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One Thousand Violins - Interview

  by Anthony Strutt

published: 6 / 6 / 2014

One Thousand Violins - Interview


Anthony Strutt chats to John Wood, the original front man with 80's Sheffield-based indie pop band and C86 act One Thousand Violins, about his former group

One Thousand Violins were a 60’s-influenced indie pop band from Sheffield. Forming in in 1985, they consisted originally of John Wood (vocals), Colin Gregory (guitar), David Walmsley (keyboards/guitar), Darren Swindells (bass) and Peter Day (drums). Wood In his vocal range had the charm and elegance of a young Scott Walker, while Gregory matched the Smiths’ Johnny Marr for guitar poetry. One Thousand Violins released various singles in the mid-1980s, including ‘Halycon Days’, ‘Like One Thousand Violins’, ‘Locked Out of the Love-In’ and ‘If I Were a Bullet’, mainly on Dan Treacy from the Television Personalities’ Dreamworld label. They also released in 1988 an album ‘Hey Man, That’s Beautiful' on Immaculate Records, but Wood left the group later on that year. While they carried on briefly with a new singer Vince Keenan and released a final single ‘if Only Words (Would Let Me Conquer You’), One Thousand Violins broke up a few months later in 1989. David Walmsley died of cancer in 1992. While their 1985 single ‘Like One Thousand Violins’ ’was voted as one of the year's best songs by John Peel’s listeners, they were little known at the time, but through the internet have in recent years gained a new audience. ‘Halycon Days-Complete Recordings 85-87’, a compilation album that captures the early Wood line -up in all their full glory, has just been released on Cherry Red. They also appear with ‘Like One Thousand Violins’ on the new recent ‘C86’ boxset that has just been released on Cherry Red. Pennyblackmusic spoke to John Wood about his tenure with One Thousand Violins. PB: What was One Thousand Violins’ first gig? What are your memories of that show? JW: The first live appearance of the band was at the Under 16s Disco at San Miguel's Cub of a Saturday lunchtime in Halifax. We were confronted by an indifferent throng of juveniles, average age of nine, giving us doubtful looks whilst doing their damndest to bodypop to ‘The Candleman’. Nico had recently played at the club - for the grown ups, of course. I was in awe of that fact, at least. PB: What are your memories of the indie scene of that time? Were you friends with a lot of the other indie bands of that era? JW: Confidence in my singing was about all I was confident of in those days. I was even more gauche than Talulah( ho, ho). The Goshs would often give us their floors in Oxford to lay down our sleeping bags, as did Dan Treacy from the Television Personalities and the nice man who ran the Dovecote Arts Centre in Stockton on Tees who had a litter of a rare breed of cats who looked like Gremlins. Supporting the Triffids at the Sheffield Leadmill in the early days was exciting, as they were a favourite of mine, at least. Likewise, when we supported the La's at Camden Dingwalls. St Etienne were into the band too, and I was reliably informed that Sarah Cracknell auditioned to replace me after I'd left. I was never one for networking and hanging out, after gigs, so I never got to know anyone much at the time. I subsequently made a few friends who were fans of the band in Manchester afterwards, people who 'bumped' into me at concerts and clubs. PB: What was the last gig that you played with the band? JW: The last gig I played was the Xmas Bop at Keele University in 1988. At Colin's suggestion I did a kind of rap on 'Jingle Bells' during the end of ‘No-one Was Saving the World’, which, I think, was how the set and One Thousand Violins ended for me. No-one was wearing a Santa suit. PB: You had a very unusual singing voice. What were you early vocal influences? JW: Colin and Dave were very much into the 60’s thing, and, although I shared their passions for music of the era, I had never intended on being in a jangly guitar band. It was the songs themselves that drew me; from a singer’s point of view, they provided something to put yourself into emotionally and had soaring melodies to carry the vocal. My earliest records were hand me down 78's by Johnny Ray which had belonged to my aunties. I used to sing along to those when I was as young as four years of age. That probably ingrained that way of singing in me. PB: Did you play live a lot? When you were on tour did you live the rock and roll lifestyle? JW: Of course, like a proper band