It’s been a good Summer for Bristol’s Foreign Affairs. After a couple of years spent formulating their up-tempo folk-rock sound, they came out guns blazing in 2015 with an EP launch and a thirty date Summer festival tour….gathering some Radio 2 airplay (courtesy of Dermot O’Leary) and a whole bunch of new fans along the way.
I met up with Lawrence Purnell (vocals, guitar, piano), Adam Purnell (guitar, vocals, percussion) and Ben Sweeney (Bass, Vocals, Percussion) in Coventry as they stopped off on their way back from yet another festival performance in Leeds. Despite clearly suffering from ‘festival lag’ the chaps were in a talkative mood…
FRUK: You guys look like you’re having a busy Summer?
Adam: Yeah it’s been very busy so far, I think it’s number twenty-eight last night in Leeds of the festival season which started back in May.
FRUK: For those folks who haven’t had the benefit of seeing you perform, how would you describe Foreign Affairs?
Lawrence: I’d say it’s quite simple…just folk-rock, a bit of Americana in there as well, but it’s good old folk-rock.
FRUK: What’s been the highlight of the Foreign Affairs story so far?
Ben: Launch night was pretty good.
Adam: Yeah I’d say that. We played our first headline show in Bristol which was a sellout. We really enjoyed that. We’d played a lot of support slots up until then. Some bands start up and they had to have their own show straight away, but that wasn’t really our ethos. We wanted to work our way up, build our own fan-base and then have our own show. So there was that…probably the boys would say Glastonbury.
Lawrence: We had a hectic Glastonbury weekend. We played three times and twice elsewhere, off-site as well..so we went to Glastonbury and then went to South Wales. We then went to Birmingham and then back to Glastonbury to play twice. And once was backstage at the Pyramid as well with the BBC. So that was a highlight weekend for us.
Adam: The boys never really know where they go. They just fall asleep when they get in the van. I’m the driver!
FRUK: You’ve got an EP out?
Lawrence: It was released on the 26th June so it’s been out a few months now and it’s had a great response. Bob Harris played it on his radio station…good old Bob! It’s been really good.
FRUK: Tell us about the process of making it?
Lawrence: We didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and make an album. We wanted to be a bit more strategic about it. So over the course of the next eighteen months we’re going to be releasing three, three-track EP’s. So it spaces it out a bit more, gives us something to work towards. It gives a bit more atmosphere around them as opposed to putting it all out there and then it goes stale within a year. So we’re releasing three three-tracks and this is the first one. It’s suitably titled ‘The First’…because we like to keep it pretty simple!
FRUK: How did Foreign Affairs come to be?
Adam: Me and Lawrence started about two to three years ago. I was living over in Brussels at the time. We started writing songs via Skype and he was still doing his GCSE’s.
Adam: I was living in the parliament area of Brussels so it just seemed suitably named ‘Foreign Affairs’. It was anything that was saucy….
Lawrence: Nothing seedy like we often get asked!
Adam: Yeah wasn’t that cool! Then Ben joined about a year ago.
Lawrence: We had an anniversary gig..his first gig with us was at a festival last year, Bristol Harbourside Festival, and then this year was the anniversary gig of it. And the audience had multipled by about a hundred I think…there was a lot more people there this year! It was great.
FRUK: When you were developing as musicians, who were you listening to?
Lawrence: I listened to a lot of Johnny Cash, the Clash, the Doors. But I also like a bit of modern stuff like Jamie T. Adam’s a bit different…
Adam: When I was about nineteen I went over to Nashville for a few months and I was really influenced by Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell…the pedal-steel players out there really. For the second track on the new record, there’s some slide on there which I managed to get in…the other two boys aren’t necessarily influenced by that sort of stuff but I put my foot down!
Ben: Before I met these boys I’d never really played folk/country/rock before in any sort of setting. I was brought up on metal and jazz pretty much exclusively, although my dad got me into James Taylor and Jackson Browne which these guys are into…Tony Joe White and that blues, deep Americana sort of thing. But mostly jazz to be honest. I studied that sort of thing at Uni and did my degree in it. I think it works quite well…it complements.
Lawrence: We all bring something different. Adam brings the more refined musical aspect, I bring a bit of pedal to the floor, and Ben brings..
Ben: …the noise!
Lawrence: So I think it suits us well when it works!
Adam: I think it’s gelled a lot on this festival tour.
FRUK: Who would your dream collaboration be?
Adam: My musical idol is Rodney Crowell and the band he started with Emmylou Harris, so something along the lines of that…
Lawrence (to Ben): I’m gonna let you answer mate because I’m still pondering this one.
Ben: Well, were he still alive Jaco Pastorius. Bass legend. If I could play with him I could die the next day and be happy. I’d be completely satisfied! He’s a hero of mine to be honest. Big band, jazz, upright bass…which I’m hoping to get in the next few months…
Lawrence: For me, it would probably be someone like…maybe Noel Gallagher. That would be a pretty good experience if he let you in the studio and then didn’t kick you out after a few minutes. Yeah he would be pretty cool to write a song with.
