‘I can make mushroom soup from scratch in the time that it takes to play Five Leaves Left’ Interview and live performance from Ben Calvert

Ben Calvert brought his spell binding alt-folk into Blue Whale Studios and told us all about his new album and why he has decided to take a hiatus from his Bohemian Jukebox promotions….

You used to put on shows under the Bohemian Jukebox banner, but recently stopped – how come? They were very well considered line ups.

“I woke up one morning and I realised that running gigs was something that I’d accidentally stumbled into. I’d let it take over my life, when in my heart I’m not a promoter-I’m a songwriter, and I thought it was time that I concentrated on that again.

“I started Bohemian Jukebox because there wasn’t a good quality Alt-folk night in Birmingham-just lots of open mic sessions. No other promoters seemed to be getting in bands from outside of Birmingham unless they could draw a crowd, or unless they were signed to a biggish label. So we’d put on a band from outside of Birmingham that wouldn’t have been considered by anyone else, and on the same bill we’d have three other acts that would fit in with their sound. The idea being that the touring band could reach a new audience in Birmingham. It worked well, and I loved putting on some truly innovative acts.

“There were recurring niggles towards the end though: Too many bands would turn up late, they’d have booked another gig in Birmingham that week, they wouldn’t know what time they were on, and they wouldn’t have told anyone about the gig. You’d be surprised at how many bands don’t realise how playing live actually works. You can only deal with that for so long. I also felt there were too many promoters new on the scene that were in it for short term financial gain with no artistic vision, or that they’d started doing promotion without giving any thought as to why they’re doing it. Also, I don’t reckon there are enough good acts to go around all the promoters. So, I thought I’d sit it out for 2010, let those promoters sink or swim, and concentrate on my own music. I’ll see if the situation is saner in 2011, then I’ll see if running live music events is something I feel like doing again.

“I joked that I’d start baking cakes with the time that I’d free up for myself by not running the events. I can now make mushroom soup from scratch in the time that it takes to play Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, and lemon curd takes the same time to make as a run of Velvet Underground’s self-titled album!”

Ben Calvert In The Belly of The Blue Whale

Are you still putting on a tent at Moseley Folk Festival? You have had some really interesting acts play for you in the past, who have been your favourites?
“I’m still booking for the Bohemian Jukebox Tent at Moseley Folk Festival. Surprisingly to some, the Bohemian Jukebox tent got the bulk of reviews of all the stages in 2008. That was a particularly good year. I’d met Lee Gorton from the band Alfie earlier that year through Heavenly Records. He was running gigs in Manchester and London as ‘Redbricks’ and he suggested bringing some acts that he was working with to play at the festival. So that year we had Emma Tricca, Ain, Pete Greenwood and John Stammers play. They arrived on the Sunday looking like a rag-tag band of itinerant hippy songwriters from 1967! John Stammers had a drum kit complete with a standard lamp installed in the bass drum, which brought a touch of the theatrical to the tent. Lucy and The Caterpillar were a highlight for many on the Friday, (including me), and Smoke Fairies woo-ed the crowd on Sunday, with their dual dark country harmonies, battling through a rather loud headline set from Seth Lakeman on the main stage. Blang! Records jointly curated the Saturday with us and brought some gems from London, like Sgt Buzfuz and Kinkajou.

“In 2009, I’d say Cat Green Bike and Perrot’s Folly were highlights for me. They are all funny, humorous, witty and warm people that certainly help you out when you’ve got a crate of ale that needs to be finished off smartish.”

You are currently working on demos for the follow up to Broken Family Day Saver, how is that going?

“Lovely, thanks. I’ve never demo’d an album before. I’m doing them at home on a digital 8 track, so I can get an idea of how they might sound by giving the tracks basic mixes them and fiddling around adding effects. I’m also learning the bass, so I can play that myself on the album. All in all, it’s coming along swimmingly.”

Broken Family Day Saver

Are you working on a specific sound or direction for the new record?

“The direction it’s going in isn’t very folky, but it is strongly centred around songwriting.

“Lyrically, the album mainly features circuses and winter. Actual circuses, media circuses and the circus of Saturday night. To an extent, these themes influence the instrumentation. It’s got grandiose strings, maudlin horns, a naïve church organ, violin, an accordion, minimal drum kit, bass, guitar, voice and some nick-nack instruments.”

“I’m going to be recording lots of incidental sounds for the songs, sounds of fairground rides, slot machines, things breaking, and crowd movement.  I want to record these either live in the studio or on location, rather than using stock sounds from websites and what have you. It’s also a good reason to go to Blackpool and go rollercoasting.

“For an outside opinion in terms of what the album might sound like, I played the demo of ‘Stromboli Dixon’ to James Summerfield last week, and he said it sounded like Black Sabbath. The track is on my Myspace, so see what you think.

You’ve worked with some great local artists in the past on your recordings, are you working with anyone this time round?

“I wanted Gordon Maguire of The Palantines to come back and play bass and keyboard, but he’s busy down in London and he’d have had to have recorded his parts separately, and email then up to us. That wouldn’t have worked, as I want the album to be recorded as live as possible.  There might be a track on the album that I worked on with Bentley Rhythm Ace when we were recording my first album.

“David Garside has finished the string arrangements for three tracks for this album and he’s working on a horn arrangement for the title track. I trust him whole-heartedly to come up with truly finely-crafted arrangements that go with the sentiment of the song. He gets very deep into the song and comes up with arrangements that reflect the words as well as the melody.  People have said for years that I should put some ‘Nick Drake strings’ on my tracks, but I always wanted Beatles strings. And in David’s arrangements, I have them.

“I’ve had some rehearsals with Carlo Solazzo over the last two weeks. He’s really good at developing a song, not just playing drums over it. After the first rehearsal he’d extended one of my songs by a minute and together we’d decided on a honky-tonk piano break as a middle eight. After the rehearsal, we bumped into Dave McCabe in the lobby at Muther’s studio, and roped him in to play the piano. I like happy accidents like that.

The accidentally happy Ben, performing live at some gig or other

What label is it likely to be released on when finished?

“I might put it out on Bohemian Jukebox. That way I’ll have total control and responsibility for everything to do with it.  I’ve spent the last six months setting it up as a record label with the help from someone in Australia, and a couple of people in Birmingham that might mind me mentioning their names. Bohemian Jukebox as a label is being looked after by the ‘virtual 5th major record label’, and we’ve just got a Japanese distribution deal, so it’s doing far better than I can have imagined.

“There is another label that have shown an interest, and they’ve agreed to have a listen to the demos when they are done. So, we’ll see.”

Who are you currently listening to to get inspiration for the album?

“I’ve been listening pretty much to bands whose singers have a similar vocal range to me and listening to the production and instrumentation on these recordings. Tim Buckley, Scott Walker, The Doors, and The Velvet Underground have had heavy rotation. The Beatles, too.  With those bands there’s a tendency not to be afraid of lots of cross panning, which adds loads of space to a recording. Broadcast’s latest album is an inspiration too; it sounds really spooked and evil, yet it has an innocence about it at the same time; like pre-teen children playing with a ouija board. I’ve been reading William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. There are some parallels between those writings and themes in my album. Fading ideals, the loss of innocence, the realisation of harsh reality, happy go-lucky themes like that…”

Keep an eye to the ground and an ear peeled for more In The Belly Sessions from Ben Calvert.



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