Following successful appearances at Latitude and Dartford festivals over the weekend and with Fuji Rocks coming up a week later, things are pretty hectic for Stone Foundation at the moment in the run-up to the release of “A Life Unlimited” in early August. The album looks set to be their biggest to date and the fanbase seems to be growing by the minute, so it was great to be able to have a quick chat with bass player and co-songwriter Neil Sheasby about the band’s roots and the events of the last year or so.
Allan – So Neil, tell us a bit about the origins of the band.
Neil – It started around the friendship between me and Neil Jones (Stone Foundation singer and co-writer). He was in a band previously that supported a band I was in and I was immediately impressed with his voice and when the band I was in broke up, the first thing I wanted to do was to get a proper vocalist, so we started writing songs together, fifteen years ago probably. But it took so long because we knew we always wanted it to be a heavy-hitting band with the horns and Hammond and it took a long, long time for us to be able to get the right line-up together. We had the vision and the thoughts and the ideas but it took ages to get that line-up and for it to come to fruition.
Allan – The fact that it’s taken a long time, does that keep you grounded about the whole thing?
Neil – Absolutely, we would be anyway, because first and foremost we’re music fans. Both of us have got big record collections and we create for the buzz of it. We’d be doing it anyway whether people were paying attention or not. So we’ll always be grounded really; it doesn’t matter how much media attention we get or how many people come through the door at gigs and buy records, there’s no reason for us not to stay grounded.
Allan – Over the last couple of years in particular, a lot’s been happening for you and it’s gone crazy over the last six months, so how does that feel after all the time you’ve spent grafting at it?
Neil – It’s heartening and humbling and encouraging for us because you know you’re making a connection: you know you’re not fooling yourself really. We try and do the best we can and we try and make records that we really believe in; fundamentally we’ve got to like them. It’s a cliché that you make music for yourself and if someone else likes it, it’s a bonus, but you do want people to like the records and you do want people to make that connection. Fortunately, the last couple of records, especially “To Find the Spirit” found us a really wide audience and I hope the new record “A Life Unlimited” will broaden it; I think it’s our best work to date. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t care if anyone liked it or not; we do. We want as many people as possible to like it. It’s humbling and encouraging and it means we can carry on. If no-one was interested and no-one bought the records there would be no point in us staying together; this keeps us working, keeps us together and keeps us moving forward.
Allan – I think it’s interesting that your fans are a lot like Dexys fans, for example, they seem to be a very loyal bunch and they really buy in to the whole package.
Neil – Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true. When I was younger I used to follow bands like Dexys and The Jam around; you wouldn’t just go and see one gig, you’d go and follow the tour around, but there’s hardly anyone that does that now and I think we are that sort of band. You never know what you’re going to get from night to night; I think people see that in us and maybe we remind them of things that they’ve grown up with and that’s a good thing; we’re really lucky to have that fanbase that are loyal and just get what we do.
Allan – I think it says a lot about the respect that you have from other musicians that you can pull in such great guest artists on the albums as well.
Neil – Definitely, but that’s not something that we do just for the sake of it. We’ve been fortunate to work with people like Nolan Porter who came over from America and we were his backing band, but while he was over we did some things in collaboration. People like Carleen Anderson and Graham Parker, they don’t do just anything; they have to like what’s in front of them, what they’re hearing, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
The Carleen Anderson thing “When You’re In My World” was written with that Marvin Gaye duet kind of vibe; that’s how we heard it and we approached Carleen on a whim really. It’s beyond our expectations to be working with people like that, but it’s a massive compliment to what we’re doing that they say yes and get right behind it as well. They believe in what we’re doing as well and they say some very nice complimentary things about our thing and it’s as much of a surprise to us as it is to everyone else; it’s a lovely thing to happen.
Allan – So how did you manage to land Graham Parker?
