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Hey Negrita - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 22 / 8 / 2008

Hey Negrita - Interview


At a show in Glasgow, John Clarkson speaks to acclaimed country/blues outfit Hey Negrita about their third album 'You Can Kick', line-up changes and renewed sense of energy and creativity

“I thought that it was maybe time to stop all together”, says Hey Negrita’s vocalist and acoustic guitarist, Felix Bechtolsheimer. “I have been doing this since I was fourteen, and finally you are doing all the tours and stuff you have always wanted to do and it suddenly all falls apart.” Bechtolsheimer is sitting in the bar of the Oran Mor, a former church-turned-venue, at the heart of Glasgow’s West End on a wet night in June. He is talking to Pennyblackmusic about the split in December 2006 of the previous line-up of his acclaimed country/blues outfit. At the end of what had been an otherwise good year for the London-based act, Hey Negrita’s co-founder, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Hugo Heimann, and second guitarist Gus Glen, who had been with the group for about a year, both abruptly chose to part company with the band. Around a table beside Bechtolsheimer are scattered the members of a new alignment of Hey Negrita, the group’s drummer and only other surviving member, Neil Findlay , and recent recruits, Paul Sandy (Upright bass), Matthew Ord (Guitars, backing vocals) and Will “Captain Bliss” Greener (Harmonica, vocals). “I was trying to think of what else I could do”, Bechtolsheimer continues. “And I couldn't really think of anything, so I started e-mailing around and I got an e-mail out of the blue from Matt's Dad, who had seen us at the Tenby Blues Festival, saying that Matt would be up for joining the band. Once I met Matt, I met Will and then Paul and it all came together very, very quickly.” Hey Negrita are in Glasgow for the first time in nearly two years and since Heimann and Glen left to play a one-off show at an Americana Festival at the Oran Mor. The new era of the group recorded an album, ‘You Can Kick’, in April of 2007 a few weeks after they formed, and which will finally see release in September. Like Hey Negrita’s previous two albums, ‘We Are Catfish’ (2005) and ‘The Buzz Above’ (2006), both of which involved Heimann, ‘You Can Kick’ is coming out on Felix Bechtolsheimer’s own Fat Fox label. A melange of bluegrass tracks, rollicking country numbers and occasional brooding ballads, it is an impressively diverse record that merges songwriter Bechtolsheimer’s whisky-stained vocals with stunning backing vocals from the expressive Ord and the whooping “Bliss.” Tonight’s show is one of the first steps in promoting it, after which Hey Negrita will play a series of festival dates over the summer, and then prepare for a seventeen town English tour in September and October to coincide with the album’s release. In conversation the boyish Bechtolsheimer, the veteran of two previous Pennyblackmusic interviews, and streak blonde-haired Aberdonian Neil Findlay, who arrives from a meeting with his drum sponsors on the other side of the bar, are the most talkative. Michael Stipe lookalike “Bliss” is a lively, frequently hilarious presence. Paul Sandy, whose girlfriend is expecting their first child the next week and who stops occasionally to anxiously text her, and Matt Ord are both quieter, but their answers considered and thoughtful, and push the conversation on in new directions. The overwhelming impression Hey Negrita leave is that, far from limping to survive after the exit of two key members, they feel that they have been graced with a renewed sense of creativity and energy and enthusiastically intend to make the absolute most of it. PB : 2006 was a busy year for Hey Negrita. You released your second album, 'The Buzz Above', for which you got fantastic reviews. You did two US tours and then a three week UK tour in support to the Alabama 3. At the end of that year Hugo Heimann and Gus Glen both, however, quit. What happened there ? FB : Like you said it was a busy year (Laughs). For the first half of the year it was everyone's dream to do that much touring and go to the States. Then after a while it got a bit heavy for Hugo and Gus and the novelty wore off. Neil said to me when the Alabama 3 tour came to an end, "I could do another twelve months of this" and I was in agreement with him. The other two, however, felt differently. Hugo said he needed a whole year off and Gus quit. It was just a bit much for them really. It has all been very amicable. It was Gus's birthday last week. He has moved to Switzerland, but I was e-mailing with him, and we were out drinking with Hugo last weekend. It has been tough for both of them because they see the band moving on and going from strength to strength. Hugo still can't bring himself to go and see us live with the new line-up, but as friends it is still very amicable. PB : Originally