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Goblin Band performing at Green Note in Camden. They are standing along the side of the stage and the picture is shot from below so they appear to be looming over the camera.

Goblin Band: The Tradfolk Interview

Goblin Band have been summoning the fates, and Martin Carthy and Paul McCartney have already fallen under their spell. Jon Wilks caught up with them to find out why.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time around members of Goblin Band to work out where the energy comes from. Rowan Gatherer is a live wire – always there with a quick-witted answer; a true connoisseur of the nimble soundbite. You get the sense that he’d happily hold the fort for hours on end, given half a chance, although that’s not to say that he isn’t self-aware. He’s keen to get his bandmates into the conversation, too, even if it requires Alice Beadle to sit with her hand up, patiently waiting her turn.

Alice is perhaps the band’s most seasoned performer, already a New Roots finalist with her sister, Juliet. Her journey so far has crossed folk and classical borders, and when we meet on Zoom she is clutching a score (which Gatherer describes as another language entirely) and trying to get a word in before she has to sneak off and teach violin lessons. Also present is Sonny Brazil, a witty, more measured counterfoil to Gatherer’s explosive ardour. When Sonny speaks, they take their time and think things through, often returning with a wry, succinct reply. If Rowan is the face and mouthpiece of the band, Sonny is the mindful soul.

As with so many charismatic bands, however, this balance is key. There’s the sense that this is a real gang; the camaraderie is palpable. They bounce off each other, often finishing each other’s sentences, and their passion for traditional English folk music is infectious. While we’re missing other members (there are six of them in all), the three that have made it onto Zoom this afternoon have more than enough to say. Over the course of 90 minutes, we power through subjects as wide-reaching as the new, inclusive, queer-friendly folk scene, the demise of the Matchstick Piehouse (which seems to have had a similar pull for this generation of Londoners to the one Les Cousins did decades before them), modern folk music and its uncomfortable dependencies on social media, the political life of the queer performer, Goblin fashion, the fact that Martin Carthy loves them and Paul McCartney has been known to drop by, and, of course, the release of their debut single – out now via Broadside Hacks.

They can play and they can sing and they’re fearless… When I saw Goblin Band singing recently, I just thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?… They move stuff around… They go back to versions that we were too snotty to touch and they turn them into stomps.

Martin Carthy

Let’s start with your folk credentials. How did you first encounter traditional music?

Rowan: For me, it was always a background thing that was just floating around in strange, esoteric ways. I remember having a vague idea of what Morris dancing was, but I didn’t know what it was called or what it involved. I just recognised it, and I think folk music was a lot like that in general. I was living in Devon with my partner, whose parents are brilliant folk artists who do lots of community art, and they had Watersons CDs, among other things. I remember listening to For Pence and Spicy Ale and for a moment I was like, “Hot damn! This shit is fucking weird!” But it scratched an itch that I really wanted scratched.

It’s a massive bumpkin vibe, but I felt it expressed some longing for community and living in harmony with the environment. And that turned into me getting more obsessed with different early music instruments, because that is also a big part of my interest – medieval music, early music, stuff like that. I was always a performer at school, but I never thought I would become a music person. I was never good at playing an instrument in the way that these guys [indicates the other members of the Goblin Band] were when they were younger. I became obsessed with the hurdy-gurdy and recorder during lockdown, but I’m self-taught and I don’t have a lot of theory backing me up. It’s all just experience. I also have ADHD, so the way that I learn things is quite haphazard.

Alice: I was born in Devon. Most of the folk music in my life wasn’t from my family – it’s just from being in Devon. You can’t really escape it. When my family left Devon, we moved quite a bit and eventually ended up in Hastings. And you can’t really escape it there, either – all the festivals, and folkie people wandering about the streets everywhere. But I think most of my interest – my way into folk – has been through playing with my sister because we were really interested in early music and Renaissance, playing the recorders together. There’s a kind of blurred line between really early Baroque and then into Playford and then into folk stuff. No one really knows where that line starts or stops. But we loved that kind of repertoire. And then I met Sonny ages and ages ago, and we became best friends because of Leveret, basically.

Sonny: I suppose I came into it the same way a lot of people come into it – by realising that the way you’ve been seeing it up until now is naff, and then having to recalibrate. When I was young, I just loved The Lord of the Rings, and the first time I heard Martin Simpson playing ‘Dives and Lazarus’ [Roud 477], which I think was the first time I was aware I was listening to traditional English folk music, the first thing I thought was, “Oh my God, this sounds like it could be in The Lord of the Rings.”

