Thursday, 26 January 2012

Interview: Dr Butler's Hatstand Medicine Band

Formed in 2006 with the tunes of ragtime, swing and jazzy blues vibrating from their musical minds through to their stringed instruments of choice, Dr Butler's Hatstand Medicine Band set upon a journey bringing joviality and frown-busting good-time jives to many, from traditional stages small and large to church courtyards, television sets and south Manchester parks.

Their nine-track record Music For Parlours and Promenades, available via bandcamp, is a waltz through jocular rhymes ('Penny Farthing', 'Rosie') and instrumental jig-inducers ('Too Tight Rag', 'The Manchester Shakedown') bringing a range of instruments to the table en route. From washboards to banjos, mandolins to kazoos via acoustic guitar, ukulele and double bass, the multi-talented troupe are well equipped with the tools of uptempo melody.

Co-founder Andrew Butler talks to Now Then Manchester ahead of the band's headline slot at Dulcimer this Sunday 29th January about folk trains, collaborators and loss of balance.

Now Then: How did the Hatstand Medicine Band get its name?

Dr Butler: I’m sure I know this one.

NT: As a flexible group of musicians, how do you decide who plays in which gig? Is there any song-writing autocracy or is it a democracy?

DB: We have core line-up of Dr Butler, Papa John and Black Jack Barnet and when possible the three of us try to do every gig, whether paid or unpaid. Since forming the band in 2006 we’ve worked with loads of other musicians and performers and it’s always lots of fun to have a big band. We’ve done a few gigs in recent times with as many as 10 people on stage. But, the unfortunate drawback about making music with such a big band is the cost.

We’re a democracy in terms of song-writing. Whoever has a new tune just brings it to the table, we will then commence taking the piss out of it, deconstructing it, pointing out misspelled or mispronounced words and drawing his or her attention to how it sounds like something else. Then, if we haven’t broken their creative spirit we’ll all take it to our heart and start working on it. We’re all highly critical of each others work but that keeps us on our toes. We recently co-wrote the lyrics to a new song for our forthcoming album called ‘Beer Festival Calypso’ which was a first for us but it worked really well.

Whoever happens to be playing with us at any given time generally has the freedom to do whatever he or she wants, we rarely dictate what a musician should or shouldn’t play. We’ll be joined by Dom Dudill on fiddle on the 29th and it’ll be the first time he’s ever done a gig with us. Prior to that we had a jam for an hour or so and it was obvious that he was a top musician; we’ll develop our sound on stage, rather than beforehand.

NT: You’re due to travel aboard the folk train again this week and have done so in the past; what are your best memories of those shows?

DB: We’ve been performing on the folk trains since forming the band, so we’ve done quite a few. There have been lots of memorable occasions but one that stands out is one we did on Halloween a few years ago. It was probably the busiest folk train we’ve ever been on, everybody was in costume and it stands out as one of our best gigs I think.

The folk train is a bit like the Olympics for acoustic bands, especially the ones to Hathersage and beyond. You have to entertain the carriage on the way, at the destination pub and also on the way back. So, you have to be musically fit and know a lot of songs. We’re proud to say that we’ve never had to repeat a song on a folk train.

NT: Do you get put off by any bumps or corners? Or does the momentum enhance your musical grooves?

DB: Papa John will inevitably lose his balance at some point but the rest of the band have found their folk train feet over the years. That’s University education for you.

NT: How do unsuspecting passengers react? Have there been any adverse reactions to the concept of live music on public transport, in your experience?

DB: Because it’s a regular commuter train it’s always full of people on their way home from work. For the most part people react positively, it’s difficult not to when people are having so much fun and wearing bowler hats at the same time. But, for some reason the prospect of having to sit in a carriage and listen to banjos and washboards all the way home doesn’t appeal to everyone.

NT: What does the proposed SOPA & PIPA legislation mean to independent artists such as yourselves?

DB: Doesn’t mean anything to us.

NT: Finally, which records are you playing the grooves off at the moment and which of your peers would you recommend?

DB: A devil woman took the record player with her when she went to live with a fat dwarf so I have rows and rows of records gathering dust at the moment. The last thing I had on was a record called The Moon’s in a Fit by a band called the Umps and Dumps, released in 1980. It’s a really interesting mixture of traditional English folk with ragtime and late 19th century popular balladry. It has an excellent re-working of one of Irving Berlin’s less well known songs ‘After You Get What You Want, You Don't Want It’ – “After you've got what you want you don’t want it, if I gave you the moon, you’d grow tired of it soon.”

People should go and watch Krazy Horse and Mik Artistic if they want to be happy. They should catch Aidan Smith, either solo, with his band or with PJ Party if they want to witness a genius song-writing machine. They should try and catch Gideon Conn before he moves to London. They should go to a Josephine gig if they want to hear the most powerful female vocalist in Manchester. If they want something a bit more raucous they should go to the upcoming TNS all-dayer in March, organised by our good friend Andy Davies from Revenge of the Psychotronic Man.

Dr Butler's Hatstand Medicine Band will headline the next Now Then Sunday SoirĂ©e gig at Dulcimer on Sunday 29th January. They will be supported by Aidan Smith, James Munro and Shen and more information can be found here. Doors are at 5pm and entry policy is pay-what-you-like with £3 suggested to support artists and future gigs.

Words: Ian Pennington
Poster Design: Hattie Lockwood
Images: Courtesy of Dr Butler's Hatstand Medicine Band (credited on individual photographs where applicable)

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