Interview: Fine Lines’ Mark Radcliffe and Dave Boardman on playing iconic UK venues

Getting a relaxed swinging sound while channelling influences from Bob Wills to Gram Parsons.

Fine Lines are probably the best americana band from Cheshire and they have also managed to land the support slot on Kiefer Sutherland’s Chasing The Rain Tour of the UK which will see them tread the boards in such iconic UK venues as Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Newcastle City Hall. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with guitarist, songwriter, and lead vocalist Dave Boardman and lyricist and drummer Mark Radcliffe, though he was delayed following a plumbing crisis at home in Knutsford, to discuss the tour and the ethos of Fine Lines. It is clear from the chemistry between Dave Boardman and Mark Radcliffe that they have a shared vision of what Fine Lines are about musically citing shared influences including Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons. They also shed light on their approach to songwriting with Mark Radcliffe’s lyrics forming the starting point for Dave Boardman’s tunes. Mark Radcliffe also confirms that despite everything else he has done in his media and music career it is playing the drums that is his first love. Fine Lines are a seven-piece band and as Mark and Dave explain, this requires a considered approach to arrangements to avoid an overly cluttered sound from the Hammond organ, fiddle, pedal steel, twin vocalist, guitar, and rhythm section. While Dave and Mark share some Fine Lines humour, it is clear both take the music of Fine Lines extremely seriously. 

I just want to let you quell any rumours that your tour with Kiefer Sutherland is The Fine Lines big sellout.

Dave Boardman (DB): Haha, it came up and we were offered it, and it is a chance to play on some bigger stages for us and play to an audience that might like our stuff, I think. Kiefer is obviously slightly different, but I think there is a really strong connection there because he is into the roots of real country, the Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, and Hank Williams thing, which is where we are coming from in a country perspective with some of our influences. So, it sort of makes sense really, and you have to put yourself out there. We are trying to get to as many people as possible, so it is a win-win and we are more than happy to sell out, haha.

How did you get the support slot on the ‘Chasing The Train’ tour?

DB: A friend of mine had been to see Kiefer a couple of years ago in Manchester, and he said how good he was and that I should really go and see him, and he also said he had used a local support act rather than bringing someone over from the States. A friend brought the announcement of this current tour to my attention and said we should try and get on it.  He seemed to think he knew who the promotor was, and we phoned this guy up who said he wasn’t the promotor, but he knew who was and he put us in touch with the other chap. He said he didn’t have anyone at the moment and so he would give us a listen, so we sent him some of our stuff. He came back a couple of weeks later saying he loved our stuff and that we would be perfect for the gig, but they didn’t want someone to just do Manchester, but to do the whole tour, would we be available? To which we replied that’s brilliant, haha, after we took a nanosecond to think about it. Whatever we were going to do we would put it off. So, they offered us the whole shebang, and that was back in February, I think. So, we have been waiting quite a while for it to actually happen, and it is weird, because it always felt months and months in the future, and now it is happening.

Does it still seem like a good idea, or are the nerves beginning to kick in?

DB: Ooh, yeah it is a good idea, haha. You have to do these things, and while there is a bit of nerves, but it is mixed with us being dead excited. We want to get out there and play to people, and this is a wonderful way to do that. Kiefer seems like a nice guy, and we are looking forward to meeting him, and I think the two acts will be great together.

While Kiefer Sutherland made his name as an actor, he does seem to be very serious about his music.

DB: He is very serious about it, he has just put out his third album ‘Bloor Street’ and we have obviously been brushing up on his music which is excellent. He is a great vocalist and a great songwriter, and from the videos I’ve seen I’m really looking forward to seeing him perform because he is quite the frontman and performer. I think the bands will be great together.

How different will the venues be from your usual ones, and will this change your performance in anyway?

