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Leveret band members sit on the stones of Dartmoor, laughing at a joke one of them is telling.

Leveret: the 10th anniversary interview

As Leveret celebrate their 10th anniversary as a trio, Jon Wilks chats to them about the way they make music, and their new album, Forms.

What happens when you ask a trio of musicians as fluid and intangible as Leveret to analyse their music? Extraordinary recipes for word salad, that’s what. For Andy Cutting, there’s plenty of sidewards depth, soft brains and a second bite of “the golden pear”. Rob Harbron favours soft hands and “open-ish tunes”, while Sam Sweeney is lost in the ego-less magic of it all.

The truth is, it’s never very fair to ask profoundly creative people to unpick their process. That way, madness lies – or, at least, the possibility of exposing the essence and watching it evaporate in front of you. For a band like Leveret, the spontaneity and sense that anything could happen is their raison d’être. As they explain here, they rarely rehearse, setlists are devised five minutes before the first and second halves of their concerts, and their latest album was recorded as much on a set of hunches as anything else.

As they celebrate 10 years of doing this thing that they do, and prepare to release a brand new album, Forms, we caught up with Andy, Rob and Sam for a long chat about the amorphous world of folk’s premiere supergroup.

We’re three people who just happen to have a close musical bond and speak the same language.

Sam Sweeney

Leveret has been together for 10 years. Congratulations!

Andy Cutting: Thank you, yes. It’s come around rather quickly. I think the unmentionable pandemic probably cut out two of those years.

Rob Harbron: It’s 10 years from us first playing together, probably, as opposed to 10 years from our first gig as Leveret. We played a bit and then we did some gigs under our own names before we settled on the Leveret name. But it is 10 years of us making music as a trio.

Obviously, you knew each other for a long time before Leveret…

AC: Not really, no. I’ve known Rob for a long time. I remember doing various workshops up in the northeast and northwest. I think Folkworks was one, and there was one at a brewery in Kendall. I didn’t know Sam, though… although, really bizarrely, Sam Sweeney and his family used to live in the same village that I lived in, Castle Donnington. I remember a do in the village hall one afternoon. I thought I’d stick my head in and there were these two little boys, one playing the fiddle. It was very sweet. He was playing folk tunes and it was lovely. I think that was the first time I saw him, but I didn’t really know Sam until I joined Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party. That’s where the seed of Leveret started, I think, for me.

So, Fay Hield’s band was the first example of the three of you playing music together professionally?

RH: Yeah, that would have been the first time. I’d done bits before with you, hadn’t I Andy? We did some funny squeeze box gig at Sidmouth Folk Festival. Sam and I had also done things before, but not like duo or trio gigs. But once we started playing with Fay, that kind of concentrated it. There’d be a tune set in every gig and, just to keep it interesting for us, we used to just try and play something different every night.

What was it that first attracted you to each other, then? There must be a certain something as musicians, right? Because all three of you do session stuff and you play with lots of different people, but clearly this is something special. What was it, do you think, that made this combination click?

Sam Sweeney: On occasion, we’ve been asked as a band whether we would like to bring anyone else in for a special do or whatever, and it’s an extremely difficult thing to answer because, the way that we make music – I can’t think of anyone else, really, who does it the way we do and would naturally fit into the lineup. And for me, as someone who discovered English music long after I’d heard Irish music, Scottish music, folk rock and all the stuff my parents listened to, it was actually Rob who was the big musical carrot that was dangled in front of me [laughs].

The way that Rob played English music… it seemed like magic.

Sam Sweeney

I met Rob at Folkworks. Particularly with the English Acoustic Collective, the way that Rob played English music was extremely alluring to me. It sort of seemed like magic. I mean, it’s still magic, but to me, back then, it was completely unknown. I didn’t understand how that music was made, so there was a sort of magic to the way that Rob was making music. And then it was through meeting Rob and the English Acoustic Collective at the English Acoustic Collective summer school that I got into what Andy was playing with Chris Wood, or had been playing, because they weren’t really playing together anymore. So I got into Andy and Chris’s music after that. For me, personally, that magic and mystery of how Rob and Andy played English music was what I wanted to understand.

