Righteous indignation tempered with musicianship and a message describes John Reed And The Folded Arms’ forthcoming album The Breeding Ground Of Vile. Reed cleverly uses lyrics and melody to level the playing field through song. The skilled Manchester, England-based indie music artist cites contented scoundrel politicians and the innocent victims of war through lingering harmonies and expertly performed chord patterns. But this is just the beginning of the story.
As a cittern player, John Reed brings a feel of English roots music to The Folded Arms. Check out the track “Rats,” from The Breeding Ground Of Vile, which touches on the history of Britain’s narrowboat communities that lived and thrived along the country’s canals. The new collection, set for release in late June, is a double album. The first volume, subtitled Calling Out, has an unplugged focus and the second, The Reckoning, is harder edged and electric. The lead single, “The Fall,” is available now. Undoubtedly, for John Reed and The Folded Arms, passion about the music burns brightly. A compelling live performer, the multi-faceted Reed also works with The Lewinskies.
An Interview with John Reed of The Folded Arms
Musicinterviewmagazine.com spoke to John Reed about The Breeding Ground Of Vile, worthwhile causes, politics and more.
The new album contains an acoustic and electric volume. Why both?
The album loosely compares stuff that happened centuries ago with stuff that is happening now in order to illustrate the fact that humankind never seems to learn from its mistakes. This idea also will be reflected in the album art, when the physical CDs are released in about October. So, having a more acoustic volume that focuses largely on traditional instruments represents the centuries ago stuff and the punchier, rocky volume introduces a more electric feel.
HeyGamal [producer and musician] and I consciously set out to stretch the boundaries of folk music and in doing so ran some common musical themes and atmospheres between the two volumes to give the overall work continuity. The difference is at times subtle and at others blindingly obvious.
How do causes and politics play a role in your music?
I think they drive it. Before I started writing music seriously in 2014, I used to vent my anger at injustice by drawing humorous but very politically charged cartoons. Interestingly, I haven’t drawn a thing since I took up the cittern that year. There is a difficult balance to achieve between political ranting and writing protest songs and I think I’m right in saying that only four of the 24 songs on The Breeding Ground of Vile could be described as rants. I grew up with protest songs of the 1960s and 1970s, so highlighting injustices is in my DNA.
Some of the song titles from the album send a message within themselves. What was the inspiration behind “Rats”?
When Kieran and the girls were in the studio in January, we were talking about the album and its themes. He said you haven’t written a song about the narrowboat communities yet. So I did. “Rats” is short for “Water Rats” and is a term used to describe the people who ran narrowboat barges up and down the canals of England. Before the railways took their place, the narrowboat communities sustained the early years of the Industrial Revolution, transporting heavy materials by boat. The Railway men looked down on the water rats, whose businesses suffered from the coming of the railways and many former property-owning narrowboat men were forced to live on their boats. Ronnie Wood, of The Rolling Stones, his family were narrowboat Rats.
“How Do You Grieve” has a solemn ring to it. What went into matching the lyrics with the music?
I was training international trade consultants in Kosovo in October 2017. One of the delegates had a great software idea and I let him present it in front of the group. He knew I was a musician, so we began talking. He said he played guitar and when I asked what type of music he said Albanian folk music and went on to tell a harrowing family story. Little short of 20 years previously, when he was a small boy, 40 of his fellow villagers, including three uncles, were taken away and shot by the Serbian army. So the song considers how a wonderful place like Kosovo could so suddenly become the victim of tragedy. I wrote the lyrics that afternoon in my hotel room. I put the tune together on my return home the following day and we recorded the song five days later.
Did you write and arrange all of the songs on the album?
Yes, I wrote and arranged all the songs on the album. I’ve built a close friendship and music collaboration with HeyGamal. “It’s one of John’s song structures” is a recurring saying as the other musicians are trying to figure out their parts. They’re an amazing bunch of friends. I never tell them what to do. They just arrive with their ideas and notes and get on with it. I feel very privileged.
Where was the album recorded? Did you also produce the music?
The album was recorded entirely in HeyGamal’s studio, called ‘The Crib.’ It’s in Manchester. He’s a super-talented producer. We’ve done a lot of stuff together. The reason the mix is taking such a short time is that our tracking has been really tight. The work behind the moods in the songs is mainly both of ours, but he does all that complicated ProTools® stuff.
Do you play the cittern on the new collection? Which songs?
