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Shovel Dance Collective stand on the banks of the Thames, looking up at the camera. The image is black and white.

Shovel Dance Collective – the Tradfolk Interview

Jacken Elswyth, Mataio Austin Dean and Nick Granata sit down to discuss a brief history of Shovel Dance Collective, as well as the album looming in their immediate future.

Shovel Dance Collective, as you may well know, are making waves. Their latest album, The Water is the Shovel of the Shore, arrives on December 1st and is one of the most impressive traditional folk albums we’ve heard all year. “An awe-inspiring mix of history, ballads, found sounds and musique concrète,” we wrote in our review last week. “A profoundly moving concept thrillingly wrought into being; a feat of imagination and extraordinary editing.” Add to that an upcoming appearance on BBC Radio (on Christmas Day, no less), a recent mini-documentary, and appearances at South by Southwest, and you can see that it’s not just the Tradfolk writers that are excited by them.

A nine-piece band made up of musicians of mixed heritage, examining the ways in which traditional music holds queer histories, proto-feminist narratives and the voices of working people, Shovel Dance Collective are an inspiring example of what a traditional folk band might look like in the early 2020s. This is not folk music as a twee frollick. This is traditional folk music with a chip on its shoulder, reappearing because the times demand it, ready to take a stand.

Given that nine members all speaking at once might get a little confusing, Tradfolk met up with the reduced core of Jacken Elswyth, Mataio Austin Dean and Nick Granata. Over the course of an hour or so, our conversation ranged across multiple topics, including the emergence of the band as a nine-piece, the political nature of their work, the ways that they’ve brought traditional folk songs to non-tradfolk audiences, folk songs as snapshots in time, Christmas with Shovel Dance Collective, and of course the creation of their extraordinary new album and its accompanying essay.

I’m talking about a solidarity across time, through these different generations who pass on the folk song.

Mataio Austin Dean

How did you come to traditional music? Was it something that you were brought up with, or did you come to it later in life?

Nick Granata: I went to see a sort of proto-Shovel Dance back in 2019, and I remember Mataio performing. He emerged from the crowd and sang amazingly. That was really the starting point. I had a conversation with [fellow member] Dan Evans on the bus on the way home. It was one of those things that instantly made a lot of sense to me. And over the following months, I went down the rabbit hole of folk music. It was after a period of not doing much music at all for, like, three years, and suddenly it was everything I was listening to. It just blew up that way. And I’m still kind of on that train, really, two or three years down the line.

I’ve been a visual artist for a while and I was studying fine art at the time, but also getting increasingly frustrated with the world I was trying to be in. Folk music seemed like the antithesis to that singular, individualistic kind of world where you have to pretend that you’re a genius. This communal way of making music really appealed to me, I think, for that reason at that time.

How about you, Mataio?

Mataio Austin Dean: Well, I’m also a visual artist. I went to the Slade School of Fine Art with Tom, which is how I got into the band. But it’s difficult to say when it began. I wouldn’t say I was brought up with English folk music, but I’ve had an interest in traditional music since I was quite young. My mum’s family is from Guyana, and in the Guyanese diaspora oral culture is very important because of the way that colonialism and slavery has taken away our written history. My dad is from a working-class family in Dorset and they’re all just peasants on the land as far back as the records show – back into the 1400s or 1300s, they’re all just there in Dorset being poor, exploited people. But they’re still there in the records, whereas in Guyana, with slavery, there are no records. So I think oral culture has this heightened importance, especially in the way people talk about the homeland and talk about “back home”. And we grew up with this kind of oral culture – the patois and the talk of how things were in Guyana.

Certainly, my granddad had all these folkloric sayings that were handed down, and he’d speak to us using them. They weren’t songs – they were kind of rhymes – but he’d use them in everyday life. Some of them are quite long, you know? And he was friends with the Guyanese folklorist, Wordsworth McAndrew, who we mention in the album because we used one of his songs. They were mates. My granddad, in general, was a great inspiration to me. I absolutely adored the man and he inspired me in lots of ways. He was a very educated man. He went to the school in Guyana where all the colonial officials would send their people. He was the first black head boy in school.

What does it mean to claim Englishness as a person of colour? All those questions around blackness and brownness in English folk song are a big concern of mine.

