2019 was a big year for UK blues rock band Big River. After a few years of tireless gigging, they’d started to make higher profile appearances. Perhaps more importantly, they finally released their debut album ‘Redemption’, a long time in the planning. We last spoke to founding guitarist Damo Fawsett four years ago, so he was keen to come back to Real Gone and fill us in on the band’s activities. This time, we got the full picture as we also got to spend time with Ant Wellman (bass), Adam Bartholomew (vocals) and Joe Martin (drums). Obviously, they’re all thrilled to bits with the response the album has gained…
RG: First of all, thanks for joining us. It’s been about four years since Damo was last interviewed for Real Gone and a lot has happened since then. Getting you all together for a catch-up was long overdue…
Ant: Yeah. Thanks for spending time with us. Good to be here.
Damo: Hi Lee! Always a pleasure to chat with you and thank you for asking Big River back again.
RG: You’re welcome.
Damo: Hopefully our interview will be a bit of entertainment for people during these very strange times…
Joe: Thanks for supporting the band and reviewing and covering our music. It’s much appreciated and thanks for taking the time to interview us to see “what’s under the hood”… Peace!
Adam: Yeah, it’s a pleasure. What do you wanna know…?
RG: We’re all in isolation due to the Coronavirus pandemic. How has that affected you as a band?
Adam: As a band, it’s pretty frustrating. As a father, it’s been great for me to spend extra time with my family.
Joe: The lockdown has slowed the momentum we had coming out of Christmas and going into the new year. We were setting up to record the first few songs of the album and picking through ideas for songs and writing new ones. We’d been chatting about ideas, plus we had a load of [live] dates set up and were discussing others with various events people. The Coronavirus hit and we all had to focus on what that meant for us personally and for our places of work. That sort of put a pin in the momentum we were gaining. But since then, we’ve been kicking around other song ideas and it’s giving us all time to slow down a bit…which is good for all of our well being.
Ant: I actually enjoy tinkering with home recording, but playing live is where it’s at. This has slowed everything down.
Damo: My feelings are similar to Adam and Joe’s. I had a bad time at the start trying to get a grip on what was happening with the world. I’m a very emotional soul and it affected me pretty bad, but once I took a step back from the news and social media, I got my head together. From there, I’ve focused on the music. We’ve been coming up with ideas to be creative and use our initiative how to reach our followers through other means, which we’re still working on, among other things. The first project was our “Lockdown Sessions” series which have proved popular. I’ve taken the extra time to research various mediums to record at home and put out some videos, all of which is a work in progress. I’ve also got back into writing more songs and looking at better demos instead of just writing a riff & saying “here you go, write some lyrics and a melody for that”.
RG: Everyone’s doing “Lockdown Sessions” at the moment. You’d think there’d be too many of them, but it’s actually been great. There are so many versatile musicians out there. Perversely, a global pandemic has made social media a nicer place.
Joe: It’s sort of made the world a nicer place.
Adam: It’s sort of levelled out society. No matter what religion or race, we’re all the same.
Joe: It’s shown us what’s really important. Nurses over footballers, teachers over lawyers, shop workers over bankers…
Damo: Exactly that. The spirit of community has made a welcome return; neighbours doing shopping for others, old family rifts have been healed & people are reaching out in a way I’ve never seen.
Joe: We’ve written a song about it.
RG: You’ve kind of pre-empted the next question of whether you’re using this time in isolation to write, but that’s a musical time capsule right there.
Joe: Yeah. I’ve done a home recording of it already and once we can get together, we’ll rehearse it and see if it sounds like a Big River song. To go back to the original point, though, the time out has been good for our relationships, our families and given us more time to think about he new album. The problem we have as band is not lack of material. We’ve got way too much, so selecting and editing is quite a big process.
Damo: With regards to lockdown sessions, it’s important not to overkill it. I personally think there’s too many people sitting in a front room playing music into a phone. It needs a little more thought in my opinion and that’s why we do ours as episodes. Like a mini documentary. A little bit of music, a bit of chat, something different every time. Established bands have to innovate to stand out amongst the thousands of others all doing their thing. Music makes me happy, but there’s only so many times you can watch Old Dave in his kitchen singing Elvis songs. There’s something for everyone, though, and I’m never going to be critical of someone who wants to have a go. If it makes them feel good, then that’s great.
RG: Before lockdown, one of your last gigs was at The Penny Theatre in Canterbury. Since a few well known bands played there before making it really big [including Radiohead], did you feel that added extra pressure?
Joe: It was our first gig of the year and I personally just wanted to blow out the cobwebs and give a good performance…which I think we did. I felt confident Big River could deliver.
Adam: Always, Joseph! Personally, I always fly by the seat of my pants anyway.
