I feel I need a disclaimer when writing about a few bands I love, not least when I’ve known them so long. And in the case of two members of folk roots stalwarts The True Deceivers, I even had a hand in (mis)managing one of their previous outfits.
I’m talking in this instance about today’s interviewee, Graham Firth (vocals, acoustic guitar) and bandmate Dee Coley (bass guitar), two-thirds of His Wooden Fish in the late ‘80s, a group I traversed the South-East pub circuit with, gate-crashing early rehearsals and even guesting with – my sole live band performance – in Harry’s Bar, Albufeira during a memorable Algarve tour in 1988, harmonising on The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’.
Over the years, several incarnations of outfits followed for Graham (including Plenty) and Dee (Blazing Homesteads and Eat the Sofa), and while we’re many miles apart these days (me in Lancashire, Graham on the edge of the New Forest, Dee in Wiltshire), it never takes long to get back in the swing of the banter on rare occasions we meet again.
The day I caught up with Graham to talk about The True Deceivers’ third LP, My Own Highway, he was in a hotel in Swindon, a regular stopover while working away from home (he’s a finance director for a Banbury-based internet service provider, if you must know). And despite the Wiltshire railway town’s link to XTC, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the touring life he envisaged three decades ago.
“I’ve been using the same hotel for over two years, and I’ve been through the menu so many times. When you start, you’re like, ‘This is alright’. You go down the bar, have a few beers, but soon realise that, actually, drinking Monday and Tuesday nights in your hotel isn’t really the best future.’
Do all the band have full-time jobs these days?
“Nick hasn’t. He’s full-time retired. That’s how he managed to write all the songs on the last album. He’s got more time on his hands … ha ha!”
That’s Nick Bliss (electric/acoustic guitars, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, vocals), who penned the nine band originals on My Own Highway. All quality contributions too. In fact, I suggest to Graham that Nick’s writing has got stronger down the years.
“I think so, and there’s maybe more variety this time than with some of the previous stuff. I also think me and Nick were more fussy this time. What tends to happen is that he’ll bring an idea to me, we’ll bat it around as a duo, knock off the rough edges then record it and send it to the rest of the band, take it from there. Some of them didn’t make it past the duo stage this time, while others took a bit more work. One song, ‘Drinking to Forget’, was completely different. We just couldn’t get it to work, but knew there was something in it. Nick took it away and pretty much completely rewrote it.”
That’s the track that finishes the album, the only one on which Nick provides lead vocals. And it’s a great choice to end on. So what’s his background? He was with Dee in the Blazing Homesteads, wasn’t he?
“Yeah, him and Mark (Mitchell) started that band, I think around the early ‘90s, with Chrissie (Franey) on vocals, Charlie May on drums, and Marcus Drewelus (guitar). Dee joined after Eat the Sofa split up, the bones of that band joining me in Plenty when Allan Broad went abroad.”
Ah, yes, Allan Broad. Abroad being apt given his name. Another quality songwriter, based in the Netherlands and on the list of potential WriteWyattUK interviewees longer than I’d care to imagine. It will happen though. Honest. Meanwhile, True Deceivers’ Jamie Legg (drums, percussion) was also part of the Broad-fronted (so to speak) Eat the Sofa, briefly featured with Plenty, and also rightly-feted indie rockers Mega City 4.
Anyway, sorry Graham. Where were you?
“I did a few solo support slots for the Blazing Homesteads, and when they split, we got together, with Dee joining us later.”
It’s fair to say The True Deceivers have been around the scene quite some time now. All in their 50s, Graham proudly told me he’s the youngest, adding, “I get them moaning a bit these days if I try and book too many gigs or make the sets too long. I’m notorious for bolting a few on the end. Recently we did two in one day, and they were moaning. They just need to get fitter!”
As good a place as any to tell those who don’t know so much about the band and their roots more about afore-mentioned co-founder Mark Mitchell. As with the last LP, there’s a dedication to Mark on My Own Highway, the multi-instrumentalist having died more than a decade ago, but still seen as a key component of the band. His spirit is certainly writ large all over this album, as it was on the first two.
