Ross Couper & Tom Oakes: The Interview

There are so many ways to interview musicians these days – phone, Skype, WhatsApp (yes, it’s possible) – but nothing beats sitting backstage at a festival, face to face, with the music from the main stage pounding away in the background. That’s the setting for the second half of this double interview with Ross Couper and Tom Oakes, two musicians who come together to play music heavily influenced by a variety of traditions (Scottish, Irish, Shetland, Scandinavian), mixed together with driving contemporary rhythms and a smattering of jazz, all played on stripped-down fiddle and guitar. If that sounds remarkably complex, then it’s a complexity that is very cleverly disguised on their debut album, Fiddle & Guitar.

Favourites of the festival scene over the last couple of years, the duo are what you might call musician’s musicians – highly respected in their circle for the kind of skill and dexterity that makes their peers watch slack-jawed. When I mentioned the maverick fiddle player, Couper, to the similarly maverick fiddle player, Eliza Carthy, she told me he’s one of only two people she deps for. Put that in football terms and Ross is one of only two players Eliza happily warms the bench for (for the record, the other player was Mawkin‘s James Delarre). That’s the level we’re talking about here, so it was wonderful to be able to spend a couple of hours behind the scenes at Wickham Festival with these two, discussing quite how you reach such giddy heights, the difference between folk music in Scottish and English schools, the attractions of musical Edinburgh and ways in which a duo might record a muscular album with only two acoustic instruments.

The first part of the interview, chatting with guitarist and flautist Tom Oakes, took place on the patio at New Place, a lush manor house hotel on the South Downs where the musicians were staying for the night. Where Ross Couper is relatively brash and spontaneous, Oakes is more hesitant, thinking his answers through carefully, pondering in depth the journey so far. A Devonshire man by birth, his fascination with Irish music, coupled with long spells spent in Scotland and the North East, has left him with one of the most difficult-to-place accents I’ve ever come across. That said, he gives the impression of being entirely comfortable with the nomadic lifestyle of a working musician, and someone absolutely enthralled in the minutiae of his chosen profession.

What sets Edinburgh apart as a place for doing what you do? 

I’ve got friends that play in the SCO, the chamber orchestra, and lots of friends who play in the jazz bars. I know DJs, hip-hop artists… you feel like, if you wanted to do some interesting cross-cultural collaboration, everyone’s there at your fingertips, you know?

Edinburgh interests me as a guitarist. It’s interesting that the whole Bert Jansch scene in the early 1960s, much as you’re describing now, was about multiple influences rather than traditional folk alone. 

Yes, and it’s also interesting that it’s still the same two pubs to this day. The Sandy Bells has been there for 45 years. It’s just a hub. There’s a great guy there called Freddy Thompson who’s a legend. He’s just a character, and he’s been there since he was about 20, and everyone has to meet him at some point. He’s just one of those people. Cathal McConnell of Boys of the Loch is there too, he’s always floating around. It doesn’t matter how busy the pub is, whether or not it’s a Friday night, he’ll hold court – he’ll stand on a table and start singing a song. It’s that feeling that nothing has changed – that it has been like that since well before I was born.

How long have you been in Edinburgh? You’re not from Scotland originally, are you? 

No, I’m from Totnes in Devon – another place that is a great hub for music. I owe my career, really, to the scene that was there when I was a teenager at Dartington College, when that was still going before it got brutally shut down. There were always musicians of all genres there, because it was experimental; it was improvisational. Some of it was a bit weird, but it was great to have all the people that I looked up to when I was about 15 and they were all starting at uni. They were there busking in the town centre, and you’d have improvised jazz or string quartets busking on a Saturday morning. I remember seeing a visiting string quartet from Germany, on a sunny day like today, who just wanted to play. They were world renown but there they were just playing in the market.

I love mixing all of these things together. I think if I’d stayed in one scene or around one type of music for too long I’d start to dislike it.

So you don’t see yourself specifically as a folk musician? 

Erm… sometimes? Haha. I guess my first love is Irish traditional flute music.

Is that what you came to initially? 

