An Interview with Rupert Hill and Jonny Booth

Manchester is known among historians as one of the world’s first industrialized cities, but for music enthusiasts, Great Britain’s third largest urban centre is also home to one of the country’s most vibrant music and cultural scenes. Christopher Adam, a historian and lecturer from Carleton University, and editor of the Canadian Hungarian Journal, sat down with British actor and musician Rupert Hill and Jonny Booth of the Manchester-based band Yellow Dog earlier this month. Rupert and Jonny spoke about how Yellow Dog was formed, the state of music in the United Kingdom, what’s really behind their band’s name, how their music is produced and they explored their thoughts on the role of music and the arts in society.

I find that in Canadian schools, whether or not students become interested in the arts, culture, music and theatre often depends on a charismatic teacher who can pull his/her weight, inspire their pupils and encourage them to get involved in the arts. Did you have such an experience in primary or secondary school? Did the arts form a key component of the curriculum and was there a teacher who might have inspired you?

Jonny: Not at all. Our music teacher was terrible. She was very staid and very traditional. As such, music was the complete antithesis of ‘cool’ things to do at school. But I was always interested in music outside of school, even though I didn’t study it as part of the curriculum.

Rupert: I was kind of into hip hop when I was in school. Then I did a play and this girl was playing guitar in it. She taught me two cords on the guitar. I couldn’t believe that in a space of ten minutes I could play two cords and as such, I managed to convince my mom and dad to buy me a guitar when I was about 16 years old. After that point, my brother gave me a ‘Best of Bob Dylan’ CD and I just became obsessed with that, as well as everything that Dylan had done. I ultimately learned how to play Dylan songs on the guitar. I left hip hop behind me and went into folk music, as well as rock and roll. It’s pretty strange, because I never got taught music. Instead, I taught myself how to play guitar and I took my inspiration almost entirely from Dylan songs; especially the early ones.

Jonny: I think that music is really undersold in this country. You’ll find that a lot bands and many musicians are self-taught. Maybe this is also why we’ve got a unique style.

Rupert: I think that the Beatles were self-taught along with pretty much every other band. The problem is that when you’ve got a regimented approach to making music-if you’re classically trained-then you don’t know how to break the rules. I break rules all the time. You tend to get interesting things out of that.

You’ve both partly answered my second question. I was wondering if the school curriculum in the United Kingdom-and this is, of course, a generalization-is not placing an adequate emphasis on the live arts and is perhaps stressing something else instead. What would that be?

Jonny: A lot of the emphasis in this country is on sports and you can see this from all of the money that’s being spent on the Olympic bid. There are some people who might think that there’s something wrong with you if you’re not into sports.

Rupert: It even stretches to girls as well. I was talking to a teacher the other day. She asked all the kids in her school about what they wanted to do when they became older. I think that ninety percent of them said that they wanted to become famous, which isn’t a profession. The majority of these students wanted to marry footballers. Footballers are so big in schools that girls want to marry them.

Turning to your music, Rupert, I know that for a while you played in a different band. You then performed on your own, before forming Yellow Dog about a year ago. What was the impetus behind the establishment of your current band?

Rupert: In was co-writing with my mate in my first band, but our paths just started to veer off in different ways. I was instinctively trying to write some quieter songs and he very much wanted them to be loud pop songs and crowd pleasers. This didn’t ring true to me, so we split the band up and he went off to do his own thing. I didn’t have anyone to play with; he kind of took my own band, so I was left on my own. I just played a few solo gigs, because I was still writing, but I didn’t have an outlet. I didn’t want to do this, because I’ve always really been into the sound scape of music, where the power and the force of the lyrics are all together. I just looked around in Manchester and managed to find a few people. I tried to get together the absolute perfect band. A few people got kicked out and a few people got brought in and finally we ended up with a band that for me is absolutely perfect.

If I’m correct, your band is a mix of alternative country and folk. What would you say are the key differentiating factors between “mainstream” folk and country folk, which is what you play?

