Taking It To The South

Sounding like a product of America’s South, Suburban Dirts has made their masterpiece with I Want Blood.

On the surface, UK Americana outfit Suburban Dirts is a band that has somewhat gone under the radar of recognition when it comes to the general public and music critics alike. However, further digging regarding their past reveals a few details that show that Suburban Dirts has established a considerable reputation consisting of recorded works, and a live repertoire that has seen them build a solid fanbase, in addition to winning over a few music journos during the past few years.

Latest album ‘I Want Blood’, released last year, enhanced Suburban Dirts reputation further, largely due to its authentic delivery of alt-country sounds, but also due to numerous personal touches, not to mention the historical references concerning a pre-Wild West that had Famous Last Words (FLW) scrambling through the history books to establish more of this fascinating subject matter, which earmarked ‘I Want Blood’ as one of the highlights from last year’s crop of albums.

Having won many admirers at FLW with ‘I Want Blood’, issued via Old Jank Records, Suburban Dirts recorded an album that was ambitious in its approach as well as in its overall delivery. It works wonders and plays out like a film score with the characters narratives interwoven with the musical segments relaying and depicting tales of hardship, broken relationships and genuine horror involving criminal activities of the Harpe Brothers; a real-life tale of brothers Micajah ‘Big’ Harpe and Wiley ‘Little’ Harpe who were American War Of Independence mercenaries and regarded as America’s first serial killers who made their presence felt via various gruesome acts during this pre-cowboy era of American history.

What makes ‘I Want Blood’ even more remarkable is the fact that it was written and recorded by a band hailing from one of the home counties in England – Hertfordshire to be exact – where country music is hardly a staple in the musical diet and therefore making, ‘I Want Blood’, a truly great effort considering its closer ties with America’s South.

With Suburban Dirts looking forward to further successes in 2019, the six-piece band comprising of Chris Varley (bass), David Austin (drums), Dave Moyes (lead guitar), John Wheatley (vocals and guitar), Joolz Heath (violin) and Jay Seymour (piano) created an album of great magnitude in ‘I Want Blood’, which is steeped in history and one that stems from a history of its own as vocalist and guitar player John Wheatley refers to by taking us back to the beginning of the roots of Suburban Dirts.

Where did this all begin for Suburban Dirts, and what were the initial blueprints for the band?

“In April of 2011 a local promoter offered me a slot at a Sunday afternoon session at the Hertford Corn Exchange. I think I’d been watching the Elvis 68 Comeback Special a lot, particularly the section where he sits in a circle with the original band and plays the oldies. I wanted to play a show just like that, so I called up a few friends – David Austin (drums), David Moyes (lead guitar), Chris Varley (bass) and George North (percussion). We had one rehearsal and the show went great. We were immediately booked for more local gigs and the response was super encouraging. One night, said local promoter – Joolz Addison – joined us on violin (without any rehearsal at all) and became a permanent member immediately. In June, we went into Loveday Studios in Hatfield for one day and cut our first album.

In March 2012, we played a show and some guy came up and asked if he could jump on the piano, his name was Jay Seymour and he nailed it, becoming a permanent member and completing the line up (by this time George had left the band).”

Who do you regard as influences in terms of your music?

“I can’t speak for every member of the band but the main artists that influence my song writing are The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder.”

How would you describe the Suburban Dirts Sound?

“Americana is the easiest way of describing us,” explains John. “Our sound incorporates blues, soul, gospel, country and a smattering of psychedelia. I believe all these styles fall under the Americana umbrella. The Suburban Dirts’ sound has evolved over the years. The first album (‘Suburban Dirts’) was very much inspired by [Bob] Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ with elements of The Beatles, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Townes Van Zandt and Ryan Adams. The follow up – ‘A Tiny Little Island In The Big Bad Sea’ was much more influenced by the Americana artists we’d been listening to at that time – Justin Townes Earle, Caitlin Rose, Dawes and The Felice Brothers.”

In relation to your current album, ‘I Want Blood’, can you please provide answers to the following questions:

When and where was the album recorded?

“The album was recorded from November 2014 till August 2015 at Reservoir Studios in London under the guidance of producer, Chris Clarke (Danny & The Champions of the World).”

How long did the whole process take in terms of writing and recording the album? Also, were the ideas for the album pieced together over a period, because the end results certainly give that impression?

“I believe the idea and themes of the album started taking shape as early as January 2012. We spent the next two to three years shaping the story and trying out different ideas; most of these ideas would be worked out in long conversations between myself and our drummer, David Austin.”

Did you encounter any problems when recording the album or was the whole recording experience a relatively smooth process?

“We all have day jobs so the act of juggling dates and availability, etc, was pretty trying at times,” replies John before adding, “particularly when you consider the scope and ambition of this project. But aside from that, I believe that we put so much in to the writing and preparation of the album that the whole process went pretty smoothly.”

Do you have any songs from the album, ‘I Want Blood’, that are favourites?

