their local scene. On the other hand there’s a danger, particularly when it becomes a 'popularity contest', bands with the most ‘friends’ could win because they ruthlessly spam social media and get the most exposure. I think it’s good that people can put their music out there for a wider audience to hear but I’m not sure I subscribe to the view that the Internet has democratised the music industry. It’s just another marketing tool so why not? I think one advantage it offers is niche radio stations and podcasts can broadcast over the web.
FW: What’s your measure of success for ‘Now Is the Time’?
GI: Well a lot of sales would never hurt, that’s a practical measure. Outside of that we have to be proud of the album – and we are so that’s another measure. On a different note I would love it to be an album that says something to people and if it does that’s a good measure of success. It’s an album we enjoyed making and still enjoy and it would be good if other people feel the same. One day, when I look back, those are the measures I would apply to ‘Now Is the Time’.
© FolkWords - 2012