The cittern is and always will be my trademark instrument on studio recordings and live. It’s the main instrument on 15 of the 24 songs on The Breeding Ground Of Vile and accompanies many of the others. “Rats” is an example of a guitar driven song where the cittern accompaniment eventually dominates, but sometimes the cittern contribution is more subtle. The tune “Wine & Whisky” was written on the guitar, for the guitar, back in 1979. It was nice to be able to use it for a song on the album, using the very same guitar. “Outnumbered” is on a 12-string guitar. It’s very easy to identify the sound of the cittern because it is similar to a choral guitar. It has amazing resonance and as a live instrument it is really special. The cittern features largely on some of the tracks, such as “The Melting,” “Dependence” and “The Reckoning.” It is the main instrument used on the album.
What compelled you to pick up the cittern?
It was completely accidental. I went into Johnny Roadhouse Music in Manchester to buy some bouzouki strings for my son for Christmas 2013 and saw what I thought was a 10-string bouzouki on the wall. So, I asked if I could play it. Well, it played me. I was instantly hooked and six months later I bought my first cittern, an Ashbury. Then last year I lived the dream and had a new cittern hand-crafted by Fylde Guitars. I learned during this process that the cittern actually predates the guitar and is a Renaissance instrument that meandered its way through classical and folk music for centuries before settling firmly in the folk camp. I use it as a folk instrument too, but mainly like a rhythm guitar. I hope it gives my music a unique sound.
How does your music translate into playing at a live setting?
Wow. That’s a small question with a lot of answers. At the moment, we probably sound more acoustic live than we do on record. But we are getting more adventurous and band members never fail to come up with good ideas. It was Kate’s idea to play a drum while singing on “Guns.” She had never done that before the May tour. There are still a couple of missing links, but I expect to be playing live with a drummer and keyboard player within the next year to 18 months. The biggest problem we have is getting together because Kieran and the girls are an hour away and Matt is nearly three hours in the other direction.
Tell us about your side project with The Lewinskies?
I absolutely love The Lewinskies’ music. I met Kristen via Twitter and after six or eight months suggested that if they paid for flights to the UK, I would provide accommodation, transport and meals and try and get a few gigs together. That was May 2017 and we played, I think four gigs in about ten days and actually recorded half of their work on The Breeding Ground Of Vile. Matthew is one of the most precise guitarists I have ever had the pleasure to work with and Kristen’s accordion playing is her trademark. Kristen started playing accordion in 2014, almost exactly when I picked up the cittern for the first time.
The Lewinskies’ 2017 trip had to be repeated and this time around we planned ten gigs in eight days. They slotted in with the rest of the band and it became clear early on that we found our transatlantic music soulmates. Just as Kristen and Matthew have recorded with me, I have recorded a spoken word piece for their new album Yesterday We Had Everything, with Emma and Kate contributed backing vocals and Matt Steady playing violin. This year, our live shows shared singers and musicians and it was a lot of fun.
What’s next for John Reed?
The answer to that is a rest. The Breeding Ground Of Vile began during April 2016, so I need a creative break. We have live shows lined up for July and October and I’m already planning a collaborative tour with The Lewinskies for 2019. I have about 50 songs that didn’t suit the theme of the new album so at some point I will be doing something with some of those. I’ll continue to write new material and jam with HeyGamal and maybe contribute a little to his music. I’m also looking at setting up a not-for-profit social enterprise that encourages people to get involved with music at every level. Initial discussions have gone well and the whole idea is about giving something back. You write an album and it’s gone. You do a live performance and it’s gone. So the music workshops we trialed during The Lewinskies visits will continue and we’ll find a way to help other musicians and encourage people who don’t play to take up and instrument. The release of The Breeding Ground of Vile is timed for my 60th birthday in June, but all this fabulous music stuff has made me feel like a kid all over again.
Musicians on The Breeding Ground Of Vile: John Reed – vocals, cittern, acoustic and electric guitars, cello; Kieran Heaney – electric guitar, slide bass; Emma Perry – vocals; Kate Ferris- vocals; Matt Steady – violin, Uilleann pipes, bass guitar; Peter Robinson – percussion; Kristen Lewis – vocals, accordion (The Lewinskies); Matthew Lewis – acoustic guitars (The Lewinskies); Duncan Reed – vocals on “Outnumbered”; and HeyGamal – bass guitar, keyboards, production.
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