As Fisherman’s Friends, the original sole men and Cornwall’s best-known occasionally off-shore musical export, head back out on tour, it was high time I hollered ‘Ahoy there’ to arguably their second most recognisable singer, Jeremy Brown.
The so-called ‘nemesis of the lobster’ and former captain of the Free Spirit II, was in his beloved Port Isaac, North Cornwall, when he called, enjoying a few days at home before getting back in the van with his shanty-singing mates to play more dates with his long-in-the-tooth buoy band.
And I started out on home ground – or at least home waters – asking the man with the ‘hurricane-proof quiff’, one of three Brown boys (the Brothers Grim, according to the group’s MC, Jon Cleave) who formed a fifth generation of Port Isaac family fisherfolk (‘it goes back as far as anyone can remember’, he confirmed), if his 18th and 19th century forefathers had ever been tempted to follow the pilchard shoal further West during those boom years.
If that sounded a rather off-centre question, I should qualify it by telling you we’d started by talking about how my Cornish holidays are currently confined to school holidays, along with the ‘emmets’, around and about my family haunts in St Ives. But apparently that’s not for the Browns.
“Like when you support a football team, once you’ve been born in Port Isaac, you tend to stick with it through thick and thin.
“My son’s now taken over the fishing operation. He’s bought the boat from me, and says it’s easier at Falmouth or Penzance or Newlyn, and it is, undoubtedly, but what are you gonna do? Do you really want to live down there? And we always come back to the same conclusion that actually we’ve just got to suck it up.”
And why not, it’s a beautiful setting, even when it’s full of tourists from upcountry looking for Martin Clunes, in a location also known as Portwenn to viewers of TV drama Doc Martin. But enough about that. Has Jeremy’s lad Tom got a voice on him as well?
“Yeah, he has, and I try and encourage him to sing. A few band members have got children who have good voices, and they’re not so embarrassed, although they initially were. They’re getting into it a bit more now, enjoying it.”
While the Fisherman’s Friends story properly started in 1995 – and you could go back even further to pub singalongs in the late ‘80s, by all accounts – matters escalated in 2010 when music producer Rupert Christie saw them singing down by the harbour, on the Platt (just as they had done for many years previously) and liked what he saw, leading to a major recording deal, the resultant Universal debut LP, Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends leading them to become the first traditional folk act to make the UK album chart top-10, that record going on to sell 150,000 copies.
So there they were, 10 working folk (and now an eight-piece) and ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ from a tiny fishing community suddenly entering the realms of rock ‘n’ roll. That said, they appear unchanged from all their adventures, in what they see as something of a ‘riches to rags’ tale. And even when they were presented with gold discs on breakfast TV, they assumed their manager had made them on his kitchen table at home for a laugh.
But while things have settled down in more recent times, you can expect another spike in popularity when a Fisherman’s Friends biopic hits UK cinemas next weekend, based on their story, starring Tuppence Middleton, Danny Mays, James Purefoy and Noel Clarke. Have the band all seen it yet?
“Yeah, we’ve seen the film, up in London. We were up that way, singing, and had a special screening over in Soho of around 40 people. Our management were very nervous, wondering what the hell they were going to do if we didn’t like it. But actually we just sat back and enjoyed the film, for what it was, sort of forgot, and weren’t critical about any of it.”
Did you recognise yourself among the characters?
“The thing is that there are 10 in the group, as there were for us initially, and what they’ve got is four main actors that take on all the speaking parts of the group, while the six other guys kind of make up the numbers – they sing and look the part. So really the four main actors are a mish-mash of all of us, put into four. But there is a good-looking fisherman in the band so obviously that’s me!”
I believe it was filmed last May. Were there any cameos?
“No, we were a bit self-conscious in front of the cameras.”
The clip I’ve seen, from the trailer, suggests there’s a fictional take on the moment you were offered a record deal. The real thing must have been equally comical and a little bewildering.
