Darren Hayman Interview on Bugbears

This interview by the excellent Drunken Werewolf

Religion, relationships, new towns and open-air swimming pools: Darren Hayman has drawn inspiration from them all. His latest album Bugbears is a collection of seventeenth century folk songs. It continues his fascination with the era which began with last year’s album The Violence chronicling the Essex witch trials and was followed by the Four Queens EP earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, he sits down with DrunkenWerewolf’s Patrick Widdess to talk about his musical history project and why he wants to break our hearts.

So Darren, how did your fascination with English history in the 17th century begin?

I’m known for my use of contemporary language: slang, idioms, even brand names. I was doing a series of albums about Essex and I had this idea of doing something historical. I thought if I wrote about a story that happened a few centuries ago it would create hurdles in the songwriting process and make me change my approach to words.

Whilst writing The Violence I thought I should include a few folk songs of the time. I didn’t want to make the album sound 17th century but I thought I might learn something from researching them.

Interpreting and recording these songs became a separate project and album that was recorded at the same time as The Violence.

Where does the album name Bugbears come from?

The album includes a poem which was a rare rational treatise for the time. Everything else was about seeing fear and the devil in places. This poem says it’s all a lot of nonsense and to get a grip. It refers to these fears as bugbears. It seemed to capture what the whole album was about: curses and things going wrong.

You’ve changed the band name from The Long Parliament to The Short Parliament for this album. What’s the difference?

There are a few different members. The band I play with is always a little loose. There are seven or eight musicians I work with at different times. In this case I worked with those that had more of a folk leaning, particularly Dan Mayfield, the violin player. He’s from a Morris dancing family – the real deal. Not like us and Mumford and Sons who put on a folk hat when they fancy it!

It was a way to distinguish the two projects. There’s also the rump parliament which I should find a project for.

Yes, it’s a great name! How did you interpret these old songs for a modern audience?

I wasn’t trying to be slavishly accurate. Accuracy with something from as long ago as the 17th century is pretty much impossible. There’s only so much we can know about how these songs sounded.

I also didn’t want to completely reinvent the songs and say, “right, I’ll do them with a jungle beat and modulating synthesisers.” It was a case of making them sound apt without being ridiculously reverential.

So how did you change them?

First, I took lots and lots of words out. One of the fist things that strikes you about these songs is they have 18 verses. Music had a different purpose in those days. It was used to tell stories, even acted as the news. That didn’t seem palatable to a modern audience.

Also there are not many tunes. The same ones are reused repeatedly. It’s like playground or football chants where you keep reinventing the lyric to the same tune. The melody’s not important. They’re sung to taunt the other side and so have a different purpose to songs that entertain. The tunes also consisted of mostly major chords, which grates on the modern ear after a while.

So there were decisions to be made about how much you followed the earliest notated tune. There were decisions about when to adapt or shift slightly and what you could do in the name of interpretation, and what was pure invention. If I was more into folk preservation I would have had a stricter approach but I felt that was not my domain. It was about interpreting them respectfully as an indie-pop singer.

Having studied these old songs have your ideas about the role of music today changed?

Not really. I’m still just trying to write interesting songs, not give them a different use. That’s the challenge with this project; you don’t want to give a history lecture. You want it to still be a song. You want it to be about love or fear, wanting or jealousy because they’re things we all feel and that’s how you hook the listener in.

It’s made me aware of other uses songs have had in history but it’s made me more sure about what my songs are about and what I’m trying to do. Basically, I’m trying to break your heart and find more interesting ways of doing that like writing about Charles the First and Henrietta Maria.

Has the project been successful in changing your song writing style?

It has for me. It’s made me a better writer but now I’m trying to get back to writing a normal album. I’m working on 10 or 12 songs about breaking up – an everyday album about heartbreak. It’s interesting trying to do that after I’ve got used to working with pages of notes around me. I’m hoping there will be an unblockage soon and songs will come spilling out once I’ve got away from the 17th century thing.

So is the project finished now?

There’s one song that Angela McShane, head of 17th century studies at the V and A has asked me to do. I met her just this week.

I was really nervous because the research I do is just about looking for stories and a good tune: “Oh that sounds good I’ll use that!” It’s completely different to the research she’s doing looking at songs and ballads, how they’re printed and whether this lyric is more accurate than that one.

I felt like I was taking liberties with her specialist area, but actually she believes reinterpretation has always been part of the story. Her research involves going through different interpretations to unravel them. So I’m another person in a long tradition of people reinterpreting these songs, which she found interesting. So I’m doing one song, basically for her but I’m sure I’ll put it online.

Finally, what have you got planned for your forthcoming residency at The Vortex?