Rowan: So it must be good, right?

Sonny: [Laughs] Well, then you develop a more sophisticated view of things. Although, I specifically remember I got my first concertina when I was 13 or something because I wanted to be a pirate [laughs]. And then, obviously, that fell through as a career path. But I think I’m close.

Rowan: Closer than you’ve ever been.

Sonny: I’ve spent a long time in that social media world where you hear a piece of folk music and you go, “That sounds like it could be in a tavern. I love a tavern!” You have that unsophisticated but perfectly innocent, lovely way of seeing this stuff that I think is fine. But then you just get nerdier and nerdier about it. I listened to Martin Simpson for years and then I found Nic Jones, and then finding Leveret was amazing. At that time, I still didn’t really know what traditional English folk music was. I listened to a lot of Irish folk music, again, like a lot of people do I think, because it’s just more accessible. I just didn’t know the English stuff was there. And then I remember reading an article in fRoots about Leveret and listening to them and going, “Oh, that’s how good it can be.”

You just have these steps, all the way from, “Wow, that sounds like a tavern”, all the way up to complete nerdiness where you’re basically a concertina collector.

Sonny Brazil, Goblin Band

Meeting Rowan was a big step up for me as well, just in finding those English folk songs that I hadn’t had access to before. I didn’t really know about the Watersons or Martin Carthy. I didn’t really listen to them before I met Rowan. You just have these steps, all the way from, “Wow, that sounds like a tavern”, all the way up to complete nerdiness where you’re basically a concertina collector [laughs].

Goblin Band's Sonny Brazil and Gwenna Harman, live at Green Note, February 2024.
Sonny Brazil and Gwenna Harman, live at Green Note, February 2024

How did you meet, then? How did Goblin Band come together?

Sonny: Alice and I met at a friend’s 25th birthday party back in December 2019. Alice turned up with a violin, which I thought could be really amazing or really shit. You just never know. She played ‘Happy Birthday’, and I’d never heard it being played so nicely before! So I asked her if she’d heard of Leveret and she just started playing a bunch of Leveret stuff. It blew my mind. It was just amazing to meet someone who knows all the same tunes as you when you feel like they’re so niche.

And how did Rowan come into this?

Rowan: There was a big creative network of folkie, younger people that started on Instagram. I was living in Devon with my partner during the pandemic, and when we all came back to London, people started making it a real thing. Holly and Àine, the people I live with, were friends of Sonny, Àine having worked at Hobgoblin [on Rathbone Place]. Holly and Àine are in a band at the moment called Elfshot – I think it’s an old term for a stitch. Like, you’ve been shot by an elf’s arrow and you’ve got a stitch. I think that’s the idea.

Anyway, Àine introduced me to Sonny. I met them at the shop and there was this exciting sense that there could be a folk music-related community of friends here in London. We started a session out of the shop and we invited people that we knew who were also looking for that. Occasionally, people came into the shop and we’d invite them to come to the session. That went on for months and eventually evolved into being more like a band because certain people were there all the time. When we started doing shows, the sessions sort of fell by the wayside and we started going to the Folk of the Round Table for a kind of public folk session that we didn’t have to organise (although Sonny does help with that).

So you began to form your own folk enclave?

Rowan: Meeting Sonny meant meeting Alice and that became the core with Paul and Gwenna and my partner and some of our other friends, like Seth, who has done some of our artwork. Then there were members of Shovel Dance Collective – we always just used to hang out at the shop and play tunes and sing for each other.

You weren’t keen to explore the existing folk sessions taking place in London?

Rowan: We didn’t know any sessions in London at that time that we felt comfortable going to. We just didn’t feel excited to go to any of them, and we were worried that we wouldn’t fit in. We just felt like we really wanted something that was made for people like us – something that felt safe for younger people, that was really accessible, open-minded and queer-friendly from the get-go. Folk of the Round Table already did that and we didn’t know about it at the time.

Do you think that’s still an issue? Do you think the older scene is less welcoming? A little bit more cliquey?

Rowan: Not necessarily. I think that it can be a problem in any space. I’ve certainly been to folkie spaces that were younger people and I still didn’t feel like I fit in. It’s not necessarily that way, but you do notice patterns. With younger people, there’s more of an awareness of a culture which is often besmirched by older people. [Puts on a haughty voice] “It’s political correctness gone mad. It’s this wokeness culture that they’re all talking about…” Actually, the reality of this culture is that people are actively inclusive instead of just thinking they’re kind of open-minded and that’s enough. Instead of making rules and boundaries, it’s about putting things in place so that it is accessible and fair for people who are minorities in the folk space, which is anyone who isn’t a cis white person. And I think things like Folk of the Round Table have started up because people have experienced the exact same thing that we have, and they’ve wanted to make a space where we get a say in what the rules are.

