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The Eighteenth Day of May

Article written by Ged M - Feb 15, 2005

The Eighteenth Day of May are a six-piece psychedelic-folk-rock band based in London. From the original acoustic trio of Alison Bryce (vocals, dulcimer, flute), Richard Olson (acoustic guitar, sitar, harmonica), and Ben Phillipson (guitar, mandolin), they’ve evolved to become a six-piece with Mark Nicholas (bass), Karl Sabino (drums, autoharp) and Alison Cotton (viola). They have some indie history behind them, Ben also being in Kicker, Alison C having been in Saloon and January, Richard in the Sleeping Flies and Mark and Karl both part of Of Arrowe Hill.

Their influences include folk and folk-rock, psychedelia and Americana. They’re currently recording their debut album with Andy Dragizis of Blue States. We met all bar Karl in East London after one Saturday mixing session in late January 2005.

SXP: How did you go from an acoustic three-piece to the current electric six-piece band?

Ben: Richard’s got an eight-track at home so we were coming up with ideas for songs. There came a point when we were putting more and more things down and it needed other stuff.

Richard: All of us have been in electric bands so you start missing an electric guitar and an electric bass. It was a pretty natural step.

Mark: It wasn’t difficult was it? When I first joined it was round at Richard’s house and we were playing acoustic guitars, then Carl came along and we thought “let’s go to a rehearsal studio” because it was too many people for your flat. At the time I thought it might change things but we went in and we got on just as well in the first electric rehearsal as we did in your flat. And that was probably the point that I thought we were onto something.

Ben: The idea was always there. If you go and see people when they’re playing acoustics, especially solo artists in the wrong venue, people just don’t listen. You’ve got to hit them over the head to a certain extent, I suppose, just to play over the chatter.

SXP: Alison, are you a full-time member of the band now?

Alison C: I think so! I just had a few songs worked out at first. I’m just gradually working out parts really.

Ben: It’s sounding mighty fine. It certainly brings something else to it.

SXP: Did you sound different as a three-piece?

Richard: I think the bulk of our album was done as that [a trio] but it was a lot better when we had a bass guitar on it, when we had drums on it and when we had viola on it. And when Ben plugged in his electric guitar.

Ben: The fluke of Mark wanting to play bass - he plays drums most of the time - and Carl being a guitarist now playing drums seems like a really interesting angle. It seems to fit the music a lot more than having a conventional meaty rhythm section that just wants to kick butt!

SXP: How do you define the sound that you make?

Richard: A folk-rock group. Nothing more, nothing less. At the same time that’s not a frame.

SXP: So how do you avoid sounding retro?

Richard: The way we’ve always recorded and the way the songs have come together, we’ve never really paid too much attention to being authentic. I don’t want to say it sounds completely ‘now’, because it doesn’t, but it doesn’t sound like it was made or trying to be made in 1968. And we’re all from fairly different backgrounds, we’ve all been in indie groups, and that rubs off obviously.

Ben: A lot of the old folk rock seems to reach a point where it stops becoming interesting, some point in the mid-70s. Everyone becomes really competent and they just lose it. So many things have happened in rock music since the early 70s that we’re all into. They didn’t have My Bloody Valentine in 1969, for example. I’ve been in groups before where I’ve felt more self-conscious about the retrogressive angle of the whole thing. This is the first time I’ve not really worried about that.

Richard: Last night there was something on TV – The Culture Show – and they interviewed Eliza Carthy and she’s so sweet. But why do they have to film it in a pub drinking Guinness?

Ben: It seems to be a stereotype of what this kind of music is. Being realistic about it, that’s not how most people live any more – well, I suppose some people hang around, drinking Guinness in a pub.

SXP: So how does that fit with singing about the slaughter of Scottish youth at Flodden Field [‘Flowers of the Forest’] or a song like ‘Lady Margaret’ –they’re versions of really old traditional songs.

Alison B: They’re really good, timeless songs, and it’s about time somebody did a fresh take on them. I had two versions of ‘Sweet William and Lady Margaret’ that I really liked but the first one that I heard was off the first Trees album. They did it to more of a ‘Matty Groves’ tune and it was real old-school 60s acid-folk. I don’t think I really got the idea for ours until I heard June Ritchie’s version. The tune is the same but the original song was about 11 verses long. The first time we played it, it took about 15 minutes! I scaled the lyrics down a little bit, changed a few things but tried to keep the bulk of the story in there.

Richard: And from Alison’s neck of the woods [Georgia and New Orleans], it’s all still true anyway! You’ve got love and murder – it’s always going to happen, even if it’s on TV. It never goes out of style. We just do it in a way that we like.

