- Fri, 2010-07-09 11:30
The last few years have seen a new generation of folk artists such as Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons go from relative unknowns to household names. An invaluable contributor to that process came in the form of a small weekly event in West London, going by the name of Communion. Starting out as an unassuming showcase of new talent picked by its organisers Kevin Jones and Ben Lovett (of Mumford & Sons fame), it has since grown exponentially, with affiliated nights in countless other cities, and the recently established label Communion Records.
I Like Music spoke to Kevin Jones about Communion’s humble beginnings, its huge growth, what new-folk really means and the exciting new projects in the Communion pipeline.
“I Like Music because…I get to hang out with my friends.” Kev, Communion Records
ILM: What inspired you to set up Communion?
Kev: It sounds a bit lame to say, but first of all it started with getting on with people. Me and Ben Mumford were in a band together before, we got on well and so we moved in with each other. Then we met our producer Ian. While all that was going on there was Bosun’s Locker, a tiny, 40-capacity folk club on King’s Road in London. It was amazing! I wish I’d been more aware of what I was listening to, because the entire new folk scene was in that room for about a year just drinking and playing songs. There was Laura Marling, Charlie Fink from Noah & The Whale, Alan Pownall, Andrew Davie from Cherbourg, Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons…everyone basically, just hanging out. Everyone was really open and playing music with each other. It was a really healthy thing, there was no pretence and everyone just benefited from each other’s influence. That closed down at around the same time that I was talking about doing something. I’d always wanted to put on a night, and through Ian we got a night at the Notting Hill Arts Club. Then it just grew from there. That was the very beginning, the real seed of it.
ILM: Did you plan for that first night to be a one off?
Kev: No, we knew that it was going to be every month.
ILM: As a replacement for Bosun’s Locker?
Kev: Sort of. It took us about six months to really understand what we were trying to achieve. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We’d never done it before, so we just had to try things out. After six months it felt like it suddenly clicked. There were a lot of musicians coming down to hang out, play and swap ideas. Bands were formed partly out of the night. Ben and Marcus went to school together, and Marcus asked to sing some songs, and on that first gig Andrew Davie from Cherbourg was playing ukulele and Laura Marling was doing back vocals. Everybody was just having a crack. I’m not saying it was responsible for starting bands, but there was a community feel to it. No-one really new about it because it was on a Sunday, and we didn’t actively promote it or shove it down people’s throats. People just came down because they liked it, and we liked it that way. Not that it was exclusive in any way. It wasn’t; we were always meeting people, and it was a great place to do that.
ILM: What were some of the key moments in its development?
Kev: There weren’t any really. It was just that in the first six months we learned our lessons and then it kind of ticked over from there. It was great to have Laura Marling headline, and Noah & The Whale, but they weren’t huge names at the time, they were on their way up. It was great to have Mumford play as Mumford & Sons, because they were on the cusp of breaking. There were some fantastic moments, but no cornerstones after that first one.
ILM: Communion is now in Leeds, Dublin, Bristol, Sydney…loads of places. How did that happen?
Kev: We kept getting offers to do other places in London, but we didn’t want to over-expose ourselves or take on anything too big, like doing some night at Koko. We really liked the way it was, but we were kind of ambitious as well so we figured “why not go to other cities and try it there instead?” We did Brighton first of all, and once we realised that Brighton was working we went nuts a bit! Me and Ben have been touring in bands for years, so we find it really easy to judge a good promoter. For example, when we played the show with the guy who does it in Leeds it was sold out and the vibe was exactly like Communion. It was obvious he was good. And a lot of them were friends, like the guy in Belfast. It’s a network, but it’s mostly just lots of good, decent people that share the same approach.
ILM: How would you describe a Communion event for those that have never been?
Kev: Well, one of the best things is being able to introduce people. We had this amazing band called The Staves play the other day, and they said to me “we’re looking for a band.” I’d heard them during the sound check and thought they were brilliant, so was pointing out this drummer, that banjo player, that guitarist. Things like that are really exciting. It doesn’t have to be musicians that we introduce; just nice people to other nice people. That’s kind of the vibe.
ILM: You have strong ties to the so-called new folk movement. What does the term ‘new folk’ mean to you?
Kev: I don’t really think it’s anything to do with the sound that people make. I sound like a right old hippie sometimes! I used to play in an indie band, we were alright, not very good. Every gig we turned up to, the other bands would be sitting around saying “they look like fucking pricks.” Basically it was all about being isolated, particularly in London. So for me, I would say new folk is more about what I’m trying to do, which is hooking people up and trying to help everybody. The reason it’s turned into a movement is because of that first period a few years ago when everyone was helping each other. That’s why it became a movement rather than just one band coming out of a scene. Some people see it as quite exclusive, which I don’t at all.