A larger than life character in many ways, Mark died suddenly at the age of 51 on March 19th, 2009, his fiddle seen as the signature sound to The True Deceivers and predecessors the Blazing Homesteads. Based in Woodham, a Surrey village not far from Woking, he spent a lot of time in Ireland too, a loving husband and father of two having learned classical violin at an early age but giving that up to play guitar in various ska and punk bands in the early ‘80s.
It was with the Homesteads that he got to experience Cambridge Folk Festival and Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, his distinctive playing soon in demand, guest appearances including those on Bap Kennedy’s Hillbilly Shakespeare album.
Between engagements he spent a long time working on a second home in Ireland, described by Graham in his tribute at the time of Mark’s death as ‘a seemingly endless project that was going to be completed one day’. And between DIY sessions there were stints with the fiddle down the local pub, including many after-hours jams. As Graham put it, ‘A naturally talented musician with a fabulous ear for melody, Mark could pick up a tune within seconds and always added his own unique touch to lift it to another level’.
Now I’ve added that, it’s confession time. I set up this interview with Graham an age ago, but what with my current hand-to-mouth existence as a freelance writer – struggling to keep a roof over my head, chasing deadlines one by one and barely finding time to reflect on where I’m headed next – it’s taken me a shameful six months to get this review-come-feature-interview together.
When we were originally chatting – and it was a chat, two old mates catching up and talking music, just as they did the first time they met 32 years ago, when I was barely 20, Graham a year older – we were talking about remaining 2019 festivals and the best time to get this feature out there. I decided to aim for the run-up to their most recent appearance at Weyfest, in mid-August. But I seem to have missed that by six months.
As a result, I’ll instead plug a Leap Day engagement in our old hometown, the band playing The Star in Guildford, where The Stranglers played their debut gig in 1974 (there’s a plaque outside these days) and where His Wooden Fish played a sold-out 99-ticket charity gig in April ’88, raising the princely sum of £135, my diary tells me. Details of the latest date follow at the end, so stick with us, please. But first, Graham and I will talk us through My Own Highway, for which a digital release is now imminent, while physical copies can still be snapped up from the band during live engagements and from the shop on their website.
‘Just for one moment, can we drop the attitude? Everybody deserves a bit of latitude.’
Opening number ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know’ is my personal highpoint of the album, and kicks off with a great straight to the nub of the matter line, ’When I want your opinion, I’ll be sure to ask; your pearls of wisdom seem to come thick and fast.’ Nick’s lyrics throughout impress, as does the vocal blend between you. But there’s something else – Rupert Lewis’ fiddle is no add-on. It’s pretty much as important as the rhythm section, and takes me back to The Waterboys’ Spiddal era. What’s more, the song clocks in at bang on three minutes, pretty much perfect for single material. Our top-40 dreams may be behind us, but If those glorious 7” disc opportunities still existed …
“I’m not sure they do really – but I guess there is and there isn’t. There’s so much stuff out there that people only listen to one track instead of a whole album, but then you have people releasing an album and the first five tracks from it become the top-five singles on the chart. Which is nonsense.
Do Nick’s songs come to you pretty much complete?
“It varies. Sometimes it’ll be pretty much fully formed in as much as. There were times on the last album where I’d play along and change the melody a bit in the way I was singing it, because we’ve got different singing styles, and generally speaking he’s happy just to go with how I want to sing it. But this time there were a couple where he wanted me to phrase something a particular way. But all the guys will have an influence. We won’t have anything particular in mind for fiddle, bass and drum parts, although Nick’s probably got a time signature in mind.”
Again, you can hear that. Yes, all the new songs here end with Bliss in brackets, but you can tell there’s a band dynamic at play too. The same goes with your distinctive vocal blend.
“Yeah, he’s always been easy to sing with. He harmonises with me pretty well. And it’s always worked, even though I’m rubbish if it’s the other way around!”
Rupert’s fiddle is certainly integral to the sound, as was the case with that provided by the band’s co-founder, Mark.
