Tuesday, 18 December 2012


Interview with the cast of Barbershopera, the Three Musketeers, and a review of the show at the Drum, Theatre Royal – 15/12/2012

From day one, the point of this blog was to celebrate my love of the eclecticism within music and maybe open a few minds and ears to something a bit different. Barbershopera are something very different but also something very, very good. Although they perform their shows within a theatre and go under the guise of musical theatre, the songwriting ability and the vocal talent possessed by the four folk behind Barbershopera would be impressive in any arena. Thanks to a bit of cheeky journalistic opportunism on my part, I managed to arrange a brief chat with the four vocally talented members of Barbershopera before one of their performances of the new show, the Three Muskateers, at the Drum, Theatre Royal, Plymouth.

The Barbershopera crew relaxing in the Theatre Royal bar
I sit down with all four members in the bar and their camaraderie is immediately obvious for all to see. Right to left (see photo) I am chatting with long serving members Lara Stubbs and Pete Sorel-Cameron as well as new additions Tim Sutton and Minal Patel. Now, these four have absolutely no connection with Plymouth but the Barbershopera crew are now on their third Drum Theatre Christmas residency and the first question I have to ask is, well, why? Why Plymouth? Why Christmas? Pete kicks us off, “The Theatre Royal is really supportive and is massive as far as theatres in the Southwest go. Cornwall has some really nice theatres but nothing on the scale of the Theatre Royal. The first time we played they just offered us the chance to do our Christmas show here and we really enjoyed ourselves so that’s why we keep coming back. It’s a nice way to build up to Christmas too. We’re staying in a new area this year out at Devil’s Point which is quite close to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall so we’re hoping to get some nice lunch tomorrow”. Lara is keen to jump on the Plymouth love-in too, “The Drum has a fantastic reputation with new writing and new plays so it’s great to be involved and to be invited back”. The traditional image for barbershop music is four chaps in straw boaters with red waist-coats and waxed moustaches and one of them has a voice like Brian Blessed. Therefore, you might expect a certain kind of audience but the average audience for a Barbershopera show literally covers that 8 to 80 spectrum that advertisers seem to love so just how have these guys managed to make their appeal so broad? Wearing a rakish new hat, Tim is keen to explain, “I think this is a show which has intelligent humour, hopefully quite contemporary humour and a lot of it is modelled on and influenced by contemporary comic style. So there are lots of different levels for lots of different people who might want to come along. Also, a lot of people appreciate the effort that’s gone in to the show musically”. Lara is perhaps the calm, decisive ‘Spice’ of the Barbershopera clan,”It’s actually really lovely to have such a wide spectrum of audience because it sort of, oh God this is going to sound really cheesy, it sort of brings everyone together”! “There are no fans we actively discourage”, quips Pete, clearly the livewire of the group both on and off stage. “Every show is different. This show, just to warn you, contains some French. So there are some people who really dig on the really niche GCSE French jokes while some people really like some of our more bawdy gags and some like the more subtle, political jokes. So depending on the age or the taste of the audience we can have a completely different show every night which, as a performer, is amazing.” Tim “For instance, last night we had 50 members of a Plymouth ladies barbershop choir who come because they love the style and the harmonies”.

You're for the Barber-chop-era.....sorry
Anyone going to Barbershopera show will realise after about 10 minutes that these guys never stop moving or singing for the entire show and with no microphones, no stage breaks and sparse props they really have to sell the story through their talent and a few wigs. The energy and commitment to performance that they put in requires an awful lot of stamina so surely they have a rigorous, Rocky-esque training regime, yes? No. “Punching meat is pretty much all we do”, deadpans Pete, smiling wryly from under his moustache. Minal Patel speaks up for the first time,”We don’t really do anything. There’s a term that we use called show fit and that’s what we have to be. We have two weeks of rehearsals which is nothing, especially for a show like this and especially for me as this is my first professional job since leaving drama school. I was used to having 4 or 5 weeks to rehearse for a part in a musical and then suddenly you have 2 weeks to prepare for a show where you’re doing the acting, the singing and all of the musical elements. So you just go past a level of being human and you work such long hours because you just have to do it right. There’s no way I can avoid the work or side step it because once you’re on the stage there’s no getting away from it, you have to perform”. Cheeky Pete butts in again, “The show keeps you fit as well. It’s basically an hour and a half of sweating with some funny stuff thrown in as well of course. It’s more exciting than just watching us sweat. I don’t know whether the dancers from the panto would say that we have a hard job though. We just watched the panto today and they work pretty hard but then they get time off stage which we don’t and their costumes are better than ours”.

