Monday, 17 September 2012

Juggling tasks: John Fell

It's been a busy year for John Fell, and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon. 

The band he plays in, Goodnight Lenin, have packed in a ton of gigs, including tours of Scotland and, this week, Ireland, supporting Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny.

Tracks for the first album are now in the can; mixing is underway. There are winter gigs to plan for, including a hometown Christmas special. Before that, a string of releases are due, including a live EP. And in addition, it’s been a frantic summer of booking acts for Mostly Jazz/Funk and Moseley Folk Festivals, as well as the Lunar Festival

So - a busy man. On top of all this, he's also championing new talent, such as Katherine Priddy

For those who don't know Goodnight Lenin yet... they are a hugely promising five-piece, all from Northfield in South Birmingham, who, pretty much, have all known each other since childhood. They are cheerfully happy to be seen as anything but modish. The music is folk-rock, strong on harmonies, with definite nods to giants of the 70s like Neil Young. On stage, they ooze relaxed goofy charm - in fact their gigs are generally a hoot. But their strong suit is a terrific portfolio of songs, which you can explore by checking out their YouTube pages and on their website. One song, 'Wenceslas Square', is embedded here, and it's an absolute gem; you'll find it further down the post. And, for all their knockabout live appeal, the band has the ability to reel off breathtaking numbers which stop you in your tracks. 

What makes things more interesting is John Fell's role within the Mostly/Moseley festivals group, where he is events manager and has responsibility for booking most, if not all of the acts. It's a tricky balancing act to pull off. 

Goodnight Lenin at Moseley Folk 2012. John Fell second from left :-)

First things first. You’ve been recording for what seems like a long time. What’s the release schedule?
We’ve got a single, and an EP – a Live EP – planned before Christmas. The album will arrive next year. The album’s pretty much recorded. We did it on analogue tape at Highbury Studio. It’s the way we wanted to record. So you get that warmth, and it also means you work in a certain way. When you’re recording digitally, you know you can fix anything. It feels a little bit like cheating… But our music is on 16 tracks, with some stuff bounced down (combined on one track), and that’s how it’s going to stay.
Is that a good discipline?
It’s great. It really tests us, because we do like to layer and layer and layer. We might put up five sets of strings on it. Then we need to add our harmonies, so it really is tight. It’s great for us, because we do get that warm, live feel; we’re all looking at each other – you can tell when we’re all grinning. It adds something to it. But we are going to get that digital side too, because all the tracks have been converted to digital for the mixing. 
The single is out at the end of October, and it’s being mixed by John Wood, who did a lot of work for Joe Boyd back in the day. 
Vintage names from the heyday of Brit folk-rock!…Do you sometimes feel you were born thirty years too late?
We’re quite content where we are! It’s just what we listen to. There’re artists from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s that people still listen to. We want to be the band from 2012 that people listen to in thirty years’ time. 
Talk to me about finances – there’s a lot of stuff to pay for here.
Finances? it’s tough. Obviously, most bands at our level – in terms of where we are release-wise – don’t get 400 people to a gig. So that’s unbelievable for us. But then we’re still financing the band. We’re putting in £40 a month, each, and that pays for our practise room. 
So you are still funding the band? No rock and roll lifestyle yet? 
Absolutely. We don’t take any money from the band at all. It’s all done for the love of it. 
 But you’re getting a name…? There has to be some light at the end of the tunnel?
We’re getting looked at. Some producers - names we’d never dream of - have checked us out. There are publishers and labels looking at us. We’re happy to stay with Static Caravan, who released our last EP. If a bigger label came along to give us that marketing push, we’d be happy. But we still want to do everything ourselves. If we make any mistakes, it’s down to us. We’ve had a few sync offers come along, which is nice, bit I’m very wary of all that, especially if it means losing publishing rights. I don’t mind doing one-off non-exclusive deals where we keep the rights in the long run, but that’s not the way most sync deals work. I don’t want to be the guy sitting in the pub at Christmas when my Christmas hit comes up, knowing I’m not getting anything for it.
Are we talking about 'Wenceslas Square', maybe perhaps….?
About Wenceslas Square… would you mind telling me how much you paid for that very wonderful video?
It’s a difficult one. The person I did that video with would have charged a lot more. I could tell you that the puppets and the puppeteer cost a thousand pounds. And there were twelve people working on it. It took a year to make. Does that give you an idea?
So, not cost-effective whatsoever?
Not yet! But there were a lot of favours done.
Let’s sum up: The band’s had a good year. Lots of lovely new songs, a growing audience, you’ve reinforced your standing; if I was still programming at radio in Birmingham, I would happily be playing your stuff; I can't understand why people don't… and yet and yet, and yet – it’s all to play for in 2013, and there’s not a precise plan yet. It’s almost like you’ve casually surfed into this position on the back of your songs and onstage appeal…
I think that’s fair. In terms of the band, we’ve done everything we wanted to do. Next year, we’re going to step up. But we’re not in a rush. Bands who are in a rush just bang stuff out.