RH: I should interject here and say that I wouldn’t have been in any position to play music like that, and I wouldn’t have been playing music like the English Acoustic Collective did, had I not been so massively influenced by what Andy and Chris Wood were doing when I heard them in my teens. So there are three generations of influence going on in Leveret. When we play together, though, that absolutely vanishes and just feels like we’re all absolutely in the same place. I don’t know if that’s why we’re in a band together, but that’s probably part of it.

AC: I think it takes a certain kind of attitude, together with aptitude, to play in the ways that we want to play. Taking us right back to when I started playing with Chris Wood, he’d been to Quebec in Canada and he came back with a load of music. Some of it was very recognisably English European tunes, but in Quebec he could see them playing it with a totally different flavour. Quite a lot of the tunes were very similar and sometimes identical, but they had a certain thing about them and he wanted to play – not copying – that Quebecois way of playing, but with somebody that wasn’t a bog-standard English session player. And he found me. I was very green and new, and he just came to my house and we sat down and played and went, “Cool”.

There’s a queue 100 miles long of people who can play up and down, but there isn’t that depth to it.

Andy Cutting

We made this recording that never came out, and then we thought, “Well, we should do some more of this. Let’s go and do some gigs”. As far as rehearsals went, well… we didn’t. We just learned the tunes and went and did some gigs. There wasn’t that thing of, “Oh, well, we need to arrange everything and have settings of everything.” It was just, “No, we don’t need that. We understand the tunes, we understand that they’re not one-dimensional.” It’s not just a series of notes going up and down, and different time values. If you look sideways, there’s depth to it as well, and you can see when somebody plays with depth. There’s a queue 100 miles long of people who can play up and down, but there isn’t that depth to it.

I thought, after I stopped playing with Chris – although we never officially stopped; we just do other things now – that I’d found the one person that I could do that with; someone I could just play with and it would work. We had the same goalposts, if you like. And then, years later, this happened. Meeting Sam and Rob in Fay’s band, it was like, “Oh my God! I’m getting to do this again! I get another bite of the golden pear!”

SS: [Laughs] The golden pair of what?

AC: When you find somebody, or other people, to play with that are like that, it’s the easiest thing to do in the world. Your game has to be up there. You have to know the material inside out. But when the other people do as well, it’s like, “yeah, we can do anything.” Why would we sit down for weeks and weeks arranging stuff? We’d just end up being memory machines, just recalling that stuff.

How does it work, then? If you’re not regularly rehearsing, does one of you just share a tune on a Leveret WhatsApp group, you all learn it separately, and then you sit down and the magic just happens?

RH: Pretty much. Voice memos. When we get new repertoire going, it’ll often be in a flurry because it’s for a new record or something. So we’ll just pull whatever tunes we’ve got and we probably won’t all learn them note for note before we get together. Certainly, I’m a bit famous for turning up going, “Er, how does that one go again?” [Laughs] We’ll spend a day together before we go and record. We’re not going to approach it totally cold, but yeah, we just play a thing around a lot of times and maybe we never play it again or maybe we go back and play it another bunch of times. And that’s as much preparation as we’ve found we need. It works for us.

Each of you play in several bands and situations, and each will constantly require fresh material. When you’re looking at repertoire, do you spot something and think, “that’s a Leveret tune – that goes in the Leveret bucket”? And, if so, what makes a Leveret tune?

RH: That’s a good question. I guess it’s got to be open enough that there’s room to do stuff within it. Going back to the previous question, I’d say one of the things that we have in common as musicians – although we don’t talk about this very much – is some sort of understanding that there has got to be more happening than just the tune, right? It’s not just about playing the notes of the tune – you have to have room for other stuff to happen. So, if you have a tune that’s massively notey and popping all over the place, there’s probably no room for it to groove or to be a vehicle for harmony, or for playing around the tune. For the stuff that we do, it does need a kind of open-ish sort of tune. That’s the best term I’ve got for it.

There’s got to be some grey in the tune for us to be able to have a giggle with it and really move in.