“It was funny. The guy who plays Danny (actor Daniel Mays) based him on Ian Brown, who still manages us, who said, ‘We’re going to have a bit of fun with this, I don’t think anyone’s going to get rich, but we’re going to make a record.’ So it’s not far off the truth to be honest. We did sort of rock back when he said that. We were having a pint outside at Port Isaac. And where they recorded that is the Golden Lion, our local pub, our preferred place to go and sing.”
As well as signing to Island, they became the subject of an ITV documentary, sang for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and performed to many thousands, including prestigious festival shows and folk award recognition. But life still goes on back home between engagements, and when not singing with his boy band, Jeremy helps run Just Shellfish, the crab and lobster they catch cooked by the Crabbie Girls, including his wife and daughter.
There’s also a side-venture with his brother John, who was with him in the original group, running sea trips, while he lets a holiday home with his wife. But going back to those early days, were those very first shows on the Platt, or tucked away in a local pub?
“It would have been in the pub, I think. But the first time we officially walked out as a group was on the Platt. That was the first time we decided we were actually going to do this. We were actually planning to go to America to join up with some singing friends over there (booked to appear at a sea shanty festival in Connecticut).
“At some point we were having a rehearsal over in Billy’s chapel, and just said, ‘Right, let’s not have a rehearsal over here, let’s have it on the Platt. We didn’t advertise. That was the start of it really, and we never really looked back.”
That’s Billy Hawkins he’s referring to, who runs Port Isaac Pottery with his wife and daughters, their former Methodist chapel also acting as a rehearsal and meet-up space for Fisherman’s Friends. Actually, as I go to press I understand Billy has stepped away from the band for personal and family reasons right now, which is sad to hear.
While there were occasional dates before, the band’s Platt debut arrived in late May, ’97. Did Jeremy get over his nerves pretty quickly?
“No! I still have a few, to be honest with you. There’s only really one guy who likes to get up in front of people. Most of us are very sort of shy and retiring.”
I’m guessing that’s your MC, the man with the booming bass, Jon Cleave.
“Very much so. He’s a born entertainer. He loves it. I couldn’t think of anything worse. It’s just the fact that we’re all friends. It’s all just part of being a team, like with football or something. You get courage from your friends.
“And we’ve had a lot of encouragement, right from the early days, people listening to us who we respected, our wives and family, all on side.”
Having said that, you lead on key songs in the set like ‘John Kanaka-naka’ and ‘South Australia’, so you’re clearly out there on your own in those moments.
“Yeah, that’s right. I haven’t been able to hide away – right from the start.”
I get the impression everyone knows Jon, with that distinctive ‘tache and all the interviews he does. Are you the second most recognisable in the group?
“People do say that. But I haven’t really got a take on it. Also, Jon and I share the talking on stage now as well, which brings you to the fore a bit more, so if Jon’s not there, like for the Pasty Championships this Saturday, I’ll take over the compering, so I’m first reserve really.”
“It doesn’t happen enough to get wearing. It’s all good fun, especially when we’re in a little group and people recognise us and tell us they’re coming to see us tonight. Yeah, it’s all good really.”
For many years the live performances back in Port Isaac have taken the same format, the group appearing on summertime Friday evenings, ‘sailing at eight bells me hearties’, as their trusty plywood sign announces. After 25 years together performing on the Platt, any idea how much you’ve raised for charity?
“I think we’ve raised over £10,000 a year in more recent years, sometimes even more, usually for a local children’s hospice or various other things, like the lifeboat, then at the Daphne du Maurier Festival at Fowey. We raise money and do a bit here and there.”
Seeing as you mentioned Daphne du Maurier, sticking with the literary theme I’ll move on to another author with strong Cornish links, Winston Graham, and ask if your name was inspired by Jeremy Poldark, or was it a family name?
“Well, I think my mother had intentions of me being a lawyer or something. I’m afraid I’m the third of three boys in the family, and when I popped out the nurse said, ‘Here’s another fisherman for you, Mrs Brown,’ but I think she wanted a profession for me instead!
“Tom’s named after my grandfather though, and he’s named his son after my father, Harold.”