“Well, Rupert did play fiddle on the last album too, although he wasn’t playing live with us very much then. He was filling in for Spud (Edwards) when he couldn’t make gigs. He was familiar with the songs but came into the studio when Spud couldn’t make it. We didn’t have a fiddle player for the first couple of years after Mark died, but Spud was with us for a good five or so years live. But Rupert would dep. for him as Spud was in the Royal Marines’ band and got posted further down the West Country. He was also playing a lot with them, providing clarinet at venues like the Millennium Stadium and the Royal Albert Hall. But sometimes that clashed and took precedence over gigs with us, and he was unavailable to record last time. So Rupert turned up and pretty much wrote and played all the fiddle parts on the last album in a day. And this time he’s had much more of a chance to put his own stamp on the record. Without a doubt we worked a lot harder to integrate the fiddle on this album, and although there is a lot, we cut a lot of it out too!”
Well, I reckon you’ve got it about right. At no stage do I find it superfluous.
“He wrote some great stuff, and on ‘Drinking to Forget’ he wrote three or four fiddle parts, with a cello part underneath. Everything apart from the lead fiddle part was written there and then in the studio, and they all sync together really nicely.”
‘I will cross my Rubicon and I if I meet you further on, I’ll shake your hand.’
Moving on to the title track, ‘My Own Highway’, it’s more on the country fringes, a thin line exposed between UK and Americana – there are no borders, but it’s just the right side of rootsy.
“Yeah, I think we felt this had a more Americana meets Cajun feel than the last album, and that’s pretty deliberate. It’s not out-and-out country, but I think people into country would want to listen to it. There’s certainly no pedal steel in there, but it certainly has tinges of it in places.”
That said, I’m not sure if the sort of venues in mid-America featured in The Blues Brothers, chicken-wire mesh protecting the bands, where they play both kinds of music – country and western – would have you.
“Well, why not? We were talking recently about Dumpy’s Rusty Nuts and his 70th birthday, how we’d played a Welsh international motorbike show with Dumpy at the National Showground in Builth Wells. A less likely match-up I can’t quite imagine, going out in front of 500 hairy Welsh bikers, thinking they were going to kill us! But they were a great crowd and it works if you’re playing good music that’s lively … especially if they’ve had a few beers.”
On each True Deceivers LP the band include a couple of covers, from Green Day and Steve Earle on the first record to The Jayhawks and the Gin Blossoms on the last. And this is no exception, starting with ‘Sweet Mental Revenge’, a nod to The Long Ryders covering Mel Tillis. Did Graham know the mid-‘70s original, or was it solely down to hearing it on Native Sons in 1984?
“It was always a nod to The Long Ryders, to be honest. I don’t think when I first heard it played by them that it was by anyone other than The Long Ryders. But we’ve been playing that quite a few years – almost since we began – and on every album we tend to throw a couple of covers in … either because I’m too lazy to write songs or because we like to put something reasonably obscure on there. And we didn’t listen to any other version until we recorded it – we had our way of playing it, and while it’s probably similar to The Long Ryders’ version, after recording it I did listen back and while it’s closer to that than Mel Tillis’ version, we do sound quite a bit different. It’s probably more fiddle-driven than the guitar-driven Long Ryders’ version.”
Incidentally, I did pick him up on that ‘reasonably obscure’ cover line, disputing that seeing as they tackled ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ on the first album. But in Graham’s defence, it was a little less well known then, and a far way from Green Day’s 1997 original (which took a decade to go anywhere near our charts).
“Yeah, it’s almost a Cajun song, the way we did it.”
That first album also features Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’, which also ‘wasn’t particularly obscure’, he admitted, but they get away with that, as it sounds like they’re playing it for all the right reasons. It’s a proper party song.
“Oh completely, and it’s one Mark sang and one we really wanted him to have on that album, as he had such a great voice. It felt natural to put it on there.”
No doubt they were pretty glad it was included too, bearing in mind that we lost him within a couple of years.
“Yeah, and those two songs are definitely our biggest earners in America. Not that we get thousands of dollars for them each month, but in royalty terms those two always come top when I get the monthly statement through.
“For us, it’s always more of a celebration of songs we love, as is also the case with the Tom Petty cover on this album. We’ve been playing that a long time, it’s not such a well-known song of his but it’s one we always enjoy playing, and when he passed away it felt more natural time to bring it in and release it as part of the album.”
