Arriving with notices that suggest a growing reputation on the Brighton live music scene, The Men With Strong Arms grabbed my attention. There’s the name for starters, with its suggestions of manly vigour, but are these the strong, loving arms of an embrace or the arms of toil and derring-do, action and accomplishment? As the song of the same title suggests, “The men with strong arms hold up the sky for you and I.” Then there the trio’s sound, with their simple acoustic guitar, bass and drums combination given an extra impetus by three part vocal harmonies that provide the distinctive edge to the delightful melodies of their début album, Sunshine Street. Finally there’s the Brighton connection and whilst there is nothing specifically regional about the sound of The Men With Strong Arms, there is a strong sense of geography that makes its presence felt in and around their music. But then I started making connections that made me think of musical ley lines.
I’m not about to get all new age, quasi-mystical, but it’s the connectedness of things that sometimes surprises you. Sure, it’s probably only my minds eye (or should that be ear) that joins TMWSA, with others we have recently featured. Carrie Tree, for example, who’s also making waves on the Sussex coast, or Paul Armfield, who has similar, literary lyrical skills and another regional musical scene defined by the borders of the Isle Of Wight. Then there’s the connections to the industrial history of Britain, now somewhat diminished, a theme echoed in the navvies and factories that cropped up with O’Hooley and Tidow, thus drawing a line to the north and Huddersfield. There are also elements of the blues and jazz and the songwriting heroes that Jonlondon makes reference to himself, both British and American. I’m not sure ley lines are meant to be ocean going, but then, hey-ho! Finally, the guitarist and leader’s nom de plume, connects him directly to his family roots in east London.
Perhaps they are not lines, but tendrils, or a complex web and either way, almost certainly of my own creation, yet like I say sometimes it’s the things they share and they are all connected by being deemed worthy of Album or Artist Of The Month feature here. It’s a common quality, something just a little exceptional that all possess, which unites them, despite making some very different music and each has found a way to connect in a straight line to my heart.
Despite their growing reputation The Men With Strong Arms will probably be a new name to the majority of you out there. So what’s in the name? Perhaps there is a little of the strong embrace, but there’s a also a hefty dose of work ethic and the song of the same title came first it seems. As Jonlondon explains, “The Men With Strong Arms is about the working class Men who worked in heavy industry during the Industrial Revolution. It’s an acknowledgement of an often brutal way of life that is all too often glorified in the name of a few, admittedly very talented individuals. I don’t think my generation, some of those before and all after would have survived or tolerated the kind of physical demands they faced everyday for all of their working lives.
“They literally built Great Britain with their hands without asking for or getting a great deal in return. Women did the same in the cotton mills and work houses contributing just as much and in many cases more. One day I might write a sequel song called ‘The Women With Strong Hands’. I decided to name the band after the song because, firstly I felt it was a interesting name that people would remember and secondly once you have heard it, it gives you a good idea of what we are about.”
I ask him about his own moniker too and he explains the London family connection, but also the love of the ‘on-on-on’ sound as it trips from the lips. But there’s more to his background that makes itself known through the song Sunshine Street. As he reveals, “I grew up in what used to be a smallish village in Hampshire called Clanfield. It was typical of a small community where everyone knew each other. We lived next door to the Coal-Man, the Butcher and Vegetable man sold their produce from vans that came round once a week, as did the library. The Milk-Man knew all the kids names and we would ride down the street on his Milk Float. Today I suspect the H&S police would sack the Milk Man if he let us do that. So the song Sunshine Street is partly based on my childhood but also draws from the sometimes distorted concepts we have of idyllic country life. But in general it is a celebration of that kind of community.”
It’s a very evocative song and with its “Rubbish cricket team,” and also the Sunday divide between the church goers, the pub goers and the car washers, captures something peculiarly English. Yet when pressed on the subject of influences Jonlondon, names more Americans than Brits. As he explains, “I have always been drawn to great lyricists. Lyrics are it for me, it’s what sets great songs apart from ordinary or even good songs. I see myself as a songwriter first, a guitarist second and a singer third. I relate to any song with great lyrics. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan set the benchmark, rather high I might add. On a personal note artists like James Taylor, Paul Simon, Steve Earle, Jackson Brown, John Martyn, The Beatles, Gordon Lightfoot, Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson are favourites and influences.”