People need to do more work and listen to people who feel excluded. It only stands to benefit everyone and the whole culture.

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

Those sessions are completely accommodating to the older people who also go to the other sessions in London. There are a lot of regulars who I see every time who are part of that older scene and go to all the other sessions. They may go to Cecil Sharp House, but they come to Folk of the Round Table, too, and they’re completely welcomed and accommodated. It’s not like there’s a conflict at all. It’s just that the younger scene has prioritised the creation of accessible spaces for folk music. I’m really happy that I’m getting into folk music at a time when that is the case, because it feels like it’s been a long time coming and people need to do more work and listen to people who feel excluded. It only stands to benefit everyone and the whole culture.

Are you aware of the Access Folk programme?

Rowan: Yeah, I’m actually on the email list. I was really excited by that and wanted to be involved but it’s just happened that I’ve not been able to be a part of it in the way that I wanted [due to band commitments] and I feel like now it has zoomed off ahead of me. I feel like I could probably get more involved if I really wanted to, but I find being a part of a community via email, or via Zoom, is not super enticing. But I really appreciate and respect what they’re doing, because I feel like it is a kind of formalised and slightly more old-school way of pushing the things that we’re talking about here with younger folk sessions and stuff like that.

Tell me about the Folk of the Round Table. Is it still based at Matchstick Piehouse?

Rowan: It was, but now the Matchstick has been shut down. It’s a symptom of a really big national problem – the cost of living crisis and landlords having all the power. They’ve been chucked out of that space and now it’s running out of SET Social in Peckham instead. I don’t know how long they’re going to stay there, but that’s where they are now. So it has taken a big hit and it’s been really sad and, honestly, quite enraging to see it happen. We’re living at a time where you’re desperate for a community like that, for a kind of word-of-mouth, grassroots, radical, accessible space to do these things. You need that community now even more, in this digital age of spiralling misery. It’s really powerful to have that and then to have that for folk music, where it feels like that’s part of the value of folk music as well. And to have it pulled away because of a greedy landlord, basically… and then to see the community take a hit from that and suffer… that was quite upsetting. But it’s still got a very strong community of people who run it and go to it, as well as all of the people who are really invested in it.

You need that community now even more, in this digital age of spiralling misery.

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

We went to those last few nights at the Matchstick Piehouse and the speeches that people gave were really moving, talking about how important it was for them; how this was the place that they got into traditional music. It was so welcoming. Lots of people came and they didn’t sing a traditional song but they would see someone else do one, and then they’d feel comfortable coming back and trying a traditional song at the next session. And then, before you know it, they’re doing that every week, and they’ve basically become what you might describe as a folkie. They’re part of the community. We’ve seen that happen so many times. And on those last nights, people would arrive at the Piehouse having written songs about the Piehouse. I’ve never seen a community like that, whether it’s around a folk session or anything else. And I think that that’s true for quite a lot of people. Capitalism and austerity and the digital takeover of everyday life has really made people desperate for all of that.

At the risk of sounding extremely old, is it the case for you and your generation that you are suffering some kind of digital fatigue? I suppose there can’t be a time in your life when things weren’t digitised.

Rowan: I think so, although Sonny’s slightly older than me.

Sonny: I started secondary school in 2005, so I remember YouTube and all of those things happening for the first time. But the thing I would say here is that a lot of what gets peddled to us through social media is very individualistic, even with regard to folk culture. It’s still like, “Go and live in a cabin in the woods on your own”, which nobody should do because it would be rubbish [laughs]. I don’t know why, it just seems to be a hyper-individualistic version of what folkie people do. We actually don’t want to do that. We want to be in a community of people… maybe still in the woods [laughs] but having other people there is a really important part of it.

We are dependent on spaces like Instagram, and that is incredibly uncomfortable

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

Rowan: We have a weird, mixed dependency on [social media] because the communities that we’re part of – our band, our friends, the folk community that we engage with – is dependent on spaces like Instagram, and that is incredibly uncomfortable. Everyone knows it is and feels tired out by it, but forced to engage with it. And I think that that’s something that older people would resonate with, too, but with different platforms. I find that when we go and play gigs for older audiences, they usually ask about Facebook and I just say the same pithy thing: “One is enough.” We’re not on Facebook, but I think everyone feels forced to engage with it and are not happy about it, and are aware and disturbed by the idea that community, friendship and communal events are essentially ruled by a commercial model, a commercial space. That’s the part that feels really disturbing. And that commercial drive also has an influence on what is allowed and what isn’t.