Sam Sweeney

SS: Here’s the best example of that. When we first got together in my living room and we hadn’t agreed that we were going to play traditional English music specifically, Andy brought a whole load of repertoire, and me and Rob had already been sharing tunes. Andy brought a tune by Ian Lothian called ‘Return to the Stewartry’. Because of the way the melody works, it’s very prescriptive in terms of chords, and the notes come bloody fast. So in terms of anyone playing a harmony, or indeed doing an alternative chord progression, we realised it was too elaborate for our purposes, so it couldn’t really work. There’s no grey area with a tune like that, and I think that answers the question. There’s got to be some grey in the tune [laughs] for us to be able to have a giggle with it and really move in.

RH: Equally, there were loads of trad tunes that you and I had found, weren’t there? Playford tunes and that kind of era, all of which were just a bit too kind of harmonically prescriptive. They have these little turnarounds that lock you into doing them a certain way. Not many of those made it into the stuff we’ve played out, because they just didn’t give us any room to play with the melody.

Is what you do a bit like jazz? Is there an agreed starting point and end point, and the journey is what happens in between?

AC: No. I think the starting point is the tune. Human nature would dictate that if you’re on something that’s a prescribed melody, then at some point you’re not going to be doing that, and then at some point you might come back to it. I think that’s as prescriptive as we are. It’s certainly not a jazz thing, because so much of jazz is about the chord progression and playing around those changes, but we don’t have those. Rob and I are the predominant harmonic backing, rather than melodic harmonic playing (although Rob does that as well – he’s far too clever). When we first sat down and played, we kind of played a load of stuff and then went, “I suppose we’d better talk about what’s going on harmonically? What are you doing here? What are you doing there?” And it became very clear very quickly that, actually, what we had been doing sounded great to our ears. It was kind of pleasing – sometimes a bit awkward, sometimes very lush, sometimes very sparse – but actually, we hadn’t been discussing it and it was fine. So that was our first and last conversation about harmony [laughs].

RH: The way I remember it is that you quite assertively said, “No, I don’t think we should have that conversation.” We never have, and it has been great. So that was a good intervention there, Andy.

The last time I spoke with you, Rob, the conversation was specifically about harmony and how you work with Emily Portman. It must be a completely different sort of experience.

RH: It is, yeah. It’s drawing on the same tools and so on, but in a very different way. In Leveret, it’s much more in real-time and it’s totally responsive. Working with Emily is, of course, responsive, but it’s responsive to the song and you pretty much know how the song is going to go, notwithstanding that a verse might get forgotten or switched around or something – not that it does with Emily [laughs]. With Leveret, it’s totally different.

Playing a tune, there’s a certain number of harmonic possibilities that are more likely than others. So I’ve got a few safe guesses as to which one of those Andy or Sam might go to. I kind of know it’s going to be one of three or four options for any given note. I don’t think about it this analytically, by the way, but this is just kind of rationalising it. Beyond that, it’s just basically down to taking in what’s happening right now and figuring where it might go next and where each of us might want to push it next.

It doesn’t work to have a preconceived idea of what you might do.

Rob Harbron

The term I love for it is “playing with soft hands”, which is a term that Ben Nicholls uses a lot. It is borrowed from cricket, so cricket fans will totally get the playing with soft hands thing. You could use it just to mean how you play one note and where it falls, before or after the beat. But actually, in Leveret, it’s a bit more general. It’s just being really open to anything that anyone might do and also the fact that, actually, no one might do anything at all, so something might need to happen. So it’s down to you to do something, possibly, on very little notice. It doesn’t work to have a preconceived idea of what you might do on the next A part, or three times around the tune. Any of those preconceptions you might have, or preconceived plans… if they don’t roll with whatever else has happened and evolve and change when the time comes to do the thing that you planned, then it’s not the right thing anymore. It probably never was. So I’m using the same thinking and the same thought processes, I guess, as I do with all the music I make with other people, but it’s using them in a very different way – a much more immediate and much more kind of reactive and responsive way. That’s how it’s for me, anyway. What about you, fellas?

