Interview: Mashville’s Graham Loft and Berin Riley talk beginnings, songwriting and a mutual love for all things Wilco

The British Americana scene seems to go from strength to strength with some really interesting homegrown bands producing increasingly good, original music and showing that you don’t have to be American to play real Americana.   One such British band is Mashville, whose members live in the county of Kent and who have produced three albums in their eight years as a functioning band. Recent changes to band personnel has seen an increase in activity that has had them featured on local radio shows and seen them playing at various festivals around the country – something that would, no doubt, have continued this Summer were it not for the current situation. The fact that they can’t be out gigging at the moment did afford Americana-UK the opportunity to catch up with the songwriting duo at the heart of the band, Berin Riley and Graham Loft, to talk about the realities and challenges of being a British Americana band playing original compositions.

How did Mashville come about? Did you form the band as a platform for the songs you were writing. How has that changed over the years? Do the other band members have any input into the songwriting?
Berin Riley: I guess originally we didn’t really plan it that way. Like most bands, we started out just doing covers but Graham and I felt we wanted to do something more satisfying and tried our hand at songwriting. It was new to me but Graham already had a few solo songs he could bring to the table. We found that by putting our efforts together we could help each other out and our “sound” started to evolve. So far, it’s been just the two of us on the writing front and Graham writes the lion’s share as he has a real talent for it but we have nothing against the other guys bringing new material.

Graham Loft: It hasn’t really changed a great deal, it’s certainly not a closed thing whereby suggestions aren’t welcome. The input would be around things like repeating a chorus line or some structural thing.  But the fundamentals usually remain through the process.

You originally formed back in 2012 so you’ve been going 8 years now – how difficult is it to sustain a band at the moment?
GL: It’s no harder now than it was back when we formed, same challenges as for any band serious about what they are doing.  Getting the right players all pulling in the same direction is the biggest thing, and then juggling family commitments and all that other stuff is where most bands struggle.  It’s been no different for us.  I suppose the biggest change we’ve seen in the last 8 years is the sheer number of bands that want to play and the lack of appropriate venues to accommodate them.  Getting the right gig is the thing, and that can be 20 people in a folk club listening to every move you make – we’ve had some of them and they can be as rewarding as a large festival slot.

BR: We feel like the band is in a really good place right now and has the potential for real stability. It has been hard at times so we’ve had the inevitable revolving door of band members. That’s where having a core of shared love of roots and Americana has served us well – when it was difficult, Graham and I just persevered as a duo, playing all sorts of weird and wonderful gigs! 

There are all sorts of reasons for that – our original line-up were not all that keen on a shift away from doing covers or to record so there was a natural drift away over time and then as we started to build a back catalogue of our own recorded material, that presented its own difficulties in attracting musicians who were comfortable with the style and with learning the songs. 

You revamped the band recently – what’s different about the new line-up? Has this changed the sound of the band?
BR: Over the past year we’ve been really fortunate to connect with some superb musicians who have brought the musicality we’ve always been searching for. They just want to play good quality music without expecting to do 5 pub gigs a week. I don’t think the band’s sound has changed massively as Graham’s vocals, his fingerpicking and my slightly unorthodox lead style probably still define the sound but our drummer (Nick) adds beautiful harmonies now which definitely adds another dimension. What these guys also bring is a sensitivity to the material and a level of musicianship which is amazing. 

How do the two of you work together as songwriters? Take us through the Mashville writing process.
GL: We have two methods of writing which has been pretty consistent through the albums.  I normally write songs on acoustic guitar and then send demos through or bring to rehearsals as a fully realised folk thing and then we build it up from there – having done this enough times it becomes obvious where to leave the space for solos and dynamics.  Berin writes a lyric without music which I will add after -usually there’s an obvious theme or feel to it which guides the outcome.  Variations on this process but that’s typically how it goes.

