Ground-breaking singer/songwriter turned broadcaster and double WriteWyattUK interviewee Tom Robinson described Provincials on his BBC 6 Music show as ‘poetic, brooding, resonant and menacing’, with ‘an edge of Ennio Morricone’, while The Independent deemed them, ‘by turns ethereal, unsettling and hypnagogic’, offering a ‘fresh alternative take on English folk’, ‘beautifully intricate…a stellar, stellar band’.
Similarly, this alternative Hampshire three-piece describe themselves as a ‘dark folk / ecstatic rock trio’, although I take issue with that handle, judging by the tracks I’ve been privileged to hear from their as yet unreleased third LP.
It kind of works for their second album, 2019’s The Dark Ages, but this one sees them move on again, and – on the evidence of five teasers for the 12-track Heaven Protect Us – it’s not altogether folk, and not always so dark, as I suggest to guitarist/main songwriter Seb Hunter.
“Yeah, I don’t know. That’s me, I don’t know what to call us! Dark folk used to fit really well with the stuff we used to do … but we’ve now expanded the sound. First off, it was all dark harmoniums, lap steel and weird tunings.
“That’s probably still the core of our sound, all very soundtracky, and when we play live we tend to turn the lights off, go down to red fairy lights, all very vibey. But we’ve added drums, widening that sound, and like having free sections, coming from an improv background.
“However, that has opened this issue, having initially been pushed towards that folk label. We’re excited about our new material, heading towards a slightly more dynamic, more psychy side. But the album still has the dark stuff as well, so I don’t know if we’re going down the wrong route by leading with these tracks.”
Seb and his fellow Provincials, vocalist/theremin player Polly Perry and pianist/drummer Steve Gibson, hope to deliver Heaven Protect Us soon, and also embark on a full tour to help spread the word. And he assured this Lancashire-based scribe that they’re keen to return north.
“Very much so. Like everyone else we had to cancel everything last year, but we’ve lots of plans … it just depends at this point. Soon as everywhere is open, we’ll be on it. We’d be happy to get in a car and drive anywhere at this stage, with friends in Manchester, Sheffield, and so on.”
Provincials released debut LP, Muhsik seven years ago, although that passed me by then, not crossing my path until their vocalist was out on the road, fronting Polly and the Billets Doux, calling by at The Continental in Preston and Fylde Folk Festival in 2015, when she was the subject of a WriteWyattUK interview.
The Billets Doux story ended not long after, following two fine albums, Polly rejoining Seb and Steve. And a year on from the initial Covid-19 UK lockdown, they’ve just nailed this past 12 months with new single ‘Terms and Conditions’.
In a monochrome-filmed folk noir statement of sorts, the self-made tie-in promo video finds Polly behind a desk, addressing the nation, reading out details of the latest conflicting Government stay-at home lockdown advice, slowly losing her grip amid constant changes and mixed messages; while a masked-up Steve goes haywire with his kit and Seb lets loose on his six-string in a warehouse setting, the shutters symbolically dropping and finally re-opening.
All that’s missing is a sneak-shot of chief shit-stirrer Dominic Cummings brazenly walking past outside, I reckon. And yet … only problem is, I suggested, I’m not sure if we want to be reminded of this miserable pandemic year right now, however spot on its observations.
“Mmm … that’s the thing. At first, we thought it was going to be a spoken-word track with a more zoomy chorus, but then came up with this, and there’s the problem of when we should release it.”
The video certainly carries the vibe of stay-at-home Britain, Polly crammed into office space, Steve squeezed into a claustrophobic setting, and Seb … is he playing guitar while he should be working in that warehouse?
“That’s a storage facility just outside Winchester, run by Polly’s Mum and Dad parents. Under lockdown, you’re kind of limited to where you can do things.
“Steve has his own company, working as a dental technician, so he’s playing drums at his workplace, while Polly’s in my teenage daughter’s bedroom, and I’m stood around throwing stupid rock shapes in a storage warehouse.”
The song ends with the ambiguous line, ‘Take down the walls’, the shutter doors of the storage unit slowly raised again.
“Yes, although every now and again a family would walk past, and I’d be totally mortified. Rock’n’roll, man!”
Seb, a guitar teacher by day (having just tutored a local vicar before we spoke), made a few albums as part of decade-long improv project Crater with Steve, and also played with Owen Tromans in Delphic Vapours, an ‘improv guitar duo who bizarrely put out loads of cassettes and polled No.2 in a Village Voice Noise Albums of the Year chart’. As for Provincials …
“It started just as an idea. I was playing with Steve in Crater for about 10 years, and we were totally out there, really. I was playing lap steel, Steve was playing piano, and there was Polly. It was all entirely improvised.
