Last updated on November 16, 2019
It probably wouldn’t be too far from the truth to suggest that, for many of us, the first contact we have with traditional folk music comes via the sea. There can’t be many Brits that don’t know at least the first verse of “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor” (Roud 322), after all, and some of our biggest and best singalongs started life in the sagging belly of an overloaded ship.
It’s perhaps perplexing, therefore, that so few contemporary folk musicians seem to plunder these rich fishing grounds to any great depths. Perhaps it’s because it was done so thoroughly during the revival in the 50s and 60s (it’s hard to imagine anyone taking on Louis Killen’s recordings and thinking they might win), or perhaps it’s because it’s not terribly easy, sat here in plush 2018, to put yourself in the mind of a crewman aboard a whaler. Having tried to sing and record a number of sea songs myself, I must confess that its very easy to get cold feet, sat there in front of a microphone, wondering what on earth a landlubber in a pair of comfortable slippers might bring to a song about the Greenland whale fisheries.
Ben Nicholls, the multi-instrumentalist with the earth-shaking voice at the centre of the Kings of the South Seas project, seems unafraid to give it a go. With or without slippers. The key difference, perhaps, is that his choice of sea songs are not your usual shanties. When he’s not playing double bass for what seems like the entirety of the contemporary British folk scene, he’s as obsessed and avid in his research and collecting as the rest of them. However, whereas so many singers of traditional folk start by finding songs close to home, Ben likes to pitch his research tent wherever the rolling waves take him, searching for songs whispered on the salt winds.
In the case of his latest epic album, Franklin, the locale is the Northwest Passage, and his subject is the lost voyage of Captain John Franklin. It’s a fascinating collection of songs which, as Ben points out in this interview, serves to underline just how much of a cultural melting pot folk music (especially folk music that began to ferment in the belly of a ship) can be.
Where to start? It was Jack Rutter who first suggested I should talk to you.
Ah! Good old Jack. He seems to be doing very well out there with his record.
It’s a very good record. I presume you’ve heard it?
Absolutely. He was piecing it together on various tours and looking for feedback along the way. It just seemed like it was the right move for him to do that – to do a solo record, I mean.
Yes. I’m quite a fan of these stripped-down guitar records. There seem to be a few of them at the moment – Nick Hart always springs to mind. Jon Boden says in Jack’s sleeve notes that it’s a style that harks back to the 1970s. I’ve always liked that guitar troubadour thing.
Well, there’s something timeless about them, isn’t there? It’s that no frills thing. Whatever the instrument, someone just sitting down and playing the songs gives the thing a timelessness and a gravitas.
Perhaps it also requires you to prove that you can play your instrument…
Ha! Well, I don’t know. The joys of the modern studio… You can piece these things together slowly and make it appear that you know what you’re doing.
So, what’s your background, Ben?
My background? Oooooh, long and varied.
Let’s focus on your background to do with traditional folk music, then.
Well, that’s kind of complicated because it goes in phases. I’ve played double bass for a very long time, and then I got into playing a bit of banjo in my teenage years. There was a period, back in the day, when all of the public libraries decided it would be a great idea to sell off their old vinyl. That must’ve been in the late 80s, I guess.
Is that when you’d have been in your teenage years?
Yes, around then. These records were all like 5p or 10p. They were pretty scratched, but at the same time, this was before the internet when it wasn’t quite as easy to listen to anything. I picked up some English folk records there, as well as some American bluegrass stuff. I got quite into it. After that, I went to college in London and while I was there, just to make money, I started playing with a couple of older folkie-rootsy musicians who did a lot of fingerpicking on the guitar. They were introducing me to people like Martin Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Nic Jones. There was a vibrant bar scene and I’d be doing two or three gigs a week. They did be saying, “Oh, let’s try this one”, and off they’d go. I didn’t know who Nic Jones was but I was just playing along with it. After that, I left college and ended up playing in a load of noisy guitar bands for a few years.
Anybody I might know?
Not really, no. They had big record deals but they kind of came to nothing. There was a band called The Silver Jets, another one called Big Sur, and another one called Menlo Park. Harper Simon, Paul Simon’s son, was in that band. They were all great musicians. That was around the birth of the Hoxton scene, back when it was all squats and burnt out shops around there. You could park your car for free if you dared leave it there [laughs]. It seems a long time ago now. That was kind of gipsy-punk, I guess. There was a lot of fiddle in that band.