Being funny night after night is often  said to be something that turns comedians in to bitter, morose recluses so I’m keen to know what keeps the show fresh for these guys after a 10 date tour followed by a long residency. “During rehearsals I always go through a stage of thinking that the material is hilarious and really worrying that I won’t make it through a show”, admits Lara, “but then it just becomes....not so much dead as just another line. Then, to bring it to life again, you have to get it in front of an audience so that you can almost remember where the jokes are. Every night people laugh in different places which also gives everything more freshness”. Tim,“There is one bit that really makes me laugh and in the first show that we did in the Midlands I was laughing too much and I couldn’t sing the line. So I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to laugh but to deliver the laughs and let the audience take care of the rest.”

Listen With Monger is a music blog so I had to get to the music question sooner or later. Although barbershop is the underpinning style of the shows, the quartet do work in a lot of different styles from R’n’B and Pop right through to Opera and Doowop. But away from the stage, what really gets their heads a’bobbing and their toes a’tapping? Pete suddenly turns serious (I’m scared), “Barbershop is quite a static genre really, there aren’t really many contours of emotion. It’s either quite cheerful or quite mournful all the way through. So me, Rob [Castell, writer and sometime performer] and Tom [Sadler, writer] were at Uni together and sang a lot of close harmonies, because we were really cool, and thought it would be really funny to write an opera in the barbershop style which has evolved in to this group. There isn’t a lot of pure barbershop in the show now but we had to play around with it to fit in with the humour”. That’s all very well, Pete, what about after the show? What do you kick back with after the after party? “We’re all going to be doing a bit of karaoke later actually”! Lara explains her background, “I’d always sung lots of Soul, Pop and Rock as well as songs from musicals but never any barbershop. Lots of close harmony stuff but nothing like this.” Pete’s moustache twitches again, “I’m an Indie kid. I like to sing the brand of Indie Folk that is terribly in right now. I am a big fan of playing my guitar and singing songs that people can’t dance to.” Tim, “I studied classical music at University and am a composer as well as an actor so a lot of the time I’m writing for choir or opera with a variety of arrangements.” “Musical theatre is my passion,” Minal humbly admits,” but there are so many styles within musical theatre that saying that isn’t as limiting as it perhaps used to be. That variety makes me want to sing.”

As the bar is filling up with children carrying the stuffed carcass of Basil Brush (it’s a panto thing I later find out, not some sort of fox hunting ritual), there is only time for one more question. So what of the future? Will we be seeing Barbershopera on our television any time soon? “It would be nice to do some TV. We are in talks and something is bubbling away but nothing is confirmed just yet,” teases Lara. “We are airing on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve at 2.15pm which is going to be great, really excited about that. We’re also going to try working on our online presence more because our Youtube music videos have gone down really well, they are great fun to make and it’s a really good way to reach loads and loads of people.” Does this mean a follow up to the Will and Kate video from last year (see above), possibly featuring a royal baby? “Possibly, you’ll have to watch this space....”!! That, people, is as close to an exclusive as we’ve had on this here blog!

