THE BUNDELL BROTHERS
An interview by Peter Doggett.
Second-hand record stores are full of unnecessary records by unnecessarily prolific artists, whove kept making albums for decade after decade because they dont know what else to do. So its refreshing to discover two Hampshire singer-songwriters who helped to create one of the legendary folk-rock records of the mid-70s, and who then waited a quarter of a century before unleashing another album on the world.
After that, the Bundell Brothers Ivor and Kevan - positively raced to complete their second record as a duo, which was released late last year. Like its predecessor, it sidesteps both the traditional folk scene, and the emotional exhibitionism that you often associate with the singer-songwriter tag. Instead, both 2001s Secret Lives and 2006's Stood On The Shore occupy a unique place in the story of Southern acoustic music, combining history, humour and human insight with rich, mainly acoustic textures. Their records feature not just the inevitable guitars, but also mandola (Ivors creative inspiration), penny whistle (Kevans current joy), jaws harp, harmonica, keyboards and a variety of percussion all topped by vocals solo and in harmony.
The Bundells story would not be complete without mention of an invisible third brother in the person of another former Hampshire schoolboy, Paul Gateshill, whom theyve known since the 60s. He basically taught me guitar, Kevan says. Its impossible to overstate his influence on me, and on Ivor as well. He was an amazing songwriter at a very young age, and we soon learned to play many of his songs, which in turn encouraged us to start writing our own. This was an era when acoustic music was in the air. People were listening to Dylan, Donovan and, in our case particularly, the Incredible String Band. Donovan songs, Simon & Garfunkel they were probably the first things we learned to play, Ivor adds. Then very soon after that, singers like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor came along. The whole mood of the times was acoustic and melodic. Yet playing acoustic was as much a necessity as an artistic choice, as Kevan notes: Only a few kids could afford to buy electric guitars back then. We managed to get some acoustics second-hand, so that was what we learned to play. In retrospect, it was a blessing, as I think it meant we focused on playing music, rather than making noise. And it encouraged us to think about how we were going to arrange our songs.
As a school contemporary myself of the Bundells, my most vivid musical memory of the brothers is their loyal dedication during the 70s to the music of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, the wilfully eclectic and inspired songwriters who were the creative core of the Incredible String Band. We had all their records, Kevan recalls (Twice!, Ivor adds). As far as I can remember, we were introduced to the String Band by my friend Paul Gateshill and his brother Min. When I was starting to play, Ivor continues, Paul played me albums such as Layers Of The Onion and Changing Horses. It certainly didnt hurt that the String Band were touring regularly back then, so we could go to see them in Portsmouth, Southampton - and even Chichester. And we spread their music through the school, and outside as well. They influenced us not only because they were acoustic, and used unusual instruments, but because of the strain of nature mysticism that runs through their work.
Living in a tiny village just a few miles north of Fareham, the Bundells felt at least one step removed from urban culture. We definitely saw ourselves as people who lived in the country, not townies, Ivor remembers. We were interested in the natural world not necessarily in a mystical way, although that came into it later and our early musical influences reflected that. The same strain of mysticism reached Ivor from a different source, when he studied the romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge during his final school years. Their work also affected the form in which I wrote, he explains. Not just the fact that I was writing poetry myself, but in terms of using the traditional ballad form, as Wordsworth did in particular, which naturally lent itself to being translated into songs.
Besides Wordsworth and the Incredible String Band, the Bundells background provided another, more localised form of influence. We were brought up going to the Baptist chapel, Kevan says, going to church and singing hymns. Our mum is a piano player, who has played harmonium in chapel all these years, and she was also in the choir with our dad. So we imbibed hymn tunes from an early age, Ivor adds. Both brothers have since soaked themselves in the Baptist hymnal tradition. Kevan explained: Ira D. Sankey the man who compiled the book, Sankeys Sacred Songs & Solos was a 19th century hymn collector and adaptor in the United States. His music was very much part of the tradition which our parents used for their choral work. This was proper revivalist stuff. Ivor carries on the thought: And then there is the English Hymnal, and the New English Hymnal. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Vaughn Williams went through many traditional tunes, and tidied them up to be used as hymns. The effects of this schooling can be heard on Stood On The Shore, in the form of Ivors recasting of Who Would True Valour See, to the tune of Monks Gate.
