Forget about the warnings of storms, sub-zero temperatures and torrential rain, there’s a more elemental force coming in over the Irish Sea to the UK in the first couple of weeks in March; The Eskies are coming over to beat you into submission with a high-octane mixture of folk, jazz, klezmer and vaudeville. Picture a New Orleans jazz band jamming with The Chieftains and Gogol Bordello and it might sound a little bit like this. If the download-only single “Jesus Don’t Save Me” gets anywhere close to representing their live set, this tour could be quite a ride.
The single has a gypsy jazz feel that intensifies in the second half of the song through a few key changes and builds up towards an ending that leaves you wondering what on earth is coming next. And that’s just three minutes’ worth. But don’t take my word for it, have a look for yourself:
If you fancy seeing this maelstrom live, the English tour starts in March and you can see them here:
Fri 4 Nottingham Bodega
Sat 5 Bedford Esquires (with CC Smugglers)
Sun 6 Milton Keynes The Stables
Tue 8 London The Finsbury
Wed 9 Stroud The Prince Albert
Thu 10 Bristol The Old Duke
Fri 11 Newquay Whiskers
Sat 12 Falmouth Princess Pavilion (with Mad Dog Mcrea)
Sun 13 Birmingham The Rainbow Courtyard (with Mad Dog Mcrea)
We’ll be witnessing the mayhem as they take the roof off The Finsbury in London, and anyone catching the shows with Mad Dog Mcrea should be seeing something very special indeed.
It’s less than a year since I first saw Sound of the Sirens doing a support set for Mad Dog Mcrea at The Half Moon in Putney. It’s been an eventful ten months for Abbe and Hannah, with festival appearances and a headline show in their home town of Exeter, and this time around they were headlining a sellout gig at St Pancras Old Church, so absolutely no pressure at all. The venue was a pretty inspired choice; it’s an intimate setting but big enough to cope with the full dynamic range of Sound of the Sirens, from a cappella to two guitars, two voices and percussion. The stage was lit by a bedside lamp at either side, creating a cosy ambience which worked well for the performers.
Annie Rew Shaw, also from Devon, was first on stage, playing her melancholic piano-backed songs of sorrow and loss, helped out by an occasional bit of fiddle accompaniment. The songs, and Annie’s fabulous voice, got a good response from an appreciative audience. Tom Figgins was up next; again the songs were good and Tom’s swooping, soaring delivery kept the audience enthralled throughout his set. Both support sets were really strong performances, building up towards the headliners without threatening to steal their thunder.
The runaway train that Sound of the Sirens were riding for most of last year could have been derailed at any time if they hadn’t been prepared for it, but they took everything in their stride and looked completely unfazed by their increasing popularity. Becoming a headline attraction almost overnight (after years of hard work) is a huge challenge that Abbe and Hannah seem to be dealing with pretty well at the moment.
Wednesday’s gig was a ninety minute set, a huge leap from the tight thirty minute support sets they’ve been doing for so long. A lot of bands with one album would struggle to find material to fill an extra hour, but with an album, three EPs and a constant stream of new songs, they made it look like the easiest thing in the world. They both like to interact with the audience and their intriguingly random humour builds a strong rapport between songs as guitars are swapped and mandolins retuned.
They took the opportunity that the longer set presented to build up the momentum, ease back a little and then build again to a barnstorming climax with the live favourites “The Gift” and “Together Alone”. The rest of the set was a mix of songs from the three EPs (including “The Fear”, “Next Year”, “All That I Could Find” and “Stars”) the album “A Long Way to Fall” (including “The Night Before”, “Up to the House” and the magnificent “Faith in Fire”) and a few surprises. There was a cover of The Maccabees “Pelican” and a few new (or unrecorded) songs including “Best Intentions, “For All Our Sins”, “Cross Our Hearts” and “Smokescreen”.
Any nervousness that Abbe and Hannah had before the gig didn’t last very long. It’s fair to say that the audience were onside right from the start but, by the end of the night, the potent mix of well-crafted and powerful songs, superb harmonies and counterpoint and sheer enthusiasm sent everyone home buzzing. I suspect it won’t be too long now before Sound of the Sirens will be playing in a venue near you.
So how about five great gigs this year? Well, I’ve had plenty to choose from and I can’t say that I’ve seen a bad one, so it hasn’t been an easy choice to whittle it down to the top five (and no cheating this time either). These are all gigs that I walked away from feeling elated, feeling that I’d seen something special that I wanted to tell the world about. So I did, and here’s a reminder of how good these gigs were.
