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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Ade Edmondson on being a bad shepherd

He talks really fast.

Ordinarily this wouldn't matter very much but I got the sense that he'd just finished another telephone interview and was therefore thoroughly warmed up, talking-wise, whereas my shorthand takes a while to crank into gear. I mention this because while we were out of sync he was saying some interesting stuff, so it's a shame that you'll be missing some of it...

I saw him and his Bad Shepherds - Troy Donockley and Andy Dinan in the band's present incarnation - at Folk by the Oak in 2011 and had the exact experience that he describes to me during our conversation: despite their performance being freighted with the expectation that it would be funny, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the musicianship and impressed at how hard they were working to subvert my expectations. It was a beautiful afternoon and they played versions of punk-era songs on traditional instruments, including Uilleann pipes, with Edmondson on mandolin. Then they made me laugh harder than I've laughed at a folk festival before or since by doing a punk version of All Around My Hat with a lyric that ran like this...

"We used to do that version of All Around My Hat because I was embarrassed that people would want comedy," he explained. "But the more we took the funny stuff out, the better the gig became because the more people actually listened to what we were playing.

"What we're aiming for is joy rather than humour. People hear things at our gigs that they are vaguely familiar with" - they usually start with Anarchy in the UK - "and then there's a difference between what they are used to and what they remember - and it amounts to something different again. There's this great thing that happens at festivals: people come to us with an expectation that it's going to be shit and then we win them over. It's like fly fishing."

Edmondson as Vyvyan in The Young Ones is an edgy childhood memory for me that eventually shaded into warmth, though I never came round to Bottom, in which he worked again with his university friend Rik Mayall. "A lot of women say that," apparently.

There was, however, a level of hysteria to his television characters that bumps awkwardly against his present, fly-fishing orientated, media incarnation, in which he presents a TV show called Ade in Britain (see what they did there?) that follows him as he goes around the country being nice to people, and plays in a folk band. I put it to him that he may have turned into a codger.

"Have I got a codger in me?" he deliberated. "I think of a codger as someone who is full of their own self-importance."

Ah well then, we should define our terms. I think of a codger as a man of certain age who wears a hat.

"Well, I do wear a hat, I think the world was a better place when we all wore hats. I like looking at pictures of men walking to Wembley stadium in the 1930s, all of them wearing hats, and wondering why on earth we stopped wearing them?"

Did umbrellas become the cheaper option? Hats seem quite pricey these days...

"I like them because they frame your face, especially if you've got a head like mine that looks like an onion. I started wearing them to keep my head warm because I don't have much hair, but think that they frame my face and make my features look better."

And is tweed your jam? (I may have been encouraging the hat-talk.)

"I have a couple of tweedy flat caps and then a black one because I like to change my mood now and then. Also, you should wear a hat in this weather," he said as the temperature outdoors crept into the low 80s "to prevent your head splitting open like a tomato."

I've noticed that ordinarily when interviewers ask how you ended up being in a folk band, you tell them that it was an accident.

"And you don't believe that?"

It seems a bit unlikely. Here's a video they made in 2008 about how the band started.

"It is slightly disingenuous to say that it was an accident. I have a history of enjoying folk. I'm in my late 50s and the pop charts of my youth were full of folk instruments. Rod Stewart... there was mandolin all over everything. And then the drama department at Manchester University had this pub we all went to that was an Irish session pub. So we'd go from watching a session there to the squat, where we'd watch punk bands wearing bin liners. And these kinds of music seemed very similar to me, equally thrilling."

Do you still find it thrilling?

"I love watching The Unthanks."

Well, yes. But I read that you don't relate to the bucolic side of folk?

"I don't quite understand the reason for singing songs about blacksmiths and jolly milk maids. It seems a bit anachronistic - unless it's a timeless metaphor that actually means something else." I've had similar thoughts myself, which set me off.

I waffled on for a while about how the act of recording music has changed its nature and how these days, because of digitisation, bands are competing against every other band that has ever existed rather than just the ones that are fighting to get into the chart that week. I mentioned the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury and how all the teenagers knew the words to their music. I may also have mentioned the coconut tree.

"I heard another brilliant story about Keith Richards falling off a ladder in his library," Edmondson giggled. "It was good not just for the idea that Keith Richards has a library... but that it is so vast that he needs a ladder for it.

"It would be interesting, though, wouldn't it, to find out what songs we'd all know if recording studios had never been invented? We wouldn't be able to listen to Jacques Brel, we'd be relying on whoever was keeping the songs alive by performing them.

"I don't know really what it means to be a young musician these days. Everyone is recording themselves all the time."

I ventured that all this recording may have elevated the role of the promoters and middle men. I mean, when everyone can record because the technology is no barrier to entry, the scramble becomes for other people's attention and it becomes much more important to understand the buttons and levers of the industry. Hence, perhaps, the number of musicians who are also graphic designers who have cropped up on this blog recently. Their trade - graphic design - is all about commodification and promotion.

However, being famous for something else is another way of getting a band off the ground, I suppose?

"I wouldn't recommend it as a way to become a musician: pretending to be a comedian for 30 years. Although the notoriety is kind of a plus, trying to persuade people that you mean what you're doing is difficult. Getting them to listen is quite hard: you wouldn't believe the number of interviews I do with people who haven't listened to us and never will."

