Everything and the Kitchen sink – Interview with The Sitting Tenants
New to 2021 is the return of South West UK band The Sitting Tenants with an atmospheric album called ‘a kitchen sink drama.’ This is somewhat of a departure from the screaming RnB and power pop of their former albums and…well, it works. It has charm, it has an understated magic about it. Rob Dady, lead vocalist and owner of renowned label 208 records, has always produced sharp lyrics with well observed vignettes on English life – that has not changed; but here he and Geoff Alwright – who’s own song writing is a welcome addition, are pushing the boundaries a little more. This is storytelling in line with Donovan and Ray Davies, with quirky observations and emotional commentary on life.
Do not be fooled by the claims of simplicity in production – there has clearly been a lot of care in getting the sound right for this work. Recorded on tape on a relatively simple set up yes – but that is a complex process in itself to ensure music values are maintained. In a time when software will allow endless amounts of tracks to be recorded, careful choice and vision is needed in returning to 4-track recording.
Personal favourites and highlights for me were ‘Lincoln Green’; a storming song of great melody, epic blues harp and fantastic walking bass line – sure to be a wonderful experience when played live. ‘Austerity Street’ – a kinks-esque pub singalong complete with twinkling piano. ‘Market Street’ with its lovely lyrics and beautifully understated vocal and melody reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s down to earth but brilliant band Slim Chance. Experimental and charming ‘Falling Backwards’ is a whimsical collection of ideas haunted by emotive and sensitively delivered blues harp and soft, almost mournful piano.
I caught up with Rob and Geoff over the internet to ask about the album:
Where did the idea for the album come from? It has a different sometimes folksy feel
“The Sitting Tenants stopped gigging in 2018. We had to rely on our garage rock original material and R&B favourites – even then the few people coming out for gigs were asking us to play 'Bon Jovi' - I would then state this is a song for all you Bon Jovi fans out there, it's by Bo Diddley! I'd had enough of it – the creativity that was the mainstay of the 1980s indie andMod scenes I had initially been involved in had given way to standardised pubs, with standard covers bands, so I called it a day. Having said all this, I have been involved in the folk club scene for around 15 years and had released a couple of semi acoustic albums which sold well, but we could never do those style songs at Tenants gigs; the audience would simply not listen.”
You’ve stepped back a bit and share the writing more on this album?
“The band were all keen on writing; Geoff had a natural flare and Ian the drummer used to natter a lot about the characters he knew from the pub rock scene and we would all yarn about social injustice at rehearsals. It seemed natural to make something creative about our discussions. Geoff would come up with a song virtually ready and Ian would send lyrics which would have directed Geoff's lyrics and the feel of the song. I was really interested in arranging these songs and it was an opportunity to take some time to orchestrate some of the arrangements.”
How did you get the feel on the album?
“Having always been interested in the simplicity of albums by Bert Jansch to Ronnie Lane & Donovan, I knew a semi-acoustic simplicity would be enhanced by basic orchestrations in arrangements, so when Ian and Geoff had the idea for 'A Back Street Pub', I knew we could do something special. By playing (or trying to) real instruments in this arrangement it was more fulfilling than using modern technology which would have spoiled me and Geoff's fun! The aim was for a rustic feel of a Pentangle album circa 1970, by being as organic as possible and using real instruments (piano, harmonica, snare drum with brushes, acoustic bass, jazz guitar etc) which only enhanced the experience. Geoff and I wanted to make something timeless, which would appeal to those enthusiasts; acid-folk I think they call it!”
When and where was the album recorded?
“During the lockdown we had time to really work on the album; we set to work in my shed we had converted into a studio. I resurrected some old songs (originally intended for my old Mod band Roundabout), which were on a cassette portastudio which were just me, an acoustic guitar, harmonica and double bass which I has borrowed. Those songs were a lyrical prototype to the more recent songs, I wanted to reference all my favourites from the Steptoe and Son theme to Lionel Bart to Bob Dylan, and that acoustic stuff on Led Zep 3. I knew Geoff had a very similar mindset musically andlyrically – it made the whole thing fall into place. We knew we would need very little technology, if we needed to bounce tracks around to fit in the overdubs, we would do our best andI think that is why the album has such a warm retro feel. We wanted to have some very simple acoustic pieces, hence 'The Tinman' to go with more uptempo stuff such as 'Lincoln Green' but wanted them all to tie in lyrically.”
Geoff looks affectionately at the time they spent recording the album in a home setup.
“This is our hobby more than anything, the 'shed' is somewhere to play guitars, record, have fun and have a few beers and a laugh, and I don't think either of us would like playing golf. Saturday mornings usually more productive than evenings, when the third beer inevitably affects the fingers and voice. Rob encouraged me to write and be creative with music, my songs were really only intended for my ears and close friends and family, but it's a great having a permanent reminder of a particular time in your life, and something you've created.”
I put it to Rob that it has the feel of a concept album.
“Geoff, Ian and myself are all proud men of the left, but wanted to tell stories instead of sloganeering – hence the slightly conceptual feel. The tales are mainly of working-classpeople and how their lives are much harder and so much less optimistic nowadays – we did aim for humour on tracks such as 'Austerity Street' but on 'Falling Backwards' we wanted to recall visiting your old home town and feeling downbeat seeing it so charmless and rundown after only a dozen or so years since last visiting. The last track is about 12 minutes long with an extended instrumental coda where we wanted to capture the instrumental work on Nick Drake's Bryter Later. By making it a semi-acoustic album it gives us a new lease of life, as it will be able to be performed in the street. By busking, we hope to take the music back to its basics in the street. As venues were in decline & have now closed we hope to be able to entertain and inspire people with original material reflective of the lives of those that listen to it.”
Geoff reflects on previous albums and gigging
“Being part of the band playing live was something I thought I'd never do, and we were playing pub rock inspired RnB, as well as songs from Rob's back catalogue as songwriter from his Mod inspired band Roundabout. However, they were always much more eclectic and versatile than that. You can hear jazz influences and much else if you listen to their recordings, they were a brilliant band. The Tenants were a good live band playing certain material, but perhaps not adaptable enough to do justice to some of Rob's work beyond the 'garage band' genre.”
There is a real sense of joy in the album with the interlocking vignettes of music that pull the whole thing together and the choice of instruments to give each song a voice.
“We just tried to have fun with this, we weren't looking for technical perfection, just the feel of a live performance with predominantly acoustic instruments. We didn't use more than 8 tracks (usually less) on any song, but we also wanted to be a bit more ambitious with the arrangements than we could be with the 'garage' style band recordings. Some of the songs evolved from our 'ramblings' during rehearsals with Ian, our drummer, chewing the fat about the memories we had about high streets, pubs, shops and characters from our childhoods. We hope the record has a kind of 'flow' to it, with the incidental linking tracks. The themes that are important to us right now are close personal relationships, social injustice and the importance of escaping briefly from all that is happening right now which none of us can control. For me, it is just a nice permanent record of the time we spent 'escaping' and enjoying ourselves for a while during a terrible year when friendship and 'losing yourself' in the moment has never been more important. As Rob has said, it was fun to put stuff in that we could never have done recording a garage band record or playing live, the Mrs Mills pub style piano playing on Austerity St. for example. I personally love 'stripped down' recordings.”
A kitchen sink drama and the Sitting tenants back catalogue can be ordered here:
By Robby Allen - The Kite Collectors
Copyright © Mods Of Your Generation, Robby Allen 2020, All Rights Reserved. No part of this review may be reproduced without the permission of the authors.