The Black Guards
BUILDING from the bones of the previous incumbent…
D’Bleedin’ Blaggards comes the less-pirate-sounding The Black Guards – actually, it is quite swashbuckling! The West Cumbrian-based crew offers an amalgamation of Country, Reggae – with some Irish Folk and Rock in for good measure! I talk to members Paul O’Halloran, Annie-Marie McStraw and Paul McGhee about their formation and what we can expect from their forthcoming E.P. – released a week today.
They talk about their friendship and whether their sound – which is quite wide-ranging and broad – is easy to appreciate and how it has been revived. The guys recommend new artists we should watch out for and the future dates they are looking forward to.
Hi guys, how are you? How have your weeks been? For those new to your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
Hello. We are one-half of a six-piece band called The Black Guards (from Cumbria). Paul O’Halloran (Lead Vocalist and Guitar); Anne-Marie McStraw (Violin, Vocals and Whistle) and Paul McGhee (Lead Guitar and Banjo).
Can you tell me the origins and relevance of the name ‘The Black Guards’?
Paul O’Halloran: The name originates from our former band name, D’Bleedin’Blaggards
It seems like The Black Guards hail from quite disparate areas. How did you all form and find one another?
I’m a Dublin native and I ended up settling in Cleator Moor Cumbria, where McGhee and Anne-Marie are both locals – that’s where I met them. Andrew Bates, our drummer, was busy on the local music scene. Ben Sloan, who lives just outside of Cleator Moor, approached us after a gig asking if we’d be interested in him playing the double bass with the band.
Last, but not least, Owen Evans, who lives way up the road from Ben’s, answered the call when we were advertising for a multi-instrumentalist (accordion, piano; mandolin, low whistles and vocals).
I know there is an E.P., Drawn In, afoot. What can you reveal about that and the kind of songs that will feature?
Anne-Marie: We are really excited to release our E.P.
I feel it is going to hit a lot of different pallets of music and genres: it very much reflects all the playing styles within the band.
It will, hopefully, evoke a lot of different emotions in our audiences – as it seems to when we’ve performed the songs live.
Paul O’Halloran. You left Dublin to join the band. Do you get the chance to go back to Dublin and what is the music scene like in the city?
Paul O’Halloran: I, maybe, get back to Ireland once a year. The band went over last year for a short tour so the plan is to get back over again as soon as it’s viable. Yeah.
The music scene in Dublin is as vibrant as ever: it’s always held its own in terms of having a great live music scene.
Anne-Marie. It seems like you have a ‘violins-are-a-must’ policy – anyone without them should be expelled from political parties. What is it about the instrument and its sound that motivates such passion?
For me, music without violins is like a Sunday dinner without gravy.
Music is my main outlet of expressing myself and I feel through violin I can really connect with the emotions of other people’s – music and express that too.
No matter what in my life the violin has been there to lift me up; console me and help me to connect with other musicians on a different level.
It seems like each of you provides something different and dynamic to the band.
Paul O’Halloran: Yes, and that’s always been at the heart of the band since its inception: that each band member has its voice and character – and that outlet for expression through music is allowed to flourish. It harnesses and moulds The Black Guards sound. In our live performances is where you can see that energy collaborating and intensifying as we feed off each other.
How would each of you define your role in the band and what you bring to The Black Guards?
We all have our role to play, which can, sometimes, seem defined by the particular instrument or song we may bring to the band. But we all step up to take the reins as and when it’s needed and we all know when it’s the right time to step back and put our trust and support in one another – to allow the band’s overall sound to grow and breath.
Could you describe the band’s sound – as it seems quite wide-ranging and broad?
Yes, very much so, and we will endeavour to pursue that our sound is always interesting and as wide-ranging (and broad) as we can possibly push it.
But, never-the-less, were we to overwhelm the song for the sake of it… a song’s backbone should always be able to stand up on its own merit. It’s just our job (the band’s) to add the intricate flourishes and touches that make it The Black Guards sound.
Who are the musicians that influence each of you?
Anne-Marie: My main influences are artists such as Laura Marling, Lisa Hannigan – to bands like Radiohead and alt-J.
Paul McGhee: Billy Bragg, Nick Cave and The Clash – to name but a few.
Paul O’Halloran: Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen; Bruce Springsteen and much, much more.
It seems genres such as Alt-Folk and Country are still quite niche and away-from-the-mainstream. Do you think it is time for more people to embrace these genres and all they promise?
You know, these genres have always been stable diets of the music scene in one form or another. More often than not championed by the mainstream; their influence speaks for itself with the likes of Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson; Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn; The Band, Emmylou Harris; Civil Wars, Rhianna Giddens; Union Station, T-Bone Burnett; The White Stripes, The Pogues; The Shires, Kings of Leon and Sturgill Simpson.
It’s endless. They’ve all delved into these genres as artists and they’re just the tip of it.
Even the acts of today, such as The Lumineers and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man are all embracing Country and Folk sounds and it is thriving amongst their audiences.
Have you found it harder to get recognition because of the style of music you play?
Paul O’Halloran: On the contrary, we’ve always had a great rapport with the audiences, and they, in turn, have always been in full voice and sync. with the band’s energy in our live shows.
Paul McGhee: Absolutely not! The music we play can’t be pinned down to a specific style at any moment in time; so, we have never been short of an audience.
Over the next couple of months, you play Eden Festival and a range of dates. Which are you most looking forward to?
Anne-Marie: I’m looking forward to Esk Fest down in Eskdale Valley: a beautiful setting in West Cumbria with some fantastic artists playing.
We’ll be whisked off straight to The Old Fire Station to mark the end of Carlisle’s Unity Festival the day after.
I think it will shape up to be a great weekend.
What happens after that? How will the band be spending the summer?
Paul McGhee: The summer will be a chance to play festivals, but it won’t end there. We are then looking to tour Germany, Spain and Denmark, and hopefully, further afield – and, also, get an album recorded and released before the years out.
I am intrigued as it seems like there is a natural connection and affection in the group. Does that bonhomie and revelry continue away from the music? How do you spend your time away from recording/touring?
Anne-Marie: The members of the band are like my brothers. I’m often nattering away on the phone to Paul O’ over something or other. I feel he has really helped me to grow into my ‘musician skin’ since leaving university.
As much as we feel like family: all our families are really entwined.
Paul O’s wife is our stylist – whenever we need help – and his kids hang around with Ben’s kids (double bassist). My parents are good friends with the McGhee’s family – who go way back – and, also my parents, in turn, have inadvertently become our roadies when we’re out on the road.
My other half comes along and takes pictures wherever he can. We tend to all catch each other when we go for our Sunday dinner fix at Paul O’s carvery (he’s also an amazing chef). All-in-all, there is massive affection and a lot of fun in the band – we are forever winding each other up (especially the two Pauls). This really helps as we spend a lot of time together pouring over songs, gigging and travelling.
Who are the new/upcoming artists you advise we keep an eye out for this year?
What advice would you give to any new artists starting out right now?
Get out and perform, rehearse; be fearless, be creative; keep ticking away every day at your craft: there’ll be good days and bad days.
Stay strong and positive and, above all, trust and have faith in yourself, your art and your life.
Finally, and for being good sports, you can each name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that)
Anne-Marie: Lisa Hannigan – Fall
Paul McGhee: Bruce Springsteen – The Ballad of Tom Joad
Paul O’Halloran: Dylan Walshe – At Sea
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