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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Keston Cobbler's Club at Blacks

Seeing the Keston Cobblers Club for the first time at The Lantern Society around a year ago I was struck by three things about them. Firstly, they had a homespun quality that I found a tiny bit twee. Second, they were nonetheless very good in a catchy way. And thirdly, there was something rather harder to define about them that made me want to see them again. A kind of knowing exactly what they were doing quality that was relaxing and exciting at the same time. The audience was safe in their hands, on a mystery tour.

The homespun-ness I eventually put my finger on as the fashion for retro, vintage, recycled and crafty handmade things which, on reflection, is a logical response to being young and relatively poor during a massive recession. For a better sense of what I'm on about, think also of the Moulettes with their handmade stage set, Mumford & Sons in their waistcoats with their old-fashioned name, bunting at gigs and those posters that say "Keep calm and carry on". Better, surely, to look to the past for an aesthetic, implicitly asking yourself what other people did under similarly difficult circumstances, instead of going "Woe is me" and disappearing up your own fundament. This fashion is a practical response, I think: making the best of a bad lot. A kind of regrouping.

However, it also speaks of a do-it-yourself attitude arising from knowing no one is going to invite you to be successful because these days so few are.

Since then several Keston Cobblers' Club videos flung themselves in my path and made me admire them, I've explored the rest of their oeuvre on YouTube and then I saw them play live on Monday night at Blacks in Soho at a gig organised by the wonderfully named Society of the Golden Slippers that also featured Blair Dunlop - yay! - and talked to them. Now I'm massively impressed and can't wait to see what happens to them next. It seems to me that they're teetering on the edge of something pretty big. Maybe you'll see what I mean...

If you like that, listen also to this version, which is equally good in a different way.

Here's the basics: Jules, 28, with the blonde hair and her brother Matthew, 24, who sings and can learn to play a new instrument in a day, grew up in Bromley along with Tom, 25, and Harry, 24. "I'm an anomaly," said Bethan, who plays tuba, went to the Royal College of Music and is from the midlands. "When I found out she'd been to music school I snapped her up," said Jules.

There's a story about a cobbler that goes with the name.

And I had formed an impression before I met them that they'd had some sage advice on how to navigate their way through the mess that is the modern music industry. Several things had provoked this, including the fact that they had a Burberry deal...

Also I'd read on their website that they'd been snapped up by Quest music management - which manages Sir Paul McCartney and Arcade Fire. Then when I spoke to them, Jules said nonchalantly that they'd "supported Seth Lakeman and Bastille quite early on".

But how did that happen?

"Well," said Jules. "We pestered people and sent them things. Steve Lamacq at Radio 6: we sent him a CD in a wax sealed envelope... we also sent it to about 300 other people. But he picked us up."

But how did you know that was the way to approach it?

"I'm a graphic designer," she said simply - as is Harry - and she studied the subject at college, which I guess implies an immersion in all the soft skills that go into promotion and marketing. When you put this together with Bethan, who was in events management for classical music until quite recently, they have the pretty much the exact skill set - on top of making great music - that you would need in order to promote a band. This process is not, after all, magic.

In particular their videos are great. "Because of what I do for a living, I know that it's easier to listen to something if you're also watching something," Jules said. "We made them ourselves."

A couple of them play with the idea of age - For Words (above, it won an award) and Your Mother - using relatively elderly actors as their focus. What's that about? "Ha! That's my great aunt Audrey and uncle Charles. We're hoping to get a trilogy out of them," she laughed. "I think that a lot of people I know are really scared of getting old. But my mum had a bad accident about three years ago and ever since I've been a bit like "Yes! We're all still here! It's amazing!' And I find I get a bit annoyed with people who are scared of getting old."

So what's going on with Quest? (And this is the part that really gripped me: reading that they'd been taken on by Quest was a bit like reading that someone you know had been scooped up by King Kong...)

"Ah yes, Quest." Bethan and Jules looked at each other as if this were the part of the conversation they hadn't been looking forward to. "Well," said Jules. "We were signed with Quest and then on Friday we parted ways." This was on Monday and we were sitting in the corner at Blacks before their gig.

Oh dear. What happened?

"There was a three-month probationary period. But the person from the agency, she was a bit younger than we'd been hoping. It's a bit of a touchy subject but we thought it was important to say that it was our decision, so it didn't look like we were kicked off. Because we weren't."

But surely being attached to Quest would open all kinds of doors?

"You'd think so. But she was on their young management scheme. A manager can completely change the balance of a band, its whole direction and shape. She was a lovely, lovely girl but it didn't work and you've got to be quite fussy about management because they're part of the band. She had slightly different taste in music to us..."

She's also managing this lot.

Bethan took up the reins: "We do have quite high standards and we've got a specific idea about what our brand is, which is something that Jules has worked quite hard on. We have to aim high and this was only our first management experience."

Jules: "We don't want to piss off Quest because they're incredibly powerful in the industry. But they have a young management scheme for small bands. It's just that in our case it was a bit too small. We didn't get the Burberry thing as a result of Quest, we didn't get Glastonbury through them either. We need a manager who can do everything we can do and something else as well. If Quest would have us, we'd certainly be willing to try something else..."

In fact Bethan, Jules and Matthew have all recently given up their day jobs in order to go full time with the band, are getting a bus and are heading out on their first UK tour quite soon, supporting The Leisure Society. They're also about to make another video and are looking for volunteers to be in it, so if you think you might be interested keep an eye on their Facebook page. The Heights of Lola (first video on this post) was the result of the last shout out.

Other things you might like to know about the Keston Cobblers' Club include that Jules has a definite thing about Sam Beam from Iron and Wine, so much so that their next single is called Beam. "I'm hoping that one day we'll get to support him if we write about him enough," she said in a casting-her-bread-upon-the-water kind of a way.

Also, three out of the five band members play the trumpet to at least grade eight standard because they went to a school in Bromley that was a feeder for a brass band.

And, brilliantly, there is a spare tuba player called Dan hovering around somewhere and every outfit should have a spare tuba player. Their fat, brassy whump quite often reminds me of a colliery band: audible flashes of nostalgia. Like Bellowhead and Mumford & Sons they often play up tempo tunes that make you want to jump up and down with a stupid grin on your face: in fact, the more I think about it the more convinced I become that being up tempo is the secret to folky success because people like to be cheered up more than they like to be reflective. They can, after all, be reflective without leaving the house...

So the question is probably what the Keston Cobblers Club would like to happen next? Their response is practical.

"We're looking for someone to do bookings for us - and possibly a PR because it's getting to point at which we can't do everything ourselves time-wise. But the main thing is that we'd like a good manager: someone who knows the industry. We're looking for a head cobbler," said Jules.

Then they went off and did a really brilliant gig.

* Photos by the wonderful David Firn.

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