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Saturday, 11 May 2013

Guardian columnist Tim Dowling on Police Dog Hogan

First there was a kerfuffle with food that went on for an abnormally long time. My advice would be that if you go to a gig at the Halfmoon in Putney, eat somewhere else beforehand. Or take sandwiches: it would be the Halfmoon's karmic reward.


Hatful of Rain, who'd motivated my visit to west London on this occasion, turned out to be the support act, most of the audience made it noisily clear that it was there to see the other band and the other band, it turned out, was Police Dog Hogan.

I recognised at least one of them from the outset. Weirdly - though probably only for me - I used to work in an office with the mandolin player, Tim Jepson, and realised as soon as he bounded on stage that this accounted for the large number of my former Telegraph colleagues in the audience, most of whom appeared to be from the travel desk, if memory served.

On reflection, the weirdness was that I started this blog as a way of cheering myself up after leaving that paper, in part reasoning that I was unlikely to run into large crowds of people from it at folk gigs. So the end of that fiction was a bit of a moment for me. Folk is officially taking over the world.

On stage, Police Dog Hogan twanged impressively. There was a fiddle, a banjo and the mandolin, making the kind of noise that I would have travelled to hear. On purpose, I mean. There was also a niggling sensation that I'd heard of them, even if I hadn't seen them before.

Their age was unusual: the youngest of them is 49. But what of it? Digital music means that each of us theoretically has instant access to everything ever recorded, so the exact location of musicians on the space-time continuum isn't as important as it used to be. Word.

There was also an unusual shimmer of affluence about Police Dog Hogan. The rich timbre of the voices, their apparently glowing health, a surprisingly well-to-do audience. Early on, the singer told a story about his housemaster.

Then I noticed Tim Dowling, who was playing a banjo and lurking by the stack - and the penny dropped. I'd read about Police Dog Hogan in the context of his Guardian column. I'd even subbed one or two of them during shifts on the Weekend section earlier this year (I can tell you that he writes to length and spells better than me). I hadn't met him because he doesn't work in the office. But at that moment the work/life implosion was total. Big soggy mess.

When I spoke to him a few days later, he said he didn't think he'd ever mentioned the band by name in the paper.

"The whole idea is that the column is about me. Some people say it's about my wife, but I try not to write about my neighbours or my colleagues, as none of it is really their fault. I have to pay my kids if I write about them, I think the band would probably like it if I included them more often and so would Proper Records," which distributes Police Dog Hogan's stuff. "But it would be very wrong to try to promote the band through the column."


"The column is about me - that's the schtick - and everyone else in it simply gets in my way. Eddie [the fiddle player, who is also a barrister] once said to me that he could see I was in a bind because the column is about how miserable I am and how things go wrong. So in order to write about the band, something would have to go wrong. I learnt quite early on, though, that I shouldn't refer to us in print as a 'middle-aged man band'. You should have seen the long faces when I turned up to rehearsal after that one. Also, none of us has ever asked our work colleagues to a gig. I don't think I want to know what mine think of Police Dog Hogan..."

I didn't like to mention the Telegraph travel desk. By the way, that's the two Tims there. In person Tim Dowling, right, is hairier and more robust-looking than his byline picture suggests and he has a soft New England accent that comes in and goes away again a bit like a distant signal from a short-wave radio. He's funny, but you probably could have guessed that.

So what's Police Dog Hogan's story?

"It started with four guys - not me. It was the mandolin player, the fiddle player, the guitarist and James Studholme, our lead singer, who works in advertising. The first time I saw them was in a pub called The Metropolitan, in Westbourne Park, and I thought they were really good. I mean, everyone else on at that open mic night was a male singer/songwriter, all James Blunty, and I felt like I was doing the band a favour slightly by going down there. But actually they were good.

"I had a banjo that I'd been given for my birthday. My sister had given her partner one for Christmas and I'd just held it that day." He mimed speculatively holding a banjo. "I learnt to play off the internet. There are people out there whose greatest joy in life it is to teach you, through the internet, how to play the banjo. So I started with a style called frailing banjo, which is when you pluck the string with the back of your finger, and now I can do a bit of Scruggs style as well, though not very well. I do what the song requires."

He confirmed that it is, indeed, possible to learn nearly anything off the internet these days. "I just bought a £30 clarinet and am trying to learn that now. I'm not popular at home - it sounds awful.

"So having liked the band, I quite passive-aggressively inserted myself into it - I don't think it was a very popular idea at the outset. I was a friend of James's but they had this thing they called 'prairie dogma'. There were rules, like the dogme film rules. And bringing me in broke the first rule, which was that there were only supposed to be four members. All the other rules have been broken now as well: I think the last one was 'no electric guitar' and now we're a seven-piece with an electric guitar.

