King Zepha: “We Do What We Want”

With a self-produced fusion of ska, rocksteady and jump-up blues, Yorkshireman Sam Thornton is ready to take a working-class English sound to genre fans in Ireland under the moniker of King Zepha this month. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

Couched in the warm familiarity that reggae recorded directly to tape seems to magically generate, and possessed of a sunny disposition without resorting to genre stereotype, Yorkshire outfit King Zepha have a gentle balance of sonic elements to keep both casual listeners and die-hards happy. Led by producer, songwriter and live bandleader Sam Thornton, the project’s new album ‘Northern Sound’ releases this month, a one-man job written/arranged and produced by yourself and released via boutique London label Happy People. After preparing the record for the better part of a year following a two-month spell of songwriting, Thornton took it upon himself to realise his vision in every aspect of the recording process, performing tracks and overdubs on everything. Not that life didn’t get in the way over the course of proceedings, though. “As the father of a boisterous 6-year old and 18-month-old twins, I’ve had to adopt an as-and-when approach, often involving whole nights holed-up in my attic, hunched over a mixing desk. I couldn’t have managed it without strong coffee and my wonderful, supportive partner, Natalie. The test-pressing of the vinyl LP has just arrived. It was pressed in Ireland, by Dublin Vinyl, and it sounds great. I’ve rehearsed all the new material with the band, and now all that remains is to get out there on the road and play it live, the fun part!”

It’s unusual for a central person to take a ‘producer’ role as a featured musician nowadays, with bands, soloists and collaborative songwriting having long since overtaken the studio system of “star” producers and their in-house bands, etc. Transmuting his own ideas to a live setting, then, is a continuation of time-honoured tradition and method. “I’ve been brought up listening to, and playing in, big bands and jazz bands. In that tradition, there’s usually one or two players in each group who contribute compositions/arrangements and the rest are players who bring the music to life. I’ve never actually played in a band that compose songs collectively, so I don’t know how that works. With the writing and the producing I find it easier to do it myself, at home, and then send rough recordings out to the band to learn. We are all involved in other musical projects and this seems the most productive way for us to work. In the early days of King Zepha, we’d try out my original compositions in our other band, Louis Louis Louis. We’d just sneak them in, between two cover versions, and see what response they’d get from the audience. We’ve got a good system for working out songs and vocal harmonies now. Our pianist always takes the bottom harmony, our bassist the top, and so on.”

Recording to eight-track tape is a brave move in the current technological climate, for many reasons. The ease of digital recording has changed the game, and while a number of studios still proudly boast of using tape equipment for the as-live process, parts for old gear and tape itself are increasingly becoming a specialist business. Thornton speaks on how the method informs the message. “Over the last ten years, we’ve experimented with everything from using just one ribbon mic for the whole band, straight to a two-track tape machine, right through to full digital recordings. We’ve even tried overdubbing one instrument at a time for complete control over reverb, bleed, etc. before arriving at the sound we like best. We’ve tracked this album using an 8-track, quarter-inch tape machine and, because of the amount of tape hiss, you have to hit the tape quite hard. This produces a bit of distortion, but it’s nice distortion, not the horrible “clicky” sound you get from digital distortion. That slightly distorted sound reminds me of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s rocksteady recordings by Lee “Scratch” Perry, my production hero. It’s definitely not the “textbook” way of recording, but I love it.”

The title of the album and subsequent live incarnation, King Zepha’s Northern Sound, bears immediate and heavy connotations of working-class English subcultures, harkening back to obvious ports of call like Northern Soul. When asked about the implications, however, it’s as much a call to belonging and togetherness in a time of barely-precedented social and cultural fracturing close to home. “I didn’t realise until now that I had such a fixation on geography! To be honest, the “northern” reference is more of a descriptor than a political statement. The band are all from northern towns and cities, mostly in Yorkshire, and this is reflected in our dialect, appearance and sense of humour. Musically, there is a very strong Jamaican influence too. I think that our album titles and artwork reflect this fusion. There is a political message in some of our music, but it is one of unity, not of division.”

