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Stick In The Wheel is a trio of life-hardened Londoners with an unusual genesis for a folk act. The band was born from the ashes of the mysterious electronic duo known as Various Production, whose 2006 XL release, The World Is Gone, captured the zeitgeist of dubstep just as the genre was exploding beyond London’s club scene. In the mid to late 2000s, they self-released a series of 7” records notable for the inclusion of folk songs on the flipside of their electronic and hip hop hybrid tracks. It was on those records that the seeds for Stick In The Wheel were sowed.
The members of Various Production were kept anonymous, but at some point included producer and musician Ian Carter. Carter moved away from Various Production about five years ago, but continued to work with singers Rachel Davies and Nicola Kearey, who had provided vocals on the Various Production releases. Eventually the trio realized that the stripped down folk music they were yearning to hear wasn’t being made, and Stick In The Wheel was born. After a few years of work behind closed doors, and after playing sporadic live shows, SITW released their debut, EP1. Combining original material with new interpretations of classic English folk songs, they garnered increasing attention in and around London, and their small run of handmade CDs quickly sold out. SITW then followed this debut with Cuts, a collection of songs about murder and lorry (read “truck”) driving.
Laurent Fintoni spoke to SITW as the band readied their new release Bones, which features Fran Morter, a new addition to the group who comes from a long line of Essex folk singers.
Laurent Fintoni: I know you are interested in telling the history of London through your songs. Why is that important to you?
Nicola Kearey: We see this music as part of our culture, we’re not pretending to be chimney sweeps or 17th century dandies, but a lot of people are really disconnected from their past. My “other half” is from Dagenham, London, where many residents were displaced from the East End of London. His parents, and their parents, all come from Bow, but he has no interest at all in connecting with that past. I find that incredible. People live in the present these days. Everything is about the now, and that is part of my reason for doing this – getting people to connect with their past.
Ian: I think it’s important to say that when you really look into the history of London, you find that the city has always been about cultures mixing together. If people understood that, it would make things like immigration a lot easier to deal with – knowing that there are parallels you can draw from what happened 200 or 100 years ago.
LF: Some people become obsessed with the past and in the process lose sight of the present. In your case though, you have other projects, modern sounding projects, too…
NK: We do both modern and traditional material – which can be up to 500 years old. We’re trying to join the dots so that people understand that things have always been this way and they will be this way going forward. London is a bit of a shit hole, poor people are fucked over, the same people own it that have always owned it and they don’t give a fuck about anyone. And…
Ian Carter: Right on sister. (laughs)
NK: Cue wondering what side of the fence I’m on. People blame the lack of religion for the decline of moral values, but what stepped into that void is what Ian would call mass-market media – they tell you what you should be looking at now, what you need to buy at the moment, you know? And it’s got nothing to do with any sort of real history, it’s always a sort of pastiche.
LF: Do you think the folk music you work on helps fill that void?
NK: The older songs that we do still have relevance, that’s kind of the point.
IC: There’s a tune we do on Bones called “Four Loom Weaver,” how old is that?
NK: About 400 years.
IC: And while it’s not strictly a London song, the story behind it sort of is. A four-loom weaver was a term you used for someone that could operate four looms in one of those big weaving factories. Four looms was sort of the legal amount you were allowed to operate and that was four big, dangerous machines. So this was a skilled position.
NK: I don’t know who wrote the song first but it would fall into obscurity until there was a new catastrophe in the weaving industry and the song would get resurrected.
IC: Yeah, the song is about crisis.
NK: Like for example because the cotton prices went up due to the civil war.
IC: The Napoleonic wars were another reason for the return of the song in another version. So a highly skilled worker cannot work at all for reasons out of their control, and they’d starve to death basically. They can’t get money or work. Their family is ruined because of this economic strife, which is driven by stuff that is nothing to do with them. That story is incredibly relevant today, and not just for London.
LF: You research these older songs – do you always know the authors and the origin of the songs before you choose them?
NK: Our criteria for selecting songs is based on whether they mean anything to us, whether we can relate to them. They, broadly speaking, have a London vibe going on, that’s kinda’ where we’re at. If we were proper folk musicians we’d be able to tell you who first recorded the song, who first wrote it down, etc. But to be honest, you’ve first got to work out if you can do anything with the song that is going to make it more meaningful. And then you can get into the background. Sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it isn’t. The main thing is, does it move us?