Mataio Austin Dean

When I was a young teen, I loved Jimi Hendrix and got into the blues and realised the blues is a kind of folk music. And then I got into Bob Dylan and all his American folk music traditions, but within that, he would be singing English and Scottish folk songs. I just started to think, “Well, what is my kind of folk music? Which music speaks to the history of what I relate to as a person?” And it’s not American folk music. It’s an English thing. And I just started to get really interested in that and found a strong attraction to everything to do with English folk music – the way it sounded, the mystery, the sense of something that was older than myself but also linked me to my family and to my place. Over the space of a decade, from about the age of about 14, I became increasingly interested in English folk music, to the point that I started going to folk clubs and singarounds when I moved to London. From there, I started to develop a focus on English repertoire. When I met Tom, he introduced me to Alex, and that’s how I joined the band. It has given me so many new angles and ways of thinking about traditional music. What does it mean to claim Englishness as a person of colour? All those questions around blackness and brownness in English folk song are a big concern of mine.

For many people involved in English folk music, Shovel Dance Collective seem to have come out of nowhere. Where have you been and how did all this come about? I’m really fascinated by the way that you, and also Broadside Hacks, seem to have brought traditional music to a whole new audience – not necessarily the audience that you would find in folk clubs or at Sidmouth Folk Festival or any of the usual places.

Mataio: Before I joined, it was Alex, Dan and Josh. Alex plays the whistle and the flute and things like that, Josh does percussion and Dan does stringed instruments. Alex was brought up with folk music, I think, to some extent, and Dan had studied ethnography around Indian folk music traditions at SOAS. They had this residual interest in folk music and they just started exploring it together as a fun way of playing tunes. Tom, Alex and Josh are in a band called Gentle Stranger – an amazing band – and they were having a sort of recording and residency vibe in Margate with PRAH. I went to stay with them for a while. Tom invited me down, I met Alex and we just played some tunes and songs together. It was a great meeting. Amazing fun. Quite soon after that, Alex started inviting me to do things and play gigs. I think that would’ve been 2018.

Then we did a little tour of the North and Nick joined us for that. The Christmas that directly followed that summer was when we became Shovel Dance Collective. Jacken and Fidelma joined at that stage. It has been a winding path of social connections, but it’s a pretty magical thing to be involved in. I think we just came together, the sparks started flying and a whole new thing was born.

Our first gig as Shovel Dance Collective was the day after the 2019 election results.

Nick Granata

Do you think there’s currently an atmosphere for the political approach you take to traditional folk music?

Nick: Yeah. Our first gig as Shovel Dance Collective was the day after the 2019 election results. There was something incredibly cathartic about that whole experience. The response from the audience on that night showed the capacity that folk music has to bring people together. It was a communal catharsis – something quite rousing. There were a lot of upset people in the room on that day.

Do you think the catharsis comes from the act of singing together? Does it perhaps have something to do with the age and the wisdom of the songs, or am I being too romantic here?

Nick: The songs are inherently very generous. And the way we perform them, I think… we don’t hold back on the emotiveness. In some ways we’re kind of battling with ourselves not to make things too dramatic [laughs]. I love that. At the time we started, I was doing art performance which was quite over the top, so I really wasn’t afraid of pushing that emotionality into it.

Mataio: It’s an interesting thing. As well as what I’ve said about the politics of race and decoloniality, which is at the centre of it for me, as a Marxist the whole thing of folk music being the music of the working class is absolutely central. For me, it was always a political project, even before Shovel Dance. As an artist, all of my work is expressively, openly political. In the band, I think everyone is on the left. Different parts of the left, maybe, but we all have the same vibe in terms of the way we look at the world, and the way of thinking about these kinds of political questions.

People are seeing in quite a real way where the class divisions in society are, and I think it does open up a space for class politics in folk music.

Mataio Austin Dean

I also think we are at a socioeconomic and political moment where there has been a kind of reawakening of the working class in terms that people can understand and grasp, perhaps in a way that there hasn’t been for a while. Obviously, there have been all the politics around neo-feudalism. Is it capitalism still? Is the working class dead? Is there no working class in England? Is it something else? Is it the service economy? Are all the workers in China? Blah, blah, blah. I think there has always been a working class in this country producing value, but I think now there’s an understanding, what with the RMT and people like Mick Lynch coming on and saying these things, and the cost of living crisis… people are seeing in quite a real way where the class divisions in society are, and I think it does open up a space for class politics in folk music. Something we’ve always done is perform on picket lines. The idea of solidarity is very much at the centre of what we do. We did a benefit gig for an Anti Raids thing, and we did a gig recently for trans rights.

All this stuff is central to what we do methodologically, but there’s also a kind of solidarity in the philosophy of what we’re doing as well. I’m talking about a solidarity across time, through these different generations who pass on the folk song. There’s a solidarity between different groups that are struggling. When we’re thinking about working-class solidarity and queer solidarity, there’s not always an automatic solidarity so it’s about building these links and thinking about queer history, black history, women’s history, all these things. And I think that is something that people are getting involved with now – people thinking about the trans archive, the queer archive; how these things are remembered, how these stories are told. I think that is happening more now. So I think, politically, what we’re doing does speak to certain developments, politically, at the moment.

