Gigspanner Big Band’s Live album was released on the opening day of Cropredy. After reading the Folk Radio review, I couldn’t have been more excited, knowing the following day we’d be seeing them playing Live live. By 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon, I had the biggest of big smiles; they’d lived up to all expectations. I’d just listened to well over an hour of music that enthralled, intrigued, challenged, amused but, above all else, delighted. Judging from their happy faces as they left the stage, the five members of the Big Band had enjoyed it every bit as much as the crowd. The following day I could talk with them and discover just how enthused they all were by their combined venture. Gigspanner Big Band has resulted from the coming together of Gigspanner, the trio that has been Peter Knight’s main project since leaving Steeleye Span, and BBC Folk Award winning duo, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. As the Big Band has developed over the last year and a bit, all concerned have made it clear they view it as a bonus; the primary focus remains on their separate groupings. Both bands have albums about to be released along with other developments they were keen to talk about, so it made sense to talk with them separately. Nevertheless, when I sat down with Peter Knight and guitarist Roger Flack from Gigspanner, the first topic of conversation was how the Big Band collaboration had come about.
Peter: “Well, it was Debs, my wife, really. Debs had spoken to Hannah’s Mum, and she’d just happened to mention that Hannah was influenced by my fiddle playing. Then we saw Hannah and Phil at a festival; they played a lovely set, I went up, gave them a cuddle, said how much I’d enjoyed it. Then Hannah was going to come to one of my classes. I do a class that is all to do with improvisation. So, then the question was, wouldn’t it be nice to play together at some point. I said, Yeah, absolutely. Then Debs, said, well, shall we put a gig on and try it? Which we did. I can’t remember the exact order of how things happened, but, of course, it has built a bit, we’ve done the album and we’re playing Cropredy. And Debs has fixed some gigs for next year.
“So, the whole thing was sparked off by my wife Deborah, she books all the tours and everything for Gigspanner and just said, let’s do some gigs. When we asked Phil and Hannah, they said they’d love to. We tried it, and we all love it. Obviously, we’ll still keep the trio; they’ll still do the duo. But now and then we’ll come together because it’s just lovely to play music together.”
I thought some of the extended pieces you did yesterday with the two fiddles were just superb.
“Yeah, it’s lovely, and Hannah’s lovely. We all improvise and often you meet fiddle players that don’t do that, but Hannah’s right up for it. Phil and Roger duet too…”
That was going to be the next question. So, Roger, how’ve you been getting on with Phil?
Roger: “Oh fantastic, he’s a lovely bloke and his playing is stunning. I find it completely inspirational. As soon as I hear him playing, it just makes me want to be him. Not in a weird way, or anything like that. It inspires me to want to play and play better.”
How much of an opportunity, outside of gigs, do you get to work together, to develop a feel for these improvisations?
Roger: “Outside of gigs we don’t really get together because there’s just too much distance between us all. Phil and Hannah live in Devon, I live in Hastings, Sasha lives in Hastings, Peter lives in the middle of France. You kind of get together when there’s work, gigs and stuff. Maybe work on things in rehearsal for 2 or 3 days, in a village hall or somewhere. You just get to work on stuff running up to gigs.”
You’ve said the Big Band in no way replaces the trio, so where’s the trio going next?
Peter: “Well, we’ve just done an album, and that’s going to be released in November. We’re doing a launch tour in November. And I think we just want to get on with getting more material done.”
Peter then mentions Sacha Trochet who has been Gigspanner’s percussionist for most of this year after original member Vincent Salzfaas was forced to pull out of the band’s tour last November for personal reasons. Sacha and Gary Hammond from The Hut People, stepped in to cover gigs at zero notice with Sacha becoming the long-term replacement. He has clearly made an impression…”Sacha is just such a lovely, lovely player, it’s such a lovely groove that he gets, and he’s up for it because he’s a kit player and not really been involved in any folk tunes.
