With their new album All Life is Here and especially Manchester Angel going down a storm, Harp And A Monkey give FRUK an exclusive insight into their unique sound and set up.
Tell me about your individual musical backgrounds and what you bonded over?
We’ve all been playing in bands for longer than we’d care to remember; in fact it’s hard not to cringe when you think of the musical passions and outlandish hairstyles that have come and gone. I suppose that if we are being honest we would have to concede that over the years we have all visited most points of the chart marked ‘sublime to ridiculous’. Simon was brought up amidst the music and comedy of the northern club scene whilst learning Greensleeves on the violin at school; Andy is more of an Americana and roots man with a sideline in dance; and Martin originally came from a classical and electronic background. The thing that has bonded us musically as a trio is a common love of experimentalism and the leftfield, but also a strongly held commitment to melody and storytelling.
How did you meet?
We’ve known each other for years, in fact Andy and Martin even went to school together. Simon met Martin more than 20 years ago after answering an ad’ in the Manchester Evening News for a project he was working on at that time. We are all really good friends – Harp and a Monkey is about friends being creative and having fun. We just enjoy a shared passion for music and the desire to challenge ourselves. Some mates go the pub or rock climbing or something, but we lock ourselves in a darkened room and make slightly odd folk music. There would be no Harp and a Monkey without one of the three.
Where did the name come from?
We learnt the lesson of the digital world the hard way through other things we had been involved in – basically, never have a name that is similar to something else that might appear on an internet search engine as confusion will surely reign! We chose the word ‘harp’ because it was one of the instruments that we knew was going to be central to our sound and then added the ‘monkey’ bit to pass the internet search engine ‘test’ – that and the fact that Andy has a saying that “everything in life goes better with a monkey”! Someone suggested that the name sounds a bit like a dodgy boozer on the edge of the West Pennines, but we don’t mind that as we have frequented enough of those over the years – it wouldn’t be an unfair representation.
Tell me about where you live and the regional identity. What does it mean to you?
We all live in Manchester and were born in different parts of ‘old Lancashire’ – Simon from Merseyside and Martin and Andy from north Manchester. I suppose as you get older you start to look at your identity, and where you came from, more intently. The people, the places where we lived and live, definitely play a major part in shaping our personalities, our outlook on the world, and that is something that has to be worthy of investigation. Ultimately, we are a product of our environments – there are few who fully escape their DNAs. We have a friend who claims that you can make your millions, move to Florida and live on a yacht, but if your father was a builder from Wigan your family and parochial DNA mean that you’ll still end up looking and acting like a builder from Wigan; just one who can afford to sport a tan and wear a more expensive cut of garish Bermuda short.
How do you go about finding songs?
[pullquote]Long before there was instrumentation, there was storytelling, words set to a simplistic rhyme, it was a way of getting news around. That was a major inspiration to us…[/pullquote]Stories are everywhere, and in many ways this also goes back to the last question about regionalism. We never sat down as Harp and a Monkey and decided we wanted to be a ‘folk’ act, but we did know that we wanted to take what we saw as the essential root of that form and use it as a key influence on what we did – and that was storytelling. Long before there was instrumentation, there was storytelling, words set to a simplistic rhyme, it was a way of getting news around. That was a major inspiration to us, and it seems obvious to just open your eyes to what is around you. Of course, Martin’s obsessions with modern history and hill walking have to be ‘managed’, but essentially it is about stories that may initially appear to be rooted in one place but ultimately speak of experiences and emotions that are universal enough to transcend it. Our favourite folk clubs are the kind where you get people singing songs that are unique to their area; that is what makes their clubs different and keeps their traditions, stories and songs alive. We don’t want to court controversy, but it always seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity to go to somewhere and hear a group of locals playing note-perfect bluegrass while singing in faux American accents. It is surely far more interesting to hear people using their influences as a starting point, to hopefully then go on to create something individual, rather than as an end point. Pastiche haunts the best and the worst of us.
Are there other bands you have close ties or friendships with either locally or further afield?
I suppose we are quite insular when it comes to music; we have never wanted to be part of any scene so we deliberately kept Harp and a Monkey to ourselves for quite a long time until we found out what it was we wanted to say and do – and we definitely made a deliberate decision to stay away from the influence of others. When we licensed our first album to the Folk Police label we found a kinship with some of the other acts on the label – such as Sproatly Smith and Rapunzel & Sedayne – as they were all striving to do something quite singular: to take elements of traditional music and make their own truth from it. We always thought we should have done some kind of old-fashioned, Sixties-style ‘review’ with the Folk Police acts. It was very sad that the label had to be mothballed because of illness, but there is always the chance that it could re-emerge one day.
Where did the inspiration to blend the electronica and folk come from?