The idea that you could separate politics from the rest of life is a privileged delusion

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

For example, we depend on Instagram for our self-promotion and professional profile, but there are certain things you can’t do. And we see that now at the moment with Palestine. This isn’t a conspiracy theory because people have confirmed it, but social media platforms will essentially push you to the side if you get too political about things that they don’t like – it’s sometimes called shadow banning – and Palestine is one of those things. So we feel that it’s really important to make it clear where we stand on political issues as a band and that we don’t separate art and politics. So we’re really big on trans rights and Palestine right now, among other things, and it feels very uncomfortable to have to depend on places like Instagram and Facebook that can just decide that you’re not allowed to do that. It also feels quite powerful that we’ve used this platform that leeches off our life force to make something really beautiful. We use it as a platform to jump off and meet in real life, where we feel like we can escape from it a bit. But it’s something I think we need to work on, isn’t it? As a culture, everyone does. Not just folk culture or just us as individuals.

When you speak about this younger, more inclusive scene, are you seeing other places around the country where that’s reflected?

Rowan: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s where communities have come together in a weird, loose cultural moment. It feels like the lovely people who’ve been part of the folk scene in some capacity for a decade or more, they’re still there and they’re now coming together with people who are younger and part of things that we’re part of. With younger, queer people and people who are part of the trans community, stuff like that, it feels like they’re seeing something in folk culture that speaks to them and the experience of their lives in the world right now. And so they’re coming to it because they see that value and they think it’s beautiful. So it feels like the communities are overlapping and coming together in places in different ways.

We played in Cardiff recently with Craven, who we love. They’re one of our favourite folk bands. They’re so like us as well – same age, queer, quite arty guys. They’re kind of spread around a little bit, but they’re Cardiff and Stroud and Bristol, too. And then the North has a good sense of that happening. A lot of the people that we know in the folk scene in London are from up north, and we know people up north, too, like Brown Wimpenny and Seb Stone. We’re friends with Daisy Rickman and Angeline Morrison, so it feels like Cornwall has got something going on as well. There are these pockets that are being joined together by social media and the folk scene, but also being challenged by the cost of National Rail [laughs]. There’s some really wonderful stuff coming out of Wales, too, and I’m very excited about that. My housemates, Elfshot, played with Cerys Hafana the other night at Moth Club. Cerys was amazing.

You’ve just said that there’s no separation between art and politics for you. Let’s go back to that point. Was that there from the get-go with Goblin Band?

Rowan: I think it wasn’t really something that we were overtly thinking about. My background before being in Goblin Band was being a visual artist interested in the same things that Goblin Band is interested in. My art was incredibly political in its subject matter, so I was bringing that with me anyway. And these political conversations are part of our everyday life. Meanwhile, folk music is the history of us. It’s the history of our country, of our land, of our communities, in a way that is outside of the history books. That is a political thing. Everything that is chronicled in folk music is a reflection of a political story, a wider political history that we feel really passionate about. Our everyday lives are constantly threatened by what’s happening in politics, and that becomes even more inescapable because of things like climate doom. It has been like that for people beforehand – queer people, people of colour – their lives have been constantly under threat from things that are happening in the political sphere. Other groups might feel that they can separate these things but I think that the idea that you could separate politics from the rest of life is a privileged delusion. So why wouldn’t it be present in the way that we interpret the music?

I think every time you sing a piece, you’re making a choice. You’re retelling history in a certain way

Alice Beadle, Goblin Band

Alice: Coming from a classical background, the idea that art can be separated from politics has always been there. And there’s an older argument that actively splits it up. Because if you split it up, then you can listen to a lot of things that are great. But it’s like an excuse – “I can listen to Wagner and it’s OK”. And I think, recently, in lots of different areas, that’s definitely being challenged. Because music changes throughout history depending on who is listening and what you’re coming to it with. It’s so much shaped by what’s happening around it, by who’s listening in the community, but also how we’re playing it. And none of it can be separated. I think that’s easier to see in folk music because it’s so much more personal. But even with the choices we make today, I think every time you sing a piece or you play a piece, you’re making a choice. You’re retelling history in a certain way, and so it’s your responsibility when you pick the piece. I really don’t think you can separate art and politics, or art and the community in any sort of musical way.