DB: I think it will translate. It is always that thing where whatever gig you are playing you always imagine you are on a huge stage, haha. Wherever we’ve played I always try and present us as a big band, which is like delusions of adequacy I suppose. I think it will be great, and some of the venues are not that different from those that we normally play, and I think Brighton and Sheffield are just smaller clubs really, with four or five hundred capacity. The big ones like Shepherds Bush Empire and Newcastle City Hall are iconic, haha. I’m particularly looking forward to Newcastle because that’s where I grew up. I went to my first gig at the City Hall, it is a fantastic venue and to be playing somewhere like that is a real dream come true moment. So yeah, the show will translate, you just go out there and play your best songs and give it the best show you’ve got, you know.

You are going to get a similar but different audience, have you thought about your set list, will it still feature ‘Deadbeat Lullabies’?

DB: When people don’t know your stuff, you have to like try and hit them in the face as quickly as possible. So, you are playing your biggest numbers, and you are probably playing a half an hour set and so there is not a lot of time for any introspection, so you just play the ones that are going to get people up and dancing. So, we’ve tailored the set to what they say, all killer no filler, haha. Again, delusions of grandeur there, but we’ve tailored it that way, and not so much with Fine Lines, but with other bands, I’m played some large stages on some really big gigs, and you have to sort of accentuate your performance literally if you have more space. If someone is at the back of the room, they are not going to see any subtle facial things you do, so you have to accentuate what you do to try and reach the people in the bar or milling around and not too sure as they check out this weird band. Hopefully, people will like it.

You are a large band so what are the dynamics on stage between the members of Fine Lines, how does the live show work and is there a leader on stage?

DB: It is a big band, and it is mostly myself with Zoe, the two singers, there is kind of a strong interplay between the two of us, and that sort of forms the front line. We are the ones mucking about at the front while the serious musicians are holding it down, haha. The great thing about this band is there is great chemistry, I think, between the seven of us, and it is a big band, but I just love the sound that we make. I think there is something very special about that combination of instruments and this combination of people. It can be a nightmare to organise sometimes, as I’m sure you can imagine, but in terms of the noise we make, I think it is pretty special. There are not many bands in the UK that have that combination of Hammond organ, fiddle, and pedal steel, all those textures, and I do think it is pretty special.

I assume you were a fan of Ronnie Lane.

DB: Ooh, I love the Faces and Ronnie Lane’s solo work. He is a huge influence, and ‘Debris’ is one of my favourite songs of all time. I’ve probably tried to ripe that off countless times over the years, haha, a work of genius, I think.

Coming from Newcastle, I assume Lindisfarne are also part of the mix.

DB: Yeah, very much so, Alan Hull and Lindisfarne, a really fantastic band. I was on a radio show recently, a little Desert Island Discs type thing, and ‘Run For Home’ was one of my choices. When I go home to Newcastle, my parents still live there as do lots of friends, and when you get over the hill and you see The Angel of The North I stick ‘Run For Home’ on, it is a very special place. Lindisfarne are a huge part of the fabric of the Northeast, and very famously played hundreds of times at The City Hall, with lots of Christmas gigs as well. Being on that stage, albeit as the support band, will be fantastic.

How many of the Boardman family and friends are going to be there?

DB: Haha, our manager has done a spreadsheet of our guest list, and under everyone else it is nought, and under my name, it is 327, haha. Virtually everyone I went to school with will be there, I think. When you were kids and started going to gigs that was the place, it was hallowed ground. All the big bands played The City Hall, and it is still a great venue. I never imagined I would get to play there.

This tour could be the start of something bigger for Fine Lines.

DB: I am trying not to think too much about what may come of it or whatever, because you can’t and there is no point. The main thing is just going out there and doing a good job, and I want people going to those gigs to think that band was really good, I’m going to check them out. So can swell the fan base, you have to concentrate on the things you control to a certain extent, and what is in front of you. So, I’m just thinking about doing a good job, the gigs going well and people liking what they hear. If anything else comes after that it would be fabulous, but I’m a bit too long in the tooth to get away with the fairies.

How realistic is a trip to America for the band?

