Interview: A Band of Buriers
Published on April 16th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams and Hannah Salisbury
“Anti-rap alternative folk”: isn’t it nice when a group goes to the trouble of coming up with a summary that you’d otherwise have had to spend minutes thinking about? We asked front man James P Honey what that slogan means, and he replied, “What does any inflammatory propaganda mean?” Anti-rap? “I’m not a rapper; I just speak quickly.” Fair enough.
“We figured out quite early on that we should create our own genre,” says cellist Jamie Romain, “because then we’d be the best at it.” Well, if there are better purveyors of funereal folk marches steeped in mesmerising if borderline chilling imagery (of both the lyrical and self-presentation varieties), Rocksucker is yet to be beguiled by them. Their eponymous debut album of last year is a thing of bleak, bewitching beauty, so it is with more than a little eagerness that we await their forthcoming second – described by Honey as “a swirling curiosity of sounds” – which was recorded at Grannyflat Studios in Cassington and thus represents something of a step-up in ambition given that they laid down its predecessor in Jamie’s flat.
Having enjoyed a residency with The Nest Collective, A Band of Buriers play the final show of their Ronnie Scott’s residency tomorrow night, while their latest single “Slides By” is released today. Suffice it to say, this seemed like a good time to sit down with Honey and Jamie to discuss…well, all sorts. First though, check out this utterly fantastic video for “Slides By”…
Where did you guys meet?
Honey: At an art foundation course in Reading. We didn’t know each other but we had seen each other in college. We actually met in an art shop in Maidenhead, and my mum proposed that Jamie give me a lift because he had a car. And there you go.
Jamie: James was walking out of the shop, I was walking in, and we were both doing that sort of cool (nonchalantly) “alright mate” thing and carrying on. Then James’s mum said, “Oh hi, so you live in Maidenhead?”
Honey: I blagged a lift for a year.
Jamie: Yeah, every day.
What music did you listen to in the car?
Honey: Slick Rick, Roots Manuva, RJD2…
I hear a bit of Saul Williams in your delivery.
Honey: I like Saul Williams – I went to a show and I remember thinking it was great – but I don’t actually own anything by him so he’s not a considered influence. I’m more into Sole, a guy called Tim Holland, and I used to listen to a lot of Sage Francis when I was younger. But yeah, I have nothing bad to say about Saul Williams. He’s killing it.
What would you say were your primary influences, musical and lyrical? Music, spoken word, poetry?
Honey: My main influence is probably Leonard Cohen; I love his books, I love his early music in particular, and his lyrics throughout. The ’80s phase I wasn’t so keen on, but that’s just a preference. Tom Waits, he’s killing it. Bob Dylan was killing it too but I didn’t like him as much.
Were you weaned on that music?
Honey: Yeah, my dad was a big Leonard Cohen fan, and he’s a writer so he had a lot of books around. I love the Beat Poets; it was really important when I read Jack Kerouac for the first time, and things like that. For me it’s about the lyrics as much as the music, in fact I can’t even align the crosshairs of influence any more. Prior to A Band of Buriers, I was a kind of alternative rapper/performance poet, and although it’s taken a back seat now I still do it.
That especially comes through on “Stuffing a Chest With Twigs”…
Honey: Yeah, that’s the closest to what I used to do. Essentially that is an alternative rap tune, and if you stripped it down then it would be Jamie’s production and my rapping. Jamie made a beat with a cello and I rapped on it.
Subject-wise, do you have lyrical preoccupations, themes you keep returning to?
Jamie: What I like about James’s lyrics is that they’re always observational. I have a real issue with listening to other people’s songs where they talk about ‘myself’ or another generic theme. James has a much more refreshing way of looking at it, much more like poetry. We never have any songs that go verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, any of that kind of stuff.
Are you ever tempted to write something really poppy just to catch people off guard with?
Honey: We’ve got a few up our sleeve!
Jamie: We’ve got one which is very close to that, and the trouble is that every time we play it we get a bit embarrassed.
Honey: Everyone loves it as well. It’s so irritating! To be honest, I never really aim to write about anything, I genuinely don’t.
Jamie: It’s always good to watch James write lyrics because he’s a very good freestyler. We tend to write the music first; one of us will come up with something, and especially if I’ve come up with something then James will just sit there after hearing it, get his notepad out, start writing and the song will be done in about ten minutes.
Honey: The spoken word stuff is a different method of writing to the singing. I haven’t even understood it myself yet, it’s strange. More often than not if it’s a song – you know, guitar, cello and singing – then the lyrics and guitar playing will come at the same time. The rap ones tend to begin with Jamie essentially producing it by finding a cello loop, and then immediately I have an idea of how I want to sound on it. It’s thought association; I speak in collage.
I don’t write the lyrics all in a flash; I’ll think of a bit on its own that I want to use and then save it on my telephone or notebook. Everything I’ve ever done musically has always been lyrics first, with the music as a vehicle for them. Admittedly the music’s been embellished over the years – I’ve put on alloys and all of that – and I’m not saying the music’s not important because it is so important, but none of it would happen if it wasn’t for lyrics and words.