Ben: There’s that element in folk music that’s a bit hokey, that’s a bit drinking scrumpy and stuff. There are also topics that never seem to date. It’s a really satisfying thing to work on those and think that this song’s been around for so long it’s almost like it’s being given to you on a plate. And the traditional things are quite dramatic stories. You’ve got so much more scope if you’re using a bunch of instruments, some electricity and some effects pedals and you’ve got six people all putting something into it rather than just some guy playing on a concertina.

Richard: They’re fantastic tunes and it’s never more than one or two chords, which is great for me! *laughter*

Alison B: I think it’s just nice to pull them out of the realm of the beardy pub guys and people who are over 50 – not to slag off people over 50!

SXP: With all that indie history, is this folk-rock band just one side of you?

Richard: I actually think that this is the best fucking group I’ve ever been in. It all came together with this one, I have to admit, in every way. It’s all I want from music: it’s four-to-the-floor, it’s psychedelic, it’s two chords and trippy lyrics!

Ben: It doesn’t seem like a normal group in the accepted sense of the word ‘group’. It’s more informal – not sure if that’s the right word – but things do happen organically. They don’t seem to be planned, they just seem to happen.

SXP: Your website is quite explicit about your English folk influences. What are your other influences?

Richard: The Byrds and all that kind of thing. I’m a huge fan of psychedelic rock; as long as it’s got a good little tune, I’m happy. I think Spacemen 3 are one of the best psychedelic groups ever, together with Tintern Abbey (*laughter*). ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ – fucking hell, it doesn’t get much better than that!

Mark: The thing about Spacemen 3, if you take away the delay and echo and things, it’s still two or three chords.

Richard: They’re a folk group, put it that way!

Ben: I think we went for the idea that we could have a bit of drone at the back of anything.

Richard: Yeah, because at the beginning I was playing a lot of sitar and detuned guitars. D is your best friend!

SXP: Do you mind that folk-rock isn’t considered cool? If you were a psychedelic band, NME could put you in a cool category but folk still has a connotation.

Ben: That’s even better in a way. We’ll kick against it for all its worth. If it’s cool with us then we’re all happy. I can understand why people don’t think it’s cool – it’s all the stereotyped preconceptions that people have about different categories of music. If you wanted to form a modern jazz quartet, you’d probably have the same stigma. I don’t necessarily see that there has to be a dividing line between one sort of music and another.

Richard: There have been good things going on but it’s all from America. They’re so self-conscious in this country. Mind you, there’s a lot of rubbish in folk-rock, you have to seek out [the good stuff]. But when it’s good, it’s so fucking good! There was a fantastic night [DJ-ing] a couple of weeks back at the Health and Happiness night [at the Social Bar, Little Portland Street]. Everyone was in the Christmas spirit and was really hammered. I played the Kentucky Colonels, the Hillmen, Fairport and a bit of May; I just decided to put on ‘Matty Groves’ and people went mad! It was the best sight I’ve ever seen. Such a bunch of city kids, or townies, just come out of the ad office or wherever they work and they’re going crazy to ‘Matty Groves’. Lovely sight!

SXP: There’s a folk revival of sorts with Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Currituck Co. among others.

Richard: And it has to take some American saying funny things and looking like Jesus to get people going, which is too fucking bad!

Ben: English people have a hard time with their heritage. Scottish and Irish people, it’s not a problem, they appreciate it. They’re still proud of it.

Richard: I think it’s a European thing. It’s the same in Sweden. Swedish folk is brilliant but people just laugh at it.

SXP: You’ve got something in common with James Yorkston and the Fence collective then.

Richard: I’ve just got bad experience from collectives, as wrong as that may sound! But they’re fantastic. I think Lone Pigeon, that ‘Waterfall’ track he did is just genius!

SXP: How did you get Andy from Blue States recording your album?

Richard: With my old group I played with a band called Birdie quite a lot in Sweden and America. When me and Alison came here, I hung out with John again and he was playing drums for Blue States. And Andy wanted to record other people.

SXP: Is there anything significant about the 18th Day of May?

Ben: My mum was gutted because it’s her birthday on 16 May and since I told her the name of the band she asks: why couldn’t you call it the Sixteenth Day of May?

Alison B: There’s a fascinating story behind the 18th Day of May but anyone who did a little bit of research could find it out for themselves. And they’d get a badge for the trouble, and a CD.

Ben: If you go and listen to every Shirley Collins record…

Alison B: Shirley Collins is a good hint!


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