DB: It would be lovely to go with Fine Lines being an americana band, though I’m not a big fan of labelling stuff, and americana is probably the closest label for us, it is the one that fits. It really would be lovely, and we’ve long joked about it, Mark often says, “On the American tour….”, when it comes, haha. I’ve been before with a band years and years ago, and we didn’t have a great experience actually, so I’d love to go again with Fine Lines. It was funny recently when we were talking to the promotor recently, he was like, well you never know if Kiefer likes you, he might take you on the American tour, haha. We just laughed about it, but it would be lovely to go for a few weeks and play a few shows. I’ve never been to Nashville, and so I would love to go there, I’ve never been to New York, so I’d love to go there and play all these places. And Canada, Kiefer’s home country, I’ve been there quite a few times, and I would love to take Fine Lines there. When I toured with another band people thought we were mental because sometimes we had to drive for three days between gigs, haha. When you played in a little town, the whole town would come to the gig because nobody ever went there. We would be playing to a packed room, and we were like why are all these people here, and it was like because there is nothing else to do, haha. In a way, it was kind of nice, but if you were under any form of illusion, they were there to see you, no way.

You are pretty close to grassroots americana, what is your view on the state of americana in the UK, do you think it is coming back after the pandemic?

DB: I think it is coming back slowly, and I’m sure you will agree it was a real sucker punch, it was massive, and I think we will suffer the effects for years. All the members of Fine Lines have other jobs or are retired or whatever, so we are not reliant on it for our income. I feel really sorry for musicians who are just a step above us who do rely on it for their income who have been hit the hardest. It is not going to hurt Mick Jagger or Elton John, or anyone like that, it is the people just above us, our peers, the people we played festivals with who have found it really hard. It is coming back, and it will all be OK. I think as a society we enjoy a disaster, we are either killing each other or there is a pandemic, or whatever. I think we are going to just have to get used to it now, the new norm is chaotic.

Hi Mark, I’ve asked Dave whether this is Fine Lines’ big chance, what are your views?

Mark Radcliffe (MR): Haha, I don’t think about it like that anymore, everything to me is not a means to an end but an end in itself. It is all about this tour being about playing in nice places to lots of people, and the records and songs are as good as we can make them. We are working to our own standard, and I suppose you always have a little scintilla of hope that it gets picked up and put into a globally very successful film, or something, which seems to be the most likely way these days to make it. I don’t regard it as the last throw of the dice, and you probably know but you never quite know, and the one thing you do know is that it definitely won’t happen if you don’t try.

‘Deadbeat Lullabies’ is still your current album, how much will that be featured?

DB: We are going to play all new songs, haha.

MR: We can play all new songs because nobody knows our old songs.

DB: We are just going to play, it is going to be a mixture, with three songs from our new album, two off the second and one off the first. We will just play what we think are our best songs, the ones we think will grab people straight away because we will only have half an hour. People are going to be milling around at the bar and finding their seats, and hopefully also checking out the weird support band, so hopefully, we’ve chosen the right ones because if we haven’t, we will be stuffed.

MR:  It was quite interesting picking them because we wanted to give people the right flavour and variety, and we will be playing when people will be finding their seats and whatever, and not everyone is going to be seated with rapt attention. Unless they are, they may be all there early, you just don’t know, haha.

DB: We’ve also picked the seven songs that showcase what we do, that’s how I’m thinking about it. The gigs are like a shopfront for the band. We are playing the greatest non-hits we have got. It is a set that works nicely together and shows what we do, and other than that, I think it shows the best of what we do. You are not going to get many slow ones, and this band likes the slow ones.

What’s it like drumming with Fine Lines, Mark?