An interesting aspect of the record, with that in mind, is when it zeroes in on the views of Brits abroad, taken from conversations on the band’s touring excursions. It’s a contentious question, amid a hail of Little Englander stereotypes and gags about Marbella, but in the context of the facts of the ramifications of Brexit, a positive realism, and confronting Brexiteers’ greatest-generation rhetoric, are important. “Without generalising too much, Brits abroad are an interesting breed. Watching a group of them on holiday, for example, can be like watching a group of toddlers or chimps in a zoo and it can be embarrassing sometimes being tarred with the same brush. I’ve been asked a few times, whilst touring in mainland Europe, why did “we” vote to leave the EU. The fact is that the British public are hugely divided on this. Roughly half the population wish to remain and many people didn’t really understand the ramifications of what they were voting for. There was, and is, a lot of propaganda and fabrication, being circulated by the tabloids and social media, on both sides of the fence. I’m very pro-Europe, as are the other band members. Our current Government have a terrible track record of looking after the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and our workers’ rights. EU legislation currently keeps them in check on some of these issues and, if the UK were to leave the EU, I dread to think what monstrosities they’d unleash.”

It is this fear, brought on by the seeming sleep of reason that Brexit has wrought on the United Kingdom’s citizens, that informs the record’s sunny nature in other ways: the sustained push from certain political quarters for disunity is ready to be met with a rally to the aforementioned togetherness. “The question of Brexit has driven a wedge between people, from all walks of life, and seems to have encouraged some unsavoury characters, such as Nick Griffin (former leader of the far-right groups National Front and British National Party) to resurface from underneath their rocks. Hate crime, xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the increase and people are genuinely scared. And of course, in Ireland, there is the worrying issue of a potential hard border between NI and the Republic and the impact it could have on the peace process. It’s very telling that the politicians who started the Brexit process have done a runner and left the people with a mess to clear up, whichever way it goes!”

Amid the weight of all this, the band are getting on with it, playing the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork on the 21st as part of a run of Irish dates to get the new album out there. Ska and reggae have always had small but dedicated followings in the city, but with the emergence of genre festivals in the county in recent years, and a new community group having just been agreed upon, the timing is perfect. “This will only be our second time performing in Ireland, and our first appearance in Cork. The theatre looks fantastic, and I’ve heard great things about the city from many of my friends who’ve performed at Cork Jazz Festival. I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of Guinness, and it really is so much better in Ireland, so that’s another thing I’m looking forward to.”

King Zepha’s Northern Sound play the Crane Lane Theatre on Sunday April 21st. “Northern Sound” is available now on all streaming services and on 12” from Happy People Records.

The Beat: “No Need for This, It’s Just You and Me”

The original voice of ska innovators The Beat is back, with an all-star cast of genre heavyweights at his back. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Dave Wakeling ahead of the band’s upcoming turn at the Opera House.

The late seventies were a time of profound social and cultural upheaval in the UK – the revolutionary spirit of the sixties had amounted to nothing but hippie clichés by the end of it, and the socioeconomic conservatism of the Thatcher-led Tories led a generation to ruin, deprivation, and disillusionment. The snarling and spitting rhetoric of the first wave of UK punk would, in time, also become another panto-dame for the country’s culture, but among the tropes of safety pins, spikes and nihilism lay the foundations for social change and inclusion, as the steady diet of dub and reggae that DJs like Don Letts and others had fed the kids at punk’s outset was, at the other end, morphing into ska, a double-time, rock-inflected strain of reggae with working-class youth at its heart.

Next year will mark forty years since the debut of the original incarnation of The Beat, in 1979. Looking back on it now, vocalist and bandleader Dave Wakeling, speaking from his home in California, is rightfully proud of how far the band got on its first run, and the legacy they’ve hewn for themselves. “I have to say, I’m terribly lucky to still be in the game. I mean, I dreamt when I was a kid that I would be in a pop group, but I never dreamt that it would go this well. And the idea that forty years later, still being in a pop group… people have liked your songs, it’s way more than a dream come true. People want to come up to you, people want to talk to you, you meet all sorts of beautiful people, all sorts of money flying around… but after all of that, for people to come up to you, and tell you stories of how their lives were affected by your songs or lyric or something like that, someone being born or someone dying in a hospice (with your music in the background). You can’t buy that. As a songwriter, that’s where the best bits come from. Realising one of your threads got weaved into someone’s else tapestry.”

Of the tunes Wakeling and company have written and put into the great ska songbook, single ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ stands out as prescient for one single reason – it saw the growing excesses of image and self that would go on to convulse social development as the eighties and openly discussed its effects. In a post-reality TV age where ample platforms of documentation and image-crafting exist, it’s almost poignant. “The sad thing about it is, online, first you see the self-obsession, then you see the loneliness, then some poor kid posts a three-minute video before they (take their own lives), because they don’t feel anyone likes them. What I was always worried about was… in the punk times, people could take a long time to get ready, put on their makeup, especially the blokes. But with that sort of self-preening, by the time everyone was ready and the hair was standing up, it was a bit hard to have a conversation, everyone had spent so long preparing (this outward expression) that it was hard to communicate. That was the first sign you saw of it. It came to me one day after a half of Guinness after being on the building site, going home, taking off the wet jeans and going into the bathroom for a shower and a shave. I looked at myself and said ‘no need for this, it’s just you and me, Dave’, and that’s when it started coming to me.”

