Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Sundowners


(This feature first appeared in issue #67 of Shindig! magazine. For the full unedited Q&A, click over the jump at the bottom of the post.)

The Wirral quintet come of age with new LP Cut The Master. Duncan Fletcher gets caught up in its lush majesty.


It's no surprise that an album as fully realised as Cut The Master results from deep, encyclopedic musical listening and a love of cult horror films. Though references are many, the band's sound is unique. Lead guitarist Alf Skelly explains their influences - “ I was listening to a lot of Rotary Connection, Radiohead and I've always been obsessed with Scott Walker, Axelrod, DJ Shadow. 'Great Beauty', the first track we recorded was inspired by the film The Great Beauty and Scott Walker's 'The Plague'. The whole album references a lot of music we love - Jane Weaver, Townes Van Zandt, Nancy Priddy, Wendy & Bonnie, Common People, Can, Christine Harwood, Martin Denny, United States of America, Mammas and Papas, The Yardbirds, Gainsbourg's Melody Nelson and an underrated band who have inspired us from the start - Shocking Blue.”

The heart of the record however lies in the dual female harmonies of Niamh Rowe and Fiona Skelly. Niamh expands on how two voices are better than one - “I really love Simon and Garfunkel's arrangements for harmonies, they're not obvious at all, I have no idea how Art thinks of them, they just weave so beautifully with each other. Another heartfelt pairing I love that is Emmylou and Dylan on Desire, she can sing with anyone and it will sound amazing but there's something so emotional and endearing of their voices together.”

Unlike their self-titled debut LP which was shaped by three years of touring, Cut The Master was written and arranged in the rehearsal room then recorded at Liverpool's Parr Street Studios. Alf is keen to recognise the input of elder brothers James and Ian (The Coral) - “We had taken the recordings as far as we could and James came in and breathed new life into it, he took out a lot of layers, back to how we'd do it live... James is a really great producer, he gets straight to the point, he works so well alongside Ian and Rich Turvey who both go above and beyond for us, we wouldn't be where we are without any of them.”

Finders Keepers supremo Andy Votel also co-produced a couple of tracks and provided short cinematic interludes between the tracks. Alf explains how their friendship developed after playing the Finders Keepers stage at Festival No.6 last year - “We got up and performed Can's Monster Movie with Malcolm Mooney who is the real deal. We'd rehearsed in Hoylake playing 'Mary, Mary So Contrary' and 'Yoo Doo Right' with him in our backward seaside town! He couldn't get his head around a bacon butty so he signed it for me haha! I still have it! It was one of the best gigs I've been involved in... Andy made the album for us, he brought the edge we wanted with his instrumentals, there's no plug-in or pedal that can do that. The way he is about music he's a one off - he told Niamh "I don't polish a turd, I turd a polish" which cracked us up! We're working on a few more bits with him this summer that we'll be announcing soon.”

Cut The Master is out now on Skeleton Key

(Click over the jump for the full Q&A)


Your new LP Cut The Master has a bold confidence from start to finish. Was there a feeling that you'd stepped up a gear when you were recording it?

Alf - Not so much stepping up, I think we tried to dig deeper regarding the production and lyrics, as apposed to our first record which was a result of three years of touring live, constantly battling live crowds to be louder & keep their attention, this album was made in our rehearsal room so the sound & arrangements came first.

Lyrically the album's themes seem centred around seasons, weather, sky, sea. Were there any books or films or places that helped inspire any of the songs?

Alf - Many, with the way we write our music, it can come from any of us, some are written first, some from jamming live, some we record a riff or bass line and build it. I was listening to a lot of Rotary Connection, Radiohead and I've always been obsessed with Scott Walker, Axelrod, DJ Shadow. When we wrote 'Great Beauty' which was the first track we recorded for the album, which was was inspired by the film The Great Beauty and Scott Walker's 'The Plague'. During the whole album we referenced a lot of music we love, like Jane Weaver, Townes Van Zandt, Nancy Priddy, Wendy & Bonnie, Common People, Can, Christine Harwood, Martin Denny, United States of America , Mammas and Papas, The Yardbirds and Gainsbourg's Melody Nelson and an underrated band who have inspired us from the start - Shocking Blue. We also were obsessed with the '60s occult, especially after watching True Detective, we watched Anton LaVey's Speak Of The Devil, The Wicker Man and our favourite The Yod Father haha! We recommend The Source Family documentary.

Niamh - I think a lot of our inspiration comes from where we live too, we're so close to the sea and connected to it that it comes through our songs. You can find complete solitude in some places in the Wirral and that gives you a chance to observe your surroundings and be at one with nature. We're lucky to be somewhere that still has wild spots as they're few and far between these days in this country.

As well as the great songwriting, the album's sounds great due to the great textures and production. What would you say are James Skelly's strengths as a producer?

