In Part 2 of our exclusive interview (Read Part 1 Here), Joe Topping talks about the making of The Vagrant Kings album, The Rainbow Chasers, Home Service and getting started in music and more.
“My Dad bought me my first guitar when I was about 11,” Joe reminisces, “It was a Sunn Mustang, a copy of a Stratocaster. I think I just looked at it more than I played it and it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I got serious about guitar. My Dad ran a folk club for 27 years so music was always around and it inevitably got under my skin.” Like many he got his early inspirations from records and he recalls, “I first discovered bottleneck guitar when the Eric Clapton Unplugged album came out and I learned to play his version of Walking Blues. I then sought out every album/recording I could find that had slide guitar on.
“Eventually I started to lose interest in slide a bit because everyone was starting to sound the same to me. But then I heard Kelly Joe Phelps who I found incredibly inspiring. Luckily for me, I never realised that he was playing lap style at the time, so I was trying to recreate, at least in feel, something similar with a bottleneck. I wasn’t very successful at mimicking Kelly Joe but it opened up a path for me to play my own way and to use it in any genre of music I chose.”
I ask Joe about his time with Rainbow chasers and Home Service and he tells me, “I joined the Rainbow Chasers after, “Mark Hutchings decided he didn’t want to tour so much and dedicate more time to his recording studio, so he left the band. I had toured with Ruth Angell before in a band called The John Wright Band and she recommended me to Ashley. So I went down to meet them all not realising it was an audition! But everything seemed to gel nicely.
“What I loved about the Rainbow Chasers is that it was so different, the song writing was unique and so was the instrumentation; Ash on Bass, Me on Guitar and mandolin, Ruth on Fiddle and guitar and Jo Hamilton on viola and guitar and all of us singing in harmony. So there was a classical music influence from the girls mixed with contemporary song writing that I loved. We’re not currently touring together but you never know in the future and Ashley keeps ringing me up to do little projects together which is lovely.
With Home Service it was more a case of playing the super sub and he tells me, “Home Service came about when I got a phone call from John Tams who explained that he had to have an operation to remove nodules from his vocal chords and would I be interested in filling in for him for the gigs they had already booked. I was obviously very honoured and jumped at the chance. What was nice was that John still did the gigs, introducing the songs and playing a bit of guitar. I also got to do a couple of my own songs with the full band which was awesome!”
We bring things up to date and get back to The Vagrant Kings Joe explains how the initial thoughts for the new album started to take shape. “The Vagrant Kings album started a couple of years ago. I had a collection of songs and an idea of the instrumentation I wanted. I also wanted to try and find local musicians and preferably not from the folk scene so they wouldn’t have any preconception about how the music should sound. I picked up Jack McCarthy’s (percussion) card in a music shop and we got together for a jam. I immediately loved the extra dimension he brought to the songs playing African and Cuban/South American instruments.
Things moved on quickly from there as he recalls, “I mentioned to Jack that I’d also really like Hammond organ on the album and he said ‘Oh I know a good Hammond player – come to think of it, he plays everything!’ and he handed me Steve’s number. So I met up with Steve at his house and when I walked in, I straight away had the impression that he wasn’t married! There were instruments everywhere, including several Hammond organs with Lesley speakers and a full sized Harmonium just in his kitchen! I played Steve my songs and he got really into it and we decided to record the album at his house.”
Joe explains how the recording went telling me, “I wanted the album to sound as live and organic as possible. However, Steve’s house wasn’t big enough to record a live band not to mention we weren’t really a band at that point, added to that, I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted. So the compromise was that I would sing and play everything live and with no click track, hoping to give the album a natural feel to it where the tempos aren’t too rigid rigid. Steve would then add whatever we thought would work or be interesting such as a colliery band style brass arrangement on Leaves On The Line to a New Orleans Brass band on I’m not going to Worry (which incidentally he learned to play the sousaphone for!). Steve also wrote the string arrangement for Cat On A Cold Slate Roof and we got the excellent Leos Quartet to play that. I also brought in a couple of great Irish flute players for sessions, which I thought sounded great alongside the other instruments that you wouldn’t normally hear together.”
The final piece in the jigsaw came during playback as Joe remembers, “Whilst listening to the album as it developed, I mentioned to Steve that I could hear Pedal Steel fitting in quite well and of course he knew a local pedal steel player, Scott Poley (he’s also an excellent guitarist). So the line up for the Vagrant Kings was complete.”
The album still took some time and overall other commitments slowed things down even more as Joe confesses, “So the album took at least two years working around the different band members touring schedule and personal lives. At one point Steve had a girlfriend in Australia and Jack had/has a girlfriend in Cuba (I did consider calling the band The Long Distance Lovers, but though better of it). At the moment Steve is busy as the musical arranger on The Voice, Jack has just joined the Lion King on tour in Switzerland and Scott is always busy with session work, but if you want to work with the best musicians you have to expect them to be busy!
I question Joe over the artwork, which has the tracks divided into two sides and he explains, “The thinking behind that was just because Steve and I were listening to a lot of vinyl during the recording and were getting quite nostalgic, so I wanted the cd to look a bit like a miniature vinyl sleeve. We have had the recording mastered for vinyl in the hope that we do a vinyl release but it’s expensive.”
So what effect did his American adventures have on the record? Joe considers, “There are obvious influences from the American trip such as the New Orleans feel on I’m Not Going To Worry, and Redemption I wrote after meeting a guy in Baton Rouge who was still in his prison uniform after just getting out of prison that day and heading home to New Orleans. He was telling me about what life was like in prison, about bribing the guards to bring them drugs and weapons etc. But he seemed really nervous about going home, about what reaction he might receive from his family and friends. I’m sure there’s more subtle influences in there from the music I heard and the people that I met that I don’t even realise myself!”
As for his plans, he tells me, “I’m excited to be writing for my next solo album. When I started this album, I didn’t have a band and I didn’t know how it was going to sound. The next one, I will have a better idea of things and hopefully we will be able to record at least the core of the album live. I’m also still playing with the band Elbow Jane which is always fun and we’re working on a new album. Well more gigs and the next album. It’s quite hard to get a band off the ground but the album has been really well received so hopefully we can build some momentum. The other great thing about Steve, Scott and Jack is that I can go out as a duo with any of them, or a trio which makes it really versatile especially when they’re all so busy. But also, a good chunk of my gigs are solo which I enjoy.”
Interview by: Simon Holland
The Vagrant Kings is out now via Fellside