After three albums, the band split in the mid-eighties, with members going on to form bands like ska outfit General Public and pop hitmakers Fine Young Cannibals, as well as pursuing solo careers. The band eventually reassembled in 2003, sans Cannibals, overcoming years of disharmony to reunite for a tour, but for various reasons, Wakeling felt something was missing, a wrong that could be righted sooner than expected. “It was fun, and it was exciting, but it didn’t have the needle everyone was expecting it to. Now, everybody seems to be friends again, talking on the phone, a new album for the fortieth anniversary. There’s been some thought about how many original members might like to get up and do a turn. Maybe not the full ninety minutes, but get up and do a song or two. I think it would be nice to have the album, but how much more fun would it be for everyone to get together, and do as much as they want to do? Make a party of it. I’m going to start gently inquiring (chuckles).”

After the reunion, Wakeling went on to form The Beat Starring Dave Wakeling, which sees him take on material spanning his whole career with The Beat, General Public and solo endeavours, including new material accompanied by veteran collaborators. The pros and cons of representing the band’s name and legacy alone on new recordings were quite substantial to consider. “I listened to the songs from a distance, and they were very close to how they sounded in my head. I managed to follow that through, the right tempo, the right sounds, ‘that’s where the recorder comes in, that’s where the piccolo is’, so I got to follow my star, and I picked what instruments went where, as I imagined it, and that’s very satisfying. Other records I’ve written, I’ve written a song, and six other people grabbed it like dogs, and you have to find a way to put words over that. Now I can write something, lay it down, let other people at arranging it, then head down the pub (laughs).”

Last year saw Wakeling return to Ireland for the first time in thirty years with his iteration of the band, with a pair of sell-out shows. The changes that have overcome his audience and their generation since living in Dublin in the eighties have made a mark on him, while his bandmates have certainly taken notice of the Irish touring experience. “Spent a lot of time (in Dublin) and like Birmingham, it was quite a rough place. You have to say, we noticed while driving around, Ireland is looking very well, it looks like it’s happy with itself. People are happy with each other, and there seems to be an optimism about the place, that sadly we didn’t see in England. The streets are cleaner, there’s more civic pride. You see all sorts of ups and downs over the years, but there seems to be a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude outside the concert halls, and inside, people with a lot more confidence, making sure they were going to have a good night. And the Americans noticed it particularly. The great thing now is you have these double-decker buses, so you’re properly rested before a concert. Like a guided tour, without anyone talking, so you sleep. Driving from Dublin to Cork, it went really quiet. Usually with ten or twelve people on a bus, someone’s having a go or a joke. But it was very placid. I got up, and it was though everyone was in a trance – they were staring out the window. (The Americans) had never seen so much green!”

Heading into the return leg, Wakeling has a few words for veteran fans of the bands ahead of taking to the stage at the Opera House. “We’re terribly excited about our new material. Some of the songs are about the fears in my mind that are now playing out on the world stage… we’ll play some new songs, but we know that the crowd will come with a lot of songs they’ll want to sing as well. We’ll strike the right balance.”

Autonomads: “Write About It, Document It”

Ahead of a headline show in Fred Zeppelin’s next week, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Porl, drummer from Manchester anarcho-punks Autonomads.

Living by a strict code of do-it-yourself ethics is constantly getting harder for musicians. The net is tightening on independent labels and artists in light of the ongoing changeover in habits to paid streaming, and questions of how the money trickles down persist. Meanwhile, city centres are changing all over Europe, and gentrification has seen to multiple city centres’ DIY spaces. Against all of this in the back, Mancunian dub/ska punks Autonomads continue to plough their own furrow, with fourth record ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ releasing in February of this year via the Ruin Nation label. Drummer Porl talks about how it came together. “We wrote the songs for this record over the year or so before recording, with a couple of the tunes only really coming together just before we went in to the studio. We recorded most of it over two days in the Lake District, about a year before it was released. We used the same engineer as our last album, ‘One Day This Will All Be Gone’. The house belongs to our mate, she let us have free run of the place, so had cables trailing around the house, micing up guitar cabs in cupboards. We built a ‘vocal booth’ out of some mattresses that were lying about. If you listen closely you can hear the sound of the fire crackling on ‘Babylon Rock’. It was all pretty relaxed, and easier doing it away from a professional studio where time is money and it can feel a bit clinical.”