I’d always played the guitar, but I took it more seriously when I went to university and realised I just liked it. I never really got good at it until… well, I’ve still not got good at it [laughs], but the flute I just obsessed over it. I used to play a lot of football and I had problems with my hips and had to be in hospital for a bit, and then house rest, and there were always whistles lying around the house. I read a great book called Last Night’s Fun by Ciaran Carson, which is all about the culture of sessions in Northern Ireland, and how you’d go to these places and have this amazing night with these amazing people, and the next day not really remember who they were, or who you were, even [laughs].

So you wanted a bit of that? 

I kinda did, yeah! But I also loved the soul of the music as well, and I always got into the power and sheer volume of really good flute players. It was quite a testosteroney thing, I guess.

Who were you listening to, then? 

At that time, a guy called Conal Ó Gráda. He was one of the first people I’d have heard. Matt Molloy, of course, and a guy called Harry Bradley, who I still think is the best player in Ireland. He’s phenomenal.

So you studied folk music at university? 

Yeah, the traditional music course in Newcastle came along. I’d been up to Folkworks once – I got a scholarship – and I met a load of people. I met Ian Stephenson and the Balls, Joey Oliver and all that crowd, and I just thought wow! In Devon it had just been me, James Dumbleton and a load of old guys – great guys, but all in their 70s when we were just teenagers. So, to get invited up to Folkworks in Durham and be around all of these people my age who were just amazing… that was quite addictive.

So, when were you on the traditional music course in Newcastle? 

That was 2000 or 2001, so it was the first intake.

Who else was on the course with you? 

Ha! Quite a lot of the professional folk scene now, so that says a lot. There was Ian Stephenson, Shona Mooney, Lillias Kinsman-Blake, Rachel McShane, Fay Hield. Loads of people. Emily Portman, Jim Causley – I lived with him, which was mental…

Why was it mental?! 

Hahaha! I don’t know if I can say on record, but it was mental. I should add that we’re still friends. He’s a superstar. I think Emily and Jim I think are the two best folk singers on the scene at the moment, under a certain age. Emily’s songwriting… she’s my favourite folk songwriter. It was brilliant being around those people, and while we don’t play exactly the same kind of music, we have a lot of mutual respect.

And from there you headed up to Edinburgh? 

Yeah, I’d always gone up to Edinburgh for the Irish music. Newcastle was very contemporary in the sessions – a lot of Scottish influence. Ironically, there was more Irish influence in Scotland! It was before the fees came in and everything got ridiculously expensive, so people had the choice between the RCS (a conservatoire in Glasgow) and the Newcastle course. Now, Ross had grown up in Shetland playing fiddle – traditional Scottish music – every day, so I think he wanted something different and came on to the Newcastle course, where there was all sorts of stuff. He was very interested in bluegrass, and we used to get people like Bruce Molsky and Darol Anger coming in to teach. It was amazing, and all testament to Alistair Anderson being the most generous man in the world. If there was anybody coming through who was influential, he’d fight tooth and nail to get them to come and teach, even if it was for just an hour, or even just to come and play for us.

I was talking to Sam Sweeney a couple of months ago, and he was saying that he sees one of the biggest differences between the Scottish and English folk scenes as having to do with how we approach traditional music in schools. If you’re brought up in Shetland, say, then you’re brought up playing it from primary school… 

Yeah, but only if you’re into it. It’s never 100% of your time, but it’s definitely a larger percentage than it is down here. And I think the thing is that your peer group, even if they don’t play, are aware of it and like it and accept it as part of life. Whereas in Devon, growing up playing the Irish whistle, people went, “What? You’re not coming out to play football because you’re sitting in the house practicing the penny whistle?” They thought I was mental. In Shetland, however, I think fiddle players get treated like rockstars. You know the top sportsmen, the quarterbacks in American universities… if you’re a fiddle player in Shetland you probably get that kind of thing, whereas in Devon you’d get the shit kicked out of you [laughs].

Properly shunned!