Do you find it hard to listen to music with bad lyrics?
Honey: Yeah. It could be the best song in the world, but if the lyrics suck then for me it’s over, I’ll never listen to it ever again.
Are rhyming schemes at all important to you?
Honey: Less and less so. Like the rhythmical flow and stuff like that, I just let it happen now. But that’s been because of a lot of practice; I’ve done it for ages now, way too long, so I should know better!
Does the flow come first, or the words?
Honey: The words. It’s never a case of “ah, there’s one word too many”; I just make it fit. If you’re doing that [fitting words into a flow] when you’re doing rap, then you seriously can’t rap!
Have you ever ‘choked’, as it were?
Honey: No, because I’ve not done a rap battle or anything like that. When I first started out I was doing drum ‘n’ bass…
Jamie: We were little middle-class rude boys! But we played a show in the south of France, at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, and after the show they had this huge dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass rave with about a thousand people. James got up onstage in a tweed jacket and a deerstalker, started MCing over this drum ‘n’ bass music, and they wouldn’t let him come off! I don’t think they’d seen anything like it.
Honey: It was great. I was 15 again, but dressed like a 45-year-old!
Jamie, do you come from a classical background?
Jamie: I do, everyone in my family plays classical music. My mum was very keen that we all learn instruments. I started with violin, then the cello when I was about 7, and all my brothers play all different kinds of instruments. My brother plays violin on our album.
Honey: His brother’s in the band, but the problem is that he’s a very good actor so he keeps getting parts.
Jamie: We’re desperately praying that he won’t get another job!
Honey: It’s so annoying. Usually if you get an actor in the band then you can bank on them being around, but it just so happens that…
Surely him making it big can only work in your favour?
Honey: That’s true: “…and on guitar, Johnny Depp!”
Oasis got there first, I’m afraid. Come to think of it, your music is quite possibly the polar opposite of Oasis.
Honey: Thank you kindly! Can we have a quote on that? That would be top of the website: “the polar opposite of Oasis”. I love that.
How much creative input do you have into your videos?
Jamie: We’re not signed to a label so we do everything ourselves. We’re on Decorative Stamp, which is a label that James runs, but essentially we’re a DIY band. When we started out, the idea was to make live videos because the worst thing you can do it mime along with someone holding a camera – it looks really shit – so that’s why so many of the videos we’ve got out at the moment are live. My friend Sam Barker is a very talented photographer and therefore really good at lighting, so we wrote the idea for the “Slides By” video [which isn’t live] so that it could all be done in one shot.
Is that a real pig’s head in the video?
Jamie: Yeah. They only cost one pound! But that’s Maidenhead prices. I think in London they’re four pounds.
Honey: It was a Sunday, so I thought how cruel but funny would it be to leave it outside the headmaster’s office of the local school…
“Right, no-one goes anywhere until one of you owns up!”
Honey: Exactly! It would ruin 2012 for everyone at the school.
Jamie: Funnily enough, Sam had done a shoot for something else where they had to use a pig’s head
In the video for “Wide Wings”, it looks like at least two of the girls are trying quite hard not to burst out laughing. Did that take many takes?
Jamie: Not that many, I think. About four.
Honey: There was a dog in the house that was very curious about what we were doing. It interrupted quite often and the camera’s battery was running out, so we were like “it’s got to be done in the next two takes!”.
Jamie: That’s the trouble with doing it ourselves. We’re always doing it in different locations, other people’s houses, so there are always things that go wrong.
Honey: But that’s integral to the whole aesthetic of the band. I like to think that a lack of funds, or whatnot, forces you to be more creative. The video for “Stuffing a Chest With Twigs” is a prime example; we Sellotaped a camera to the bonnet of a car with a Zoom microphone, turned the headlights on and pushed the car up.
Where was that filmed, and how could you be sure that another car wouldn’t encroach on the activity?
Jamie: It was in the south of France, in the vineyards. We were playing five or six shows over there and we were on the way back from one, driving through the vineyards, and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to use the headlights for a video?” The next day we drove round the vineyards until we found a really good long stretch of road with a vineyard either side, and the girl who was basically our tour manager called up six of her mates to be the people in the background.
Honey: It came together amazingly well. We did it live and it sounded really good because it was dead quiet there.
Why do you have the girls dressed in white nighties?
Honey: We’re a cult! They’re not always dressed in white nighties; sometimes they’re dressed in white gowns and stuff. They’re always very virginal and pure.
Very musically different to The Polyphonic Spree, mind.
Jamie: You’re just reeling off soundbites!
Guilty as charged.
Honey: The aesthetics of the band have always been really important.
Jamie: Everything, from the way we look to the way we speak, the way we blog about things and present ourselves, it’s always been thought about. It started off with James being a little bit unkempt and me being more classical-looking. There’s always been the contrast between the rap and classical backgrounds; I tend to wear a dinner jacket and bowtie onstage, a cravate or something, whereas James will wear a vest and have his tattoos out. It developed from there, and we got the girls to fit with the look, this kind of obscure, well-dressed, slightly odd, ‘live in the woods’ band!
