Music interview: Sam Sweeney of Bellowhead

Bellowhead. Picture: Mark Holloway
Bellowhead. Picture: Mark Holloway
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As Bellowhead embark on a long farewell tour, Duncan Seaman speaks to fiddler Sam Sweeney ahead of the band’s gig in Pocklington.

“I’m living in boxes and chaos,” the fiddle player says cheerfully. The reason he’s on the move, he explains, is that he’s touring solidly for the next six months. “There’s no point in me paying rent any more so I’m just putting my stuff in storage and living out of a suitcase until December.”

Much of that time will be taken up with Bellowhead, the hugely successful folk group who are playing at several summer festivals – including Pocklington – before embarking on a lengthy farewell tour that runs into 2016. The band, who have won numerous awards and scored two top 20 albums, announced their break-up last month. According to Sweeney, who joined the line-up in 2007, three years after the band originally formed, it’s all been very amicable.

“The band was formed to do one gig – ever – at Oxford Town Hall to headline the Oxford Folk Festival and then people loved it, so Bellowhead did an album and did touring and then every single step of the way over the last 11 years we can’t quite believe that it’s become as huge as it has,” the 26-year-old reflects.

“Playing to 30,000 people every time we go on tour is mental and I think we have reached the top of our game. Jon [Spiers, Bellowhead’s co-founder] decided that he would move on as the singer of the band and as a band we decided, ‘Do you know what? Let’s call it a day at that and let’s leave at the top.’”

Although the various members of Bellowhead have side projects – Sweeney himself has worked with Hannah James, Fay Hield, Circus Envy and others – scheduling diaries have never been a problem.

“We always tour in November, so we know not to book any other gigs with any other bands there, we always do a spring tour, so we know not to put in work there, and then we keep festival season free. Although I’m in five bands and Paul [Sartin, fiddle player and oboist] is in five, I think, and Benji [Kirkpatrick, guitarist and bouzouki player] is in a few, it’s never actually been a problem keeping it ticking over, but on occasion we’ve had to dep out and get somebody to replace us in Bellowhead. I depped out when the Folk Awards were on because I was up for Folk Musician of the Year – in fact I won it – but on that occasion Patsy Reid played the fiddle in Bellowhead instead of me. It’s not quite the same as delivering the full 11 of us but it’s never been that difficult, really, because we all love it and we all put it at the top of the priority list.”

Bellowhead’s commercial success took them all by surprise, Sweeney says. One minute they were playing to audiences of 300 to 400 a night, the next they were recording at Abbey Road with producer John Leckie, who’s worked with everyone from John Lennon and Pink Floyd to The Stone Roses and Radiohead. “Then that album went silver [selling 60,000 copies in the UK] and by that time we’d been on Jools Holland and we were being played on Radio 2 and we were playing to 1,500 people a venue. Broadside [Bellowhead’s 2012 album] has just gone silver and sold over 75,000. Every single step of the way we can’t quite believe it’s happened because it was never designed to be that way but it seemed to work and the public really loved it.”

Their reputation as a concert band earned them five BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for Best Live Act, not to mention additional gongs for Best Group and Best Album. Sweeney is evidently proud of their achievements.

“The thing is it’s unparallelled in the folk scene,” he says. “I remember watching Bellowhead in their second year of existence and they had a massive marquee of people pogoing like you would at a rock gig and it’s always been like that. The live shows have always been what the band’s about. The albums we take them very seriously but it’s all supposed to feed into the live show.

“We’ve had amazing quotes, we’ve won the Best Live Act five times and someone said ‘with the exception of The Who, Bellowhead are Britain’s greatest live act’ but people always ask, ‘Is it an act? Are we just pretending to enjoy it?’ It’s completely not true. It’s impossible not to jump up and down every night when you’re playing a Bellowhead show, it’s just so much fun and the music seems to lend itself to jumping around like a lunatic.”

For all Bellowhead’s success, Sweeney seems in two minds about the general state of the British folk scene.

“I think English folk music – whatever that means – is going through quite a healthy stage. Eliza [Carthy] was a big part of that and Bellowhead and Jon [Spiers] and John [Boden], all of that lot making English headliners as opposed to ten or 15 years ago at folk festivals all the headliners were Scottish or Irish.

“Now we have a situation where there are big English acts out there. I think what’s interesting is the standard of instrumental playing has sky rocketed but there aren’t that many traditional young singers coming through.

“I think what we might see is a move away from traditional music and more songwriting happening. Of course that happened in the 60s and 70s as well but I just wonder if people are moving away from traditional music. That’s no bad thing necessarily but my personal taste errs on the side of traditional. But you can certainly say the English folk side of the scene is healthier than it’s ever been.”

Bellowhead play at the Platform Music and Comedy Festival at The Old Station, Pocklington on Saturday, July 18. For full details of the festival visit www.pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk