The word 'collective' oftentimes is an empty shell, used by musicians who think the word ‘band’ isn’t interesting enough. But in the case of Broadside Hacks, the word is particularly warranted. In the form of a band, label and concert night, young musicians from London’s indie scene are guided by their interest in traditional folk music. “You are constantly looking for something that no one else has discovered yet.”
Written by: Dirk Baart
It's a summery Saturday evening in Rotterdam, about half past ten. Yet it feels as if the city’s Arminius Church is situated in rainy London. The normally peaceful location of the Motel Mozaique festival seems to have turned into a pub where the bartender has just announced the last call. In front of the stage, people take each other's arms while dancing, making frantic attempts at the river dance. The instigator of the whole thing is not a hip DJ or electronic live act, but Broadside Hacks, a collective that has been reviving ancient folk music from the British Isles for a year or two.
The group is following in the footsteps of the show that caused its creation, band member Campbell Baum explains via video connection. In 2019, in Dublin, he sees how Irish folk singer Junior Brother manages to create the atmosphere of a noisy punk show with only an acoustic guitar and a foot tambourine. When he returns home, Baum, who is also part of post-punk band Sorry, starts organizing folk shows himself. “I had been organizing concerts in London for a while. I'm not from here, so it was my way of meeting people. At first I mainly booked bands like Sorry, Shame and Goat Girl, but I thought it would be interesting to focus more on folk.”
This is how Broadside Hacks sees the light of day as a concert evening. At least that's the idea. Baum invites Junior Brother, Wizz Jones and Jacqui McShee of famed folk band Pentangle, but the concert has to be canceled due to the corona pandemic. Instead of giving up, Baum swiftly turns Broadside Hacks into a label, and asks involved musicians to contribute to Songs Without Authors Vol. 1, a compilation of folk songs whose author is unknown. During several lockdowns, the musicians make their own interpretations of songs that have in some cases been passed down by word of mouth for centuries. Katy J Pearson conjures up a version of 'Willie of Winsbury' that would have fit neatly on her own album. Naima Bock (Goat Girl) delivers an enchanting interpretation of 'The Game of Cards' and Yorkston/Thorne/Khan indulge in 'A'Bhean Iadach (The Jealous Woman)'. Lankum’s Daragh Lynch plays on the dark 'The Burning of Auchindoun' and Junior Brother makes an appearance with a compelling version of 'The Lambs on the Green Hills'. “The latter two are mainly concerned with folk in their own music. Most of the musicians who participated are familiar with that, but it's not necessarily what they usually do. On the compilation, we wondered: what if these songs didn't have the style they've been performed in for years? What would they sound like if they were arranged and performed by people who are not folk musicians? The starting point is not necessarily to turn something old into something modern, but to see what happens if you perform this material without the knowledge or background that normally comes with it. If you do it more instinctively.”
Yet after Songs Without Authors, a 'return' to the stage soon beckons. After all, traditional folk is ideally suited to live settings, meant to be sung together. To change while being performed, instead of being fixed in solid form on a compilation. “When the measures were relaxed, we weren't all that busy yet,” Baum says. “We started a Folk Club in the Print Village in Peckham, where a few of us have their studios. We didn't think then that Broadside Hacks would become the band in the form it has now, it really came out of that. We just got together every Friday to have a drink and play songs. It was all very casual, sometimes people came for a few weeks and sometimes they didn't. But new people also joined each time. Someone would come up with another song and the rest would have learned it the following week so we could play it together.”
Broadside Hacks has now completed its first tours, including a Dutch debut at Motel Mozaique and a show at Brighton’s showcase festival The Great Escape. However, that does not mean that the group's performances have taken their definitive shape. Anyone who visits a Broadside Hacks performance will most likely stumble upon a unique line-up. The group consists of strings, pianists, players of woodwind instruments and more, although the emphasis is always on polyphonic vocals. “We have a solid core, but every now and then people like Katy J Pearson and Sophie Harris from Modern Woman join in. Just because they find it interesting. This set-up ensures that no one takes central stage. Usually we sit in a sort of circle. Someone gets up to do their thing and then it's someone else's turn. That has been a very nice change for us compared to other projects.”
Meanwhile, the group continues to search tirelessly for new nuggets, from melancholic ballads to the bouncy Irish dance music that was so well-received in Rotterdam. “Thanks to Aga Ujma, who is also on the compilation and occasionally plays harp in the band, we sometimes end up with Polish folk music. We play a lot of Irish music, and also have a member who sings Russian folk songs. I know a lot of material from The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs myself. It contains a lot of songs, with references to recordings. Next week, we will play at a festival in Oxfordshire, for which we will make a number of arrangements of songs by (the English folk singer, ed.) Shirley Collins. In 1959, she made a trip with Alan Lomax, who made many recordings of folk music in the twentieth century. His archives contain a full account of that journey, with photos and interviews with the people who sing the songs. Sometimes the search becomes almost an obsession. You never know in advance what you will find, but there is so much and folk is so versatile. You are constantly looking for something that no one else has discovered yet.”