MR: It is a joy, drumming was my first love and I started drumming at fourteen. In fact, I’m doing a gig in Bolton which will be the fiftieth anniversary of my first gig, playing the same songs in the same venue. My original bass player, like bass players always seem to do, has all sorts of lists and recordings, and even some clothes. Drumming was always my first love, and I only became a singer because in my first band nobody wanted to sing. So as the drummer I said I’ll do it because all the others were learning their chords and looking at their fingers so they couldn’t sing. I started singing thinking it would last a couple of months, and here I am fifty years later still doing it. In Fine Lines, I don’t talk, and I don’t sing which is a joy because it takes me back to my first love really. I can sit at the back out of the way and carry on playing the drums, and it is a lovely band to play with. It is a band of great players, but it has a nice feel to it, it is not delusions of jazz rock or anything, apart from the bass player at times, haha. I just give him a filthy look to pull him back in again and put him in a harness attached to the hi-hat. It is a joy, and they are a great bunch, and playing the drums is what I love best, so when we go on stage, I feel no responsibility in a way because I know I can play the drums. When I’ve been in bands playing guitar and things you feel you are never very far from a wrong note, and with the drums, you can’t play any wrong notes. Also, it has become a creative thing because I like to be creative, and I’ve started writing lyrics for Dave’s music and which gives me chance to hear Dave singing words I’ve written.

Is playing drums in an acoustic-electric type mix as easy as you are making out Mark?

MR: The thing we’ve had to learn is that with a seven-piece band there are a lot of lead instruments. I always remember Pete Townshend saying something like if Keith Moon wasn’t the lead guitarist in The Who it would be John Entwistle and certainly not him, because Keith Moon played all that stuff on drums because there were only three instruments. If you tried to do that in Fine Lines it would be a disaster, so the drums are there holding it all together and also hopefully giving it some swing. And I think that’s the thing, not to try and play too much so that it doesn’t get crowded out. That is the thing I think you have to learn in a seven-piece band. We are all pretty good as a band in that regard, apart from a couple of people who tend to play too much, I won’t mention any names.

DB: I can’t possibly imagine who you mean, haha.

MR: Like Emily on the fiddle, she won’t play on half the song, and then when it comes in it sounds wonderful and really lifts it. You wouldn’t get that effect if she had been playing all the way through, so with this number of people, you do have to know your place really.

As you said, Mark, you don’t sing in this band, so do Dave and the other guys leave your lyrics alone?

MR: Dave changes them a bit, and I’m sort of unprecious about them. Because I write the lyrics first and then send them to Dave is the way we’ve done it, so quite often I will have written too much so Dave will edit it. Or sometimes he will say, “There’s too much here, what do you want to keep.”, and I love that because in the lyric there are always a couple of lines you’ve worked and worked at, but you are never really happy with, and you can take them out and pare it down. And then will just change it to fit the chords and tune he’s written. I’m good with that, really good with that because as I’ve said I’m not precious. As far as the rest of the band is concerned, I don’t think they’ve listened to any of the words, and that includes Zoe who sings half of them, haha. I don’t think they really think about it, I think Dave is the only one who notices what the lyrics are, haha.

DB: They are like most musicians, they only listen to their own bit, and they are not interested in what else is going on. So me and Mark are the ones who look at the whole picture. From a songwriting point of view, it has been a complete joy, because I used to hate writing lyrics I always found it a drag. So when Mark said he had a few lyrics I might be able to use, I was like alright great, and Mark has a great knack of writing stuff that sounds alright coming out of my mouth. It can be quite a strange thing singing somebody else’s lyrics, but it has worked tremendously well. Before we started working together I’d never written with the words first, I’d always written with the music first, and I was forever trying to piece together the lyrics. Now Mark has already done it for me, and he will often write more than I need so you get to pick and choose what works best. The only occasionally annoying thing is sometimes he will write the lyrics and I will write the song and send it back to him, and then he will want to change it, haha. And I’m like no, don’t change it, it is perfect. I think 90% of the time I don’t really change any of it, I will edit it and remove verses or lines we don’t need because they are surplus to requirements, but that is great because you have a choice of what you use. But it has been the great joy of Fine Lines, our songwriting partnership.