On a freezing February Friday night in Shoreditch, Rich Mix was a welcome respite from bars full of bankers and ‘exclusive’ lap-dancing joints. The venue is a social enterprise where the motivation isn’t purely profit and programming of events is always interesting. On this particular night, John Fairhurst, along with Pete Episcopo (bass) and Toby Murray (drums) played a raw and raucous set of blues focussing on the 2014 album “Saltwater”. Some of the album versions of the songs were fairly big production numbers but the live performance was strictly a power trio affair with John’s blistering guitar topping off the mixture. The journey back through Shoreditch didn’t seem quite so bad after a night of proper blues with electric guitars playing way up loud. You can see some photos from the gig here.
Mollie Marriott @The Half Moon
This one was firmly in the eagerly-anticipated category. Mollie’s been working quietly for some time putting together a great band for live and studio work featuring her Jim Stapley bandmates Izzy Chase-Phillmore, Sam Tanner and Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley. After an interesting acoustic support set from her nephew, Mo Evans, Mollie’s full band made their first live appearance in a Half Moon packed with fans and a few well-known faces as well. It was obvious from the start that this isn’t just a bunch of hired hands; this is a bunch of really good mates as well. None of their playing is showy or attention-seeking; everything serves the songs and underpins Mollie’s phenomenal voice, and it all works perfectly. The audience were onside anyway, but Mollie and the band gave a great performance of material from the upcoming debut album and a couple of covers as well. Here are some photos of this one.
This was a very special gig. I’d been invited along to see Mad Dog Mcrea and I had no idea about the support on the night, Sound of the Sirens. It’s such a great feeling when you see an artist for the first time and you know instantly that they’re something special. And it’s not just me; apparently Chris Evans was quite impressed with them as well. Anyway, they played a storming set completely winning over the audience with their powerful songs, dynamics, and harmonies. If the night had stopped at that point, I would have been perfectly happy, but we still had Mad Dog Mcrea to come, with an energetic run through material from their album “Almost Home” plus a few old favourites and crowd pleasers. Two great bands with enough in common to appeal to the whole audience but with enough differences to create a very varied night. And there are some photos here.
Another interesting double bill, this time with two very different artists, linked by the era which saw the start of their careers. John Cooper Clarke (now making the most of his honorary doctorate) has been doing poetry and comedy events for a few years but the tour with Squeeze put him back in front of big audiences filled with people who remembered him from the first time round. He throws more one-liners and gags into his routine now but a lot of the old favourite poems are still there, although some of them, particularly “Twat”, have evolved over time. On this night he was a barnstorming crowd-pleaser, building up the audience nicely for the headline act.
This year Squeeze had a new album to promote so the setlist was varied, to say the least, with material covering almost forty years from “Take Me I’m Yours” to new songs like “Cradle to the grave” with the usual smattering of different interpretations of Squeeze classics. What made this performance so special was the group of musicians (mainly Glenn Tilbrook’s Fluffers) now making up the rest of Squeeze who add upright bass, melodica and other esoteric instruments to the mix as well as adding rich vocal harmonies. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have never sounded better and what an incredible set of songs. Guess what, some photos here.
Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz & The Union Chapel
And finally. One of the greatest talents never to break through in the seventies and eighties, Graham Parker, who toured twice this year; once with The Rumour and once with Brinsley Schwarz. With a songbook which again covers almost forty years and a new album to promote as well, Graham Parker mixed up some established classics, some surprises and some new songs to delight an audience which might have been a little biased anyway. His voice is still remarkable and the songs are all strong enough to work in stripped-back arrangements. This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing; there were new songs to promote and they all sounded as good as anything he’s done before. He’s a remarkable man and it was a real pleasure to hear these songs in such a beautiful venue. How about a look at GP in the seventies and now?
OK, I’ll admit it, I have gone on a bit about Sound of the Sirens this year but I think events have proved me right. I was absolutely blown away the first time saw Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood supporting Mad Dog Mcrea at the famous Half Moon in Putney. Since then they’ve had a stratospheric rise which saw them play at Carfest South and appear live on the first edition of the revived TFI Friday, so I was really chuffed when they agreed to do something for this year’s High Fives. I should say that they’re lovely people (and that includes Johnny Wood as well) and I wish them all the best for 2016. Thanks once again, Abbe and Hannah for sharing this insight into the world of Sound of the Sirens.
We arrive at the services with extra wide smiles and sit for a second to take in the full extent of what has just happened. People in the car park double take when looking at the car and we sit inside with the cheesiest grins. We don’t look like the owners of this vehicle… we look like we’ve stolen it. We are sat in a top of the range brand new Land Rover Discovery and the usual battered van is long gone…..for the day. It’s a Sunday morning in August and we have just played Carfest South to a crowd of 20,000 and we are in a complete daze of disbelief that this is now a memory of ours. It happened! Sunday morning sees us packing up to leave the beautiful Surrey countryside and head back south to Somerset for the lovely Watchet festival. Chris (Evans) suggests we head back to Carfest for the night after the gig but the van will never make the journey on time. ‘Do you want to borrow one of my cars instead?’ So here we are at the services smiling and laughing at how strange and fun life can be.
