Interview: Flats and Sharps

A few years back, ukbluegrass ran a feature on a young, upcoming band called Miles Apart. The members of that band have since grown up and most are now playing in various professional, touring groups – namely The Carrivick Sisters, Jaywalkers and The Coal Porters – and a new breed of young bluegrassers is emerging in their place.

If you were at Sore Fingers Week last month you would have seen some of these new upstarts; four teenage lads from Penzance, Cornwall who perform together as Flats and Sharps. Their performance in the student concert earned a standing ovation and saw them booked for a couple of festivals this summer. We had a chat with them about their band and their music.

Q: How did a group of Cornish teenagers end up playing bluegrass music?
A: Well, we all prefer listening to it and playing it. It is our favourite type of music because it’s simply, the best. There’s no electric wah-ing, or synths, just raw instruments, which is the best way to play music, we think.

Q: How did you meet and what drew you to the music?
A: We all met at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival in 2008 and played together quite a bit there. We didn’t really take it any further than that for a couple years until we all went to the same college. We played together there for a further 4 months before deciding to go for it and start a band.

Q: How long have you been playing as a band?
A: We have been playing as a band since February 2011.

Q: Your influences seem to be the more traditional side of bluegrass. What sort of bands and musicians do you listen to?
A: Yes, that’s correct. We listen to a lot of Tony Rice and the All Star Jam (Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz), Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Dailey and Vincent, The Grascals, Blue Highway, Bill Monroe, Del McCoury Band and The Stanley Brothers.

Q: You got a standing ovation and incredible reception at Sore Fingers. Did that surprise you?
A: This really surprised us as we thought we would only get a bit of a clap because the musicians at Sore Fingers are incredible and we didn’t think we were that good. We were blown away with the reception that we had.

Q: How did you react to the support you received and how did you enjoy the week in general?
A: It was the best week we had ever had and it opened our minds to a lot of things on how to make a band work and things to remember while in a band. It was incredibly helpful. We were absolutely overwhelmed with the support that we received. It was amazing.

Q: You played some original material at Sore Fingers. Is this a big part of the band’s set?
A: It isn’t at the moment, we only have about 2 or 3 originals but that is one of our main aims, to try and write and develop our own material.

Q: Who writes the songs in the band?
A: Kirk Bowman writes all the songs in the band because he is the best at it, basically.

Here’s the band performing the self-penned I’m True as “Flatts and Tarts” with Dave Currie and Léo Guillot in the Sore Fingers student concert.

Q: A lot of bands prefer to concentrate on their picking skills rather than developing strong vocals. However, you’ve already got four part harmonies going. Was this your own idea or were you encouraged by more experienced bluegrass musicians to do this?
A: Harmonies is something that we all love and really want to achieve. We thought that most bluegrass bands either concentrate on harmonies or picking skills and we really would love to do both. The biggest influence on our harmonies would probably be barbershop vocals, mixed with the traditional bluegrass harmonies.

This was our own idea. We have listened to older bluegrassers – i.e. Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs – to get some ideas and try out some of their songs. Greg from The New Essex Bluegrass Band helped us out quite a bit at Sore Fingers to get the dynamics right in the two songs that we performed in the student concert.

Q: Have you received a lot of help and encouragement from the UK bluegrass scene? Who has helped and/or sponsored you?
A: Yes, we got a lot of encouragement and sponsorship from John and Moira Wirtz (of Sore Fingers), also from the Cornish Bluegrass Association.

Further info

Flats and Sharps are playing at Orwell, Didmarton and the Gower bluegrass festivals this summer. For more about the band visit their official website, their Facebook page and their YouTube channel.