Steve Palmer interviews Ian Smith of Sproatly Smith

In the 1990's, the mantle of "pagan-inspired, floaty, folky, alternative music" was held by that mighty group of road-protesting troubadours The Space Goats. Since the end of that decade when they fell apart, no band has appeared with anything like the beauty and spirit shown by them. Until now. Based in Hereford and featuring a wide variety of acoustic instruments, a few synths and a clear-voiced female vocalist, Sproatly Smith have been my favourite psych-folkers for some time. Their sound world of bucolic, psychedelic folk, referencing late 'sixties Floyd, Circulus and Gorkys is a joy to listen to. Sproatly Smith have captured a sound that is at once quintessentially British, yet psychedelic also, immersed in nature, tuneful and evocative of Britain's folk tradition. Ian Smith took time out to answer a few questions, the results of which follow:

What was the genesis of the band, and when?

Matt King and I have been playing live together in bands for a goodly while, myself on bass and Matt on guitar. Los Squideros was a Mexican dance band where we got to wear red trousers, and in Ken Easy's Love Safari we could wear safari suits. After these, I began playing acoustic guitar again and recorded a few tunes on a pc. I asked a few friends to play along and the result was “The Yew And The Hare.” That was 2009 I guess.

Who are the main band members, and what do they play?

Matt King is my co-producer. He gets to fiddle with a lot of instruments. I sort out the music and he adds his own unique embellishment. There's a local collective of musicians that are involved in the recordings too; Hereford has a wealth of talent to draw upon. Sarah is the main singer, she's sung on all the albums. At the moment we have a core of seven of us in the band.

There's lots of nature and pastoralism in your sound, did your native Herefordshire play any part in the style of the band's music?

Herefordshire is a strange and beautiful area, the countryside and surroundings are definitely a source of inspiration. The seasons here are beautiful, and the landscape never ceases to cause wonder and reflection, with observations and evoked feelings adding to the lyrics and sounds within the music. Ella Mary Leather, a local woman who collected folk songs and lived a hundred years ago in the county, also provided us with inspiration; she captured much of the local folklore, and we have delved into it to provide some ideas for our own tales.

I think, wherever one lives, the environment will reflect in your art, whether consciously or not. Edward Elgar spent a lot of time in Herefordshire, and that pastoral, rolling hills sound is reflected in his music. Most English classical music conjures up images of the landscape of the isle. A lot of modern music reflects its geography eg the Sheffield/Manchester sounds. We are no exception to that rule.

What proportion of the songs on “The Yew And The Hare” are traditional folk songs? ‘Gently Johnny’ is traditional, obviously.

There are four old folk songs on there, including ‘Gently Johnny.’ Two songs are poems by Thomas Moore, set to our own music. The others are my own songs.

And what proportion of the songs on the second and third albums are folk songs?

“Pixieled” has the Irish folk song ‘The Magpie's Nest,’ and ‘Samhain Dance’ contains a recorded sample by a Morris Team at a Welsh Samhain Celebration. There's covers of songs by Gwydion Pendderwen, Pentangle and Clive Palmer. The new album has two traditional folk songs and some covers, so I guess half of the songs on each album are our own.

Some of the sounds and textures on “Pixieled” suggest a psychedelic heritage, would that be a fair description?

I think that's a fair suggestion. I've grown up listening to psych music, and all that goes with it. Our music is very organic, and I'm not always sure where it's come from, but it's there in the psyche somewhere. I've been very much inspired by psych bands, especially early Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, King Crimson, and lately by 60s and 70s psych folk albums.

“The Minstrel's Grave” has the classic Sproatly sound, but seems a cleaner production. Have you changed your recording set up? How, in general, do you record?

Does it? I guess I've become more familiar with the technicalities of the recording process. We still use the same, very basic recording methods. We did move studios before the new album, but it’s all the same old kit, very makeshift. I like to use the first take whenever possible, for the freshness of sound. I did spend more time producing “Minstrel's Grave” – “ Carols From Herefordshire” was very much rushed; Matt and I did most of it in a couple of nights in order to get it out in time for Christmas. I’ve certainly used more tracks when recording this album, and I've also acquired more instruments to play with. I think it does have a fuller sound than previously.

What was the inspiration for "The Minstrel's Grave" – a lot of the songs, especially at the end, seem to be about death.

The second half of the album is certainly about death. A lot of people I know have died recently, my father and aunt and some very special friends. I’ve been working with older people with learning disabilities for the past six years, and many of these people have passed away, including Annie Needham, for whom track three was written. She died in her sleep after the royal wedding party. I wrote and recorded that song before her funeral. Death is always with us, and is all part of the living process, death and rebirth. I didn’t intend it to be about death, it grew like that.