It’s January 2015 and I (Abbe) book tickets to see Ben Howard on his last European gig of his tour. He is playing in St Petersburg and I have always wanted to go. This is the perfect trip. In the mad panic of Christmas and sorting visas, I never once double-check the venue location. On arrival in Russia I discover that he playing the first date of his American tour. It is then that I discover there are 2 St Petersburgs and I am in Russia and he is in America. I am on the wrong continent! This gives our friends back in England fuel to tease for me life and one in particular tweets Ben Howard to tell him about my faux pas.
It’s now February and we have just played a gig in Birmingham and we are heading back to Devon. Johnny (driver, roadie, all round sirens organiser) pulls into the services and we all bundle out together as Hannah announces what percentage she needs a wee. This is a normal soundtrack to our drives. 20% is ok but 97% is a bad situation. We are all on a high 80% when I get a message sent through with a link to a video where Ben Howard is laughing at the St Petersburg disaster. Well, he laughs and then calls us ‘******** idiots!’ Totally fair though. As I am watching the video and following the corridor through the services I wander into the wrong toilets look up and scream as I disturb Johnny. My screams echo round the services as Hannah’s laugh erupts from the ladies next door. Bad times!
It’s April 2015 and we are sat in the Bristol Gordano services and Han is in need of a hot chocolate and a hug. We have been waiting at the airport for hours whilst she is detained by the police. We have just played at the Frankfurt Messe working alongside Elixir Strings and Freshman guitars and have flown home excited and full of stories to share. We step off the plane and through passport control when I realise Han is no longer behind me. A commotion breaks out ‘I can’t find my passport Ab’. My heart sinks. I should let you know that Hannah is a ‘loser’(Not an insult, Hannah loses things – AM). So ….. she can not come back in the country and the police chat to her. She has left her passport on the seat of the plane but they can not find it. Unfortunately at that point a flight comes in from Amsterdam and hundreds of people assume Han is a drug smuggler. More bad times! We are eventually let back in after they realise she is English and not a mule.
We have arrived at the services for a strong coffee to ease the self-inflicted ache in our brains at an overload of excitement . It’s a Saturday morning in October and we are electric with energy as we have played live on TFI Friday the night before. Our slot was set between the mighty U2 and Take That and endless messages are pouring in from the lovely people we’ve acquired on our musical journey and each one puts a smile on our face. As we arrive at the services one message comes through from a friend to tell us that we are 20 in the ITunes chart and it just keeps rising as the day continues. I don’t think the services have heard a scream like ours before.
We have just finished supporting Mad Dog McRea on their tour and we are heading back to Devon eagerly awaiting the services sign on the side of the motorway. This was it. We had found the perfect services. We all piled out like animals at feeding time. You should know we base our day around mealtimes and we take it very seriously. This services had everything to offer. There was a vast selection of different places to eat and we all set off in different directions to get food. However, we kept meeting each other in different queues heading to the front and then changing our minds and joining the back of other queues. We were all in a fluster that we would make the wrong choice on our food and worried that food envy would set in and so nothing was achieved. We all needed time out from all the choice on offer. This services was too good and we were not prepared for such decision making. We have since stuck to simple services as we fear the larger ones that offer too much. We are small town girls and the big services are just too confusing.
I don’t know how I managed to miss this one for so long, but this was my first visit to Dingwalls, and what a great music venue it is; good visibility all round, nice lighting for a few photos and a perfect atmosphere for this line-up of Gaz Brookfield, Mad Dog Mcrea and Ferocious Dog. The omens for the night were all good when we had a quick chat with Michael Mathieson of Mad Dog Mcrea on the way in to the gig and got in just in time to catch the opening set from Bristol-based Gaz Brookfield whose fast and furious acoustic songs set the tone for the evening.
The names Mad Dog Mcrea and Ferocious Dog seem to be inextricably interlinked in certain musical circles and, having been really impressed by Mad Dog Mcrea at The Half Moon earlier this year, I was curious to find out more about Ferocious Dog. I may be in a small minority here (although Plus One certainly agreed), but the running order didn’t really do Ferocious Dog any favours; Mad Dog Mcrea are a very difficult act to follow.
Ferocious Dog have built up a substantial following over the last few years with their high energy blend of folk and rock with punk attitudes and that’s exactly what they delivered on the night. They were visually striking as well (you can see the photos in a few days) but that added to my misgivings about the performance, particularly when compared to Mad Dog Mcrea. It felt a bit like things hadn’t moved on since the days of The Levellers or Chumbawamba and that some of the feeling for the music had been swamped by the attitude. It might just have worked out if they hadn’t been the last band on.