Yeah, it might’ve changed a bit since I was a kid, but it certainly felt like that. There’s definitely that kind of thing, and even now… I’ve just been over in Dingle in Ireland, which is the most amazing town. So much music, all the time. There must be 10 pubs with traditional music every Saturday night. There’s what felt like a nightclub on until three in the morning, full of people tarted up as if they were going clubbing, drinking shots or whatever, but the music is a guy playing the box and a guy playing the guitar. Worldclass, but all EQ-ed to be bass-heavy and dancey, and everyone’s going mental to it like they would be to a superstar DJ anywhere else.

In Ireland, of course, you can take your kids to sessions in pubs. They can just sit on your knee and just watch, and the teenagers join in. It’s very much from the cradle to the grave, and they’ll all play together. It’s no wonder that young musicians there are so phenomenal.

So you weren’t attracted to Devon’s songs or anything local like that, in the way that a lot of young folkies tend to be? 

My childhood in Devon was always Irish music. There were always great musicians in Totnes – a lot from Birmingham, and a guy from Liverpool. A guy called Mick Bramich who wrote quite a famous book on Irish concertina, and a guy called Rolly Brown, also a concertina player, and they had a weekly session within walking distance from my house. It was actually nearer than anything English would’ve been. And I had family in Ireland at the time who were sending tapes and books, so I didn’t have any need. It was just there and I took to it.

I’ve got loads of respect for English music, especially the song tradition. In fact, I had an idea this morning about adapting English songs that I like into slow airs, sort of – treating them in an Irish way. A lot of the slow airs in Irish music are from songs, and so many of the melodies in English music are so beautiful. But the dance music of Ireland – that takes it for me. That’s what I’m into.

Do you remember your first session? 

Do I? Er, yeah! It would’ve been the Bay Horse Inn in Totnes. I was definitely too young to be ordering the pints of Guinness I was ordering, but I got away with it. I’ve always been quite tall [laughs]. I did that classic thing of going back there three or four years later and having my 18th birthday party there, and them going, “Hang on a minute…!”

How did your duo with Ross Couper come about then? 

I was running a session in Newcastle, at a place called The Egypt Cottage, which became quite legendary. It turned into a kind of folkie nightclub. Absolutely ridiculous… some very supportive owners over the years. I started that with Shona Mooney, and I was running it with Niopha Keegan who now plays with The Unthanks. It was somewhere that Ross was recommended to visit when he first came up to Newcastle. He came and had some pints, played some tunes, and over the years he ended up running that with me.

We were sat in his kitchen one day feeling incredibly poor, and we thought, “Well, people seem to respond quite well to this in the pub, so maybe we should pull our heads out of our arses and try and do something.” Our first gig was in Durham – an outdoor thing. There’s a video of it somewhere on Youtube with loads of people sat in deckchairs [see above]. That was the first gig we ever did, other than playing on one of the recitals that Ross had to do at Newcastle Uni.

So, the tunes you got together for the album, are they largely your own or are they traditionals? 

A mixture. There’s about six of my tunes and three of Ross’s, some Shetland tunes and Irish tunes, and a couple by composers that we just really like. So the first track on the album is by the most legendary Scottish piper I know, Allan MacDonald. He’s a great composer. He’s another character on the Edinburgh scene who’s always around.

And then you couldn’t really make an album in Scotland without including a Phil Cunningham tune, so we did one of his. I never heard these tunes by these people, though. Ross learnt them, and I played them as I played them. Then I went back and heard the originals later and was like, “ooooh…”

The Phil Cunningham tune, ‘Cathcart’, is a pipe march, but I turned it into something that’s almost metal [laughs]. I’m very influenced by Scandinavian bands – I spent a lot of time over there after university – and I loved their use of contemporary rhythms over traditional tunes. So I did a lot of that. I’ve not heard yet if Phil likes it or not. It’s very, very different.

That driving rhythm is very prominent in what you do. You’ve talked about your flute playing, but the importance of DADGAD (guitar tuning) is clearly a thing for you, isn’t it? 

Yeah, it is.

Mr DADGAD!