The band is currently dealing with being split between three cities, and working away on other musical projects at the same time. Touring and releases stay co-ordinated and organised, but with the effort of the whole band, staying connected while occupying different roles. “Once upon a time, most of us lived together, so booking a gig was as easy as walking around the house and knocking on a few doors. These days it’s WhatsApp and emails! On the surface it might appear organised, but most of the time it’s like a pan of spaghetti on the back burner (laughs). I do most of the booking and gig listings, Eliot handles the orders. We all feed ideas in and meet up when we can. Usually about an hour before we play a gig! The plan is to meet up for a few days at a time at a mate’s pub, and practice on blocks like that. Being in Bristol, Manchester, Windermere, Stratford and having other projects takes some juggling, but it happens because we all want it, I guess. If we weren’t all best mates it would be hard!”

Aside from a 7″ release of the EP, ‘All Quiet…’ is also finding its way out on tape this summer – what’s the continued appeal of a tape pressing now that the novelty factor of the tape revival is all but done away with? “A label from Manchester called Prejudice Me are taking it on, along with an American label, No Time Records, and Hamburg’s Uga Uga tapes. All people we’ve met over the years. I guess it’s another format that people still like, still collect, et cetera.”

Leadoff digital single ‘All Roads Lead to Hulme’ sets the tone for the record, an impassioned response to gentrification in their hometown and the cultural changes wrought by ongoing property speculation and poorly considered urban regeneration programmes. “The photo on (the front cover of the 7”) was taken by (band member) Iain. Hulme, Manchester. Hulme is significant for the travellers, squatters and wrong’uns. The development of this area was the focus of most the record, and the high rent prices & new builds are forcing people to move on.” It’s easy to draw comparisons to what’s happening here in Cork, with arts centres being cleared out of the city centre for offices and a Celtic Tiger-style property bubble pricing longtime city-dwellers out of their homes and communities. Porl has advice for artists, activists and workers dealing with displacement in the wake of gentrification. “Write about it, document it, it’s a people’s history that needs telling. Future generations can end up standing in the shadow of these buildings and developments, alienated from their environment and not knowing the history of an area. Hulme has always been home to the punks, hippies, crusties and anarcho types, and with that comes a creative and diverse force. The tide of gentrification that attempts to wash this away can leave people feeling alienated, and it’s important to tell these stories, resist high rents, squat and occupy space.”

Political music is everywhere, and more accessible than ever thanks to streaming. And yet, whether through a growing concentration of media ownership and interests, or a lack of curatorship on the part of streaming services, there’s a dearth of social/political music in the ‘mainstream’ or even relatively broad musical conversation. It’s a tough one to discuss without the threat of co-option, as Porl posits. “Do we want our music and that of our community co-opted by the same machine we’re singing against? So many bands with integrity and a voice enter the mainstream and get their art watered down into a pallid and consumable gruel, with nothing but the image of ‘social conscience’ left. An image that is sold back to us at too high a price, even though it was one that we all helped to create with love, hope and hard work. It’s very hard to penetrate the media sheen and come out smelling of roses. The mainstream music industry is a charade. You get into the magazines and the radio shows and TV by paying an agent to pay the agents of such institutions. All the romance and beauty of this industry that we believe as kids getting in to it is false. The reason so very few bands with integrity and a message reach the dizzy heights of the NME and Radio 1 is because they aren’t prepared to pay.”

Autonomads heading for Ireland in the next few weeks with tour support from solo side-project Captain Hotknives, and local support from alt-rock-informed punk rockers Audible Joes. It’s new territory for the band, but they’re ready to take on the red room upstairs on Parliament Street on the 10th. “We’re all really looking forward to coming to Ireland, as none of us have been before, and we have heard lots of great things!” It’s the relative calm before a storm of festival dates and touring for the record, suitably chaotic amid the rest of their lives. “We’ve got a few gigs dotted about in the UK. Manchester, Kelburn Garden Party, Swinefest and some others, then we’re off to Germany for a few festivals in July. Fire and Flames – a good anti-fascist crew putting this together. Then in September, we’re going to the Netherlands, Belgium and about again… between all of this, we are fitting in other tours and working precarious jobs to fund it all (laughs). We’ve all maintained pretty flexible jobs in order to carry on doing music. It can be tricky, but it means our creative stuff can keep its integrity and not be about the dosh!”

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is streaming and available for download at