Sussex Sounds: Leading the way in British folk

Bellowhead - Island Records SUS-140307-133656001
Bellowhead - Island Records SUS-140307-133656001

The bigger the band the better seems to be true when it comes to folk outfit Bellowhead.

With eleven members touring the length and breadth of the UK together to promote their latest album, Revival (No.12 in the UK Album Chart as of July 6), it must not be an easy task.

But with other bands like The Pogues (eight members), Arcade Fire (ten-ish members) and the Swedish-based Barcelona (28 members), it is certainly not the first of its kind.

“It’s obviously got its pros and cons, but it feels like a family,” says trumpet player Andy Mellon.

“After ten years we’ve gotten to know each other so well. I think the bigger amount gives you a camaraderie.

“If you do fall out with someone there’s plenty of other people to talk to,” he laughs.

At the age of nine, Andy moved with his family from London to Chichester.

Nurtured on the likes of Spandau Ballet, Pink Floyd (brother’s influence) and Gerry and the Pacemakers (parents’ influence), the young musician was already an accomplished piano player before moving onto the trumpet.

As a teenager, Andy would travel to The Royal Academy of Music to be schooled in the Western classical tradition.

“There’s not that many orchestras so there’s a lot of competition for those jobs. It’s a hugely pressurised environment and one that can turn a little bit, dare I say, nasty.”

Trying his hand at the more commercial side of music, Andy took part in shows, stage pits and function bands, which he vastly preferred.

“It was a lot more chilled out, a lot more fun and there was a lot more respect,” he says.

Suddenly he was receiving phone calls to perform here, there and everywhere – until he was contacted by Jon Boden, the soon-to-be lead singer of Bellowhead.

“I didn’t know the guy, but I went to university with Pete Flood the drummer and Pete’s mum and Jon’s mum had worked in a charity shop in Winchester together and said our sons must work together at some point.”

Pulling together an ambitiously large band, the newly formed Bellowhead rehearsed and recorded a demo, but this was not enough to convince Andy that the group had legs, despite eleven pairs.

“I remember leaving quite bemused, quite bamboozled – what was that? That’s probably not got much chance of succeeding,” he laughs.

Once the band began to meet more regularly and play to audiences in local venues, Andy soon realised that this project was not just another job, and it was a great deal of fun too.

“A few years a go we did a Valentine’s special where we sourced some of the rudest love songs of the English folk cannon and we all cross-dressed in the second half (laughs). We sold out the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Southwalk and we were prancing on stage with dresses, apart from Rachel McShane (cello, fiddle, kazoo, vocals) who was dressed like a man,” says the 38-year-old.

Now ten years have passed and the band that Andy almost abandoned on a whim has released five studio albums and been nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 12 times – eight of which they won.

“It was our tenth birthday week and we played the Albert Hall on Easter Sunday and we managed to sell it out – I still can’t quite believe we did that – and the day before that we played Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.”

Bellowhead have just released their new album, Revival – their first venture with Island Records.

Praised by critics – Revival is a fun, excitable and beautifully layered album.

Tracks like the upbeat Roll Abama and Gosport Nancy is reminiscent of a seafaring journey departing from the island of strings, past a dingy carrying a brass ensemble and onto the happy-clappy percussion port.

“We were really lucky to sign with Island Records, so we kept it super secret and we managed to keep it off all social media.”

Currently doing the festival circuit, Bellowhead had the crowds cheering at Hop Farm Festival on Sunday, July 6, and will be making their way to Harrogate International Festival at the Royal Hall on July 11.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we do take the mick out of each other a lot and that’s why we always enjoy our live shows because we do have fun on stage.”

To see Bellowhead live, visit www.bellowhead.co.uk for details.