Without further ado, the quartet make their way backstage to prepare for the show and, after a swift pint, I make my way in to the theatre to await the show, The Three Musketeers. As the lights go down, four figures in white, puffy shirts slide across the stage. They tell the story of the famous Christmas Pudding embargo placed on the French town of Pissypooville (there’s that bawdyness) and one young girl’s quest to infiltrate and eventually win over the infamous Three Musketeers. This is done through the medium of song, naturally, some evocative dancing and various moments of cross dressing.  The characters number an extremely camp Duke of Buckinghamshire (Sutton), the evil Cardinal Richtea (Stubbs), a strangely giddy M’Lady (Patel) and a golden plum obsessed King Louis XIII (Sorel-Cameron). All four cast members change character seamlessly and switch between languages, accents and wigs like they were born to the stage. The energy and fun coming from the stage is infectious whilst the humour is superbly timed and extremely well observed – the moment that the French consider replacing the Christmas pudding with their own, substandard delicacies at the ball is wonderfully ironic and beautifully performed. By the end of the show, the cast are indeed sweating (there’s that training paying off) but they are also beaming as are the audience. The climax of the show is a medley of reworked Christmas favourites, from carols to Aled Jones, and some audience participation that manages to get everyone involved without the usual, British reserve. These are a talented bunch and after seeing them live again I’m glad I didn’t get to ask the one question that I had to leave out because of the crowds in the bar; would you ever take your act on to Britain’s Got Talent? Britain has got talent but we don’t need a text vote to prove it, just get out there and find it for yourself.

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Check out Barbershopera’s the Barber of Shavingham as Radio 4’s play of the day on Christmas Eve at 2.15pm 

Sunday, 16 December 2012


Interview with Chris Muirhead and Tom Thrasher, the men behind Plymouth’s new independent record store, Last Shop Standing

Last Shop Standing as you come through the door
On a frosty Monday morning in December I find myself hanging around Bretonside bus station in Plymouth waiting for a man I’ve only ever talked to Facebook and I have to ask myself if I've really taken my life in the direction it should have gone. Before the thoughts get too depressing, however, a chirpy, bearded man approaches, shoulders hunched against the cold, and shakes my hand before leading me in to the latest bastion against soulless commercialism, against the lowest common denominator, against mass market drudgery – Last Shop Standing.

The store was conceived in the early part of 2012 by friends Chris Muirhead and Tom Thrasher and opened in all its glory at the start of December which, considering the unit used to be a store for greasy catering equipment, is an impressive effort on its own. Add to that the challenge of opening an independent record store in an age of digital downloads and X-factor induced musical apathy and, well, there is only one question to start with; why did you do it?! Muirhead answers, largely because Thrasher is either still in bed or on his way, “I was approached by my friend Tom. He was working in a job he hated, I’d just been made redundant and I was then working at a vinyl and CD processing place where I noticed a marked increase in bands and labels ordering their music on vinyl. When Tom first approached with the idea I did think it was madness and thought maybe a website would work but the more we looked in to it the more it became something that people wanted. People want a place to go and listen to music and do more than vaguely connect with people online but to actually sit down with other people and talk about music”. So from two mates having a great business idea (we've all been there, right?) to the wonderfully boutique record store I’m sitting in right now there must have been a few obstacles on the way, yes? Muirhead again, “This unit was absolutely disgusting. There was a lot of grease and getting it done up was a lot of hard work. The part that we thought would be a lot more fun was picking the selection of records for the shop and with sale or return being non-existent we had to be absolutely sure that whatever we bought would sell. So that was a lot of late nights in front of spreadsheets looking at thousands and thousands and thousands of releases saying ‘that one’ and then having to justify to it each other.”

Vinyl destination
At this point, Tom scurries through the door and is eager to join the discussion immediately while he makes himself a cuppa and I ask how business has been since opening up less than a month ago. “It’s not like we expected to be mobbed every day and we didn’t expect there to be nobody here but it’s certainly been encouraging. Now that we are actually open I’m more interested in turning people on to vinyl I think. We’ve had people come down who collect vinyl or are used to buying vinyl or have got back in to it recently but it’s the people who come down who are just intrigued by a new record shop that I’m interested in turning on to vinyl and the whole lifestyle that goes with it”. Now I’ve spent many an hour rummaging through record shops up and down the country and already these guys already seem like two of the most passionate and affable record shop owners I’ve ever come across but just what is it that makes them think this is still a necessary presence on the high street (or bus station in this case)? Thrasher jumps in, “Musical is a social thing I think. I mean, I’d get bored if I could never talk to anyone about what I was listening to and I was just sat at home on my own. We’ve seen that already with people coming in and discussing what they’re listening to and what they’re buying.” Muirhead takes it to a more sociological level, “Discussing something online is different because you’re hidden behind a screen and you have that 30 second delay while you think about what you’re going to say. When you’re actually sat down with someone and you’re listening to music there’s no protection and you learn so much more from each other’s reactions and reflections because you’re not sat at home listening to different music and discussing an album that hasn’t even come out yet.”

