Interview: Rabbi John

Gloucestershire band Rabbi John have recently returned to action after a long break, releasing a new CD entitled Further. We spoke to their guitarist, mandolinist and percussionist Jason Titley about the band and the album.

Rabbi John formed in 2004 when guitarist Jason Titley moved to Nailsworth, Gloucestershire and met up with local musicians Becky Dellow (fiddle) and Paul Bienek (banjo and vocals). Duncan Kingston soon joined the ranks on bass.

Their first album, Skin and Bone, mixing old-time, bluegrass and other roots styles, gained them many fans. The band was lauded by Tim O’Brien as “hard and strong and shining audibly like a diamond” and one critic even suggested they had invented a whole new genre, namely “New Timey music”.

A few festival appearances and the release of a live CD established the band as one of the best on the country’s bluegrass and old-time scene. But things hit the buffers when Becky had to leave due to family commitments and for a while it seemed Rabbi John were no more.

However, after a long hiatus, the band regrouped this year as a trio, performing at several festivals in the lead up to the release of their third CD, Further.

All three members have played in a variety of bands and genres, including but not limited to, rock, soul, skiffle, jazz and even an Anglo-Senegalese collaboration. The 13 tracks on Further fully reflect the band’s various influences but bluegrass and old-time still play a big role.

“The bluegrass element comes from my background and Paul’s, and the instruments we play,” Jason tells us. “Paul has been playing bluegrass and teaching it on banjo for many years and I have been playing it for most of my musical career. This was initially with my dad’s band back in the late 80s (The Buffalo Bluegrass Band) and then with Natural Hazzard in the mid 90s.”

On top of that bluegrass experience, Jason and Duncan are both former members of newgrass group Daily Planet, a band famed for its fusion of different genres and for pushing boundaries. Rabbi John are continuing in that same vein, though in their own unique way.

All the songs on Further are original and the writing is strong throughout, from the upbeat and bouncy Judgement Day to the sentimental Tomorrow’s Child and the folky protest song of Little George. Since this is a bluegrass website, special mention should be given to Rockit Dog, a rip-snorting banjo breakdown inspired by Paul’s dog, that should satisfy even the staunchest officers of the bluegrass police.

The tracks have been in the works during the band’s time off. “Paul wrote like a madman whilst Duncan and I had babies (not together) and were busy doing all that comes with them,” Jason tells us. “So when we decided to carry on as a trio we had a full album and then some to work up. Paul brings the songs in a raw form and then we arrange and sculpt them as a band. We are hoping to work up some of my songs and tunes for the next album.”

The album is helped along by a number of special guests. Casey Driessen provides the intro riff for the opening track Love Child, a funky little number that sounds like it was born to be played by the eccentric fiddler. “I first met Casey when I played percussion with him at a gig on his tour with Tim O’Brien and John Doyle,” says Jason. “We met again at Sore Fingers so I just called him up and asked him if he would play on the album. I could hear his percussive fiddle opening Love Child and I’m not sure what I would have done if he had said no!”

Matt Flinner provides some beautiful mandolin fills and breaks on a couple of tracks, including the gentle, laid back Just For A Day. “Matt is an old friend from the Daily Planet days when he toured with us on a number of occasions, so he was happy to be involved. He’s such a great addition to the tracks,” Jason says.

The strangest addition to the band is most definitely Arthur Brown, best known as The God of Hell Fire, who provides vocals on the song Shout. How did he become involved in this project?

“Arthur Brown…not the first person you imagine singing our genre (whatever that is),” says Jason. “I have known Arthur most of my life, he used to baby sit for me when I was a nipper – he was a friend of my mum’s.

“I played a few gigs with him back in the 90s and he just blew me away with his complete ownership of the stage and audience so when it came to do the album I e-mailed him. He said he would be in London for one night only so I drove down with a mic and a laptop and Paul’s lyrics printed out. He did 3 takes and Shout was born.”

Local musicians Kate Lissauer, Josh Clark, and Regine and Lauren Candler also contribute to the recording which is rounded off nicely with an indescribable bonus track. You’ll have to buy the CD to find out what that’s all about…

From a bluegrass point of view, Further is perhaps one for the adventurous listener, but Rabbi John have developed a unique and distinctive sound that should be enjoyed by any fan of acoustic music and good song-writing.

Further information

To find out more about Rabbi John or to buy any of their CDs please visit their official website. You can also hear samples from Further on their myspace.