Interview : The Goat Roper Rodeo Band : Cosmic Country Blues
"Like the Everlys fronted by Gram Parsons" (Fatea) / "Amazing" (Bob Harris)
The Goat Roper Rodeo Band have been making music and friends for the last five years, touring tirelessly - playing in gardens, folk clubs, venues and festivals, including Focus Wales and Bestival. I only came across them a few weeks ago - browsing a local venue's event list and then following a link - soon watching the video to Don't Believe You, which stopped me in my tracks, it is such an arresting song and performance. They play their country influenced acoustic music (from heartwrung ballads to bone rattling stompers) with the fire and fervour of a rock band.
Curiosity sparked by what I heard and seen, I tracked them down to talk to them about how their love of country blues evolved, and their imminent new album. They are a trio just in their mid 20s - two guitars and double bass, all three sing - and they live in Rhuddlan, not where you might expect from listening - a slight dislocation which serves to compound the impact of their music.
I met them - Sam Roberts, Tom (the double bass player and main songwriter) and Jim Davies, the latter two clearly by resemblance brothers - on the hottest day of the year in a pub garden on Abergele's High Street, and started at the beginning; asking how they started out. Jim spoke first:
"I did my first gig in a club in Rhyl with Tom when I was thirteen - that was definitely electric music", Tom interjected smiling - "We were called The Four Sticks, it's simple where the name came from - we thought we were Led Zeppelin then."
The brothers have known third member Sam since the first day of school, living minutes from him - Jim continued the story,
"Tom and I were always in bands, and so was Sam, with a group of friends of ours - it was a great time, but we reached a point where everyone around us started leaving for university, including Sam, who had gone to study music technology at Cardiff. Then the band Tom and I had going lost its drummer when he moved to Canada."
On cue Sam took up the narrative,
"They came down to Cardiff at about the time their drummer left - looking to start something up and maybe move there - although the full extent of the plan including the financial details hadn't quite been ironed out (they all collapse laughing at this - I think that there is some possible understatement here). As it became obvious this plan maybe wasn't going to work I was also struggling a bit - I didn't really like the course and where I was staying, so I came home and things developed from there."
Sam at that point played bass, and he learnt rhythm guitar from scratch to join the brothers, forming what is now The Goat Roper Rodeo Band.
"When he came back, Sam & I, we spent a year just busking - long hours - working on close harmonies and singing a lot of Everly Brothers' and Beatles' songs. Some classic country stuff too - we played an awful lot of songs. We became louder as we went, we didn't have an amplifier - we got to know the manager of WH Smiths in Chester pretty well as our favourite spot was just outside his shop, a place with really good acoustics, but it was also just under the window of his office - he wasn't really a fan! We did other things - the Folk Train to Plumley, parties and then started playing folk clubs - especially the two in Rhyl, then Conwy and Chester (the Raven Folk Club). We are really grateful for the chances those clubs gave us."
Sam then talked about how their first album, Hail the Remedy (2012), came about -
"We met Chris Lee through the Raven Folk club - as well as running that club and being a great musician, he works at BBC Maida Vale and has a home studio in Chester - and he offered to record what became 'Hail the Remedy'. We did the ten songs in nine hours, just playing them live - we then met a friend of his, Mike, and his 101 Records ended up releasing it. We started touring, then doing folk festivals." Tom adds "We've had a lot of luck with festivals - we have played Cambridge Folk Festival, that was fantastic, and Bestival, that was a great event to play at."
They also have a connection to The Magic Numbers, and have toured and worked with them repeatedly - this came about through chance, as Jim explained:
"One of our friends in Prestatyn - his uncle was seeing a woman who worked for The Magic Numbers - and they had a competition on Facebook to support them. She had seen us play at our friend's grandad's birthday party - where we had played a load of fifties songs, Fats Domino and the like - and she put us forward without telling us, and then we got picked .... we had to get to the Isle of Wight pretty quickly and unexpectedly to do it."
"When we met them it went really well, and we got on immediately. They are great - they help lots of people and bands if they believe in them - it's amazing - we've never met anyone else really like them."
