Interview: The Vagaband

Long-established roots stalwarts The Vagaband’s third album, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ came out to great praise earlier this year with this very site loving the album’s “rollicking mix of Dylan and Ronnie Lane like Romany swirls, full-bodied and city sullied dramas and just plain old good fashioned songs”.   AUK’s Nic Rigby caught up with the band’s leader and main songwriter, Jose McGill, at his Norwich home to talk about the album and the band’s place in the Americana genre. 

You must be pleased with the reception of the album?
The reviews have been great, the ones that we have gotten. It’s been lovely those that have reviewed it have really liked it. Fantastic.  I’m not sure many people, as far as the public goes have got to find out about the album and as a result, not many people have heard the album yet.   As grateful as we are, had it been picked up by some of the bigger national mags that would’ve elevated, propelled the listenership to a higher level. And maybe over the years people will find out about it more.

I know you very much can be seen within the Americana scene. Over the last sort of five years, it’s grown and grown. You were very much ahead of the game in regards to it. How do you feel about the way the Americana tag? As opposed to country music?
Yeah, it’s interesting. With the term country music, it kind of became a pop, schmaltzy version of itself. And with Americana, there’s a term, I think it’s a wider brush first off. It’s a wider brush and less restrictive in terms of going for that natural sound or the new country sound.  Therefore, I guess you can be a bit more experimental. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the term Americana mainly because what it does is dangerous for us.

It’s alright for Americans. But roots music as I prefer to call it, has its origins in Celtic music for us.  In fact, Bluegrass and American country music owes a huge debt to Celtic origins. I think music between Europe and America has always been a cultural ping pong.

Your albums have a hardcore Americana sound?
We really do go for this kind of widescreen Americana, a bit new Orlean-sy here and a bit Bluegrass there. Whereas, I know that when I think of some acts in the UK circuit it is kind of more rocky. More of a kind of modern rock sound and yet they call it Americana.

I saw something the other day was on an Americana site and it was actually really mod. It was psychedelic or almost like Small Faces or Paul Weller. And it was so quintessentially British. I was like, what? To me,  that was a tipping point. I was like, okay, you know what? I’ve had enough of this now. Because it was, we should be proud. Thing is I can’t hold up my hand and say we’re really British, we’re not. Only a bit of it is. Mainly, we come from a really American sound. But when people are obviously mod and go, yeah, it’s Americana. No, it’s not, you nitwit.

I guess it’s a way of marketing the sound?
This is what I’ve realized. What I realized is, this fella and a lot of others feel there isn’t a platform for roots-based guitar music; acoustic music. There isn’t actually a platform in this country on the radio. And in fact, if you go to national radio they have country shows doing the Nashville thing. You’ve got folk shows with radio, too. But there isn’t an Americana show. I’ve been chatting to a radio plugger who agreed with the same thing. There isn’t actually an Americana show on national radio currently.

So forget this adult-oriented acoustic music. It’s either American country or it’s English folk with their finger in their ear. But there isn’t a platform. The nearest platform is Americana and even that isn’t on the radio. So that’s when I realized, people my age, mid-forties whatever, who want to make music which is kind of similar to what was going on in the 70s or whatever, 60s the 70s up to acts as well maybe Tom Petty or something as well, they have to call it Americana. Because it’s the only thing.

Your album ‘Medicine for the Soul’ was about three years ago. How do you feel this new album differs?
‘Medicine for the Soul’ was very much a collection of mini-plays. It was thematic.  Medicine was very theatrical and it was knowingly being quite psychedelic, with lots of pomp and theatrics, like Queen or something. Where it was tongue in cheek in places and it would go from epic to musical to this, to that, to burlesque and it was all over the place.

The new album isn’t reaching so far. It has just some good old music. We tried to recreate our live sound on this album more. Actually, the approach of it, for a lot of songs, was no arrangements as such with one take as much as possible. We gave everyone two shots at playing what they wanted over the tracks and then I would just take out the bad bits and then make sense of it. It was very much, just play what you feel. So actually there’s a natural flow through the first three tracks, ‘One for the Road’ and ‘Something Wicked’ where they’re all weaving in and out of each other with little riffs.