Haha! Yeah, well for a long time I felt a bit inferior not playing in standard tuning. But as I got older I gave less and less of a damn, and eventually I made the decision to stop teaching guitar in standard. I started actually teaching my approach to DADGAD, and if they people wanted to learn it, great, and if they didn’t they could… go to someone else [laughs]. It has actually worked out for kids, though. I’ve got different versions of all the chords I play, so I’ve got a one-finger version, and little kids love that because they don’t have to do a scratch. They don’t have to remember anything. And then, as they get older, they can add more fingers.

So, back to the album… 

Yeah, there are a few Scottish tunes, and then there’s that Scandinavian influence. We have a couple of tunes written by friends of ours from Norway, and their tunes got picked up when they visited the Shetland Folk Festival. So they’ve become part of the Shetland repertoire, but they’re written by Scandinavians. They play a lot of Norwegian and Swedish music up there.

Well, I was going to ask about that. Does the proximity to Scandinavia result in a natural crossover happening anyway?

Yeah. I was in a session up there last Wednesday. I was sat in the Lounge Bar, playing with Morris Henderson. A massive part of the repertoire was from Scandinavia – probably as many Scandinavian as there were Shetland tunes.

And then your own stuff on the album – presumably those with titles like ‘Sunburn, Man-Flu and The Shits’ belong to you!

Yeah, all the ones with terrible titles are mine.

Do you want to tell me about ‘Sunburn, Man-Flu and The Shits’, Tom? 

You’ll get that onstage later. The story, I mean. I’m not wishing actual sunburn, man-flu and the shits on you! Although, being at a folk festival, you may get at least one of those things [laughs].

I wrote ‘Something for the Weekend’ as well. I’ve always loved a good pun. And there’s one traditional-style tune on there – ‘The Devon Flute Player’s Salute to Shetland’ – that is mine, and that was written for Ross’s family and all the people up in Shetland. The hospitality is always great and it has become a kind of home from home when I go up there. I’ve actually had a lot more support up there than I have in Devon, to be honest. I’ve always been treated like an honorary local. That culminated in being invited to teach at their Fiddle Frenzy, which is very much about people going to learn Shetland-style music. I was terrified doing that, but hopefully it was OK.

There are also a couple of slow things on it: a waltz I wrote for my grandad, called ’92nd Year’. I figured that by the age of 92 you’re allowed a tune, and he’s turning 97 this year so I’m going to write him another. It was a nice melancholy waltz last time, so I think a polka this time!

The album appears simple from the title down, but clearly it isn’t from a musicianship point of view. Also, I imagine, the recording of it – the sequencing of it… It must be quite a challenge to put together an album that is just fiddle and guitar. 

It was surprisingly complicated, yes. Julien Batten (producer) is an absolute genius, and I don’t use the term lightly. He had an incredible amount of microphones on both instruments. Nine on the guitar, and probably about the same on the fiddle, so that he could try and coax different things out of them. Pete Ord, as well, our agent – he runs the label that we’re on – he co-produced it, too. Having that much control and that clear a signal on all the instruments, it gave them the chance to really boost the more powerful sets and thin it a bit for the slower stuff. So it’s not just us sat in front of two microphones in a studio. It is all live. It’s very much played then and there.

Well, I can’t imagine you could do much overdubbing given the intricacies of what you do. 

Our philosophy is that we don’t really believe in overdubbing, at least for the first record. I say ‘first record’, but because we were gigging for eight years beforehand, it’s actually really a Greatest Hits. There’s tonnes of other music that we play that just wasn’t right for that record. We’ve probably got another two albums’ worth. I play the flute a lot on the other stuff too, but I just didn’t want it for this album.

We listened to a lot of music, and no offence to anyone because there’s some amazing albums out at the moment, but we felt that other things had just a little too much polish and they couldn’t replicate it live a lot of the time. We kept hearing albums that had like 15 guests on them, and then you’d only see two people playing onstage. You couldn’t help being a little underwhelmed by it. We always had a good response to what we did live, so it made sense not to add to that.

It’s interesting you say that. When I did a Stick In The Wheel interview seven or eight months ago, their whole thing was about trying to nail the sound there in the room without any bells and whistles. 

