The Young’uns: ‘You better keep your pet whales away from me’

The Young’uns, a Hartlepool-based trio, are one of those groups who seem to have an instinctive musical understanding. Though guitar and accordion make the occasional appearance, their warm, masculine harmonies are at the core of their sound. When Our Grandfathers Said No is their fourth album. Produced by Stu Hanna of Megson, it ought to get the group – Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes – a much bigger profile.

The album is a mixture of original and traditional material, much of it concerned with the trio’s native north east. They deliver a rollicking Roll Down and a thunderous, mad, whale-related song called Pique la Baleine. But the quieter, more thoughtful moments are even more absorbing. Love in a Northern Town reveals a soft side and there’s a surprising, sweet James Taylor cover.

A lyrical ear for detail (you don’t often hear of “last night’s vomit” in folk songs, but it’s an absorbing way to start one) is another part of their appeal, as is their tendency to take harmonies and chords in unexpected directions. And, in album closer Jenny Waits For Me, they have a knockout blow – a completely beautiful, stone-cold-classic love song.

Folk Witness put a few questions to David Eagle – who as well as being a Young’un, works as a freelance producer, presenter and voiceover artist. Here’s what he said.

FW: You sing a lot of intricate, close harmonies. How do you go about arranging songs?

David: Well I must say, you’ve got off to a tremendous start with that lovely bit of flattery. I hope you’re not lulling me into a false sense of security; I know what you journalist types are like.

The harmonies we sing are organic, and evolve over time. There is a certain amount of discussion about particular harmonies or ways that we could make the song more interesting, but generally Mike and I will harmonise around Sean who tends to carry the melody. Normally, I will sing a bass part, and Mike will sing a higher harmony, although this isn’t set in stone. I am sorry if you thought there might be some complex system that we used in order to structure our harmonies, and that I might be able to give you a rare insight into the secret rubrics of folk singing. I think Coope, Boyes and Simpson use a more elaborate method. Something involving an abacus, astrology, a complex pulley system, and some naked lap dancers I think. We were drunk at the time when they told us, so I may have got that slightly wrong.

The Young’uns: They do have heads

Tell us about the title of the album, which features in the song The Battle of Stockton. It’s quite an unusual one! Could you tell us about the events that inspired that song?

Oh, “unusual” is it? I knew you were leading to something with that initial bit of flattery. Well, The Battle of Stockton is about Stockton’s uprising against Mosley’s Blackshirts. In 1933, Oswald Mosley was attempting to recruit people for his British Union of Fascists party. He believed Stockton would be a good place to gain support and members, due to it being a deprived area with a high rate of unemployment. He bussed 100 of his Blackshirts into Stockton, but the people were lying in wait and sent them packing. So the album is called When Our Grandfathers Said No in testament to this historic act of defiance.

We weren’t aware of this incident until a programme all about the event aired on BBC Radio 4. Thank goodness we tuned in to the radio at the right time, or we might have written a song about that day’s Archers episode instead.

While we’re on names, where did The Young’uns come from? Aren’t you worried you might outgrow it?

We were played on BBC Radio 3 recently and the presenter back-announced our song by saying “The Young’uns: truly dodgy name, but very very good music”. Whatever personal opinions you may hold about her second statement, I’m sure you’ll agree that she’s spot on with the first one. I don’t like the name The Young’uns either, but we’re kind of stuck with it now. It was what everyone at the folk clubs called us, based on the fact that the three of us were in our teens and everyone else was over the age of 40. At that time we weren’t even a group really; we were just three friends who had stumbled across folk music by accident through inadvertently attending the folk club that took place in our local pub.

It’s difficult to change the name of the band now because people know us as The Young’uns. If anyone does have any suggestions for how we can get round this problem then I’d be interested in hearing from you. One idea is that we do what Prince did, call ourselves ‘The Band Formerly Known as The Young’uns’; but that hardly rolls off the tongue. In case you don’t know: Prince changed to ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’. He didn’t call himself ‘The Band Formerly Known as The Young’uns’ – that would have been ridiculous. I probably didn’t need to point that out.

How important is it to you to sing about your local area? Is it an easy subject to write or find songs about?

Sean moved to old Hartlepool a few years ago and fell in love with the place. It has a great history, and a great community. The people really care about their heritage and the pubs are full of old fishermen and people who have lived here all their lives. It’s hard for us not to be inspired by the place and the people.

Sean and I did a heritage project a few years ago where Hartlepool’s older residents talked with primary school children about what life used to be like, and how Hartlepool used to be. The children then made stories, songs and poems about what they had heard. You can hear the recording of that project in our 103rd Young’uns Podcast called Hild’s Tales. The podcast page is at davideagle.co.uk/the-younguns-podcast.