It must be great to have a band of really great musicians who can do that kind of thing?
That’s the reason we did it because live it can get like that – where everybody’s just weaving in and out with riffs. So even though I had way too much to play with and I had to get rid of a lot of good stuff, it worked.  We kind of wanted to make it sound like the basement tapes, Dylan’s basement tapes where it really is like as natural as possible. And I think we pulled it off to an extent on the new album.

The album starts with a driving track, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ and it’s the title of the CD. Tell me about that song?
It was Greg, our pianist, who brought the track to the table. I felt the lyrics were terrible and they were. Then I said to him, why don’t you really try and make this topical? About something real because it was bordering on goblin rock. It was like that kind of fantasy.

So he was in America when the Trump campaign was going. When the news hit that Trump had won and everybody was just walking around shell-shocked, he was in a diner and just grabbed pen and paper and just wrote about that.  The title, as you know, apart from being in Hamlet is a Ray Bradbury novel. And the metaphor which was used was comparing the circus of Trump’s campaign, the whole kind of grotesque circus that it was, to this B movie where this freak show comes to town and bad things happen. So it was like an omen. So it worked really well on that level as a nice metaphor.

Tell me about the ultimate touring song One for the Road?
That’s actually about being absolutely tired and we just want to go home. Playing dead-end bars and being long in the teeth. This band’s been going 12 years – I’ve been playing with Patrick for nearly 20 years. And we’ll still, you’ll get promoters who are like “Do you want to play the festival on the other side of the country, we can only pay you £300 quid.”

Your song ‘There’ll Only Be One Elvis’ is your tribute to the great songwriter Elvis Costello?
Well that’s another way to dig at the Americans isn’t it? It’s just a snide joke. I love Elvis Presley, of course, there’ll only be one Elvis and it’s Elvis Presley. I love Costello, it’s just an old joke, there’ll only be one Elvis. But then eventually I had this tune knocking around and I realized that it actually sounded quite Costello in the chorus. So I thought, I know, why don’t I write a homage to Costello and ode to him.

Was he one of your big influences when you were growing up?
Not when I was that young although stuff like ‘Oliver’s Army’ was always a big hit with me when I was about 11 or 12 years old. But, as I got older I remember when I heard “I want you,” I thought this was just incredible. I love Costello.   The funny thing, Elvis Presley didn’t write anything, Costello did. The thing about that track is, it’s got ten different influences from all eras of rock and roll.  It’s got Eddie Cochran bits in it, it’s got mariachi elements.

The song ‘Eye for an Eye’ is a lovely duet Norfolk country singer Yve May Barwood?
I started writing that track eleven years ago and hit a wall. It’s the first track that I started writing when I got The Vagaband together and five years later I managed to write another section and then hit a wall again. And then last year, did about four rewrites of the chorus and the keyboard player kept saying, no it’s not good enough. And I was like, yeah it’s fine.

And then we finally got there with his help actually and realized it would sound really good as a duet. And just rang Eve up. She turned up and she nailed it within about twenty minutes. It really did the track wonders by having her on it. In fact, we found out our voices go very well together in a Beauty and the Beast way. She’s got a great voice, and I’m now in the process of writing specifically with her and myself in mind.

What’s next for the Vagaband?
This year we’ve got a bunch of lovely festivals this year. We are also collaborating with an orchestra, a 50-piece orchestra.  That is going to be in September, where we’ll be performing all three albums, about an hour set. It’s a youth orchestra and we got Arts Council funding.

Are you going to record it?
Oh, yeah, we’ll get it filmed and recorded. I’m really nervous because you never know. You’ve got one shot at getting it right, but we’ll see how it goes. It may be that Midwinter Moonshine (a Christmas event at Norwich Arts Centre) we incorporate string quartet or a pared-down orchestra for it. It’d be amazing, wouldn’t it?

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is out now on Eggsong Recordings

UK tour dates can be found at www.thevagaband.co.uk

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