LF: Despite not knowing the history you do treat these songs with respect…
IC: We’re treating those songs the way we think they should be. When we came across “Four Loom Weaver” it meant something to us, it’s why we chose it. It has a deeper meaning.
NK: It has an emotional resonance with us. A lot of people who try to do this sort of music claim to be evolving the culture, but often do really stupid things like just add a drum beat to it.
IC: It doesn’t feel like it means something.
NK: It’s lazy. Tokenistic.
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LF: There’s a strong DIY approach to the project, you are literally doing everything yourselves – making CDs, recording, etc. How important is that to you?
IC: I think the need to stay as independent as you can, and working with good people, is really important – probably more than ever. Being independent, being able to really shape your view and make no compromise is really key.
NK: When you listen to our music it sounds the way it does because we made it sound that way. Everything has an intention. None of it is guesswork.
IC: It has to be as real as possible. If the best take is the one you did in your kitchen then that is the best take.
LF: DIY’ing it in the kitchen sounds like you are really taking the music back to its roots but is any of this out of necessity?
NK: Perhaps the one line answer to your question is “It is because we haven’t got any money!” (laughs) I suppose we could call in favors , but there’s no reason to have anyone else involved – because we can do everything we want to. We put it on Bandcamp and are able to sell it to people who want to buy it. It’s not hard. Middleman not required. We’ve been making the sleeves look as rustic as possible but without it being cheesy. We want it to be well made, and well executed, and that is something we’ve learnt from past experiences.
LF: Do you see differences between the electronic music industry and the folk world?
NK: In the electronic world the traditional record label business model has been dead for a while now – but no one has told the folk people yet. They still think you’ve got to get signed and make an album. For example there are certain publications that won’t review any of your material unless you’ve had an album released commercially, which I think is insane. We’re under no illusions here. We’re not going to be millionaires. We’ll be lucky if we make a few bob out of it, but it’s not why we’re doing it. We don’t have those stars in our eyes whereas a lot of folk people seem to still have them.
LF: So DIY is good for the folk scene?
NK: Perhaps if people would do it themselves they would write more often about their own experiences. Folk is not meant to be shiny – I’d rather hear about what happened to them when they went “down the pub.” Things that are happening today. People don’t write about that anymore. Well there’s a couple of people who write about that sort of thing, and I’d like to hear more of that.
IC: And it’s what we’re trying to do.
NK: We weren’t in a circus or anything crazy like that, but things happened to us. We’ve got families, we’ve worked, we’ve got stuff to draw from.
LF: I like the idea that your music can draw on lyrics that are hundreds of years old, or could be about something that happened to you today….
IC: Absolutely. Folk music is a wide spectrum, it should include everything. Chris Wood, a contemporary English folk musician, mentioned this idea that if you’re a modern musician, there’s someone standing behind you, and behind that person, and so on. There’s a long line of people through time, and it’s a tradition you’re upholding. You should be aware of that, of your place in that.
NK: If people were to write more about their everyday life they’d realize that there are many other people in the same situation. I’m not saying it would unite everyone, but perhaps it would stop everyone being such dicks. In a way what we’re doing is our own contribution to this debate – a slap to wake people up a bit.
LF: I thought a good way to end the interview would be to have you tell us a story – as that’s what you do…
NK: Would you like a stabbing or a kidnapping?
IC: A robbery? What about people being scared of eviction because of the gentrification of our areas?
NK: Seriously though. I’ll give you a quick one. We’re about to lose our studio due to it being in a building that is a massive real estate opportunity. Three creative businesses are going to be evicted.
IC: So they can build posh flats.
NK: So there’s a constant terror of having to move all our gear somewhere else. Ian seems to be quite blasé about it ‘cos it seems to happen to him all the time. (laughs) It seems to be how he likes to live, right on the edge.
LF: Is there a happy ending to the story?
NK: Not yet.
IC: I used to work in a studio in Hornsey that had been there for 20 years. It was on an industrial estate, surrounded by water works and warehouses. It was bought up by private landowners who then built posh flats there. The council told us they would definitely protect the local businesses and that we shouldn’t accept the money that these developers would offer us to rehouse elsewhere. The council told us they would protect us from these people. Within a year of the flats being finished and inhabited I was served a 20 thousand pounds cease and desist order whilst I was in the middle of a recording session because of noise pollution. Which we were assured wouldn’t happen. Even the guy who served it to me admitted it was wrong. He goes “I’m sorry mate, I have to give this to you, I think this is out of order.” And it’s something that is happening constantly in London and all over the country.