With a brilliant, melodic, hard hitting new band /album and membership of the most enduring of British roots rock groups, Benji Kirkpatrick is without question one of the hottest artists on the roots scene at the moment. Putting his past, present and possible future into context, Simon Jones chats about everything from family, inspiration to the relevance of the number three.
“I like the number three,” muses Benji Kirpatrick, “ it somehow seems to be the perfect format. I love bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Police, they all had that balance, the dynamic which made for thrilling music.”
His new group – as if he wasn’t in or hasn’t been in enough already- has three members, himself, ex Bellowhead colleague / drummer Pete Flood and Megan Henwood bassist Pete Thomas. He’s labelled them The Excess.
Is that anything to do with approach I venture.
“No, more to do with the way we live, and by we, I mean humans. Life is such a mess at the moment on differing levels and so much of it is down to excess. That could be excess in what we use, how we view the world, the speed at which we live our lives, in emotional terms…” he pauses, “ there doesn’t seem to be any space or consideration nowadays. Everything is turned up to the max, it can’t be good to have everything at that setting.”
It’s a bright, sunny afternoon, quite pleasant to sit outside the New Vic theatre in their environmental garden and consider matters in the world Kirkpatrick. Benji offers thoughts and explanations to Spiral Earth as we rewind; how was it being raised with three brothers and parents who were Folk Elite? (John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris, if you were wondering.) “ My parents were very open even though they were heavily involved in traditional music, however they also worked for the theatre providing music and helping with historical settings and customs. In fact much of it here in this very theatre which I always found very exciting as it appealed to my love of performing arts.”
You and your brothers learned different instruments? Benji still has an occasional ceilidh band with his Dad and brothers, perhaps not unsurprisingly dubbed Kirkophany.
“True, I began on piano but there were always loads of instruments around, lots of folk things… I had a primary school teacher who played guitar and that took my fancy, I was playing trumpet as well around that same time. There were never any pressures put on any of us and once I got into the guitar that was my kind of path decided really.”
So that explains your love of Jimi Hendrix…
“ Before Hendrix it was rock’n’roll, I found a load of cassettes by Little Richard, Chuck Berry, mainly Jerry Lee Lewis, that was all of my own accord but the music was bloody great, the rhythms they used still come out in my playing to this day.”
You don’t see traditional music then as something that’s sacrosanct?
“No, it’s a body of material that’s there to be worked with, you don’t freeze it in time, you can put too much emphasis on heritage. The music has to move forward and adapt, that’s what it does naturally anyway, you can think and analyse too deeply.”
You’ve always mixed with people who pushed the envelope, Oyster Band, John Jones, Faustus, Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead, that’s just skimming the surface. Does Benji Kirkpatrick have a plan or do things happen as a series of happy coincidences?
“I’m not one of life’s planners really and I’m lucky lots of things have fallen into place; when it comes to my own creativity I do have as goal, all my albums thus far have been stepping stones in one sense of another, so Boomerang and the Hendrix album have paved the way for the band I have now The Excess,” he stops to consider for a moment, “ most of what I choose to write about is to do with the dysfunctionality of human society, for want of a better term sociological issues and how there are struggles surviving day to day.”
Being raised in a rural setting where life ran on a communal, caring basis with what some may see as old fashioned values and morals he admits may have shaped some of his thinking when it comes to composition.
“The area I was brought up in (South Shropshire) has a big part to play in me and my general attitude in a subconscious way. I’m a country boy but I don’t live in the country any more though I will admit that there is cushioning to that kind of lifestyle, you don’t see things quite so starkly as you do in an urban environment. I did have the advantage though of travelling around quite a lot with touring musicians as parents and family in London and Coventry, which meant I experienced different settings and aspects of life outside of my home community.”
Does he see himself commenting on society in the same way as the folk process has always done or is his writing more edgy and blunt?
“ I think there is a bit of both there, I write in a narrative way through someone’s specific story like the track about homelessness, The Undesirable, which is very specific to one person but aims at the wider problem in its intention and impact. I wouldn’t call it folk music as such because that can mean different things to different people. I hope though what I’ve done before this means it can be appreciated quite widely.”
Was it hard to find people to join the Excess as no doubt being just a trio the right personalities were key?
“Pete Flood is just a percussive genius, he’s wide open to inspiration and I worked with him in Bellowhead and beyond, I’ve always been struck with his playing and his versatility is important because not everything I come up with is straightforward. Anything you throw at him he can do and expand on. I came across Pete Thomas the bassist through fellow Faustus Saul Rose who recorded him and of course he worked with Mawkin too though the regular gigs people will know him from are with Megan Henwood and Jackie Oates.”
You’ve tried the band at some gigs, were the venues all safe bets?
“A few of them were I suppose you could say finding our feet, we struggled in some places because the band is new and whenever you try that it takes a time for people to get used to it, no matter who you’ve played with before. Though I’d like to think that because I’ve worked so much that I could pull an audience from wider appreciation. We do salt the set with some of the tracks from Boomerang and a couple of numbers from the Hendrix CD though the entire point of the latter was to strip the tracks away from a rock trio approach.”
Had that been easy to do, Hendrix’s material is so rooted in our psyche as the blueprint of guitar rock?
“No, not all of it was easy, some things fell into place naturally, I’d always messed around with Hendrix riffs and chords on the instruments I play. It was on the banjo that Voodoo Chile came about, then I tackled The Wind Cries Mary, then it became a project rather than just trying things out so I realised I needed more songs. Angel though, that was a complicated chord structure, Little Wing too was tricky and of course I decided specifically to not play guitar because Hendrix did that. So it wasn’t all plain sailing but I was very pleased with the results.”