BR: In my case I tend to come up with lyrics as a result of life experiences or places I’ve encountered and will usually send them to Graham so he can do the hard part – putting them to music (it works for Bernie Taupin!) The only notable exception off the Another Place album was Smile, where I deliberately tried to write a traditional sounding country song so I did the lyrics and music together. It’s gratifying to see how much of a live favourite that song has become and how often people sing along with it.

When I reviewed your last album “Another Place”, I said that your music clearly drew on Americana influences but that you hadn’t Americanised your sound, that it had a distinct European take on the genre – is that how you see it? Is being a European band playing American influenced music an important aspect of who you are?
BR: Yes, I think you picked up on that very well. We struggle a little with “what” we are in the context of trying to label our style. Our music comes from a shared love of similar influences, from well before Mashville ever existed or before Graham and I met. The list is very long but it’s mostly what would now be defined as Americana – and in my case particularly, a love of good country music for a couple of decades before it became acceptable to admit it in the UK! 

From a band perspective, we don’t however set out to musically emulate those artists who influenced; I’m not convinced that a UK band needs to be that obvious – the American guys do it really well – they don’t need clones. I’d rather we do what we do naturally and with integrity and let the listener decide. 

GL: I think we’ve both been slightly obsessed with American culture over the years, I love the music, films and novels – the list is endless.  There’s a particular melancholy aspect or quality to the very best of American culture that I think transcends the place and captures imaginations – it’s a constant reference point.  

You received a lot of very positive reviews for your last album but that was a couple of years ago now; when can we expect something new from the band?
BR: We’ve discovered over the last couple of years that we’ve really enjoyed getting back to basics for some festival gigs where we performed acoustically. That has given us the idea of recording an album in that format – a really earthy stripped-down approach, recorded live as much as possible. Graham and I found a fantastic London studio that can still record direct to tape so there’s a real appeal in going into the studio, with the material all ready, and do a full album in the “old-school” way. 

How about live shows? It’s obviously difficult at the moment but what about later in the year – do you hope to be working live once things get back to a more normal state?
BR: Well, before all the pandemic issues we had planned to do a little European tour in late 2020 but that is probably going to have to be pushed back now. As a band we certainly want to be out there playing as soon as we can though. If any of your readers are promoting shows get in touch!

Who are your influences, firstly as writers but, also, what musicians do you admire?
GL: From a songwriting perspective I still think Springsteen is the holy grail – the way he manages to create those little movies in his songs is pure genius.  I listened to Nebraska and the Ghost of Tom Joad album over and over trying to work out how he did it.  It’s very clever stuff.   Probably a handful of my songs are direct attempts to try and capture that technique though it wasn’t obvious to me at the time.  Of course, it’s out of reach but you can only try!

Musically I love Ry Cooder’s stuff, great guitar player and makes brilliant albums one after the other.  Nick Cave is another favorite of mine, his last album is very moving and he’s become a wonderful singer.

BR: That would be a very long list and it still gets longer by the day. There is of course some crossover between Graham and I as we share a lot of influences – we are both big Wilco fans for example. I think their diversity and willingness to experiment is incredible and the way they have carved out an independent career is remarkable. 

Other musicians over the years who have really resonated with me are the likes of Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Chris Rea, Johnny Cash, Richard Hawley, Rosanne Cash, Bread, Vince Gill, John Prine, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne, Calexico, Wille Nelson, Van Morrison……I could go on all day….

My influences personally have tended to be guitarists for obvious reasons. Actually, out of boredom in lockdown, Graham and I recorded (remotely!) a version of The Ghost of Tom Joad for social media – as I write it has received more than 30k views in 3 days.

When you started out what was your vision for the band? Has that changed and what are your hopes for the future?
BR: I’m not sure we had a vision when we started – none of us knew each other at the time so our vision was to bash out a few tunes and see if we could get a pub gig, which we did. We definitely developed a vision quite soon though – I think we started writing about a year in and we haven’t stopped since, so the vision was to create good music as honestly as possible and put it out there. If it stands up and people enjoy listening to some of it then we’ve achieved much more than being another pub band; there are lots of great pub bands – it’s just not our motivation.

Mashville’s ‘Another Place’ is out now.

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