|Photo credit: Rob Blackham|
Although the band behind Fistfight At The Barndance has been running for the past eight years, this is their debut album release. As one of the busiest men in jazz in the UK – head of the junior jazz course at the Royal Academy of Music, and a father of two – Gareth Lockrane acknowledges that the album has been a long time coming.
“I was just sick of promising to do it! People coming to gigs always assumed I’d done an album because it had been so long. The last thing I did was a Grooveyard record, The Strut, in 2012, and in the meantime I’ve had a family. It’s hard to get into the head space to plan a new big project; even if half the music is ready, you’ve got to craft it from the ground up again for a record. And when you’ve got no spare time at all…”
Despite Lockrane’s initial self-criticism at the time taken, he is excited about its release. As he explained over a beer just a few days before the official release, the first track and title to the album is a sort of homage to his late father. Fistfight At The Barndance in fact contains an evolution of an original riff by Eric Lockrane, who was a musician alongside his day-job as a teacher of illustration at North Staffordshire Polytechnic (now Staffordshire University).
“He got me into it; he played harmonica, flute, and a bit of piano. I grew up with the sound of my dad just teaching himself left-hand voicings on the piano whilst playing harmonica solos. He often wrote little blues riffs, and he wrote one called Fistfight At The Barndance which was this little 6/8 riff. I grew up with folk music, ‘barndances’ being a regular part of life in my home town of Leek, and I think my dad probably always had a secret urge to blow these apart with a steaming blues boogie on harp! I just inserted it halfway into a 4/4 New Orleans tune of mine I’d been tinkering with, as a kind of call and response thing between the brass and myself. By the end of the piece, his phrase is looming over the whole groove, with a few reharmonizations in a more melancholy vein.”
As well as being influenced by his father, Lockrane also received guidance in big band writing and arrangement from a young age.
“There was a local guy who ran his own big band called John Milner. He was a professional drummer and arranger in Manchester. He left that business after a while and started his own pub in the country near where I’m from, in a village called Hulme End. And then he just got the bug to do it again. Between pulling pints and running his own pub, he started transcribing Ellington and Mingus, and writing his own tunes again. He got me and some of the younger, local guys into the band alongside these cut-throat local pros from Manchester. That was our way into it. I did my first arrangements for his band in the sixth form common room at school!”
One can’t help but be curious about the creative process behind the album. Having completed an MA in film composition at the National Film & Television School in 2008, there is an evident cinematic influence in Lockrane’s tunes.
“I never get tired of the lone cop movie, or the gambler on hard luck, or the one-last-job heist movie. If you hear the soundtracks for these movies, you’ll find incredible work going on from Bernard Hermann, Jerry Fielding, Lalo Schifrin, Don Ellis, and many many others.
“I’ve always tried to just write tunes. Tunes that are an honest reflection of where I’m coming from, and that I can remember! What does it feel like? Well it goes like this. And not have it just being some intellectual thing (although I love to obsess over, analyse and dissect music as much as the next muso). I try and get each tune having its own defining thing, that’s the way I often write. I might have a melodic hook, or a bassline, or a couple of chords. That might be the destination phrase of the whole thing, and I work my way to there. And maybe there’s something else I’ve written at the same time, another bunch of little bits that I can somehow transpose about and mould together. That’s often how it works.”
When I asked whether the compositions were recent or fine-tuned old ones, it becomes apparent that the album features an eclectic mixture. The ballad We’ll Never Meet Again originates from Lockrane’s work with his septet, whilst Stutterfunk (described by Lockrane himself as having “that Lalo Schifrin, cop-show, big band kind of vibe.”) was on a 2003 Grooveyard release. Some of the tunes he’d carried since music college, and had gone through small group incarnations; other tunes are brand new. He casually mentioned that two tracks were speedily arranged within a day.
“There were two tunes that were pretty much brand new. One funky thing called Do It, and there’s one which is a straight ahead tune called On The Fly, very much influenced by Dick Oatts and Jim McNeely who are big inspirations for me. Those two tunes were done really late in the day. I had no time and barely even a day to think about it, I had to just do it… on the fly! When it came down to it, I would often just sing soli lines into the phone along with the demo track, whatever came to mind. I’d write that down, and let that be a basis, then edit it and score it. In that way it was quite a natural thing to do, quite an organic process. In the end you’ve sung it, you’ve been breathing with it, and you might get some more natural phrasing that way. I had no choice but to just do it quickly, you know?”
Lockrane’s fast-paced actions also stretched to the recording process, which was completed within a single day at Fish Factory Studios in Willesden. The day was split into three chunks, with a lunch break, and Lockrane jokingly described completing a Sainsbury’s Deli run beforehand so that “no one was allowed to leave”.
“Organising a large-scale recording was a whole different experience for me. You’ve got to get a team who can come in and be relaxed enough to be flexible, to rehearse things on the day, and basically do things in one or two takes; it needs a lot of focus and stamina but it’s got to be loose and fun at the same time. I couldn’t have done it without Ben Lamdin, who was the engineer. I got together with him a few days before, and we thought about how we could best use this small space and try and get it just right for the amount of players we had. We decided on the players taking three sides of a square facing each other, with my old mate Nick Smart conducting in the middle (so I could just think about playing!) We had almost everyone in one room, apart from drums and percussion. We just crafted the place together. He got it ready the night before, so all the players got there and it was ready to go. Without Ben, Nick and the phenomenal musicianship of all the players involved, it would have been impossible.”
Lockrane’s hard work has paid off. His album, mixed and mastered by Tyler McDiarmid in New York and with artwork by long-time collaborator and childhood friend Bill Bragg, also features a tight band which includes the likes of Mike Outram on guitar and Steve Fishwick on trumpet.
Gareth Lockrane Big Band TW12
Photo credit: Madeleine Jones
The launch gig, at King’s Place on the 11 of September, will be broadcast on 18 September at 11pm on BBC Radio 3.
LINKS: Gareth Lockrane’s website
Fistfight At The Barndance on Whirlwind Recordings’ website