THE MIGHTY HANDFUL
Interview by Steven Reid - with a ginormous amount of help from The Mighty Handful drummer, Gary Mackenzie
As we all do over at Fireworks Magazine, if I was putting together an end of year best of list, and I was allowed to choose something that isn't really an album (but really is), then the winner would actually be an EP. No, truth be told, it would be five EPs. Five EPs that have been released across three CDs and the best part of five years. Taking a sideways, humorous - and decidedly insightful - look at death, the 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car' story is possibly the best realised concept based release(s) I can remember and one that covers a huge amount of musical ground. What was intended to be a one page article with the band's drummer Gary Mackenzie for the December issue of Fireworks slowly evolved into such an in-depth discussion with three members of the band and a good friend of The Mighty Handful, that it reveals the inner working of an independent band doing things on their own and coming up with quite jaw dropping results, in a way you don't often come across. Hence here is the discussion in full. Hopefully it inspires you to acquaint yourself with a hugely talented band, some phenomenal music and a lyrical idea that goes well beyond what most bands could ever hope to achieve.
Rocktopia caught up with members of The Mighty Handful in their natural habitat – a pub in Brentford, south-west London! Lead singer, guitarist and producer Matt Howes, lead guitarist Chris Harrison and drummer Gary Mackenzie all discussed the questions, and were joined by comic book artist extraordinaire and good friend of the band, Mark Buckingham.
Hi guys, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, it is hugely appreciated.
I've only been following The Mighty Handful since the third instalment of 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car'. However, on your Facebook page you describe the current incarnation of the band as the 'Third Age' of The Mighty Handful. Can you take us back to the start of the band and tell us how and when The Mighty Handful came together?
MH: Hhmmm ... not sure why it's the Third Age ... can't really remember what the second one was! Anyway, the band has been going for 20-[coughs] something years now in various guises. So I was at college with Ralph, and we were in a band prior to this called Dr. Seuss and the Cat in the Hat Band, which was a kind of blues/jazz combo. We then started writing material with another guy called Dre on guitar which became the early incarnation of The Mighty Handful called Matt and the Musos ... but we needed a drummer to help us record some of the tracks we were working on ... and I think Gary ought to take over here ...
GM: Yes, well ... I was also at the college, but not as a student ... I am, let's be honest a tad older than the rest of the band, and I was actually working at the college as a youth worker, which is how I got to know Matthew. About two months or so after I left that job, I got a call from Matt asking if I'd be interested in recording stuff for a demo, and I obviously said yes. I was then informed that the demo was being recorded in three days time and I didn't get to hear any of the material until I turned up for the recording ... and that's been pretty much how we then worked for the next few years!
MH: What Gary's missing out is that he came to record the demo – that was quite fun actually – I put a cloth over the guitar strings to mute them and strummed along, jumping up and down to indicate when I wanted him to get louder and lay on the floor for the quiet bits, but during the day we asked Gary if he'd be up for doing some gigs ...
GM: To which I immediately said "Yeah ... sure!" and then Matt said "How about next Thursday?!" ... So yes, it was all a bit rough and ready let's be honest. But that's pretty much how the band started. We've got through a couple of members along the way – Dre who was our original guitarist (and then bass player, but that's another story) left to go on a trip around the world ... well, I say "around the world", but he didn't initially get any further than Chichester [all laugh] ... but we took that as him leaving the band, and replaced him with our current bass player Tom, who is awesome. And we added Chris during the recording of this album actually. So that's a very potted history of the band over the past couple of decades ...
CH: I think there was quite a lot of tea consumption that's not been mentioned though ...
During those earlier years the band actually released five albums, and as you mentioned also spent time under the guise of Matt And The Muso's. Take us through that era of the band please... you don't really refer to that era of the band anywhere - does that almost feel like a different band altogether?
MH: I don't know ... does it feel like a different band altogether?! In a way, yes it does ... but in a way absolutely not. The band that we were then certainly laid the groundwork for the eclectic amount of styles that we incorporate in what we're doing now. I don't think we were easily pigeon-hole-able even then ... (Is that a word?)
CH: It is now!
GM: I once described what we were doing back then as Brit-pop-alt-rock-indie-swing ...
MH: Yeah ... with a bit of skiffle thrown in. So you'll notice that some of those elements have made it into 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car'.
GM: In many ways it feels like the same band ...
MH: Chris does it feel like the same band to you? [All laugh]
GM: I think the main departure for this album has been ...
MH: The main departure has been the song-writing process.
GM: Exactly what I was going to say! Prior to this album over 90% of the material we've written has primarily come from Matt, but when we started work on 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car' we made a very deliberate decision that we were going to actively include everybody in the band in the whole process, from basic ideas right through to recording and mixing, everything. And that has changed the dynamic a bit, I think for the better, because I think there are some really interesting things on the album which we wouldn't ever have considered previously. I think though that's there's a fundamental "Mightiness" about the album that's always been there across all the earliest songs and recordings through to this album, there is a definite feel to what we do and how we work that comes through all of it.
MH: Yeah, I think there's a certain DNA to the fact that three of us have been working together for all these years, and there are certain things that we do that no-one else does and we've always done them.
Recent years have seen the band focus on the 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car' EPs, which you've dubbed as an album in five parts. The inspiration behind these releases stems from tragic events unfortunately. If you don't mind sharing some details with us, could you take us through how the 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car' concept came into being please?
