In the 2nd part of our interview (read Part 1 here) David from The Young’Uns tells us about some of their song choices and offers insight into their plans and quest for “justice and love” in song and deed.
Are you all of the same mind or is there a ‘healthy’ debate about some of the material and arrangements?
Sean is chiefly the songwriter of the group, and in terms of lyrical content, Mike and I tend not to intervene. Now and again we might work on an idea together, for instance, Sean and I collectively wrote a concluding verse to Jack Iron Side which continues Graeme Miles’ story about industrial Teesside to reflect more modern times. I wrote one song on the last album, A Lovely Cup of Tea about the aforementioned Bull Lane Mosque incident, and this was my first (and maybe even last) song for The Young’Uns. But on the whole, it is Sean who is our songwriter.
When it comes to the music however, the three of us work together. Sean will often come to us with a basic melody and chords and Mike and I will work from there, changing notes and chords in a way that we think will help convey the song better. Often we will modify a basic three-chords-song to be a bit more musically interesting, and more evocative. For instance, I came up with the Accordion melody for battle of Stockton, changed the chord sequence quite a bit, and put in an instrumental break to punctuate the story, and I think that all helped tell Sean’s story better. The same is true for Love in a Northern Town with the instrumental breaks between the verses..
It is then often Sean’s job to rein us in if we get a bit carried away with the instrumental arrangement, which I suppose goes back to my earlier comments about musical intelligence above instrumental ambition.
As I mentioned before, Sean is especially inspired by stories from Teesside and Hartlepool, and Sean loves to read history books and research in libraries. He is also a storyteller, and he goes into schools telling stories and folk tales to primary school children. Mike and I were born and brought up in Teesside and so we all share that same identity and the three of us became entrenched in the Teesside folk scene, so Teesside is something that we feel passionate about and has such a wealth of stories and memories to draw ideas from.
Tell me about Graeme Miles, he’s an excellent songwriter, but is it fair to say he doesn’t get the credit he deserves?
Graeme was a very quiet and unassuming man who I think was more interested in people knowing his songs rather than himself. There are probably people reading this who might not know of Graeme Miles, yet they will be very much aware of a lot of his songs: My Eldorado, Sea Coal, Ring Of Iron for instance. Graeme was one of the founding members of the Stockton folk club and we would see him at the club from time-to-time. He is a massive inspiration for us and indeed many North East folk singers including the Wilson Family and The Unthanks. Last year we were involved in two tribute concerts which also feature the Wilsons, the Unthanks and Martyn Windhamn Read.
Graeme wrote Sea Coal, about the sea coal trade in Hartlepool, at the age of fourteen. He was so inspired by Teesside from an early age. He realised that there weren’t really any songs about the area. He therefore made it his mission to write them. He saw great beauty in the place, including its industry and the jet black fume-filled river Tees. He has an amazing ability to portray the bleak and even the ugly romantically and poetically. Graeme writes about real Teesside, about his Teesside.
Another amazing quality of Graeme’s was how he immersed himself in the world he was writing about. He gave up his cushy job at Middlesbrough Museum to go out and work in the foundries and factories in order that he could experience first-hand the life he was writing about. And that genuine passion and knowledge of his subject matter really shows in his songs and poems. Perhaps it puts modern-day folkies like us to shame, for we only write and sing the songs, we have not lived and breathed them.
I thought The James Taylor song was one of the most striking and unusual choices. The arrangement is highly emotive too. Is there anything else like that that you have in the locker?
Thank you. I think we were singing You Can Close Your Eyes by James Taylor before we had our folk epiphany in Stockton. I think we were at a party and there was a piano. Michael was playing and singing James Taylor and Sean and I joined in. We also sang a lot of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen that night too. A few years ago we were in a pub singing a few songs, and someone asked if we knew any James Taylor. As we didn’t have any instruments with us we just sang it unaccompanied.
We’ve done that with quite a few of the songs we sing. Jenny Waits For Me started out with instruments, and in fact one of our very early albums has a version of that song with instrumental accompaniment. Then one day someone requested it and we didn’t have any instruments with us and so we sang it unaccompanied. The Sandwell Gate from this new album had instruments but it is now unaccompanied on the new recording, and the song Alta from the new album has piano accompaniment and just has Sean singing, but we’ve started performing an unaccompanied version of it. So that is how the James Taylor song got to sound like it does.
I don’t think we’ve got any other songs like the James Taylor one that we sing unaccompanied. I think you’ve given us a bit of a challenge there. We’ll have to have a think of something new.
