Interview with London contemporary trad group Superbelle

Over the months of March and April we have reviewed two albums that truly represent the opposite ends of the traditional spectrum.  We have just reviewed the debut album from Superbelle, a London group that have pushed the boundaries of the tradition down an electronic and contemporary route, and in March we reviewed Chapter Eight by the most quintessential of groups, The Kilfenora Céilí band. 

These two groups are polar opposites, and each in their own way make a strong statement about the music that inspires them.  It is great to see John Lynch and his merry band of brothers touring the world and representing his native Clare as well as Ireland and the Céilí band tradition. Contrast this with a group of young and most probably unknown London musicians who have decided to experiment with some contemporary trad and release an album." Tradition, we are told by American folklorist Henry Glassie, has the wonderful capacity of simultaneously connecting people with the past and the present while building the future.  And, while some see tradition as something that is static, it is an actual process that not only survives, but thrives on innovation and variation, while at the same time, firmly retaining its roots with the past" This is a quote from the sleeve notes of Chapter Eight by the Kilfenora Céilí Band.

In the Irish tradition the pushing of boundaries can sometimes be frowned upon by the purists.  Experimentation should be celebrated and its existence can happily sit at the edges of the tradition just as it does in other genres from blues to pop, rock or classical for that matter. There is a fire that burns within artists to see what can be achieved or revealed within the music. It is a journey rather than a destination and the artists that pursue such endeavours may end up in some rather interesting places.  

This leads us back to Superbelle and their new release because it is interesting to sometimes look at new groups in the context of the music that has inspired them.  They have decided as part of their stage persona to remain unknown which in itself is an interesting approach. We spoke to one of the members who explained that

"We are all involved in various types of music, with Irish Traditional music being a genre that we are all drawn to.  As individuals we play jazz on the flute and other various improvised music. One of us plays a bit of classical and some Latin Folk on the fiddle. Then we have members that play the box, and many box-related things, mainly Irish but a bit of Canadian on the melodeon, some Breton tunes as well, some other trad tunes from here and there. We all mess with machines at home, and listen to a lot of electro in addition. We played together for years in various bands, sitting in for other musicians or having our own thing, just like any other musician in fact."

"I asked myself once why we couldn't play trad melodies with an electro backing.  Machines and keyboards are so fantastic when it comes to creating an atmosphere.  In fact they are perfect for that, and the trad idiom is really strongly descriptive, so I thought both should go well together.  This led us on to thinking about using machines as one would use a bouzouki or a guitar.  Trying to use them in a way that would make you forget that they are newcomers into the tradition. To emphasize this I felt we needed fresh new tunes, complete compositions, composed as close as I could to the tradition that so inspires us."

"This developed into the writing of some new tunes, and then trying to find an electronic background that matched their mood.  Riffs and chords had to be found while playing the melody, just like if one was attending a session at the local pub with an iPad or a midi controller. Maybe we'll see that sort of instrument some day in the future. We may view it as we now view guitars and bouzoukis, or as we saw accordions some decades ago. So we thought why not give it a try?"

And so the experimentation began. "Once the chords and the riffs where there, we tried to add what we thought was required to help people understand the tunes, or at least help give a version of the tunes that represented our vision.  We then felt we needed riffs because they are not really used in trad music.  Everybody knows at least 10 riffs from great rock bands, most of them from the 60s and the 70s. Think of Smoke on the Water, Hell's Bells, Satisfaction, Superstition, Mr Tambourine Man, Hey Joe, Johnny B Good, Sweet Home Alabama, Roadhouse Blues, Sultans of Swing.  I thought why not give the usual music a little help with riffs from rock, voicing from jazz, drones and sound effects from electro, second voices from classical? And of course it felt obvious that we should use the machines for that, as the trad instruments are great precisely when played in unison.

This developed into the writing of some new tunes, and then trying to find an electronic background that matched their mood

It is a different approach, but we had to give it a try. No harm could be done as the tunes are ours. We enjoyed playing all these things at the same time, it works perfectly well on stage, once you forget the usual etiquette. The machines, as any backing, serve the melodies very well. And it is our opinion that the music is still trad, contemporary trad probably, but still suitable for dancing sets, still played in unison, still playable with other reels or jigs in a set.  We still view ourselves as a trad band, with today's influences, playing trad with modern elements. We couldn't play, say, a reel-like melody on a Balkanic rhythm, or a jig in 7 time with a progressive rock drummer. We wouldn't do that.  We like to see what we do as 'contemporary trad', and consider ourselves as 'contemporary trad' musicians when playing together.

That's why the CD is built that way : we start with standard trad-like tunes, and the composition evolves, becomes more modern towards the last third of the album. The waltz 'Four Six Twelve' is musette inspired, and unfinished, there is only one part to it. It is not a musette waltz, it is a tune inspired by the musette style. The third part in musette waltzes is called the Trio, and it is there, played only one time around, to change the atmosphere and has an unburdening role, because the two first minor parts are usually so dark! We didn't need that, as we had a break in the set, as in the other sets. We didn't need a second part either, because the first had evolved into a second voice.  You don't usually do that in trad music, that is contemporary trad.

"The Incredible True Story of Siobhan Murphy' is a reel. There is no break in the set, but the rhythm changes every time around, and the introduction is made of sound effects and a little melody, it lasts as long as the tune itself.  That is not a traditional way of treating a reel, but we can afford to do it on this project.  We have established new rules for ourselves and a new approach to trad music for that project. Everything we ever wanted to try is allowed, any element from any other music form is welcome as long as it respects the melody and, most important, the style."

The resultant music it must be said retains the strong traditional elements within it and that is no doubt why it works.  As with a lot of contemporary trad it is difficult to describe.  Listening to the attached audio should give a strong sense of what it is about."  

Superbelle are at the furthest most end of the trad spectrum and have maintained a likeable quality to what they do.  It is not so far out as to lose the traditional heartbeat that drives the jigs and reels that we hold so dear and is worth a listen. We did an album review which you can find here and in addition you can find them on Facebook and Soundcloud.

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