SS: Leveret is an ego-less situation. As Rob just said, if you’re waiting to do your sick move on the third time round, but Andy’s gone quiet and wafty, you have to have the readiness to abandon the fact that you were going to do something totally sick and react in the moment. So it has to be an ego-less situation because you’re not actually at any point thinking about what you’re doing. What it does take is confidence. Jane Harbour from Spiro came to see us years ago and she jokingly said that we shouldn’t be called Leveret, we should be called Starlings, because what we do is what starlings do. If the leader goes one way, the entire flock goes with them immediately. They have to change direction. So it takes confidence because you have to go, “I’m ready to change,” or, “I’m going to follow you,” or, “I’ve got a cool idea, come with me”. But it’s not “check me out”, because there’s no time or space for that.

I find Leveret gigs quite exhausting because you are 100% present all of the time in order to follow the direction the music is going in. And that’s not to say that we achieve that all the time – we can fall off and stuff – but it’s a very pleasant experience and I hope that audiences feel that as well. It’s quite a unique experience, I think, a Leveret gig, because you can have all our records and go to a gig and it’ll be different.

Maybe that’s what I meant when I referred to jazz earlier. When I first heard of Leveret, somebody said, “Oh, they’re like the folk version of Cream. They’re a folk supergroup.” And I kind of got that, watching you at FolkEast last year. It is that complete in-the-moment, improvisational thing. And also, you look like you’re having the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

AC: What’s there not to love? [Laughs] If you’re playing with your pals, playing the music that you love, anyone would look like they’re having the best time it’s possible to have with your clothes on!

RH: Yeah, it’s massively stimulating. It’s incredibly exciting, but it’s really exhausting in a way that no other gig I do can be.

AC: It’s fully immersive. When we do get together – when we need new repertoire and we get together and play this stuff through – you don’t get a true sense of what it is and what it might be like when you give it loudy – when you go for it – without actually going for it. So, yeah, whenever we get together to play, to look at new material and stuff, I find that exhausting as well because you’re thinking, “Where might two other people, totally independent people, go with this?” And I’ve got to be ready for it. We’re all in the same position.

You’ve got a new album coming out on April 21st, Forms. Where did you get the tunes from that, and how do you feel that it differs with what you’ve done before?

AC: I want to make the point that Sam and Rob get all the book tunes out of the books, because I’m hopeless at reading music. I’m atrocious, absolutely atrocious, but they seem to quite enjoy it. So thank you very much, fellas, because I really do appreciate it. There’s usually this smorgasbord of new tunes and it’s brilliant, although quite often I do feel slightly behind them because they’ll say, “‘ere Sam” or “‘ere Rob. You remember that?” “Oh, yeah, that one.” And they’ll launch into it and I’m like, “I’ve never heard this tune in my life.” I’m always playing catch-up. But then that’s the price I pay.

SS: One of the reasons, I guess, that people don’t make an enormous fuss about a new Leveret album is because we’re not like the next big thing and our latest album hasn’t ever got a new direction. It’s not like, “This one has got electronics and it’s been produced by such-and-such a very famous person and it sounds really new and it’s got a new look and we’re all wearing designer clothes.” No Leveret album is going to be a radical departure from the previous one for the reasons we’ve already talked about. We’re three people who just happen to have a close musical bond and speak the same language. But there are things about this record that are different because of lockdown. John Offord introduced me to a bunch of new sources of tunes. He sent me a bunch of manuscripts on, I think, the second day of the first lockdown.

Bass Hornpipe manuscript by Thomas Cooper. The first stave has seven lines.
‘Bass Hornpipe’ by Thomas Cooper, with seven lines on the first stave

‘Bass Hornpipe’, which is track one on Forms, is such a mad piece of music. I mean, God, what even time signature is that in? I can show you the manuscript that it comes from [see above]. It’s completely insane. It’s this dude called Thomas Cooper and most of his handwritten manuscripts are church music. It’s mostly psalms with a few little tunes in there which are quite bizarre. And I don’t know if that’s because he was slightly musically illiterate and therefore there’s funny notation in there or whatever…

The cover of the Thomas Cooper manuscript, handwritten in script from 1764.
The cover of the Thomas Cooper manuscript

So we got a couple of tunes for this record from the Thomas Cooper manuscript, and then a couple from this collection that was found in a library in America, sent to me by a guy who lives over there. It’s an English manuscript and it’s not publicly available. So there are some new sources of tunes in there that aren’t actually in the public domain. So, whereas previously we’ll have gone to Playford or the John of the Green book or whatever, there are some new sources of tunes, which is kind of exciting.