Passionate stuff for 10.30 on a Monday morning, eh? On a lighter note, there are bound to be confused customers or bored travellers waiting for the next bus out of Plymouth but have they had any particularly misinformed requests? A wry smile crosses Thrasher’s face, “We had a request for Rod Stewart and one guy came in asking for a Lady Gaga album. He wanted it on vinyl though, for his wife. He liked classical music but we don’t really know anything about that and we don’t have enough space to stock everything so we asked if he liked anything else and he came back with “Seattle music from the 90s”! It’s quite a jump but from that I found out that he hadn’t heard the Pixies so we sold him Doolittle. Whether he liked it or not, I don’t know.” To make a success of this shop, Chris and Tom will need to learn how to turn browsers in to buyers or sounds in to pounds so if I was to ask them to sell me something for £20 what would I get? The immediate, unflinching response from Muirhead is “That depends on what you like really”. Exactly the right answer. Thrasher picks up the thread, “There are certain records that people will pick up and I would be able to say “that’s one of my favourite records, I want a copy of that”, like the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Then again I want most of it”. “It’s very dependent on mood as well”, Muirhead expands, “you might want something quite uplifting or you might want something more melancholic. The thing with our collection is that it’s a load of classics from the last 20 or so years and then new releases. We’re really excited about new music so we would talk to you about what you like to try to find something that fits but we certainly wouldn’t try to palm something off on you”. Thrasher explains, though, that they do get some challenging customers, “A guy I kind of know came in on the first day and just said “sell me something” so I asked what he was in to but he refused to say so I suggest the Neutral Milk Hotel record because that’s my favourite record. You’d have to be made of stone not to like that record”.

Set the records straight
Passionate, knowledgeable, moral and thoroughly articulate to boot. Surely this is too good to be true. Is having music geeks running an independent record store not akin to alcoholics running a pub though? Doomed to failure, surely? “Maybe”, muses Muirhead, “Firstly you have to remember that it’s a business. That analogy works but the difference is an alcoholic running a pub would die, our passion won’t kill us”. Thrasher agrees, “You wouldn’t want someone who knows nothing about beer running a pub and that’s the same for us. I’ve heard of people going in to HMV to ask if they have any Tom Waits and they just get told that he doesn’t work there! It’s poor customer service but HMV are going to die soon anyway.”

For those of you that don’t know, Bretonside Bus Station also houses one of Plymouth’s finest venues, the White Rabbit, so surely the proximity means there will be some hook ups between the two independent ventures? Muirhead, an ex-White Rabbit employee, is enthusiastic again, “They put on a lot of gigs there which is great and Dan [James, White Rabbit Head Honcho] has been a huge help from giving us advice to giving us the bar stools that we’re sat on! And when they put on bands that want to get involved they can come in to the store to do a signing or an acoustic session as well. We’re going to be fairly strongly linked because we want this whole area to be more vibrant and less depressing really. There’s an old record store next door, Really Good Records, which is amazing for 2nd hand stuff and now there’s a live music venue and us. So if there was a cool vintage clothing store or art shop that would be amazing.” There are lofty ambitions afoot though as Thrasher explains, “We want to be able to say that Plymouth has the coolest bus station! It’s way better than Bristol.”