Accordingly, I’d best fast-forward to track nine to mention that Tom Petty cover, having written in my notes that their stonking take on 1978 Heartbreakers’ powerhouse ‘Listen to Her Heart’ is to these ears a mere Rickenbacker 12-string away from The Searchers’ classic, ‘When You Walk in the Room’.
“Ha ha! Well, that’s nice. I really like playing that song. It’s punchy and really straight-forward. What is it? Three chords, I think. And it’s a song you can really attack. It’s great to play live as well. You can really give it some bollocks, without damaging the way it sounds.”
‘Take a good long look and tell me that I’m going wrong.’
Back to side one, and track four, ‘That Ship Has Sailed’, impresses with its fiddle lines. What’s more, for me it has the charm of Jim Lea’s electric violin with Slade, not least on the mighty ‘Coz I Luv U’.
“I see what you mean. I’d never really thought about that. That’s probably the oldest song of ours on the album. We’ve been playing that a while now. And as soon as we first played it live it went down really well, immediately. It really needed the fiddle line to lift it, but … It’s also a very long song – it’s over five minutes. I can’t think of any other song we’ve done that long.”
‘If I plan to keep my hands on all the things that I hold dear, there’s gonna be changes round here’.
While making notes, when it came to ‘Changes Round Here’ I scribbled down Hootie and the Blowfish, their ‘90s take on indie springing to mind. Them and Counting Crows from that same era. I get no response from Graham to that, but he does chip in.
“That’s probably my favourite track on the album. And again, it’s a really nice one to sing.”
‘We could leave them all for dead, if I could only think ahead.’
‘If I Could Only’ is perhaps the simplest song here to the untrained ear, yet it’s spot-on. And this time Nick switches to banjo to keep pace with Rupert’s fiddle.
“Yeah, it’s funny but sometimes the simplest ones prove the hardest to get down, partly in this case because Nick really wanted to play banjo, and we don’t often use that – we never use it live other than at this album launch. So yeah, it’s a simple song, but trying to get the right arrangement and right timing for it took quite a bit of work. You go into a studio thinking one’s gonna be easy and another’s gonna be hard, but sometimes you just knock out the latter. Not this one though!”
It’s a sweet lament, bringing to mind Steve Earle at his most poppy, and even carrying traces of Lindisfarne and McGuinness Flint.
“Yeah, again it’s a nice melody and very straight-forward – it doesn’t mess around with a middle-eight. You can get a bit hung up on that. The amount of times we’ve struggled to do that! But we’ve got to a point now where we don’t think that formulaic anymore.”
I’d have it up there with the opening track as another album highlight. It’s also perfect soundtrack music, to a film where you take your first jaunt across America perhaps.
“That sounds good to me … if we can sell the idea to anyone. Ha!”
Seeing as I mentioned Lindisfarne, this is a good place to include another snippet of our conversation, regarding The True Deceivers being booked alongside the veteran crossover folk act at Kenney Jones’ Secret Widget Festival at Hurtwood Park last summer. A big moment for the Firth clan, it seems.
“That’s the one my Mum and Dad are most proud of, playing with Lindisfarne there. My folks are from the North East – they left in their 20s – so as far as they’re concerned Lindisfarne are gods. I said, ‘I don’t think it’s all the original band,’ but my Mum said, “That doesn’t matter – we know you’ve made it now, if you’re playing with Lindisfarne!’
‘Everything’s as permanent as footprints in the sand.’
On ‘Somewhere Safe to Land’, I get the impression we have Nick’s most political moment on the LP – a song of hope among the shift towards the rise of the populist movement and frightening lurch to the right in these days of disinformation and open hatred.
“Well, I didn’t write the lyrics, and Nick’s notoriously cagey about what his songs mean! I think that’s fair comment though. It’s a mixture between an angry song and a hopeful song. Actually, angry’s maybe the wrong word. There’s a quite a bit of anger and angst on this album, not least on ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Already Know’ and ‘Changes Round Here’. I don’t think we were quite sure that song was gonna quite work when we first started with it. For me, that’s also got a bit of a feel of a Steve Earle song, in its delivery as much as anything else. In some ways we weren’t sure if it would go on the album, but yeah, it’s got something to say.”
