Friday, June 4, 2010

Interview with Craig Woodward (Part Two of a three part series)

This is part two of a three part interview from Sat 15th May, 2010. For the complete introduction and first instalment please view the earlier post: Interview with Craig Woodward (Part One of a three part series)

HT: Your former band, Headbelly Buzzard (pictured), have long been referred to as a ‘Melbourne Institution’. What was it about Headbelly, do you think, that generated such strong interest and respect from the music-going community?

CW: Can you say that last bit again? (laughs)

HT: (laughs) this is one of my longer questions! What was it about Headbelly, do you think, that generated such strong interest and respect from the music-going community? I mean, you guys had a pretty devoted audience at your Friday night gig at the Railway Hotel; there was a real buzz around it.

CW: I think that goes back to the trance thing; it can generate a good mood in a room, that trance style of simple tunes – it’s just a repetitive thing, played over and over again, you know. It was very much a groove based band. I mean we had some interesting tunes as well but I think it’s the rhythm that kind of made it work in a hotel [pub], not too loud also but it’s got a bit of drive to it as well without being too aggressive.

HT: Did you get a lot of dancers?

CW: Not as many as we would like. People in Melbourne are often a bit shy of dancing; but we’re working on it.

HT: We’re very good at wearing black though.

CW: (chuckles) Yeah. Makes it hard to see ya. Um, we have got some dancers and we’re hoping for more. The Flying Engine String Band is kind of the same band with different people in it – we’re playing a lot of the same repertoire but it sounds different ‘cause there’s different players and having the knee-injection of Johnny on the guitar provides a lot of drive – it’s maybe a little peppier than the old band. Which is exciting for the dancers.

HT: Also Johnny’s a different generation to you guys as well so there’s a whole new potential appeal there. He’s of my generation; ‘Gen. Y’ they call us.

CW: Yeah, that’s right.

HT: And there’s a lot of people my age who are becoming interested in this sort of stuff.

CW: That’s great. Finally! There wasn’t when I was your age – when I was interested in this kind of stuff. (laughs) But I’m glad their finally is – that’s great. I guess more obscure music styles are pretty accessible these days and if you are interested in old-timey music and you’re lucky enough to live in Melbourne – particularly around the inner north – there’s a very healthy scene of people playing this old-time string band music.

HT: How would you describe the community around the old-timey scene? I know you go to fiddlers conventions, festivals etc. Can you talk a bit about what sort of avenues there are out there for people who play – or are interested in – this sort of music?

CW: I think the thing that’s really keeping it healthy is the regular jam session at the Lomond Hotel. Often you get to learn a new style of music or whatever but you kind of get a circle of friends with it as well. (laughs) You end up spending time with these people because they’ve heard about the jam session and started coming along.

HT: Where do people come from? Are they locally based?

CW: All over. Some people come from out of town but, yeah, there’s quite a few people who live around here that come – but there are a few people that travel a bit.

HT: And what about the fiddlers conventions that you go to? Who organizes them? You mentioned Ken McMaster …

CW: Yeah, he organizes the Yarra Junction Fiddlers Convention. It’s kind of – it’s actually become two different conventions, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen but this year there was two: one at Blackwood in February and there’s one just gone a couple of weeks ago at Camp Eureka (Yarra Junction). There’s also – there’s actually three or four of those type of festivals a year now. There’s the Harrietville Bluegrass festival near Bright which is run by the Dear family, who also run the Piggery. It’s kind of a bluegrass and old-time convention. Nick Dear is a well-known Australian bluegrass, old-time and Cajun musician. He helped steer me in the right direction when I first started getting interested in string-band music.

HT: How many people attend those festivals do you think?

CW: Oh, I’m terrible at estimating. Between two and a few hundred maybe? You never see everyone at once so I don’t know (laughs). Especially now; it takes over the whole town – it’s a tiny town but there’s quite a few people and the difference I suppose between a – why it’s a convention is that it’s kind of a pickers festival like there’s concerts and stuff like that so you can go and listen to heaps of music. There’s a lot of jamming and there’s maybe a few workshops for people that want to come and learn some technique. So I guess that’s why it’s a convention. It’s mostly people that play who go rather than just people that are going out to see music.

