The Dodge Brothers return to the Bradford International Film Festival this weekend. Chris Bond talks to bass player Mark Kermode and singer and guitarist Aly Hirji.
THE last time The Dodge Brothers were in Bradford they went down a storm.
The band, which features the BBC’s Culture Show presenter film critic Mark Kermode, brought its unique mix of skiffle, country blues, rockabilly and jug band to last year’s Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF), playing live to a 1928 classic film, Beggars of Life, along with pianist and silent film aficionado Neil Brand.
They also found time for a spot of impromptu busking in the foyer of the National Media Museum much to the delight of visitors. Now they’re back by popular demand playing a free gig at the museum tomorrow, before accompanying a screening of the 1929 silent film The Ghost that Never Returns on Sunday.
“The festival has been very good to us and last year we did a bit of busking which was great fun,” says band member Aly Hirji.
The four-piece band features lead guitarist and singer Mike Hammond along with bass player and vocalist Kermode, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Hirji, and Alex Hammond on wahsboard, snare drum and percussion.
The Dodge Brothers have been playing together for more than seven years during which time they’ve made a name for themselves with their foot-tapping brand of Americana. They’ve performed in such famous venues as the Royal Albert Hall and The Roundhouse, in London, and last year they made a pilgrimage to Memphis where they recorded songs at the legendary Sun Studios, the hallowed birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.
Their second album, Louisa and the Devil, typifies their music with tales of strong women, bad men and railroads set to driving rhythms awash with the mythic sounds of the American mid-west.
But they have also carved out a niche playing live to silent movies. In these days of big blockbusters and digital surround sound, the idea of watching an old film with a live band supplying the music might seem unusual. But as Kermode points out it actually dates back to the fledgling days of cinema.
“You used to get local bands playing in cinemas to accompany whatever silent films were being shown, and they would basically make it up as they went along,” he explains.
“Silent cinema pianists often played with their backs to the screen and they couldn’t see what was happening in the film, so they had a light system where green meant ‘exciting’ and red was for ‘drama’ – it was like playing to traffic lights.”
The Dodge Brothers made their debut accompanying WS Hart’s 1921 film White Oak four years ago. Since then they’ve added a few more to their repertoire including the obscure Soviet-era film The Ghost that Never Returns (1929), which they will be accompanying at the film festival this weekend with music inspired by the protest songs of Woody Guthrie.
Set in an unnamed South American country, the film revolves around the story of a prison inmate granted one day of freedom who is followed by an assassin and ends up in a wild train-hopping chase.
“It starts out as a train chase movie and a bit of a western but turns into this extraordinary revolutionary drama and includes some very peculiar dream sequences,” says Kermode.
They started playing live to films after meeting Brand although to begin with they weren’t sure how it would work. “Silent movie fans really know their stuff inside out. So we were really worried what they would think, but they were actually very supportive and that gave us the confidence to keep going and once we started experimenting we became more confident,” says Kermode.
“We used a theremin which is a wonderful instrument used in old sci-fi films. We were worried that it might sound bogus but we’ve used it a few times now and it’s gone down well with audiences.”
Aly agrees that it took a little while to get used to playing along to a film. “We’re all interested in silent films but the first couple of times it felt odd; I think we’ve got the measure of it now.”
The success of The Artist, which won best picture at the Oscars last year, has led some people to ask if we’re witnessing a silent cinema renaissance. But Kermode plays this down. “The Artist made silent cinema more mainstream and people who wouldn’t normally think about going to see a silent movie went to see it.
“Every now and then a rockabilly band have a top 10 hit and people start saying ‘great, rockabilly’s back’ but the fact is it never really went away, it’s always been there and it’s the same with silent cinema.”
But what The Dodge Brothers have done is bring together music fans and film buffs. “There’s a very special atmosphere when we do the silent movies, it’s a completely different experience,” says Aly.
“You have Dodge Brothers fans and silent movie fans and the two don’t usually meet but this brings them together, so you’re playing to an audience that wouldn’t normally be in the same place.”
Kermode agrees. “We get teenagers and young kids coming along as well as octogenarians and different people enjoy it for different reasons,” he says.
“Some come because they like skiffle, some like a bit of blues and others are fans of silent cinema and that’s the nice thing about it.”
The Dodge Brothers play a free gig at the National Media Museum, Bradford, tomorrow. On Sunday the band will accompany a screening of the 1929 silent film The Ghost that Never Returns (U). Their latest album, Louisa and the Devil, is out now.
Quiffs, riffs and movies
The Dodge Brothers are Mike Hammond (lead guitar, lead vocals & banjo), Mark Kermode (bass, harmonica & vocals), Aly Hirji (rhythm guitar, mandolin & vocals) and Alex Hammond (washboard, snare drum, percussion).
The fifth Dodge Brother is pianist and silent cinema expert Neil Brand.
Their music is a joyous cocktail of skiffle, rockabilly and country blues.
They made their “movie” debut accompanying WS Hart’s film White Oak (1921) at the Barbican in London in 2009.
In 2011, they accompanied the 1927 Louise Brooks/Wallace Beery film Beggars of Life at The British Silent Cinema Festival.