Around 10 years ago, when I was an annoying, opinionated, scruffy-headed mid-teen (some may say little has changed) I used to go into a music shop in Wallasey most weekends. I played on the guitars incessantly, demanding that the shop assistant get each and every instrument down from the walls for me to pluck away at in my own endearingly awful, ham-fisted fashion. On one occasion, I was perplexed when the shop assistant informed me that I couldn’t play on them anymore, as I was pretty unlikely to ever buy one.
After about ten minutes of chatting with THE SAND BAND’s David McDonnell (Guitar and Vocals) and Jay Sharrock (Drums), it turns out that David was the very shop assistant who told me to sling my demanding hook. “I’m so sorry man,” he offers, with a genuine regret in his voice. “The guy who ran the shop was a nightmare. He told the staff not to let kids play the instruments. He used to rip off old ladies taking their pianos for nothing and then he’d stick a £1000 price on them in the shop. He was a real bastard.”
Gladly, David’s time in music retail was short lived. A hasty exit from said shop followed an attempted wage bribe by the boss with a knackered second hand organ. I say gladly, as David was free to concentrate on his own music, which would ultimately culminate in The Sand Band.
The group started as a musical collaboration between David and Scott Marmion (Pedal Steel). Their first offerings were heard by Simon Tong – former Verve, Blur and Gorillaz guitarist – who released Spinning Wheel on the first Butterfly Records compilation, What The Folk? in 2007. I picked up a copy of the compilation back then and Spinning Wheel was a standout highlight, with its aching, Drake-ian fragility.
This was followed by The Secret Chord EP – released on US label HappyParts Recordings in September 2008 – a warmly received, Elliot Smith-inspired collection of five tender, heartfelt home recordings, featured a cover of Just Like Anything, a song by American folk singer Jackson C Frank.
For anybody unfamiliar with Frank, his story is tragically fascinating. At the age of 11 he was scarred for life and hospitalised for seven months after an explosion at school which killed 15 of his classmates. When he was 21, he received an insurance payout and left for England, where he was active on the mid-60s folk circuit – though he was plagued by depression his whole life. He penned the classic, Blues Run The Game – a song later made famous by Simon and Garfunkel, which perfectly captures his experience of the time, as well as his deep-rooted melancholy. Frank’s story is one of loneliness, heartache and loss, all theme’s strongly apparent on The Secret Chord.
David: “When I first gave a cassette to Scott, he said it sounded like Jackson C Frank. I’d never heard of him at the time. I just got into him so much, I could relate to him musically from the subject matter of his material. He seemed to be coming at his music in a similar way to myself. The man is unbelievable.”
The featuring of Frank’s Just Like Anything on The Secret Chord is also symbolic of the band’s musical outlook – an outlook based on art, collaboration, community and a sense of respect for musical lineage akin to the Greenwich Village beat poets and folk singers of the 1960s. “Chuck – head of HappyParts Recordings – agreed to pay $350 to the estate of Jackson C Frank so we could use Just Like Anything on the EP,” explains David. “It meant we couldn’t press it up physically – there wasn’t enough money – and we’ve not made a penny from the release, but it was so important to us. The guy has been a huge, huge influence.” In the current world of cut-and-paste culture, where pinching a musical gem from the past is seen as a triumph, this outlook is starkly unique and refreshing. The inclusion of Just Like Anything on the EP, and this story behind it, only deepens the allure and appeal of the record.
The Sand Band release their first full length LP this spring, entitled All Through The Night. The record sees a change in direction of how the band function both musically and collaboratively. “The original, frail sound was one somewhat born out of necessity,” says David. “On The Secret Chord we had no bass or drums, but we did have something.” And it seems this collective strength is powerful indeed; having finished All Through The Night just last autumn, the band went straight into rehearsals for their next album, When We Kiss, which will follow later in 2010.
Jay: “As a band its important to document where you’re at at various stages. You always seem to focus on the now and the new, the songs which you’ve written this week. With Dave writing five new tunes a day sometimes, it can be quite tempting to just focus continually on new material.”