For a band supposedly promoting their “Almost Home” album (it’s very, very good and you should listen to it), Mad Dog Mcrea played a set that was much more of a greatest hits package based on requests from their many fans in the crowd. So, although “Heart of Stone” appeared near the start of the set, it was all about the crowd pleasers, from the traditional “Raggle-Taggle Gipsy” through “Johnny no Legs”, “Climb a Hill” and “Am I Drinking Enough?”, to the madness of “Little Black Fly” and “The Happy Bus”. Michael Mathieson (acoustic guitar and vocals) fronts up the party, but it’s also about the interplay between Pete Chart, Jimi Galvin, Dave Podmore, Dan Crimp and Nicki Powell, who create fascinating textures and glide effortlessly through changes of style and tempo. The band might try to make it look like it’s all just a bit of fun, but the music is everything, and that’s what connects them with the fans, who love the commitment and sheer joy of the band’s performance. Another triumph for Mad Dog Mcrea.
It must have been difficult for Ferocious Dog to follow that set. They didn’t do anything that was bad, but the bar had already been set way too high.
Well it’s taken us a while to get this one together after I was left speechless (I know, that’s difficult to believe) as I watched Sound of the Sirens’ unique set of twentieth century acoustic anthems in support of Mad Dog Mcrea earlier this year. When I heard they were coming to London to appear live on the open mic session on Chris Evans’ show on Radio 2, it was an opportunity that was too good to miss. Here’s what happened when they turned up south of the river, buzzing with adrenaline and caffeine and ready to tell the world about it:
Allan – Well, it’s been five months since I saw you at The Half Moon in Putney. Quite a lot has happened since then, so tell me what’s been going on?
Abbe – Doing the mini tours with Mad Dog completely exhausted us, left us on-our-knees-tired, but always worth it because they’re lovely. Then we applied to Glastonbury and Mike Mathieson of Mad Dog, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, said try these people so we tried other avenues, followed the routes he gave us and one of them paid off. They must be inundated with people applying, so even to get a ‘Oh hello girls, yes, brilliant, we’ll have a look at what you do’, we were excited, and then getting that email to say we’d got in to Glastonbury was just brilliant.
Hannah – We screamed and jumped on couches.
Abbe – I couldn’t see because I smiled so much my eyes closed.
Allan – That started off with one gig, didn’t it? How many did you end up with at Glastonbury?
Hannah – Four in the end, because each stage only has a certain amount of tickets to give out, so once you’re in there, they want acts.
Abbe – So we just ran around begging people to play…
Hannah – And they had us.
Abbe – And it was quite funny because one of the best gigs we did there was the backstage hospitality and catering for all the staff, who were just hilarious and they were so up for a party because they’d been working all day and everybody was in such good spirits. To do the sort of mini-gig in their world within Glastonbury was really fun and then we realised that was the way forward, so we started approaching all the backstage bars like the Circus Tent. Who knows, if we get back next year it would be nice to go and play some more of those.
Allan – Was it at Glastonbury that Chris Evans saw you, initially?
Abbe – I think a few people have put that on Facebook, haven’t they, and people just assume that, but we got in to Carfest (North) through a lovely girl called Chloe who put us on to the Wigwam Stage and when we were there she said ‘I’ve also managed to put you forward for the friends and family glamping area…’
Hannah – I’ve still got my band on for good luck…
Abbe – And we said ‘Oh brilliant, that’s great’ and she said ‘I don’t think you realise what a deal this is; this is an access all areas pass, even I can’t get in to these areas’. So me and Hannah put on these bands and waltzed around Carfest flashing our bands here, there and everywhere and it was just brilliant. So we went to set up and we had to do the sound as well, so we were having this big faff and panic when Bob Geldof walked in. It was just berserk and then we set up and it was a lovely tent; everyone was outside around the fire enjoying themselves, so we just settled in to the fact that ‘It’s cool that we’re here but no-one’s really going to watch and we might meet Chris Evans if he comes by but we’re just the background and that’s that.’ Then in walked Chris Evans and sat about two metres in front of us tapping the table and with his feet tapping. If someone had filmed us, the reactions on our faces would have been so funny but then he stayed for the entire set. Brilliant.
Hannah – Me and Abbe couldn’t look at each other.
Abbe – We’ve developed this thing over the last few weeks where we have to avoid eye contact with each other.
Allan – So that was what led to this morning.
Hannah – Yeah. We played at Carfest, then we got a text message from Chris the next day, back at the van…
Abbe – We gave him our CDs the night before…
Hannah – And we spoke to him and he said ‘What can I do for you girls, I listened to your CD this morning.’
