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Feast of Fiddles interview

Mo Cole quizzes band founder, frontman and accordionist, Hugh Crabtree about life as a folkie

Published on March 24th 2011.


Feast of Fiddles interview

Feast of Fiddles are an eleven-piece collective including some of the most legendary names in folk music. On Thursday 14 April, they are set to perform their only standing gig at Manchester’s Band on the Wall as part of their 18th birthday tour. Mo Cole caught up with founder, frontman and accordionist, Hugh Crabtree.

There is a bond when we play but there are no stars or stars’ egos on stage. It is true we are glued together by what we are doing and the performance element of that is a very important part. Indeed, without it we wouldn’t be together.

MC: You began as a 'one off' at Oxfordshire's Nettlebed folk club. Are you then the result of a happy accident?
HC: Not quite. There was an empty date that needed filling on Valentine’s Day that year. I had been thinking about putting six fiddle players in front of my ceilidh band for a while and the date offered gave me the opportunity to have a go. The rest as they say...

MC: Woody Guthrie (1912-67) is quoted as saying 'The best way to get to know any bunch of people is to go and listen to their music'. What does your music say about you?
HC: That we have become a bunch of mates enjoying each other’s company both personally and musically. Folk music starts from being collaborative and open – which is a good start. FoF has built on that and a great amount of trust has been forged. Our music says we have fun.

MC: Were you all brought up in folk families, in an atmosphere of the culture and absorbing the music from an early age?
HC: Not really. I think we all had music in our families but not necessarily folk music or at least not to start with. Peter for example, was classically trained and then got very influenced by Irish music. Given we’re now all over 50 there have been a few years in between for us to absorb the genre. That said, FoF dips its toes into many styles and genres: classical, jazz, blues, film, rock as well as Celtic and English folk.

MC: Do you feel a special bond between you as a group?
HC: There is a bond when we play but there are no stars or stars’ egos on stage. It is true we are glued together by what we are doing and the performance element of that is a very important part. We’re pleased to see each other again in the FoF context when we meet up again too. After the 18 years we’ve been doing this, we’re still all talking to each other and sharing a load of tour banter.

MC: Do you read music or play by ear?
HC: Some and some. Everyone in the band can make sense of chord charts. Most can read music reasonably. Some have sight reading like you would never believe.

MC: Do you all have other jobs as well or is this full time?
HC: For the fiddle players in the band, music is their job or main earning work. This applies to DM (Dave Mattacks) as well of course but the guitarists and me have day jobs and whilst music is probably the most important thing to us outside our families, it doesn’t provide our main income. Martin teaches, Dave is a technician at a secondary school, John is retired from teaching but does private hire driving, I run a company that ventilates pigs...you did ask.

MC: Do any of the fiddlers ever get 'fiddlers elbow?
HC: I don’t no. Or squeezer’s elbow either! I can’t remember any of the fiddle players ever getting it on tour. Two years ago a throat infection went round many in the band during the tour. The singers all got affected but we managed to cover for each other...just about.

MC: The fiddle is small, portable and very versatile instrument (said to be the nearest sound to the human voice). Is this what attracted the fiddlers to the instrument or were they inspired by watching others play?
HC: Again not being a fiddle player...some in the band were turned on by seeing others. I think all the fiddlers have been doing it for some little time. We worked out there were 500 playing years between us – quite a lot of fiddling (and a bit of accompaniment as well)

MC: You often hear of musicians practising for many hours a day. Do you have this kind of disciplined approach or is it more informal?
HC: With the exception of Joe Broughton, when he was in the band and practised more or less whenever he could, the rest of us do our homework but don’t have that constant discipline of a classical concert performer. So that either means we’re not as good as we like to think or that we’ve got a better life balance. Probably somewhere in the middle of that range - although clearly Peter, Brian and DM in particular are world class musicians.

MC: Do you improvise when you play, bounce off each other, go with the flow?
HC: Yes. There are a couple of pieces in particular that Peter wrote that allow this. Peter’s improvisation is legendary and he frequently simply improvises for his solo or feature spot – which all the fiddle players provide during the set.

MC: What advice would you give to someone wanting to learn to play the violin or a struggling beginner? You hear so many people say they gave up learning an instrument and wished they hadn't.
Stick at it and get into a band. First though, come and see FoF who, we are constantly told, will inspire young people to get started or re-inspire players to keep at it. If there’s one band playing these days in the UK who can make the fiddle look like a pretty cool instrument to play, it’s FoF.

Tickets for the 8pm Manchester gig price £15, are available on 0161 834 1786 or online at www.bandonthewall.org

Full tour schedule follows. More info at www.feastoffiddles.com

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