Rowan: I’m a big fan of Julian Cope and there’s a CD that just has a big insert that says, “Even your shit is political”. And I think it’s true.

Sonny: I suppose there’s an academic way you can look at it. There’s the idea that folk music is the music of the proletariat and all of that sort of stuff, which is fine, but it’s a bit complicated to look at it like that with a modern lens. It’s certainly worth talking about. It’s certainly a big thing. We haven’t thought about it like that as much maybe as other people, just because it’s always been a necessity for us as a band, very much for practical reasons. I can’t imagine not being political because as a queer person, I feel like I’m politicised all the time anyway.

Just by getting on stage as a trans person, you’re politicised

Sonny Brazil, Goblin Band

I’ve heard people say, “I hate it when folk music gets political”. What do you mean? That’s a really broad thing to say and I don’t understand how it cannot be, really. When you know people who are trans and you know people who are disabled and they’re like your best friends and you’re also sort of, like, edging into those categories yourself, it’s just your whole life anyway and you’re politicised all the time. For friends of ours who are in folk bands who are transfemme, for example, they’re so politicised at the moment anyway that they don’t have a choice. Just by getting on stage as a trans person, you’re politicised, whereas if you’re just a bloke who’s playing some music, you have a choice as to whether you choose to be political or not. It just feels like that’s never really been a choice that we’ve made because we just have to do it anyway for the sake of our friends and ourselves.

So in terms of repertoire, when you’re choosing songs, are you consciously choosing songs that make a statement?

Rowan: The way that we’ve just described how we approach it might make it seem like we’re really hard about it – that we need to choose something that says this and then something that says this other thing. But it’s very much the opposite because we know everything that we’re approaching has some kind of political thread in it and some kind of political statement, whether it’s really in your face or just a kind of mild undertone that is a reflection of what it means to sing that particular song at this particular time. It’s usually just driven by having things that work and sound good as a group and that work to our strengths, and having enough things that also spread out the spotlight in the group because there’s a lot of us and we’re all good at very different things. That almost feels politically adjacent because some people are always privileged and then others aren’t. So it feels very wholesome to be able to get to do that for each other. And doing that in the band has allowed individual people to personally develop and do things that they wouldn’t have done if we hadn’t had that culture, I think, of sharing stuff.

We also have a seasonal thing that we do where we change the setup throughout the year. We have like a seasonal repertoire that we develop, and we need to make sure that there’s new stuff, otherwise we’ll get bored and it won’t be fun. So we keep cycling through new stuff and it’ll be like, “Oh, May Day is coming up. What May song should we do this year? Christmas is coming up. What do we want to do for the Christmas show?”

Alice: When we choose things, it’s mainly just what we’re excited about. Rowan comes to sessions like, “I really love this song and I can’t get it out my head. We have to play it now otherwise the world will end!”

Sonny mentioned earlier your initial infatuation with Martin Simpson and Nic Jones. Rowan has mentioned the Watersons and Alice has a background in classical as well as folk. When you’re out looking for repertoire, are there particular places you’re heading to? Have you been down to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp house? Are you finding your stuff on old CDs? How does the Goblin Band repertoire come together?

Rowan: We’ve got so much to choose from now, haven’t we?

Sonny: We were talking about this the other day with someone. I can’t remember who it was, but I think we were talking about how nerdy we look to people who are just coming into the folk scene and we like finding songs that people haven’t heard as much before…

Rowan: …yes, that we were going into an ancient tomb and opening a great leather-bound tome and [blows the dust off an imaginary book]. But really, 90% of what we’re doing is just going on Mainly Norfolk [laughs].

Sonny: We can literally just Google it. I’ve never been to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. I’d really like to go. It’s just one of those things where I generally tend to feel more comfortable learning my songs from other people. And I feel like we are in a slightly different position now than musicians were in the 1960s, where people were playing and interpreting a lot of the songs for the first time in hundreds of years. That generation of folkies gave us the ability to carry on the oral tradition in a slightly more authentic way, which is just to listen to people that we like and sort of be inspired by their version of it. But it is very different now because we’ve got this world of copyright infringement and recording, I think, as well…

Rowan: …people having the kind of commercial, definitive recording of a song; like someone’s made a traditional song famous because they’ve done it in a certain way.

