Learning The Hard Way

With a fine debut album behind them and several requests to perform at various major weekenders next year, The Doel Brothers hard work is beginning to pay off.

Confined to working the pub circuit for the rest of their lives was never an option for Hampshire’s The Doel Brothers as their brand of rockin hillbilly, with more than a dash of western swing, was built for more prestigious venues. In fact, the shackles of said circuit were well and truly broken some time ago as the three brothers of David, Gordon and Tom Doel had finally earned their musical stripes granting them freedom to apply their trade elsewhere.

Armed with a full deck of original material after having trawled up and down the country playing gigs that certainly provided the required grounding, El Toro Records offered a welcoming home for The Doel Brothers own compositions which, with the added recruitment of Gary Boller on double bass, led to the band’s first full long player ‘Oh, Brother…It’s The Doel Brothers!’.

Oh, Brother...It's The Doel Brothers!

With the Wild West being traded for the South East of Alton Hampshire as the suggested location, Famous Last Words (FLW) was genuinely interested to learn of the brothers early years before discussing recent activities that has seen their profile rise considerably.

“Our father is a 50s rock ‘n’ roll fan and he used to take us to see a lot of live bands when we were quite young,” says lead vocalist Gordon Doel. “I knew immediately that I wanted to play the guitar. David [Doel] got a bass and we started playing together, then Tommy [Doel] decided to buy a drum kit and it sort of formed naturally over a process rehearsing in the living room of our house and annoying our mother! Our first gig was our brother-in-law’s 30th birthday party and he let us play for about half an hour, but we were quite bad!”

From honest confessions of poor performances, to the position The Doel Brothers now find themselves has been something of a major transformation. This change in fortunes, however, did not happen overnight as the brothers reveal.

“No, we started off with covers but it was mainly Tom and David who were thinking up [song ideas] and eventually we got writing,” explains Gordon concerning The Doel Brothers early songwriting days. “Once we got a few gigs and went to see other bands perform as well, we realised that we had to start writing our own songs. Also, it came out of necessity because we were so young and we weren’t really very good at playing our own instruments. I was not a great guitar player, so I struggled to learn music off a record, but I knew how I was going to get around it by writing our own songs and then it becomes your own sound. A lot of the time we were playing in pubs where they wanted us to perform for three hours, so eventually you’re going to run out of songs. As a result of this, we ended up making songs up as we went along! However, by the end of the gig, if it went well then we would write it [song] down and try and evolve it for next time so that it would turn into a song.”

“We learnt the hard way,” comments David sounding relieved that those pub gigs are truly behind them now. “I think you’re very lucky if you can make your way by someone seeing you perform [record company] as a lot of the time it’s down to luck. We got a lot of help from other different bands, but we learnt the hard way with pub gigs where we often played to three people!”

“Those gigs also helped us to learn how to take criticism and how to control the set and stuff,” acknowledges Gordon of the band’s early foundations.

With The Doel Brothers early years providing the perfect grounding in terms of not only learning their instruments but also understanding the dynamics of the whole live experience, there is no doubt the brothers have learnt the hard way but many would also suggest the right way. By taking the difficult route to prominence, The Doel Brothers time spent learning and honing their craft has enabled them to toy with various ideas when it comes to their overall sound. Despite arriving at a sound that is unmistakably The Doel Brothers, these South East rockin’ hillbilly kats still seem to struggle when it comes to defining their own sound as frontman Gordon reveals.

“Difficult, but I would say it’s probably…I don’t know as it’s a really hard question,” struggles Gordon when trying to sum up The Doel Brothers sound. “A lot of people have compared us to the Dave and Deke combo years ago, which I suppose is a fair comment because at the time they were doing western swing, hillbilly, country, rockabilly and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to copy them or anything, but it’s just naturally turned out that way.”

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“It was mad when people said that at first because they’re [Dave & Deke Combo] the sort of people that we look up to and people that we’d see [live] when we were younger. I remember thinking that I’d love to be able to produce such music,” says David. “We’re inspired by western swing as we’re writing such numbers at the moment. However, it will always sound like us because of the style we use whereby we wrap our sound around simple drumming patterns, but it’s really hard to describe it. I think if you listen to the album [‘Oh, Brother…’], the majority of people would say that it’s rockabilly because I think it’s easier to describe it as such. I would like to think that we do a bit more than that in the sense of a full range [genres]. It can get slightly boring sticking to one style and I really like the idea of doing a whole sweep of the genres of that time.”