None of this was obvious to anyone who heard the Bundells earliest live performances, at Prices Schools occasional folk concerts. At some point in the mid-to-late 60s, Kevan recalls, boys were allowed to put on a concert for the first time. The headmaster, Eric Poyner, was legendary for his dislike of pop music; he apparently told a colleague that the guitar is the instrument of the devil! But folk music was just about permissable, presumably because of its traditional heritage, and so Prices started to stage annual concerts. By the early 70s, when the Bundells began to perform, trad tunes had given way to original material and covers in the singer-songwriter mould. As the family tree on their website reveals, the Bundell saga began when Kevan, Paul Gateshill and several friends formed Lonene. Not to be outdone, Ivor and his fellow editors of the school IVth Form magazine, the Black Lion, responded with Autumn Stone. Various groupings followed Spirits Rebellious, PINT, Grass Roots until by 1975 unsuspecting audience members were unlucky enough to experience the current writer and Ivor murdering Beatles and Paul Simon tunes in not-so-close harmony.
All of this paled alongside Presence, a landmark event in the brothers careers. Founded under the auspices of the international ecumenical movement, Focolare, this group featured Kevan, Ivor, Paul Gateshill, singer-songwriter Veronica Towers (who has two subsequent solo records to her credit) and Mike Waiting. Over the course of three years, they performed at ecumenical youth festivals across Europe, including a memorable show at the Roundhouse in London; and made an album that became something of a legend. We had both left school by this stage, and were travelling and getting ready for college, Ivor explains. This was the first time we had ever really played together, Kevan says. It was an amazing opportunity, being able to play in cities such as Rome, Amsterdam and Berlin, and at various English
universities. Plus, of course, we made the record, over three or four days one Easter. Titled simply Presence, the 1976 LP featured several songs apiece by Gateshill (one together with Kevan) and Towers, plus two numbers by Ivor. Paul was the focus of that band, both in terms of his songwriting and his ability to accompany other people, vocally and instrumentally something weve been very grateful for again when hes worked on our recent albums. A zestful and refreshing collection of Christian folk-rock, Presence enjoyed a surprising renaissance in the 90s, when it was seized upon by record collectors as a prime example of a so-called private pressing rarity. At one point, copies were changing hands for £100 or more apiece, and interest was so intense that the record was bootlegged as a Japanese CD. Dont tell anyone, Kevan says, but the original album is actually still available from Focolare!
Although the group played together over a three-year period, this was anything but a full-time endeavour. We were at university, or on the way there, Ivor explains, so we only came together for occasional gigs in the holidays. Once Presence had faded out, the brothers pursued their own vocations. Ivor continued to write songs and poetry prolifically, in Paris, Spain, London and even Egypt, where he taped a collection of material entitled Take One. Kevan, meanwhile, was in Scotland, where he found himself performing reels and jigs with Marg Hall and Colin Wilson. One of them played pipe, the other fiddle, he explains, and I was left to do the strumming . . . . It was great fun for them, but not so interesting musically for the person who was playing the guitar it was boring and complicated at the same time, because of the absurd frequency of the chord changes! So that was only a short-lived project. And it was the last thing I did with other people for some time, except for an occasional performance with Paul if we happened to be in the same place on the same day.
Ivor studied English literature, travelled the world, and then settled back in England. I kept writing while I was abroad, he recalls, but when I came back here and started on a career in computers, I deliberately stopped. Likewise Kevan, who spent much time in India before working for Christian Aid. Both men would step up and sing if the occasion demanded, but family life took precedence. Then an old friend invited them to perform together at a concert he was organising. By now, both brothers had gravitated back to Hampshire, and so they resumed the musical conversation theyd abandoned twenty years earlier. Ivor explains: We exhumed some old favourites and some covers for the concert, but then we said that we had to come up with some new stuff. And with that, the floodgates opened. For me, 1999 was an annus mirabilis or horribilis, depending on your point of view! He seemed to be writing a new song every week, Kevan adds. It was tough on me, because I had to keep learning them! And thats what forced me to start writing again. I had to keep my end up. But Ive never been a very prolific writer. They happen occasionally.