With vinyl surrounding us and a decent smattering of CDs available I wonder what the proprietors think of the recent resurgence of the cassette tape on the new music scene. Scepticism is rife, “I don’t know how popular it will get. There’s maybe a Hip-Hop element that may push it along but I think it will be around for a couple of years and then fizzle out”, reckons Muirhead. Thrasher, though, gets straight to the point, “It’s not like vinyl where the sound is just better. It’s almost just a way of selling your music or something to print a download code on to. It might as well be on Betamax, you could replace the tape with anything. Our friend was joking that he might bring out an ale and just print the download code on the glass so you get a song with a pint”. Uncharacteristically, Muirhead warms to the format, “We’re stocking one tape at the moment from local band Whoanows [reviewed on this very blog] and I’ve got a tape player in my van that I normally just plug my i-Phone in to but I gave it a go and it does have some redeeming features. The quality isn’t good but it is distinctive. I mean the Clash works amazingly well but Public Image Ltd sounded awful. It’s almost as though you should have to listen to the Clash on tape! A bit like watching old horror movies on VHS I guess”.

So what for the future, where can Last Shop Standing go? Muirhead gets animated, “There’s still a lot to do with the store and we’re aware that you can’t just get away with being a record store anymore. We’re going to be branching out in to selling limited edition screen prints, concert posters, magazines, books and indie cinema DVDs. Not a huge amount but the sort of stuff that we would recommend. We’re also hooking up with One C Records (Plymouth based vinyl and tape label) and the Il Pleut T-shirt and screen printing company to try to incorporate different things and innovate. There will also be in-store performances from local and national acts and poetry nights. Other than that it’s just promoting the shop and buying lots and lots of records”! At this point I can hide my jealousy no longer and only my damned lack of cojones prevents me from ringing my day job boss and quitting so that I can run off with these likely lads to join the musical circus. Thrasher sounds a word of warning though, “When you start stocking a shop you realise that you know absolutely nothing. We’ve gone through stock lists for labels and never heard of any of the artists. I mean, we just got a compilation album in called Sexual Lives of the Savages (Soul Jazz Records) which is Brazilian post-punk and it’s brilliant but I do not know one band on this compilation”.

Last Shop Standing is what it says on the tin. It’s the last place you can go to get any kind of real interest in your musical tastes and advice based on more than what the last tune you listened to on Spotify was. There is only one thing that I don’t like about this shop and that is the fact that I’m not running it. Ah well, maybe there’s room for a spin-off store in Cornwall. Penultimate Shop Standing, anyone?

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Thursday, 13 December 2012


Whoanows - Foma

Woahnows – Foma (self release – tape/download only)

OK so maybe I’m a little late to the party with this one (the EP was released back in September) but after hearing the track ‘Go’ on the split single with the PJP band I thought the Woahnows warranted a little further investigation. ‘Go’ is back as the opening track on this five track tape only release (you get a download code with the tape though, don’t worry techno-heads) but if you want to know what I think of that then you’d best read my review of the aforementioned split single, hadn’t you!? Bleeding straight out of ‘Go’ is the furious and unrelenting ‘Collective Asperation’ (sic) which hits you in the face which jerky guitars, distorted vocals and a gang mentality that jars beautifully with the message behind the lyrics. ‘Packets of People’ is so unhinged that you fully expect the wheels to come off at any minute but, thoughtfully, a few moments of calm have been dropped in by the Plymouth trio. Title track ‘Foma’, however, is my peach in this particular fruit salad though with shades of Idlewild, early Biffy, Dananananaykroyd and any number of hardworking American hardcore pop-punk bands. “If this is the life, I’d rather be dead, living to work, living despair”, now there’s a lyric. We’ve all had that feeling haven’t we? It’s a Monday morning after an amazing weekend doing just what you love and thought just drifts in to your head between the bleating of your alarm clock. Those are also the opening lines to EP closer ‘Poor Greedy Poor’ which holds itself up as an anthem for the day jobbers, the day dreamers and those always one day away from packing it all in. All in all, this is a vital set of songs but, as with so much of the stuff I get sent, I don’t think it does the band justice but only the live experience will truly tell so I’m going to keep my eyes out for live shows. See you there?