Where as When We Kiss sees the birth of The Sand Band as ‘a band’, the fluid informal, collective nature of imminent release All Through The Night showcases the group in a way which would be impossible to catch again.
“The early recordings are a great artefact, the footprints in the sand as to where we’re at now,” David tells me. “Out of respect to yourself, it’s good to put them down and release them when you can. We were mixing two records virtually simultaneously, so it’s been really important for us to release All Through The Night now.”
All Through The Night was recorded at the band’s home studio and produced entirely by the group. However, for the sessions on When We Kiss, they decamped to the legendary Sawmills in Cornwall – the studio where Definitely Maybe, Fools Gold and Storm In Heaven were all recorded. However, one thing didn’t change; the band were at the desk.
“It’s really important to us that we produce our own work. We have a very specific mental image of how we want the record to sound. When you’re an 18-year-old kid you don’t have the money to go out and get a producer, but you can do it yourself with an-8 track. Its really important to us that kids know they can do it themselves. That’s when the magic happens.”
This was the first time The Sand Band wrote as a full band and put down the tracks live in three or four takes. “We wrote and learned all the songs as a band before we went down to Sawmills, which was a very different experience to early Sand Band recordings,” David explains of the process. “We were pretty militant about it, doing 12-hour days non stop for two months in Elevator [rehearsal rooms on Jamaica Street]. When we went down to Sawmills we knew exactly what we wanted to do and how we wanted to make the record.”
Though the band are thrilled with the results of the Sawmills recordings, they turned out very differently to how they were originally intended. David: “We were originally going to go to Sawmills to rerecord All Through The Night, but we ended up doing two months at Elevator and writing When We Kiss. It was really exciting, but very scary at the same time. We spent 12 grand of our own money recording the album, which was shit scary. Luckily Deltasonic liked it and are putting it out, but if they didn’t, we’d have released it ourselves.”
This attitude is illustrative of The Sand Band’s whole outlook. For a band who’s music is so elegant, poised and delicate, they have a staunchly fierce streak when it comes to the power of independent art and music. Throughout our interview, David and Jay enthuse about independent fashion boutiques in Quiggins, organic cafés on Lark Lane and the strength and support of the local music community.
“Liverpool has a buried network of support and people are very positive and excited about the record which is very reassuring,” says David, glowing. “There is a great community of people out there in music, art, film, fashion and photography who have something to say and will help people out.”
This isn’t a front and a veiled attempt to fly the fashionable independent flag: they genuinely value and believe in the essentialness of people going it alone and forging their own culture, which is why working with a newly independent Deltasonic Records was so attractive.
“We were approached by Bella Union and Parlophone, but Alan Wills at Deltasonic was straight on it,” says David. “He just wanted to release the record straight away as soon as he’d heard it. Deltasonic is a true independent now, since the split from Sony. It’s not under the same pressures as it was and they’re free to release whatever they want. It’s not awash with money, but they’re giving their bands complete freedom to do whatever they want, from the artwork, direction of the records, production, everything. It’s a Liverpool label, for Liverpool artists and there is a trust between the label and the bands; it goes both ways.” And the second bloom of Deltasonic also comes at a time when Liverpool’s music scene is as healthy as ever and as musically diverse as it’s been for years.
“This year is the start of an exciting new time. Along with the re-emergence of Deltasonic, the scene is as broad genrewise as it’s ever been,” points out David. “With bands like The Sixteen Tonnes, The Red Suns, The Loud, The Seal Cub Clubbing Club, Wave Pictures and Clinic doing their new LP, it’s very diverse. When you think of great city scenes such as San Francisco and Portland, they have such a mix of different styles within the scene. In the past Liverpool has been packaged up with one specific sound, but I do think it’s as diverse now as it’s ever been.”
One thing is for certain, that with The Sand Band leading the way, our scene is in very safe hands. Still, a quick strum wouldn’t have hurt?