As CC Smugglers take the stage on Saturday night of the Cambridge Folk Festival, the excitment is palpable and the chant, “CC, CC” comes from the crowd.
The audience spill out of the tent, pushing to get a view of the stage. The following day, the conversations overheard at the front of the second stage are all about the previous night’s set – first timers enthusing about how great they were and established fans confirming it wasn’t a fluke.
This is a band with a buzz around them. It’s not been an overnight success story though. Years of playing inside everywhere that would have them, and outside everywhere that wouldn’t, have paid off. From hours of guerrilla busking on the London underground to gaining the attention of Seasick Steve and Old Crow Medicine Show by busking outside their gigs, this band have a work ethic to match their musicianship and exuberance.
Their blend of bluegrass, country, blues and folk is played with joy so infectious that you can’t help but bounce up and down. All accomplished musicians in their own right with catchy, well-rehearsed songs; they manage to combine assured professionalism with cheeky boyish enthusiasm.
Band founder Richie has a wide smile and a voice that switches from twangy bluegrass to old-school Vegas lounge crooner. He grins at babyfaced Sam who plays a mean fiddle, encompassing folk, blues and klezmer styles, as well as rhythm guitar. Tom tickles the piano keys boogie-woogie style as if it were second nature. Ryan on lead guitar and banjo, Dan on double bass and Iain on drums complete the line-up and all hold their own. In a six-way bromance, they constantly interact with each other on stage through the musical equivalent of banter and project their positive energy to the audience.
I caught up with CC Smugglers a few hours before they took the stage at Cambridge.
Cambridge Folk Festival has a significant place in the history of the band, doesn’t it?
Richie: Yes, about ten years ago I was going round busking on my own and I came here to watch Seasick Steve and I spoke to him that day. He said, “Keep going, whatever happens, keep going”. I said to him, “One day I’m going to be on that stage you’re playing.” Then for years and years we’d try to persuade the festival owners, and we’d busk outside the main entrance and in the bar tent, then we got the Den Stage and the Club Tent and now finally we’re up on Stage 2. So it’s like ten years and full circle from that day.
How have you found being in a band as opposed to being a singer-songwriter? Do you enjoy the band dynamic more than being on your own?
Richie: Yeah because I need them. We actually found my old demo that I was handing out years ago and trust me, when you listen to that demo you realise that I really need a band. These guys bring the actual quality musicianship. None of us are stronger than the team and having six members is our strength. On stage, that’s what you see – the camaraderie and the chemistry between six friends.
You’ve done a lot of guerrilla busking in the past. Now that you’re getting to where you want to be, are you still going to carry on doing things like that?
Richie: Guerrilla busking was always a way of getting into places we wanted to get into; getting onto stages that we’d never have been allowed to play and we forced our way in by just turning up and playing on the doorstep so we’re quite lucky that now, today is a good example, we’re allowed to come on stage without having to bully anyone into it. We’re thinking of doing a bit of busking promotion – we’re playing the Cambridge Junction in October so we’re going to maybe go into Lion Yard (in the centre of Cambridge) for old time’s sake, like we used to, and busk in Cambridge. It will be on our Facebook when we’re going to do that. But that’s a blast from the past really; we don’t do that so much any more, really just to save voices. When we used to do it, we’d do it for four or five hours and voices would get gruff so we have to save ourselves mostly for the big stage shows nowadays.
How much pressure is there from the music industry to fit into a “boy band folk” box?
Richie: The problem with trying to get a career in music is that you have to work within the music industry. The constant struggle is that as a songwriter you want to be artistic and just do whatever you want to do, but if you want a career in it you have to make money and you have to appeal to bigger and bigger markets. So it’s a constant balance of doing what comes naturally and what you need to do – you need to get on radio and stuff but the beauty is you can write as many songs, you can play as much material as you like, so I try never to be bracketed in. We just do what we feel we want to do at the time. So there is pressure but that’s part of the fun, that’s part of the game really.
Are you full-time musicians now or do you all have day jobs?
Richie: You have a choice – you can be full-time and totally broke and skint, that’s what I do. But some of the guys, like Sam here, he’s got beautiful hair! To describe the hair would take too long, but it’s beautiful! It takes a lot of maintenance, doesn’t it Sam?
Sam: I appreciate that.
Richie: You’re welcome. But that means he’s in the barber’s every two weeks and that outfit didn’t buy itself, so occasionally Sam will do some shifts at the hospital. A few of us come from care working backgrounds so if you need a bit of extra money you can always go back, and it’s nice to go back and do that. But most of us are just absolutely broke and doing this as much as we can.
How often do you practise and how does the songwriting process work within the band?
Iain: We get together about once a week, but not every week, just when we can really because our schedules are different. Me and Tom play in other bands as well so it’s hard to balance it. We just try to get as much in when we can. Richie comes to the band with an idea and we all get together in the cabin, an old building where Richie lives. Then we just bounce things off each other until we come up with something.
You mentioned your other bands – are they a similar style or is it a chance for you to play different styles?
Iain: The other bands are just to pay the bills. I like to play a lot of different styles but this is one of the main bands I’m in. The others are just functions and stuff to tide me over so that I can continue to do this kind of stuff, the kind of stuff that I love, the originals.
Richie: Although I would add that you should have a look at Tom’s band because Tom does a lot of original songwriting and he fronts his own band as well. We’re lucky to be able to play with Tom but also he’s got his own thing on the go as well so you must have a look at that – he’s an act in his own right.