Alf - Definitely we had taken the recordings as far as we could and James came in and breathed new life into it, he took out a lot of layers and took it back to how we'd do it live I think. We did three days in Parr Street Studios which we rerecorded all the drums and vocals and put them to tape. James is a really great producer, he gets straight to the point, he works so well alongside Ian and Rich Turvey who both go above and beyond for us and we wouldn't be where we are without any of them. Ian and Anna Benson's artwork for our LP is unreal, they're brilliant artists.

Andy Votel has provided musical interludes between the album tracks and co-produced a couple of songs. How did that collaboration come about?


Alf - We have always listened to Finders Keepers comps & reissues we love the bearded ladies comp, we met Andy at a GIT awards a few years back, in which we told Jane Weaver we thought she should of won haha! He saw us play and I think he just got it, he got the two girls doing close harmonies with a band playing in Byrds/Wendy & Bonnie style I think. He then invited us to play Festival No. 6 which we loved and have been close ever since with both Jane & Andy. Last year we played his Finders Keepers stage then we got up and performed Can's Monster Movie with Malcolm Mooney who is the real deal. We rehearsed in Hoylake and we'd be playing 'Mary, Mary So Contrary' and 'You Doo right' with him in our backward seaside town haha he couldn't get his head around a bacon butty so he signed it for me haha I still have it, it was one of the best gigs I've been involved in.

Andy made the album for us, he brought the edge we wanted with his instrumentals, there's no plug in or pedal that can do that. The way he is about music he's a one off, he told Niamh "I don't polish a turd, I turd a polish" which cracked us up haha we're working on a few more bits with him for this summer that we'll be announcing soon.

Parr Street Studios has had some big name bands through its doors over the years. Was that history daunting or inspiring?

Alf - Not daunting on this record maybe on our first cause it was all live, everything bar the vocals, that was nerve wracking. What Chris has done in Parr Street is amazing, I wouldn't go anywhere else, plus we love Rich Turvey too much as well haha and there's a bar upstairs so soon as your takes done so you can get bladdered haha!

Your label Skeleton Key was primarily set up as an outlet for The Sundowners' music. It must be gratifying to see it grow. How do you see the label progressing in the next few years?

Alf - Yes I think Ian's LP was the first release but we were the first band, I think everyone learned a lot from our first record no one really knew what they were doing haha it's very DIY but the best thing is it's actually about the music and the bands, it really is. We wouldn't last five minutes with a major label, they'd do all their cheap obvious moves trying to keep in touch with what's in, instead of focusing on what makes the band different. We just got to make the music and go out and gig it so it's win win. I think it will get bigger and bigger they don't stop there's no days off for James and Nev who have just put out one of our favourite new artists, Marvin Powell check out his debut EP 'Salt'.

By the time this magazine hits the shelves you'll be on tour with label-mates Edgar Jones & The New Joneses and Cut Glass Kings. Will there be arguments about what to listen to on the tour-bus? Who will win?

Alf - I don't think anyone will argue with Edgar haha he knows his stuff. I remember years ago I was out in town with The Coral and John Leckie was there, Edgar was DJing in La'go and Lecky said to me only in Liverpool will you hear Bo Diddley at three in the morning in a night club hahahaha! I think that sums Edgar up! He's passed me his new LP and it's incredible, I'm also looking forward to seeing CGKs again they're like Sabbath jamming tracks from The White Album, Paul's one of my favourite guitar players out now. Not one else in the UK can play like him it's like the guitar on a R L Burnside or Electric Mud track.

Having the dual female vocals marks the band out as fairly unique and you've obviously listened closely to a lot of great harmony singers (CSN&Y, The Everlys, Gram & Emmylou etc.) Who would you say are the best arrangers? The tightest? The most heartfelt? Who has the most fun?

Niamh - I really love Simon and Garfunkel's arrangements for harmonies, they're not obvious at all, I have no idea how Art thinks of them, they just weave so beautifully with each other. Another pairing that I love that is probably would fall under the category of heartfelt is Emmy and Dylan on Desire, she can sing with anyone though and it will sound amazing but there's something so emotional and endearing of their voices together. Tightest is probably the Everly's or Sam and Dave, I just bought the vinyl Foreverly and it's Billie Joe Armstrong (Greenday) and Norah Jones. Sounds like an odd pairing but honestly is stunning, their voices complement each other's perfectly and singing those great Everly tunes is bound to be a winner. Hmm most fun, I'd say Sonny and Cher or something like that ha but if you read up on their history they weren't having fun at all. How about me and Fi haha! We have loads of fun apart from when we're flat ha!

Niamh, you've previously mentioned in interviews how you were turned down for singing lessons at school for not being good enough. Would now be a good time to track down those teachers and let them know how wrong they were?

Niamh - I wouldn't even waste the breath on them. I just hate the way schools and teachers put kids down and knock their confidence and bully and ridicule them if they don't fit into their academic box. Rather than nurturing their talents, I love the quote by Einstein - everybody's a genius but if you ask a fish to climb a tree it will live it's whole life believing it's stupid. I think that's correct. If you're creative and artistic school will not support you. That was my experience anyway.