The Fruits De Mer record label were looking for covers of songs from The Pretty Things album “S.F.Sorrow.” ‘Death’ was the one song I thought we could cover, so we tried it, I liked it and I put it on the album. ‘The Sun Also Rises’ track: O Death, I love. I think it’s a traditional American song. There’s a version of it on ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’ but the Hemmingway sibling’s version is beautiful. I love Jane Weaver's version of it too. We've been playing ‘Rosemary Lane’ live for a while, ‘The Blue Flame’ has the same tune but different lyrics, and it happens to be about death again. The last song and title tune, came about after I'd found the name for the album. I discovered that Fanny Kemble, a 19th century Hereford actress, had written a poem entitled The Minstrel's Grave, so I put a tune to it.

I've heard rumours of a Christmas album; can you tell us anything about that?

“Carols From Herefordshire” was mostly recorded 2 Yules ago. The first seven songs were sourced by Ella Leather – I was researching local folk music, and found her. It's the centenary of her book about Herefordshire folklore this year, so we will be playing a few of these songs in our live set. They are not all Christmas carols; carols were for all year round. We added a couple of Christmas carols too, as we were getting into that spirit, and the last song is ‘Candlemas Carol’ (Feb 2nd) written by Steve Ashley in the 70s. I hope the album will be continually re-released each Yule by Reverb Worship; it is available again this year.

Are the members of Sproatly Smith pagans?

You could easily have asked if we were all Christians, and I think the answer to both would be no. I'm very much intrigued by the supposed differences and similarities between the two. The Wicker Man film centres on this notion too. I guess there’s a lot a pagan imagery in our words and music, but it’s really imagery from nature, and the natural world that inspires us. A lot of our tunes either come or are based upon old folklore, which generally is pagan or Christian based.

What are your musical influences? If there are any significant non-musical influences, what are they?

I learnt guitar by playing along to Donovan, Dylan and Syd Barrett. Discovering Syd and early Floyd music when I was fifteen or so, was quite a revelation. His references in our music are fairly blatant, I think. I’ve been an avid vinyl collector for a long time. I’m quite eclectic, but I have a large collection of funky lounge, library and film scores. Over the last few years I’ve mainly been listening to 60s and 70s psych folk. The internet has made it possible to hear some of this great music, the original vinyl copies being far too rare and expensive to purchase. It’s good to see that some of these albums are being reissued on vinyl. I'm not a huge fan of straight folk, a lot of it I find dull and uninspiring. The musicianship can be fantastic, but it can lack soul. Having said that, I love the Watersons and Copper Family. One of my favourite musicians is Clive Palmer, love his voice and twisted tunes.

I think our albums are becoming increasingly inspired by local folklore, our surroundings and local people: Ella Leather, the poet and visionary Thomas Traherne, Elgar, the author Phil Rickman. As you may be able to tell from the many nods and references within the songs, The Wicker Man was a big influence, as were other folky films from that period.

How do you approach your music for playing live? Do you have to compromise on your sound and your arrangements when playing live? It must be difficult to prepare certain songs.

Initially we decided not to try to emulate the sound of recordings in the live set. We enlisted a double bass player, Mark, and a great jazz drummer, Nick Quinto – I love that Pentangle sound. Kevin plays percussion; the beautiful harmonies are from Kate. We tend to play a few cover versions of old traditional folk songs, and some 60s psych folk, as well as Sproatly songs.

Adding a drum kit to the live sound gives a different dimension, sometimes we can rock out, which is always good. We were playing songs that were relevant to the season, eg ‘A Leaf Must Fall, In the Autumn.’ This was fun, but we tended to play more covers than our own music, so now we are trying to play like the albums sound, which is quite a challenge. The records have many layers and numerous unusual instruments. We are now using a sampler in our live set, whichadds further complications, but it seems to work okay.

How do you find acquiring new fans in this internet age? How did the connection with Reverb Worship come about?

Everything has come about via the internet. We made the album, put some tunes on MySpace, and people liked them. Roger from Reverb Worship liked them and wanted to put them out, then more people heard and liked the music. It’s quite amazing how things spread on the web. We had songs played on New Zealand radio, Greek radio, acquiring fans from all over the world very quickly. I was never keen on the Facebook concept, but we’ve used it for spreading the music, and hearing other people’s music.

What's up next for the band?

“The Minstrels Grave” has been reissued on cd through the fantastic Folk Police Recordings, and we have a 7" single split with the great Woodbine And Ivy Band, two very different versions of ‘Gently Johnny’ from The Wicker Man soundtrack, released by Static Caravan. The latest album “Times is n'times was” is available to download now, and will be released on vinyl by Folk Police. It’s about the changing face of the farming industry, and the changes in village life. Before the First World War all my ancestors were small holders or farm hands, going back for generations. They generally stayed in the same small area, especially on my Mum's side, in between the eroding East Riding coast and the Humber estuary. Sproatley is a village in the area. The album after that will be a celebration of the Hereford poet Thomas Traherne, and will be less folky, more experimental.

Feature interview: Steve Palmer. Artwork & layout: Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online 2013