Sonny: With ‘Willie’s Lady’ [Roud 220], I first listened to the Breton tune – I think the Chieftains played it – and I loved it for years and years. I never even knew there was a version with words. It was only recently that I found that out, and it was just through someone else. A friend sang it to me and told me that Martin Carthy does it, and then I went and looked it up. Even though a lot of these things are very well known in the folk scene, it still takes quite a lot sometimes to find them. It’s great to hear about these things through word of mouth, I think. And then you hear about them and you just Google them. I really like doing that.

Rowan: I think the ideal for me is having a varied methodology in your practice of finding and learning new songs. I think they’re all valid, but they all have different strengths and challenges. And the more that you’re able to try different ways of doing it, I think the healthier your music and your repertoire will be. The Voice of the People anthology is a really good thing for that because it’s full of songs that only have one recording – they’re not definitively recorded later by musicians in the last 50 years. You can find gems in there in a way that gets around going to a library. We really respect and appreciate the thing of going to a physical space and finding a text and then pairing the text with a tune that you’ve either found somewhere else or made. I think that’s an incredible thing that people do. I can’t do it for some reason. It’s just not how I work. I’d like to be able to do that kind of thing.

So, you’re interested in finding songs that are more obscure?

Rowan: We’re always joking about this toxic folk attitude that everyone applies to themselves of like, “I have to get this secret song that nobody else knows, and then I will get all the credit for it”. It just seems like a really fucked up, hyper-individualistic, commercial approach to the music, which is perverse because that’s just not what the song represents at all. If I found a song that no one had ever heard before, and it was just some bloke singing it on a farm somewhere, and I was like, “Oh my god! A brand new folk song that no one’s ever heard before.” The idea of not just recording him doing it feels kind of rude. I wouldn’t want to take that song that he’s singing and be like, “Forget about that guy. This is mine.”

The new single that you’ve released is ‘Prickle Holly Bush’ [Roud 144]. Why that song in particular?

Rowan: The whole way that we recorded any music at all is incredibly circumstantial. We would have loved to do some recording but it’s just so inaccessible, financially. So it wasn’t really on our to-do list. But our friend, Iona, who helps run Folk of the Round Table, started a recording project with her friend because she was graduating from Goldsmiths doing sound design. So she was like, “Hey, I’ve made this very accessible deal for you to essentially do this for free and just pay back the cost of it later from whatever you make from it.” So we did that with her and we had just a few sessions where we had to get as much as we could. It came out of nowhere. It was just what we had in the repertoire at the time that we felt would record well, and we’ve played ‘Prickle Holly Bush’ at every gig for maybe the last year, or coming up to that.

I brought it to the group because I was obsessed with the Waterson:Carthy version of it. I loved that it was so repetitive, but it just did not get old. And then we started doing it as a band and it became its own thing. I don’t know where the punk energy came from, but every time we do a song that has come through a Waterson’s version, we tend to make it a lot faster, punkier and rowdier. Even the version we’ve released – I listened to that the other day after not listening to it for ages and I was like, “this is very slow, very austere”. Normally we do it so much quicker because we just have such a good time doing it and it’s a massive stomp.

‘Prickle Holly Bush’ feels like a metaphor for a queer experience of estrangement and chosen family and needing to find a community who will save you

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

The reading that comes with our version, which I try and explain every time we do it, is very important. When I brought it to the group I was just thinking about the fanciful historical tale of a guy being hanged and his family forsaking him and his lover being the one that comes to save him. It feels like a metaphor for a queer experience of estrangement and chosen family and needing to find a community that will save you. That’s something that queer people understand very well as a sort of communal experience. It goes against the mainstream narrative of the nuclear family unit and family comes first, and stuff like that. It sort of opposes that in a way.

We would never have expected it, but this has happened quite often when we’ve performed this song for queer audiences: we’ve had people crying at the end. We did it at a Pride Folk event at Matchstick Piehouse in the summer last year and a young person who was queer came up to me, crying and thanking me, saying, “That really affected me and really touched me and moved me.” That has happened in different ways at quite a few gigs. We never expect it – who would be so self-important as to expect that? We’re doing it for ourselves and we’re doing it in the only way that we know how. But then to have it validated by someone coming up to you and crying and telling you that they’re moved and empowered by you just being yourself – it feels very radical and powerful. I think we’re able to do that because we have such a strong sense of identity and a strong kind of bond in the band. We’re all on each other’s side.

We don’t want to engage with fast fashion and the neocolonial network of foreign exploitation of working-class people

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

Let’s talk about clothes.

Rowan: What are we wearing this season? Well, let’s get started [laughs]. I’ll go first.