Abbe – To which we coolly said ‘OK’. (Laughter all round). It was really funny because we went back to the tent to get breakfast and he came in and said ‘Hello again, I’ve got your music playing in my car and I’ll take your details and get in contact and we’ll sort this out.’ So we were just trying to be really cool and collected. He’s so friendly, he’s so down to earth; he’s lovely. And he left and the chef who was making everybody breakfast just came over and leaned on the table and went ‘Look at you trying to keep it together’
Then we got a text saying ‘Let’s sort this out’ and we thought ‘Shall we just give him a ring? Who dares wins…’
Hannah – Then we got invited to The Mulberry Inn, his pub, to play and open mic night last Friday which was amazing and we ended up playing our whole set at the end of the night.
Abbe – It was two songs, then it was four. Then ‘No, don’t stop, we’ll tell you when to stop. Right, close the doors, keep playing”. It was brilliant.
Hannah – Then he saw the state of us in the morning the next day…
Abbe – And he still liked us.
Allan – And presumably that’s what led to where you’ve been this morning; at Radio 2.
Abbe – (More laughter) That was the long answer.
Hannah – It was the teapot that did it; the teapot in the van, our RAC van. (Probably too complicated to explain here, but it’s a good excuse to point you in the direction of the show on iPlayer at 1:42:20 and 02:25:55).
Allan – And how it did it go at Radio 2?
Abbe – Amazing! It’s so funny; we were obviously nervous, but I don’t think I‘ve thought about it enough this week because it’s been a case of ‘Right this is happening, get that planned get this organised, do that…” that you don’t actually think about what you’re planning towards until suddenly the day was here and my stomach was just turning in circles. Then we got there and it was fine, don’t even think about it, don’t look at Facebook, don’t look at your phone, don’t look at messages, don’t think about everyone we know sitting around the radio like the 1940s or something listening to us.
And then I went off to the toilet and you see faces that you know so I just did this casual nod like ‘Oh there’s my friend, oh hello, oh wait, no, that’s Moira Stuart…aaargh!’
Allan – I listened to it and I was listening out for any signs of nerves; I couldn’t hear any at all.
Hannah – That’s brilliant. We haven’t heard it back yet so we don’t know how it sounded.
Abbe – There was a point where I felt a bit bleaty; there was a lot of nervous vibrato…
Allan – Was it the intention for you to do two songs right from the start?
Hannah – He had asked us to do one and then the producer said that he wanted us to do two…
Abbe – But then the way it was all structured today with us playing and then Jonas and Jane and Mancie Baker we were just waiting to see what happened because obviously they’ve got their playlist and you can see it all on the computers everywhere and people are running in handing him text messages and notices and I thought there was a good intention but it might not happen because they’re on such a schedule and then suddenly… He doesn’t give you much notice for things does he? Everything’s so casual, like Chris knows what’s going on, but no-one else does.
Allan – Do you know if they filmed any of it?
Abbe – I don’t know. I think there were notices around saying if the red light’s on, there’s a webcam being broadcast, and on the red button (interactive) you can see the DJs, so there may well be something.
Allan – So, to go back a bit, How did Sound of the Sirens start?
Hannah – Many moons ago. We met each other about ten years ago when we worked in a nightclub together and clicked and got on really well. Then we started singing together, probably about three years later?
Abbe – Probably about that. I remember being sitting in your Mum and Dad’s house singing and your Mum going ‘Oh, that’s nice’ and then when you moved house we used to sit there doing harmonies on “Chasing Cars”.
Hannah – We started a band called Route Two, but we soon realised that was a bit of an error.
Abbe – We had two gigs supporting the Fab Beatles in Devon.
Hannah – And the amazing Kev Day (of the Fab Beatles), was really supportive and encouraged us.
Abbe – Then we left that and joined a functions band with Lisa, so there were three of us and then we became Sound of the Sirens when we got bored of singing covers and thought let’s write our own music.
Hannah – And learn to play guitar.
Abbe – Then Lisa fell in love and moved to London and there was good intention there for us to stay together but it just didn’t happen. We got lovely messages from Lisa this morning. She’s been so supportive throughout; we still see her all the time. I think people always want some scandal, you know, what happened to the third one?
Allan – It must be difficult keeping a band together in those circumstances, it’s like trying to keep a relationship together at long distance.
Abbe – Especially when it’s essentially a hobby, when you’re working full-time and then every weekend you’re committing to a band and trying to keep a relationship going and you live in a different city, it’s just never going to happen, but we’re all still really good friends.
So, Sound of the Sirens has been going six years, nearly seven and it’s been me and Hannah for the last three. When Lisa was with us, we just had a very simple stomp box in the middle which Johnny (band chauffeur, organiser, minder and all-round good bloke) fashioned out of MDF with a mic in a box; job done. Then Lisa left and to fill that gap we added in the floor tom and the tambourine.
Allan – Well that’s my next question ruined then. I was about to ask if the percussion had been there right from the start because that’s quite a big element of what you do, isn’t it?
Abbe – I think it is now, more than it was originally.
Hannah – It was difficult trying to choose songs today for Radio 2 without the percussion; it was quite tough because a lot of our songs are driven by the rhythm.