Neil – Funnily enough, I was at a book launch. I’m really good friends with Paolo Hewitt and I went to the launch of his last book and Graham was there. I just approached him as a fan because I‘m a big fan of Graham Parker and the Rumour and I’ve got all their records. We got chatting and we just hit it off, really. We just started talking, and we never stopped talking so we exchanged emails and numbers. I had a song called “The Night Teller” and it was a bit of a late night phone-in thing like the cover of “The Nightfly” by Donald Fagen, which you mentioned in your review, didn’t you?
Allan – Yeah, I did…
Neil – You got that exactly, nailed on, which really surprised me; it was exactly that, it was a late-night helpline with two people phoning in having a conversation so we needed another voice and I thought Graham’s voice would be absolutely bang-on for it really, so I put the suggestion to him, sent the track and sure enough he went for it. It was one of the bonding things with me and Neil when we started Stone Foundation, we had a few jumping-off points and Graham Parker and the Rumour was certainly one so to have him on our record was fairly incredible really.
Allan – And it sounds great, it really works well for the song.
Neil – As I say, it’s not just for the sake of it. It’s because you can hear it happening.
Allan – One thing that always fascinates me, and I always try to ask songwriters about this, is do you and Neil have a particular creative process, do you always work in the same way?
Neil – No, not really; we collaborated a lot more on this last record. We write separately and sometimes it’s like finishing off each other’s sentences. Neil will have an idea and I’ll think ‘I’ve got this bit that’ll probably work with that’ or I’ll have a song that I haven’t got a bridge for and he’ll have something that just fits hand-in glove, so there’s no real process; we don’t sit down in a room together or anything, there’s various ways it can happen. It can start from a little groove or we can come in with the lyrics first or even the title, as in the case of “Beverley”. We’d had that little hook for a while and we wrote the song around that, so there’s many different ways we work. Also, the band play a part in the arrangements as well. Phil, the drummer, has a great ear for arrangements but there’s no set ways. Sometimes it just happens, when we share the vision and the ideas. It’s sometimes difficult for me and Neil to get the sound out of our head that we want, but the musicians that we’ve got around us now know us well enough to have an understanding and they grasp it really quickly and we get the ideas in our head out and on to the record. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
Allan – The horn section’s sounding really good on this record, although I kind of miss the trombone live, but I guess that’s one of those things about having a big band.
Neil – Well we didn’t want to hide behind the last record, “To Find the Spirit”, so we wanted to make subtle changes. Spencer (Hague, trombone player) played on the last record, but he’s taking a break from the band; he’s having a family and he’s got work commitments. The more the band’s successful, the more the demands of gigging, the more the band’s going through the gears, the more pressure there is on people to give up time to do it because they’re all working guys as well. Spen’s taken a back seat but who knows, never say never, he might be back, but I think it’s nice to have a change with the horns as well and have a different dynamic. We’ve brought in a baritone sax (Adam) and Gareth on trumpet; it’s nice to have a change in dynamic and it’s healthy to keep changing from record to record and I’m sure it’ll change again because it’s inevitable with big line-ups.
Allan – Thanks very much for your time, Neil and good luck in Japan next week.
“A Life Unlimited” is released on August 7.
Imagine a world where musicians master their instruments and voices by playing (solo and as a group) until they know that their music is good enough for the public to hear. Where musicians get together to play music that they believe in; music that’s passionate and inspired. Where success is measured in emotional response, not midweek chart positions. Where the playing is more important than image, and integrity is more important than overnight success and bread and circuses TV shows. Where bands play live and it sounds better than the vinyl/CD/download because it’s not all about clever production and autotune. Where a singer isn’t some deluded hyper-melismatic Whitney wannabe. Where bands actually respect their audiences. I visited that world two nights ago when I saw Stone Foundation headline the Delicious Junction fifth birthday party at The 100 Club.