You seem to be building a healthy original repertoire as well. Is the future for The Young’Uns more of your own songwriting?
I’m not sure. We’ve always written our own songs. We have new songs that we’re working on at the moment. Sean tends to introduce songs to us when he’s good and ready, we never set any deadlines or pressure him to write. Often Sean will introduce us to a song he’s been working on and we don’t do anything with it for a while, and maybe return to it eventually at some point. There are a lot of songs like that in fact, including one particular song that’s been brewing for years, but has never yet become fully realised. As for me: I don’t have any plans to write another song for The Young’Uns; I never actually intended to write a song the last time, it just happened. I don’t think we’d enjoy it if we felt we had to write on demand. So in answer to your question: yes, we are continuing to build our repertoire of original songs, but we introduce them as and when we feel the time is right.
How did the recent tour go and what have you got planned for the rest of the year? What has been the highlight so far?
[pullquote]We’re doing over fifty festivals including the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival and performing at the biggest music and arts festival in England[/pullquote]We’ve had an amazing time touring. It’s great to be able to go to places that we wouldn’t have been able to visit if we’d have still been doing our jobs. At the end of last year we toured around Devon which we couldn’t really do before because by the time we’d got out of work on Friday and drove down to Devon, it would be more or less time to come back on the Sunday ready for work on the Monday.
We love touring because we get to go to all these different places and meet lots of people and an array of very interesting characters, plus we often get put up in people’s homes and so we make some great friends.
It’s been a bit of a culture shock for us as well though. When we weren’t doing as many gigs, we were used to just doing the folk club and festival scene and playing in packed venues, but now we’re obviously doing a lot more gigs and sometimes finding ourselves playing art centres to about twenty people. The good thing about this is that were getting out to a lot more people and getting known by people who wouldn’t necessarily go to folk clubs or festivals, so we’re building a different audience.
We’ve got loads of amazing things coming up this year. We’re doing over fifty festivals including the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival and performing at the biggest music and arts festival in England, but we’re not aloud to advertise that yet for some reason, which is why you’ll have to just accept my cryptic clue.
I think the highlight of the year so far was our album launch in February. We put the gig on by ourselves and played to over 300 people in a Methodist church in Durham. We’re also celebrating our tenth year together this year, and so it was quite an emotional evening and we all got very nostalgic.
Incidentally, if you want to come on our adventures with us as we tour around, you can follow our podcasts which feature stories and recorded highlights from our travels.
Do you find there is a healthy audience for the political edge that you have? Do you ever find yourself at odds with the audience and have there been any notable heckles or arguments?
I think most folkies share the same kind of ideas that we do. I’m not sure whether I’d say we are overtly political, we merely sing about justice and love. We’ve only ever had one confrontation with an audience member who was a bit annoyed about our songs about Bull Lane Mosque. I think she was quite sympathetic to members of the English Defence League.
Sometimes I feel a bit guilty singing my song because it’s a bit of a jibe at those members of the EDL who went on that march. While it may be a funny song and while it may deliver a positive message, I also worry that it’s quite divisive to challenge someone’s views by making fun of them as it doesn’t really help make a connection and eradicate the divide between you and them. I suppose this is the problem with comedy songs like this: it generally only preaches to the converted. However, I do think it’s important to sing about these things and music and comedy are very powerful tools to get a point across and to galvanise people.
We sometimes joke about Nick Griffin’s plan to infiltrate the folk scene with BNP members in order to recruit new members. We sometimes ask whether there are any BNP members in the gig tonight, but sadly for Nick, as of yet we’ve never had a positive response from anyone to that question, although I suppose that that is itself a positive response. I think it’s fair to say that most folkies in this country are white British, but that is no recourse to assume that the folk community is a happy hunting ground for the BNP. It’s that kind of myopia that we sing against and it’s peace, love and justice that we sing for and about. If that leads some people to view us as a political band then that’s fine. But I think if people came to see us because they’d heard we were a political group, they’d be quite taken aback by the fact that we spend a lot of our gig bantering with each other and the audience about all sorts of nonsense, and singing sea shanties and traditional songs.
Interview by: Simon Holland
A Lovely Cup of Tea (Live at the Ram Club)
‘Never Forget’ is released 17 March via Hereteu Records
Order via: The Young’Uns Own Store
Tour Dates: http://www.theyounguns.co.uk/tour-dates/