GM: Okay, so I had an older brother who sadly died in 2006. We got on very well and did loads of stuff together and had shared interests. He was a hero to me and was a major part of my life, and his death came completely out of the blue, with no on-going health issues or anything, so it came as a real shock. Then around 2009/2010, I started thinking about working with a prog band, because, although prog is a big part of my personal musical landscape, I've never actually been in a band that would even vaguely describe itself as "prog". So I then started to put together a concept that revolved around death, and losing people who are close to us, but I didn't really know quite what to do with it ... and it was, perhaps not surprisingly, down a pub ...
MH: No shit! [laughs]
GM: ... with a couple of members of the band when I shared this basic idea, really and honestly with no other view than to say "I'd really like to do this ... I wonder who I can find who'd be willing to help me out and be prepared to enter into working on a ridiculous concept like this?", and Matthew almost immediately said "Oh, we'll do it!" and I think he may have regretted it ever since!
MH: Well ... I'm not sure that I did regret it. I mean, I think if I'd known what I was getting myself into I probably wouldn't have done it ... but I certainly haven't regretted it.
GM: Yes, I don't think any of us at the time had any idea how long it would take us and how much time, energy and effort would be required.
You, tongue in cheek, dubbed the idea as 'the greatest double album of progressive music the world didn't know it wanted'. However, there's actually much, much more going on across the five releases than just 'prog'. Where do you guys draw your musical inspiration from?
MH: I'm going to answer with a little aside here – it isn't the "greatest double album of progressive music the world didn't know it wanted" ... it's now a TRIPLE album of progressive music the world didn't know it wanted!! That's neither here nor there. Anyway, where do you get your musical inspiration from Gary?!
GM: So, I think one of the really nice things about the band, which has translated into the album, is that there are some really bizarre combinations of ...
MH: [cutting in] No ... I'm bored now! Chris? [all laugh]
CH: Well, I think Matt gets his inspiration from a number of places. Everyone gets inspiration from different places in this band I think. Matt's inspiration comes from lots of places ...
MH: No ... where do you get YOUR musical inspiration from? Not inspiration in general but musical inspiration.
CH: Well, I'm slightly lucky because I haven't had to write any songs, so I came in and was inspired by what was already there ...
GM: [Interjecting] Not "any" songs? I mean, let's be fair, you've creatively contributed to many songs and co-written at least one of them ...
CH: Okay ... the first couple of songs I contributed to – I was inspired by Golden Earring for Cavalier Spirit ... I thought it was good driving rock. I can't say the actual solo was anywhere near Golden Earring, but ... And the obvious prog influence I brought in was with the guitar in the first song I actually recorded which was 'Slow Reveal', and that was John Petrucci and Jimi Hendrix. Not that I would ever compare myself to them, but ... After that ... 'Albion', that was a Wishbone Ash type of solo ...
GM: Well, it's kind of Wishbone Ash meets Robert Fripp, isn't it?
CH: Yeah ... well maybe. And then there was the 'Mary-Jane' solo, for which Gary gave me about 10 different solos from other songs to listen to and said "I want that", and he got it! I'm so proud of that one.
GM: Matthew, where does your musical inspiration come from?
MH: I've no idea, genuinely ... I mean, in terms of this album, the inspiration comes from what the songs, not required necessarily, but what they suggested. A lot of it is pub chorus singalongs, which obviously comes from ...
GM: [cutting in] Going down the pub a lot?!
MH: Well ... yes, but also the music hall tradition, you know "'Wotcha' all the neighbours cried and knocked 'em up the Old Kent Road" that sort of stuff, and I do like skiffle (whisper it!), so there's a little bit of that in there as well. Viennese waltzes about gin. Basically, I'm a little bit of a weird person to answer this question, because I didn't really have any grounding in prog whatsoever before I started on this particular project and it was very much Tom and Gary who were members of the band who were versed in prog and were into Gentle Giant and Genesis and all the rest of it. And Ralph is almost uber-prog ...
GM: Ralph hid his light under a bushel to a large degree, because actually some of THE most proggy things on the album are from Ralph.
MH: I think Ralph ... he'll have to explain this for himself ... but he could quite easily say that actually a lot of prog leans on modern classical music, which he is very well-versed in. So, I think of everybody in the group, I'm probably the least prog member, which allows me to be a bit more eclectic in what I bring to it, and maybe a little less reverent about what music can be "progressive".
CH: Which keeps it from disappearing up its own arse.
MH: Gary, what was your musical inspiration, because it came from you in the first instance?
GM: I don't know if I had a specific idea originally about what everything would sound like. I think with the possibilities of the Mighty Handful given our background, which we were talking about earlier, and trying to translate that into a more proggy arena was quite interesting. And as the album progressed, as we started to write material around the narrative, the narrative kind of suggested some of the directions we should go in musically. Some of the tracks were written to a brief, especially a couple of the instrumentals where I gave a brief to Ralph, who then came up with the goods in a very impressive way. I think we all have very different experiences in music – my background as a musician has largely been in heavy rock bands for instance, so there's an element of that that creeps in as well, while the barbershop quartet stuff is from Tom who was an active member of a barbershop chorus, and he brought that into the mix. I think we approached the whole thing with the attitude that it doesn't actually matter "Is it rock? Is it prog? Is it pop? Is it skiffle?" it really didn't matter as long as it served the narrative, and I think we've been very successful in telling a story without getting too bogged down about keeping things within a certain label or pigeon-hole.
