These guys are the real deal. There is nobody out there like them. They are electro-folk-stroytellers, and they tell me they have never been to a place where they were not invited back. I can believe this, I saw them recently and I was delighted by their mix of beats, music, Lancashire traditions and humanity.
I can honestly say that Harp and a Monkey (http://www.harpandamonkey.com/ ) fall into no easily definable, preconcieved term. Take the first song on their album A Soldiers Song. it starts with beats and the recorded voice of a soldier who had fought at Passchendaele, the song then unfolds over a number of verses, there is a deft use of repetition that gives the listener a hook and means the lyric repays careful listening. Essentially they have taken what could be a rather hackneyed idea and turned it into something rich and strange.
In one of their own recent blogs they describe themselves as "the bastard sons of The Oldham Tinkers locked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with only the British Film Institute back catalogue and a handfull of scratchy folk LPs from the early 70's for company." I think that says it all myself.
How did you start writing?
We have been writing for years now both individually and collectively and with a variety of different bands and people: some sublime, some ridiculous. We started writing as 'Harp and a Monkey' in 2008, although we have known each other for years and worked on different projects together before.
The idea for Harp and a Monkey came about by accident – we had got bored of writing the same type of songs so we decided to challenge ourselves for a bit of fun and all go out and buy an instrument we had never played before (Andy duly bought a banjo and melodica, Martin an accordion and glockenspiel and Simon a harp and viola) . We thought that it would simplify what we did and lead to some interesting results, and we think it worked. We also wanted to tell short stories rather than write more obvious contemporary song lyrics. That's how we came to be writing about volunteering for the First World War, cheated brides, mermaids in cages and the importance of making a good cup of tea.
How did the band get together?
Andy and Martin actually went to the same secondary school as each other in Middleton, north Manchester, but only started playing in bands together years later. Simon, who is from St Helens, had moved to Manchester and answered an add in the Manchester Evening News, about 15 years ago, for another project Martin was involved in. All three have been good friends for well over a decade now.
Who are your influences?
That is a really difficult question because there are so many and they are so varied. For example, Martin might say electronica, folk and classical, Andy dub and Americana, and Simon avant garde pop and rock. It really is that broad. For Harp and a Monkey, however, we wanted it to sound very traditional and very modern at the same time. We also wanted it to sound British. So, while there are elements of all of the above, we hope it is the rather unusual blend that makes what we do a bit unique. We have been described by so many people in so many different ways that it has become a bit of a sport for us, but our favourites is probably Steve Lamacq's description of us on his Radio 2 show as “electro-folk-storytellers”.
Why Harp & a Monkey?
The harp part speaks for itself and the monkey line comes from the simple rule of life that “anything goes better with the addition of a monkey”. Having said that, Simon rightly claims he is 'the harp' and Andy the band's 'cheeky monkey', which leaves Martin as 'and a...'. He isn't too happy about that! In practical terms, it does help having a name like this, simply because nobody else does: so, when you type it into an internet search engine it is us that comes up. We have all played in bands before where there has been another act (in Scandinavia, Japan or somewhere else more glamorous than your own place of existence) with the same name. That can all become rather confusing and problematic.
If you were doing it again what would you do differently?
I am not sure if we would do anything differently. It might have been nice if we had thought of doing something like this earlier, but music is like any other craft: you need to work on it, hone it and master it. I don't think that we could have written songs like this if we hadn't been that bit older and had the same life and artistic experiences that we have had. So, no regrets, as they say.
Any advice for people starting out?
We spent a lot of time defining a sound and working on songs before going out and playing them, which was a very important thing to do. Too many bands or solo artists throw a few songs together and head out to what they hope will be an adoring audience. It doesn't work like that. You need to think about what you are trying to say and achieve, listen to lots of material by other artists and be honest with yourself about how your own work matches up. You can also then try and target the right audiences to play to.
At the end of the day, it is also about hard graft. We have spent the past four years playing constantly wherever people will have us. Sometimes we have played to hundreds, but most of the time it has been to handfuls. That doesn't matter. We work on the principle that if three people are there and we are good, those three will tell their mates and next time there will be six – and so on. Also, it doesn't matter how many people are in an audience, you only need to impress that one person who may be in a position to help.
What's in the pipeline?
A second album hopefully in the Spring plus a lot more gigs. We are planning to expand our reach in 2013 beyond our comfort zones of Lancashire, Merseyside, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. At least one big festival is on the cards for the south in the summer and there are likely to be showcases in London before that. Who knows, maybe it will stop magazines like fRoots describing us as “northern separatists”. Having said that, we would also like to get much further north, as we seem to have a growing audience in places like Scotland. Maybe we will also try and learn some new instruments? Or maybe we should try and get better on the ones we are pretending to be proficient on at the moment!
If you were a colour what colour would you be and why?
Bloody hell. Where did that come from? We would probably be something classic and muted: the kind of colour (think darker hue) that ages well, is never in fashion and therefore never out. Garish and showy is definitely not our thing.