But I think one of the other things that sets Forms apart from our other albums is that we were probably the least prepared we’ve ever been for a record, and that has made it into a much more exciting thing. I can still put this record on and go, “Hang on, what’s that tune? Is that us? Did we play that?” When we made New Anything, we were pretty ready – we had been playing that stuff live for quite some time. When we made In the Round, most of that repertoire was already in our set. But this album was a bit like, “Right…” Even when we got to the studio in Belgium, we were sat around going, “What’s this one? How does this bit go?” And I think you can really hear that in this record. Personally, I think it’s a good thing. It’s quite seat-of-the-pants and exciting.

The tunes that you don’t know maybe as well as you might become an opportunity rather than a pitfall.

Rob Harbron

RH: We probably played most things on the record once or maybe twice in a gig, but that’s not very prepared, really. And given that preparation for us is just knowing a tune inside out, so we’re free to do whatever comes our way with it… you do feel pretty exposed if it’s a tune that you don’t quite know all the way around. So we were right on the edge of that with it. And there was also another big unknown. The reason we went to Belgium to record was that the house where we recorded is a place we’ve really enjoyed playing house concerts in the past. So we knew it was a good room to play in but we didn’t know if it was a good room to record in. We’d never recorded in it before. So there were quite a few points on that long drive over, other than wondering whether we’d forgotten our Pro Tools dongle and other recording equipment, where we were thinking, “Is it going to sound all right?” So there were lots of unknowns, logistically as well as musically.

All that said, as soon as we sat down and started playing in the room, we realised it was great; it was going to be fine. And the tunes that you don’t know maybe as well as you might become an opportunity rather than a pitfall, because you’re playing with people you trust and it just becomes part of the thing. But I think it’s our most exciting record because, same as Sam says, listening back to the mixes was like, “Oh, yeah, this tune is on it as well. OK, I’d forgotten we’d done that.” It’s quite a nice unfolding.

Was the house the home of a fan?

AC: There’s a brilliant duo in Belgium that are very popular over here in the kind of balfolk dance scene, called Naragonia. They’re a couple called Pascal Rubins and Toon Van Mierlo. I’ve known them for years and years. They converted an old barn and farm to be their house with their family, and then they wanted to be able to put on their musician friends, at concerts in their house. They converted another barn into a little workshop space, and a few years ago we got invited there to do some workshops. I think Sam and Rob did an ensemble workshop and I did a box-playing workshop for a day, and then we did a concert in the evening. Anyway, rolling forward, they put their house up for sale and another friend of ours called Mattias De Smet bought it from them. He still wanted concerts to happen and I think we’ve played there once or twice since he’s had the house. Him and his partner are just so welcoming.

When we started having this conversation about making a 10th-anniversary record, we knew we had some great tunes bubbling up, but where to record it…

SS: I’m a pain in the arse when it comes to where we record things. The other two are less fussy. I’m a total dick.

AC: I totally understand. It’s not you being a dick, it’s you just going, “Do you know what? I’m not going to have a nice time playing in that space, that space or that space, where we’ve done stuff before.” So we said, “Where then?” And Sam said, “Well, the only place that we’ve played more than once that I really, really liked the sound of was that guy Mattias’s house.” And because I kind of knew him the best, I said I’d ask him. So I did. I emailed him and said, “Here’s a funny email. How about we come to your house and make the new Leveret record there? How would you feel about that?” And 20 minutes later he replied and said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”

They’ll come back and go, “What are we playing for the second half?” and I’ll show them if I’m feeling generous.

Andy Cutting

Tell us about the accompanying tour.

RH: We’re heading out in mid-March. We’ve got a really nice tour that we’re really looking forward to.