MH: One of the other slightly weird things that we did in terms of songwriting was at the start of the process we tried to divi-up ideas or concepts or themes. So we figured that Death was probably a character that needed to have a very specific theme, and actually was going to be dark and brooding, so Tom as the bass player was tasked with coming up with essentially Death's theme and personality within the music. In a similar way, we thought that "Light" as well would also be an overarching motif within the entire album, and so that was something that was given to Ralph to try and come up with something that would give the whole thing a level of positivity that was interweaved throughout the entire album, but that musically would always refer back to a "leit motif" ... [all laugh]
CH: I was inspired by what was there already, but the thing was - when I write I start with a riff or a chord sequence or a melody, but here I didn't have to do that because all that was already there, so I had to try to find out what I would do in what was already there, that was the great thing about this for me, because I've never had to do that before. I suppose what I brought to bear was guitar parts that don't get in the way of other things, which I really love. I've always loved guitarists who aren't flashy for no good reason, people like Rothery and Gilmour are a good starting point for that. I did some Fripp-ery, but the simple stuff was much more fun than the showy stuff, and I love it.
Why did you decide to put out the 'album' as five EPs, rather than one single release?
MH: We could answer that quite quickly – if we'd have released it as one single release, we wouldn't have released anything for six years, and then would have released the whole thing in one go, and people would have gone "What is this?! You used to be an indie band!". Partly it was to continue to be able to release stuff, and partly it was that releasing the first part kind of inspired us to release the second one then the third one and, by that point, we thought "Well, we really need to finish this now!", and actually it generated interest as we went along, so it turned out to be quite a smart way to do it in the end. It wasn't designed like that originally, but it was just a far, far bigger project than any of us ever realised it was going to be.
CH: And it I think it's all the better for it.
GM: Relatively early on, about two years in, the whole thing had become so big that actually it was quite overwhelming, quite daunting, and yes had we tried to finish the entire thing ... god, I think it would have taken even longer ...
MH: We wouldn't have done it ... I would have looked at it and gone "Do you know what? I can't actually do this", but chopping it into five pieces that were just about achievable but still pushing us to our limits at the point at which we were recording them has worked really well. The only thing I'd say perhaps is that we're a better band now than we were when we started! [laughs]
CH: Which is the other thing about it, because I think it's helped get it out, but I was talking to a friend of mine in the pub on Friday, and was talking about the whole thing, what the story was – not just the story of the concept, but the story of getting the album made – and everybody, but certainly Matt has gone on this journey of production and engineering that's led him to a point now where if he'd done Part 1 now ...
MH: It would be a very different beast.
CH: Exactly! In a way, part of me would love to hear that ... how it would sound like now.
GM: It might be worth mentioning at this point that one of the reasons we were forced into that position was because originally we had an external producer who'd agreed to take on the production role, and that would have created a bit more time and energy to focus on the writing and arranging, but once we'd agreed to embark on the album that person pulled out. So we were left with pretty much over half an album written and a lot of backing tracks already recorded, but without a producer, and that put Matthew in a position – since he was frankly the only one of the rest of us who actually understood how any of this shit would actually work! – of not only being the frontman, guitarist, singer and general factotum, but also the engineer and producer for the whole thing! Chopping it down into more manageable pieces also made sense from that point of view as well, as it gave us far more time-limited objectives. Originally we had genuinely thought we'd be recording and releasing an album in one go, but a number of factors came into play that made that not practical.
As you know, I came in to the 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car' story at part three and - on Gary's suggestion - went back and explored the concept from the beginning, as I was initially a little overwhelmed by the musical diversity of what was on offer. Did you guys make a conscious decision to explore wide, varied and at times unexpected styles through this story, or was it truly a case of the concept and story dictating what the music should be?
GM: Yes! That was easy! [laughs]
CH: I want to know the answer to this actually ...
MH: The concept kind of did dictate what the music should be ...
CH: Yes, in one very obvious place it did ...
CH: With 'We Had the Rock'?
GM: Ah well, the thing is that the idea to incorporate that wasn't part of the original idea, to be honest. I think the narrative dictated the music, given that I had suggested that we try to create a prog concept album, that gave a general direction of travel, but beyond that I think very much that we looked at the narrative and the bits of the story that we wanted tell and that dictated how the music evolved.
MH: I do think listening to the third part first is the most difficult thing to do though, because ... so in a way ... sorry Steven, you actually found the hardest way to get into it! Because Part 3 is where it very deliberately goes off in all directions. The album's a bit like a GCSE essay – the first two parts were telling you what we were going to do, Part 3 is doing it, and Parts 4 and 5 are ...
GM: ... telling someone what you've done! [all laugh]
MH: So yeah, to come in at that point is a little bit difficult because that is, of all the parts, the most wilfully diverse, but that was kind of the point of that part.
[At this point the band descend into completely unrelated discussions about their old English teachers!]
Which I suppose begs the question, which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
GM: Actually that's quite difficult in this instance because "Both" is the answer! The narrative came first, but that didn't necessarily create lyrics ... so there were occasions where we had musical ideas ...
MH: Such as the Light and Death motifs ...
GM: Yes. So we had music that didn't have specific lyrics, but we knew roughly where they'd fit in the narrative, so we then had music that we had to write lyrics for. Equally, certainly Matt came up with a number of lyrical ideas at a point where we didn't have any music for them, so we had to create music around those lyrical ideas.
MH: Was 'Hypothetically Speaking' one of those?