It is like solidarity is enacted in the engagement with these generous songs rather than us giving a lecture in the form of a song.

Jacken Elswyth

Jacken Elswyth: There have always been folkies on the left and there have always been folkies singing folk songs as protest songs. The first folk song repertoire that I had was basically old union songs – ‘There is Power in a Union’, ‘Hallelujah! I’m a Bum’ and all those IWW songs from the 20s and 30s. But by the time I joined up with Shovel Dance Collective, I had stopped singing those songs. I’d moved away from them a little bit because it felt like a kind of hobbyist engagement with an old political form that was no longer relevant. I think it’s interesting that there is certainly something about the current moment that makes that stuff slightly easier to engage with again. But also, it’s notable that we’re not singing those songs – we’re not singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ to close our gigs. We’re singing ‘Thousands or More’ [Roud 1220]. I think Nick’s point about the generosity of the songs themselves, and the feeling of singing them together, leads to a collective expression that can get at something which is deeply political but in a non-overtly political way. It is like solidarity is enacted in the engagement with these generous songs rather than us giving a lecture in the form of a song.

When you look around at other people engaging with traditional music at the moment, are there people that you feel a solidarity with particularly? Are there other groups of musicians that really chime with what you’re doing, do you think?

Jacken: In terms of the folk scene, there are lots of people who I really respect and people that I dream of being on bills with. Most of them are not explicitly political, although I assume people in most of those groups would share politics with us.

Who might you think of, for example?

Jacken: I’m trying to think. People who I feel have a similar approach to politics don’t necessarily come from within the folk scene. Divide and Dissolve are a drone metal band that have a very similar approach to speaking about politics and enacting politics in their music.

Mataio: Yeah, that’s a great shout. As you say, the drone, doom metal thing does feel very relevant, and politically as well. I really like the Mary Wallopers, who released their album recently. I saw them in Glastonbury at this sort of secret underground piano bar thing. It was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. Completely unamplified. No electric lighting, just candles. And they were singing songs that were kind of anti-imperialist, kind of anti-British Empire politics, but with such humour. It kind of blew my mind, actually. The recorded stuff is still great, but it wasn’t as good as that experience. I’m pretty new to them but I was quite excited about that. And I really like Lankum, obviously. I think we all do. Also, the people that we know and that we play with at the folk clubs. They’re often the people I’m most impressed by.

Nick: I’m kind of desperate to see Boss Morris, actually.

Jacken: Yes! I feel like Boss Morris deserves to be in that bracket as well. Rather than music, they’re about dance, but they’re totally attracting the same range of audiences and treating material in a similarly transformed way. In terms of a political approach to folk music, Angeline Morrison is an obvious candidate. She has an interesting approach to race and English folk music. She’s going to be supporting Shovel Dance Collective in Bethnal Green in December.

Were you at the Cecil Sharp House gig that she did recently?

Jacken: No, I couldn’t make it.

It was wonderful. What was interesting to me was that I guess 50% of those people had probably not been to a folk gig before, certainly not at Cecil Sharp House, and they may have been experiencing that kind of thing for the first time. So Angeline is bringing what she does and her relationship with the tradition to a whole new audience. I sense that that’s something you are doing as well. I see Shovel Dance interviews in magazines that might not normally look at traditional folk music, and you play at festivals that are not necessarily related to it either. Would you agree with that? And also, how’s it going? Do you find that you’re introducing traditional stuff to other young people as well?

Mataio: I think “yes” is the quick answer [laughs]. Maybe that’s boastful to say, but I definitely get the vibe that when we play gigs, so many people come up and say, “Oh my god! All this stuff is amazing. I want to learn about all of this.” The amount of people that come up and say these things makes it very clear that they are getting the bug and it’s spreading. It’s great.

When we play gigs, so many people come up and say, “Oh my god! All this stuff is amazing. I want to learn about all of this.”

Mataio Austin Dean

Nick: And people come up to me saying, “It reminded me that my granddad used to sing these songs to me as a child”. There are these people who had these nuggets of folk music in their life and it sort of disappeared, and they felt it coming back when they came to see us. That’s a really nice thing as well.

Mataio: Yeah. And all these people would come up and express extreme emotion as well. People are just really moved by it and it takes them to a place that’s kind of personal, or to a time that is often to do with family and family history. It does feel like a great honour when someone comes up and says something like that.

And these are all people that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the folk scene? That’s incredible.