I think it definitely has its place there, not least as it follows that ‘My Own Highway’ theme. Meanwhile, Nick’s harmonica adds Irish folk traces.
“Yeah, we started with a bit more fiddle on that, but while that starts it off, the harmonica takes over in the breaks, and Nick loves playing that live. It’s not easy to play that rhythm guitar and the harmonica at the same time!”
‘I have ideas above my station, they’re not so easy to attain. It’s more in hope than expectation, but it still works out the same’.
For me, ‘You’re My Reason’ is an out-and-out love song, and a tribute to belief and pulling together. It works on several levels, like all the best songs.
“Yeah, for me I’d say that’s pretty much a love song, in the same way as perhaps ‘Unsung Heroine’ on the first album. Yeah, that’s Nick at his soft best really, and a really nice song.”
And Dee’s trademark plodding bassline makes me think of The Waterboys again, this time on ‘A Bang on the Ear’, which I love.
“He’s great, but he’s still lying back on that bassline and it’s never forcing anything ahead. He’s an easy guy to play with.”
‘I’ve reached the point of no return, no more bridges left to burn.’
Dee’s also possibly the nicest bloke in music, but let’s not give him too much credit, and move on to ‘Bloody But Unbowed’, a perfect showstopper, the band cranking it all up for one last push, the guitars finally coming through in the mix, letting loose. I reckon you should end your sets with this from now on.
“Well, it is very late in the set. We do still tend to finish with a track from the last album, but it’s gone down well, and the funny thing is that we used to play that song a lot more gently. But then we were thinking about the lyrics, and it’s a song when I sing it live that I really have to get in character for – it’s about spitting the words out and it’s a case of, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done to me – I’m still here!’
“Nick was just messing about with heavy guitar on it and we thought it really worked, although it’s not the sound we’d normally go for. Originally, all the breaks had fiddle running through them, but because we added the heavy guitar, Nick started playing along with lead guitar lines, and we ended up sticking with that, which sort of book-ended with the fiddle. It goes down well live, and again it’s a song we’ve had a while.”
You all seem to raise your game here, with Jamie on fine form at the back, dependable as ever. Again, we see the melding of various styles, and – this will make you laugh – I wrote, ‘sort of Charlie Daniels meets The Levellers’.
“Ah, that’s fair enough! And you’re right about the drums. They’re spot-on for that song, with some really good fills. Jamie really went for it. A lot of the drums and Dee’s bass on this album were pretty much live. We wanted to get a less manufactured feel. You can get a bit tied on up on redoing all the drums and basslines. We pretty much recorded all that live and then – if anything – overdubbed on the vocals, guitar and fiddle. It was more about that being played live than Jamie sat in a room with a guide track, and that worked better for us, I think.”
True, and there’s a similar feel to what you achieved with one of your covers on the previous album, ‘Tailspin’.
‘Well, I don’t know how I got here, but I got here just the same.’
And if ‘Bloody but Unbowed’ is a track to finish your main set on from now on, I guess closing number, ‘Drinking to Forget’ is first encore territory.
“Yeah, although we haven’t played that live much yet, to be honest. It’s difficult to know where you’d fit it into a set. And because we’re pretty much playing all festivals at the moment, when you’ve got 40 to 60 minutes you tend to go for something a bit more upbeat. But I’m sure when we get back into venues indoors in the autumn, it’ll come into its own in the set, I imagine.”
Ooh, that quote dates this interview, doesn’t it? Anyway, ‘Drinking to Forget’ for me is maybe George Jones done more reflective, more delicately delivered. Nick’s out front this time too, and rightly so. And as the man himself says, ‘If you hear self-pity, well it doesn’t come from me; I suppose I should be on my way, if I could only find my key’.
“Well, do you know – the one regret for me about that song is that I’m not singing it! That’s not to say Nick’s not singing it well – because he does – but it’s got such a nice melody that I’ve picked up the guitar at home and sung it. But we always wanted to get Nick singing one of the songs and we weren’t sure if it was going to be that or another. I’d loved to have sung that though! I’m not saying I’d have done it any more justice, it’s just that it’s a really nice song to sing.”