GM: Yes, I think we had to write music around your lyrics. 'So You're Death?' - the music came first, 'King of the Beacon' – the lyrics came first.
MH: 'The Beacon', I kind of wrote both together, because it was one of those guitar and singing songs.
GM: And some of them we had a lyrical and musical idea that came almost fully formed, but we didn't have all the lyrics for, which then needed finishing. 'Albion' ... [everybody groans and laughs] was written to a brief ...
MH: No, don't ... it's still very raw! Still very painful! [laughs]
[Mark Buckingham joins us at this point]
And how did you guys compose for these releases. Do you song write together, is it jams, or a case of individuals bringing ideas in for the band to work through?
GM: "Yes" is the answer!
MH: I think we've sort of talked about this ...
GM: Yes, all of these approaches and others beside. We started from lyrics from specific people. Matt and I worked on lyrics jointly. Ralph came in with almost fully fledged songs which just needed other people to add their parts.
CH: Some of it was mashing ideas together that had already been posited ...
GM: Yeah ... all of it. We could also talk about the writing sessions at the Barns ...
MH: So yes ... whilst a lot of the album was written in twos and threes, every year we made sure we'd go away for a weekend together, and we went to a retreat in the country where we'd spend three days basically talking crap and writing and trying to work things out, and actually what we found was in those moments there was a lot of stuff that when we were together and all concentrating on something we end up producing something quite special. And it would be great if we could do more of that.
GM: ... yeah, always good fun and very alcohol fuelled. And I think they gave a certain character to some songs on the album ... we couldn't have done 'Madame Geneva' justice for instance without going to the Barns and drinking gin for an evening. The guitar parts in 'Vital Signs' would almost certainly not have happened had we not been down the Barns and been a little bit drunk and dimmed the lights and let Chris sit on a cushion ... [laughs]
So, even with the starting point that brought about the EP series, to bring that into being through a time travelling story (in a 1985 Vauxhall Cavalier, obviously) where confrontations with Death and the opportunity to meddle with time and events, are all handled sympathetically and with no little humour, is still quite some leap. How did the concept come together and what made you want to relate it in this heartfelt, but at times, less serious manner?
GM: Okay, we've already talked about where the basic idea came from, but ... so Frank Zappa was once asked does humour belong in music, and his reply was "it's part of everyday life, so why shouldn't it be part of music?" and I think that kind of works for us as well. I think it would be a dry, possibly borderline boring story if we'd actively tried to avoid telling it in a slightly eccentric and human way. When we deal with people in everyday life, hopefully we don't avoid having fun.
MH: Fundamentally, death is a difficult thing to talk about, but the concept of the album is also pretty absurd.
GM: Yes, as a concept it's ridiculous and it would be fundamentally wrong to avoid the ludicrousness of the story that we've created. The humour isn't knowing and deliberate, it's natural – life involves a certain amount of comedy and it would be wrong to try and avoid that. Also, a lot of the album is about living, about being alive, and if an element of that isn't about joy and humour, frankly, we're all wasting our time!
CH: If you think that death's funny ... just wait until you hear the next album!
Was the full concept mapped out before you even started working the first instalment of the story?
MH: It sort of was ...
GM: The general narrative yes, it was worked out beforehand, and most of the music was worked out before we'd released the first instalment, and there were only about three or four tracks that we didn't have. But we had most of the album written before we even started recording. As we went along, there were elements that got added in and things that got thrown out. There were a couple of sub-plots that I'd suggested early on, but frankly had we even attempted to include them the album would be at least 25% longer, and that, frankly, nobody really needed.
MB: But that does open the door for spin-offs?
MH: Of course!
GM: Yeah, Chris can go off and write a solo album about ...
MH: Someone who never even featured in the end.
GM: Or one of the characters from 'The Beacon'?
MH: I remember early on sitting in a pub and having long discussions about the characters and their motivations, and exactly who they were. I guess initially a lot of the people and environments that we were talking about were in Gary's head, and I do remember having a lot of conversations about who he thought might be in certain situations, and then co-opting them and putting my experiences into some of the situations he was talking about.
GM: Yeah and there were elements that people brought in musically that I hadn't really factored in – 'Madame Geneva' is a good example of something that wasn't part of the original story arc, but that absolutely worked with everything else, and so that got added in. So, basically, the whole thing was mapped out more or less, but the detail changed quite considerably over the creation of the album.
MB: Considering that one member of the band joined after the whole thing was well under way, did Chris's involvement have any significant impact on any of those changes to the structure that came later on? Were any songs significantly changed by his arrival?
CH: I am on the bit in 'Madame Geneva' ...
MH: Which is awesome!
GM: I think structurally the answer is "No", but in terms of the musical and artistic scope, then absolutely yes. I'd go as far as to say that if Chris had not become involved, I don't think we would ever have finished it. Honestly.
MH: I would probably agree with that.
GM: He added a whole element and dimension that we didn't have as the four of us. And also because he was so bloody enthusiastic about it – when you've lived with something from the beginning and it's taking a long time to come to fruition, you can develop a bit of ennui and go "Oh, are we still doing this, really?" and it loses the life that you had at the beginning, and one of the things that Chris has contributed to the whole process has been a level of energy and life and enthusiasm, and I think that's really pushed the rest of us on to the next part and the next. I honestly think that we'd still be languishing around Part 2 or 3 now – if indeed we'd still be working on it at all – had Chris not become involved, because his input has taken everything to another level musically as well as personally. It's not that the rest of us are dullards or anything but ...