We were very clear that we wanted Harp and a Monkey to be a ‘live’ band. Having a drummer would have massively limited that; it immediately means that you all have to ‘amp-up’ and find bigger, more conventional venues to perform in. We made a conscious decision that we wanted to be able to fit ourselves and all of our equipment into one smallish vehicle and set up in the corner of a coffee shop if that was the only space on offer – basically, ‘band has hatchback, will travel’. Using electronics enabled us to incorporate rhythm, and it also enabled us to mess around with some of the preconceptions of what people might expect from a storytelling, or ‘folk’, act. Also, we have all been interested in electronic music from a young age – we grew up in north Manchester at the end of the day, and leading electronic experimentalists like Autechre were among our musical peers. Of course, we don’t rule out that we will use live drums in the future – when we can afford a van instead of a hatchback!
You also re-write quite extensively (or meddle as you put it). Is this just part of the folk process? What are you aiming for?
[pullquote]Folk music isn’t like the Beatles back catalogue, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ historical version, just a date when someone first decided to write down the particular version they had heard at that time.[/pullquote]We don’t deliberately set out to subvert a traditional song or poem, we are just keen to speak to modern sensibilities. We are not re-enactors or museum curators, and it is absurd to think that stories don’t evolve. Folk music isn’t like the Beatles back catalogue, there is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ historical version, just a date when someone first decided to write down the particular version they had heard at that time. If you take something like Bowton’s Yard from the new album, it is a poem written in Lancashire dialect that would be really exclusive in its appeal if done in its original form. We wanted to make it more inclusive, so we de-dialected it (if there is such a phrase?), cut back and changed some of the stanzas to get to the core of the story and gave it a chorus. The result is a song that appears to have really connected with 21st century audiences, and has also resulted in many of them hunting out the original poem. That seems like a win-win to us – both from the point of view of the ‘meddlers’ and the ‘purists’.
Tell me about the different voices that are used on the record other than your own.
We have always used field recordings and interviews in our music as it can add a deeper level of authenticity and poignancy if it is used correctly. We would never drop in the words of a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, like we did on the new album, or a veteran of the First World War, like we did on the first album, unless it genuinely added to the narrative. The song about the Spanish Civil War was about radical ramblers, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and Albert Halton’s recollections helped to actually move the story forward and underline aspects of it. In the case of The Soldier Song off the debut album, Martin’s words were actually built around the veteran’s memories. You should never use people’s recollections for affect as it ends up sounding both insincere and hackneyed.
I like the artwork, although the title doesn’t appear on the front of the sleeve. Tell me more.
The ideas for the artwork seem to naturally occur alongside the writing and collating of the songs that make up that particular album. We like to visualise the album as we are creating it, which does help with getting the overall atmosphere, tone and feel right. It also means that the artwork is very much entwined with the narratives of the songs. The CD cover image of the dog in a dress is a genuine photograph from a 1930s family photo album. And, of course, it was taken in the back garden of a Lancashire home. We feel that it conveys quite a bit of what Harp and a Monkey is about; a bastardisation of the norm, but still strangely homely and oddly comforting in its oddity. Yes, the album title is on the booklet inside the sleeve – it just seemed to fit together better that way; to let the cover image speak for itself without the interference of words.
Tell me about the extra instruments that you each bought. How have they been incorporated? Are you looking to expand your sound further?
It is true that when we first started we all went out and bought at least one instrument that we had never played before – a miniature harp, banjo, accordion and viola. We did it for a simple reason: when you become competent on an instrument you quickly find yourself doing things automatically, going to the same chord arrangement, technically shining and over-complicating when the best and purest form of communication can often be the most basic or simple. There is a reason why nursery rhymes continue to resound with new generations. We wanted to see if we could capture some of the basic and even naive truths, and when you are learning to play a new instrument that usually encourages the ability to be a bit creative with your limited resources and to pick out memorable melodies and rhythms. It helped us to define our sound, but it does mean that we may have to keep challenging ourselves to stay true to it. Lord knows what we will take up next, as we definitely couldn’t squeeze a trombone into the hatchback!
How does the live experience differ? What have you got lined up gig wise?
[pullquote]Without wanting to sound conceited, we are a great live act. Having said that, we bloody should be given the number of shows we have played over the past six years![/pullquote]Without wanting to sound conceited, we are a great live act. Having said that, we bloody should be given the number of shows we have played over the past six years! It takes an awful lot of playing to become really comfortable and spontaneous when you are often interacting with backing tracks, but we have definitely got there. The two have become pretty seamless in our live shows. Every musician will tell you that you react to your audience, feed off it, and we are no different. We like to have a bit of banter. Getting a good rapport going is important to everybody’s enjoyment – band and audience. (That’s why getting a studio recording to sound right can be so difficult, you have to create something that gives the impression that the band is there, at the same time as not being there.) We are particularly looking forward to the shows outside of our usual stomping grounds in the north, as we will be able to get away with telling old stories that will hopefully make us appear spontaneously witty to new audiences! As to what and when those gigs are, we can only suggest people visit our website for regular updates (www.harpandamonkey.com) as we rarely do ‘tours’ – we just play all the time, wherever people will have us…
Interview by: Simon Holland
The Manchester Angel (This track, at the time of posting, has clocked up nearly 8000 plays in just 19 days on our Soundcloud…that’s a lot of love!)
Tupperware And Tinfoil