“We had a session in a rehearsal room in Winchester, I recorded loads of it, that sort of coalescing into songs. I sent it to someone I knew who worked in the music industry in London, they said they loved it, and we took it from there.”
Seven years on, I love all five tracks I’ve heard from the third LP, with ‘Feels Like Falling’ a clear second single for me, music to Seb’s ears at a time when their part-time status suggests they can’t afford outside promotional help, established labels seemingly reluctant to take chances on non-roster artists in this current climate. And they’ve certainly done all the donkey work this time.
“It’s a terrible time for all the arts. But we’re in a fortunate position where we do everything ourselves – from the cover art to the videos, hoping those prove to be our shop window and people pick up on it all and break it out of our own social media bubble.”
They make a great team, the musicianship beyond reproach, the harmonies spot on, and Polly’s voice truly powerful when it needs to be. And I tell Seb that ‘Feels Like Falling’, like a couple of tracks here, reminds me of lots I love, yet nothing in particular … if you get me.
“I think I know what you mean. It’s kind of country, but sort of Aerosmith at the end.”
That’s one way of describing it. First, there’s Polly’s understated approach on the verses, then a gorgeous two-part harmony with Seb on the chorus, then … it goes somewhere else, Polly going airborne in the style of Merry Clayton on 1969’s ‘Gimme Shelter’, pushing that mighty voice of hers, going off at a tangent.
Then there’s the in-your-face ‘Planetary Stand-Off’, introductory hand claps quickly developing into full-blown Led Zeppelin-like heavy blues pomp. But it works, big time, and seems a contender for LP opener or closer, I suggest.
“That’s the opening song, and totally conceived as that, one we were very excited about and get a real thrill from playing.”
Alternatively, there’s ‘Outskirts’ …
“That’s more like the stuff off the last album.”
I see that, its soothing nature underpinned by melancholy quality. The opening riff reminded me of something I couldn’t place until after the interview, following much racking of the brain, its early chord sequence bringing to mind far removed but equally wondrous, early Psychedelic Furs single ‘Sister Europe’.
On the whole, again it seems familiar yet so different, somewhere between the revered Nick Drake and sadly (so far) forgotten Deep Season, favourites of mine since forming from the ashes of wondrous indie-pop outfit Jim Jiminee in 1990, not far from my South East roots and pretty close to Provincials’ own, that band looking to break through during a period in which it seemed most A&R men were more interested in clambering to sign baggy bands in the slipstream of The Stone Roses.
Anyway, there’s something else there. Maybe it’s just Polly’s laid-back vocal, but there’s a certain French chanteuse feel, I’d say.
“Do you know, that was originally called ‘Paris Film Rain’, my working title. And yes, it was totally that.”
It has that filmic quality, for sure. There’s also a bit of instrumental noodling, two minutes in …
“That’s probably the theremin … and then there’s some skittery drums kicking in …”
Indeed, as if a train’s reached a junction, taking a different road, so to speak.
Then there’s ‘Cold Fusioneers’, a song of at least two parts, its more measured verses followed by climactic choruses reminiscent of ‘Mandinka’ era Sinead O’Connor. And again, that big voice.
“Well, that to me is the obvious big single. But I seem to be the only person who thinks that! That’s the massive pop smash for me.”
Seb’s musical roots were actually in heavy metal, as reflected in critically-acclaimed 2004 memoir, Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict, loved by the likes of Bill Bailey, Bruce Dickinson, and various broadsheets and magazines, both sides of the Atlantic.
“I ‘escaped’ from metal in the early ‘90s, got into shoe-gazey stuff, only discovering The Beatles in my late 20s. You know how tribal music used to be! But this band came out of improvised music, and I guess we feel we can do anything really. There are no tribal loyalties now, and we’re multi-instrumentalists, so …”
There’s no confirmed LP release date yet, the band happy to put out occasional digital singles and videos to help spread the word. Besides, maybe they’re a little distracted right now.
Spring is on the mind, we’re about to come out of lockdown (hopefully), and there just happens to be a new arrival in the house for partners Seb and Polly, their son arriving two weeks before we spoke. In fact, that’s Bracken’s heartbeat sampled at the opening of ‘Terms and Conditions’.
“We had the scan earlier that day, had a recording, and Polly was like, ‘Right, I want this on there!’ And it works really well.”
Of their addition, proud Seb was more lost for words, however smitten, as if still processing the change.
“We’re slightly in the fog of newborn … getting the hours where we can … although I don’t think you ever make up for that lack of sleep. It’s amazing how little sleep the human being can function on, but you’re still slightly on the back-foot. You get used to it, but it’s a weird existence!”
For more information about Provincials and to keep updated regarding live shows and the band’s third album, you can head to https://provincials.bandcamp.com/ and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.