So Moseley Folk is done and dusted; I thoroughly enjoyed it. But you’re in kind of a tricky position, as you book most of the acts. So you are... a gate keeper: people have to come to you for a slot. How do you keep everyone happy?
You don’t. I’m picking the acts, but I’m picking for the Festival. If I have a friend, and I don’t think that friend’s very good, I can’t give him a slot. If some industry person is looking for some new talent, and I have a bad reputation for bias, they’re not going to respect my choices. So when I book people, there’s no favours being done, it’s people I genuinely think will go over well.
There’s more talent emerging than you can fit onto the slots you have.
With local bands, some people, you see them once, and they’re in. I don’t care about their Facebook page. It’s what they do live. 
How much sleep do you get when you’re doing the Moseley events?
I’m up about 5, putting the last things together… and I go to bed about 2 the next morning. I stay away from the afterparties… until Sunday. And Goodnight Lenin played on the Saturday as well. You know, I'd planned to sleep for a week after the end of Moseley Folk 
Did you?
Of course not! 
And the Christmas show has been announced now. Tell me about it. 
We’re back at Birmingham Cathedral, which we sold out last year. We're not sure about support. I’ve got a few ideas. There’s this new girl I’ve found. She’s mind-blowingly good. I’m kind of... helping her, not being her manager or anything. She’s just 17, so she’s got a lot of choices. I’ve just told her to speak to me if she needs some advice.
That’s highly creditable. 
But it’s what I love doing. 

Katherine Priddy at Moseley Folk 2012 - picture Richard Shakespeare

 The ‘new girl’ John Fell has found is Katherine Priddy. She made her Moseley Folk debut in the Acoustic tent on Sunday, in the middle of the afternoon, and it pretty much felt like she owned the place after two songs. I talked to her last week after a support set in Birmingham. She plays a mix of originals and material from Nick Drake, John Martyn, and some more contemporary songwriters. 

It’s rare to find someone so new digging so far back into the golden age of British Folk and Folk-Rock.
I was brought up on a mixture of Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa! … but also John Martyn, Richard Thompson… I really really like that sort of music, and so I decided to follow it myself. My dad used to sit around and play those songs, so I chose to to do that tool. He played one song in particular – John Martyn’s 'Golden Girl' – which made me decide to try to teach myself guitar. 

How many gigs so far?
Not many! This is probably the first that people have paid to see, with me as a named support. Moseley Folk Festival was probably the first ‘big’ gig.
So now you’re writing, writing, writing… who are you using to bounce your songs off?
John is good! Lots of people, really. I upload a lot of stuff on YouTube. I got some good responses, and now have quite a lot of subscribers; they’re quite dedicated, and give me some very honest feedback and critiques. I met John by chance at Lunar Festival. I kept sending songs over to him on Facebook.
Next steps? 
University, hopefully! I want to keep on playing for the sake of playing. If it did go somewhere, that would be lovely, but if it doesn’t, it’s a lovely hobby to have. 
Goodnight Lenin website and full gigs list
Katherine Priddy on Facebook

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