After a variety of short support sets, including one from Simon Wells, who was unfairly ignored by most of the audience (despite a guest appearance from SF’s Gary Rollins), it was time for the main event. It was big smiles all round from the audience, and the band, playing their third sell-out 100 Club gig this year; and it was bass player Neil Sheasby’s birthday. The band opened with the title song from the latest album, “To Find the Spirit”, and from that point on it was their night. Stone Foundation doesn’t make any distinction between support and headline sets; the guys just get on and give it the beans. This is a gang in the great tradition of Dexys; it’s not about individual egos, it’s about the big picture and this picture’s a masterpiece where every element counts.
Underpinning the band’s sound is the rock solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip Ford; it’s not necessarily fussy, but it provides the core for everyone else to lock in to. They’ve played together for a long time now, and it shows. New recruit Robert Newton’s congas add a subtle new flavour to the live sound, while Ian Arnold’s keys and Neil Jones’ guitar fill out the mid-range and add some melodic flourishes. Neil Jones is one of those singers who sound better live than recorded (and I’m not saying that he sounds bad on the albums). And then there’s the icing on the cake; the horns. Gary Rollins (sax), Spencer Hague (trombone) and Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) are spot on as an ensemble punching in three-part fills but individually they all take solos which fit perfectly with the songs without going over the line into self-indulgence. As an old Stax and Atlantic fan, I’ve always loved the Hammond and horns combo, particularly when it includes the more subtle flavours of trombone and flugel, and these guys are the real deal.
The set was split between songs from “To Find the Spirit”, including the title track, the epic slow groove of “Don’t Let the Rain” and “Wondrous Place”, and old favourites like “No More the Fool” and the stomping “Tracing Paper”. There was even a surprise during the encore as the band motored through a cover of “Jumping Jack Flash” and then it was all over. Oh, and a bit of DJ set from Paolo Hewitt as well; what more do want from a gig?
It’s been a good year for Stone Foundation; “To Find the Spirit” charted well in the independent chart, Paul Weller endorsed it, they’ve had national radio play and Sky Sports is using tracks from it regularly. The band has had support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and toured as headliners, and with Nolan Porter. They’ve also had a DVD out over the summer, put together by Lee Cogswell and they’re doing a Japanese tour in November. This is a bunch of people who are passionate about their music and willing to put in the hours and the miles to bring it to the public, whatever it takes; I truly admire them for that dedication and I hope their star continues to rise in 2015.
Maybe it’s time to welcome the new soul vision.
It’s been a busy year for Stone Foundation. The album “To Find the Spirit”, released independently in March 2014, made a significant impact on the indie charts as the band’s live following increased with their own gigs in Europe and Japan and support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys. With radio support from Craig Charles on 6 Music and endorsement from the Modfather himself, things have been looking pretty good for the band this year. So, how do you keep that momentum going? Well, a few gigs with soul legend and SF collaborator, Nolan Porter, and a DVD as a more permanent memento, would probably do nicely. The gigs have come and gone and the DVD, “Finding the Spirit”, was released on 21 July.
So let’s just rewind a little bit here; Stone Foundation is a bunch of guys from the West Midlands (an area more renowned for heavy metal, to be honest) which formed around the nucleus of Neil Jones (guitar and vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass and backing vocals) around ten years ago and developed into a classic soul/r’n’b lineup (and by r’n’b I mean Stax and Atlantic, not Jay-Z and Beyonce) with the addition of drums (Philip K Ford), Hammond organ (Ian Arnold), sax (Gary Rollins), trombone (Spencer Hague) and trumpet and latest recruits trumpet (Gareth John) and congas/percussion (Rob Newton). Stone Foundation operates completely outside what’s left of the mainstream music business. On the band’s website, the imagery of the biography is equal parts gang/team and an almost religious evangelism; if you’re thinking early Dexys and The Clash here, then you’re pretty much on the money. Personally, I’m more drawn to the idea of a collective than a gang; the band’s a very tight unit, but they find like-minded contributors outside the unit willing to help promote the manifesto, including writer Paolo Hewitt, Specials’ bass player Horace Panter (who contributed the artwork for “To Find the Spirit”), and videographer Lee Cogswell.