You have a very distinctive look. And because there is a political side to everything this band does, I’m assuming that the aesthetic has meaning, too.

Rowan: The way that we approach folk music is the same way that we approach fashion. So the way we dress is largely folk fashion, but everybody has their own style. We want to look good on stage – I think anyone does – but we don’t wear clothes on stage that we wouldn’t wear off stage… except for maybe when Paul’s dressed like a giant ghostly green man with tea strainers on his eyes [laughs]. Apart from that, we’re pretty much dressing like we would normally dress.

It’s an ethos of wearing secondhand clothes, and dressing in a way that is whimsical, I suppose, but not vapid. We’re very interested in good quality clothes that are secondhand and that have a kind of traditional basis. And we’re kind of dressed like that right now. So you can see I’m wearing my fisherman’s jumper and Sonny’s got their sexy woollen trousers on. There’s a group style, but it’s all just because we love how each other dress and we inspire each other. And it’s all kind of tied up with not wanting to buy new clothes unless you’re buying them from an individual or a very small maker. We don’t want to engage with fast fashion and the neocolonial network of foreign exploitation of working-class people. It feels like that lines up very clearly with the politics of a lot of the folk music we sing and play, which is concerned with the plight of the working classes, and manufacturing, which we’ve now destroyed and exported overseas.

Sonny: Wearing clothes like this that are old, or that are made of those sorts of materials that were made to last a very long time, means you don’t have to buy clothes as much. And I just genuinely think they’re better.

I work on Thames Barges. I wear these clothes all the time. But I’ve been accused before of trying to dress like a Thames Barges person by my colleagues who are just wearing, like, a North Face jacket. But there have genuinely been times where I’ve been at the helm or on the deck and it’s poured down with rain, and people have said to me, “Right, Sonny, you’re staying up here and you’re steering the barge, because your clothes are way more hardy than any of ours”.

I live on a boat as well. I have to move it all the time. I have to do a lot of stuff that’s quite dirty and practical. After replacing my entire wardrobe, as I have now, basically, with clothes made of wool and linen and cotton and old, thick sort of materials, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t do that now. But it is fundamentally inaccessible. I think we’re all kind of lucky that we’ve had friends who can show us how to find the right thing. But a lot of the time, if you are looking for clothes like this, if you don’t know where to look, you’re going to be looking at things that cost £300-£400 each. Good clothes aren’t accessible.

Rowan: It used to be easier to snap that shit up in a charity shop or somewhere like that. But now, even those spaces have been gentrified and streamlined commercially. We look in those places and on eBay, but you have to work quite hard to find them. And it’s just really sad because it feels like a reflection of how the quality of clothing, the quality of food, sometimes the quality of housing, the quality of life has gone down in many ways, which it needn’t have done. And it seems like it’s just related to profiteering on a scale that is obscene and is about the exploitation of common people everywhere for the profit of a very tiny minority of people. Yeah, I mean, I’m on my soapbox about that, but it is true.

Sonny: When I first met Rowan, he didn’t have a lot of money. I think he had dropped out of uni and didn’t have any income or anything, and he just made loads of his own clothes. He was wearing full outfits that he just made himself.

Rowan: People always ask us if we’re Hamish. And I’m like, “No, I don’t know him” [laughs]. But, obviously, they mean Amish.

Sonny: People think we’re Amish a lot.

Rowan: People ask me if I’m some kind of priest or something. Sometimes people shout things that are less welcome, so you do get bothered for it. And that’s weird because we’re just dressing how we feel comfortable, but the way that we feel comfortable is strange and freakish for most people. So you are open to just being stared at constantly. And we keep finding that, when we’re going and playing shows in other parts of England, it comes out in different ways. In London, people don’t really say anything. I can see people staring here and there, but then when we went to Margate recently, we were like, “Oh, people are really staring here. They’re not used to it.”

I suppose people assume that it’s some kind of cosplay.

Rowan: Yeah. I think that’s the thing that feels the most uncomfortable. One of the worst things about how other people see it, or that you’re worried if other people see it, is that you feel like you’re doing it for them, or for attention, or it’s contrived in some kind of way. And that is a really toxic way to think about how other people are dressed. You should just be accepting of how anyone is dressed, pretty much. You should just be like, “Well, that’s just how they want to dress,” and leave it at that and not shout at them about it.