Exactly. And on that production point, it’s about using really nice microphones and not having to do too much to the sound.

You’ve been playing these songs for eight years, so presumably they’ve had time to bed down and you’ve been able to select the songs that you’ve had the best response from. Is that what you mean when you say it’s like a Greatest Hits? 

Yeah, although the songs with the best responses change. I’m finding recently that audiences are weirdly psychic with that. Sets that we’re getting a little bit tired of playing don’t get the response that they used to, while sets that we’ve not played for a while and then bring back, kind of with a fresh approach, the audiences go mental for. It’s really weird.

What are you expecting from the Wickham crowd today, then? 

I don’t know. It’s quite an early slot, but it’s a lovely tent. We’ll see. Could be a standy-uppy, dancey lot. Could be deckchairs. We’ll have to think up some deckchairs jokes.

Following their set at Wickham, which goes down a storm, I catch up with Ross Couper. He’s a man on a mission – a burger to deal with, an interview to do, friends to catch up with and then a second gig to play closing the festival with the Peat Bog Fairies. Time is short and well-wishers passing by are plenty, so we shake hands and get stuck in. 

Tell me about your approach to folk fiddle playing. To the layperson, it can seem quite technicolor! 

The thing is about the folk music that I play, or rather the way I play the fiddle in that folk music, is that you can play the same tunes, but it can be different every night, especially with Tom. Playing with the Peat Bog Fairies is a bit more regimented because there are so many people onstage, but when there’s only two of you like me and Tom, you only have to pay attention to one another. If there are six people onstage, you can’t just go off on a flight of fancy. There’s a structure. So I never really get bored of anything I play, if I’m in the right situation, because I can take it where I want.

What age did you start playing fiddle? 

I started getting lessons, I think, when I was seven. But my mum is a fiddle teacher, and she was my fiddle teacher. This is up in Shetland, so I had a fiddle from when I was two and I was just messing around with it in the house. An eighth-sized thing – just tiny. So when I started playing properly I had an understanding of how to hold on to it. I had a slight headstart in that regard.

I was talking to Sam Sweeney a little while ago… 

A lovely player.

Yep. He was saying that there’s a different approach in Scotland to that in England. Perhaps, here, traditional folk music can be seen as a bit twee, while in Scotland – as Tom said earlier – you might be seen as more of a ‘rockstar’. 

Aye. In Shetland, for instance, my mum teaches the fiddle in Anderson High School. When I was going there, there were 900 pupils and 70 of them were fiddle players, which is quite mental. All of them of a pretty high standard. When it’s taught that early and integrated into the school thing, the appreciation from young people becomes more obvious. They see their pals playing it. Actually, when I was first playing it, it was still seen as a bit uncool. I was at the very tail end of that. And then just after I left school [laughs] it seemed to become cool.

I think, then, people were impressed that you could play an instrument, but when they found out it was the fiddle it was like, “What the fuck are you doing that for?” Then one time I’d been away and I was coming back to Shetland, and my pal was like, “What’ve you been up to?” And I said I’d just got back from playing with a band in the States. He was like, “Really?!” And I said, “Yeah, that’s what happens when you play the fiddle, man!” Sometimes you use these little things to get people into it. When he could see that people on the other side of the world were getting into it, he obviously thought, “Oh, right – maybe there’s more to this…”

But at folk festivals like Wickham, where we’re chatting right now, you’ll find a lot of young people here. Same up in Scotland. In Shetland, where we have the Folk Festival which is widely regarded as one of the best and that all bands want to play at, it’s filled with people listening to traditional music, and it’s great.

Does it tend to be a younger audience at festivals in Scotland, while the folk clubs have an older crowd? 

Festivals are definitely younger, but it really just depends where you go. I do a lot of gigs with the Peat Bogs which aren’t festivals – just our own tours – and you go an play in Camden, London, and 90% of them are in their twenties. Then you’ll go and play somewhere more rural and you’ll have only a handful of young people. Sometimes people get confused by our poster. They’ll see the bagpipes and they’ll think they’re going to watch another folk band. OK, it is a ‘folk band’, but it’s really fucking loud [laughs] with lots of electronics. It’s quite banging, you know? People can be a little thrown if they haven’t seen the Peat Bogs before. That can be funny. And to be honest, it’s those people that usually go away having really enjoyed it.