MH: But the rest of us know each other and have lived with the album for a very long time, and sometimes if you live with something for three years and you're not even half way through, you need extra impetus. And yes, you're right, 'Madame Geneva' is 100% better for that extra response verse that Chris came up with and sings. 'Albion' absolutely would not have been the ridiculous, impossible thing to write lyrics over that it became if it wasn't for Chris! [all laugh]
GM: There are so many tracks on the album that, if I listen to them, my point of reference is the guitar part which, given that most of them were written without a permanent guitarist in the band, says a lot about Chris's ability to contribute parts that are not only good, but they become essential after you've heard them a couple of times, and the track simply wouldn't sound the same without them.
MH: Chris sort of said this earlier, in that he's a very sympathetic guitarist in that he's not someone who's just waiting for his solo.
There's no getting away from the diversity of the music contained on the five releases, with everything from Classic Rock to Metal, Prog to Pop, Barber's Shop Quartets to Pub Sing-alongs all featuring. Once I got into the story's way of thinking, this varied style all suddenly made sense. What have you found the initial reaction of people has been to the EPs, the music and the concept?
GM: So ... at this point Mark Buckingham is now going to answer this question!
MB: I've found the whole thing rich and engaging. I personally live with narrative works for a living, so for me a story that has a very solid foundation, that goes on a very clear journey, that has strong characters built into it whose lives are unraveling before you, and the sword of Damocles - the danger - that is inherent in everything that's being undertaken in this journey made the whole thing incredibly entertaining and engaging. But within that there was also so much diversity, so many opportunities to explore other areas of interest – such as comics, such as history, such as word play around drinks – every song took you to a different place and made you think about the world in a different way. And that's what you really want from your progressive rock album is that richness and that diversity and that sense that there's purpose to the journey that you're on.
MH: Well ... thank you very much Mark! Let's be completely honest ... some of our long-standing indie-pop fans absolutely hated it! [laughs]
CH: I had an initial reaction to it ...
GM: Well yes, of course ... cos you came into it a couple of years into the whole process ...
CH: My initial reaction was so instinctive and guttural. I remember being sat in O'Riordans [Gary and Matt chime in –"That's another pub!"] after one of the sessions, and I remember saying something and Gary and Matt went off on one, and I remember Matt saying "Chris, you GET it!"
MH: And he does. And I think that's something that we've found ... that some people fundamentally don't get it – and that's fine – but more people than I thought would, actually do, which is quite gratifying actually, because I'm not sure it's the easiest thing to understand or explain, so the fact that people are relating to it is a good thing.
GM: As with any art, when you create art you want people to respond to it, because it almost has no meaning unless it connects with people, and my sadness, if there is any level of regret about the whole process – and obviously we're very close to releasing Part 5 now and having the whole thing finished – is that I wish more people could have the opportunity to plug into it, because the majority of people who have had that opportunity up to now have responded really positively to it, in a way that I think I kind of hoped they would, but didn't necessarily actually believe they would. Going back to what you were saying Matt – I think one of the strengths of the album is that, if we strip away any of the stylistic diversity and some of the more bizarre elements – what we're actually telling is very human story, with a number of universal experiences. None of us can escape the reality of death, but the album isn't just about death, it's about friendships, about periods in our lives that are really important to us, about being part of networks whether they're social groups, people you meet down the pub, people you're on a football team with – and how you relate to each other and how important you become to each other. And I think that those are things that run throughout the album ... and, of course, going down the pub and drinking too much ...
MB: Is this interview being released as a five part serial?! [all laugh] I do agree with Gary that the friendship aspect of it is actually the driving force through a lot of the album. And the pub aspect of it is equally important, because there's a relationship that you have that's often more of an acquaintance one where you hang out with people a lot in a pub environment, who you have a very particular understanding of, with the other individuals within your drinking group, about who they are and how you perceive them, that is not necessarily a reality of the strengths or weaknesses of that person away from that environment. And I think that part of the interest for me in this journey is the re-discovery, given a second chance, to analyse that friendship group in terms of where you really stand in relation to those other people ... that's a very important part of this story for me.
GM: One of the basic messages that I think I had in my head right at the beginning was that all manner of things become possible in pubs – the world is your lobster!
CH: The pub's a great leveller – one of the things that I both love and hate about going to the pub with my friends is that it almost provides a structure to hang other things on ... so I need to go and talk to my friend about something that upsets me, but I can't do it seriously until after we've had about three pints ... because otherwise the world's going to think I'm less of a man or something like that.
MH: Weirdly, that's one of the things that I think this album tries to talk about ...
CH: Yeah, that's one of the things that I've got from the album ...
MH: I think the other weird thing is that actually in doing this album we've actually become the album in a sense ... in the sense that for anyone reading this who don't know where we are, we're in the pub for Prog Wednesday – every Wednesday no matter what, some of us will try and meet up and do some music and try to move the album on ... and in a sense it's become a proxy of what The Beacon was to me 15 years ago ...
GM: To a very large degree, I think that's true. And then you've got that whole thing of whether life reflects art or art reflects life? Both is probably the answer. I think for us the album has kind of given us an excuse to do stuff in a way that we really would have loved to have been doing anyway!
CH: And now that the album's almost done... it's become harder and harder to sell Prog Wednesday on that basis!
In some ways do you think you've made things harder for yourselves by choosing the approach you have?