How did writing shall we say social conscience material first come about?
“I suppose it was The Levellers in the early 90s when they were on top of their game, as I was late teens then what they were writing about struck chord and increased my social awareness. I wrote pseudo Levellers songs for a while until I gradually found my own voice so to speak.”
Time to switch then to telling Spiral Earth all about the album that’s been unleashed, best place to start being obviously where it was recorded. Gold Has Worn Away is just a little bit wonderful… you owe it to yourself and musical credibility to own a copy forthwith.
“We recorded in early 2019 mostly at Henwood Studios in Oxfordshire a great little facility and then did the overdubs and extra bits at Adventures In Audio. >I like going to a proper studio to work, give me a mic and headphones any day! I had a fairly strong vision of what the album would be, I produced a lot of it along with Matt Williams and Pete Brown who owned the studios we recorded in, they’d add things in or suggest ideas that improved the overall sound. It’s a mixture of electric and acoustic but all tracks have the full band, I mostly play bouzoukis and guitar and I will, if things go well, get my electric guitar to the stage at some point.”
A favourite type of guitar would be?
“I would like a Gibson Les Paul Classic, I don’t know enough about which year is best but I know what sounds right. I used to have a Fender Strat when I worked in Bellowhead…”
Mention of the mighty Bellowhead reminds me that if not the hardest working man in roots music, Benji’s surely a candidate when as Maddy Prior says, “he’s in every group going.” So it seems appropriate to bring them in at this point, shall we start with his other trio, Faustus?
“We’ve a new recording out Cotton Lords, that’s material based around poems about the Lancashire cotton famine. The thing with Faustus is we try to do varied arrangements of traditional music using different combinations of instruments, which makes it hard for Matt our sound guy, and then we do our best not to repeat ourselves.”
Then there’s the not inconsiderable move you’ve made joining up with Steeleye Span.
“I think it was my work with Bellowhead and Faustus to be honest that convinced Maddy(Prior,) in particular that I was a good fit for the vacancy, I got the call from her manager asking me if I’d be up for it.”
Does he feel he was, pardon the term, head hunted and how does he see himself fitting into the band?
“To be honest I didn’t know what to expect really, I was familiar with the 70s Steeleye Span as I’ve got most of that on vinyl but anything after that I wasn’t too acquainted with. I did an audition and I’ve since found the great thing about the band is that they’re quite open, keen on everyone having input, they don’t dwell too much on what has been, Steeleye are equally about now and the latest line up having its own identity. I guess because of my root I found it easier to work with the material and try ideas.”
They gave you Marrowbones to do which’d been sung by Martin Carthy originally; (on Ten Man Mop pop pickers.)
“That was great to do, a lot of that early repertoire was quite complex but I was used to that through working with Faustus, when I first joined we did the whole of Hark! The Village Wait so you can’t go any earlier than the debut album. I’d like to think that my instrumentation with banjo and bouzouki bring some new textures and sounds to what the band play.”
There is a new album to delve into Est’d 1969 which is the first from the new seven piece line up, the title a tip of the hat to the fact that 2019 sees the 50th anniversary of Steeleye Span but other than that is all spanking new material and it seems Mr. Kirkaptrick is at the centre of it all.
“I sing lead on two songs and it was quite a collaborative writing affair actually. I wrote a couple of tunes for various tracks, it was a very comfortable way of working. Maddy would have the words and she’d ask me if I had a tune to go with them, of course the immediate thing that happens is my mind went blank, (laughs,) but I got there eventually. There’s a melody of mine in the long piece called Harvest and I get to do the vocal on Old Matron which Mr. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull plays flute on. There’s also The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter which I have done on and off for years, but now I’ve finally found a place for it.”
So all this was recorded in various locations and then put together by…
“Julian (Littman, guitars) he was the one constant, with me being here, there and everywhere I laid down all my parts in two days, most of the others put the bulk of the tracks down in about a week in a studio near Hastings, we then had a two day rehearsal for the tour and got the set ship shape and fit for the road.”
A select few songs had been road tested previously since Span were sensible and introduced one or two numbers from the album on earlier jaunts, wearing the material in gradually and giving audiences a taste of what to expect. A septet makes, quite obviously, a gloriously loud noise, sometimes three guitars front up against the fiddle and rhythm section, the harmonies are richer than ever and with a considerable younger contingent in the ranks there is far more daring and cavalier attitude than you’d likely expect. In fact don’t go to see Steeleye with any preconceived notions other than you’ll have a bloody good night.Span have re-nailed their colours firmly to the folk prog mast causing no less than rock monthly Mojo to recently claim Est’d 1969 as their best in years, whispers after the show tonight talk of an anniversary DVD/CD package jammed with live material. No doubt details will follow.
Time is up and Benji shakes my hand as he heads back inside the theatre to meet up with the rest of Span who’re arriving closer to show time. I head off with Steeleye’s faithful roadie Jacky, a lively Scots character, always a tale to tell and wry observation to impart, “the younger members have galvanised the band once more, there’s a new energy about the whole live set up and so life on the road is far more enjoyable.” In no small part thanks to The Hardest Working Man In Roots Music, Benji Kirkpatrick, the title is now official!
• Gold Has Worn Away is on Westpark Records.
- • Est’d 1969 & The Steeleye Span DVD/CD double package is out now on Park Records, cunningly titled 50th Anniversary Tour 1969 -2019. www.parkrecords.com