Mark Bruce is songwriter and leader of Brighton’s new folk-rock maestros The Self Help Group whose fabulous new album is being released on the Union Music Store label next month. Jon Southcoasting met up with Mark and asked him to tell us more about the band.
Who are The Self Help Group?
The Self Help Group are, Me, I sing and play the guitar. Clara Wood-Keeley and Sarah Natalie Wood are the good looking side of the band. They are sisters and grew up in Plumpton I believe. Paddy Keely plays guitar and banjo and hails from Selsey. Ian Bliszczak plays bass and spent his idle youth with myself in Peterborough. We have recently been joined on drums by Jamie Fewings who is from Yeovil.
How did you get started?
I had been musically moribund for years since my youthful days in a shoegaze band. When my wife and I bought a flat, I utilised the loft space as a studio, and started writing songs again. Mostly for my own amusement. Friends encouraged me, I started toying with the idea of getting a band together. With the help of some (brave) friends I managed to start The Self Help Group.
There have been numerous changes to the line up before this one, the biggest change being the acquisition of the girls . They started singing and harmonising together at 11 years old in a band called Skyline. Then sang in 10 piece jazz/funk band, followed by their own writing project ‘Tamashi’. All involved close harmonies which fitted perfectly with the sound we’d been aiming for with this band.
How did the link up with Union happen?
Jamie and Stevie invited us to do an in store performance for them at their shop in Lewes. The idea of recording an album for them started forming not long after and became a firm plan after a gig at the Green Door Store back in Jan ’12.
We started recording in March and the album was finished in October. The album was recorded for the most part in Jamie (Freeman)’s little studio just outside Lewes. Jamie recorded and produced the album. He was definitely a member of the band and had a massive input and influence on making the album as good as (I hope) it is.
The album has a very lush sound. Who writes the songs?
The album is quite BIG at points isn’t it? There is a lot going on. I write the songs. Some come to the table fully formed, but, as time goes on we are fleshing out sketched ideas in rehearsal much more.
The songs are all written in the same way. I will usually come up with a melody while playing guitar. There is a folder on my computer full of odd news items I’ve found and I have a look in there and try to see which story fits the feel of the music. Then I pick at the story and write the lyrics.
Some of the timings of the melodies definitely have a slight funk timing to them but you would never get that from the music unless you were trying to play the parts I think. I’ve never really known what I was doing as a songwriter and had no formal training in music. As a result, the songs are all very simple and there is still a big part of me that is secretly afraid that someone is going to find me out!
There’s a song on the album called the 5th man on the moon. Who’s he? And who is Big Nose George?
The 5th man on the moon was a guy called Alan Shepherd. I read a letter that he wrote to his parents the day before he enrolled in the space program and it interested me. The man inside the space suit. It must have been pretty hairy stuff going into space back then.
Big Nose George, the song, is older than the band. I wrote it in about 10 mins after spending about 4 hours recording a load of old tosh. He was a wild west criminal called Big Nose George Parrot. Long story short, he was eventual caught and hung. The governor of the county at the time ordered that he be sent to the local tannery, where his skin was made into a pair of shoes which the governor wore for special occasions.
Who are your influences?
I’m always unsure who our real influences are. I don’t listen to as much music as I used to. I’m too busy chasing a 2 year old around the house and then recovering. Most of the bands that get mentioned in connection with our sound, I know little about. I guess that’s a good thing.
I was a massive fan of The Smiths in my teens, then the whole shoegaze scene. Funk and soul music played a big part in my late 20’s. Now I listen to more mellow, acoustic stuff.
I hope I’ve absorbed a little bit of all those things.
I also really love the latest Tallest Man On Earth album. The songwriting is so strong. One man and a guitar. I’m usually drawn to a much bigger sound, but that album is amazing. I can barely make out a bloody word he’s singing though. And I know t
he girls are really liking The Staves at the moment. Hopefully they won’t try to replace me with another pretty girl. That would suck.
One last thing, the video for Needles is brilliant. How did that come about?
We had a lot of ideas kicking around as we were unsure what the single would be. I was determined to steer away from a stereotypical folk music video. The furthest thing from the norm seemed to be a dance video, so, that’s what we did.
Stevie Freeman (Co-owner of Union Music Store)’s sister Sian happens to be a choreographer. She offered to come up with “the moves”. It was a lot of fun shooting the video, in an old workshop in Lewes, on a cold Sunday morning. The rest is down to Jamie who slaved over an apple mac editing for weeks, bless him.
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The Self Help Group’s launch show on 7th February in Brighton is sold out.
The album ‘Not Waving But Drowning‘ is out on February 11th. But they are playing a free in store show at Union Music Store in Lewes on this coming Saturday at 3pm. It will also be your first chance to pick up a copy of their album too, a week and a half before its official release.