CH: Define "approach"?
GM: I think we're talking about releasing the album in instalments ...
CH: Not really. In some respects ... financially yes. But by and large, no – I think it would have been harder for the band to wait until the whole thing was finished, as we've discussed.
MH: I think actually these days, people have much shorter attention spans, and I think maybe the only audience that doesn't is the prog audience, who seem to be quite willing to go deeper into stuff, but most music fans probably aren't. So maybe, in terms of appealing to a prog audience, we have made it a little bit more difficult for ourselves in that we've tried to explain something that they might get in one go, to them in five pieces. At the same time, we're not purely doing this for dye-in-the-wool prog fans, we want anybody to access it and feel like they're able to understand it. So maybe the way we've done it will help more people go "Oh, you know what – I probably could get into prog, because it's not this two hour concept thing that I have to throw myself into in one go, I can do it in 20 minute instalments and if I like it I can continue." I don't know ...
GM: I think as we've discussed earlier, I don't think that realistically we had much of a choice – either we were going to do it in one go, and if we'd attempted that it may never have happened, or we did it in the way that we have.
How difficult has it been for a relatively unknown band to get their music and message out there to a wider fanbase?
GM: I think this follows on from the previous questions, although I'd question the use of the word "relatively" here ... I'd go for "completely unknown band"!
MH: I'd take umbrage at the use of the word "band" as well!! [all laugh]
GM: It's a bleedin' nightmare, because as a band without a record label behind us, no management, no PR people, no anything, we don't have anyone else helping us out. And I think this is true for most musicians. Most musicians aren't very good at hustling and hassling, because that's not why we got into music in the first place – we didn't learn instruments, write songs, and play gigs with a view towards promotion on an international scale, because that's left to others – other people should do that stuff. So yes, it's been hard – I think I referred to this earlier, it would be lovely if more people could have the opportunity to hear and listen to the album in its entirety, but with the level of competition there is in terms of making music and getting others to listen to it, it's a nightmare. Also, let's not ignore this completely, everything we've done with this album over five or six years has been entirely self-financed, we've not had anybody injecting thousands of pounds into the band – so from writing to recording to spending time down the pub to releasing stuff to getting magazines and internet radio interest has been done entirely off our own backs with a stupidly limited budget. It would be much nicer if someone else would take that on board, because frankly we're not very good at it.
MH: That's the reality of music these days, and you can't get around it. So man up, Gary! [laughs]
CH: The fact that the internet exists means that there's much more noise to claw through ...
MH: Yes, you can argue it that way, but ... but ten years ago we couldn't have made this album at all – we would have had to spend huge amounts of money in a recording studio, whereas now we can do it in my studio which is considerably cheaper to use and to do this stuff is easier than it ever was in the past. As long as you've got enough time and inclination, you can learn how to do things and can release stuff that would have been unimaginable just ten years ago. Let's not say "Oh my god it's so hard ... there's so much noise out there", but to be honest we've all been playing for a long time and we kind of know what we're doing now, and I've learned what I'm doing in terms of production, and I'm okay at it, and I've also learned how to distribute online and get things out there, and getting CDs pressed and tracks out on things like magazine cover-mount CDs. Honestly, 10 years ago it wouldn't have been possible, so in some sense it's much harder ... but no, because it's much easier because there are a whole load more tools available now, if you've got the time and inclination ...
GM: And the chutzpah ...
MH: ... to learn and do it. That's the difficult thing – marrying the two ...
MB: That's always going to be a problem for you as a band, because you all have other careers – the band isn't a full-time occupation. So when you do have spare time, that's going to be focused on the creative side because that's the bit that brings you satisfaction and fulfilment. It would be lovely if you also had a virtual extra day in the week that you could pull out of nowhere and invest in all the other aspects of promoting it. That's a battle that most people in your situation are up against, but you have an advantage over many, because you're all exceptionally talented and write wonderful music, so ... [band laugh]
GM: Well ... most of us are exceptionally talented ...!
MH: Yeah ... sorry Chris! [all laugh] I think in conclusion to that question ... yes, it is really difficult for a relatively unknown band to get their music and message out there to a wider fanbase, but ...
GM: Damn ... you remembered the question!
MH: But ... it is genuinely much easier to create a message in the first place, so whether or not that evens it out ... I think probably it does, because I don't think we would have even had a message ten years ago that we would have been able to get out to people without having serious, serious money behind the band, which simply wouldn't have happened.
CH: But ... we got our message to Fireworks magazine!
MB: And that's another point I was going to make – the proliferation of music has also been accompanied by a proliferation of opportunities to discover music, and forums and specialist radio stations and magazines, all these opportunities and general social media chatter ... if someone finds something they love they can immediately tell three or four hundred other people ...
MH: Yeah ... it's Field of Dreams stuff ...
CH: "If you build it, they will come"! Thanks you for this opportunity, Steven!
That all said, I think what you've achieved with 'Still Sitting In Danny's Car' is really quite remarkable. How do you all feel now the whole thing has been completed?
CH: I never want to listen to it again! [laughs]
MH: I feel dead inside! [all laugh]
GM: I think last week you said "Empty and a little closer to Death"! [more laughter]
MH: Is it completed? It's never over is it? No ... it is ... "empty and a little dead inside" is about right. And also really proud that we've actually managed to get it out. Empty. Dead. And happy.
CH: I sat and listened to it in its entirety ...
