If you were at the 2006 Cornish Festival then, like us, you might have been impressed by some fresh faces on the British bluegrass scene.
The Thunderbridge Bluegrass Boys are a four-piece act hailing from Wellington in Somerset. Blending 3 and 4 part harmonies, a strong visual style centred around the single microphone set-up and their characteristic on-stage energy, they’d developed a big local following before making their festival debut at the 2006 Newquay event.
Following a trip to Nashville in 2004, brothers Martin (guitar/dobro) and Brian (banjo/guitar) originally decided to get together a “bluegrass style” band for a one-off performance at the Wellington Music Day in June of 2005. Badgering Jules the bass player, who just happens to run his music studio in the unit above their engraving business, and their friend Nick (on account of him owning a mandolin!) to join them, they all learnt how to make bluegrass music together.
Making and performing music goes back a long way for all the Thunderbridge boys, with various histories of rock, folk, and punk music between them; but as many of us know, bluegrass has a habit of taking over your life and the boys are all now firmly dedicated to the one band, the TBB.
We caught up with them – via the miracle of the internet, naturally – for an interview.
UKBG: How did the band come about?
Brian Thunderbridge: “Following our 2004 US pilgrimage by Greyhound Bus, and life changing Station Inn visits, me and my brother came home and set ourselves a target to play something in the Bluegrass style at Wellington Music Day, June 2005. Maybe guitar and banjo with some singing. Wondering if we could expand it a bit for the day we asked Nick if he had any interest as a songwriter and mandolin owner. He jumped at the idea, being an Americana nut and also having seen the Del McCoury Band on tour with Steve Earle, Nick’s idol. Hey, we wondered, too, if Jules fancied joining in with his doghouse bass. Jules runs his Business in the unit just above ours.
“So we came together for our first real session on Good Friday 2005. Fun or what? Over the next few weeks we put something of a set together including Nick’s very first Bluegrass compositions. Keen to get ‘match fitness’ we played a gig in May at our local Pub, just 2 days after Martin laid his hands on the dobro for the first time. Small miracle in making 10 songs last 3 hours, and then we didn’t want to go home! So we were as ready as we could be for Wellington Music Day and actually opened the show because of another cancelled act. We did a second spot later in the day……same set again of course.
“On something of a high we asked ourselves what we wanted to happen next and decided to see just how far we could take this thing. The band is named after a local landmark and childhood stomping ground not too far away from the old Factory where 3 of us work and where we rehearse/plot/scheme etc.”
UKBG: What were your original plans/aspirations/direction for the band? How have those evolved since?
Brian Thunderbridge: “So from an original idea of performing a short, one-off bluegrass thing locally, we have gone rapidly into the bigger community. While we still play the odd pub, we have been on local radio, regional TV, theatres and clubs across the south west, made a live CD, built a website, done the Cornish Festival, Trowbridge Festival, been busking and gained a strong bunch of friends and supporters.
“Seems incredible to some of us that all this has been possible, although Jules and his partner Louisa would say that they ‘underestimate us a lot less than the rest of us!’ When we started Thunderbridge I was playing in 2 other covers bands, Nick in 2 other bands and doing some solo stuff, Martin in one other band and Jules occasionally having an airing with the Jumping Dokies punk folk outfit. Today, we are all totally committed just to Thunderbridge.”
UKBG: So.. you’re a brand-new band, been playing pubs around Somerset for a few months, and you turn up at your first bluegrass festival and find you’re HEADLINING the Friday – how was that?
Martin Thunderbridge: “This was a time of mixed emotions. On one hand we were really chuffed to have been invited to play at the festival, but on the other, initially, felt a little outclassed by bands like The Morris Boys, The Down County Boys etc. But we were committed, and put everything into it. We all had such a great time and can’t wait ’til the next one.”
UKBG: Did you get any reaction/feedback from the established bands? Most of those guys have been around for decades.
Martin Thunderbridge: “Most of the musicians we spoke to after our performances were very constructive and freely offered advice. We were grateful for this and made good use of the advice. However, I personally reckon, there is a need for something a little different in the bluegrass world, and hopefully with our original material (Nick’s songs), strong harmony vocals and bucket loads of enthusiasm, we CAN offer something a bit different…….dungarees an’ all!!”
UKBG: What will you be up to in 2007?
Nick Thunderbridge: “It’s looking really good so far. We’re booked all over the country right through until Christmas 2007. We’ve got lots planned, such as another CD to record, lots of writing and polishing to do, and of course we’re always practising the harmonies and the playing! The gigs are coming in thick and fast, from little pub dates around our area, to some country and acoustic clubs up and down the South West and Wales. We’re also doing a few festivals next year, which are always great fun. Trowbridge, The Coastline in Wales, and of course Cornwall – it’ll be great to do that again, if 2006 is anything to go by!”
UKBG: .. and beyond 2007?
Nick Thunderbridge: “Who knows? All I know is we are all loving it for what it is at the moment. I guess we’ll take each day as it comes. There’s constant suggestions from onlookers about jacking in the day job and going full on with it, but there’s a number of things to think about with that. Number one, there’s just not the money out there to employ four grown men full time. Number two, the others have got their own businesses that they’ve worked hard to get going over a number of years so it’ll be hard to knock those on the head. Number three, and perhaps the most important one, is that the moment it becomes a job, it becomes a whole lot more serious. We have such fun doing it, and from my point of view I wouldn’t want it any other way. I guess as long as we’re all happy doing it, it’ll continue. And long may she last!”
UKBG: You play a lot of original material – who writes it, and is it “bluegrass”?