of the time, we had a clapped out Transit Van to cart us about - it was usually me and the rhythm section in the back under a blanket with the equipment and a packet of Hob-Nobs. Not as cosy as it sounds, nor as bad, actually. That was one ambition of mine fulfilled, at least - to see Britain and the world from the back of a Transit van. Much of the time it was a bit like those motorway scenes in 'Withnail and I', I recall. On the road debauchery, for me at least, was a kingsize Mars Bar and a coffee at the service station. That's as crazy as I got, anyway, except for a naïve moment in Germany with some Scots boys and a line of Tequila slammers ( which I don't think I'd even heard of before until then). The results weren't pretty and I was nearly immortalised, Janis Joplin style, in a German motel room - and I wasn't even 27! When I first joined the band, I was known to be partial to a Britvic Orange with the lads after a gig or rehearsal, but by the time I left the band I'd moved on to a half of Guinness. Baby, let your hair down!. PB: How did the band write its songs? Were you all involved in the songwriting? JW: I wasn't involved in the songwriting - that was Colin and Dave. They would record demos and eventually Colin would give me his lyrics. I was given free reign to sing them as I felt fit - they would have told me if they hadn't liked what I was doing!. Sometimes Colin had already put down a rough guide vocal. I was never presented with a song I didn't like, evidence that we largely shared the same musical taste. I would have liked to have had the chance to sing 'Like One Thousand Violins' but Colin kept that one for himself - understandably, as it's such a fine song. Dave was the organiser, in a practical sense. I heard about his death a few years after the event and feel sorrow for him and his family as, I'm sure, we all do. PB: What are you favourite One Thousand Violins songs? JW: My favourite songs are ‘The Candleman’, ‘No-one Was Saving The World’, ‘If I Were A Bullet’, ‘Nigh On Forty Years To Go’, ‘I think It's Time I Broke Down’, ‘Poet’, ‘Please Don't Sandblast My House’, ‘Though It Poured’ - the more emotional ones, where I could get away with singing long notes. PB: You appear on the new ‘C86’ box set with ‘Like One Thousand Violins’. Did you feel part of that scene? JW: We didn't identify with 'shambling' or 'anorak', or want to be seen as such . I can see how we got associated with those scenes though - we were playing those venues with those bands! But it wasn't our aesthetic. Apart from that, lyrically, the earlier songs have a fey, self deprecating, socially awkward perspective - certainly 'where I was at' at the time, it wasn't contrived. To make your twee..... perhaps. Most of the early songs were recorded on a minimal budget, and production and engineering sometimes reflect that . ‘The Locked Out Of The Love-In’ and ‘If I Were A Bullet’ EPs were the ones that sounded more how we wanted. I think there were a few songs which could have been Top 20 singles given the sensibilities back then of the general record buying, Radio 1 listening, public, had we have had a bigger label behind us and daytime airplay. PB: Why did you decide to leave the band in 1988? JW: I had been with the band for four years and felt frustrated as I was beginning to want to be involved in writing songs. There didn't seem much opportunity to do that in One Thousand Violins so, eventually, I left to move to Manchester to establish a band there - The Chrysalids. I didn't stop liking the songs or the band members. I felt heavy hearted to leave but also some relief. Obviously, they felt let down at the time. But, as much as I loved the excitement of singing on stage with them, I had to grow up a bit and get a life, as they say. I don't think I would have been very convincing singing much of the songs that came after me anyway, I wasn't 'far out' enough, and I was far too earnest. It was going to take more than my fare of pots of tea and a plate of fancies to reach the required altered mind state to pull off the likes of 'Hey Man, Your Granny's Digging My Love Bus, But My Trip Is Fully Booked'. PB: Thank you.

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One Thousand Violins - Interview

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Halcyon Days (2014)
Fabulous indie compilation from underrated Sheffield-based 80's indie band One Thousand Violins, which compiles together almost everything that the original line-up of the group recorded

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