Was your set-up at all borne out of logistics – not having to lug a drum kit around, that kind of thing – or was that never really a consideration?
Honey: I don’t know. We definitely don’t want any electronics or anything like that. You’ll hear us on record play like we play live. That’s always been important. In a way, it’s kind of a reaction to programmed beats and stuff like that, and I find the purity of it appealing.
Jamie: We also aim to be timeless, so that we could be from any era with anything we do.
Do you improvise much?
Honey: Lyrically yes, every show.
Jamie: It keeps me amused because we play the same songs over and over, and then every now and then in the set we have set songs where James makes stuff up.
Do you ever improvise as well?
Jamie: Not very often. We’re quite contrasting characters; I like to be very organised, know what’s happening next.
You’ve got the last show of your Ronnie Scott’s residency tomorrow night. How has that gone for you on the whole? Have you noticed a tangible swell in your fan base as a result?
Honey: The residency’s been very good, but I’d definitely say that there are places we prefer playing. I mean, the music’s really good in there, and it’s always really packed…
Jamie: I think the thing that we’ve found is that either people really like you or they really hate you, and that tends to mean we get new fans every time we play because the people who like it actively go and search us out. We also get a lot of people going, “What is going on? Those guys suck.”
Honey: I love that. That’s my favourite response. 75% think we suck, especially at a place like Ronnie Scott’s, where I think quite often people are surprised by the way we play.
Jamie: They’re not expecting it.
I’ve found that your kind of thing tends to turn heads and grab people’s attention regardless of whether they like it or not.
Honey: That’s the power of spoken word. Preaching, or what have you, is incredibly engaging and you get immediately enveloped by it. I think that adds a lot. We’ve noticed it; as soon as there’s a spoken word segment, suddenly everyone goes, “What the fuck? What’s this guy on about?” And then we go into a song, having caught them! Then halfway through they start talking again. But yeah, Ronnie Scott’s is amazing and we’ve felt privileged to have a residency there.
Which have been your favourite gigs so far?
Honey: House shows, house shows, house shows! Playing for friends at their houses.
Jamie: What we found when we started was that, if you’re not a particularly well-known band and you’re playing a show with lots of other bands, most people aren’t there to see you, and the likelihood of people liking you, being able to hear you, let alone being able to remember the name of your band…well, it’s quite difficult. So we hit upon the idea of asking friends with decent-sized living rooms to put on a show, we play for free if they invite twenty or thirty people who’ve never heard the band before, and we get to play a show where everyone listens to the band and gets to talk to them afterwards, which we’ve found to be a really good way of spreading our fan base. We’ve done house shows all over Europe, in France and Germany…
Honey: We nicked the idea from France, really. The French are murdering it left, right and centre when it comes to shows. The last tour we went on in France, the best shows were house shows, shows in studio spaces or something like that, because you get a rapt audience and everyone knows why they’re there. The problem with Ronnie Scott’s – and it’s not a problem, it’s just the way it is and I’m not asking for it to change – is that of course a lot of the people there are there on dates, or there with friends they haven’t seen for ages, or there because they just want to have some drinks, watch some music and pop outside for a cigarette. Whereas with house shows it’s invite only, not that it’s elitist but you know that you’re there to watch a show. We’ve started to play a lot outside of London as well now.
Are you playing any festivals this summer?
Honey: Yeah, we’re playing at Shambala; that’s going to be awesome!
Jamie: We’ve just had to turn down Standon Calling because we’re going to Austria.
Honey: The Nest Collective have tents at lots of different festivals so we’re waiting to see which ones we’re going to go to. Likewise The Woodburner, which is a similar vibe and would be at Secret Garden Party. So we will be going to festivals but we don’t know dates yet.
Who’s your favourite poet?
Honey: Maybe Gregory Corso, someone like that. I don’t know…Eliot, Baudelaire, Leonard Cohen. I like people talking about “the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow”; I want to hear about the shade, even on a sunny day.
And your favourite book?
Honey: That’s a massive question! (Ponders the question) Okay, at the moment one of my favourite books is Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky. It’s absolutely brutal, relentless scandal-mongering and filth; I love that. The Gambler‘s a belter as well. I also love Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
If the world could be run in accordance with the lyrics of one song, what would it be?
Honey: How about “Horses in the Sky” by Silver Mt. Zion?
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming acts that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to?
Finally, if you were forced to spend the rest of your days in solitary confinement, but were allowed to bring the entire works of five different artists along to tide you over, whose would you choose?
Honey: Sole, Leonard Cohen, Bill Callahan, Songs: Ohia and Chopin.
Jamie: James P Honey! I don’t know, I just don’t really listen to a lot of music. I’d take my cello, some sheet music and my brother [Matthew Romain, band violinist]…oh wait, it’s solitary confinement. Can we both be in solitary but he’s on the other side of the wall and we can hear each other?
We’ll let you have that. A Band of Buriers, thank you.
“Slides By”, the new single from A Band of Buriers, is out now on Decorative Stamp. Click here to buy it from the Decorative Stamp website, and here to buy it from iTunes. For more information, please visit www.buriers.co.uk or decorativestamp.org