By Michael Lello
Chilean neo-folk inlfuences? Instruments that most people would struggle to identify in a police lineup, never mind play?
It all sounds pretty high-minded, or maybe taken from an “A Might Wind”-style mockumentary. But it’s real. Better yet, it’s really good.
We’re talking about The Melodic, a British group riding a wave of buzz following last year’s release of their debut album, “Effra Parade,” on esteemed label ANTI- Records (Tom Waits, Dr. Dog, Glen Hansard). It’s a difficult band to describe, a group of early twentysomethings influenced by some well-known folk artists as well as some decidedly obscure offerings, too. So we went to the source, and recently chatted with The Melodic co-founder, singer and multi-instrumentalist Huw Williams to get to the bottom of it.
The band – Williams, Rudi Schmidt, Jon Naldrett, Lydia Samuels and James McCandless – plays Rockwood Music Hall in New York this Tuesday, April 22.
H81R: How would you describe your writing process?
HW: Most of the songs on our album are written in completely different ways with different members bringing material to the table in varying states of completion. For me, songs emerge gradually; I will normally have a guitar part or chord sequence that I know I’m happy with and a melody that I think will work well with it first before I work on the lyrics. I find that once the music is in place, it naturally dictates the tone and energy of the lyrics and I find it easier to craft a song in this order [rather] than setting out to write music to suit a particular set of lyrics.
H81R: What instrument or instruments do you write on?
HW: I write on an acoustic guitar, sometimes I use a looping pedal to hear parts back round and round and layer them up quickly to sketch out the instrumental part and be able to think about the lyrics without having to play at the same time.
H81R: What instruments were used on the album?
HW: Aside from the instruments we play in our live set, we welcomed over a dozen guest musicians round to our studio to appear on the album, so there is nearly every part of an orchestra featuring on the record, lots of brass and strings and even a Kora, (African harp) as well as plenty of odd DIY percussion instruments like cans of dried beans.
H81R: What instruments do you use during the live show?
HW: In the live show we play with a full drum kit, bass guitar, nylon string acoustic guitar, an autoharp, a charango (South American lute) and two melodicas.
H81R: What challenges do you face in travelling with these instruments and using them in the live setting? Is there difficulty with tuning them, mic’ing them, etc.?
HW: Most of our instruments are quite small and light so not much fuss to tour with. We all squeeze into a tiny van together without too much trouble. The biggest problem we face is our own absentmindedness in remembering to bring all of them with us from one town to the next. Lydia’s autoharp has dozens of strings that need tuning before each show which can take a long time, and melodicas are always slipping out of tune and need to be replaced pretty often which is a pain. It can be hard getting a good sound in some venues with all our acoustic instruments needing amplification. Lots of sound people have never come across autoharps and charangos before which can throw them, but we always get there in the end.
H81R: How do you feel The Melodic fits in – if at all – with the neo acoustic movement including bands like Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, Old Crowe Medicine Show, etc.?
HW: I think a lot of bands get compared to Mumford and Sons just because they play acoustic instruments, and we get our fair share of comparisons from reviewers. I think this can go from being helpful in terms of readers being able to understand what end of the spectrum our music is coming from to lazy journalism where the influences and features that set us apart are neglected. Our music, although sharing a reverence for ’60s folk revival artists, is inspired by Latin American and West African grooves, which I think takes it somewhere different altogether, and I can honestly say I have never listened to any of the bands we get lumped together with, although we did play some shows with Mumford and Sons a while ago, which was fun.
H81R: What does Victor Jara mean to you? Why did you decide to write “Ode To Victor Jara?”
HW: Victor Jara’s life story is so compelling, beautiful and ultimately tragic, it just felt like something we wanted more people to know about. The atrocities of Pinochet’s regime in Chile are too often brushed over, and so remembering Victor and telling his story in some way hopefully stops that happening.
H81R: What type of music did you grow up listening to?
HW: As a kid my father introduced me to a lot of ’60s folk artists like Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch and Simon and Garfunkel, and I loved the Beatles, too. In London growing up me and my school friends were also into the indie bands of the day like Blur and Oasis and the UK garage and hip-hop scene, so all sorts really, and I used to go out to a lot of reggae and dub nights as a teenager. My interest in folk music only really started to take hold in a proper way when I started teaching myself guitar at about 16 years of age.
H81R: What are you listening to currently?
HW: I can’t get enough of Canadian pop plonker Mac DeMarco at the moment, he is the man.
H81R: Are you happy with the growth of the band thus far?
HW: It’s been a fantastic year for us since signing with ANTI- Records. We’ve released our debut album and toured the states for the first time and will be touring Europe in May, so everything is really exciting at the moment. We’re currently on tour with Malian Grammy winners Tinariwen, and I could not think of a band I could feel more privileged to be playing shows with, so definitely happy with how things are going.
H81R: What are some of our long-term goals for The Melodic?
HW: I’d love to tour South America and parts of Africa. That would be incredible, also really looking forward to recording another record.
H81R: What are the band’s plans for the summer? Are you playing any festivals?
HW: When we get back home from touring Europe in June we will be working on writing some new material through June before doing a lot of UK festivals in August, so no rest for the wicked!
H81R: Who are some acts you’d like to tour with?
HW: We’ve had great times touring with Johnny Flynn and most recently Tinariwen, so we’ve been a bit spoilt lately. Some of our band would die to tour with Sean Nicholas Savage, Everything would be good too, and Mac DeMarco would be awesome too.