"We decided quite early on that it would be no fun unless we took it way too seriously. I mean, unless you're getting better and trying to get people interested, what's the point?"

Things have gone well in the intervening four years. They've toured, recorded two albums and an EP, done a few festivals and been sufficiently well-received to be invited back. "Festivals are good because you're playing to people who've already paid. But at the time of day when we're on, we're generally playing to an audience holding coffee cups. We'll be at Maverick for the fourth time this year and I think they've moved us half an hour later on each occasion. Our aim is probably to play at dusk - dusk comes very late in summer."

They get a lot of views on YouTube due to their  excellent videos. This has a lot to do with James Studholme's advertising business having an international film production wing. "He has an eye for people who are just starting out," explained Dowling.

In between the gig and the interview I was lucky enough to receive a Police Dog Hogan tea towel  through the post.

There it is in the kitchen at The Glamour Cave.

"There's a guy called Mik Artistik who's claiming that I got the idea for the tea towels from seeing his stuff at the Grassington festival last year. But James - who knows about these things - says that they're entry-level merchandising."

Are they aimed at women? I wondered about their targeted marketing when I saw this.

"If you go into the record tent at festivals you'll see that it's mainly women buying the merchandising. If I go in I'll buy CDs or nothing - I've usually just gone in just to see if our CD is there. Anyway, everyone has to do the washing-up."

The words on the tea towel are from a wacky religious leaflet that Dowling found on a New York subway. "Wherever it says 'Police Dog Hogan' it originally said 'Sister Catherine'. There's a whole American genre of leaflet with boilerplate writing like that."

So what about the band's name?

"Ah. That story has never yet been told in a way that the listener enjoyed."

Sure enough, it was quite complicated. But the upshot was that Eddie the barrister had once told them what was at the time an excellent story involving a police report. It featured a character called PD Hogan, who first cropped up when he was "retrieved" from a van and was later, mystifyingly, described as "vocalising". Finally it said that PD Hogan had bitten someone, at which point it became apparent that PD was short for police dog. Um. Unfortunately the problem with retelling the story, though, is that you know he's a dog from the outset because that's what the band's called - and if you didn't you wouldn't be asking. It's like an anecdote with a death wish.

Is this the first band you've been in?

"I was in three or four at college. What's weird about it now, though, is being in that dynamic with grown-ups. Being in a band when you're 20 is basically one huge argument: loads of egos and loads of clashing. We spent more time talking about what we were going to call ourselves than we did playing.

"Everyone now has that same male fragility, but everyone is simultaneously very appreciative of that and we hardly ever have arguments."

Hardly ever?

"Well, we take it in turns to throw our toys out of the pram but that's part of the fun. Everyone's afraid of going on stage and looking like a dick and that worry can manifest itself in worrying about whether a song is working or not. Maybe it's working in such a way that the audience wouldn't necessarily know that it's finished. So you and the crowd could be left at the end, in silence, just eyeballing each other over the footlights."

You're talking about the last time you started an argument, aren't you?


So what was the best gig you've done?

"Probably playing the Borderline just before Christmas. It was at the end of our tour with All the Fires and we got the gig by hassling the venue. When we played in Cornwall All the Fires topped the bill because it was their home turf but in London we led, it was a great time of year and there was the dawning realisation that we now have real fans who aren't related to us and who we don't know personally: people who travel quite a long way to hear us play, wear a T-shirt and know the words. Also, the Borderline's a wonderful venue. It makes you think "Where next?'"

And what about the most memorable gig?

"Ah... That's got to be the time we played at Maverick and we thought, since we were all staying the night in Suffolk, we'd do the open mic at The Fleece in Boxford. We thought we'd go there and blow them away because there were so many of us. But it was in the middle of the World Cup and there was a screen with an Ecuador match going on behind us. You look out at the crowd and you think 'I'm sure they're here to see us'.

'Anyway, there was a quiet moment when just the banjo part was playing. And suddenly this massive, drunk crowd leapt to its feet." He mimed an entire crowd leaping to its feet, shouting "YESSSSSS!" simultaneously, faces contorted. It was very convincing.

"There was just a split second of thinking that they liked my banjo."

What do the kids think of the band? He's got three sons, aged 14, 15 and 18.

"They're a little bit mortified. Obviously they're not in a position to think that it's cool. But in a way they do like it - because they've been to festivals as a result. At Cornbury, for instance, they got access-all-areas passes by mistake and basically went off to stalk all the people there who they'd heard of."

* Catch Police Dog Hogan at Bearded Theory, Wychwood and Maverick this summer, among other places.

* This song, Gone Away, is lovely but I couldn't get it to embed properly from YouTube for some reason.

* You can follow Tim Dowling on Twitter @IAmTimDowling

* If you particularly enjoyed this post you might also be interested in Geoff Lakeman: folk patriarch and newspaper man or A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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