Lee has put together “Finding the Spirit” (described as “a collection of films”) which pulls together various strands of the band’s work over the last few years, combining music videos, a documentary of the 2012 collaboration with Nolan Porter (“Keep On Keepin’ On”), a track-by-track exploration of “To Find the Spirit” with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, and a record of Stone Foundation’s 2014 Japanese tour (“Tokyo 2014”).
“Keep On Keepin’ On” mixes interviews with the two Neils and Nolan Porter with live footage from The Musician in Leicester and London’s 100 Club and some lovely studio footage of the recording of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” featuring Nolan’s lead vocal; it’s a familiar (but still welcome) story of an artist whose career has been resurrected by the UK Northern Soul scene, but this time with some help from contemporary musicians. The film captures the relationship between Nolan, the band, and their collective audience perfectly, particularly in the footage from The 100 Club.
The track-by-track breakdown of “To Find the Spirit” is enlightening and informative; the interviews with Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby give a genuine insight into the way the album came together while emphasising the part played by fate or the collective spirit. The cameos played by Carleen Anderson and Andy Fairweather-Low were arranged through friends of friends, “Don’t Let the Rain” started with a bass riff and a string sound from Ian Arnold’s new keyboard, and the original inspiration for the album and the song “Child of Wonder” came from a prose piece by Paolo Hewitt. It’s surprising to hear that there were question marks over whether “Crazy Love” had a place on the album; thankfully, common sense prevailed there.
“Tokyo 2014” is a collage of impressions from the brief Stone Foundation Japanese tour earlier this year superimposing quick clips of the band meeting their fans over a live soundtrack which includes a particularly raw version of the Booker T and the MGs classic “Time is Tight” by a Japanese band called The Tramp. The technique of using quick cuts between short video clips conveys the feel of continuous motion while the entire piece emphasises the devotion of the band’s Japanese fans.
The final section of the DVD is a compilation of Lee Cogswell’s videos for the songs “To Find the Spirit”, “Bring Back the Happiness”, “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” and “Hold On”. “To Find the Spirit” opens with a quick reference to the Dexys debut album, “Searching for the Young Soul Rebels” as the lead character tunes across the static of a radio dial before leading into an aspirational story which is shot through with visual and audio Stone Foundation references. “Bring Back the Happiness” plays under a father/son reconciliation story featuring Andy Nyman (who featured in the hilarious Channel Four show “Campus” and “Peaky Blinders”) and newcomer Ben Finlay, who was spotted dancing at a Stone Foundation gig. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” is a very clean black and white (and silhouette) video of the individual band members featuring multi-screen effects, and “Hold On” is a fairly straightforward studio piece featuring Andy Fairweather-Low guesting on backing vocals. You can have a look at the videos here.
By any standards, this is a very high quality piece of work; if you take into account the fact that this venture has no music business backing, then it’s absolutely exceptional. Lee Cogswell has worked across a variety of styles, including documentary, interviews, live footage, reportage and music video to produce a cohesive piece of work which enhances his own reputation while documenting the rise of a band with an absolute commitment to fulfilling its own agenda. It’s more than a just a souvenir, it’s a lovingly-crafted insight into the workings of a group of people who are making music for all the right reasons. The band is also appearing in a special session recorded for the Craig Charles funk and soul show on BBC 6 Music this Saturday (August 9).
This DVD is worth buying for its musical and visual quality, but also because the people responsible for the creative input actually see some financial reward for their efforts.
Out now. Available from Lee Cogswell.
There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”. These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there. Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.
It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week. The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions. This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development. Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.
Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes. So, signs of a marketing budget there. Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.
Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically. The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase. There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.
“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too. Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there. The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats. The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.
It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more. Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising. Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media. The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it. It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort. It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.
So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band. All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.
Now go out and support them.
