FolkWorld Issue 43 11/2010; Article by Walkin' T:-)M
Cool to be Folk Punks
Pressgang is back in Business
In the 1990s, British folk rock band Pressgang established themselves as a rousing live act on the European circuit. After a ten year break, the group returned and released a new album, 'Outlandish'. Damian Clarke told us about how he came to folk rock and Pressgang's old and new adventures.
Damian Clarke: My family used to sing a lot together, singing harmonies and folk and community songs. Other members of Pressgang also grew up singing in their families and it is maybe why we all sing in the band and we don’t have a front man or lead singer.
Tom: How did Pressgang come about? What were your influences and inspirations for your particular brand of music?
Damian: I used to be in indie/political bands, chasing the record deal, but all I ended up with was debts and knowing that I loved performing and touring. So I spent a couple of years trying out new ideas but nothing really excited me until one day I started playing the Raggle Taggle Gypsies, but faster and with a big punk chorus like I was used to doing at that time. Traditional folk songs and punk music, why not put them together? So I did...and it was like coming home! I also realised that it was something that I could do for ever so it was worth going for again... I just needed a band. I didn’t really want to play with folk musicians, but wanted punk or rock musicians who were happy playing very old folk songs. After some great, exciting other musicians I met George, our accordion player who had been playing blues and rock music and was a wild stage performer. Cliff had been in a progressive folk-rock band and Tony was playing in pop/rock bands, all of them are great live performers.
At that time the Pogues were taking off and it was cool to be folk punks. So we had a great start playing in London and supporting interesting people like Michelle Shocked. But really we had no obvious influences, they didn’t exist. We were too punky and way too fast for the folk-rock fans but the indie/punk scenes liked us because our songs and sounds were so different. Our early gigs were chaotic, with hobby ‘osses being thrown around, and George standing on my shoulders waving a pirate flag around, and both of us climbing PA speakers and people stage diving... We were not like any folk band, it felt like a revolution!
I wonder what made you choose the group's name...
I didn’t choose it, I had it forced on me as we were called Bedlam which I thought represented the punk-folk ideas. But John Peel, who was the best radio DJ in those days, told us live ON AIR! to change it. I hated the name Pressgang at times because I was worried that it made us sound like a Pressgang, who were terrible people who forced men onto the ships. But when we got rid of the “The” it suddenly described us as a gang, standing up for what we believed in, against the odds and the folk authority and now I love the word “Gang” and that it has become so big with so many people involved. It works well in other countries too and we love to be international.
You had released half a dozen albums, you had toured Europe (I recall a gig in a youth centre in Braunschweig, Germany in the mid 90s) and even played some prestigious festivals. What made you split in 2000?
We were broke! We did all that touring without a manager or record label supporting us financially on the road, although the guys at TWAH! Records worked really hard for us. And yes, we got onto some amazing festivals like WOMAD and Glastonbury in the UK and Juebeck , Hunsruck, Dranouter and FolkEst and many, many others. We travelled thousands of miles in old busses and they were always breaking down but we only ever missed one gig. We were late a few times though and this was the days before all the mobile phones. But in the end we had a scary and expensive breakdown in the San Gottardo tunnel in Switzerland and it broke our spirit.
What did you guys do after that?
I went back to teaching Art which I really enjoy as well as music and that gave me the money to buy two new instruments. So I started doing solo concerts with the hammered dulcimer and a hurdy gurdy and made a solo album a couple of years ago. I love moving forward and trying new things and I am really pleased that Pressgang now includes songs on the hurdy gurdy. George moved to Wales and works with lots of people from Welsh dancers to a duo called Fiddlebox. Cliff has always been a storyteller too and he concentrated on that as well as playing for a couple of bands and doing sound work. Tony started a band called The Light Years who are still working very successfully, they travel abroad a lot like we used to do!
Now Pressgang is back again. How come?
Stopping touring and playing together was very sad at the time, but looking back, it was like a winter - necessary for the fresh life in spring. This is a new beginning, we’re not looking back. We all do other music, but we missed being in Pressgang. So now we don’t tour for weeks like we used to. We choose the gigs more carefully and travel with more security. It is a very different world now technologically, and a lot less stressful. The main reason is because we still really, really enjoy playing as Pressgang and I think that is one thing that people like when they see us. We enjoy surprising audiences too, so many people come up to us and say that they find folk music boring but they loved what we do. I am proud that Pressgang switches people on to the great traditional stories and tunes; I only wish that the folk scene would support us more so that more of the younger bands would do it as well.