How ambitious are you for The Bad Shepherds? Is there anyone in particular you'd like to play with?

"I'd like to get Andy Cutting into the band, though he doesn't know that yet."

Glad to be of service. I detected from reading your blog that you're not a massive fan of camping? For instance, you said that the Glastonbury festival smells like human excrement...

"Ah. That must have been from a few years ago. We didn't go this year, I just haven't got around to updating the blog much."

Good to see that you're really getting the hang of being a folk musician then...

"I don't camp unless I can help it because it hurts your bones. I'd go as far as to say it's bad for your bones. I wouldn't mind being in a big camper van but I really can't camp because it's so hard on the hips. People roll out those thin little mattresses... Ouch. When the kids were small" - he has three daughters with his wife Jennifer Saunders - "we had to pretend to enjoy camping. But I like hotels.

"What I do enjoy, though, at festivals is teasing people from the stage about the fact that they're camping.  'It was raining last night, wasn't it? It was really banging on my hotel window', that kind of thing. We've done a lot of festivals, this band, and we like to arrive a day early and then stay a day later, wobble around and get drunk. But we stay in a hotel nearby in order to do it.

"Glastonbury was like some kind of hippy refugee camp. You know, we used to get paid in cash when we started out and once, at Glastonbury, Troy left the van open and there was a bag in the back of it with about fifteen grand in it in cash and no one nicked it. How we laughed about that - before we punched Troy in the face. That was back in the days when we didn't trust promoters but we've got ourselves a better agent now."

Oh right. Who's that then?

"Matt Bartlett. He was a promoter and we were so pleased with him that we turned him into a manager. There's so much work connected with gigging that isn't actually gigging... Getting contracts out and that kind of thing."

Ah yes. The whole trying to get paid shenanigans.

"We've been to court from time to time to try and get a contract enforced but the trouble with that is that even if you win you still end up with nothing because of all the fees you have to pay. We've tried chasing them but these days we just deliver a lot of paper."

I also read in that rather-out-of-date blog that you once managed to lock yourself out of a hotel room when you were completely naked?

"That was at the Ibis in Liverpool. There had been a lot of drinking, as you would probably expect, and the toilet door was on a curved wall. I was trying to feel my way to it in the dark and went through the wrong door. If it wasn't for the fact that the staff there were all foreign" and presumably therefore didn't know who Edmondson was "I'm sure that video would have ended up on YouTube. It was all caught on CCTV. I walked boldly into the foyer covering myself with my hands."

You didn't try sticking your head around the corner first? I think I probably would have tried that...

"No. There was only one way to do that particular thing unfortunately."

I mentioned to a couple of people that I was going to be interviewing you and they both said the same thing, which was: "He's married to Jennifer Saunders, you know." I understand she's been unwell: is she OK these days?

"Yes. She's been very well for a couple of years now, though I don't think you ever get the all-clear from breast cancer. They just keep doing tests every once in a while."

And all this stuff about John Inverdale over the weekend: the casual sexism of the BBC's Wimbledon coverage. As the father of three daughters was there ever anything you said to them that was an attempt to prepare them for that kind of thing?

"I don't tell them anything about men. They are all grown up and have left home now: one is married and the other two have permanent boyfriends and I think they've all chosen extremely well. They're lovely blokes. In fact I think for the lot of them there were only two bad boyfriends in 30 years and that's not bad going, is it?

"I think you live by example, don't you? I sometimes wonder whether we've been strict or liberal parents but I actually feel that my daughters are such perfect people that we must have done all right. I really don't understand these men who say 'Three daughters? You must have been at the door with a shotgun!' I mean, why would you not want your daughters, who are in their twenties, to have fulfilling sexual relationships? That's what life is all about, isn't it?"

And what about Mumford & Sons? Any strong feelings one way or the other?

"We saw them at Cambridge a couple of years ago. They were first on the bill and we were headlining that time. Ha! We were supported by Mumford & Sons... I watched them from the side of the stage and thought they were fucking brilliant. I downloaded their stuff from the web and listen to the original - it was from before they rerecorded the first album - and love it. I know people who hate them but they've got a great vocalist. I love his singing."

Ade in Britain: what came first, the idea for the series or the title?

"I came up with the series idea and they came up with the title. I'd had an awful name for it originally though I can't remember what it was. I'd done the Dales and they asked whether there was anything else I'd like to do, so I came up with something based on this book called England in Particular by Sue Clifford and Angela King. Quite often the programmes include folk bands and I must be the main conduit for morris dancing on national TV. In 50 episodes I think we've had seven or eight morris sides."

So what's next on the telly?

"There's a short series on beer in development. I'm trying to convince BBC2 to take it."

Can I recommend a blog by a friend of mine that's about that exact thing?

"Is it the one with the funny name?"

Yes! Zythophile by Martyn Cornell. I used to work with him.

"I've read it. It's a bit historical in places but it was one of the first things I looked at when I started doing some research. It's fascinating to think beer was invented in Iran..."

* Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds have a new album out on August the 19th called Mud, Blood and Beer and will be touring to promote it in November and December.

* If you enjoyed this post, you may also like this, which is an interview with actor and folky Stephen Mangan. Or this, which is a Desert Island (folk) Discs with David Oakes, star of The Borgias and The White Queen.

* 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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