Abbe – (To Hannah) Did you notice this morning that when they said ‘We’ve got the mics set up, girls, can you try and stand still?’. We’re used to floor tom and tambourine to bashing our feet around on everything and it’s really difficult to stand still; we were air drumming.
Hannah – So it did take a while in the beginning; we were often at random beats, flying everywhere.
Allan – So my really big question now is how do you decide who gets to play the floor tom, because you don’t always have the same configuration?
Abbe – I think naturally… I can’t even remember how we did that in the beginning; I think I must have just done the drum on one song and stayed on it, because I drum a lot and play tambourine a lot and I think we just got used to doing the on beat or the off beat, so it’s difficult when you try and change it. There are songs that we swap…
Hannah – Because of the rhythms we’re playing on the guitar, and sometimes trying to do the opposite on the drum felt, at the time, a bit impossible because we were new to it so we just did whatever worked more naturally.
Abbe – I think we probably could do it now but it’s quite nice to swap and do something different. We wouldn’t get that lumpy thing when you’re drumming and you lose it and go all ‘lost it: lumpy leg’.
Allan – When you first started writing your own material, who were you influenced by?
Hannah – I think you’ve got influences wedged in your brain anyway from when you were growing up; from when you were little and teenage years; we used to listen to very different types of music.
Abbe – What was the music in your household, growing up?
Hannah – The music was Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, a bit of Alice Cooper; my Mum only had one CD really and that was Alex Parks (More laughter). Love you Alex Parks, but… And as a teenager, I tried to be cool; I listened to a bit of happy hardcore, but I think that was on purpose, just trying to be cool and I don’t do that anymore. And Hanson, Gloria Estefan as an eleven-year-old (Hannah, not Gloria).
We had our own influences but together, the bands that we loved when we started playing, were Mumford and Sons, Damien Rice…
Abbe – We were saying that this morning weren’t we? I grew up with country; my dad’s really into country music, we’re talking Foster and Allen.
Allan – Not outlaw country then…
Abbe – No; on Sunday mornings I can remember me and my brother, our bedrooms were next to each other, and we were ‘He’s doing it again!’ and shouting at Dad who was downstairs singing. My Mum was really into The Kinks and The Carpenters and me and my sister used to record ourselves singing Carpenters songs because we loved Karen Carpenter so much and those were our growing up songs.
Freddie, my older brother, was really into Nirvana so I tried to get into that, just because you have to follow what your older brother does. I think it’s a mix of everything but definitely there’s a few bands in your lifetime that really stand out and Mumford and Sons came to Exeter and they played at the Exeter Cavern supporting Johnny Flynn and I went along with my boyfriend Woody to watch Johnny Flynn. When the support act came on, we were both blown away so we were looking for them online and there was nothing for ages and the next thing you they’ve got an album launch at Thekla in Bristol. Then we went to watch then on New year’s Eve in London and we saw them right from their roots and watched how they exploded and I just think at the time they burst on to the scene they were so original and I’m so inspired them, we both are.
Hannah – Yeah. And female singers as well; Alanis Morissette…
Abbe – Oh yeah, and Natalie Imbruglia who coincidentally is there (Radio 2) tomorrow. So exciting; we could say we were her support act, maybe?
Allan – I always like to ask songwriters about this; when you write now, how does that process work? How do you create songs; do you have a fixed way of working?
Abbe – Different ways; I like taking things from books, certain words. Part of my degree was textual practices in finding ways to make songs and poetry and taking certain things and linking them together. I’ve got this American verse book that we would take some stuff from. Also, just walking along, if an idea comes into your head, just finding a quiet place to sing it into your phone and record it, so we’ve got little snippets of half-made ideas.
Hannah – Some of them are experiences that we had, conversations written down, so each song is born in a different way. There’s a different story behind each one, we haven’t really got a formula.
Allan – With your songs, I think I said something like this in a review, it’s not just the words or the rhythms, it’s the way they work together. I find that interesting and it feels like a lot of effort must go into that, or does it just come naturally?
Hannah – I think because we teach and we’re constantly playing pop songs, I think we do get used to songs sounding quite samey so I think we work against that and make sure that the melodies aren’t just going with the chords and it’s not just an obvious structure. I think that’s why we don’t come out with a song every day, because we want to make sure that they are different and stand out.
Abbe – I think, as well, not being too precious with what you create because sometimes you come up with a song quite quickly and you sit there going ‘Yeah brilliant, job done. Let’s go and have some food. We’re sorted’. Then you come back to the song in a week and go ‘I don’t like it it’s really happy, it’s really cheesy; let’s make everything minor notes and change it and just play around with it until it works…
Hannah – Until we’re both happy with it.
Allan – And lyrically, some of it’s quite dark and Gothic as well, isn’t it?
