I am sitting down with a pizza at Fire & Stone accompanied by Police Dog Hogan, half an hour before they go on stage at The Cellar. Peter Robinson, lead guitarist, turns to the assembled band and family members: “Sorry, I couldn’t find my glasses to read the menu. So we’ve just got the House Red. Is that okay?” Clearly the band are preparing for a wild gig.
Interviewing bands can – I’ve heard – be rowdy, chaotic, and every now and then a l ittle offensive. I nterviewing Police Dog Hogan was like having a drink with your parents’ friends (admittedly the slightly more fun ones); the ones who take time out to tour the country with their ‘urban bluegrass’ band.
While you might not recognise the name of the band itself, you’re more likely to know its members. Featured regularly in Tim Dowling’s Guardian column in the Weekend magazine, this is the famous “middle-aged-man-band”, in which Dowling plays the banjo.
The band’s front man, James Studholme, founded Blink advertising, the company behind John Lewis’ hearty-meltingly tender intrepid-snowman Christmas advert. Other members include top journalists, a publishing consultant, and a barrister. The seven men are all highly successful professionals during the day – and foot-stamping, bar-hopping folk-artists by night.
“It’s kind of a funny dream”, Eddie Bishop, fiddle-player and QC tells me. “I get a thrill out of coming home, throwing off my wig, and rushing to a gig – there’s a sense of frisson. It’s naughty.”
I go along to the interview with firm preconceptions of the band’s motivations. They are there to have fun, I assume – to do something young and lively that’s completely removed from their day jobs. But it quickly becomes clear that the band really care about music; there’s a lot of focus on acoustics, on the difficulties of song-writing. And I don’t know why I’m surprised. They’re bloody good.
James Studholme is credited as the main song-writer. “Whereas other people sweat, each pore of [Studholme’s] has a bead of song coming from it at any time,” says Robinson, who is a consultant with public relations company BeyondDesign.
Studholme seems to be the driving force behind the band; as he himself tells me, “Half of us just want to make people dance” – yet at the same time, clearly, real commitment is required to pursue a life of touring English folk festivals, playing dingy pubs and dive-bars. Why do they do it, if they’re not rabidly seeking fame and fortune?
There is general uproar at the question. “Why do you assume we’re not?” They seem both amused and offended. “We were asked the other day who we want to be like. We said Beyoncé.” Apparently the questioner then asked, “You want to sell as many records as Beyoncé?” To which Dowling replied, “No. Beyoncé’s rubbish at selling our records.”
They joke about it, but there clearly is some kind of desire to ‘make it’. I can’t help but feel that, for many of them, this is where their true interests lie. Success in their professional spheres is one thing; but do they really want to be musicians?
“We all have different aspirations for what we want when we hit the big time,” Robinson says. “I want sparkling water and a secret knock for our dressing room.”
The division in the band between those who take it seriously and those who “just want to make people dance” has the potential to be a strain. When talking about their favourite gigs, Studholme says, “I personally prefer a concert set-up – from a song-writer’s point of view, for the story-songs, you really need people to be sitting down.” He admits that there’s “a good tension” between those who want to entertain a rowdy atmosphere, and those who are more dedicated to the musical aesthetic: “You can go too far one way or the other.”
Studholme himself, once known in the advertising world as the ‘Ginger Supremo’ (so says LondonLovesBusiness.com), provides a lot of the band’s momentum. It’s hardly surprising, considering the long list of his professional plaudits. I ask whether he finds himself using business techniques in band operations. He looks at me: “What, management shizzle?”
Ed Bishop, from across the table at Fire & Stone, chips in: “Let me put it this way. I now know, at first hand, why James is such a brilliant producer. His job, as I understand it, is to just get things done. To deal with lots of people who have different aims and views, and get them to produce something coherent.” There is a pause. “It must be a bit of a busman’s holiday for him.”
James says he doesn’t feel any desire to push the band in publicity circles. Not for the sake of keeping a kind of moral division between the two, but because, “I live in a professional world where what we [the band] do is so appallingly unfashionable.” He mentions the “bile” of his advertising “dudes” towards Mumford & Sons. Police Dog Hogan might just not be cool enough.
“We basically have the delusion that what we’re doing is completely normal – we’re in a bubble, not worrying what anybody thinks about it.” Robinson says.
Dowling nods, anxiously. “You never know who’s going to think you’re a total idiot. So I try not to mention it. If you found out that someone you worked with thought you were really lame…” he trails off.
I don’t think they should worry about it. The band’s got the whole eccentric hipster thing down pat; what with the Guardianista, boutique-ad Executive, and “aging hippy” vibe (their words, not mine). Plus it’s, like, totally out of the mainstream. “I think it’s better not to draw down their fire,” Studholme says.
The band do seem to exist in a state of general unconcern for their image, despite professedly harbouring aspirations of fame. Perhaps it comes from not being financially reliant on this endeavour. They mention gigging with 20-year-olds whose whole lives are their bands; who are desperate for the big time, because they don’t have anything to fall back on. “We’re lucky”, Dowling admits.
Touring with 20-year-olds – how rock’n’roll is their band life, I ask? “Do you mean, do we stay up really late at festivals?” Dowling asks. “Yes. Yes, we do.”
“Tim had a fight with Larry Love,” Pete tells me. This isn’t the first time in the interview that the band throw in names of musicians I have never heard of, and I find myself unconvincingly nodding along, as though fully knowledgeable. Every time this happens I find myself trying not to defend my ignorance by pointing out the generation gap.
Larry Love, it turns out, is the stage name of one of the founding members of Alabama 3, an English band mixing rock, dance, blues, country, gospel, and the spoken word. Very alternative.
“It wasn’t a fight.” Dowling says. “We had words.”
Studholme chips in: “Tim had an intellectual fight. An intellectual fight that ended with swearing.”
Bishop laughs, and recounts how Larry Love critiqued Dowling on his use of commas in his column. “I think having fights about punctuation at three in the morning is about as rock’n’roll as we get.” I assure him that it’s pretty rock’n’roll for Oxford.
Often featured in Dowling’s column, perception of the band tends to be coloured by his characteristic self-effacing attitude. It’s got them into trouble in the past. “When we were playing in Cornwall, some women came up to Tim. It was like one of those episodes when old women batter people with handbags,” James recalls.
“They said: ‘you ought to be ashamed of yourself – you’re not nearly as bad as you make out in your columns.’” It’s true: the band is far better than Tim’s tone might suggest. Though, as they recognise, the publicity has also brought in audiences. Even if they do sometimes take time to complain about it at the end.
How do the band feel about the way they’re portrayed in the column? There is awkward lip-biting all round. “I’m a firm believer that all publicity is good publicity,” Bishop says. There is a pause. “So even when he coined the phrase, ‘middle-aged man-band’…I think that’s fine.” Another pause. “I think that’s completely fine.” They all nod. “That’s what we are.”
Later that night, I watch them play to a room full of middle-aged Guardian-readers, who buy pints of ale, laugh and tap their feet. Some of the audience dance; many of them sway, like festival-goers in their mid-30s, who have had a long week at work. The band often grin at each other on stage.
They look just like a middle-aged-man-band, and it’s no bad thing. After all, as Pete says, “The bits where we’re doing the friendship – they’re as important as the bits where we’re doing the playing.”