“I can say to him, listen to some bodhrán playing, because with the Irish stuff there’s this lovely backwards and forwards roll. Or I’ll talk to him about flute players breathing in the tunes and how that affects the phrasing and all that. He’s totally up for it. And his timing…”
“What’s lovely is that when you’ve got a good drummer, obviously people push and pull all the time, but when you’ve got a good drummer it makes your job easy because you just trust him. You know that you’ve got the person that’s the best time keeper in the band and if I think oh maybe he’s pulling back on that. Then I’ll think, no, I’m probably rushing. Because he’s the best and that’s how you need it, you don’t want to be worried about all that going on. You know, like is it him, is it me, you don’t want that. No, he’s the man, he’s fantastic. It has inspired us to get material together and do more new things.”
Part of their set was a sequence when Roger played a rhythm with sticks on the neck of the fiddle while Peter continued with the tune, which prompted this exchange.
Talking about percussion, where did the idea for playing on the neck of the fiddle come from?
I saw that somewhere and Roger’s a very good drummer, that’s why his rhythm playing on guitar is so good and, up until now, he was the best drummer in the band. He ain’t anymore.
Roger: I can certainly say I’m no longer the shortest in the band.
Peter: “I’d seen it somewhere, it’s American, Appalachian. So, Roger got a couple of dowels, and I think I showed him a clip of someone else doing it and for a while, I just blagged the tune, just made it up. You know improvising’s ok but sometimes when the improvisations turn into tunes or arrangements or whatever, it often just ends up a little bit dead. And not happening, so I thought, I’m going to learn a tune. I learnt a proper tune which is Isadora’s Reel, and it’s one of those, they call them crooked tunes, where there’s a couple of extra beats. So that’s what I play, I do a little bit of making things up, just to let Roger take a few drum solos on my fiddle.”
Are they just dowel? From a distance, they looked like chopsticks.
Roger: “No they’re just bits of dowel from B&Q.”
Peter: “The B&Q ones sound best, don’t they?”
Roger: “Oh yeah.”
The last word from Peter: “We’re in a very nice place at the moment, and life isn’t always like that, either professionally or domestically. But we’re all in a very nice place; we’ve got a great team around us. And young ears to check the music, young ears that hear things in the recordings that we don’t hear and it’s good for us at the moment.”
To Roger “It’s a nice time for us, isn’t it?”
And so, on to a chat with Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. It seemed only polite to ask them about the start of their collaboration with Gigspanner; I wasn’t checking up on Peter’s story, honestly.
I heard Peter Knight’s take on how you all got together; your Mum was involved?
Hannah: “Yes, yes she was. She used to take me to Sidmouth Folk Festival when I was very little, and I remember one memorable occasion, watching Steeleye, Peter playing the fiddle. And oh my goodness, I thought, that’s what I want to do. She brought me up with all these bands, Fairport included, looking up to them. And Peter did a gig, and she happened to get talking to Debs Knight and said, oh, my daughter’s a folk musician… Thanks, Mum.”
Phil: “But we get on well with them. We’ve got on well with them from the start.”
That was very obvious from seeing you on stage with them yesterday.
Hannah: “It’s almost too much fun, isn’t it?”
Phil: “There’s no pretension or ego involved, it’s purely about enjoying the music.”
The duo’s next album will be released in October. Called Edgelarks, it marks a significant step for them, not least because from now on they are adopting that as their band name.
Two bands, their attention understandably focussed on their individual next steps. For those of us fascinated by their joint project, bewitched by the freshness and originality of the extensive improvisations, there should be even more exciting times ahead. At present, the Big Band’s repertoire is dominated by songs and tunes originally developed separately for each band. Fingers crossed that, as they spend more time playing together, we’ll get to hear original Big Band material as well.
In part two of this interview, Phil and Hannah tell us more about Edgelarks and their forthcoming new album. Coming soon.
Order the Albums
Order Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Big Band: Live here: http://www.gigspanner.com/shop.html
Order Edgelarks here: https://philliphenryhannahmartin.bandcamp.com/album/edgelarks