Stuart Giddens of Blackbeard’s Tea Party talks prostheses, cheesecake and new album Reprobates

Blackbeard’s Tea Party, the riotous York sextet, have been steadily gaining a reputation as one of the scene’s finest, funnest bands since 2009. Their third full album, Reprobates, blends extraordinary musicianship with a delirious sense of fun, and will surely soundtrack plenty more parties. Blackbeards-Tea-Party-Reprobates-Cover

The songs positively overflow with blood and guts, seawater and booze. And they’re executed with the group’s trademark fizzing energy and confident swagger. Jack Ketch is a queasy ode to Charles II’s hamfisted executioner with an irresistible chorus, while The Ballad of William Kidd is a typically rambunctious tale of piracy. There’s a dancing-crazy take on Peter Bellamy’s Roll Down, too. And that’s not to mention a glut of tunes, which blend headbanging rock guitar, Latin rhythms, Chili Peppers-esque funk and Laura Boston-Barber’s superb folky fiddling, often at dazzling speed.

And though the album is shot through with a sense of fun, Reprobates also showcases a new side to BTP. Closing track Close the Coalhouse Door – Alex Glasgow’s sensitive and poignant elegy to the Aberfan disaster of 1966 – is pulled off with foreboding, drama and powerful sincerity.

Folk Witness spoke to melodeon player and “sumptuous vocalist” Stuart Giddens about bloody violence, the band’s influences and their fans’ dressing-up and cheesecake habits.

Folk Witness: Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s nifty logo promises “Folk, rock and everything in-between…” Was it always the plan to mix up genres, add electric guitar to trad folk songs and so on?

Stuart Giddens: I don’t think we ever had a plan! We formed as a busking band and our first EP – Heavens to Betsy – reflects this. There’s almost no electric guitar on there, and it’s a much more trad folk-sounding record. But the six members that make up the band have always had musical interests outside of folk. Once we moved to bigger stages and full amplification there was more opportunity to add these to the mix. Our rhythm section in particular brings metal and classic rock influences to the fore.

Our basis is in English folk, but there are elements of funk, dance music, gypsy jazz, bluegrass and old time – plus our drummers bring a lot of African and Cuban rhythms to the mix, so this makes the basis of a lot of our grooves.

What music do you guys listen to? It sounds like your tastes vary quite a bit…

Yes – it’s pretty wide and there isn’t a lot of music that the six of us agree on. On long car journeys we have a few bands in rotation. We love the musicianship on funk and soul records like Stevie Wonder, James Brown and The Meters. We’ve been listening to dub-steppy dance music too like Knife Party and Major Lazer. Plus, since we saw them at Glastonbury and Cropredy respectively, Dolly Parton and Chas & Dave haven’t been far from the car stereo for long.

Do you like The Smiths?

Absolutely! I don’t listen to them much these days, but I spent the summer of 2005 drinking cheap cider, experimenting with magic mushrooms and listening to The Smiths with my best friend in my parents’ back garden (I was 18). I particularly like their first two LPs before, I think, it all went to Morrissey’s head. There’s a naivety and playfulness to lyrics that I think is lost in their later records.

Let’s talk about the new album. Why is it called Reprobates?

The first tracks we arranged for this CD were Jack Ketch and Hangman’s Noose. Jack Ketch was King Charles II’s executioner, and the first tune of Hangman’s Noose (‘The Hangman’s Reel’) was supposedly played on fiddle by convicts on the gallows in the hope of a reprieve. It seemed we were subconsciously following a theme of wrongdoing.

We liked the idea of sticking with the theme and writing/researching songs about immoral or nefarious characters. I was reading a book at the time called ‘Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil Wars’ and that word kept jumping out of me. It not only encapsulates the theme of the album, but reflects the band‘s reputation as the bad boys (and girl) of English folk.

How is it different from your previous stuff?

It’s heavier than our previous output. There’s more certainly more riffs and darker storytelling. I think we show off more of our funk and dance music influences this time, and there are more self-penned songs and tunes than ever.

You wrote the gruesome opening track – what inspired it?