At that point I was living in Brixton, and a friend of mine – a producer called Ben Hillier – was doing some demos with the Cara Dillon band in a studio around the corner from my house. He phoned me up one morning all excited, saying, “Do you still play double bass?” At that point I’d veered off into playing bass guitar. He asked me, “What are you doing this afternoon? I need a double bass player.” So turned up and over the years, starting there, I got re-immersed into the folk scene. From that band I went into doing other folkie things, and that’s kind of where I am today, I suppose.
Was it always the double bass for you? Was that your first instrument?
I studied it at Guildhall, so I was doing a lot of classical double bass. I haven’t done much of that since, to be honest. It was always that thing with orchestras where there might be eight double bass players all playing the same thing, and I’d be thinking, “Does it matter if I just stop playing? Is anyone even going to notice?” It was just a bit depressing, so I got out of that world.
I’ve always dabbled on the banjo, along with various other instruments. I don’t really mind which instrument I’m playing, so long as I’m having fun making music.
Who’ve you worked with now? It seems to me that you’re on every album that pops out!
Haha! Some albums.
Come on! You’ve been with The Full English, Martin Simpson, Seth Lakeman…
Yeah, it’s hard to even think who I’ve been playing with sometimes.
Do you see yourself as much as a session man as a bandleader, or do you not think in those terms?
I don’t really think in that way. There’s something a bit cold about the session world. I think you hope to get to a point as a musician where people ring you up to do gigs with them or play on their records because they kind of know what you do, and they want what you do. The session scene is colder: “We need a double bass player. Who can we ring?” I think there’s something about playing folk music that’s quite a complicated thing from a rhythm section standpoint. You’ve got to be quite sympathetic to the music, and fairly immersed in it.
So when you play on something like Martin Simpson’s last album, you don’t consider that session work?
For me, it’s more a collaborative thing than straightforward session work. As I say, they phone you up because they want whatever it is that you do, and they want to add it to their thing. It’s not quite the same as a session, I would say.
So, a session is a situation where you might get given a score?
Well, it’s more faceless. With someone like Martin Simpson, it’s more that they’re looking for your collaborative help in pulling together the bass parts.
So, what would the difference between collaborating with someone like Martin Simpson and someone like Seth Lakeman be?
Oh, that’s a tricky question!
Or the similarities, I guess. Are they similar people to work with?
I think some people have more of a pre-conceived idea of what they’re after. Martin is always great because he’s very much, “I’ve got you to come along because I want what you do. Just do what you do!” That makes it easier. That said, there’s always the thing when you’re playing with fingerpicking guitarists that there’s already a bass part often within the guitar part, so you’re kind of having to go along with that and be sympathetic to it. It’s not a completely open book – there are still restrictions on what you can do. It’s got to sound good, at least!
Seth is similar. He’ll turn up with songs and then there’s a collaborative approach to getting them into a band-shaped piece of music. It’s tricky to answer, though. Everyone’s different.
Is there anyone on the folk scene that you’d like to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
Erm, I don’t know. It’s hard to know until you’ve worked with them because people are never what they seem. I did a gig up at Celtic Connections. I’d always been a massive fan of Dick Gaughan, but I’d always had this thing where I imagined he’d be absolutely terrifying. He’s got this heavy accent, and he’s this kind of heavy character. I turned up to play with him and he was the nicest bloke you could ever meet. Super laid back. It’s complicated. You never really know what people are going to be like.
How do Kings of the South Seas fit into this body of work? How did they come about, and how do you view what you do with them in comparison to your other work?
It’s obviously a different thing because I’m singing, and also it takes a lot of research. The last two albums have come out of looking into discovering where these songs might be. It’s quite a different headspace to turning up and playing bass with somebody. But then, when we get the material together with the other two members of the band, it’s a similar kind of collaborative experience.
So, you’re laying the groundwork in terms of the research and the conceptual side of things, and then you’re bringing it to the other guys so that they can add to the instrumentation?
Yeah, it’s a case of pulling the material – sometimes too much material – and then making some dictaphone sketches on a concertina or a guitar, with the vocals, to send to the others. Then we get together and rehearse the stuff up and formulate some arrangements. That would be the process.
Did you always intended Kings of the South Seas to be that kind of project? It was never a jam band or anything like that?
Well, it started off when I was on tour, and it came out of reading about that whaling scene and the stuff to do with the missionaries being tied into the whaling, and the opening up of the South Pacific. On tour I found a secondhand book, and then I casually started wondering about the music of that world. Then I kind of got immersed, and it became a case of wondering who I could work with. I’ve never been ‘Mr Solo Gig’, as it were, so I wondered who might be good to work with. It was interesting because Rich, the guitar player, and Evan, the drummer, don’t come from a folk background at all. I guess Rich has a foot in the American rootsy camp, but that made it good, in a way, because it meant that we had to carve out our own way of playing that kind of music.