“To sum it up, I would say that it’s rockin’ hillbilly with a western swing edge,” concludes Gordon laughing due to finally arriving at a definition of The Doel Brothers overall sound.

PERFECT!

As mentioned earlier, once The Doel Brothers had mastered their trade, the collection of songs consisting of original material soon started piling up. With thoughts turning to recording and possible record deals in order to transmit these lovely wares, the three brothers came up with the idea of a single release to test the market but also for the simple reason of being supporters of the vinyl format. Step forth Rumble Records…

“That was organised before the album came out,” explains David of the band’s decision to produce a single on vinyl first. “I spoke with Dave Mumbles, who runs the label and does all the Brighton Rumble stuff at weekends, and mentioned that we’d like to do something as we knew he’d produced a few vinyl records with bands before. It was a joint operation as we helped fund it, so it was more of a promotional tool and a selfish thing as we liked the idea of having a record on vinyl.”

“Yeah, that was before we had hit any sort of a roll in terms of being signed to a record label,” continues Gordon regarding the band’s vinyl single. “To be honest, out of all the people who really helped us, Dave Mumbles should be thanked big-time because he allowed us to headline the Brighton Rumble and it was brilliant and the biggest gig we had done up to that point. He also did the single for us as well. So it was more of a promotional vehicle to have a 45 to sell, and all of a sudden our album came out quickly behind it and released at the same time. The next vinyl that we do will be on El Toro, but Dave Mumbles from the Brighton Rumble has really helped us and is a good guy.”

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From that initial agreement with a 45 release with Rumble Records, a deal was struck with El Toro Records in Spain and the rest is now history. For those of the uninitiated, ‘Oh, Brother…It’s The Doel Brothers!’ rattles by in just under thirty minutes consisting of the most authentic sounding fusion of western swing, hillbilly, country and rockabilly that really transports the listener back to (perhaps) simpler times. It is this very sound, however, that has won The Doel Brothers many admirers such as Jerry Chatabox who not only invited the band to perform at this year’s Rockabilly Rave but also sanctioned a second invitation that will see The Doel Brothers perform on the main stage at next year’s event.

“It was our first appearance there [Rockabilly Rave] as The Doel Brothers, but David and I have played there before with The Western Aces,” mentions Gordon. “There is no sound check at the Rockabilly Rave because the sound engineers are spot on. So we arrived and set up our gear. I was getting quite nervous about it as it’s the biggest gig that we have done and there was nobody in the downstairs room where we were performing. When we went on stage, and just before we were about to start, I was mucking about with my guitar when I turned around and I couldn’t believe that the crowd was standing there! We ended up having a really big crowd that afternoon. It went down really well, and couldn’t have gone any better to be honest.”

“It was actually very emotional for me,” remembers David of the band’s performance at this year’s Rave. “I run on emotion when I’m on stage but I don’t turn into this character when I’m off it because I’m sort of an emotional bloke anyway. For example, some of the crowd were singing our songs and that really threw me. I think I lost some of the words to a couple of the songs because I was watching people singing and thinking what’s going on?”

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“That gig really did a lot for us as I was just looking out at the people in the crowd and it was just blowing my mind,” says Gordon. “We’re playing the Rockabilly Rave again next year, and not a lot of bands get to do that. For Jerry Chatabox to give us that chance is absolutely superb. I can’t think of anything more that he could’ve done for us to be honest. But that’s the thing with Jerry, he’s a good guy and trying to promote this music the right way by keeping it contemporary as it’s not about bringing the 50s back.”

With the band’s debut album being given its fair share of hearing at such festivals as the Rockabilly Rave, The Doel Brothers are fully aware that a huge debt of gratitude also extends to their label boss Carlos Diaz of El Toro Records for providing the platform in order to transmit these rockin’ hillbilly and western swing numbers to wider audiences. Curiously though, how does a band firmly rooted in the South East of England function when it comes to coordinating their brand of rockin’ hillbilly and western swing with a record label based in the heart of Spain some considerable miles apart?