Tom: That’s very kind of you, Richard, thank you. I’ll pay you later! I play the piano; do my own style. It’s more jazzy than the Smugglers’ country, bluesy, boogie thing but it’s great fun to be with these boys. The energy that you’ll see on stage – it comes across that we’re all friends. The music is great, Rich is an incredibly songwriter and we’re so lucky that he brings great songs to us and hopefully we can make them better.
I’ve seen the clip of Jon Snow singing with you at the BBC. Was that rehearsed or did he just come up and do it?
Sam: That was completely random. It was the BBC buskathon. We turned up and were already busking there and he came along and jokingly said, “Let’s do a song together, and we were like, “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it” and then it just happened. Our piano player at the time just started playing something, we all got into it and then he started singing over the top of it.
Richie: He had a Channel 4 news crew with him, all the cameras. It was when Jeremy Paxman left and he’d come to do a little funny bit for the news where he’d play on this piano that was installed in the BBC lobby but we were already there busking so he said he’d do it with us. It was mental! I forget that we’ve done that and then someone will say something about Jon Snow the news presenter and I’ll say, “Well, look at this on YouTube”. It’s crazy.
Do you feel that you’ve had a lot of those noteworthy moments – Seasick Steve saw you busking, and then Old Crow Medicine Show saw you and invited you on stage….
Richie: Yeah, we’ve bounced from one chancy encounter to the next. But what I would say is that there’s not really any luck in this world, you go and make it. Through the entire journey we’ve gone out and sought opportunities. As soon as you stop seeking opportunities, that’s when you stop getting results. I wasn’t really brought up in a hugely musical family. I’m not the greatest musician in the world but I’ve got passion and I’m driven. We all care. If you want to make things happen, it will happen. That’s what our whole band is based on.
Playing Stage 2 at Cambridge Folk Festival tonight is another thing ticked off – what’s next on the list?
Richie: That is one of the last things on the Five Year Plan. Every five years I like to set myself goals. One thing I would like to do is play on Jools Holland. I really want to get some singles going nationally and then off the back of that I want to get a record deal and bring out an album. We’ve been very cautious. We write a lot and we record a lot but we never release it because we’re waiting for the right release to get traction and stuff. It would be nice to get some money behind us to bring out an album. At the moment I’m craving producing albums but we get told that we need to get the right single out first because it all takes money. We’re an organic band and we make an ok amount of money but the overheads are extortionate. We pay so much on travel, fuel and insurance. We’re holding out for some record money really, someone who will help us make the albums that we want to make.
How much control do you have over the videos?
Ryan: It’s all up to us really, we do whatever we want. We tell someone what we want to do and they’ll help us work on it.
Tom: Somebody in the last video suggested I take my shirt off and just wear a waistcoat (much laughter from the rest of the band). That idea didn’t go down too well. We have as much say as we want. We get direction from directors and producers but that was a stupid idea.
Richie: I personally think we might have had a lot more hits on that YouTube video if he’d taken his shirt off but you’ll never know!
All the recordings I’ve seen, whether it’s the videos or live gigs, you all seem to be really enjoying yourselves.
Richie: Yes, when you’re on stage you get a big burst of adrenaline. The worst is that you’ll get some terrible sound. When you’ve got six instruments and you can’t hear your voice or your banjo or whatever, it can be a bit frustrating because the most important thing is we want to do the best show we possibly can, it’s very important to us. If we come off stage and we think that we could have done better, we’re hard on ourselves.
How would you describe your fan base?
Richie: We’ve been quite lucky in that we’ve managed to appeal to a really broad spectrum. Some guys in similar fields get wedged into being considered a blues band playing blues but we seem to be able to jump. We played at Montreux Jazz Festival a couple of week ago and now we’re at Cambridge Folk Festival. We played Summer Blues Festival somewhere in Europe, where was that, Switzerland. Then we can play Bestival or Secret Garden Party where there are loads of young people, and then this festival is like a Radio 2, slightly older generation. What we’ve always been good at is appealing to people because I think it goes beyond music. When you see people having a good time, and we connect with the audience, we communicate, we’re on the same level, and it goes beyond any category of people.
How did you all get into this type of music?
Ryan: I didn’t get into this type of music until I joined the band. I was more into classic rock. I was into a bit of blues here and there but when I joined this band, they showed me the folk stuff, Old Crow Medicine Show and loads of country and blues.
Sam: Me, Rich and Dan all went to school together so we shared what we were listening to and we all got into the same kind of thing. I guess even from being young, my grandparents were listening to country and old rock ‘n’ roll. Later I got into the bluegrass thing. We just influenced each other.
Tom: I met Richie first, through the old drummer of this band. It’s kind of a strange story – I got asked to put a jazz band in for a big Bollywood film that was casting. The drummer that I ended up using was the old drummer from the Smugglers. Then I was doing a gig with a harmonica player who I knew Richie would like to see and it all spiralled from there. We actually started writing for my band and then I ended up somehow in this band and one year later, I’m still here. I haven’t managed to leave. I keep trying but they keep bolting the door shut and not letting me leave! Like Ryan says, as far as music goes, I’d probably not listened to much folk or bluegrass stuff before I joined the band but when we’re in the van and we’re driving for ten hours to the middle of nowhere, we all listen to different things and influence each other. It’s been an experience of learning from each other.
Are there any particular artists you’re looking forward to seeing at this festival?
Richie: Our girls Ward Thomas but they were on last night. Also Frank Turner but he’s on in direct competition with us so if we see him, he’d better watch out. He better not hurt his fingers!
Interview: Sarah Corbett-Batson
Photos: Copyright Carl Byron Batson. Not to be reproduced without express prior permission