Do they respond well to folk music? Presumably the benefit of working with non-folkies like that is that they’re not caught up in any kind of nuances or mannerisms.
That’s right. There’s not too much pre-conceived baggage about what the stuff is. The greatest thing about Evan was that on the first album, I sent out some dictaphone stuff and I spoke to him on the phone and he was like, “Yeah, don’t worry – I’ve written out some notes on what to play.” So we had our first rehearsal up at Cecil Sharp House, and we got to the first song and he gets his notes out. I was wondering what he’d written up, so I wandered over and all it said was, “Play the ocean”. [Laughs] It was at that point that I realised he was the man for the job.
That’s the approach, and it’s a good thing about having a small lineup: you can be much less prescriptive with the arrangements. If all the musicians are good, you can really let things float around. It doesn’t have to be so tied down. Especially with Evan, who comes from a very improvised, jazzy background. That kind of thing doesn’t put him off at all.
What attracted you to the songs of the sea?
I think it’s one of those things about coming from Britain. We’re an island, so we’ve always had to have some kind of maritime manoeuvrings going on. You just start seeing how, through the various phases of that in British history, we have gone out and shaped the world, for good and bad. What I find really interesting is that it then becomes a kind of cultural dialogue with loads of places on the planet. It’s not as simple as us shipping out British culture to these places, or commerce – trying to get as much money as we could out of the rest of the world. There was a lot of stuff that came back, culturally. When you start looking at who the crews were on those old whaling ships, you’re looking at a real cultural melting pot.
Once you start looking into the story behind our Franklin album, it’s incredibly complicated. It’s tied into the Hudson Bay Company, the Inuit living there, the Voyageurs (the French-Canadians working in the fur trade)… all of these things tied in together. And the music is something that boiled out of that scene. You can see it in many of the songs.
Is this one of the projects that you mentioned earlier, in which you ended up with more songs than you needed?
There’s definitely more we could’ve recorded, but it’s a case of trying to shape the thing into a manageable musical project.
How did you go about finding those songs? Was it long days at Cecil Sharp House?
It’s just background reading, and then you start spotting places where there could be some songs left. With this album you start getting into the Polar Press, which were the newspapers printed onboard Arctic exploration ships. That was something that cropped up in lots of things I was reading. Then it was a case of trying to find out where they were, or where there might be copies of them. And then it was a case of looking through the sources and finding out what might be good to do.
Another thing that was mentioned a lot, which proved to be quite a good source of material, was the work of George Back. He went on a couple of the overland trips with Franklin before his last, disastrous voyage. These trips were almost as disastrous as that last one, but they somehow managed to get back. In London, they were looking to make as much money as they could out of what happened, so they’d be writing books and giving lectures. George Back published a book of songs, which he supposedly got from the Canadian paddlers that they employed on the trip. That’s obviously not true when you look at the songs [laughs]. But that was Britain at the time; that was their view of what was going on – the commercial world they lived in – so these things became part of the culture.
Obviously, every song on the album isn’t about Franklin or even the Northwest passage, but they’re all things that are tied into it. It’s that cultural boiling pot again.
How long did you spend trying to pull this together?
It was a slow process. I had a few trips to the British Library, pulling stuff out, and a lot of stuff is online these days – various archives that have scans. But you find one thing and it leads you to more. You go looking for one song, and you suddenly find that it has a few songs there with it which you didn’t know existed.
Do you find that the songs existed with melodies and tunes, or did you have to write your own?
Some of them. The ones in the Polar Press, for example, were noted with a tune to be sung. But some of them don’t have one. The other problem is that even if you can find the melody, it’s not necessarily any good!
Yeah, I know that problem well…
Exactly! And when you encounter that, you have to decide: do I worry about this, or do I just make up a whole other tune?
And when you decide to make up a whole other tune, are you consciously trying to write something that sounds like it belongs to the tradition?
Not really. I would say it’s being conscious of what the song is and sympathetic to its ‘thing’, rather than sticking it into some whole other place. But, also, I think that with this album and the last album, I was very, very unworried about it being some big historical recreation. For me, that’s not an interesting exercise. A lot of these songs – especially those written on a ship – would’ve been sung unaccompanied. That’s fine, but it’s a different exercise for me. It’s a case of taking the spirit of these songs and then giving something that makes them more of what they are.
I know of your producer, Ben Hillier, through his recordings with Blur. Is he a traditional folk fan?
I wouldn’t say he’s an out-and-out folkie. He likes folk music, but I think his working life hasn’t really taken him in that direction. He’s a great person to work with. As I said, it was Ben that initial got me the Cara Dillon gig, which got me back into folk music.