“The band David and I were in before was called The Western Aces and we had a deal with El Toro because the steel guitar player knew Carlos Diaz, who owns the record company,” explains Gordon. “Basically, we were looking for someone to put out our album as we had already recorded it. Tommy got in contact with Carlos and asked if he’d be interested, and fortunately for us he was really up for doing it.”

“I think his decision was also based on what we had done before, but also a bit of luck to be honest with you,” continues Gordon. “We’re really happy with El Toro, even though they’re based in Spain but the world is a small place now with emails and stuff like that. El Toro is a really good label, and Carlos is looking after us really well. We’ve got the Screamin’ Festival next year in Spain and we’re classed as one of the headlining bands as well.”

“He asked to hear it first, however, so we sent him some songs and he obviously loved them as he agreed [to do it] more or less straight away,” adds David.

“We’ve had deals before with other labels who I won’t name, but it’s just been really poor as they don’t look after you and you don’t earn any money out of your records or anything,” explains Gordon. “Carlos allows you to earn money from your recordings because he signs you to a publishing company as well. By writing your own songs that’s how you’re going to maximise your earnings because more people are going to want to buy more songs that they’ve never heard before. The funny thing is, however, we’ve never met him [Carlos] as a band,” he chuckles. “We won’t meet him until next year. I have met him a couple of times before, but it has been only by emails with The Doel Brothers.”

Will there be opportunities to play gigs in Spain as well, considering your part of El Toro Records now?

“Absolutely, as Carlos runs the Screamin’ Festival which is probably the biggest festival in Europe apart from the Rockabilly Rave,” Gordon replies. “It’s huge as we played there a few years ago. He does a lot of smaller gigs in Spain and he has fingers in [various] rock ‘n’ roll pies as it were. As for a scene out there, then I don’t know. I think it’s mainly just the festivals with the big weekenders but they don’t seem to have an individual rock ‘n’ roll club scene like England. Personally, if we can get out and do a couple of festivals every year, then that’s all I really want to do.”

“It means that you can really showcase your material in that short space of time,” explains David before continuing, “but also we’ve got families to consider and that’s one thing that we try to integrate as we’re not the sort of people who want to escape our families on a weekend. We like to get them involved, which is why a weekender is perfect because we can all be out there as one.”

The recent momentum The Doel Bothers are currently experiencing shows no signs of slowing down as the band entered the recording studio only the day before to record a new single set for release on El Toro.

“What we did yesterday was for a vinyl single on El Toro Records,” comments Gordon. “It’s a double A-side with one song I specifically wrote for the Screamin’ Festival and it’s called ‘Screamin Bop’. The other side is a song David has written called ‘Left My Wife In Vegas’, as we’re doing the Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender in Las Vegas next year.”

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Is the latter song reflective of a personal experience by any chance?

“We were saying yesterday that it’s almost based on The Simpsons when Homer Simpson goes to Las Vegas and gets married!” laughs David. “I loosely based it on a guy who spends a few days out there and gets wasted and accidently marries someone and he’s got to sneak off and not go back as he didn’t really know how it happened,” he finishes with the song narrative sounding like a close relation of a recent trilogy of Hollywood comedic films.

As The Doel Brothers prepare themselves for the next chapter with many new songs written and ready for the next album release, the band remain perfectionists when it comes to their work due to a willingness to improve on what has gone before. For many, ‘Oh Brother…’ would be seen as the perfect record, but for The Doel Brothers any notions of resting on their laurels is simply not up for discussion, despite holding a deep respect for their first long player.

“It’s really weird because when you make an album, a lot of the time it takes so long to get it together because we record our own songs due to having our own recording equipment,” comments Gordon. “By the time the songs are ready, you’ve evolved into something else whereby your live set has changed a little bit or you’ve written ten new songs. This has happened to us because we’ve recorded one album and we’ve started to record the next one. Therefore, you learn how to record things differently, so if we went back and recorded those same twelve songs now, they’d probably, in my opinion, be better now. So yes, we’re happy with it [‘Oh, Brother…’] and we love it but…”

“We are happy with it because we recorded it ourselves,” interrupts David before adding, “but sometimes when you get in a studio, the sound engineer will make his interpretation of what he thinks it will sound like. So it was good to do it ourselves, but I think you’re right [referring to Gordon] the next album will be slightly different in terms of our approach and it won’t take as long. It was nerve-wracking the first time whereas the next one will be easier.”