Rupert: It’s difficult to talk about genres. We cross over many boundaries. But we’re very modern, as well as being old country folk. Folk music tends to be somewhat political. There’s a certain comradery that you see in Woodstock, often involving protest. This is political and we don’t directly do it, but in the end all art is political. Country is kind of a sound. Specifically for us, our music is about recording techniques and production sounds. For example, we’ll reference Dennis Wilson and Neil Young. We try to emulate a sort of West Coast and Canadian rock and roll, which was in some ways country. We use this not so much in terms of our song writing, but in how we produce the recording. This was the heyday for music production. These days, a lot of contemporary music sounds totally over the top, over-produced. When you watch the band live, they sound rubbish. They can’t emulate their record production.

You obviously have an affinity for Northern Soul, Rupert. When did this interest actually develop?

Rupert: When I left Coronation Street, I did a play in Bolton, which is around 40 minutes away. The play was called Once Upon a Time in Wigan, and it’s about Northern Soul. I didn’t know anything about Northern Soul at all and I had the lead role in the play, so I had to do a hell of a lot of research. I had to learn all the songs, so I caught the bug and it’s quite infectious music. Once you get involved, it’s sort of like a club that only a few people are invited to join. The fans are so die-hard and serious about it that it’s quite an interesting thing to be a part of. I really enjoy DJ-ing, and playing a mixture of modern indie music, as well as classic rock and roll, Motown and Northern Soul. Those four genres make for a really good evening of music.

Why did Soul become so popular here in the UK, at a time when it was actually dying out in the United States, and was being replaced by other genres? Much of Soul in the UK was transplanted from the US. Why did it catch on here when it was floundering in the States?

Rupert: I think basically it was because of this ’secret organization.’ These kids used to go to Wigan Casino every Saturday to do this all-nighter. There was no alcohol, so people would just go there to listen to music. Most of this was rare Motown and these songs were essentially rejects. They got into dancing to them and a sort of club mentality formed. Other people would wonder about how they could club all night when alcohol was not in the picture and you wouldn’t try to get off with women. People wouldn’t understand that, so it made the music even more special. England has always been a little like this with the US. If you look at music at the moment, bands like Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day are big here, but what we really tap into are things that won’t do so well in America. Yet we almost take them on as our own. We tend to take on the slightly stranger material. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day might be big, but we won’t embrace them as our own. They will always be imports.

The impression I get is that you see your acting and your music as two separate spheres in your life. Yet Once Upon a Time in Wigan merged your acting with your musical interests. Would you want to do more of this in the future? Would you like to combine your music and acting?

Rupert: As far as I would go in joining the two is doing music videos. I’m looking forward to doing that, because if you’ve got a background in acting, you’re going to be a director’s dream. Many bands struggle, because they might be quite shy and reserved. But I do see my acting and my music as two extremely different things. Musical theatre is not something that I’m particularly interested in.

Turning back to Yellow Dog, your influences include Bob Dylan, the Beatles and-I’m very pleased to see-Leonard Cohen is on your list as well. Dylan was involved in Civil Rights in the 1960s. Then in the seventies he became an evangelical Christian and some of his music reflected his new beliefs. Cohen was involved in social justice and the AIDS struggle. The Beatles were groundbreaking, but perhaps not quite as overtly political. Do you see your music as being political? Is there a political undertone?

Rupert: Yes, there are bits and pieces. If all my ideas were photographs and then I just threw them on the table, only to pick them up in any order and find that each was a cord and a word, then that would be one of my songs. I don’t tend to go in with an agenda, but my music reflects what is inside my mind. I’m not going to start singing “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” or “Bring Our Boys Out of Iraq,” or anything like that. Most of my music tends to be a lot more about how I’m feeling about things, but something might come out of that. Most of our music is very tongue-in-cheek and has a sense of humour. Much of what we do is stream of consciousness. It’s not meaningless, but I let it come out and figure it out later on.

Jonny: Things have changed an awful lot since Dylan, Neil Young and the Woodstock era when people were really angry about different issues. I don’t think that these days people have that much to be ticked off about.

The situation in Iraq a few years ago might have been an exception.

Jonny: Yes, but I don’t think that people are that passionate about specific issues any more. I don’t think that anyone has a serious political agenda in music these days.

Rupert: But that was the popular thing in the sixties, wasn’t it? Revolution and hippies were both popular at the time. At the moment, the popular thing is this country is X-Factor and I’m a Celebrity.