To be honest, with the emotions laid bare like that, I feel it’s important that it is him singing. His slightly less assured vocal approach makes it all the more raw.
“I think from the album point of view, definitely. It certainly wasn’t a difficult decision where to put it on the album either. It just felt like the end of the album.”
Reckon you’re right, although I stand by what I say about ‘Bloody but Unbowed’ providing the proper climax.
“Yeah, it almost felt like we should have that, then have a big gap, so it’s almost like a secret track.”
I agree. Bands like The Thrills did that to perfection not so long ago.
“But then we thought that might be a bit corny, and besides, secret tracks don’t really work these days, do they!”
True enough. And all in all, I’d say this is your most accomplished album to date. Your 2007 debut appeared to be more of a live recording, and there’s a maturity in your voice now that maybe you didn’t have then, or that the recording process you used couldn’t quite capture 12 years ago.
“Possibly, although in some ways we’ve probably gone for a more untouched vocal than in the past. We’ve never been a band for lots of reverb and all that, but with this record we were even more straight with it. I liked the first recording (Lies We Have Told, from 2007) more than the second (Hell or High Water, 2012), which had good songs on it and I’m not unhappy with, but I think we got a bit too involved in the process. It was almost over-produced, and too slick.
“Lies We Have Told was a lot rawer and that had a lot to do with the guy who engineered and helped produce it, Nev (Dean), who got very involved in the process. Mark especially got on very well with him. He had a lot of ideas and input, and I think that came through. The second was slicker all round, but maybe too much at times.”
I think he’s being a little harsh on Hell or High Water there, but who am I to criticise – my own review here pulled no punches either, suggesting areas where it would have benefitted from being a little more raw. But the songcraft certainly comes through, and there are many corkers on that long player. This time around though, it was Stuart Jones recording, mixing and co-producing, at Woodworm Studios in Oxfordshire. And it’s a definite all-round winner. So how did that work – was Stuart fairly involved?
“He was, and he was great, very good at telling you when something wasn’t good enough, which is really necessary. Sometimes you need someone independent to say, ‘That was alright, but do you want to do it again?’ He asked at the start how much involvement we wanted, and we told him we had a good idea of how we wanted it to sound, but if he had any thoughts and ideas that might improve it, we’re open to it. He let us get on with it, but if there were areas where we could improve things …”
And you did this LP in two chunks of recording?
“Yeah, with the previous two albums it involved lots of weekends, so lots of two-day chunks, and that can get quite tiring. You don’t get a good run at it, and we weren’t always there at the same time. But this time we went residential at Woodworm, and it’s a fantastic studio. It’s Fairport Convention’s old studio and has a lot of history. I think it was Dave Pegg’s, and they still rehearse and record there. The woman in the B&B across the road where I stayed one night with my wife, said that before Cropredy, Fairport will rehearse in there with the doors open, so the whole village can hear them.
“Richard Thompson and Jethro Tull have recorded there too, and we were there for two five-day blocks, so took time off work and had another three days to mix it. That makes for a much more relaxed way of doing it, giving you time to work on stuff in the evenings and mornings before you start recording. And it gave us a chance to hang out with each other and swap ideas rather than record then just piss off home.”
All in all, while Lies We Have Told was the sound of a band finding their feet – and it sounds just as good now – and the second LP had its merits too, this third recording has captured something that arguably wasn’t there before. By rights it should be the album that pulls in new admirers, who can then go back and discover all that came before. But that’s my opinion, and as I said at the outset, it could be argued that I’ve got a vested interest. So why not get along and catch the band live, judge for yourselves.
All reproduced lyrics are from the pen of Nick Bliss and the copyright of Five String Music 2019.
The True Deceivers’ My Own Highway is available from the band at live shows and from their website. You can also follow them via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
The True Deceivers play The Star in Guildford, Surrey, on Saturday, February 29th, with support from The Nefarious Picaroons. For more detail, follow this link. And many more 2020 dates and festival appearances will follow, so keep in touch with the band to find out the details.