Scottish folk fusion group Southern Tenant Folk Union are touring the UK in September and October in support of their seventh album, Join Forces. Here, banjo player Pat McGarvey talks about how their music has evolved to embrace everything from sci-fi to politics. They tour from 28 Sept, visiting The Courthouse Project, Otley, 5 Nov.
Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences.
It’s a big acoustic sound with fiddle, banjo, cajón, double bass, acoustic guitar and lots of harmony vocals. That gives us a lot we can play with live and on the albums. Influences range from John Prine to John Carpenter, although the latest album, Join Forces, is a return to a more basic roots and bluegrass sound than the last few albums – The Byrds meets The Stanley Brothers in a Scottish bar.
How have you evolved as a band over the years?
To start with the band took familiar folk and bluegrass chord sequences and added in more modern, progressive lyrics. That had developed by the third album, The New Farming Scene, into more conceptual lyrics (about a post-apocalyptic future Britain) in an effort to incorporate our other interests like Sci-Fi literature. After that, we also started to use more political lyrics. Something of that continues on the seventh album.
Were there any alternative band names before you arrived at this one?
Yes. The initial name was The Knights Of Labor, after the 19th-century American proto-union, though I was convinced by a band member it was a bit too masculine sounding, so we named ourselves after a different American union – the Southern Tenant Farmers Union – and it definitely fits the ethos better.
What are you up to at the moment artistically?
I’ve been busy mixing The Southern Tenant, our new electronic offshoot album – lots of synths and drum machine soundtrack type stuff. And I’ve been starting to think about the next album – I sought and have been given permission by a Scottish playwright to record an album based on one of his early plays. It’ll be something different again for us and should be ready to record at the end of 2017 if the material comes together quickly. We’ll need to do a bit more research before starting though.
How do you stand out from the crowd in a saturated industry?
By making sure you do things your own way. I’ve combined the fact that I play the banjo, love movies of all genres and movie soundtrack music, and am engaged in politics. That creates something that is subtly different from other bands, sounds original and hopefully creates a wider appeal for our music.
What’s on your rider?
Usually there is no rider these days, but if a venue is kind enough then we ask for bottles of ale from a local brewery. Free meals or any kind of food are also gladly received too, though you’re more likely to find us in the nearest Wetherspoons before the gig.
Tell us about your worst live show.
For me it was probably in Aberdeen, on our first Scottish tour in February 2007. The crowd were great and my wife’s band Blueflint were supporting, but I had a really bad shivering, sweating, hallucinating type of cold and could barely stand up. Either that or the Berlin gig the year after when the fifth string (the drone string) on my banjo broke and couldn’t be fixed. It’s impossible to play that style of banjo without it. Luckily it was a very late night gig and everyone was hammered, so the fact I was reduced to strumming it like a guitar was probably overlooked.
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