Tej Adeleye met up with the folk five piece’s lead singer to discuss the backlash against the genre, the band’s new direction and what ‘alt folk’ actually means.
The current backlash against folk isn’t great for street cred if you are discovered tapping your feet to a track that betrays even the slightest whiff of winding country lanes, trickling brooks or forests playing host to all manner of human drama – from romance, to midnight hootenannies or good old fashioned existential probing by way of foliage filled metaphors.
Despite the nautical antiquity denoted by their name, The Mariner’s Children, who are currently on tour with Bear’s Den, have garnered critical acclaim for their rousing, rushing brand of alt folk. If it’s not thudding, momentous percussion then it’s fluid, steady chords providing the backdrop to the poetic lyricism and storytelling present in their tracks. Part of a wave of acts unafraid to play with the genre, lead singer Ben Rubenstein told the Music Factory that his music is not “regarded as folk music by many people who consider themselves to be folk traditionalists, and we’re not that traditional, we’ve just got some elements of it”.
Currently working on new material, they’re pushing the boat out further into rockier “spacey, psychedelic” territory – evolution is important for a band that’s currently downsized from a seven to a five piece. Packed full of talented musicians the band’s members have played, or are currently playing, with the likes of Peggy Sue, Laura Marling and Sons of Noel and Adrian.
The Mariner’s Children are often compared to Arcade Fire, a strong influence on the band (“you probably shouldn’t say exactly who you are trying to rip off”, he jokes) and rather than just being a folk band, they are instead categorised under the more progressive ‘alt-folk’ label. Categories and boxes can be irksome, and limiting in music, but Ben’s happy with the term in relation to the band’s sound: “I like the term ‘alt-folk’, but no one else seems to, I suppose it’s folk influenced rock music really, it’s quite dark and romantic, but that’s if I’m being really earnest and sincere…I should probably have given a more facetious answer”.
People want music that will speak directly to today- its seems essential when there is a Tory government in power and less so when there is a slightly liberal government in power.
Now whilst most blame the roaring Mumford zeitgeist as being the catalyst for the vitriol directed at folk, Ben puts forward an interesting argument that suggests it’s deeper than a dislike of bearded people in waistcoats, and more a question of politics:
“I think that when a Tory government is in power, then generally, the liberal music press wants punk music, or music that has some kind of socially critical edge, even though I don’t really think there is anything that is directly politically critical at the moment… Most folk is criticised at the moment for being what Tories listen to, I don’t know if that’s true or not, it’s a pretty simplistic equation, but people are way more into it when there is a labour government in power. Really sounds like a ridiculous conspiracy theory, and I’m sure there are lots of holes in it, but I think there is an element of truth in.”
It’s an interesting point – music, like culture and life is always changing, and evolving, which is perhaps goes someway to explaining why folk is getting such a hard time. Intrinsically it sounds old, feels nostalgic, and in doing so, represents an idyllic Britain that most people will find alien or exclusionary or pretty much the territory of the toff. Basically, singing about yesterday, in yesterday’s style fails to excite an audience wanting something a little more revolutionary: “People want music that will speak directly to today- its seems essential when there is a Tory government in power and less so when there is a slightly liberal government in power”.
Whilst he says he feels uncomfortable positioning himself as a defender of folk, Ben praises the lyrical nature of the genre; “there is more emphasis on language, and I don’t think there is anything wrong in using acoustic instruments, and even banjos are a wicked instrument, even though its associated with the devil at the moment.” He later concludes, “It’s mainly a taste thing”.
Other than Arcade Fire, Ben’s influences include Bruce Springsteen, who he apparently tried to emulate at the age of five. He has a plausible explanation for this here: “It was the first gig that I went to and someone from my dad’s old band was his guitarist at the time, so that was pretty exciting, having that creative link, but also he is awesome. If you want to introduce a kid to rock and roll, he’s such a good starting point – massive choruses and it’s very simple”.
When he began playing seriously again as a student in Brighton Pentangle and Bert Jansch also became key influences for their “rivery” finger picking style, which ties in well to his love for the sea – another influence on his music. Living in London where he grew up after having studied in Brighton, he said “when you’ve lived by the sea for years, it’s really hard not to live by it”.
Asked about what he thinks makes good song writing, “Lots of things, being honest, don’t write stuff that you don’t think is true, and I don’t mean that in that it didn’t happen, I just mean it’s got to ring true somehow: it’s the sentiments that make sense. There is so much, and it’s all so contradictory… Lots of people will say that you have to stick to a certain structure and that is true to a certain extent for a certain type of song, but at the same time, you shouldn’t be bound by structure, you should be free to just make whatever work. I could go on!”
Most important is listening to other music. Originality, he argues, comes from “knowing all the greats and learning from them, keeping them in mind and trying to do something different, I’m not a particularly original songwriter, but that does ring true”.
So who is Ben listening to? Daugh Gibson, who has “got this amazing really deep baritone cowboy sort of voice, lots of electronic music and is clearly influenced by bass music, but with fusions of this western cowboy element and its fucking cool”. Arcade Fire, of course, and in a seeming reversion to cheesy music, Paul McCartney. But again, he offers another plausible explanation: “It’s very unprofessional to say, but I’d made up my mind that I didn’t like Paul McCartney for a long time, but then I discovered RAM, and that is incredible. I mean his song writing in the Beatles is obvious really great, but I never thought it was as interesting as John Lennon’s stuff, past a certain point. But RAM is just brilliant and made me feel fascinated by song writing again, which sounds strange…One of my favourite people is Danny R from Grizzly Bear and he always said that Paul McCartney was a big influence on him, and I couldn’t ever hear it, and thought it was bollocks, but on RAM you can hear how he had directly influenced them”.
In between the condensed rise to ascent that we see on the likes of XFactor and The Voice, accentuated by meticulously planned social media platforms presenting snap happy musicians living it up on Twitter and Instagram, what is often left out is the practicality of being a musician. So it’s refreshing to hear one speak candidly about taking up a second job and not being able to eat decent food in order to pursue his career or sleeping on friends floors to “make the tour pay”. This tenacity lends itself to his whole journey to date – asked if he always had a clear idea of where the band wanted to go, Ben answered “No, it took a long time, it’s like what everyone says, with most creative things, you have to try and try and try until you find your own voice, and that was the case. I think I wrote about fifty songs before I decided that I liked writing songs this way”.
Find out more about the band’s upcoming shows and music by checking out their website.