When I met Martin Carthy it was just like, “Oh, shit. He’s exactly what I feared he would be. He’s gorgeous”

Rowan Gatherer, Goblin Band

You have attracted the attention of Martin Carthy, and, apparently, Paul McCartney as well. How are you dealing with all this celebrity admiration?

Rowan: What’s Paul done now? Is he outside? [Laughs] We just never expect people to be so positive about it, especially Martin, because we all just love him and he’s just such a genuine, down-to-earth, kind, generous guy. And when you’re meeting your idols, even if they are folk idols, you’re still like, “OK, don’t build it up in your head before you get to know them because you’ll be disappointed.” So I did that with Martin, and then we met him, and it was just like, “Oh, shit. He’s exactly what I feared he would be. He’s gorgeous.”

Sonny: We supported him at Moth Club, and it felt like it took a long time for him to make his mind up [about what we were doing], and I sort of gave up. I kind of assumed that we would play and he would just be like, “Oh, that’s fun, isn’t it?” and then just not really talk about it again. And we weren’t sure after we played – we didn’t really speak, and we just had no idea that he even thought it was any good. We certainly weren’t expecting him to prop us up in any way. So, yeah, it was just really surprising and really nice when he started talking about us.

Rowan: When we found out he actually liked us, it went straight to our heads. [Puts on sarcastic, plumy voice] Now we consider ourselves to be somewhat above Martin Carthy and Paul McCartney and all of them.

I was thinking about something from Folk Britannia, because I’ve watched that documentary series so many times, and there’s a really funny sound bite where Jim Moray says something like, “In the folk world, it’s alright if Martin Carthy says it’s alright.” And now I’m applying it to the situation where Martin Carthy says that I’m all right.

Isn’t it the case that Paul McCartney was one of the first people to buy your music?

Sonny: He bought the EP that I put out two years ago. I don’t think he knows my name or anything. He just comes into the shop and wants to have some ‘bantz’. He comes in and sees me, and he just plays a little tiny harmonica in my face and I play a concertina in his face and he tells me that I’m concertina mad and then leaves. He’s on first-name terms with our bandmate, Paul. When Paul was in hospital, he got a phone call from McCartney saying, “Are you okay?” He was on a hospital ward and he had a whole conversation with Paul McCartney and then put the phone down and was like, “I’m not going to tell anyone who that was because they’ll think I’m insane”.

You’ve talked about creating your own space within the folk scene. I wonder whether you feel that you’re accepted into what already exists. Are you hoping to go and play at Sidmouth Folk Festival and places like that, or are you starting from scratch and making your own thing?

Rowan: We’re happy to play pretty much anywhere. It’s not that we avoid the older scene or that we avoid the folk clubs or anything like that. We’d happily play them and be part of that. It’s just that our musical evolution as a group of friends in a band has happened at a time when our own community has started to thrive. And we see that with our friends who live in other places, too. It’s quite obvious to us that we’re spoiled. We feel quite spoiled that we’ve got people like Campbell from Broadside Hacks and Moth Club who just really like what we do. It feels like that’s quite a tangibly new thing to be happening on our doorstep.

So, we’re happy to play in the older folk world and the newer one. It’s just that we’re born of the newer one and we’d like to see them come together more and learn from each other. There doesn’t need to be any conflict around there being different scenes at all, and I haven’t really seen a lot of that. I’ve seen people coming together and sharing and being excited about it. I remember Àine, who I live with, calling this concertina guy who runs a website that sells a lot of concertinas. They just chatted to this guy for ages and ages and he was so excited about young people in London specifically. He was like, “I’ve heard about this Matchstick Pieland and this guy who shows up and plays the hurdy-gurdy and he always wears brown” [laughs]. And it was really nice hearing things like that, where it all comes together and feels wholesome and encouraging. Things are going in a nice direction. And I think we just feel really lucky to be part of that. And we’re also very grateful for all of the support that people have given us, especially you and Martin Carthy and so many other people who could be seen as part of a folk scene before us.

I think folk does have an icy exterior and it’s not an accurate representation of the whole thing, but it is a reflection of a certain strain of gatekeeping; a kind of snobbery. But it’s there in all kinds of art, isn’t it? It’s just that folk does it in a way that’s so easy to put your finger on and has such a strong stereotype. But I feel like we’ve managed to avoid that for a while. [Laughs] I’m not emotionally prepared for anyone to publicly dislike something that I’ve done. I’m too fragile. I can’t handle it.

‘Prickle Holly Bush’ is out now via Broadside Hacks. It is available to stream in all the usual places. Keep an eye on the Goblin Band Instagram for big announcements coming soon.