I sometimes tire of rock gigs and I’ve started going to jazz gigs. There are lots of things that are different aside from the music: longer sets, sitting down, largely unamplified music. I’m trying to do something like that.

Often when you see a band it’s like hearing their CV. They have to include their top O-level scores and the best bits at the end. I want it to be less like that and more “what shall we do tonight?” Each gig will be themed, but not the classic album theme. I don’t like knowing what every song’s going to be in order.

I’m theme-ing my songs into groups, and we’re planning to do 12 gigs over a year. The first is The Violence and Bugbears, then a holiday themed one for August. I’ll do a set of piano songs from different albums and we’ve thought about doing one where the first 14 ticket buyers choose the songs. Then there are the Hefner songs but not a Hefner reunion as such. We haven’t decided all of them but I’m sure the ideas will come to us.

Darren’s residency at The Vortex begins on July 11th. Bugbears is out on July 15th on Fika Recordings.

Folk Music and Me

I like folk music, or at least I like my idea of folk music.

Seeing Billy Bragg at around 18 was a formative experience for me. He was someone who had grown up a few towns away from me and sang with my accent. It made it seem like people who made records didn’t live on other planets.

His records had the words ‘file under urban folk’ written on them. It was a grand claim for someone who was clearly a punk artist. To me the word ‘folk’ conjured up something more exciting and wild then punk rock.

I settled on my own flawed definition of what the word ‘folk’ meant and from then on that this was the music I wanted to make. A modern, relevant style of narrative song-writing that could relate both the political and personal. Song composition that gave words and story the same importance as melody and sound.

I wanted to be clear and precise. I think it’s that total commitment to meaning that puts many people off folk music. Folk has no burry edges, it’s presented in sharp focus.

I’m aware of the idea that folk music should represent its time and be the music of the people. Mike Skinner of the Streets is a better folk artist then I’ll ever be.

There is also another folk stereotype, that of the dusty librarian. The folk musician who acts as a custodian of tradition and songs and believe they should never be abridged or altered. This in turn supports the myth that traditional folk is a closed club, only open to those that have memorised the repertoire.

It’s a reputation not without some foundation.

Last year I made a historical album the East Anglian Witch Trials which took place during the English Civil War called The Violence. It’s the first time I’ve attempted any project not set in modern times. I was making folk music for people who had been dead for centuries.

I knew I also had to look at the actual folk music of the time. The 17th Century bought about the birth of the printing press and consequently songs are better notated and preserved from this period.

At first the idea was to pepper the Violence with a few pieces of traditional music to create some historical context for the stories.

However the song research soon got legs of its own and The Violence had a sister project, a collection of 17th Century Folk Songs called Bugbears.

My main problem in making this album was to how to present these songs. I couldn’t perform the songs in a historically accurate way, I don’t have the skill, knowledge or audience for that. Songs had more uses back then, they were news letters, soap, operas, movies and plays. More than anything they were long, really long, with verse after verse of exposition.

Neither did I want to adapt or update the songs and radically re-arrange them for modern ears. It was about finding the emotional centre of the music. Excising words that felt awkward on my lips and finding sentiments that rang true. Several of the more political songs had easily identifiable sentiments once a few details were air brushed out. Ballads spoke of women ruined by drink and young maidens seduced and tricked by conmen. I only changed a few nouns and it was a night out at All Bar One.

When researching the songs at the Cecil Sharp House I was helped greatly by the greatly respected song librarian Malcolm Taylor. It was with trepidation that I told Malcolm of my attention to shorten, edit and even add electric guitars and synthesis. Malcolm said it was wrong for me to think of the folk scene as resistent to that kind of change that the music should be allowed to adapt and grow.

I wanted to make these versions a bridges to the originals. Not facsimiles but echoes. I hope you like them.

It’s what I think of as Folk Music.




An introduction to the blog

This is the official blog for Bugbears, the new album from Darren Hayman & The Short Parliament. Over the next couple of months, Darren and I will be posting here frequently, with all sorts of tasters of the new album. We’ll be featuring some of the thirteen artists that contributed illustrations to the booklet, we’ll be providing some historical context from people that know more about the English Civil Wars and seventeenth century folk than we (or at least, I!) do and we’ll be previewing some of the songs from Bugbears as downloads or videos. There’ll be plenty more too, and we’re always open to contributions from you – if you’re inspired by the project to create something then let us know, or indeed if you’re an ‘expert’ (however you wish to define that) and want to enlighten us all, then we’d be delighted to hear from you.

Get in touch via tom [AT] fikarecordings [DOT] com

Bugbears LP vinyl book