Hugo was going to take a sabbatical. At what point did it become definite that he was leaving ? FB : When he got married a few months ago. He is moving to Missouri soon with a lovely girl and he doesn't want to do the touring thing anymore. He is thinking of coming and maybe doing a guest appearance on the next album. We will see. NF : Steering him in that direction would be good fun... PB : How quickly did you decide to regroup ? FB : We didn't waste any time. We were very lucky. We auditioned a lot of people over a very short period of time, but the right band members fell into place very quickly. PB : There is footage of your first rehearsal as a band on You Tube. There seems to have been a really natural chemistry between you right from the start. Was that the case ?. FB : The first two albums were arranged mainly by Hugo. With this album what we did was I would have a song on acoustic guitar and then get together with Matt. We would work on it, work out some ideas, change some bits and add some more features. Then Will would come in, put some harmonies on, come up with some extra ideas and then after that Paul would come in. We would add to it bit by bit. With each song, therefore, whenever one of the guys came in the room the spotlight was on them and the full focus was on that person to put in their input. Neil then came in at the end. That first rehearsal on You Tube was actually the first time we were all together in the same room. That was the first time the band met properly. I had worked with them individually, but that was the first time we were all together and things just flowed instantly. PB : All of Hey Negrita’s members are involved in other projects (Neil Findlay is a session musician. Paul Sandy is also the upright bassist in former Long Ryders’ vocalist Sid Griffin’s current project the Coal Porters, philosophy graduate Matthew Ord is an acclaimed bluegrass singer-songwriter ,and Greener plays in his native Guildford with Spotlight Cannibal, an indie band “which defies any description. They are a kind of mainstream, poppy Bill Withers/Grateful Dead group with seven part harmonies.”) Do you think that benefits the band ? NF : I think it does because it gives everyone the chance to experiment in a different way. As a musician, I don't think that I could really commit to one band for the rest of my life. That wouldn't be me. Hey Negrita is my main priority and the number one band that I would drop everything else for. I don't think that I could, however, ever be someone who could made a living from just one band. I think I would always have to be doing something else. WG : When we get together it is all about the songs. It is not about any of us doing our crazy rock thing or whatever. There are no egos involved MO : If you need to get all your ambitions and everything you want to do in music fulfilled through just one project, then that is the sort of thing that makes bands split up. FB : There are some bands where that school of thought is not encouraged, but for us it is the coolest thing in the world. It just means that when we get together we can have fun with what we do, and it brings a freshness to it as well. A perfect example of that is we opened for the Beach Boys a few weeks ago at a festival in Germany and I couldn't find Will and Matt anywhere. After about half an hour later I found them outside a whisky bar playing these old blues numbers and they had a crowd of at least 70 to 100 people there. It didn't take long before the guy who was running the whisky bar said, "Look. I can't pay you, but if you come and play through my PA I'll feed you and all your friends with booze for just as long as you will play." It is very cool to have that. It would limit us and I don't think the band would last for very long if it was the only thing we all did. PB : Felix, when Pennyblackmusic last spoke to you in 2006, you were working with Hugo and Gus on both an acoustic album of your old songs and also an all new electric album. How many songs on that electric album made it onto 'You Can Kick' ? FB : None. We recorded fourteen songs for 'You Can Kick', twelve of which made the final cut, and all of which are absolutely brand new. PB : What you do with those old songs ? Will they just stay in the vaults ? FB : I don't know. I've got too many new ones to be worrying about the old ones (Laughs). PB : Does that go for the acoustic album as well ? FB : I listened to that about two weeks ago on my iPod. Hey Negrita really needs to do an acoustic album and there are some really great ideas there, but to me that album is the sound of a band splitting up. Hugo was dead against the idea of making it, but he only announced that after we had made it. I don’t think there was enough enthusiasm for it and the problem is it sounds like that. We may use the occasional track, but to be honest as far as acoustic albums go this new line-up could do it a lot more justice. We are doing some acoustic gigs