HT: So there’s probably three or four festivals like that a year in Victoria, is that right?

CW: Well there’s one in Beechworth that’s been going for awhile. We went for the first time last year and that was really good. So we’re going back again this year.

HT: Do you camp out there? It’s over a couple of days, isn’t it?

CW: Yeah. It’s really cold. It’s on in August or something. We all stay in this big old priory. It’s like a nun house. (laughs)

HT: A nunnery? (laughs) Okay. Do you wear habits?

CW: No. Oh yeah I’m wearing a few habits but … (both laugh)

HT: We’re all wearing a few habits, I think. Um, so that’s in Beechworth – what is it, a big old house?

CW: Yeah it’s huge and it’s a bit like a maze. If people find their way around this year – it’s a really crazy layout.

HT: Is it open to anybody who goes along to the festival? How do you get invited?

CW: Yeah, yeah. There’ll be a website I suppose. That’s probably a good place to stay ‘cause that’s where the majority of the jam sessions happen. There’s all these different rooms and there’s just a big garden. So it was good, you know; it’s been going for awhile but I hadn’t actually made it there ‘till last year and I’m looking forward to going back. There’s a banjo jamboree in Guildford which sort of includes that kind of music: string band and bluegrass music but it’s not as specific as – cause, you know, Beechworth and Harrietfield the focus is kind of bluegrass and old-timey string band music, Cajun music – just sort of American (mostly southern) traditional music styles.

HT: Are you surprised that – considering there’s such a strong community of people that like this sort of music and play and attend these festivals – that there isn’t anything written about it in Melbourne?

CW: Yeah, in a way. In another way we don’t want everyone to find out because then we’d have to share it with too many people and things get ruined that way. (laughs) But I do think it’s well worth documenting because Melbourne’s got a thriving roots scene and it’s unique from what I’ve witnessed and heard from travelers who’ve come here. It’d be hard to find a roots scene like Melbourne’s in the U.S. – particularly in the South. People in the South are into NASCAR racing and bad country music.

HT: (laughing) Great. This sort of leads us into the next question, which is around the idea of traditional music and the reinterpretation of American music – particularly in Australian culture. What are your views on it? Is there room for bands to open it up to new genres or new styles of playing?

CW: There seems to be. There’s a lot of … interest at the minute – there’s a lot of interest in things like – or more interest in stuff that’s: like that but isn’t that, you know? So … there’s plenty of room [for reinterpretation] and that’s okay. Because people who are interested in stuff that’s like something [traditional] might follow it up a little and be interested enough to hear the original stuff. I just mean stylistically; I think it’s necessary to keep the tradition going and evolving rather than just playing something as a museum piece. I think reinterpretation can be good but most of it isn’t so I don’t know if it’s necessarily reinterpretation because I think to change something, you maybe should learn to do it first, before you change it.

HT: What about the song content or the lyric aspect of it – interpreting it for an Australian audience?

CW: Well it’s mostly instrumental the stuff that I usually play and there are lyrics in some of it but a lot of it’s nonsense lyrics and just gives the tune a little extra shift here and there to put a verse in. There are some songs that maybe come a bit more from the ballad form – the English kind of ballad form – but mostly we play more hypnotic kind of instrumental music, some of which has lyrics. So I’ll leave that up to someone else to work with the lyrics to make it a bit more Australian.

HT: Well Mick Cameron was very good at that.

CW: Yeah, that’s right. I used to leave it up to Mick but now, I don’t know; I’ve been playing some stuff with Alan Wright who used to do some of his songs that he’s written with Tony Hargreaves um maybe to make a recording or something – I’m not sure. But that’s kind of interesting to do something different. It’s kind of a bit challenging; it’s not as simple as the music I’m used to playing but some of it sounds pretty good.

HT: How is it different?