GM: [interjecting] Do you know ... I haven't actually ever listened to the whole thing from beginning to end in one go ... [consternation from all]
MH: Gary! How? That is a frickin' revelation right there ... Gary hasn't actually listened to the whole album? What the actual f**k?!
GM: But I've heard it all though ... quite a lot ... but in bits!
MH: Mark's listened to it ...
MB: I've listened to the whole thing through many times, and it does reward frequent listening!
CH: So for me, it was quite an odd experience, because I'm listening to it and ...
MH: You're listening to the first part going "That's shit ... all those guitar solos are rubbish!" [all laugh]
GM: Yeah ... "who allowed him to play that? I would have played something completely different!" [more laughter]
CH: I listened to it and I can hear the progression in practically every aspect of it from the first note to the last. Everything gets progressively more interesting and exciting and refined and brilliant, to the point where halfway through I start blubbing. I get to 'Madame Geneva' and I think "Aw god ... This is amazing". 'Vital Signs' makes me cry ... Having said that, the first two tracks also make me cry ... so basically what I'm trying to say is that I cry at everything!
MH: I'm not going to be weird here Gary ... but you should probably to listen to the whole thing through, because it is worth doing actually. It definitely stands repeated listens, even having written it and produced it, there are very few moments when I think "oh we shouldn't have done that" ... very few, and that's a mark of something that we can be incredibly proud of ...
CH: For something that long, that's pretty impressive!
MH: Most stuff you do you're going to think "oh I should have done this differently", but as a complete piece, with the exception of a couple of tiny things, I can listen to the whole thing and go "yeah, that's sort of how it should be", which I'd say "that'll do!"
GM: In terms of the question ... it's been such a huge part of my life and our collective endeavours for so long, there is a certain sadness in the whole thing being wrapped up because the process of creating it has been so involving and so enjoyable and so rewarding, especially working with a collective of very, very talented people which I feel very humble about. At the same time, obviously everything has to end at some point ... kind of a bit like death really, we all have to get to the end sometime ... my aspiration, my hope, is that we can move on to something else that will engage us in, possibly not the same way, but in a different way.
CH: I feel a little bit surprised ...
GM: What that we actually finished it?! [laughs]
MH: Yes, we've finished it and don't hate it!
CH: Or each other! [laughs] Through the whole thing – I came on-board to do guitar solos and eventually got asked to do more ... certainly at the start of all that I thought "Okay, I'm here to do a very specific job – I'm here to chuck some guitar sauce over this sprawling prog epic" and then you asked me to do the Christmas Singalong [for the purposes of the general reader, the Mighty Handful Christmas Singalong is a hugely popular event that the band have run for many years now that involves playing for hours on end, audience participation with Christmas songs and carols, dodgy raffle prizes and beer] and despite how much of a disaster that first Singalong was, you invited me back the next year ...
GM: To be fair ... you hadn't seen the fifteen Singalongs prior to that! [all laugh]
CH: But ... the fact that I came in to do this one job and carried on doing this job apparently well enough to keep getting asked back, to then be invited to become part of this institution for the band which has developed over 20 years, and THEN to be brought into the fold and be told "Oh yeah ... you're writing the next one with us" ... I'm still amazed that it happened, because I still feel like the guest guitarist. In terms of Wednesday band nights, I don't.
GM: We've explained this to you, Chris – Tom is the "new boy" in the band! And he joined in 2004!
CH: So ... how do I feel now that's it over? Terrified, because now I don't know what's going to happen.
GM: Now you're going to have to contribute stuff.
I know you've toyed with the idea of releasing the five EPs gathered together into a double vinyl release. Do you think this is something that might come to fruition?
MH: Yes, that is definitely going to happen.
GM: Everything's in place. Really the only major obstacle is financing it.
MH: And let's be honest – I want it to happen more than I have common sense, so I will probably do it irrespective of whether we're going to make a huge loss on it ... which we probably are. When we started this whole process six years ago, we said "yes we want it to be a double (triple!) vinyl concept album", I bought into that and that was one of the things that kind of kept me going on it! Actually now that we've got Mark Buckingham potentially ...
MB: Definitely! [laughs]
MH: ... doing the cover-art, it frickin' has to happen, because goddammit that's something I want to see! Hang the cost, let's make it happen!
GM: So the answer is "Yes".
MH: The answer is "Yes" but please buy it so that we can actually not all be completely bankrupt. Thank you.
CH: I mean I like beans, but I don't want to live off beans.
MH: Well ... I hate beans, but I'm quite happy to live off them if it means that I get to have a triple gatefold album with art by Mark Buckingham.
Are there any plans to play some live shows to try and get the word out to a wider audience - come to think about it, how difficult would it be to play some of this material live??
GM: Let's deal with the second part of that question first. In terms of what we actually recorded, let's be honest, there are some bits of the album which require physically more than five of us to play. But, with the wonders of technology, we could probably augment things in a way that enables us to play live, but have a bit of support from pre-recorded bits and pieces.
MH: Actually, even without the wonders of technology, all the songs are actually songs – I can't think of one on the entire album that we haven't played either live or in a rehearsal or writing situation, that wouldn't work as a live construct. There'll be certain elements of it that wouldn't necessarily be part of the live performance experience, but I think that between the five of us we could play everything, there'd be certain elements that might be missing or different. So for example, on 'Albion', I can't imagine that I'll be able to sing all three vocal lines at the same time – I'm not Bobby McFerrin.