Hannah – We’re massive angsty teenagers inside.
Abbe – We played at a wedding a few weeks ago and we always make a point of saying (it’s only friends and things who would ask us to play, and we’re really flattered) that we’re not wedding material; people wants songs they know and people want to dance. So we sat down to write a setlist and we’re saying ‘Oh, no, not that one that’s really dark, and not that one, that’s about a breakup, and that one’s about a horrible person and that one’s really negative’. All of our songs are big and quite punchy but they are quite dark.
Hannah – Positively sad songs.
Abbe – Shiny darkness.
Allan – Ok, and just to finish up on, what’s going to happen in the future. Where do we go from here?
Hannah – We’ll get a call later today with a record deal offer.
Abbe – The head of Virgin’s just tweeted or sent you an email, so we’ll probably deal with Richard Branson later.
Hannah – And Chris Evans is going to manage us personally as well.
Abbe – Yeah, he’s going to open a new label. We’re playing at Looe Festival. We’re playing at Carfest (South) next week…
Hannah – We didn’t mean all that, by the way, that was only joking…
Abbe – But we’re playing at Carfest next week and we’re opening the Main Stage with a few songs, which is brilliant. Jools Holland’s going to be playing there, so obviously we’re going to make that contact as well, so we’ll be on “Later…”, then “TFI Friday” and then we’re set. That’s it, so it’s as simple as that.
Allan – Well that sounds good to me…
To round off the mid-term report for 2015, we thought it would be good to have a look at some of the people we’ve discovered this year. Some of them are relatively new and some have been around for a while but they have one thing in common; they’re all very good.
We heard about Mollie Marriott last year when she did backing vocals (along with Izzy Chase-Phillmore) on Jim Stapley’s debut album “Long Time Coming”. She’s had a couple of singles out (“Ship of Fools” and “Transformer”) and the first album’s just about ready to go. She’s been collaborating with some exceptional songwriters and her live band (Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley, Sam Tanner, Alex Reeves and Henrik Irgens) sounds stunning. Top that off with a voice which can do the pure pop, but has a raw, soulful edge as well and you’ve got something a little bit special. The only way is up.
Discovering Sound of the Sirens earlier this year was proof that turning up for the support band can pay off. They supported Mad Dog Mcrea on a few dates earlier this year, including The Half Moon in Putney and they were superb. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood create a huge sound with two voices, two guitars (or guitar and mandolin) and two stompboxes. If you insist on attaching a genre tag to Sound of the Sirens, ‘twenty-first century acoustic anthems’, is pretty close to the mark; it works for us anyway. But don’t just take our word for it, in the last couple of months, Abbe and Hannah have played at Glastonbury, have secured a BBC Introducing slot and are appearing at Carfest. And they’ve got a new EP out.
The guys in Jupe are Dublin-based and they’ve been together for a while, but now that their line-up has settled they’re just starting to get the attention that their anthemic soul/pop/rock really deserves. The Riot Squad saw Jupe at a showcase gig at The Garage in Islington a few weeks ago and they were the band that got the entire audience on their side. The sound is contemporary and commercial but it’s backed up with rock-solid musicianship and a charismatic singer who knows how to work a live crowd. The single “Rocket” is out on August 3.
Hannah Aldridge released her jaw-droppingly good debut album, “Razor Wire” in 2014; it’s a collection of intensely personal songs written from the perspective of a writer who has walked the darker side of the street. She toured the UK recently in support of the album and won over audiences with her stripped-down solo versions of the album material, including a storming version of “Howlin’ Bones”. The album and the live performances of the “Razor Wire” material alone would secure Hannah’s inclusion in this feature, but there’s even more. During the show at Green Note, Hannah played a new song called “Gold Rush” which held the audience in hushed awe. If the rest of the next album is even close to the standard of “Gold Rush” it’s going to be an album to grace anyone’s collection.
Three years ago, we were seriously impressed by Natalie Duncan’s debut album “Devil in Me” and her stunning live performances. Things went a bit quiet following the initial promotion for the album and the major label deal didn’t really work out, but Natalie’s a strong character and a formidable talent; she’s been working on new material and, over the last year or so, she’s been playing to a mixture of album material and new songs to appreciative audiences all over London. The new songs from her “Black and White” EP are much more edgy than her earlier material, using vocal loops and samples as part of the backing tracks and they seem to be attracting a new audience to augment her original following. Anyway, she’s sounding better than ever and you should give her a listen.
And, if that’s not enough to be going on with, there are a few other bands that you should keep an eye on. Black Casino and the Ghost release their second album later this year, Space Elevator’s brand of theatrical melodic rock is attracting wider attention, The Jar Family are reaching wider live audiences with their well-crafted songs and energetic gigs and Jim Stapley (Mollie Marriott collaborator and astonishingly powerful rock singer) is working in New Orleans on new material for that difficult second album. By the time you’ve checked out all of those, we’ll be doing the year-end review.