Nick Thunderbridge: “Yep, we play a lot of original material, probably 50% of the set is self-penned. I write them all myself at the moment, but there’s bound to be some co-writing going on sooner or later, as the others have got some great ideas and I’m running out of them! What happens is I write a stack of lyrics, usually verses and choruses, and possibly a middle eight or a bridge. I’ll also pick out the basic melody and chords on the mandolin or the guitar. Then I’ll take the song to the guys and we’ll piece it together with banjo, dobro and bass parts. We’ll spend alot of time on the feel and the structure and arrangements, then we’ll record a basic demo of it. The Guys have a lot of input at this point-they’re really the musical arrangers of the original songs, adding extra chords and licks, generally making them more interesting. We then get started on the harmonies which normally takes up a whole night in itself, but it’s well worth it when it all comes together. I write quite a bit, and not all of it gets to the band, as some of it gets thrown out at my own quality control point quite early on!
“Is it bluegrass? You tell us! There’s stuff that I’m writing that has that definite bluegrass bounce and energy, like Before I Die and New Train Song. The lyrics are very blue collar, too – all about dying, usually! Then there’s the other ones that get into the set. Too Many Ghosts and Carolina Calling are two that spring to mind. Again, very blue collar lyrics, home town stuff, but these ones have more of an Alison Krauss feel. At least that’s how we describe it, with the wobble-board chops and that mid-tempo pace which is so expressive. The thing about bluegrass when Mr. Monroe thought it up is that it broke all the rules. We don’t think we’re breaking all the rules, just some of them! We don’t see any thing wrong with the songs we do, and hopefully Mr Monroe wouldn’t either!”
UKBG: You’ve put a lot of effort in to the “look” of the band. How important is that?
Jules Thunderbridge: “I feel the look of a band – the overall presentation (dress, manner, lighting, environment) is absolutely vital. Maybe it’s because I work so much in theatre, but I have always felt that people ‘go to see a band play’. You watch a band, ‘Oh, I saw a great band last night’ you might say – never ‘I heard a good gig’. We are trying to offer entertainment, and we like to look the part, not just make the right noises. We don’t use video screens and computer-controlled light systems, but I feel dungarees work just as well. Better probably.”
UKBG: And the single mic thing?
Brian Thunderbridge: “The Sidemen at the Station Inn inspired us to try this. Such a lot of fun to watch the movement and teamwork. And, of course, the way it was originally done on radio and in the concert halls. We got advice from the bass player with the Radio Cowboys, an experienced Bluegrass band in East Anglia. He just happens to be a Director of Digital Village and put us on to this particular mic, an Audio Technica 4033. We’ve gone through phases of trying additional mics on the one stand, Christmas tree style, but we’ve come back the single one because it now works best provided you don’t mind exchanging fluids with each other on stage! You gotta know when to back off or move in. We have a few dented brows and headstocks but wouldn’t change it now. If you want to see this done to perfection watch video of Del McCoury and Steve Earle…..awesome.”
UKBG: Man of Constant Sorrow – won’t the more discerning bluegrass fan find that a bit clichÃ©d?
Nick Thunderbridge: “Hey! Show me a successful band that doesn’t cash in somehow! They don’t exist! Constant Sorrow has only been a part of our set for a couple of months, I think we started doing it in readiness for the Cornish Bluegrass Festival. We wanted a song that we knew we’d do differently to any other band, and it would have been easy to concentrate on Rocky Top or something as common. With MOCS, we had a quadruple whammy – people knew it from O’ Brother, we hadn’t heard any one else do it on the circuit, we changed the middle bit to keep it different with the chord run-down, and it’s such an upbeat song with a real good feel. It’s never flopped at a gig. Yet! ClichÃ©d? Yep! It’s probably the bluegrass Mustang Sally!”
UKBG: What’s going on with Jules on the bass? All that bouncing about. He’s definitely enjoying himself on stage – is that bouncy stuff planned?
Jules Thunderbridge: “I cannot imagine listening to music I love without tapping my foot. Playing music is a physical thing, particularly on a big thing like a double bass! So I move with it. I dance. I can’t imagine not doing so. I can’t imagine being able to not do so! I used to run around and pogo with the bass guitar – I’m trying to work that back into my stage act actually…”
UKBG: In fact the whole visual dynamics thing – that’s all part of the act? I find it so much easier to enjoy a band if they look like they’re really putting themselves in to it, rather than just playing the notes.
Jules Thunderbridge: “We work together, we work as a team. You have to interact to perform well. We do this because we enjoy it, and we enjoy getting better at it. We’d be doing this even if nobody was listening! We’re having a good time, and I guess the audience picks up on that.”
UKBG: You’re recording a new album in a couple of weeks. Any news/info on that?
Nick Thunderbridge: “We’ve had a few attempts at recording in Jules’ studio this year. After Only Ever Served From The Wood, which was quite rough and ready, we thought we wanted to do a more polished studio CD. The trouble is, when you record COMPLETELY live and all around a couple of mikes like we do, there’s invariably something that could be done better on each take. So we’d have to go back to square one and cut it all again. We WILL NOT overdub – period! After a while this gets a little frustrating, especially when there’s time limitations on your day and other distractions like beer and fish and chips.
“So another live album it is, which is what we’re all about really. A real ‘capture the moment’ sort of thing. The good thing is, we’ll have a really good crowd there, who know what we’re about as well, and will egg us on to do as good as, hopefully better, than the first CD. And it’s simply GOT to be in one take. Can you imagine us, in front of an arts centre full of devotees, saying ‘Hang on, we’ll just do that one again’? Not us – no way!”
No way, indeed. Looks like the Thunderbridge boys, like ukbluegrass, will be doing “something a little different” on the British scene for a long time yet..