CW: There’s many more chords. It’s not that usual. You know we play stuff with one or two chords (laughs). I’m more into, um, thinking about the rhythms and phrasing rather than – I mean sitting, trying to play stuff off charts and I don’t even really know what those chords are. I’m playing mandolin and once I hear it enough I can sort of play something; we’re trying to follow the chords – it’s the way he wrote the song: a lot of chord substitution like what they use in jazz and stuff; it’s not jazz music but it’s not what I’m used to doing so that’s one of the reasons I thought it might be good to do, to improve my music knowledge a little bit.

HT: Yep. Extending a bit further. And just going back to Mick [Cameron] again, you used to play with him in Headbelly Buzzard and also in Sandilands and the Cajun Aces. Can you talk a little bit about Mick’s songwriting and playing style? He was very well respected in the Melbourne scene wasn’t he?

CW: Yeah, he sure was. We were playing in three bands together when he died [March 2008]. I don’t think anyone can play as simply; I really respected his simplicity, his playing, his songwriting, and tune writing.

HT: What are some of your favourite songs of Mick’s?

CW: Well I kind of like the songs on the first Sandilands CD we did [Waterhole]; some of which we just sort of stopped doing after awhile. Very kind of country-blues style rhythms. [pause] I have trouble remembering titles; I know the tunes.

HT: That’s okay. Waterhole is still available from How did playing with Mick differ going from Headbelly to Sandilands do you think? In terms of the style and the experience.

CW: Yeah, it was completely different. It was kind of fun because I kind of got Mick interested in old-time string band music, so I guess he was doing my thing with me and Sandilands was very much his interest in his song-writing and approaching it in a particular way so it was kind of like me doing his thing with him. And aside from that we used to be able to play the slowest; we used to be the slowest playing band in town on some of Mick’s stuff. (laughs) And it’s just sort of the other end of what we were doing in Headbelly Buzzard; Mick would be working in the engine room pounding out rhythm whereas in Sandilands he was kind of leading the tunes and I was trying to tinkle away on the banjo-mandolin in between it and, you know, kind of fill it out a bit and give it some extra dynamics.

HT: What about the old Headbelly Buzzard gigs; how many did you used to get in attendance?

CW: Well it was up and down I suppose; we were there for so long. There was always a fair few people there and if people wanted to see the band they knew where and when to see us so … I like doing residencies, I think playing locally people know where you are and you get to – you don’t always know everyone that’s there but often you know most of the crowd. On the big nights you get to meet new people as well.

HT: Do you think it was the authentic sound of Headbelly that attracted so many followers?

CW: I guess. But a lot of people didn’t know what it was – so I don’t know how authentic it was to them. But I guess it’s authentic in that we don’t intentionally try and change things much – the tunes I mean – from how we heard them. It’s kind of traditional in that way. But we still had kind of a unique sound, you know. I guess that’s what happens with this style of music when everyone’s playing the same tunes but you’re gonna play it the way you play it so you do tend to sound a bit different from each other. And plus coming from here (Australia) and not really having that many people to learn from – when we started, there wasn’t as big a community of people playing old-time music as there is now …

HT: Do you think perhaps you’ve been an influence in that regard – to the local scene?

CW: Yeah, I think so. A lot of the people that play now come down to the jam session and also have their own string bands and stuff. They first heard old-timey music at the Railway listening to Headbelly Buzzard then started learning banjo and fiddle and stuff like that. I also teach a lot of fiddle, banjo and mandolin as well.

HT: So you’ve inspired people to pick up their instruments and join in; that’s great. People bring their kids down to the Lomond sessions too don’t they? And some of the kids are playing along – helped out by the adult players?

CW: Yeah, that’s right. I think, around here, it’s a good time to be playing it because there are so many people coming along and festivals and sessions and jam parties; so there’s an easy way in.


For more information on Headbelly Buzzard and Sandilands, please follow embedded links. Woodward and Rough, Headbelly Buzzard and Sandilands CDs are available from

This is part two of a three part series which will be published in weekly instalments. Melbourne Roots would like to thank Craig for his thought provoking and generous responses. Stay tuned for the next instalment!

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