What do you think about the new album 'Outlandish'? Are there any differences to your former releases?
When we got together again, we just thought we’d play a few gigs and play the old songs. But I quickly got bored with that; as I said, I like to move forward. Our audiences like the old songs so we started to think about some of the songs on our first vinyl album. Could we record them for a CD but do them in a different way, one that showed what we do now? Tony came up with some brilliant new rhythms, we put in some big 4 part harmonies that we are famous for and new choruses and George made his accordion sound like a big rock organ sound ... and we were off. Then we thought we’d make an album of old and new songs, the influences from all our travelling and experiences came in and the album became Outlandish. We decided to keep to just traditional songs and go back to what Pressgang started off doing, making these songs totally different and enjoyable for non-folk fans. Maybe the next album will include more of our own songs like our other CDs do.
We genuinely love this CD, it is all our own work and sounds like we were together all the time although we live a long way from each other these days. It has much more of the live energy than our other albums, and this is because we were so together with the ideas. Cliff spent hours perfecting it until we were all happy and we have never been able to do that. Again technology has helped Pressgang. The Internet has also really helped the CD as we get a lot of play and listeners on net radio stations and there are now more magazines and forums that aren’t worried about making money but they support unusual music all around the world. Our time has come!
Where did you get the songs from? What were your criteria to choose one or the other?
Great question! I spend time finding versions of songs, (again the good old Internet makes this easier than looking through books) and I have to feel moved by the song. It has to have some kind of relevance or message for the time we live in, passion, or politics is always important, or the idea of freedom, or fighting the system like in the Raggle Taggle Gypsies. But a great story is also exciting and Cliff is brilliant at acting out a story, like the Gaberlunzie Man. We all listen to other singers and storytellers who might sing very pure versions, but then we start thinking of ways to do the song using rap or big drums ... and then it suddenly becomes a Pressgang song that we all believe in.
Please tell me a little bit of you arranging and modifying the songs!
One of us comes up with the bare bones of a medley and an arrangement of the words. People ask us how we ever get to rehearse and the truth is that we don’t! But sound checks can be boring so we liven them up by striking up a new tune and then we all join in and see how it goes. Over a few times the songs develop and then we try them out on stage so that by the time we record they are already sounding good live. Playing live is what we do, what we are known for, so it is important that the songs are all good live songs.
Well this year has been amazing, ever since we released the album. The big difference has been that we have started playing in England more than we have done since about 1993 when we started playing a lot on the continent. But we still enjoy all the travel and going to new places, so next year we will be bringing our songs to as many festivals and events as possible. And yes, we have started work on new songs already, especially using the hurdy gurdy which works amazingly well with a big rock sound. There are so many ideas coming from everyone, it’s like being in a new band again. We are getting a lot of new fans from the re-enactment and medieval scenes, they come along to gigs dressed in period clothing and they are wild enthusiastic people who really get gigs going. Now our UK gigs have become like early gigs in Germany where the music stood for something and the band and audience become one big whirlwind of music and dancing and singing along. Pressgang is a band that loves to play live. And don’t forget - we are one of the originals!
Thank you for giving us the chance to tell people that Pressgang are back in business.
We have always had a problem with describing our music. We play lots of traditional folk songs and tunes but saying that Pressgang is a folk band is misleading to most people. Folk seems to mean acoustic music to most people these days and Pressgang are a band with a big sound, who play and perform more like a rock band. But if you like energetic live bands that bring people together, that get you dancing and feeling good, then give it a listen. Leave your ideas about folk music sounds at home and enjoy the Pressgang ride. See you all at a gig somewhere.
Thanks to Pressgang we are able to raffle off copies of their latest CD "Outlandish".
Dank Pressgang sind wir in der Lage, ihre aktuelle CD "Outlandish" zu verlosen.
(1)-(4) Pressgang (from website).
To the German FolkWorld
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2010
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