Words by Ed King
It’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the pub. Swingamajig comes back to Birmingham in a few weeks time, taking over The Rainbow Venues on 1st May, and I am interviewing The Destroyers – one of the festival’s headline acts this year. Our chosen middle ground is The Prince of Wales in Moseley. Some days are simply better than others.
“The pub can be quiet on Monday’s and Tuesdays,” explains Leighton Hargreaves – fiddle player/room booker/diary hound for the ‘anarchic orchestra of blazing passion’, “so the owners let us have this room to rehearse.” The Destroyers are, at last count, a thirteen piece ensemble of brass, string, wind, percussion and gong; as I look around a room smaller than an executive parking space my mind does mathematical somersaults. From rehearsal rooms to stage space, I smell a Krypton Factor challenge.
“It’s a nightmare,” admits Leighton, “but the difficult thing at the moment is finding a day when everyone’s free. We book rehearsals out several months in advance but everyone’s got families and kids and it’s hard to make it work.” Do you scare off promoters? “We have seven backing vocal mics and so on. But we include a proviso that we can work with less stuff and fit on comparably smaller stages. But yes, the first thing some venues will ask is what stage space we need and whether their stage will be big enough for us.”
Swingamajig doesn’t seem perturbed though, with The Destroyers sharing the festival’s headline bill alongside Balkan Beat Box – the Tomer Yosef fronted three piece and off shoot of Gogol Bordello. And it’s the en masse energy, in part, that makes The Destroyers’ set so electric – as classically trained fervor meets a raw homage to ‘bands like Taraf De Haidouks and Besh o druM’. It’s quite a thing. But how do ‘Birmingham’s leading Mega Folk act’ – an adopted pigeonhole courtesy of a Swiss busking festival promoter, plan to tackle a well dressed flapper & dapper Electro Swing crowd?
“We’ve got one track that has a slightly swing like groove to it,” explains Leighton – as I quiz him on the band’s ‘approach’, “so we could either play that over and over for the whole hour. Or we could do what we normally do. But since our set is after midnight our approach is not to have too many artistic, audience stand-around-listening bits – we’ll just, bang bang, one danceable track after another all the way through to keep the energy up.” A small flicker of anarchy and joy escapes into the room. “…then ramp it up right towards the end; we’ll keep it a storming set. By after midnight that’s what people want.”
And that’s no doubt what the Swingamajig crowd will get, desire and by 12midnight probably deserve. Birmingham Review was shamelessly late to this particular party, breaking our cherry at Swingamajig 2015, but was won over by the embraced mayhem and mature debauchery that we witnessed 12 months ago. And it’s not really an Electro Swing event either, with enough genre bending sets to furnish moves from lindy hop to break dance. My biggest mistake was not dressing up.
But life on the festival circuit is arguably more business as usual for The Destroyers, as the klezmer jazz/gypsy folk (…Bern promoters be damned) who have “never been further east than Warsaw” are more likely to find space on a larger bill.
“We’ve been to Ireland, we’ve been to Italy, we’ve been to Switzerland, but we haven’t toured widely in Europe,” explains Leighton, “most of our gigs are in the UK. We’ve tried to tour Europe but the thing that makes it difficult is the sheer cost of it. Firstly you’ve got to fly us all there, and then we’d have to have hotels paid for on top of our fee – unless it’s a city council sponsored event it would become prohibitively expensive. When private promoters and festivals put us on in the UK we can slum it a bit; sleep on peoples floors and make it economical that way.”
I imagine it’s a concern; suddenly a bowl of red M&Ms doesn’t seem too much to manage. Our interview today was set up by Tom Hyland from Electro Swing Circus, and the man on everyone’s call sheet for Swingamajig. But honestly, I was fearful of my expense account not knowing how many destroyers would be waiting for me in Moseley. Mercifully Leighton was the only one and our conversation could be surmised in a pint.
But a band member in the pub is worth two in the bush, or words to that effect. And The Destroyers’ “current recording plan is to release two EPs” – following last May’s The Vortex with Licence to Sing, scheduled for release in June this year. Then it’s time for album No3, with a working title of The Massive Gong in the pipeline for 2017.
The Vortex Cannon – The Destroyers
“All of our recordings are named after one of the songs,” explains Leighton, as I fumble around a childish faux par, “and we’ve got a song called ‘The Massive Gong’. It’s easier to name something after a song than an instrumental. But the full album will feature some material from the two EPs alongside some new material. Then after we release our album the next thing we might do are collaborations – Katy Rose Bennett sang on or second album; maybe we’ll do some collaborations with more singers.”
Sounds good, with additional vocalists adding to the already ferocious thirteen strong ensemble. But does the logistical challenge ever become too much to get out of bed for? Thirteen is not a number known for being lucky. “It’s gone up and down over the years,” explains Leighton, “with the most we’ve had being fifteen. When we first started out we were inspired by these Balkan folks groups like Taraf De Haidouks and it’s quite common, with those sorts of bands, for there to be more than ten players so I guess we just adopted that mindset.”
I can’t comfortably write prose with anyone else in the room. Have the changing numbers ever become a potential blue touch paper? “Sam Wooster sang the lead vocals on ‘The Vortex Cannon’, that we recorded last year, then moved to Australia before we’d had a chance to make the video. We’re keeping a space in the band open for Sam – we got a small child to mime singing his words.” Problem solved. Any greater disturbances to the force?
“When Louis (Robinson, founding father) left we had to decide whether to carry on or not – that’s the big change over the last couple of years. But the rest of us collectively took up the reigns so we decided to give it a go and take it from there.” And how is life after Louis? “We’re in the middle of a new recording project since then; we’ve been writing new material. It’s taken us a while to work out what we’ll do and how we’ll make it work, but it’s on a good trajectory right now.”
And Birmingham breathes a sigh of relief. But seriously, a band of thirteen playing between twenty and forty gigs a year – is that not a little… brave? Even foolhardy?
“Foolhardy… what’s the right word? It’s what we do and we’re happy with what we do. But there’s no question it’s impractical. Rather than starting out with something that would be financially viable, we just thought we’d go for something that’s a great fun carnival.”
The Destroyers headline Swingamajig 2016, on Sunday 1st May – held across The Rainbow Venues from 2pm to 6am.
For more on The Destroyers, visit http://thedestroyers.co.uk/
For more on Swingamajig, visit http://swingamajig.co.uk/
For more from the Rainbow Venues, visit http://therainbowvenues.co.uk/