When I suggest the song has more in common with the Village Green era Kinks and XTC, he admits, “Yes I suppose there are quite a few American writers in there but there are many others I could have mentioned from the UK. I just picked the ones I consider to be major influences. You mention Ray Davies, a wonderful writer whose work I Iove and I could have added Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Damon Albarn, as more recent brilliant writers. But if space time and space were plentiful I would also add the likes of Rogers & Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, as you say we could go on and on.”
The jazzy influence is there in the music in the slinky title track, which is perhaps reminiscent of Pentangle or Solid Air era John Martyn. Also My Bread My Wine, with the other Strong Arms of bassist Andrew McCabe and drummer Paul Gunter adding nice amble around the lower registers and a skittering shuffle respectively has a gentle syncopation. They have that indefinable chemistry yet as Jon explains, “I met Andy through mutual friends in our local watering hole, and we have been working together for about five years. I saw Paul playing in 2012 in a local venue, The Brunswick, and asked him if he would like to join us, after I sent him some demo’s he was very keen so we formed TMWSA in early 2013.” So the band are really still in their infancy, which goes some way to explaining the six tracks only on offer so far on this new CD.
Still each song has its distinct merits and makes god use of the trio’s individual and collective skills. Jonlondon, has a winning way with a finger picked guitar figure and the rhythm section is rock solid, while vocally their harmonies are different and distinctive. I ask if it’s all done at home and Jonlondon tells me, “Yes I do all the recording, editing and mixing etc in my Mac/Pro-Tools based home studio. I try to keep things simple and use the best gear I can afford. It’s taken me a long while but I have learnt that less is definitely more when it comes to the sort of music I want to create.
“Everything is played by the band, or occasionally by friends like Nial on keyboards. Paul’s drums are recorded in my living room that has wood floors and quite a lot of hard walls and just happens to have a really nice live sound. I use a drum miking technique called the ‘Glyn Johns’ set up. It’s very simple but incredibly effective. If any readers want to record drums I recommend they look it up on the big old WWW. There are no samples or loops in our songs, aside from the odd thing like Church bells. I don’t have a particular sound that I am after, just to try and represent the songs as best we can. Although on our harmonies I lean towards a slightly Baroque choral sound, it’s just something I like.”
I ask Jonlondon about the plans for the coming year and he tells me he’s pleased with the way that the CD has been received, “It has received some great feedback, which, is really encouraging.” The band’s ambitions remain fairly well grounded, however, and he continues, “For 2014 we want to do as many gigs as we can in well regarded established venues. Our aim is to get ourselves on the folk/roots gig circuit and hopefully develop a reputation as an accomplished live band with great songs.” Like several others the attentions of a decent booking agent and possibly even a manager would be welcome, but even those promoting at a more local level should bear the name in mind.
There’s a genuine modesty that rings true as Jonlondon tells me, “We aren’t young but we’re decent people without inflated ego’s who love making and performing our music. We have some way to go to compete with the very best bands out there but, if I do say so myself, we really are quite good and maintain a real desire to be the very best we can.” It perhaps betrays a genuine music fan, who has his own heroes, touch stones who set a pretty high water mark. But if you can find the line to make the connection, then I suggest you will find with it that the Men With Strong Arms can be very, very good indeed.
Review by: Simon Holland
February 16th 2014 – The Con Club – Lewes
February 19th 2014 – Ragged Trousered Folk Club – Hastings
March 8th 2014 – The Horse and Groom – Brighton
March 22nd 2014 – The Chichester Inn – Chichester
April 24th 2014 – The Ranelagh – Brighton
May 20th 2014 – Amberley Acoustic Club – The George and Dragon – Houghton
June 20th 2014 – The Ranelagh – Brighton