MR: Because I’ve always written a lot of words and songs on my own for other people and everything, and when I started this I was also doing other projects and things, I’ve got an electronic thing and I also need words for myself to sing, and I was very conscious it had to sound like a Fine Line’s song. I can be a bit wordy and write what I think are clever and interesting lyrics, and sometimes it can sound too wordy because with things like Fine Lines, like I was talking about the band and the swing, the flow of it is important. So all the songs are about something, so they are not shallow in that way they all do mean something. Sometimes they mean something to me, and even Dave doesn’t know, we can have been working on a song and he still doesn’t know what it means to me. It is this little world we have, so they mean something they are not just words. I want them to sound like they are natural, and that they are not overthought and overworked. We are not a prog rock band, we just like to swing by and I think that is one of the things about great country music really if you look at Hank Williams and things. The heartbreak in those words are like little images or something, there are little images that you can picture, but it is not overworked, it is quite simple language, yet it communicates something really effectively. I think that is a real skill, and I’m not saying I’ve got it, but I’ve certainly worked at it, to say more with less, and something that isn’t uncomfortable for Dave to also sing. I’m very conscious of that, and sometimes I will write a lyric and then think that’s too wordy, I will then simplify that once I’ve got the idea down, just thin it out without changing the idea, so it is a bit easier on the ear, and a bit easier to sing.

It is that oft-said old adage, “Three Chords and the Truth”.

DB: If I do say so myself, I think we have the balance just about right, and I for one need it to flow, and as Mark says, we want it to sound natural. We’ve got that in most of our songs where it does flow and it doesn’t sound as if we’ve tried to cram as many words in as possible, it does sound natural and it does also have interest in there.

MR: If someone says what’s that song about, I can tell them exactly what it is about. I like the fact people can take a message from it, or just enjoy it and it feels throw away. I like that, and I can tell you what every song is about.

And you’ve now got the opportunity for new listeners to hear your songs.

MR: We feel very lucky and very excited, and it’s very kind of them to put up with a seven-piece band, though they haven’t done that yet.

DB: We do accept they like us, but for a touring band to have a seven-piece support band is a bit of an ask. They said you can all come and you can all do it. We often go out in various lineups depending on the size of the gig, it might be me and the two girls or it might be a five-piece lineup with Mark playing a Cajon. If it is at all possible it is nice to present it with everybody because you can then have all these different flavours we were talking about earlier. You get Gary’s beautiful Hammond organ, you get the pedal steel, it is nice to present it how the songs are recorded.

And from what you said that is what Kiefer wanted.

DB: I guess so because stylistically there is a lot of common ground with what he is doing. From what I’ve read his influences are very similar, he is a big Springsteen fan, a Hank Williams fan, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, and that is where we are coming from country-wise.  I don’t feel much of a kin with a lot of the modern Nashville sound particularly, though there is obviously always great stuff. But I think Mark and I particularly have always been drawn to all that early ’70s vintage, or even earlier, the ‘50s and ‘40s.

MR: I think I start with Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys in the ‘30s, and I’m definitely a Hank Williams fan, and I think Hank Williams is the first rock’n’roll star even though he was a country star. He was definitely rock’n’roll in every way, particularly with all that edgy stuff. And then through The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram parsons and all that sort of stuff, and obviously you acknowledge the classics like Johnny Cash, but I definitely think it is that sort of route, like Dave says,  rather than the modern Nashville route. It is great and very successful, but for me, I think it has too much polish, but perhaps I say that with a degree of self-interest, haha, I certainly wouldn’t claim to be the most polished, but yeah, that is the route into country for me, definitely.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, your top three artists, albums, or tracks?

MR: I’ll tell you one album I’ve gone back to that fans of americana and country will love is Tyler Ramsey’s ‘For The Morning’, which is a couple of years old now. Tyler Ramsey was with Band of Horses, but that is a really mellow country type record with pedal steel, a classic denim shirt cabin in the woods record, haha. I told Dave about it and we both love it.

