We’ve been fans of Boat To Row for some time. Amongst others they’ve supported Tom Williams and the Boat, Dog is Dead, and The Vaccines in the Midlands, and they have countless festival appearances under their belt. We met up with them ahead of another busy summer of gigs to chat about songwriting, their local knowledge, the background to their ‘Grassmarket’ EP and what we can expect from their debut album.
Principal lyricist Mike King told us that his starting point for songs can be found in a variety of places, “Inspiration can come from anything and usually takes me by surprise. I’m always thinking and drafting ideas of what I’m seeing, or what I’ve heard, so I find those eureka moments hard to come by”. Certainly the life of a songwriter is not an easy one, as Mike suggests, “I have to be patient when I write. I’ve found that I obsess over things, whether it’s a melody or a place or something I’ve seen, most of the time I’ll completely kill it. But if it survives, then I know it’s something I can work with, or show the guys.”
The last release from the band, the ‘Grassmarket’ EP is full of engaging narratives. We asked Mike about the business of being a lyrical story-teller, “I guess that’s exactly what they are, 5 stories, each to their own in subject but essentially, stories. I’ve always been drawn to storytellers; I like how you can transform something or disguise it, and allow people to access what you’re trying to talk about – or to hide it even – amongst tales, characters and places”. For Mike that sense of engaging with narrative in a song isn’t just about writing, it’s an inherent part of listening: “When I listen to a song I’m involved, and come away with something I didn’t have before – whether that is an idea or feeling.”
One of the stand-out songs on the collection that has captured the critics’ attention is ‘Working Class’; we asked Mike about its reception. “I guess people have presumed is about one thing, purely on its title, which is interesting as of course it plays homage to my upbringing, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s one-way traffic. It was written in response to a lot of things that had changed around me at that time, I guess I look at it as acknowledging your past and respecting it and then facing your future, knowing your ready to make the next move.”
The song’s content may be particular to Mike but its process marked a special moment for the band: “It was the first real time we wrote songs as a ‘band’, and although we’ve always thought of ourselves as band, the writing process of this EP involved everybody, we all wrote our own parts and jammed out ideas in the practice rooms.”
As a Birmingham-based band we asked them about their home city. Guitarist/keyboardist Billy Moss suggested an inherent Brummie modesty in terms of the music scene,”I think here in Birmingham we go in for self-deprecation but we have a lot to shout about.” He pointed out the city’s strong points: “We have some brilliant small venues like the Hare and Hounds and The Rainbow and promoters who are willing to put on interesting gigs and club nights and most importantly support local acts.” So, what are the local bands that Boat To Row rate? Billy mentioned Calories, Tom Peel, Jodi-Ann Bickley and Goodnight Lenin.
But it’s not just bands that Boat To Row appreciate about Birmingham, French Horn player Emma Geddes waxed lyrical about the city itself: “there are loads of great things about being in Birmingham. Moseley and Kings Heath have some great shops, cafes, bars and restaurants with a more independent feel. There’s also some lovely parks to relax in – great when it’s sunny. I also think the accent is probably the best in the world.”
As well as being a hard-working band, each of them juggle full-time jobs or studying; bassist/banjo player Ben Gilchrist explained how dedicated the band need to be. “It can be really hard at times. We all work or study full time so it can be a slog when we have a few shows in a row getting in at 2 or 3 in the morning to get up at 6.30 to do a full day at work. And there’s the rushing and worry about getting there in time as well. We’ve all had a few tellings off at work but luckily we have really supportive workmates who help us out most of the time.” Nevertheless, the hard work pays off, as Ben points out, “It’s worth it in the end. Realistically our options are to do this and make it work, or we don’t get to do the band at all. So it’s worth the days of exhaustion to get to do what we love.”
We’re excited for the next release so we asked Mike what it will be. “It’s a double A-side single that you’ll be able to download on the 5th of July courtesy of istartedthefire records: ‘Old Scenes’ and ‘Freedom’.” Mike gave us a sense of what to expect from this next release, “We are starting to know where things sit within the band with each song that we write together. Everybody has a massive role to play and these songs really show how vital each little snare roll, or banjo part is to our sound now. The songs certainly feel a little more to the point and share a lot more energy.”
With this talk of new songs we’re excited by the prospect of a Boat To Row album; Ben told us that there might be one next year. “There will be one eventually but we want to be ready for it. We want to write an album that’s a cohesive piece, that feels more than the last 10 songs we finished, if that makes sense? When we feel like we’ve written something that represents where we are musically at the time to the best we can, when we get the time and money to record it somewhere special, and we feel that people will want to hear it, that’s when there’ll be a Boat To Row album.”
When it’s ready we’ll be first in the queue to hear it. In the meantime you can see Boat To Row at a variety of festivals this summer including Off The Cuff, The Big Session, Larmer Tree, 2000 Trees, Y-Not and Farmer Phil’s.
About Amanda Penlington
I’m passionate about music, especially live music. Favourite bands include Smith Westerns, The Vaccines, Yuck, The Drums, Young Buffalo, Everything Everything, Wild Beasts, Local Natives, Surfer Blood, Girls, and White Rabbits.