For anyone writing songs in the 60s and 70s, the confessional mode was almost obligatory. My early stuff was very much in that diary form, Ivor admits, based on my own personal experience. Now, my writing has definitely shifted away from that, unexpectedly in fact to the extent that it almost took me off guard, as if I didnt know where the songs had come from. The Bundells first joint album, Secret Lives, contains the evidence: a set of Ivors original material that predominantly features invented or historical characters. That gave me a sense of distance, I suppose, he explains. It was a way of dispelling the angst that usually comes to the fore when youre writing about yourself. And in a way, it leads you back to the traditional folk idiom, which is very much about narrative and conveying history.
As his brother notes, Ivors lyrics are dripping with learnéd reference. (Things Ive nicked!, Ivor interrupts) Theyre so rich, and I wonder whether people notice. Besides allusions to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Ivors songs are sometimes the result of historical research, such as Waltham Blacks on their second album, about Hampshires local equivalent of Robin Hood. On Secret Lives, Im particularly proud of Clewers Hill, Ivor says. Its about this man called Peter Cluer, who was murdered at Waltham Chase. There was a brief mention of him in the local village history book, so I delved deeper and emerged with a song, almost by accident. Another songs on Secret Lives, The Andrea Gail, came from reading The Perfect Storm. But usually the less raw material there is for me to work with, the happier I am with the song, because it allows my imagination more space to play.
Secret Lives was recorded at Bob Ross Studios in Portsmouth, over eight days in late 2000 and early 2001. Stood On The Shore, by contrast, was taped on professional quality equipment at Kevans home. We used a Yamaha studio in a box, he explains. The quality is amazing, which allows you to come up with much richer arrangements and thats almost my favourite part of the whole process. Ivor adds: The danger is that it all takes longer we worked on this record for almost a year! The whole movement from paying to have things done for you, to doing it yourself, being self-sufficient, seems to tie in with the ethos of our music, which comes from those same roots.
The songs on Stood On The Shore are credited to both brothers, although in the great Lennon/McCartney tradition you can usually identify the original author by the lead vocalist. So it is Ivor who contributes another priceless slice of history, in the form of Mr Mitchells Angel, a touching tribute to the man who created the World War 2 fighter plane, the Spitfire, and the rural vignette of Moving The Meander; and Kevan inhabiting the character of Wandering Jack and the poignant Slip Away.
What links these songs is a sense of authenticity. The point is that were English, Kevan insists. Popular folk music has always been heavily influenced by the Celtic tradition, as it was transported to America. And thats wonderful. But its not us. My wife always wants me to play the blues, but its just not a serious possibility. I mean, I could do a pastiche of the blues. But if youre going to create something original, it has to come from where youve come from. Musically, I agree with you, Ivor says. Lyrically, you can think yourself into outside characters. But I feel the same about the blues tradition. I love listening to it, and its great fun to play, but it wouldnt be authentic for us to write in that style. We explicitly try to avoid Americanisation. Its so galling when people from England sing in an American accent, when they dont need to.
Within their Englishness, the Bundells are definitely defiantly, even the product of the South. In the USA, the South immediately conjures up an exotic collage of images. But what does it mean in this country? There isnt the same strong, local identity, Ivor concedes. Its much more amorphous. The whole of the South of England has a much more fluid, socially mobile identity, than the more settled communities in the North. People here are being pulled in two directions up towards London, and down to the coast, and then abroad. In their music, the Bundell Brothers are trying to capture that imprecise quality of Southern-ness, through songs that are rooted in local experience, ancient and modern, traditional and freshly minted.
Inadvertently symbolising that shifting Southern identity, Kevan and Ivor continue to work outside the established network of folk clubs. We tend to run our concerts for charity, once or twice a year, Ivor explains. Enough people come to make it worthwhile I dont mean financially, but as an event. It would be nice to play more regularly, but we have to make a living elsewhere. Kevan confirms that, This is something we do in our spare time. So were not out there on the circuit, being part of a particular scene or movement, or even being very knowledgeable about whats going on. They could almost be characters in one of their own songs, proudly pursuing their own musical course regardless of the prevailing winds. Those who are lucky enough to have heard and enjoyed their music will hope that the breeze blows them onto a nearby stage, and back into the studio, before too many more years have passed.
Peter Doggett is one of the UK's leading rock writers
and journalists. He was editor of Record Collector magazine for fifteen
years, and currently writes for Mojo and Q among others. He is
also author of Are You Ready for the Country? (Viking), an authoritative
history of country rock, and of biographies of John Lennon, Lou Reed and of
For further information and a chance to hear music by the Bundell Brothers, visit: www.bundellbros.co.uk