DB: Definitely, and I went to see him in Manchester and he was fantastic with just a little four-piece band. One record I’ve been introduced to recently and I’d never heard him before, and sadly he died a couple of years ago, is Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, and a really sad story. He has an album ‘Kids In The Street’ and there is this song ‘Maybe A Moment’ and I’m just playing it over and over again.

MR: I’ve recently gone back and listened to an album by J. J. Cale, ‘Stay Around’, which is his posthumous one. I love J. J. Cale, I just love that it is impossibly laidback. The music and show businesses are full of people trying too hard, but nobody could accuse J. J. Cale of trying too hard, he sounds like he can hardly be bothered to sing his own songs, and there is a track on that album that is only about 2 minutes 10 seconds long and it fades out about halfway through, oh that will do. And I just love that, it is just kind of easy and I try and bring that feel with the drums to Fine Lines, not that I can’t be bothered, haha. It is just about not trying too hard, it is about his feel, and I love his whole aesthetic of being so relaxed and mellow. So I’m always listening to a bit of J. J. Cale.

DB: He is great.

He may sound laidback and relaxed, but he did work hard at getting his own sound.

DB: I’m sure anybody who makes anything look easy has put a lot of work in, haha.

MR: I’m listening to Aoife Nessa Francis’s ‘Protector’ on vinyl, and that is good. I’ve also been listening to Django Reinhardt’s ‘King Of The Gypsies’, and I’ve been trying to learn gypsy jazz on the guitar, but it is a lot of chords that. I got some distance, but then, yeah, I ground to a halt and hit a bit of a wall, but I will keep trying, haha.

DB: He wants me to play the lead stuff and that is even worse, haha.

MR: As a guitarist, I’m a good drummer, but I do keep the rhythm going.

Are there any plans for Fine Lines after the Kiefer tour?

DB: Well, we’ve got a couple of things in December, a homecoming thing in Knutsford, where Mark and I live.

MR: And Jim the bass player.

DB: Who is also the manager of the venue where we rehearse and we will be playing the show, The Little Theatre in Knutsford. We are then probably going to take a couple of months off in January and February. We are also playing Barnoldswick in December which is becoming the biggest small venue around, they are getting all sorts of acts there now. We will get back together in spring for some shows after I’ve done some writing for Mark’s lyrics, haha.

MR: What is interesting is Dave and I are playing Costa Del Folk Festival in Ibiza in April.

DB: With Fairport Convention no less, so I’m really looking forward to that.

MR: We are hoping the Kiefer tour will raise our profile and help confirm some summer festival slots with our raised profile. We feel really lucky to be playing places like Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and Newcastle City Hall, particularly for Dave. It is amazing because these are some of the great rock’n’roll venues in the country. I love support tours, and I’ve done them before, I love the agony of walking on to the sound of your own footsteps, and half an hour later if you get a smattering of applause you think you’ve done well, and your night’s work is finished at half past eight. In the olden days I would have been in the bar at a quarter to nine, but these days I’m hoping to be in bed in a Travelodge at half nine with a good book. Sorry Kiefer, we will catch your shows.

DB: I’ve got the exact opposite support band experience to Mark. With one of my old bands, we supported Mel C of The Spice Girls, and we played every night to 3,000 screaming girls going nuts, and when they realised we weren’t this teeny pop band but this indie rock band the cheering just stopped. By the end of the gig, they were all walking out, but at the start, they were all screaming. I think I would rather go on to the sound of my own footsteps and come off to slight applause, than the other way around, haha.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

DB: Hopefully we will see some of them on the road at some point, if not on the Kiefer tour.

MR: I hope to meet more of you, and I hope you enjoy our music, and americana is something we feel really passionate about. It’s like all these things, folk and what have you, it is a wide thing but we do feel comfortable with that branding. It would be great if some of the followers of Americana UK took us to their hearts because we all ought to be kindred spirits, really.

DB: Here, here.

Fine Lines ‘Deadbeat Lullabies’ is out now on Parade Recordings.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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