Interview: The Vagaband
PUBLISHED: 09:25 21 September 2012
With their origins busking on the streets on Norwich, The Vagaband has a DIY approach to music. As they release their debut album and prepare for their next big Norwich show, SIMON PARKIN spoke to band founder José McGill.
The Vagaband don’t believe it keeping it simple. The Norwich eight-piece between them they play a multitude of instruments ranging from fiddle, mandolin and pedal-steel guitar to clarinet, flügelhorn, banjo, squeezebox and piano. Their music takes in a soulful mix of Americana, country, blues, jazz and rock. Add to that the fact that they don’t have an agent, manager or record label, instead doing everything themselves, means they’re the very opposite of a bog standard guitar and drums indie band.
That may have something to do with the fact that the band’s origins lie in the Norwich street band Roxy’s Toolbox, who could often be seen busking outside Jarrolds.
Guitarist, vocalist and main songwriter José McGill was a member before initially founding The Vagaband in 2006. He roped in his old school friend Greg Cook on piano, family friend Joe ‘The Bow’ Wright on fiddle and mandolin, and Tristan Roche, director of the Bo Nanafana Social Club, on bass.
They’ve since been joined by Patrick Arbuthnot on pedal steel guitar, drummer Dan Reynolds, Ali Houiellebecq, formerly of The Sweetbeats, on saxes, clarinet, flute and whistle; and Hugh Stanners on flugelhorn, trumpet and squeezebox.
Their album Town & Country, released on their own Eggsong Recordings label, takes listeners from Beatles’ inspired ragtime, through the horn-driven soundtrack of New Orleans and on to the open landscape of reflective Americana.
Over the past couple of years they’ve amassed a very respectful following across the UK festival scene after appearances at Glastonbury, Secret Garden Party, Bestival and Maverick, the East Anglian country festival they’ve headlined two years running.
The Vagaband has eight members, do you have the same influences or does your diverse sound come from different tastes?
It’s all quite eclectic but I’d say it’s the instruments that make us sound diverse. Brass instruments make it sound more jazzy, while fiddle and pedal steel guitar make it sound more country. We can be playing and just by the flick of an arrangement it can flip between genres. If you add sax its jazz, or a trumpet and it is Mexican or a fiddle and suddenly you’re back to folk. What we do is a mix of jazz, folk, blues and Americana.
There aren’t any disagreements over which style for which song then?
Not really. Not everyone writes, so actually it’s pretty good. I pretty much wrote the album with my old school friend Greg Cook, who plays piano. You can’t have eight people in a band and it be a democracy, it doesn’t work. Having said that all the things that it takes to run a band we share. We’re lucky people have different skills.
With so many members and so many instruments, touring must be a logistical nightmare sometimes?
It can be. We currently have a six-seat van and eight members, but it seems to work out.
Tell us about your album Town & Country...
Writing it took about nine months and we recorded it last autumn and winter. We pressed a few so we could sell it at gigs and raise the money to get it mastered. Then throughout this year it’s been a case of finding a distribution company, hiring press agents and pressing the things. We tried to get a record deal, spent about six months but didn’t get anywhere, so we set up our own record label and got a distribution deal. It’s all been a big learning curve, but it now seems to be selling well.
You seem to fit into the genre of Americana. Is that the cool term for country music?
It’s a funny one. It’s something I’ve always played. My dad was in a Celtic-country band and I played bass at 15. He and his best mate really taught me how to play country music, with banjo and fiddle. It’s not been a big scene, but suddenly there’s this word Americana which seems to have become acceptable, whereas music tagged country and western is typically terrible. Americana is not people singing about pick-ups and beer, it’s made it a bit cooler again.
The St Pepper-style album cover is pretty interesting. What’s the idea behind that?
It’s a who’s who of the Norwich entertainment scene. It’s got Sun of Cash, the Johnny Cash tribute band on there, the Bo Nanafana Social Club, Minisule of Sound, the world’s smallest disco who tour across Japan and play all the festivals and are from Norfolk. We wanted to fly the flag for Norwich. It is misrepresented nationally — people don’t know that culturally Norwich is pretty switched on. The idea was let’s get these people together in my back garden. We recorded the album at home, so why not get people who’ve helped to be on the cover?
You have a big Norwich gig coming up this month at Epic. What can we expect?
Feral Mouth are playing who are very good, young guys who play bluegrass. Epic itself is a fantastic venue. We recently filmed an unplugged style video there and from that we’ve had fan-mail from Alabama. It’s a really good platform. Performances are streamed live and they get thousands of hits.
What else have you got lined up for the future?
We’ve started writing the second album but we’ve agreed we’re not going to start recording it until we’ve exhausted ourselves promoting this one. Otherwise we’re doing our best to get on to bigger stages. In Norwich, as well as Epic we’ve got our annual Mid-Winter Moonshine on December 31. We’ve got lots of bookings for next year already too. Rob Da Bank has offered us Bestival and Glastonbury’s lined up too.
■ The Vagaband play Epic, on Magdalen Street, Norwich on September 29, supported by Feral mouth, The Woodland Creatures and The Proposition.
■ Town & Country is out now, available at HMV, Amazon and on iTunes.
■ Further listening: www.thevagaband.co.uk