Damo: I had a few nerves – new venue, new crowd – but as the guys just said, we always deliver. The punters enjoyed what we did and we’ll always feed off that. That show gave us a real boost and we sounded fantastic. We’ve played bigger venues and bigger shows, like supporting Burning Rain as an acoustic trio, but the Penny Theatre gig really set us up to get cracking on the new album. We also had some fantastic gigs lined up, but then everything changed. Luckily, the big festival dates are being rescheduled and we’re still on the bill, so not all is lost. Cambridge Rock Festival has been rescheduled for 2021 and we’re still waiting to see what’s happening with A New Day Festival, but hopefully that’ll be rescheduled too. It’s easy for independent bands like us to reschedule as we manage ourselves – there are no management teams or booking agents working for us.
RG: Since the pandemic has meant you can’t really talk about upcoming gigs, are there any Big River shows from the past that have been special for you?
Damo: I’m a big fan of playing the festival shows. That’s what I always dreamt of doing when I was a kid learning guitar. I still have to pinch myself sometimes that I’m up there actually doing it. I never ever take it for granted, but if I picked one show, I’d have to go with the Little Caesar gig. We hit the crowd hard that night and went from unknown to known in a half hour. We definitely made an impression. [Guitarist] Jared James Nichols spoke to me backstage after our set and told me how much he enjoyed it. The Little Caesar guys were so nice to us…very complimentary. We shared the bill with [ex-Black Star Riders/Dead Daisies bassist] Marco Mendoza and he came to find us after the show and asked us to open for him on other London dates, which we did.
Joe: Supporting Little Caesar at the Underworld in Camden was great! That was the first time the new line up had played a gig, so there was that sense of anticipation. We opened with a cover of Bad Company’s ‘Deal with the Preacher’. I counted it in on the sticks and we were away…and I just remember hearing the band in full glory and thinking “whoa, this sounds SO good“. It was just a massive powerhouse of a sound that was tight and interesting. That, or playing at Cambridge Rock Festival. It was so hot that day…must have been mid 40’s on the drum riser. I was playing in flip flops and they were slipping under my feet throughout the show and I couldn’t see ’cause of the sweat. The band sounded so sweet, though.
Ant: The Little Caesar and Cambridge Festival gigs are right up there, but I’d also like to mention our support with Cats In Space. They were more of a theatre crowd…only really there for the headliner, but we won them over. Doing an acoustic support for John Corabi [ex-Motley Crue/The Scream] was cool too.
RG: So… You’ve released your debut album [‘Redemption’] since we last spoke. It appeared a year later than originally planned. What happened there?
Ant: I guess when we started the recordings we tried to stick to unrealistic deadlines. Albums take time and we all have other things on our plate, like everybody does.
Joe: …And unfortunately various personal situations arose which lead to changes in band members. There were no big problems within the band, it was more down to external factors. That all takes time to resolve as you look for new members, consider your positions…or whatever.
Ant: In the end it was a case of wanting to put together the best ten songs we could and not release something for the sake of it and regretting it.
Damo: There were also some difficulties on the business side of things. Firstly, we had a couple of personnel changes so naturally things take a hiatus while that gets sorted. We were also signed to a record label in the early stages of the recording process and it stopped being fun. I personally found that very stressful as it felt too business focused.
Joe: Ultimately its more important to get the record sounding right than sticking to the timing [of the release] in the long run. People won’t forgive a poor sounding album but they will forgive a delay.
Damo: After we separated from the label, we took a few months off before getting back together. After the break, we wrote a few more songs, finished the album and came back as a four piece feeling totally in charge of our own destiny.
RG: The response to the record has been really positive. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Joe: Yeah…It’s been very nice hearing people’s genuine reactions to the record. This is particularly gratifying in that the record is us, it’s Big River…it’s how we sound live. We haven’t had to make creative or production compromises for a label or anyone else…and so for “our sound” to have been so enthusiastically received is great.
Ant: It really is. You can’t ask for more when you receive generally positive responses.
Adam: The age range of people who have listened to the album is very varied too, which is great. I personally think the songs are also very varied so you’ve got something for everyone on it if you like blues/rock.
Damo: Without sounding big-headed, I think we all knew we’d made a great record. You can hear the journey of the band throughout and how we’ve evolved as songwriters too. We knew our first release had to be strong. To coin a well used naff phrase it’s “all killer, no filler”, but I’m still shocked at how well it’s doing. There’s been loads of radio play, loads of downloads and CD sales. It’s been very well received. An achievement I am massively proud of. We worked fucking hard to get this record done.
Ant: We really did, but it was worth the graft and care that went into it. The delay no longer matters. The album’s out there…and hopefully it’ll be the kind of album that will stand the test of time!
RG: Do you think the album expanded your fan base?
Damo: Most definitely. As I said, a lot of DJs have picked it up and played it…
Ant: …We’ve had a lot of support from guys like Chris Black and Garry Foster, among others, which is really great. Those guys are in it just for the music and do so much for groups like us through radio plays.
Damo: ‘Redemption’ has generated more traffic to our social media pages and we now get ten people at our shows instead of five! [laughs]. Seriously though, yes. we’ve noticed a marked difference, and now our gigs consist of mostly original material and that’s what our followers want to hear…we hope [laughs].