SS: Where are we going?

RH: Quite a few places we’ve been before. York National Centre for Early Music to start it off, which is great, but then also quite a few places we’ve never been. We’ve got a nice gig in Bath I’m looking forward to, and there’s a great gig in Nottingham. So yeah, we are taking it on the road. And to people who’ve been to Leveret gigs before, it’ll be a Leveret gig with some different material, with no special guests or spectacular lighting show. And we quite possibly won’t play many of the tunes from the new record at every gig because we try and play a different set of tunes every night of a tour, and we try and play every tune we know, and that must be in the 80s or 90s now. We try and play every item of repertoire we have at least once on a tour, but there’ll come a point where we can’t do that unless our tours get longer, which, newsflash, is not the way live music is going.

Do you bother to write setlists, then?

AC: Yeah, I do the setlist and I do it usually about five or 10 minutes before the show. Just about the time that Sam needs to do a bit of vocal warming up, I’ll be sat down to do the setlist and he’ll start singing [laughs]. So, yeah, about five to 10 minutes before the gig, I do the first half, and then in the interval, I’ll do the second half. Rob will be out doing merch, Sam will be out there doing his card machine thing, and I’ll do the setlist. So they’ll come back and go, “What are we playing for the second half?” and I’ll show them if I’m feeling generous. It’s great because they never know what’s going to happen, and I don’t really know what’s going to happen.

For years and years, I played with June Tabor’s band. Very often you’d be waiting to go on stage and she’d present you with the setlist and you’d look at it and go, “OK”, and then walk on stage. And that’s Royal Festival Hall gigs. I remember that very well. It could be something from her first record or the last record I was on. It’s exciting, but you have to be mentally prepared. To use Rob’s analogy, “You’ve got to have a soft brain.”

Do you ever not bother with setlists at all, then?

RH: We went through a little phase of not having set lists and just kind of making it up between us. And actually, we realised that wasn’t as spontaneous because certain items of repertoire were becoming typecast – like, “Yeah, that feels like a good end-of-first-half tune”. So it got a bit like that. Things ended up coming out quite similar on multiple gigs, whereas the way we have a set list now, things can actually take a very different form. Like, the same number at the end of a half might have a let’s-have-a-pint feel, but on another night it might come at the point in the gig where there’s a natural lull and things go a little bit calmer and more spacious. The same tune can be both things. The character of the tune isn’t fixed.

Leveret is the only band I’m in where I’m not a fiddle player.

Sam Sweeney

So, here’s to 10 more years, then?

SS: Personally speaking, I can’t imagine not playing with Leveret because every other musical outfit I play with does a completely different thing and fills up a different musical bucket for me. I have different needs, as a musician. I wouldn’t give up something like Bellowhead (although we’re not really a band now). That is arranged music, but that gives me an incredible buzz and I adore it. That’s the adrenaline bucket – partying and playing to 33,000 people in a month. Leveret is a totally different thing. I can’t imagine not having that outlet for my playing and I’ll tell you why. Leveret is the only band I’m in where I’m not a fiddle player. Every other thing I play, whether it’s solo gigs or the Sam Sweeney Band or Bellohead or whatever, I am a fiddle player, whereas in Leveret it’s a completely different hat. I’m playing the fiddle, but I’m a musician and it’s a very different thing. You don’t have to be a musician, really, to play in other bands, particularly when there are arrangements. All you have to do is remember how it goes, whereas in Leveret you have to be a musician. I don’t really have other outlets for that. So if I lost Leveret, I’d feel bereft.

And where do you fit your new role as a nationally famous morris beast into all of this?

SS: [Sarcastically] Yeah, obviously that was the highlight of my career to date. Wasn’t that funny, though? That was a very funny experience.

AC: I’ve just turned down a gig playing with Roger Daltry at the Royal Albert Hall because Leveret are playing a house concert in Sheffield. I know where I’d rather be… I love London [laughs].

Forms, the new Leveret album released on April 21st, can be ordered from their Bandcamp page. For more on their upcoming tour, head to the Tradfolk Events Calendar. For all other info, head to leveretband.com.