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Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Hollow Giants - Dreams/Fears

Hollow Giants – Dreams/Fears

Two men, one garage, an iPhone and an eight track to record a song on. That’s all you need to make rock’n’roll and even then the iPhone is a luxury! The beauty and simplicity of this song is the imposing urgency coupled with gratifying immediacy created by two guys doing something the utterly believe in. The hypnotic drums keep coming with such relentlessness that you can almost see the concentration on the sticksman’s face as he maintains that ferocious horse galloping rhythm. From somewhere deep inside that rhythmic drumming comes a swirling, fuzzed up guitar line that is dripping in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club but also reminds me of Achtung Baby era U2 and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Finally come the vocals, all frustrated restraint and gritted teeth that suggest the garage they recorded this in was mighty cold. Plainly speaking, this is rough around the edges and there are things that could be better but the heart and soul is there for anyone to see. A little like finding a dirty, mangy cat mewling at the bottom of your garden – not much to look at by something in those dark brown eyes tells you to take it in, clean it up and the rewards will be plentiful. There’s your quote – Hollow Giants are like a mangy cat that you should adopt.

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Sunday, 9 December 2012


Bunch of idiots

The Idiot Bastard Band @ Carnglaze Caverns/Rum Store – 07/12/12 

On paper this evening consisted of sitting in a cave at a balmy 10 degrees Celsius watching four upper-middle aged gents playing some covers and some songs of their own. In reality that was exactly what was presented but the slight tweak was that the four gents in question were Ade Edmonson, Phil Jupitus, Rowland Rivron and Neil Innes – four giants of comedy. As they take to the stage following an introduction from a white dinner-jacketed cave owner (weird, I know), the quartet hit the ground running in terms of comedy, musicianship, banter and charm....of sorts.  From their own songs, like Edmonson’s beautifully observed version of the overheard mobile conversation  that we’ve all heard ‘Man On A Train’, to covers, Arctic Monkeys ‘Don’t Sit Down Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair’ was a highlight for me, everything was done with fun, good humour and surprisingly excellent musicianship throughout.

Tonight was a celebration of comedy music and the comic song with absolutely no pretension, no ego and very little taste in clothing. Versions of the Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Carol Brown’ and John Hegley’s ‘I Need You’ and Ian Dury’s ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ sung by a beautifully expressive Rivron on drums. There is an element of performance and timing to the show that tells you that these guys care about the comic song but there is just enough improvisation and corpsing mid-song that to keep the set fresh and, most importantly, keep it fun for the band. However, It’s on the wondrous ‘Infusion’, originally by Nervous Norvous, that these particular Bastards come in to their element. Edmonson and Innes take a musical lead while Rivron provides hilarious and often confusing sound effects for each car crash featured in the song. The cherry is added by Jupitus, though, regularly halting proceedings to question the homo-erotic nature of the lyrics (“shoot the juice to me Bruce”, “pop the fluid in me Louis” and “put a gallon in me Alan” being the choicest of these lines). It’s this combination of musicianship, improvisation and utterly genius comedy timing that makes this such a fun show.

The climax of this show is twofold and leaves the audience with a warm glow – necessary when you’ve spent the evening sat in a cave during a damp December in Cornwall. Firstly, “I Am A Coldplay Song” is the band’s attempt at an anthemic ballad which the band will be remembered by but it’s also a wonderfully straight-on assessment of the shameless design on structure of the crowd pleasing, tear jerking, BBC montage beds that are spewed out by the indie-soft-rockers. This was accompanied by Jupitus orchestrating a mobile phone light show (“Just the Nokia’s”) which, amazingly, lit up the caves like some sort of low budge Jean-Michel Jarre laser display. After well deserved and prolongued applause the band returned to their instruments to perform the Innes penned Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band hit “I’m The Urban Spaceman” to rapturous applause and a full audience sing-a-long.

The moral of this story, then, is that the next time four old(er) men invite you to follow them in to a cave on a dark night then you might want to think about following them. You never know, you could have a riotously fun evening of music and comedy. Alternatively, you could have a horrible, life-changing, mentally scarring experience but at least you’ll be able to enjoy the Geology!

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