You mentioned early nerves, but I see you were also part of Wadebridge Male Voice Choir for some time (and before that with Janet Townsend’s Port Isaac Chorale, first going along with their wives).
“Yeah, several of us were. Maybe four or five at one point, including myself. We did that in a way to learn singing techniques, harmonies, how to form words and all that, and singing with 35 other blokes in a male voice choir is a great thing to go around and do.”
It’s all very stirring, and those Cornish and Welsh male voice choirs always impress me. It’s one of the few areas of music where my Dad and me would agree on something.
“Well, I always loved it, and I think there were nearly 40 of them down in Cornwall at one point -every town had a male voice choir. “
“Very much so. I grew up in the ’70s in the time of glam rock, Slade and all that, but then through the first chap I worked with on the boat, Bryan Nicolls, I got a great love of rock’n’roll. I love singing a bit of Buddy Holly in my spare time as well.”
I believe you do a cracking ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’.
“We did that on Radio 2. That was amazing!”
Speaking of which, I gather you were the one who got talking to legendary BBC DJ Johnnie Walker, who set you up with your manager in the first place, pointing you in the right direction.
“That’s right. He was staying in my friend’s bed and breakfast, so we went up and had a cup of coffee with him, and Johnnie and his wife were there. My friend said, ‘He’s going to be famous soon,’ introduced us, and we told him how this chap wants us to make a record and that. He said, ‘Who’s your manager,’ and we said we hadn’t got one. He said we’d be silly to talk to anyone without one, giving us the name of his.
“And by the time he’d heard us (Jeremy gave him a copy of a previous small-label recording, having already been impressed by their live performance on the Platt) he recommended us, suggesting his manager had a chat with us. He then rang while I was out at sea, saying, ‘Try not to sign anything – I’ll be down to Cornwall as soon as I can.’”
Things moved fast from there, and I love the photograph of the band stopping traffic on the Abbey Road crossing, emulating The Beatles. And it must have been a magical moment recording at those studios, surely (that debut Universal record also recorded in churches at Port Isaac and St Kew).
“Well, to be honest, I missed that. I was away on holiday. I was sick about it, but it was right in the middle of the holidays. The boys still talk about that so fondly. I regret missing that, but it’s just one of those things. John McDonnell, our token Yorkshireman, is a tremendous Beatles fan, and he was just blown away by that.”
Looking back at the photograph again I realise there were nine of them in the shot, just as there were on the steps of the famous Abbey Road studios.
There have been lows along the way, which we won’t go into here. Understandably it’s something the band prefer not to talk about. But of all the high points, what stands out most for Jeremy?
“I think going out at Glastonbury was a hell of a thing. We’ve done a few festivals since but going out there on the acoustic stage we assumed it’d be tucked away in a corner somewhere, but were then told it holds four and a half thousand people if you cram them in.
“We looked through the curtains before we went on stage, having seen the band on before had about 50 people, thinking ‘Fair enough, what do you expect?’ But about an hour later the place was packed, choc-a-bloc, with lots of Cornish flags as well. That was definitely one of those ‘wow’ moments.
“I remember walking out, with all these people who had walked there from wherever they were in the festival. It occurred to us that maybe there was somebody really good on after us! But when we walked around the front after, it was empty again, and we were nearly carried shoulder high to the bar. That was amazing!”
That was in June 2010 and proved so much of a success that they were invited back the following year, this time playing the Pyramid stage on Sunday afternoon, ‘supporting Beyonce’. And there have been many more highlights, not least going down a storm at Cambridge Folk Festival and London’s Royal Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall, releasing further hit albums One and All (2013) and Proper Job (2015), and performing to tens of thousands of fans at home and overseas, while being honoured with the Good Tradition Award at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, the likes of Mike Harding and Mark Radcliffe becoming fans too.
These days Fisherman’s Friends comprise Jeremy and fisherman sibling John Brown (their brother Julian no longer involved), writer/shopkeeper Jon Cleave, potter Billy Hawkins (currently taking a step back, as per note above), smallholder/engineer John ‘Lefty’ Lethbridge, builder John McDonnell (the ’outsider’, a Yorkshireman who visited Port Isaac more than 30 years ago and never left), Padstow fisherman Jason Nicholas, and film-maker Toby Lobb. And I’m guessing they’re all still the best of mates. Have there been times where you’ve wondered if this was all a step too far, with that relationship between you all potentially compromised?