FRUK: So the two further EP’s that you’ve already planned to release…have you already written the material for those?
Adam: It’s in process at the moment. I think there’s one definite track I have in my head for that next EP, but I think we’ve just got to keep on writing and see. It’s a vetting process really. I think with any songwriting you can excited initially by something, but when you go back and revisit it you think actually we can work on it or start something new. I don’t think you to have to just settle.
Lawrence: But we’ve got a premise for the next one…where we’re going to go and how we’re going to continue it. We’re not going to do any drastic changes and go to jazz all of a sudden. We’ve found our medium and we’re going to smash through that for the next one. It’s definitely on the way.
FRUK: Outside of the instruments you all play, what role in the band does everyone have? We’ve already established that Adam is the driver…
Lawrence: He’s not just the driver…but he does the driving! He also provides an education purpose for us as well because me and Ben often don’t know where we are. That’s not because we don’t drive, it’s because I don’t think we were particularly paying attention in Geography were we?
Lawrence: We don’t know where we are unless we’ve got google maps up. So Adam often reminds us of that. We were driving towards Leeds yesterday and I said ‘Where’s Salisbury?’ thinking that it was up North. Turns out it’s not…
Adam: I think you can tell from the emails that we’ve exchanged that I organise quite a lot!
Ben: I do music tech sort of things. We went on tour in Switzerland and at a lot of the gigs we played we were just presented with a PA, not set up. It was ‘There you go, there’s all the leads, the desk, the speakers’. I thought alright, I’ll get on that.
Lawrence: That is very helpful otherwise we’d have been playing acoustic for the whole time.
Adam: We do a lot of our demos in Ben’s studio at home before we go and take it to the professional studio.
FRUK: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about being touring musicians?
Lawrence: Patience, yeah. This is going to sound like such a non rock’n’roll thing to say…you’ve got to look after yourself. If you don’t you can burn out really easily…for me anyway. Maybe I’m not so accustomed to the hardships, but I had to look after myself a lot…
Adam: I think as well we got to watch a lot of other bands, good and bad and learn a lot from them, because otherwise you get sucked in to just playing your own music and you forget…what’s everyone else doing? We’ve learned a lot from bands that we wouldn’t necessarily go out and watch at a normal gig in our hometown. But at a festival you get chucked in with all of these other different genres and you learn a lot…
Lawrence: Yeah watching music really is unbelievable for learning things to do…and at the same times learning things not to do. The more you watch the more you refine your own trade. So watching music is definitely very important.
Ben: Not just musically for inspiration, but also temperament. We were at Glastonbury and we were watching people in some of the smaller venues…some of them just starting throwing strops on stage, just being generally unpleasant. You look at that and you just think…no, if you’re trying to make a living from this you need to swallow your pride sometimes…
Lawrence: And also not to think too far overhead. We were at the Village Pump Folk Festival which is a brilliant one. We turned up this year and it was hammering down with rain. It didn’t look like there was anyone there. Then we got on stage and there wasn’t a seat spare…there was 250 people in this tent. Then some of the ones where you think this is going to be amazing don’t live up to the expectation. So you have to go in with a completely open mind and say we’re going to give it everything regardless of any preconception.
FRUK: What are your hopes and aspirations for the band?
Lawrence: I just want it to go to a wider audience. I think that’s what any musician wants. I think you’d be lying if you said I’m not bothered about success. Not necessarily commerical..you do write songs for yourself and for the gratitude of doing it…but you write songs because you want people to hear them. And we want people to hear them…they’re good songs. So yeah that’s pretty much it. And to be respected as well musically for what we do is very important.
Ben: A lot of bands will get to a point and go ‘I’m happy with this’ and I think it’s safe to say that all three of us are still trying to strive towards a higher place.
Lawrence: One day we might get to a point where we’re striving for something that’s not even there, but we’ll always be striving for something we haven’t got yet…
Ben: And stop working in a bar ideally, that would be nice!
FRUK: Is that your day job?
Ben: I’m a guitar teacher as well, and I work in a bar. So it’s trying to juggle all that and this…I just want to stop doing the ‘work’ thing. That’d be great!
Lawrence: This Summer’s gone very close to it…being completely full-time. But its just taking that leap. That’s what we’re working towards.
FRUK: So what’s next?
Lawrence: We’ve got the last two festivals next weekend, ‘Sat in a field’ festival in Somerset and then we’re in Oxford for another festival. Then festival-wise that will be it…that’s the thirty. That’s a wrap on that. Then we’re releasing a single in October for breast-cancer awareness which is hopefully being championed and supported by the main charity ‘Breast Cancer Care’, so that will be great to get to do it for a charitable cause.”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
This is part of an ongoing new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter@redwoodphotos