“It’s hard to choose but I like ‘As Long As You Are’ for the way it incorporates so many of the album’s themes with such joy,” says John. “Also, ‘School Tomorrow” because it was a song I’d written whilst playing with my kids, Bo and Sid, who sing on the track with their school choir.”

Can you provide some details regarding the concept for the entire album, with the Harpe Brothers being the main subjects or at least that’s how it appears when listening to ‘I Want Blood’?

“Initially the story revolved around fictional characters that were to suffer a great tragedy at the halfway point. I wanted the tragedy to come from true American history, so I started researching potential events on the web. It was here that I came across the Harpe Brothers. They were perfect. They sounded like characters from a Quentin Tarantino movie, with so many horribly gruesome tales to mine from. I emailed some links to David, and he agreed that they should be the antagonists of the piece. Incorporating them into the story informed so many things – the year (somewhere between 1799 and 1804), the setting (Kentucky) and the tragedy (mass murder).

“David came up with a piano part that represents The Harpes, a kind of relentless, unsettling, jaunty thing that I think perfectly captures them. I wrote a verse from the perspective of Micajah ‘Big’ Harpe and handed it back to David to write from the perspective of Wiley ‘Little’ Harpe. We imagined it a kind of duet between Nick Cave and Tom Waits. This became “The Harpe Brothers Theme”. It opens the album as a kind of pre-credit sequence in which we see the bad guys doing what they do best, or worst.”

We must admit that FLW is totally smitten with the track, ‘To Dance With You Again’. Is there any chance that you can shed some more light on this song please?

“To make the story work, we had to change the way we write,” begins John. “Previous Dirts’ albums involved a lot of fun and word play, but here, we didn’t want to confuse the listener, so we had to be more direct and literal. ‘To Dance With You Again’ is sung from the perspective of Ben, the father of the bride, who is mourning the loss of his wife who died the previous year. Later, during ‘The Wedding and The Uninvited’ he watches The Harpe Brothers murder his daughter in cold blood. In ‘The Hunt’ he avenges her death, but at the end of the track he himself dies – re-joining his wife in the afterlife, where we hear a call back to the ‘To Dance With You Again’ chorus. I’m particularly proud of that moment.”

Who was responsible for the album’s ideas and artwork?

“The album’s ideas are a result of much midwifing of ideas between me and David. The artwork illustrates the moment in the story in which the twins (Ben’s younger daughters) take matters into their own hands. While the townsfolk collectively mourn the losses of their loved ones, the town becomes a shadow of its former self. The twins decide to paint over the blood from the massacre and reopen the school, hence ‘school tomorrow’, which has a knock-on effect that wakes the whole town back up. David drew up a rough sketch and I loved the idea, so we asked local artist, Phil Barrett, to work his magic on it. He listened to the album whilst painting and I think he captured what we were after beautifully.”

What three items can Suburban Dirts never be without?

“Hmm. Maybe a pencil, some paper and a guitar. You can do a lot with those things.”

As a band, where do you see your music fitting in with, or not fitting in with, in terms of the whole music landscape?

“I don’t think we do fit in, and I don’t intend to try to do so,” John replies after some initial thought. “Some people get us, some people don’t, and that’s fine by me.”

Is your music about trying to change anything in particular?

“No. Maybe ourselves, and hopefully for the better.”

How healthy do you think Americana and country music is in the UK, and how difficult is it trying to convince people that you’re the genuine article when sounds of America’s South, for example, do not sit comfortably with the cold grey skies of the UK?

“It has its fan base and hopefully that’ll grow. We don’t really have much to do with the Americana scene over here, and we don’t feel the need to convince people that we’re anything that we’re not. We’re storytellers and I guess to tell the story we kind of get into character. I sing with an American twang for no other reason than that’s how I like it to sound. It’s no different to Mick Jagger, Amy Winehouse or David Brent (Hee-hee! FLW), I guess.”

What’s next for Suburban Dirts?

“Well, David is off in York doing his PHD in philosophy, and I’ve just finished recording a solo album which I’m very proud of, and hopefully you’ll be hearing it soon. It would be truly lovely to record another record with the Dirts someday, but I don’t think it’ll be for a while yet.”

Any final few words of the day?

“My cousin, Donald Byron Wheatley, is an artist too. Check out his record ‘Moondogs & Mad Dogs’. His late mother used to say to him, “If you have the choice to dance or to sit down, dance”. So, I’ll go with that.”

The album ‘I Want Blood’ is out now on Old Jank Records

(Photography courtesy of Steve Beeston)


FLW - From the Tapes

Here’s a snippet from FLWs’ review of Suburban Dirts latest, and greatest album to date, ‘I Want Blood’.

It makes for compulsive listening and really starts with the gothic horror of ‘The Harpe Brothers Theme’; based on a real-life tale of brothers Micajah ‘Big’ Harpe and Wiley ‘Little’ Harpe who were American War Of Independence mercenaries, highwaymen, scoundrels and any other similar associated description one would like to add. Regarded as America’s first serial killers, the Harpe Brothers made their presence felt via various gruesome acts, which reveals its story at various intervals throughout this latest album by Suburban Dirts.

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