Inspired by epic whaling expeditions of the early 19th Century from Britain to the South Pacific, round the South Sea Islands, the eponymous debut ‘Kings of the South Seas’ is a mesmerising and brave new album delving into the lives of the ‘whale men’ and their culture, expressed through a contemporary take on traditional song, broadsides and hymns.
These tales of great voyages and brutal experiences on the sea are given visceral new life by musician’s Ben Nicholls (The Full English, Seth Lakeman Band, Dennis Hopper Choppers) Richard Warren (Echoboy, The Hybirds) and Evan Jenkins (Neil Cowley Trio). ‘Kings of the South Seas’ was produced and mixed by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Tracy Chapman). For John this was very much a new experience for him in utilising old traditional music. In his production he reveals that he was looking for that same emotional engagement when it was written 150 years ago.
Together, these stellar musicians merge folk, jazz, music hall and rock, with double bass, concertina, electric guitar and drums (punctuated by Nicholls’ baritone) and the result is a recording that was completed after an intense three days during the Summer of 2014 at Cecil Sharp House in North-West London. The material was researched by Ben Nicholls during his Creative Residency there, supported by the English Folk Dance and Song Society.
Video Interview with John Parish and Ben Nichols
Fittingly then, the ‘Kings of the South Seas’ album will be launched with a very special gig at Cecil Sharp House on Tuesday 18th November. The night will be opened by acclaimed author, Philip Hoare, whose books include Leviathan or, The Whale (which won the Samuel Johnson Prize (2009). The band will be accompanied by a film of found footage created by Bafta nominated documentary maker Adam Clitheroe.
Often four years long, these voyages pushed the boundaries of the known World, spreading European culture, both good and bad, and returning with the tallest tales ever heard as they landed to trade, supply and repair their ships, all a by-product of the doomed commercial venture undertaken. The album conveys all this, transfigured with the lore of the whales and the call of the sea.
Track by Track
1. I NEVER MISSED MY HOME– Adaption of the broadside, ‘We never miss a mother ‘till she’s gone’. A version in the library at Cecil Sharp House was collected from the tipteers of West Wittering in 1901 and was written on the back of an article on Lifu, Loyalty Islands, in the Pacific, an island which European whalers were the first to visit.
2. WEARY WHALING GROUNDS– A re-working of the traditional song of the Northern whale fishery.
3. EIGHT BELLS– Based on the British forebitter of the 1880’s. A watch was four hours long and an extra bell would ring each half hour throughout. Eight bells indicated the end of the watch.
4. OVER THE GLOOMY HILLS– Sung by the missionaries of the London Missionary Society in 1797 on the deck of the Duff as their destination, Tahiti, came into view. The history of whalers and missionaries are heavily intertwined in the South Pacific through good and bad.
5. KING OF THE CANNIBAL ISLANDS– Herman Melville’s book Typee, of 1846, mentions this song being danced to onboard a whaler. The tune is an adaption of the broom dance, ‘Vulcan’s Cave’. It’s thought to be based upon a Fijian King.
6. GREAT SEA SNAKE– An 1840’s broadside. A sailor’s yarn from the South Pacific.
7. COAST OF PERU– Taken from the logbook of the whaling ship Bengal, out of Nantucket 1832.
8. SAILOR’S FROLIC; OR, LIFE IN THE EAST– An 1840’s broadside describing a sailor’s encounters on Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London.
9. TERRIBLE POLLY– An adaption from the logbook of the Herald, out of Nantucket 1817, The original is about ‘modern’ women, this version is about a sailor’s view of Tahitian girls.
10. I’M ON MY JOURNEY HOME– The words to this hymn are from Mead’s General Selection of 1807, the tune is from The Sacred Harp 1859.
Album Launch – 18th November 2014
Kings of the South Seas is released by D Wink Records (via Proper) on 17th November