at the moment, and if we get the time towards the end of the year I am thinking of doing something quite lo-fi, but along those lines. PB : This new album features a lot more harmonies than your other albums, doesn't it ? FB : We have got three part harmonies on this album. Captain Bliss does a lot of the harmonies on a lot of the verses, and then Matt does a lot of the harmonies on the choruses. There were harmonies on the last two albums, but on this album they are much more prominent. There is a potential for the next album that there might even be four parts on the next album. PB : Much of the focal point on the first two albums were Hugo's keyboards. Those keyboards have completely gone on 'You Can Kick'. NF : The piano pulled everything together on those first two albums. Hugo was, for me as a drummer, my rhythm section as well as everything else. When he quit, literally the guts of the band were ripped out. In terms of putting a new band together that, however, made it quite exciting because we were basically building the engine from scratch, and deciding what we wanted in it. FB : We also tried to steer away from keyboards on this album, because Hugo did initially say, "I want to come back." Now that it has become clear that he is not coming back we are talking to a couple of piano players for the next album already. We didn't, however, want to try to recreate what we had done on the first two albums. There wouldn't have been much point of putting something like that together. For me the level of musicianship on this album is by far the best we have ever had. There is a lot more space in our music now. I think that it worked out pretty nicely. NF : It is just a different way of orchestrating things really. MO : The arrangements on the first two albums became somewhat baroque in the studio. The songs started out as being basic guitar songs and then developed more and more layers, whereas with this album what we basically wanted to do was record our live set. The arrangements are as a result purposefully almost sparse. FB : There are very, very few overdubs on ‘You Can Kick’. This one was done much quicker than that. We did three rehearsals, two gigs and then recorded it. I think we probably recorded and mixed the whole thing in ten days. NF : I think that it shines through that everything is fresh. You can tell when a band is over rehearsed, and that they have been stuck in the same room pouring over the same details and the same intricate parts. The recording always sounds quite laboured. The joy of doing ‘You Can Kick’ was its spontaneity. We were still consulting each other with when we were recording it. "Why don't you try that ? Or why don't you try this ?" You can hear our excitement on it. WG : It is lovely really that it can be heard on the album that we were really enjoying playing the music together. PS : In the 50's and 60's, bands used to put together albums and tours a lot quicker than they do now. Nowadays they take five years to make an album. Maybe the way we did it was more like the way people used to. They would have a couple of weeks to get together and record it. FB : There may be places where a tambourine is too loud or something has got too much treble or bass on it, but who cares ? It might have been a great piece of art if we had spent longer on it but the vibe was there and if we had spent another six months making it we would have lost that. PS : If you get too comfortable, you just lose the immediacy musically. PB : Felix, ‘We Are Catfish’ told about your recovery from drug addiction, while ‘The Buzz Above’ was about the collapse of a long term love affair. Is this one similarly-themed ? FB : No (Laughs). You mix together two American tours and nineteen dates in the UK with the Alabama 3, and there are going to be inevitably some dark moments, but you can have a lot of fun as well. The first two albums were dark in different ways. This album has dark shades in there, but on the whole I see it as being a lot more fun. It is talking about the girls in New York City and all the fun we had in 2006. I think it is much more of a rock 'n' roll record really. PB : The album was recorded over a year ago. You have played a lot of gigs since then. Why did you decide to delay releasing it until now ? Did you just want to build up a live following first ? FB : No, not all. It was because of the state of the music industry. We finished the thing and could have put it out last year, but we had so many of the larger companies coming to gigs, some of them flying over from America three times in a month to see us, that we decided to wait to see if any of them would pick up on it. Everyone wanted a piece of it, but because of the current financial state of the music industry no one could commit to anything. At SXSW in March this year we had five or six record companies in the room who had all seen us a bunch of times before. They had all heard the album, and after that and I said