Nick: Well, we’ve never played a folk festival. We would love to. Like we said, we’ve all been to singarounds and we love that world and dip into it where we can. But as a band, we’ve not quite breached that scene in a way because I guess we’re coming at it from a different angle. There are members of our band who are in other bands and I guess that puts us in a separate scene in many respects, at the moment. I don’t mind that at all. I think it’s quite nice.

You probably know that a lot of the people who are involved in traditional music are deeply worried about the fact that their audiences are disappearing. Both Broadside Hacks and Shovel Dance seem to have circumnavigated that problem very quickly by not going to traditional folk audiences. Whether that’s by design or not, you’ve managed something really quite amazing.

Jacken: It’s been really lovely to play in all those different spaces. The gig that Mataio mentioned, for example, for the trans healthcare charity… it was mostly punk bands and us, and the audience was incredibly receptive to what we were doing. And then there’s the kind of Cafe Oto audiences who mostly listen to… all the stuff they listen to at Cafe Oto [laughs].

Nick: Squeaks and bonks and stuff [laughs].

Jacken: Yeah. And then there are audiences who know a little bit more about what they’re expecting with folk music, but are also not turned off by the way that we’re treating the material.

Mataio: It felt like a stamp of approval or a badge of honour that Nygel and Sue from the Goose is Out at the Ivy House got into it, and a few of those people who go there regularly. That, to me, was very important. We do engage with those spaces as well, but most of the time we are playing in the context of punk bands and all these other kinds of music. I would really like to play at Sidmouth and folk festivals like that, but it’s just not happened yet. We haven’t been invited [laughs].

The songs tell us these stories of lost love and pain, of whaling, exploitation, brutal labour, of slavery, death… but also freedom from those things.

Mataio Austin Dean

I’d like to talk a bit about your new album, The Water is the Shovel of the Shore. It’s one of the most profound pieces of psychogeographical art that I’ve heard in a very long while. It seems like such a complete concept and it’s so extraordinary in its execution… I fear my questions are really quite simplistic. How do you make an album like that? Do you start off with a bunch of songs you wanted to record and then found a central theme or narrative amongst them, or was it the other way around? Did you start with the idea of water and then find the songs that fit that concept?

Jacken: I feel like it’s bookended by two pieces that we just happened to have. ‘The Bold Fisherman’ [Roud 291] recording that opens the album was recorded alongside stuff that went on the Betwixt and Between tapes that came out in middle of 2021, recorded at the end of 2020. And then the fourth medley is mostly stuff that was recorded by Nick and Mataio and Dan under Elverson Road DLR station. I feel like it was basically hearing that which gave us the idea to make something a little longer and go with the watery theme.

Nick: I remember having a conversation with Dan. I went through this whole period where I was really into whaling songs.

It happens to the best of us.

Nick: [Laughs] I remember standing at a bus stop with Dan, getting really excited about doing a whaling show with props and stuff. And at the time, one of my art ideas was to make a film called Moby Nick [laughs] about a whale bone that is, for some reason, in the middle of a forest in Huddersfield… but that’s by the by. But basically, I remember thinking that the session we did with Mataio and Dan in the tunnel beneath Elverson Road DLR Station was like a test for a future water-themed thing. A lot of ideas get pushed around and some of them don’t come to fruition or have not yet come to fruition, but we went and tried that one out. And Dan was doing a lot of wading at the time, so there were a couple of pairs of waders knocking around [laughs].

Mataio: There was this craze for wading. I feel like everyone I knew was wading [laughs]. Yeah, I agree. When we did that session, I think we had already decided we were doing a watery thing and I think we did think it was a test and then it became something that we used. I think we already realised it was something that we were all interested in and it was something that there’s a huge amount of material for. But it’s not just about the material, I guess. It’s about a way of bringing it together and a way of conceptualising all of that and I think it did just sort of happen. Again, it kind of comes from the politics we share, and around thinking about how water has functioned for ordinary people through time and looking at what these folk songs tell us about water.

What do they tell us?

Mataio: They tell us that the water is this kind of complicated space of liberation and exploitation and death. The songs tell us these stories of lost love and pain, of whaling, exploitation, brutal labour, of slavery, death… but also freedom from those things. And in ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ [Roud 239] there’s a kind of queer freedom that is given by the water. We found this understanding of water which comes from the songs – we feel that we’re not putting it on the songs; I think it comes out of the songs. And there are a few more songs that I would have put on there if I’d got my act together. I’m glad that it feels complete because, in a way, we could’ve gone much further with it, I think.