And perhaps EuroVision, that arguably awful show?

Rupert: We actually don’t take that too seriously. Capitalism has taken over and people just want products, to watch television and to be told what to buy, what to wear and what to think. It’s very rare for a guitar band to get a number one album.

Do you think that music should carry a moral message? I am not necessarily thinking about a political message, but rather an ethical one, or some commentary on societal issues?

Jonny: I don’t think that it’s necessary, but everything that I listen to and really pay attention has got something to say. I would lose interest if a song doesn’t have anything at all to say.

You mentioned stream of consciousness just a moment ago and noted that this is something you employ when you write lyrics. When you do this, do you follow the approach taken by many writers during the 1920s and 1930s, where a conscious decision is made to write down their thoughts in the order in which they surface, or do you see this style as something that is more natural, where you might be sitting on a bus, you think of something and then write it down?

Rupert: Yes, sometimes it’s like the second example you gave. But more often then not, it comes from a guitar part. The music will come first and then I will try to come up with a melody vocally that goes along with. If I feel that it’s good, then I’ll just start writing. The music dictates where the vowels and the consonants should be and I fit the words in around that. What I’ve been going on about usually becomes clear later on, so it’s a pretty good system.

Do you have an interest in stream of consciousness in terms of literature as well? There was a time when it was quite popular. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Finnegan’s Wake, as well as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying are all prominent examples of this literary style.

Rupert: I did a bit of James Joyce in college and I thought it was cool. But I preferred the Beat poets, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When I was sixteen, reading On the Road was a really big thing for me. I read most of Kerouac’s works, as well as Allen Ginsberg. This is what really inspired me. I think that David Bowie as well used to write down words, chuck them up and throw them in a bowl. He would then take them out and those would be the words that he stuck in his songs. This is kind of like what I do, without cutting up pieces of paper.

The reason I’m asking this is to find out whether or not you ever find your literary interests reflected in your music?

Jonny: To an extent, yes. That’s partly influenced by the culture that surrounds me. Roo and I have never had this conversation, but I agree about Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger.

I was also wondering about why your band is called “Yellow Dog,” and I have three ideas about this, so let me guess. The first possibility is that your band’s name refers to Democratic voters in the southern states who were called yellow dogs. There was a saying that these Americans would sooner vote for a yellow dog than for a Republican. Another possibility is that yellow dog refers to a British group that created bootlegged Beatles records in the sixties. The third option is a book by Martin Amis published around 2003.

Rupert: Correct, but we like all the other options too. We’re taking all of them. There is actually a band from the seventies called Yellow Dog as well and they had one hit. Amis is my absolute number one writer. My favourite book by him is London Fields. There’s a character in the book called Nicholas Six who I wanted to name the band after. But it sounded kind of wrong being five of us. I also thought that Yellow Dog is a really nice sounding name and that it suits that seventies-style, West Coast music that we embrace.

You mentioned London Fields and one of the overarching literary themes in that book is the dichotomy between reality and the imagination. Is music a reflection of reality, or is it a reflection of your personal imagination?

Rupert: It would have to be my imagination, because I don’t have an agenda. Bob Dylan was asked once about writing and he said that the songs already exist and that he’s just the vehicle for getting them out. It’s almost as though he has no control over it. I don’t agree with that necessarily, but I think that I understand what he means. I’m not deliberately writing out a point because I feel that I have to tell the world about something. I think that my music is a mixture of my imagination and things that are happening in life, both personally and socially.

Do you see a connection between poetry and writing lyrics?

Rupert: I wouldn’t really know how to define poetry. Bob Dylan always said that he’s not a poet whenever he was asked about it. If someone said to me that I’m a really good poet, or a really bad one, then I would probably respond by noting that I don’t think of myself as a poet. If you want to read the words in the CD sleeve in your own time that’s fine, but it’s still a song-it has a tune. I would say that it’s not poetry, as far as I’m concerned.

Jonny: I think that if we go back in time, then there’s probably a point where the two came together. But I think that a lot of lyricists would probably struggle to write particularly good poetry and I think that a lot of poets would struggle to stick their poem into a particularly good melody.

Does Yellow Dog have a target audience and if so, who would it be?

