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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bellowhead's Pete Flood on Pinocchio, Broadside and the movies

"It wasn't a conscious decision to monopolise the Bellowhead writing process. I'm going through a very prolific period," said Pete Flood (below). He arranged five of the twelve tunes on the new album, Broadside, to lead singer Jon Boden's seven and theirs are the only credits on the sleeve this time around.

Making his point neatly for him, the reason I was in touch was because he's also done the incidental music for a new version of Pinocchio at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, a venue I know from childhood. Pungent are the memories of Saturday mornings spent there: my sister and I hugely excited, mum and/or dad barely able to keep their eyes open after a long week. There was always a strong smell of coffee in the foyer.

"I haven't seen it yet," said Flood. "I've been away for two weeks, which has been a source of worry. Did the music turn out OK?" Yes, everything went off without a hitch.

"I worked very closely with Peter O'Rourke, the director. We did two weeks' worth of R&D back in January and he's a meticulous director. He writes everything down and thinks everything through. The number of notes he sent me was astonishing, even to the point where in July he sent through an overview of where he thought the music was needed, exactly how much and where it should change.

"There are pros and cons to working like that. If I were to write everything according to the script, he would have had no flexibility. I tried to give him enough so that, in the more complex scenes at least, he would have options. But we always knew I'd be away for the first week and so wouldn't be around to help out."

Flood hasn't been around because he's been touring the country promoting Broadside. When we spoke he was aboard the band's tour bus as it pulled up outside the Sage in Gateshead - they'd been at the Lowry in Manchester the previous night.

"It was a strange gig. I was tired and feeling a bit under the weather and there was a sit-down audience. For me a sit-down gig is so wrong: if I see an audience sitting down I can't get into it. And in the really well-appointed theatres you can't even see a sit-down audience because there are too many lights, so you don't get any sense of engagement. Other members of the band like the perfectionism that a sit-down audience asks of you. But after last night several people who'd seen us before said it was one of our best. You can never tell..."

I expressed my admiration for the latest Bellowhead album, which I've been listening to on a rather spanky pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Bellowhead are often referred to as "theatrical" and likened to "a juggernaut" and in this format the album is a bit like being run over by a carnival float populated by characters from a Tim Burton movie. It's dark, complex and multi-textured, deeply rewarding when listened to on hi-fi and, truthfully, cinematic in scope rather than theatrical. Could film be Bellowhead's ultimate medium?

"About ten years ago I did some incidental music for a film and I'd like to get back into it. But I'm really enjoying myself at the moment. I've spent a couple of years thinking about the ideal group to involve myself with: I'm considering putting together a trio that's going to take the world by storm."

This is especially interesting in the context of what he said the last time I spoke to him, about the practical and financial difficulties of being in a band with so many members. His candour at the time was disarming, something I'm coming to associate with him.

For instance, one of his arrangements on Broadside - The Wife of Ushers Well - similarly stopped me in my tracks and left me wondering how on earth one gets from this...

... to this

"Ha! The real trouble with trying to explain this song - and I've tried a couple of times - is that I end up sounding like the most pretentious man on earth. There's a special problem with Bellowhead, which is how to you do a straightforward main verse ballad with a band that's known for its theatricality? One idea I had was that it should be quite incantatory, like a spell."

That makes sense: the woman in the song is essentially bringing her three sons back from the dead.

"Yes. There was also a specific interest I had in delivering a large amount of information quickly, flying through it and yet still making it compelling. We get a bit of stick now and then for unintelligibility. But I grew up with punk, with Echo and the Bunnymen, and you never had a clue what they were on about. To me, that was an incentive to listen to it again. Similarly, with The Wife of Ushers Well, if you don't get the story the first time around we have CDs these days and you can listen to it again and that's fine. So this chanting... it would take a few listens to get to the bottom of it if you didn't know the song."

It's the atmospherics that stay with you though, like a cross between the Carmina Burana and the Wicker Man. The overall effect is quite terrifying.

"Er. Thanks."

So how did he get to the point where this was possible? Is a Bellowhead album written down and did he go to music school?

"Oh god yes. It's completely scored out, though not particularly rigorously adhered to. There has to be a trust with the other musicians that maybe they'll come up with something better. And yes, I went to Goldsmiths, though it took me a long time to get on to a music degree. I was told at every step of my academic career that I shouldn't do music. I wasn't massively talented and I still feel like a blunderer who blunders around until I get something right. If I have a talent it's tenacity - although I'm not tenacious in any other area of my life.

"So I got three bad A' levels - Spanish, geography and social biology, which is what you did if you weren't good enough to do biology - and took a couple of years out. I hadn't been allowed to do a music A' level because I hadn't done a music GCSE. So I tried to start up a band and then went and lived in Los Angeles, where I went to a place called the Musicians' Institute.

"I came back and did an A' level in a year at Goldsmiths and got to degree level. So because of all the struggle, by the time I got there I was so happy that I consequently just worked my arse off and ended up getting a first. Up until then I don't think I'd ever got an A for anything and when that happened, that was the moment I thought 'Maybe I should be doing this'.

"I graduated in 1996 and worked in a record store for a couple of years as a buyer - and got to know a load of people who did physical theatre: I did some physical theatre myself. I also played in a few Algerian bands and spent a lot of time in studios recording house music. My big worry was how to reconcile all these different influences: my stuff was too wide-ranging. And actually Bellowhead, when it came along, was a bit of a godsend. A focus."

So how did that happen?

"I knew the brass players already, I'd worked with them in various guises. But actually it came about because Jon Boden's mum knew my mum - they were working in a charity shop together."

I'm not sure why that's funny, but it is. And how do you describe what you do these days?

"Whenever I have to write a biog I say 'percussionist/composer/teacher'."

We returned to the subject of incidental music.

"When I left Goldsmiths the first thing I did was apply for the film music MA at the Royal College of Music. I was turned down for not having the theory skills. I didn't have perfect pitch or the instant ability to hear a chord and know it was a diminished seventh. Plus the guy who worked in the office had a chip on his shoulder about all the contemporary music at Goldsmiths. I was the third or fourth person with a first from there who he'd turned down for that course.

"But I'm glad I'm doing this now: going out and playing music with people who are clearly having the time of their lives. It couldn't have worked out any better. We'll see how this album's received - it all seems to be going well - and there's another tour in February, including to the Benelux countries.

"I think the whole band would love to go to the States and Japan on tour. But what we found last year is that English traditional music is a difficult sell. If it were Celtic we'd be a lot more easily taken up but people don't tend to think of English traditional music as interesting to listen to."

Sounds like a job for the Arts Council and Visit England. You'd think that a combination of the Mumford effect and all that hard work might combine to create something akin to a Blue Fairy - a la Pinocchio - for Bellowhead. Only, you know, for real.

* Tickets to Pinocchio are selling fast but can be got here. And here's a list of tour dates for the phenomenal Bellowhead.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page and then indicate using the drop-down menu next to the *like* button that the blog is one of your "interests" You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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