Friday, 18 April 2014

The Old Dance School – eight years of different.

Robin Beatty has been studiously shepherding The Old Dance School since his music student days in Birmingham. A seven piece, they're finishing up a live album, their fourth. Nowadays, their music is increasing expansive and flowing, and it presents an interesting contrast with the decidedly funkier groove-driven sound of their early days.  Personnel changes have triggered part of that evolution; time the rest. And it has to be said that they have outlasted a great many of their contemporaries. The next studio album will, again, be different.

Defining them? That's a whole other matter.We're looking at a band who now have a lot of miles and music on the clock, who command respect and can happily pull in large audiences wherever they play; their home town audiences are studded with fellow musicians and collaborators. Creativity, practicality, and the business of managing it all, after the jump.... 

It's complicated

The Old Dance School at Midlands Arts Centre last month
When talking things through, Robin Beatty heads out into a world of connected inter-related topics; so do I. So we wound up having a long hugely detailed elliptical conversation that, well, touched on everything, with remarkable frankness. We started with where the band sits today. 
There's a certain... mature sense about us. Not just us. When we travel to other cities, places like Bristol, Brighton, London, Manchester...Birmingham always strikes me as having quite a strong sense of being a working musician's town. People here don't have this notion of doing gigs for free and hoping that magic golden hand that will come down and whisk you to stardom. In Birmingham there is that steady sense of working at it, it's your job, you work at it, and you make it work. And I think that goes across all genres of music. 
It's interesting to look at where different bands draw their inspiration from – we do have a ridiculous and rich range of genres across the region. But you do kind of stand out from the crowd.
We do draw from this really big lineage – it's never-ending. You see that as you work away at things, and discover new material. That's what powers us – and the exuberance of the outfit. 
                       The Old Dance School at Shambala, 2012 

Definitions and origins

Where do you stand in relation to Folk and nu-Folk? Bit of a minefield, I know... 
Well. We've never really been on the folk scene – maybe on the fringes. Mark Radcliffe (the Folk presenter at Radio 2) plays us several times a year. A lot of the gigs we do are part of the folk scene. But maybe half are not. Folk has a sense, a desire for authenticity. But we're from outside of that: we're classically trained, and there is a pursuit of quality. Most of us came through Birmingham Conservatoire, and even Jim our drummer came through the RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music). 
How do you look back on your Conservatoire student days? I've touched on this with Erica Nockalls, and one or two others....
I wish I'd been to study there four or five years after I actually did. It's quite a big deal, the process you go through, and it's taken me quite a while to un-program myself. The thing I've taken from that is – you'll never be as good as you want to be. There's a long acceptance of seeing this far goal, and being able to break it down to how to get there. That's a process. Breaking the big idea down into bite-sized chunks. The same goes for running a band, as well.
Tricky. Teaching and academic structure – being creative in whatever format: music, media, art – I sometimes think it's almost a contradiction in terms. A lot of it should be very practical stuff, giving you foundations so you can create. You can't ever teach brilliance, all you can do is point out some milestones on different paths, and encourage the work ethic. But I think that's miles away from how many courses are designed. Maybe that's different at the Conservatoire: people like Joe Broughton do a brilliant job in opening people up.
The stuff he does with the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble is a very refreshing thing for pupils to be involved with . Just the fact that he goes on tour – he is a craftsman on stage – that's the first time you come into contact with that in an academic environment. It is important to be able to entertain the audience. It's not just your ability to play this time signature or that technically difficult stuff. 

The audience

You've put your finger on something very interesting. With bands which are exploratory – like yourselves, questing all the time – there's also the need to take the audience with you. Do you feel you've changed in your approach over the years?
That's one of the joys. I feel that the show does explore a lot of the musical corners, it pushes us all. But I also think it's a wide and broad experience for the audience as well. I like being able to contrast the individual members of the band, and then seeing everyone play together. 
                   TODS Birmingham Town Hall set closer, 2012
When I saw you last month I thought your set closer was, almost, showbizzy. I loved it. Sending people away with a big smile on their face. 
Well, sometime people want to hear that thumping rhythm. 
So, a new album. Live this time. You're drawing a line, you said?
Yes. We recorded several shows in November. We're at the mixing stage It's transitional. It's nice to be able to have this on record. We're doing a lot of rehearsal at the moment – new material, new sounds.... 
...personnel changes as well?
 We're bringing in Charlie Hayes. Samantha Norman has got a huge amount of work with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) at the moment, so it's difficult to plan gigs around three quite long tours; a lot of gigs. So we're rehearsing a lot with Charlie to bring her in. But it's had a strange and magical effect on everyone's playing. It's really exciting at the gigs. So this is almost like a job-share... Maybe at some of the bigger gigs we'll have three violins! 
Your music has a certain cinematic expansive quality. You're largely instrumental. Largely acoustic – but with sampling – so how do you feel about stage or film? Of course it places you in a different creative position...
I'd be really interested. We're doing a winter-themed tour in December, with some visuals as well. A whole different set of music; we'll have some guests as well. That's going to be something that maybe will run year on year. But that would be really exciting. 
I think that people massively over-romanticise the creation of music. The seed of the idea is where the magic is. I've been trying work out what that is, what makes you tick, and what makes that seed arrive. What kind of state do you have to be in to get that initial idea? And then after that initial idea, it's hard work and graft to make the seed into a whole piece of music. 

Recording - documentation or creation? 

Does that mean that recording is not a huge stress for you, given you've spent all that developmental time working the piece out. Is recording simply documentation for you? 
Depends how much of a rush you're in! If you've to to get up at six to finish a string arrangement, or go back and work through some other pieces while everyone else has knocked off and they're having tea... that's all part of it. You're in the zone, and it works.
TODS are very self-contained, much like contemporaries the Urban Folk Quartet. They shoot and edit their own videos, book their own gigs, release their own albums. This summer, they are taking their first swing though Scotland, followed by a set of gigs in Ireland. This is then followed by festivals back in the UK, and an autumn tour. 
We have a giant tour in October/November. In July we are also aiming to do a further studio album. It will be a different process. We're working with Andy Bell, who is a big producer in the folk scene. It will be in a completely different way. We'll do it slower, let the tracks build up slowly, chopping and changing as we go. So a studio work, as opposed to what we do live. 
Is that putting more pressure on you? 
Probably! It'll be an interesting process to spend more time. Time has been quite a big factor in our albums. It's a balancing process. Have you got enough time? Is everyone being taken care of? Have you got time to think? Is it time off or absolutely really on? That part of the process needs to be seen as work. 

There is so much more risk coming down on today's bands' shoulders. Yes, bands can record with more flexibility and at much less cost, and shooting a video is within anyone's reach – at least if you have a bit of imagination. And that's what TODS do. But with that comes a ton of responsibility. All that workload comes down on a very small number of people in each band – who are also responsible for the creative process. The big problem is that admin can swamp the creativity. Beatty, like is well aware of the load. He's not going to let that go. It's part and parcel of being a working musician. 

The Old Dance School website and Tour Details

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