Interview with The Self Help Group

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.

Needles video screenshot

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.

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Brighton Music Blog Advent Calendar / Day 24 / Willkommen Records – Sons of Noel and Adrian – The Miserable Rich – Laish – Emma Gatrill – Redwood Red – Hamilton Yarns and the rest

It’s been a strange year for Brighton’s neo-alt-folk-rock collective Willkommen Records.  A busy year, but it’s felt like a label that’s been growing up, some of the kids moving on, some of them moving out…

The Willkommen monster band The Sons of Noel and Adrian released their second album ‘Knots‘ in the Spring, and in spite of building beautifully on the frantic neo-folk rock orchestration of the first album managed to stay well under the radar. A shame, as this band deserve to be heard and are a must-see experience on stage.

They also released a stunning compilation of various singles and odd tracks that found their way onto other things with the bizarre title of ‘Your Tunnel That Connects My Arm To A God​-​Fearing Woman Who Lives In The Dark‘. It’s a terrific introduction to the band who will be back playing in Brighton on March 1st at the Green Door Store after a short European tour early next year, beginning in London on 15th February.

Check out the video for ‘Come Run Fun Stella Baby Mother of the World‘ from the album Knots, below.

The Sons of course aren’t the only child of the collective by far. Most of the band’s members feature in other acts associated with the label, all of whom offer a wild variety of musical treats. Some links to check out follow.

Daniel Green’s Laish was completely remodelled this year, and features the softer playful side of Martha Rose and Emma Gatrill coupled with a more powerful rocking rhythm section, all in support of Dan’s superlative songwriting. Their Obituaries EP this year was a great introduction to their new songs and sound, and judging from their live shows Laish’s second album when it drops early in 2013 should be highly anticipated.

To keep you going until then, Laish have a sweet Christmas song ‘A Poor Man’ Christmas‘ which is free to download over on bandcamp. It was recorded last Christmas, but Christmas is Christmas, right?

Other adventures from the Willkommen clan this year, included the beautiful harp-driven folksongs of Emma Gatrill, who launched her album ‘Chapter 1‘ in the delightful  Church of the Annunciation in Hanover.

Emma Gatrill

Marcus Hamblett has been busy as ever, not least helping out on Emma’s album and in producing and playing on the amazing ‘The Birdschool of Being Human‘ album by Woodpecker Wooliams.

Marcus has also edited together a massive 14 minute ‘Patchwerk’ of music with contributions from pretty much everyone who is associated with the label – it’s very beautiful, sounding a bit like one of the early Mothers of Invention albums to my ears, as well as a dozen other things. You can download it for free via Soundcloud – or listen below.

Cathy Cardin has been writing new songs under the moniker Redwood Red. Some of these songs have begun to emerge quietly unannounced but sound beautiful. There’s a possible album in the pipeline which will be something extraordinary I think judging from a short live set as part of the alternative Great Escape Festival in May and the few songs over on bandcamp.

The wonderful madcap genius of Hamilton Yarns slipped out yet another album – Calm Down Grandad – apparently more pop and less free jazz, but with the Yarns one always knows any album will not be quite like anything else. And that followed their 32-track double-CD compilation/introduction called ‘Are You Still There?’ earlier in the year.

And former Willkommen associate and Brighton resident, but now world-roaming minstrel, Rowan Coupland slipped out an album called ‘Slow Wave of the Future‘ which after a series of intriguing EPs represents his first full-length collection. With no promotion to speak of, you could blink and miss it – but don’t, because it’s a fantastic and highly original achievement, and my album of the year.

The Miserable Rich

Finally, and sadly, at the end of November one of Willkommen’s and Brighton’s finest bands The Miserable Rich announced they were going to hang up their bows and bells. I guess having produced three stunning albums of beautiful lush string-driven pop songs to only modest interest in the UK (a little more in Germany), there’s only so long you can live on praise and kudos alone. Nevertheless, their final gig to a packed house as part of Brighton Source magazine’s new music night in November was a fitting  send off, and I am sure we will hear new things from the band members soon enough.