MB: But luckily, you have a multitude of talented vocalists within your ranks!
MH: You say that – we do have a multitude of talented vocalists, but I would posit that it is almost impossible to play the guitar line and sing one of the vocal lines at the same time in 'Albion'.
CH: That sounds like a challenge to me! [laughs]
MH: Well, I would be astonished if you could do it, but by all means why ever not ... let's give it a go! In order to do everything that's on the album we'd probably need about eight people.
MB: However, having said that, I have watched you perform an hour long condensed version of the album, which was magnificent and was perfectly within the capabilities of you as a five-piece.
CH: I absolutely think that we could do it – I can't say that I could sing two vocal parts and play the guitar at the same time ...
MH: I certainly think that we could play the essence of the album, actually playing live ...
CH: We could re-arrange.
MH: But with all that said, there's no frickin' chance that we'll do it! [laughs]
GM: Well ... going back to the first part of the question – I would love to perform the whole album in its entirety, but there are two issues with that. The first is we'd need somebody to promote us at a specific venue or venues to do that, and that's not as easy as it might appear. The second is that, although I'm quite happy to play to three men and a dog, that can be quite soul destroying if you're doing that night after night and I'm not sure that the band as a whole would be up for doing that and for all the inconvenience and schlepping that would naturally accompany playing to three men and a dog in various places, even around London.
MH: There is a third thing and that's that life gets in the way, and if I'm completely honest, some members of the band are not in the situation where they'd be able to give up significant amounts of time to perform the album more than once or twice, I'd suggest. So what might happen is that we'd do bits, putting together a full show, in London almost certainly, but then what might have to happen if we're going to take it further then various bits of the show would be performed by maybe not even a full band. That could work.
GM: The other possibility is that – and this is certainly not unknown for prog – there are number of festivals that happen across the year, and if we could get onto the bill of even a small festival, that would give us something to work with. Obviously we wouldn't then be performing the entire album, since there are time restrictions at such events and it is quite a long album, if we're honest – but that would be a nice thing to do and not unknown for relatively niche bands. There are a number of prog festivals certainly that have bills that include bands that even I, as a prog fan of perhaps thirty years standing, have never heard of, so why shouldn't other people be exposed to us ... who they've never heard of?!
MH: What Gary's saying is that if you know of anyone who organises prog festivals or something like that, we'll come and play an hour for them and then do the entire show in a pub down the road on the Sunday. So let's make it happen!
So, with the full concept complete, what's next for The Mighty Handful?
MH: This has been a wonderful interview.
GM: Some great questions ... I think you've done your homework Steven!
MH: We have been impressed that we've had questions that we've actually had to think about!
GM: So what's next Chris?
CH: We are embarking on the Fourth Age of Mightiness!
MH: I still haven't worked out what the Second Age was ...
GM: Have we done the Third Age?
MH: 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car' was the Third Age!
CH: And the Fourth Age of Mightiness is goddamned sexy!
MH: It is sexy ... I don't know how that's going to work out ...
CH: Gary had an idea ... [all laugh]
GM: Oh so this is all my fault?!
MH: So six years ago Gary had an idea, and we all ended up "up the duff" from this idea he had ...
GM: I think the word is "screwed" or "f**ked"! [laughter]
MH: No, no ... I'm trying to extend the metaphor backwards! At the time I thought "This is going to be easy" and now six years of difficult labour afterwards, and we've hopefully got this little child called 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car' ...
GM: A little prog baby!
MH: It took a long time to get out. So explain to us the latest stupid concept that we've all bought into ... [laughs]
GM: I feel that this has all been piled up in my direction because I was the only one who was offering an idea ...
MH: Can I just say that for the first fifteen or sixteen years of the band nobody else came up with f**k all, and now Gary's in charge and listen to how he's talking about it, it's ridiculous! We've given birth to this sprawling prog epic, and now we're going to have to give birth to another evil child of prog ... frankly, I don't know what he's complaining about. [laughs]
GM: So ... even before we finished the final, final bits of 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car', I suggested we take things in a slightly different direction. I think it would be wrong to ignore what we've been doing for the last six years, so it'll still be generally prog-friendly but with the same level of stylist diversity. It's NOT going to be a concept album ...
MH: But it sort of is though ...
GM: It kind of is, but not in the sense that it's a narrative that tells a story from beginning to end ...
MH: It's one of those cop-out prog concept albums. A concept album without a concept ... one of those ones!
[At this point, the entire interview is disrupted by an extended digression on who should best answer the question and whose round it is! In the end, Matt goes to the bar and Mark Buckingham kindly takes on the responsibility of explaining the next album in a comedy American tinged computer voice!]
MB: This is the electronic computer representing the Mighty Handful. The next album is a thematic affair which has been specially conceived in order to deal with the subjects of love and sex and prog. This is a rich vein of information that must be explored in depth and has not been tackled by any progressive band on a previous occasion. We look forward to exploring and understanding what love and sex mean in the context of prog.
GM: That'll work for me Mark! I don't think I could do better than that ... thankfully! I find it really interesting that prog is generally not great about dealing with sex and human relationships. There's a chasm that I feel needs exploring.
That's all my questions, thank you all for taking the time to answer them.
MH: So, that was all pretty exciting ... although that's some considerable time out of your life you'll never get back, Steven! Thank you very much for asking us all these lovely questions. We've been the Mighty Handful ... thank you very much.
Photos courtesy of Jonny Helm