With Tom, though, you’re all stripped down. No electronics. 

That’s what we’ve ended up being.

Was that the intention, or have you just ended up that way organically? 

What we’re into is seeing how much noise and soundscape we can create with just a fiddle and guitar. Tom used to use more effects pedals but he’s not really doing that so much anymore. I used effects with the Peat Bogs, but with me and Tom I try and avoid it. I like to see what you can get out of the fiddle naturally, and to try and discover new ways of doing it.

Tell me a bit about what you’re doing. Take ‘Cathcart’, for example… 

It’s originally a pipe tune written by Phil Cunningham. The way we play it is quite far removed from the way it was written. It’s the same notes, but it’s down the octave for the most part, and it’s faster. It’d be a stricter tempo with the pipe band, for the most part. We change things.

We start off the gigs with ‘The Road To Loch Bairneas’, which is also a pipe tune, originally in B-minor. Because I’m doing it on the fiddle, I moved it down to F-sharp minor because it gives it a bit more depth, and the fiddle that I play has a beautiful bottom end. You get a really wholesome, round sound down there. So these are the kind of changes I’d apply to a tune – just thinking about what’s more deep, powerful, and with a bit more guts to it.

What you’re playing may be set in the tradition, but it sounds like you’re going off into jazz in places…

There’s a lot of improvisation involved in it, and my interest in that was ignited really by going along to an improv workshop with a guy called Alex Eloise, who’s a great jazz violinist. There’s also a great fiddle player called Gordon Gunn – an amazing Scottish fiddle player with a very recognisable style – all over the fiddle, moving away from the tune and then coming back again. So, yeah, the way I think about a tune is like a jazz standard where you state the tune, everybody gets a solo, then you come back to the tune at the end. I wouldn’t say I’d move too far away from the tune the first time through it, but maybe the second or third time through it I’d meander away. It just keeps it interesting for me, as well. I can go off and see what happens. It’s almost a meditative thing.

That’s interesting. Martin Simpson said a very similar thing a few weeks back: “it’s kind of like an out-of-body experience, playing like that, because you cannot possibly, at any point, think about either the guitar part or the words.” 

Yeah! I exactly agree with him. I don’t know about that so much in a recorded sense – I’m certainly more of a stress head in the studio than I am onstage. I don’t mind being onstage, just going away somewhere in my mind. In the studio, though… pressure, money, time… these things do not lead to a comfortable experience.

But you’re pleased with the album? 

Oh yeah! Christ, man! Over the moon with it! Sorry, I was speaking more generally. Me and Tom’s album was one of the more relaxed times I’ve been in the studio, for sure. We just took in a couple of chunks of time. We went in for three days, and then another three days, and just recorded it.

Tom was saying you have about two more albums’ worth of stuff… 

Probably, in the ether of all the stuff we’ve ever played together. All it would take is a little tweak. Some of it’s already ready to go. Maybe a bit more arranging, a little nailing down, and then we could do it tomorrow. Yeah. It took us 10 years to record this one, though [laughs]. Whenever I say that, I hasten to add that we didn’t start recording 10 years ago [laughs]. We started recording it last year, but it took us 10 years to get around to the bloody thing.

It’s a great album. 

Well, thank you. People seem to enjoy the rustic simplicity of it.

Yeah, although Tom says it’s deceptively simple… 

Ha! It’s not simple to play!

It doesn’t sound it. 

There’s real complexity in the music. People are so used, nowadays, to overdubs and stuff. We wanted to make it fiddle and guitar, straight up – this is what you’d be getting onstage and this is what you’re getting now. There’s no overdubs, no anything. It’s just straight up, and I’m glad we did it that way.

For more on Ross Couper and Tom Oakes, head to www.tossandtom.com. Click on this link for more on Ross Couper and the Peat Bog Fairies, and head here for more on Tom Oakes

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