“There is a lot of David in the album because he mixes everything,” says Gordon. “So a lot of it is from David’s own ear and therefore his perception, which is good because we all hear it the same and we know what we want. We are really happy as it’s the best album I’ve made, as I have made three prior to this with other bands, but mainly because we’ve written the songs ourselves and also we’ve recorded it as well and therefore it’s a self-made thing. However, there are always things that you would change and do differently next time.”

“If anything, I think the first album is an interpretation of our live sound, which is always good as a first one in terms of an introduction for other people,” responds Tom.

“We purposely did that as we wanted the album to sound exactly like we are [live],” agrees Gordon in terms of the live feel to their debut album. “Lots of people have commented on that after hearing our album and thought that it sounds exactly what we sound like on stage. I hate it when I buy another band’s album and it’s overproduced and it’s just dreadful! There are mistakes on our album but we just left them as we wanted it to sound like a performance in the sense of listening to twelve songs being performed rather than twelve songs being recorded and that’s important to us.”

“The next album is going to be slightly more produced and have a few more instruments,” David explains. “So it’s the next step as there is nothing wrong in making an album and putting a few things on there that maybe you wouldn’t do live because someone is going to sit at home and listen to that and it keeps them interested, especially when new things pop up.”

“If you listen to a lot of the Ray Campi stuff that was recorded in the 70s on Rollin’ Rock Records, all of that was recorded in Ronnie Weiser’s living room and every single song that he recorded during that period all sounds the same,” says Gordon. “Any album that you put on, it is the same sound of the guitar, and I like that as sometimes if you use the same studio you develop a sound and people recognise your sound. So, we’ll do the same again, in that way, and it helps to maintain continuity.”

The nervous tension felt during the recording process, as mentioned by one Doel brother earlier, apparently affected the rest of the brothers’ camp as FLW understands that the ‘live’ ambience of ‘Oh Brother…’ can be heard quite clearly concerning one of the album’s tracks.

“We turned up at the place where we recorded our first album and everything was set up with the mics and Tom arrived with the drum kit and then Gordon strolled in and just laid on the sofa due to a tremendous hangover!” recollects David.

“Whilst everyone was in the studio recording, I was outside not being very well!” offers Gordon as some sort of consolation.

“Yeah, throwing up round the corner!” quickly adds David.

Was it pre-album nerves then Gordon?

“Yeah, it was terrible!” he sighs at the memory of this incident. “If you listen to the song on the album ‘I’ll Do It Every Time’ (Possible clue in the title folks! FLW) my throat sounds like it is ripped out, as I had to sing on a throat that had had a few beers the night before.”

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With FLW preparing itself to catch the last train home of the steam variety  – Alton is renowned for having a restored steam railway – it is left to these band of brothers to offer their final thoughts regarding their overall position when it comes to their music and how they perceive themselves generally.

“We take things seriously but what we don’t want to do is take things too seriously and become something that we’re not,” confesses Gordon. “I still like to watch other bands and I’ll talk to everybody. Obviously, we’re getting a bit more attention nowadays but I’ll never become arrogant and become something I’m not. We always say that we’re three overweight blokes mucking around. The fact that we’ve got gigs and an album and people have taken notice of us is a surprise really. But my main philosophy is to enjoy it because it’s not going to last forever because you’re only going to be able to do the big festivals for a few years. So enjoy it and don’t become arrogant and up your own a*** as the music is the main thing, which we take seriously, but as soon as we’re off stage we’re just three blokes from the South East and that’s it really.”

FLW - From the Tapes

The Doel Brothers rise to recognition on the rockin’ circuit has certainly been a long hard climb, especially when receiving requests of the following nature during their early years as frontman Gordon Doel explains.

“You always get in smaller venues someone coming up and asking for the most random song in the world. For example, there was this gig we played and someone asked if we were going to play ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ by Guns ‘N’ Roses. This happened in a pub in Bristol and we had been playing hillbilly, rockabilly and western swing for the whole evening when this person came up and said, ‘When are you going to play ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ by Guns ‘N’ Roses?’ I actually asked at what point this person thought we were going to play a Guns ‘N’ Roses song after just finishing playing a Johnny Cash number!”

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