The Steam Arm Man is based on a music hall song that channels fears of new technology during the industrial revolution. It tells the story of a soldier who has his arm blown off at the Battle of Waterloo. He builds himself a prosthetic limb that is powered by steam but, unfortunately, the steam arm is somehow cursed with an evil spirit, and it takes him on a gory killing spree.

It was folk-singer Gavin Davenport who suggested the song to us. I liked the story, the black humour and the steampunk vibe, but the lyrics themselves were a bit crass and pretty misogynistic. So I rewrote the whole thing and gave it a big chorus.

I see it as quite a fun (if gruesome) romp, and the narrative is similar to other popular songs about trouble makers like The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or Leon Rosselson’s Little Tim Maguire. The central character is pulling in two directions – essentially a good man driven to bad by his instinct to survive – and I found that a compelling story to tell.

There’s another particularly gory one – Jack Ketch – which… I see you wrote as well. So, er, what’s with all the bloody violence?

My songwriting is heavily influenced by Nick Cave, particularly his Murder Ballads and Henry’s Dream albums. I like Cave’s chaotic worlds of excess and violence.

I’m keen to rail against certain modern notions of folk as rather twee – strummed acoustic guitars, flat caps and braces. A lot of folk songs – particularly early ballads like Lambkin – are dark and gutsy melodramas. Even sea-shanties and work songs pulse with dark undercurrents of violence, danger or bawdy humour. All that blood-and-guts stuff fits well with our sound.

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Stuart Giddens (right) and the Blackbeard’s Tea Party crew

There’s more to the album than murder and gore though. The subjects of slavery, transports and even the Aberfan disaster are covered. Is it important to you to cover more sober subjects, too?

We’re quite rightly seen as a ‘fun’ party band. That’s certainly how we excel as a live experience, and we’ve worked hard to garner that reputation. But it can sometimes feel limiting too. We were keen on this album to flex our muscles a little in terms of the emotional depth. We want to prove there’s more than one string to our bow.

How did you approach Close the Coalhouse Door? It’s quite a tragic, sensitive song – I wasn’t expecting a group I thought primarily of as a ‘fun’ band to go there…

I wasn’t sure it was right for the band at first. I’m especially conscious that the Aberfan disaster is in living memory. You feel a weightier responsibility to approach the song sensitively and with respect. Once we started arranging the song though, it was obvious that we were hitting the nail on the head. We had an idea to try and create a lot of space in the arrangement while keeping a heart-beat pulse running through the whole song. It’s something very different for us, and I hope it surprises people.

And of course there’s a great helping of tunes, too. Where do you find them, and what’s the arranging process like?

We choose either traditional tunes that we pick up in sessions, or self-penned tunes contributed by Laura or Tim [Yates, bass]. We’ll usually start with the raw material and build a groove around it, then decide which tunes we can pair together, which will fit with songs and which can stand alone. We spend a lot of time figuring out interesting ways to transition between different songs and tunes. In the sessions for Reprobates, we were really interested in replicating the builds and drops in electronic dance music to evoke the energy of our live shows.

You’re about to go on tour – what’s the BTP live experience like?

The live experience can vary because we play a wide range of different venues: grungy rock clubs, arts centres, folk clubs, noodle bars – you name it. Our audience is always a huge mix of ages and types – young children, teenage punks, ageing rockers and folkies all thrown together. We love mixing with the audiences before and after the show and meeting all our fabulously eccentric fans. Our aim is always to create a fun, party atmosphere, to get the crowd moving, singing and sweating along with us.

Like Folk Witness, you seem obsessed with food, in particular cheesecake. Has anyone ever brought one to one of your gigs, as requested on your website?

We’re given cheesecake all the time. It’s a wonder none of us have had a heart attack yet. The cheesecake thing has really resonated with fans, and we’re always being brought weird and wonderful shop-bought or home-made cheesecakes before gigs. Other great gifts we’ve received from fans – a stuffed chicken on a wooden raft; a knitted Blackbeard complete with tea set; and one of our particularly mad fans is planning on coming to our Southport gig with a home-made steam arm.

Finally… what’s your favourite sandwich?

Four fish fingers, mushy peas, a bit of rocket and some ketchup on fluffy brown bread.

Reprobates is out now. Check out Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s live dates here

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