You’ve managed something impressively concise. That’s quite a feat given that it’s essentially an hour-long song and sound collage. Albums like this can often feel flabby, but The Water is the Shovel of the Shore keeps flowing – no pun intended – and you’re carried along with it. I just found it really engaging.

Mataio: Thank you.

Jacken: We have to thank Dan for that. Dan was the one who stitched everything together. We’d been calling it The Water EP almost until the point that it got released, because the original idea was that it would be about half an hour long – we would take the original 12-minute piece from under Elverson Road DLR Station and do a little bit more and then that would be it. But then we decided everyone would record whatever they wanted and submit it centrally, and then Dan took the lead on knitting that altogether. So we had lots of small group recordings, and then I and some of the others went and did bits of field recording along the Thames to kind of build it out and give it all a sense of place and context. There’s nothing very willed about the total construction of it, I guess. The way that it ended up is all kind of a bit ouija board.

Nick: It feels like it has taken us a long time to release anything. We haven’t released anything, especially anything long-form, for a while. We’ve had so many conversations about how difficult folk music seems to be to record. What I really love listening to contains quite a lot of incidental sound and has that kind of rawness and that sense of being at a time and in a place… maybe there’s a baby crying in the background. Maybe they forget the words and maybe they laugh at the end of the track.

I remember recording Dan playing the organ version of ‘The Bold Fisherman’. The church warden was messing around in the cupboards at the back of the hall and there was a kids’ park right next door and a child screamed literally as the organ stopped. I like all that stuff. Those happy accidents are really, I think, a big part of what I like when I listen to it. And I think Dan has really honed in on his selection of field recordings that go between the songs.

The times and places that folk songs have passed through are all encoded within them

Jacken Elswyth

It does feel like a snapshot in time, doesn’t it? And that suits traditional folk songs. If you have information about their collection and know something of the lives of the source singers, that context can behave like a snapshot. “Here’s ‘The Cruel Mother’ in 1830, and here’s ‘The Cruel Mother’ in 1936”. And I think what you’ve got here is a really interesting version of that. It’s part of the beauty of field recordings: they give you that cinematic snapshot in sound.

Jacken: Yeah. One of the things we talk about often is the relationship between the particular and the general in folk music.

What do you mean by that?

Jacken: Well, because the songs’ authorship is unknown, and because songs live in the tradition, they’re generalised – they’re owned by everybody. But also, they’re very evocative of a particular time and place. The times and places that they have passed through are all encoded within them in the way that they’ve changed and been transformed through that oral passage. And one of the things that I’m really excited about with this release is that we’ve placed them within our time and space. The thing that’s really beautiful about pairing it with the river is that the river moves and transforms and carries sediment. It is transformed and shaped by the work upon it in a very similar way to the way that we imagine these songs passing through time.

Shovel Dance Collective on the banks of the Thames

Obviously, the band has nine members. Does everybody play an equal part?

Mataio: Everyone does play a part. I think a collective is genuinely what it is. There’s no sense of leadership or anything like that. It’s completely collective and democratic in every way. It’s there in our politics and in our way of working as well.

How about the essay that accompanies the album? That must’ve been hard for nine people to collaborate on.

Mataio: [Laughs] To be fair, the essay wasn’t written by nine people. That was written, I guess, by us three, as well as Dan.

Jacken: Yeah, I think there were four of us. The others probably had smaller inputs as well, but the four of us took the lead.

Nick: I really loved that session. We all came with contributions we’d written beforehand. By the end, it was like we were really working. I was surprised by that. It was quite inspiring that we were able to do that.

Mataio: Yeah. I was talking to someone, to a friend who writes, and she was like, “My god! You must really get on to be able to do that!” And it’s true. I’ve written things with people before and it’s been a nightmare. But this one worked really well, and I’m quite proud of that, to be honest.

The album is out on December 1st, and you’re playing a Christmas show at St John on Bethnal Green.

Jacken: Yeah. The first gig we did was a Christmas gig, and we did a Christmas gig last year as well. This will be our third Christmas gig, which we’re also using to launch the album. So we’ll do some things off the album and some Christmas songs.

I must say, I’m really fascinated to see what a Shovel Dance Collective Christmas set list looks like.

Mataio: Well, we did a bit at the BBC last night. It was pretty doom [laughs].

Jacken: We’ll be on BBC Radio 4 on Christmas Day doing a couple of things as part of a Michael Rosen show. We did a version of ‘On Christmas Day it Happened So’ [Roud 1078]. We were in a particularly doomy mood for that [laughs].

The Water is the Shovel of the Shore by Shovel Dance Collective is out on December 1st and can be ordered from their Bandcamp site. Keep up with the collective via their Instagram page.