Adam: We try to get on the support for more established bands so that we can get ourselves out there to a bigger audience. I’m also thinking of naked performances for the wow factor!
Damo: [laughs] Naked performance!
RG: Yeah, are you sure?
Damo: I have to stand next to Adam “T-Bone” Bartholomew, so I have a feeling he’ll be even more intimidating in the buff…and I doubt Joe will want to see my hairy bum! [laughs]
Joe: Anywaaay…The album has got to places in the world that we haven’t visited yet and so it’s lovely to hear people enjoying it from distant shores. I hope we get to meet these fans one day and play for them. We need to thank them for purchasing the album and spreading the sound.
RG: Joe… At the point you joined Big River, some of the songs were already long established and at least one had already been recorded for the album. Was it hard for you coming in as the new boy?
Joe: Not really, no. I’d depped as the bass player a number of times, so I knew the songs on bass already and I’d also played a few gigs with the guys as rhythm guitarist. The only tough bit was having a studio session already booked to record ‘Devil’s Whiskey’ the same week in for the week after I joined. We didn’t rehearse, so I had to go into that session and pull it out of the bag.
RG: The recording doesn’t stand out like the work of someone new to the band.
Joe: Thanks mate! I have to say, I’m not a massive fan of “the shuffle” when playing drums… so it wasn’t my favourite musical genre to make my recording debut with! I remember when we played it, though, there was just Damo, Ant and I. We set up, soundchecked, then went for the first take and just looked at each other… We were like “okay, this is gonna be fine!“
RG: Ant… You’re in a band that has a big focus on the guitar and drum parts. Was it difficult to recreate your live role and make your presence felt on the studio recording?
Ant: Yeah, I guess bass can get lost in the mix at times. I would hope that I make up my 25% of our sound, which we all try and do, and that’s why the band works so well… I have spent a lot of time on technique and always try for a punchy but mellow tone, which is always helped by the adrenaline pumping when we play! As far as recording goes, that is mainly down to the guy capturing and mixing the performance. We record all the backing tracks live…the old school way! I have to give a shout to [producer] Jim Riley who just always seems to be able to get it spot on!
RG: The whole record actually plays much better than those early digital singles suggested. Adam’s voice is especially good on the softer material like ‘You Are My Sun’. Do you think that’ll influence where you take Big River on future recordings?
Adam: For me, personally, when I write a song I don’t pre-empt how it’s going to sound beforehand. We just sort of let that evolve when we start rehearsing it together. I love that process when we are all together, with lyrics and a tune, and then everybody puts their ideas in and we create the finished song together. I actually believe the songs evolve even up to the day they are recorded. That’s true for me, especially vocally.
Damo: Our music is evolving, most definitely. Adam has a massive vocal range and obviously on the album you can hear that. But as the years have passed and the longer I’ve worked with him I now write for his voice, which is different to how I wrote before. I know what keys work best for him now and what type of thing we’re all good at.
Ant: For me playing music has to be about doing it because you love it and if you can find other like minded players, then that’s what it’s all about! We are all quite open in our approach to the songs and we all listen to a lot of different stuff…
Joe: In terms of the mid-tempo stuff you’ve mentioned, that seems to be a rich seam their for us. That sound is powerful and moving and we love to play that live and to use it to transport more meaningful ideas and reflections. At the same time we still like to smash out heavier and faster tracks. Its all about the overall set of songs. When we were all a bit younger, we listened to whole albums where you would get to know the song in the context of the bigger picture. There was a bleeding of one song into another, and so mid tempo songs like ‘You are my Sun’ owe their impact partly to the songs that are around them on the album.
Damo: We need to showcase Adam’s amazing voice as much as possible on the next recordings.I personally don’t want the next record to be a re-hash of ‘Redemption’… I feel what’s coming next will be a completely different beast.
RG: Any idea how…or is that just a gut feeling?
Damo: I think it will be different because we’re evolving as a band and Joe has a much bigger influence on the songs now. My own songwriting is structured than before…less riff based. I’m listening to other genres and a lot of other stuff – Chris Stapleton, for instance. I like the country rock stuff. It’s important to take the blinkers off once in a while and see what’s out there. Whatever we do will still sound like Big River, but we’re maturing as songwriters, so I’m very excited about what our new material will sound like.
Joe: This time we’ve been given to write is welcome, but I can’t wait until we can get back out there and play for people and give it full beans! That’s what happens in a Big River performance – it’s like we are on the blocks in a race… The whistle blows and we’re off, running full tilt into the wind. It’s about getting the adrenaline and muscles pumping to get the best performance. It’s totally exhilarating and there’s nothing like it. When this is all over, we’ll be back. We’re ready to play to more people than ever…
Big River’s current single ‘You Are My Sun’ is available as a download from their Bandcamp page right now. Sales will raise funds for Kent NHS Community Heroes and the RNLI. You can download the track here.
Interview by Lee Realgone
Photo by Michelle Duncan. Used with permission.