Yes. He’s your gatekeeper!
Haha! It’s strange the way it works out. I’ve just been playing with Nadine Shah? Do you know her?
Only by name.
Well, she’s not really folk at all, but I did some cowriting with her, and I’ve been out on the road with her. That’s through Ben again.
I’m going to ask one of those awkward questions again.
Obviously you’ve worked with Andy Bell, who is well known as a producer of contemporary folk music, and you’ve worked with someone like Ben Hillier. Does the choice of producer, in particular their musical background, make a difference to recording an album like Franklin?
I think the thing with Andy is that he’s just trying to make good records. He knows the folk world very well. Ben Hillier, for example, is not aware of the politics or the ins and outs of it, but he’s just trying to make the best record he can, too. In that way, they’re both similar. One’s probably more immersed in the folk world, but it doesn’t make any difference to the end result of their work. They’re both great at what they do, those two.
It’s interesting that while Franklin has come out on Andy’s Hudson Records, he obviously didn’t produce this one.
Yeah. It was all put together and recorded before Hudson Records agreed to put it out. I played the recordings to Andy on tour, and he was like, “We’d love to put this out!” Previously, I’d done a lot of self-releasing, which is a ‘fun’ exercise [laughs].
Presumably, in this day and age, you don’t really need a record label do you?
I would’ve said that you don’t, and in some ways it can be helpful or a hindrance, depending what it is. There’s quite a lot of admin to putting a record out, which people don’t necessarily realise. When you’re busy, that’s tricky because you’ve really got to keep on top of it all. But, in an era when there are so many records coming out all the time, there’s something about having a label who have a reputation sticking their badge of approval on what you’re doing.
That’s a fair point.
I think that helps you to cut through the masses of stuff going on. There’s definitely an element of that. There’s also the simple fact that you’ve got a buddy who is putting your record out. It can be a fairly soul-destroying exercise [laughs]!
You launched it in the belly of the Cutty Sark, didn’t you?
Yeah! It was great!
Tell me how that came about.
We did a tour the year before last with Tim Eriksen. It was just us and Tim, and it was all whaling songs. He was singing more from an American perspective on the whole thing. It was a joint tour, and we did a gig on the Cutty Sark.
OK, so you’d done it before…
Yeah, and we loved it. When it came around to launching this album, we wanted to find a good venue and I got in touch with the Cutty Sark. They were like, “Yes! We’d love to have you back! That last gig was great!” Obviously, if you’re doing nautical-themed music, well… is there a better gig to be had? [Laughs] It’s great because you do the gig in the middle of the ship and the dressing room is the deck above. Because it was made for transporting as much wool as they could get in it, the decks were just open. So they’d ram it full. Our dressing room was the whole deck – a couple of hundred feet long. It was a great venue, and they were great in helping us sort it out.
As a gig, it just had that vibe. As the audience came in, we had Peter Wilson – a Polar archeologist – to open the gig. He was setting the scene, you know: “What’s it like to freeze to death?” [Laughs] These are the heavy questions we all want to know the answers to. And because he’s been to these places, it has a certain weight when he’s talking about them. So he talked before we came on, and the audiences were already in the zone.
Are you taking Franklin out on tour?
Yeah, we are. Hopefully at the end of the summer, but it’s the age old story of getting everyone’s schedules nailed. Everyone’s fairly busy with different things, but we’ll definitely do it. There are quite a few venues that are keen to have us come and play.
Any more ships?
Haha! That was just an amazing gig. If you ever get the chance, just do it.
I really think you should do your tour only on ships.
Gigs on ships? Yeah, it’s a good idea.
You’re based down on the South coast aren’t you?
Yes, in Worthing.
Well, there you go. Portsmouth’s not all that far away.
Are there any gigs on ships in Portsmouth, though?
There’s the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. You could be the first band to play it. Then there’s the SS Great Britain in Bristol. I’m sure they’d have you.
The Ship Tour.
It’s the obvious thing to do, isn’t it?
The problem with The Ship Tour is that the load-ins and outs are hell. The Cutty Sark isn’t so bad because they’ve chopped a big hole in the side of the hull. But some of the other ones…
Well, at least you’d get a sense of what a load-in and out would’ve been like for a historic whaler. Especially a historic whaler with a lot of amplification.
Hahaha! You’d just end up scaling your gear right down. “I’m only playing the concertina on this tour!”
For more info on Kings of the South Seas, including whether or not they ever undertake The Ship Tour, check out www.kingsofthesouthseas.net. The new album, Franklin, can be bought by clicking here. Top photo on this article by Al Stuart.