Sometimes it’s shocking that a band can be around for nearly ten years playing quality music without ever grabbing your attention; maybe it’s because, contrary to popular belief, there are still hundreds of superb bands out there and it’s just possible to occasionally miss one. So I have to apologise to Stone Foundation; let’s hope I can make up for my shocking ignorance. Before I even start on the music, I have to say that there’s an attitude about the band that evokes the early days of Dexys Midnight Runners; the band page on their website reads like one of Kevin Rowland’s legendary communiqués in the band’s heady early days. There are lots of underplayed references to their influences on the website as well, but you can find those for yourself.
The band members are Neil Jones (vocals, guitar and harmonica), Neil Sheasby (bass), Ian Arnold (Hammond), Philip K Ford (drums), Spencer Hague (trombone), Lynn Thompson (trumpet) and Gary Rollins (saxophone and flute). They’ve been touring as headliners and recently as support to acts like The Specials on their recent arena tour, steadily building up their own fanbase and “To Find the Spirit” is their fifth studio album. This is a band which wears its influences proudly on its sleeve; if it’s remotely soulful and it was made in the 60s or 70s, it’s probably had an influence on Stone Foundation. The playing is of the very highest quality but this isn’t about style over substance and flashy solos; on “To Find the Spirit”, everything is beautifully arranged for the seven-piece ensemble and nothing is out of place. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are guest appearances from soul legend Nolan Porter, 60s icon and soul survivor Andy Fairweather Low, former Dexys bass player Pete Williams, journalist and soulboy Paolo Hewitt and the fabulous former Young Disciple Carleen Anderson.
The album pulls you in instantly with the opening bass, guitar and Hammond crescendo of “To Find the Spirit” leading into a horn arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Southside Johnny record; to make things better still, it evoked memories of the 70s Natalie Cole classic, “This Will Be”. A pretty good start really. “Bring Back the Happiness” (featuring Nolan Porter) starts with a clean guitar riff and Hammond chords and tips more than a wink to Booker T’s “Time is Tight”. “That’s the Way I Want to Live my Life” again has a lovely Stax feel, presenting us with the rare treat of a trombone solo and you really don’t hear enough of those these days. “When You’re in My World” (featuring Carleen Anderson and the Q Strings) continues in a similar 60s feel with a lovely understated sax solo before the thunderous drum and pure Dexys horn intro leads into “Stronger Than Us”.
“Don’t Let the Rain” is, I suspect quite deliberately, the centrepiece of the album with its laid-back positive message and gradual build-up over nearly nine minutes using all the elements of the band (particularly sax and muted trumpet) in the arrangement, and it’s followed by the slow 60s groove of “Crazy Love”, again featuring a Nolan Porter vocal. “Telepathic Blessing”, with its moody electric piano intro, builds to an ending which has the Hammond and horns working perfectly together. “Hold On”, featuring Andy Fairweather Low, with its mid-tempo feel could be a post-Impressions Curtis Mayfield song and I don’t throw compliments like that around lightly.
“Child of Wonder” is an interesting combination of a surreal Paolo Hewitt rites-of-passage monologue set against a jazz-funk background (built around the bass riff from Roy Budd’s “Get Carter” theme) evoking smoky LA bars lit by out-of focus neon lights. If you’ve heard “Over the Border”, the opening track from the recent Saint Etienne classic album “Words and Music”, you might hear a few similarities. “Wondrous Place”, featuring Pete Williams is the mid-tempo, Hammond and horn-led closer to the album before the bonus Dennis Bovell dub mix of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which creates a lot of space and doesn’t try to compensate with a lot of unnecessary effects.
If you’ve ever liked anything by Booker T and the MGs, Young Disciples, Nuyorican Soul or anything on Stax and Atlantic, then you’ll love this. “To Find the Spirit” is a labour of love where the songs, the performances and the arrangements dovetail perfectly to create a seductive and glorious stew of influences which still sounds vibrant and contemporary.
Released March 10 2014 on Republic of Music, via Universal (CD – TPCD007, Vinyl – TPL007).