I think it’s important to write about Hartlepool and Stockton because otherwise these stories might not reach people and may end up being forgotten, and there are some great stories from our local area. We write about what inspires us. Sean is currently living in Manchester, so perhaps he’ll start writing about the trams, or the international conference centre. He lives right on the curry mile, so perhaps he’ll write about curry. Or maybe we’ll sell out, write one more album of local folk songs, and move to LA.

How did you come across Pique la Baleine? Was it a challenge singing in French?

The song was written by a French friend of ours who we met at a shanty festival in the Netherlands. Pique la Baleine means ‘spike the whale’, and the chorus is about whale harpooning. However, the verses are all about love, and how the harpooner is pining for his true love that is far away, back at home. How could we possibly turn down a song about love and whale killing? Personally, I believe that one of those two things is the most important and beautiful thing in the world. I won’t tell you whether its love or whale killing I’m referring to. You better keep your pet whales away from me, just in case.

It wasn’t a challenge singing in French because we didn’t try very hard. We just sang loudly and with conviction, and hoped that no one would notice. I think we more or less got the pronunciation correct. We have sung it to French people and they say they understood it, so that’s a good sign. I also got an A in my French GCSE, so I really don’t think you want to be messing with me and challenging my French.

What was it like working with Stu Hanna as a producer? How did working with him compare with when you were doing it?

It was great being able to work in a studio, rather than self-recording our music in my bedroom. It was certainly a more professional environment. When we recorded in my bedroom, we had mattresses and bedsheets piled above and all around us, so as to make the room less reverberant. Often the sheets and mattresses would fall down on top of us while we were singing, and we’d have to stop, put everything back up and start again. That kind of thing didn’t happen with Stu.

Stu was really good fun, though he had a strange directing style. He would often stop us singing halfway through a take, and say something abstract like: “okay, that was good. But this time, can you try singing it again, only imagine you’re being chased through the woods by a herd of bulls?” We’d look at each other, completely confused, tentatively nod at Stu, pretending to understand what he meant. We’d sing the song again, and await his response. “Fantastic”, he would declare. “That’s exactly what I wanted. Imagining those bulls chasing you obviously really helped you get the idea”. We agreed, not having the heart to tell him we’d forgotten to remember his woodland bulls chase scene. I’m exaggerating a little obviously, but he did have a very interesting way of directing us, which involved him asking us to try singing a certain line again, but only this time imagining that we were really cold, or to sing as if we were trying to sing through our feet. I think he was probably a bit bored, and was just messing around with us for entertainment purposes.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?

I really like Harbour Voice. We’d sung it live once or twice unaccompanied, but we wanted to try doing it with piano on the album. Then Stu suggested that we stripped the piano part right down to its bare bones, so we set microphones up around the room and inside the piano. Stu hasn’t polished the mix at all, and it sounds really raw and atmospheric with just our voices and the slow, languid piano. You can hear the creaks of the piano, the sound of my feet on the pedals, the ambience of the room, our breaths in between the parts were we’re not singing, and the sound of birds from outside.

The Young’uns, complete with heads, (l-r) David Eagle, Michael Hughes, Sean Cooney

How are you received when you play live? Do you encourage audiences to join in or does that put you off?

We started singing in folk clubs, where everyone joins in with the choruses and adds harmonies, so we love it when people join in. People also join in with the bits in between the songs. Most people seem to get what we do. We’ve had a few awkward gigs, which normally come off the back of a run of really good gigs. We might do a few big festival gigs to a thousand or more people late in the evening, and everyone is enjoying and joining in with the music and we do loads of improvised bits in between the songs that everyone responds to really well. But then the next day, after all that adrenalin, we do a gig in a really small folk club in front of 20 people and expect the same big laughs, and the same response. It is quite funny though to launch into a long, rambling story with conviction, expecting the room to fall about laughing like they did at yesterday’s festival, only to receive blank stares and stony silence from a room of 20 people. Then you have to quickly tie up the story as promptly as you can, and sing a song.

Finally, what’s your favourite sandwich?

Finally, some serious journalism. I have decided to be a little cheeky and not answer this question directly. Instead, I can officially announce that The Young’uns will name their favourite sandwiches exclusively on the 111th Young’uns podcast, which will be released in October. If you are genuinely interested then listen to that podcast. The Young’uns Podcast is at davideagle.co.uk/the-younguns-podcast.

Thanks for answering my questions, David.

Thank you Mark. It’s a shame you ended the interview there. I think you were really starting to get into your stride with that sandwich question.

When Our Grandfathers Said No is out now on Navigator Records.

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