to our manager, "We will give it two weeks, and if there no deal that we like on the table after that we will put it ourselves on Fat Fox." We will sell less records, but at least the record will come out. We're already thinking about the next one and already talking to the labels about that one, but ‘You Can Kick’ is coming out in September come hell or high water. PB : Felix, you have also been doing some side work as a film producer, and are going to be releasing in October on DVD a film, ‘We Dreamed America’, which is about the Americana movement in Britain. Could you say more about that ? FB : We have someone who I would almost say is like a sixth member of Hey Negrita. He is called Alex Walker. He is a film director, and he is a very good friend and drinking buddy of mine. He runs a company called Brickwall Films, so whenever it comes to making a video we sit down, we get drunk together and we come up with some stupid ideas, and then go and make it for no money. He is a genius at making something which looks very, very professional on zero budget. NF : We have toured with him a lot. In 2006 he was out on both the American tours, and documented everything that we did FB : There will be a Hey Negrita movie that comes out at some point. At the last count we had something like 360 hours of footage , and the way ‘We Dreamed America’ started was because Alex and I were talking about what we were going to do with this footage. We talked about doing a whole movie about the band, and then we thought, "It's a bit early for that." We had toured with the Alabama 3 and knew Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, the Barker Band and the Broken Family Band, all of whom appear in it, and so I suggested that to Alex that we make a film about Americana groups in the UK. He said that he wanted to do it, but said that I had to produce it because I knew all the bands. I, therefore, did the interviews and I organised it and Alex filmed it. When we had finished, we had a bunch of footage and I was absolutely positive that there was no way of putting that together into something even vaguely coherent, but a week later Alex had a beautiful film. PB : You have also got American artists like Robert Fisher from the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Sid Griffin and Little Feat on it. Why did you bring them into it ? FB : Because I wanted to get the American take on it and they are also some of my musical heroes. I also interviewed Guy Clark for it. It was the only interview he did when he was last over in the UK. We were told if you drive to Wolverhampton you may get an interview of fifteen minutes with him and in fact we got twenty minutes (Laughs). It was one of the best moments of my life. PB : You’re playing several summer festivals this year, and then you’re going to do the tour. What are you going to do after that? FB : I have got twenty songs for the next album. I am going to sit these guys down and start working on those. PB : Are you looking forward to playing the festivals ? NF : The festivals are going to be fun. We have done quite a lot of festivals over the last couple of years, the Secret Garden Festival and great little Festivals around the UK like that, which usually put a cap on of about 5000 people. I think it has got much more impact playing the smaller festivals than somewhere like T in the Park. You do feel a bit like a drop in the ocean at those. It is a lot easier making an impact at the smaller festivals. We have got some festivals which we are doing this year which we haven’t done before. We are playing Glastonbury for the first time. We will be doing Latitude as well. It will be good to have some different stages to play on this time. FB : My sister is riding for Great Britain in the Olympics. She is riding exclusively to Hey Negrita music, so I am going out to China for two weeks in August, but apart from that I think we have got a festival pretty much every weekend until mid September when the British tour to promote ‘You Can Kick’ starts. PB : Thank you very much.

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Hey Negrita - Interview

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Interview (2006)
Hey Negrita - Interview
Much acclaimed London-based Americana blues outfit Hey Negrita are about to release their second album 'The Buzz Above'. Front man Felix Bechtolsheimer talks to John Clarkson about the messy break-up that provided the inspiration for its recording
Interview (2005)

live reviews

Oran Mor, Glasgow, 17/6/2008
Hey Negrita - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 17/6/2008
After a difficult year in which two of its principal members quit, John Clarkson at Oran Mor in Glasgow watches the new line-up of previously melancholic London-based blues/country rockers Hey Negrita play a blistering set fused with a new found spirit of optimism
Academy, Manchester, 28/10/2006

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