Interview: Southern Tenant Folk Union

The second album from Southern Tenant Folk Union is released this month. Revivals, Rituals & Union Songs is another genre-defying collection of original songs from the London based band. We spoke to banjo player Pat McGarvey about the album and the band’s unique take on American music.

In their short existence STFU have risen to be one of the busiest bands around. Formed in early 2006, the band released its eponymous debut album in January 2007 to much critical acclaim. They fuse a blend of just about every roots influence imaginable including bluegrass, old-time, Celtic and gospel.

The Union line-up is led by banjo player Pat McGarvey along with lead vocalist Oliver Talkes, Peter Gow (guitar), Frances Vaux (fiddle), Matt Lloyd (bass), and Eamonn Flynn (mandolin). All the band members have previous experience in roots bands, most notably McGarvey who was a long-time member of The Coal Porters.

The new album, Revivals, Rituals & Union Songs is a collection of 11 original tracks and gets your feet tapping from the off with Never Got The Best Of Me, and brings a mixture of moods with a broad folky appeal. Most of the Union members have contributed songs for this album: McGarvey’s own Back To Front, for example, is a glorious Celtic soul fusion, whilst Cocaine (by Flynn) has an undeniable Eastern European feel. McGarvey describes the latter of these as “a million miles from bluegrass,” adding that it “still sits perfectly in with our sound.”

Whilst Southern Tenant Folk Union’s work certainly cannot be described as pure ‘grass, you’re still likely to hear hints of Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch plus plenty of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. However, there are so many influences here that the music feels uniquely British.

Born in Belfast, and now residing in Edinburgh, McGarvey is sceptical of his own direct Celtic influence in the music. “I’m a world citizen and don’t particularly feel this little collection of islands, however wonderfully tolerant and beautiful they might be, are anything special on this small sized planet in this vast universe,” he says, “and we should sometimes reflect on that before we make our arm sore waving flags around.” But he goes on to add “there’s something to be said for the musical sensibility that people of Celtic descent (like me) sometimes have. It seems totally plausible that musically beneficial genes are passed down through the generations like anything else.”

The band is still relatively young but has already enjoyed support from the BBC and publications including Maverick and Uncut. “It’s almost two years ago right now that we had our first rehearsal with all six members, and I’m very happy we’ve been able to get started well as a band and am now looking forward to whatever exciting adventures and mystery solving we get up to in our van on tour this year,” says Pat.

Adventures will surely abound. STFU are becoming regulars on the British festival scene and have a busy schedule already lined up for 2008. The band will be on a nationwide promotional tour through March and into April which will see them playing venues across England, Scotland and Wales. They are also once again booked to appear at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival in September.