Rupert: We have all kinds of people. We had a gig earlier this month at The Academy and there must have been 300 people there. Everyone seemed to really respond well to it. We had a lot of people our age, but a lot older people really liked it, because it harkens back to a period when they would have been young. At the same time, I went back stage and there was a group of maybe five girls who really liked our music and they were only in their teens. Hopefully, we can appeal to a huge range.

Jonny: The band scene in the UK has been growing. Rock and roll has started to come back into fashion, beginning in the nineties. There are now more bands in this country than there ever have been. But it all has to take its natural course as it did in the sixties and seventies when it started off as quite easy going, pop and simple. As it grew, the bands became a lot more introspective. People now want a little more meat on the bones of band music and this development is quite fortunate for us.

Rupert: We’re friends with a band called Elbow. They’ve been struggling for 17 years and now they’ve just one the Mercury music prize. As such, they have become one of the biggest bands in the country. That’s great for us too. We don’t do what they do, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark, in terms of the sound scape, serious lyrics and musicianship. We do want to make our music commercial enough that we can sell it.

Do you have a large contingent of university students at your gigs?

Rupert: Yes, we do sometimes. You will get that in Manchester, because it’s such a big university town. Esther, our keyboard player, has just finished university, so a lot of people who knew her come to our gigs as well.

You do have to sell music at some point and you certainly want an audience. When you are performing or when you are preparing, are you conscious of what might appeal to your audience?

Jonny: Yes, to a point, we do take this into consideration. Whether you’re trying to sell records or get people in and make sure that they come back to the next event, you do have to market the product.

Rupert: We initially went in with songs that were upbeat and lively. At the same time, my instinct told me to write quieter songs. After the first few gigs, people picked out the audience’s favourite songs and invariable it would be the quieter, more introspective and slower ones that were most popular. It kind of works out, because the favourite tunes tend to be the best ones. As long as we keep making the best tunes that we can, I think that the audience will be happy.

Jonny: You always have to listen to your audience to an extent. When you write a song, you always struggle to be objective about it. You kind of need to test drive your songs and see the reaction. If it’s a bit lukewarm, then you should put it on the backburner and move on to something else.

Rupert: It must be tough for those big bands, because they’re going to get cheered loudly for every single song, regardless of how good it is. They don’t have that intimate dialogue with the audience, where people can really come and tell us what they think was good. If you get any success in music, you have to keep your ear to the ground and find out what people think. If you believe your own hype, you’ll just end up writing rubbish and I think that a lot of bands do that.

How much of a problem is the over-saturation of American products in the media here in the UK? Does it really make it difficult for home-grown music and television?

Jonny: It seems to be growing and it’s certainly rubbing off on our culture an awful lot more than when I was growing up. But there were always American TV shows and US products. I don’t know if it’s being pushed more now or if we’re more accepting of it. It may also be linked to the huge rise in hip hop and R&B in this country. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a problem. The bigger problem is the tasteless commercialism–like X-Factor–regardless of where it comes from. The real problem is the spread of general, mindless consumerism.

Rupert: Live music is thriving over here. Despite this global recession, people are still going to gigs and there a lot of them. The record label industry and record sales are rapidly dwindling. What this means is that bands have to be good live, which is how it once was. I think that we would all agree that it’s better to sit back and listen to us play live than to listen to a CD. We’re trying to be the best live band that we possible can be, because I think that’s the immediate future for music. It’s also what we like to do. We don’t want to sit in a studio and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds. All of us just want to get on the road in our little van and drive around the country, playing songs to as many people as possible. That’s how you get a fan base. In the past several years, people have gotten a little lazy and instead of gigging it, they were trying to get TV slots.

I have to return to this point of over-saturation because in Canada this is a major issue for us. We are a country of 32 million people, but there is a market of 300 million Americans just next door to us. Something that Canada does is that it provides the arts with public funding, in order to promote home-grown talent and multiculturalism. Do you think that it might be a good option here in the UK for the government to fund local artists and independent groups more than they currently do?

Jonny: The money that is available is spread very thinly. But there are a lot of initiatives that encourage people to be creative.