“There have been times, but we always pull back. At the end of the day, the most important thing is our friendship. We all have our moments, and think ‘he’s off on one today’, but we’ve never come to that point where it’s come to that. We’ve always held back.”
I’m not suggesting lots of money came your way. I know how it works. But there must be times when the wind’s howling and you’ve stopped yourself going out to make a living on the boat.
“Well, there’s a limit to what you can work. The forecast is really good these days, so even if it looks really good in the morning it might be forecast to come in really bad in the afternoon. You can plan your days a lot better. The thing with Port Isaac is that it’s tidal, and once you’ve gone to sea, you can’t get back in again. And they’re not that big, the boats, so it’s a bit of a scary thing.”
Actually, although he talks about modern advances in weather forecast technology, the tale goes that Jeremy has a candle on the window ledge at home, and ‘if it blows out, there’s too much wind,‘ while ‘if it don’t blow out, there ain’t enough’.
You’ve played some amazing places, but I gather this will be your first visit to Morecambe, with its own proud maritime links, and where the football team are the Shrimps. Could there be a few swapped trade secrets in this cross-cultural experience?
“I think there could be. See how that works out. I’m sure we can find some common ground over a beer, and work from there really.”
There’s proper diplomacy for you. And I hate to get on to politics (honest), but this is a group from a part of the country which felt it wanted to be free of EU legislature (I know that’s an assumption, and no way am I tarring everyone with the same brush, but the 56.5% Cornish leave vote in 2016’s divisive referendum was deemed signficantly higher than the UK average). It’s not working out well for any of us though. Besides, I’m talking to someone from a band with healthy international links and world views (take 2010’s ‘The Union of Different Kinds’ for example), and I certainly don’t see Fisherman’s Friends as Little Englanders or suspicious of foreigners, even if there is much to do to fairly protect traditional fishing grounds.
“I think everybody’s a bit upset about the way it’s going. I think there’s a tremendous amount of common ground between the remainers and the leavers now.”
He (perhaps wisely) sat on the fence a bit there, so I moved on (his mobile phone reception was pretty poor by now anyway), asking one more leading question – is it true that Jeremy Brown can’t swim?
“I’m not a big swimmer.”
That sounds like a very traditional approach from men of the sea.
“Well, they say it prolongs the agony, when you’re two or three miles out to sea. That’s the theory behind it. If the boat’s gone there’s absolutely no point in thinking about swimming. But we do all sorts of first aid courses these days, and what they teach you is that the last thing you should so is try and swim. You should have your life jacket on, tuck your hands in, bring your knees up and then wait …”
For the lifeboat?
“That’s right, yeah.”
And when I head down to Cornwall this August, will you be around? Will I be able to see you perform on the Platt?
“We’re away a lot this year, with lots of festivals in August, so we’ve only got one gig in Port Isaac that month.”
Well, let’s hope the tides and the diary fall right. And in the meantime, there’s always Morecambe for me, the boys promising to ‘brew up a heady mix of hearty song, salty banter and tall tales from the high seas’, and possibly on stage dreckly around eight bells I reckon, me hearties.
Fisherman’s Friends’ UK tour this weekend reaches The Platform, Morecambe (Friday, March 8th) and The Mechanics, Burnley (Saturday, March 9th). Those will then be followed by late March dates in Horsham, Bury St Edmunds, Milton Keynes, Worthing, Margate and Wimborne, before two mid-May visits to Porthcurno’s glorious open-air Minack Theatre and another in Great Torrington’s Rosemoor Gardens on May 26th. For full details, try www.thefishermansfriends.com and follow the band via Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud and Tumblr.
This interview was put together with the help of a little background information culled from the very entertaining and informative Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends: Sailing at Eight Bells (Simon & Schuster, 2011).