There's an obvious question in this career path, which is how did they end up playing this style of music? Again chance played its part, as Tom animatedly explained:
"Even when we were electric we were always bluesey, my dad was always playing Robert Johnson - the blues has always been an influence - and in the brief period when we were a duo after the drummer left we played a lot of different acoustic stuff - at one party we did cover the song Brass Buttons by Gram Parsons, and this old guy came up from the back of the room and asked us if we really liked country music - we said yes, although I am not sure we knew too much then - and he asked for our address, we gave it to him and thought nothing of it, but the next day this box of music turned up full of things we'd never heard of - Gillian Welch, Waylon Jennings - I can remember now being sat on the bed with all these CDs ...."
"Tom fell massively in love with the Waylon Jennings album Honky Tonk Heroes, it was all he listened to for a year. I can still remember excitedly dragging him into the room when I first listened to a Gillian Welch song - it's just two people and there's ten things going on - they sing so closely together and everything is so perfect with the phrasing - it is so minimal yet so right."
For both of them this is obviously a real pivotal memory, and you cannot fail to notice the real reverie they all have for music, and other musicians.
You also cannot help but notice how hard they work - especially playing live all over the UK. Sam talked about this,
"We started looking outwards early on, playing in Chester, the folk clubs, Alexanders, then the Leaf in Liverpool - we made a conscious effort to go out and not get caught playing the same local gigs."
All this experience, and the connections they have, are now coming together as they prepare to release their second album. We talked about it as the interview came to an end, Sam led the discussion:
"The new album is still mainly country and blues" Jim added, "It's all from the same roots as we have followed before - though the new song 'Tombstone' has some psychedelic influence there." then continued, "The album ('Cosmic Country Blue') is coming out on a new label Aveline - an Americana focused venture."
"Our link to it is through a venue in Camden, The Green Note Cafe - we played our first gig in London there, the owner Immie had seen us at the Maverick and has championed us for few years now - she is involved in setting up the new label with some very experienced industry partners, and it was natural to work with them. They have given us complete creative freedom."
Cosmic Country Blue has been recorded and produced over a period of a year by Romeo Stoddart (The Magic Numbers) at the studio in Hackney he shares ownership of with The Feeling. As on their earlier recording Sam takes lead vocals on the more soulful tracks, the brothers working with those where the rhythms and country feel are to the fore - it is an engrossing and uplifting collection of songs, and it comes out on October 7th. They are touring through September and October to promote it - which led me to ask one final question about their live performances; despite being a very different musical proposition they remind me of the on-stage energy of The Wonderstuff in their swirling 90's pomp:
"When we started out busking we did used to stand stock still...."
Jim immediately laughed and said:
"It'd be fair to say we get lost in the music on stage - I'm more nervous if I stand still now - I just get into it - but if we don't lose our inhibitions on stage then how can we expect the audiences to?"
"The double bass - on stage she is my dance partner. If I am not into it enough to shake my ass a bit on stage I've let the audience down (laughing)."
Then Jim, suddenly serious to emphasise his point, said:
"If you're not lost in it, no-one else is going to be lost in it."
Which just about sums up what they put into what they do.
They have enormous on stage vitality - and it's definitely not choreographed; they are as authentic and engaging on stage as they are on record, as they are in life - after half an hour talking to them and a while longer listening to their new album (review soon) you can see how their 'luck' has come about. They seem poised for, and deserve, a much higher profile; there seems something certain and inevitable about their trajectory.
The Goat Roper Rodeo Band play vivid, compelling and soulful cosmic country blues; and when they let rip on songs such as Don't Believe You, they are just dazzling.
Cosmic Country Blue is released on October 7th, and The Goat Roper Rodeo Band play the Blue Sky Cafe, Bangor, on September 15th, and Alexanders, Chester on October 14th as part of the nationwide tour to promote it.
THE GOAT ROPER RODEO BAND I Don't Believe in You
Filmed June 2016 at Beverley Folk Festival - not the best quality recording, but it can't be watched without being mesmerised by the music and performance.
THE GOAT ROPER RODEO BAND I The Rhythm Of Love