Rupert: Britain is a small country. But in this day, everyone is in a band. If you just walk down the street and ask around, you would probably find twenty bands. There’s a lot of support here in Manchester but gigging in London is tough. London has a fair amount of snobbery, but in Manchester independent music is thriving. Yet this also means that there are loads of bands that aren’t very good. If there was going to be some money, it would have to be given selectively.

The problem seems to be that if there is a young artist who wants to get their name out, they may have to take part in a televised reality or talent show. More often than not, these are third rate when it comes to creativity. Some of the best content is found at local gigs and is produced by small, local bands. Yet these groups often stay local, for lack of national or international exposure. Most of the time, the best talent can’t rise to the top.

Jonny: That’s a good point. I think that there is a lot of government funding available. The problem is that many musicians are too preoccupied to think about how to go about getting it. Sometimes much of it will go instead to people, for example, who are trying to restore an art gallery. There is money available, it’s just not widely known how to access it.

Rupert: You would probably need a political agenda. It would have to look as though you were doing something for the community. For example, if you would want to put on a play and it’s going to be about immigration, you would probably get the money. But if you just wanted to do a play about middle class values, you probably wouldn’t get the money for that.

Does public money corrupt the arts?

Rupert: I think that money corrupts everything.

What about public funding specifically?

Rupert: I don’t think that it corrupts as much as the record industry. I don’t understand how it really works, because we’ve talked with record labels and there’s a lot of discussion about what we can’t do and how we won’t get an advance. But then you hear about another band that hasn’t released a single yet, and yet they’re in L.A. recording in the most expensive studio. It gets you thinking about how the record label is paying for all of this, when they haven’t even released a record yet. All that we want is to get into a van in order to go and gig. What I don’t understand about the record industry is that you’ve either got half a million, or you’ve got nothing. There’s also no nurturing. If you don’t make a massive success with your first record, you won’t be making another one. Public funding could really help things, but more often than not, it probably won’t. People don’t like parting with their cash, if they don’t feel that they will get an immediate return. What you need is not just businessmen, but people who can spot good art when they see it. It’s a cruel industry, but you’ve got to hope that somewhere down the line, the cream will rise to the top, that someone will notice you if you’re good and that they will help you along. I think that there are enough people out there who are into good music that it can happen, but it is incredibly tough.

What does British independent music have to offer that is unique?

Rupert: Based on the size of this country, I think that it’s made the best music in the world, at least in the historical sense. I’m not talking about classical, but rather about popular music.

Jonny: It’s quite interesting how for the past forty or fifty years, there seems to be a connection across the Atlantic and both sides influence each other. The early blues came over here, but then we had bands that influenced US music as well.

Rupert: My ex-girlfriend is Norwegian and she still sends me material produced by Norwegian artists. A lot of this is incredible, especially since the acoustic scene in Norway is fantastic. There’s one particular guy called Thomas Dybdahl who I’ve become a huge fan of. But he doesn’t have any distribution at all in this country and nobody knows who he is. Yet I consider him one of the greatest artists alive at the moment. It’s pretty naïve to think that great music isn’t being produced everywhere else, it’s just that America and the UK–and Canada, I suppose–monopolize the music scene.

Why has Britain produced so much music, especially after 1945, at a point when it had ceased to be a major superpower? My thesis is that it has a lot to do with some of the social problems and class-based strife that the UK went through during much of the twentieth century.

Jonny: Yes, that’s what I put it down to as well. I think that a lot of it has to do with how this country went through the industrial revolution and how many people were forced into absolute squalor. Many of these people worked seventeen hours a day.

Rupert: We were having class problems and this helped bring out music, but there were class problems in America as well. The slave trade helped bring out blues. In the UK, we were having money and class problems, and out of that came music. I do think that good art does tend to come out of trouble. A good example is how the South American film industry is booming. But what I think really distinguishes British rock music from the American variant is that our rock stars have a sense of humour that American rock stars generally don’t tend to have. If you look at big bands like Oasis, they’ve got a sense of humour.

Jonny: I think that here in the UK maybe what we’ve really got is an ability to laugh at ourselves.

In addition to Rupert Hill and Jonny Booth, Yellow Dog’s other members include Esther Maylor, Andy Travis and Andy Sedon.

Christopher Adam
November 2008