I’ve got to be honest about this; this gig doesn’t really have a downside. You get to listen to new music, go to see bands, take photos and meet and interview some really interesting people; and that’s just when things are going reasonably well. Sometimes you get lucky and a band’s better than you expected and, very occasionally, usually when you least expect it, you hear something that just pushes all the right buttons. I had one of those moments last week when I went to see Mad Dog Mcrea and had the incredibly good luck to see a support set by Sound of the Sirens. They were so good that it would be pretty rude if I didn’t tell you about their debut album, “A Long Way to Fall”. It was released in 2013, so I’m a little bit off the pace here, but I’m hoping that Abbe and Hannah will forgive me for that.
Based in Exeter, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have been working together as Sound of the Sirens for over six years now and recorded “A Long Way to Fall” at Terry Britten’s State of the Ark studio in Richmond but, enough about that, it’s time to get back to those buttons. If you can press the ones marked good songs, good vocals (even better, harmonies as well) and interesting instrumental arrangements, then you’ve got me, and anything else is a bonus. Abbe and Hannah did all of that live, so I couldn’t wait to hear the studio version.
If you’ve looked at the top of this piece, you’ll know how many stars I gave the album, so there’s no point trying to build up the suspense; I love it. So what about the good songs button? There isn’t a bad or even average song on the album; they’re all very good and some are exceptional. Actually that’s the wrong way round, most of the songs are exceptional and the rest are very good. It’s all very personal but, for me, “The Night Before”, “In This Time”, “Anything Less”, “Up to the House”, “The Gift” and “Faith in Fire” are all examples of great songwriting. Not that there’s anything wrong with “Afraid of the Dark”, “Who We Are” and “A Thousand Words”; they’re very good songs.
There are a few themes running through the lyrics; most of the songs are about relationships, whether it’s failed or failing relationships, or even ghosts of relationships and bring in references to jealously, blame, self-delusion and manipulation which are ultimately counter-balanced by strength, self-belief and independence. It sounds unlikely from the raw materials, but the overall message is uplifting, despite the elemental imagery of darkness, water and flames running through the songs. The album’s opener, “The Night Before” sets the tone with its tale of a relationship falling apart and descending into jealousy and recriminations; it’s dark, but it’s painfully honest as is “In This Time” which explores the tensions between self-reliance and accepting the need for love and affection.
What about good vocals then? Well, Abbe and Hannah both have fabulous voices but the wonderful thing is that they complement each other so well; they both have pure, powerful voices and Hannah has some folk intonations, while Abbe has a slightly more husky pop/rock sound. Anyway, it works; the default setting is harmonies that work well to build up the texture of the song but the texture of the two voices also creates some hairs-on-the back-of-the-neck moments. From the gentle homophony of the final verse of “Anything Less” to the homophony and counterpoint of “Afraid of the Dark” and the counterpoint about three minutes in to “Up to the House”, it’s genuinely spine-tingling.
You might think that you can’t get a lot of variety and dynamic range out of two people with instruments, but Sound of the Sirens aren’t having any of that. Yes, you get the quiet, introspective two voices and two guitars thing, but you also get some variety with Abbe’s mandolin, and the stompbox and kickdrum (Hannah and Abbe respectively) allow them to move swiftly up through the gears from cruising to full throttle and turbo between and within songs. “A Thousand Words” is percussive throughout in a bit of a Proclaimers way, while “Who We Are” is almost ska/folk punctuated by a very nice call and response section and “The Gift” begins with an ethereal a cappella intro before building up to a rhythmical climax and dying away again with an a cappella outro.
“Faith in Fire” closes the album and it’s a perfect way to go out because it pulls together all of the strands of rhythm, rhyme and harmony that make Sound of the Sirens such a compulsive attraction. The lyrics are dark, Gothic and elemental (imagine a twenty-first century Cathy and Heathcliff) and the song builds from a gentle finger-picked guitar backing and quiet solo vocal through the introduction of the harmony vocal and the gradual pick-up of tempo through the bridge to the repetition of the word ‘told’ which brings in both guitars and percussion at full throttle before a percussion and a cappella breakdown. And then it builds back up again to huge finish on ’Dancing on the mess that we made’. And if that three minutes and twenty-one seconds of magic hasn’t dragged you through the emotional wringer, then you have no soul. I haven’t heard a song I love this much (recorded and live) in a long, long time.
If you want an album packed to the rafters with twenty-first century acoustic anthems, then you’ve definitely come to the right place. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood have a chemistry that’s almost impossible to resist, and why should you want to resist? You should buy the album and keep an eye on MusicRiot for tour dates, because you really need to see Sound of the Sirens live. Enough is never enough.
“A Long Way to Fall” is available now as a CD or download on the band’s website.