That’s what it is psychologically. Musically, I suppose you can say that it’s country-type instruments and harmonies and stuff like that. There are lyrical themes in some of it. But to say that is almost to prevent it from developing. As soon as you say “this is what it is,” then anyone who’s doing something else isn’t in it. I think it’s a progressive thing. I’m dying to hear what Mumford & Sons do with their second album! I don’t think it’s going to be anything like their first. You can see it on stage now; sometimes they’ve got a full band set up, they’re playing drums… That’s not going to be new folk. It’s not going to be sitting on a bail of hay drinking real ale. It’s going to be something epic and completely different. So I don’t see it as a musical genre. I see it as something that happened.
ILM: You launched Communion records in September 2009, was it an easy decision to make after the success of the Communion events?
Kev: There’s a joy in putting on bands that you think are great, but at Notting Hill Arts Club you can only reach so many people, whereas in theory if you put a great record out you can reach a lot more people. So yeah, you’re right, it’s just a continuation of the same thing!
ILM: Once you made the decision to launch Communion records, what was your plan of action?
Kev: There was no plan of action!
ILM: Which artists did you have lined up to start with?
Kev: None! Haha! Ian Grimble, the producer, is pretty much the unsung hero of the whole thing. He’s an amazing producer. Ben and him had been co-producing things and I’d just started to do some things with him as well. We had the facility to record things and that we had a small audience that we could make aware of those recordings. So we just thought we’d try it. We released a compilation, which was supposed to be like taking a little photograph of what was happening on the scene at the time (which we did actually do!) and that worked really well. That gave us an opportunity to get new artists involved. Like Marcus Foster, who we’ve done all sorts of stuff with now. I saw him on Myspace and thought he was amazing, so we booked him and were then able to get him in to do one track on the compilation. It allowed us to try things out with people, document something and go from there.
ILM: So your involvement with the artists is much greater now?
Kev: Yeah, absolutely. To date we’ve produced everything that we’ve released, so we’re there in the studio with them being creative and giving ideas. We’ve been able to put musicians around various people. Marcus Foster, for example, was a solo artist, this guy Matt Corby that we’re working with was a solo artist. Matthew and the Atlas, who we’ve done an EP with, and we’re doing another one with, was looking for a banjo player. Because of this whole setup we’re able to point people in the right directions. We do everything from promoting the gigs to putting the records out and helping with the artwork. It doesn’t feel like they’re working for us or we’re working for them, we’re just having a crack at it together.
ILM: How do you go about finding people to collaborate with?
Kev: As promoters we always get a bit overexcited and put on seven or eight bands a night, rather than three or four. You do have to listen to stuff first. To a certain extent, I think you can tell how someone is going to be live from how something is recorded and how they’re presented. Not always, but often. When I heard Marcus Foster I knew there was no way he was going to be shit live, and he was amazing.
ILM: What do you look for in a Communion Records artist?
Kev: Just something that we get excited about. That’s really all it is.
ILM: It’s very simple then?
Kev: Yeah. We’re not interested in looking at something from a commercial and/or a hype angle. We literally just go to a gig, and if we think “that’s amazing,” then we try and get involved.
ILM: You're working toward a shared vision?
Kev: Yeah. I was moaning the other day about how major labels get it wrong a lot of the time because they try to project their own vision onto the artist. It’s like if you’re going out with someone and you think, “if only they had a different hair cut, were a foot taller and they were wearing better shoes then they’d be perfect.” That’s not the right way to approach it. It’s all about bringing the best out of what’s already there. We’re not trying to change the artist, we’re just trying to locate the amazing stuff and do more of it. So that’s how we try to approach the recording process.
ILM: With successful artists comes major label interest. How will you respond to that?
Kev: Well if they let us keep doing what we’re doing… It’s not like we sat down one day and said “this is how we’re going to do things,” but we appear to have a similar mindset, and the most important thing for us is to maintain that. As soon as we start styling bands and generally being idiots then we’ve lost our way. I don’t think that’ll ever happen though, because we’re all fairly strong-minded people.
ILM: What’s your studio like?
Kev: It’s in a big old church. We’re not a religious organisation, but we seem to have these connotations floating around! It’s in Crouch End. It’s a beautiful space, and the acoustics are amazing. It’s not the biggest space in the world, but it’s really nice. It’s got real floorboards, and stained glass windows…it’s just a really nice environment to work in.
ILM: What have been some of the hardest challenges to overcome?
Kev: Paying for things is quite difficult sometimes! I don't know...it’s just hard work really. There are no specific obstacles. It’s just a matter of working really hard and keeping at the job.
ILM: What advice would you give to someone who wants to set out on a similar path?
Kev: Get people involved. I think people want to feel part of something. I don’t mean that in a cynical way. If you meet a great DJ who comes down and plays a night, ask them if they want to get involved in the other aspects of the project. You’re never going to do it on your own. You’re always going to need people to help you out. You don’t own something, because if it is just your thing then you’re probably going to have to be unkind to people along the way. Why not just get everyone involved? Then through whoever’s involved you meet more people who might also be able to help you.
ILM: What have Communion Records got planned over the next few months?
Kev: We’ve finished a batch of records, which we’ve been working on since January, and we’ve got another lot that we’re about to start. So we’ve got loads of releases over the next five or six months. We’re doing Marcus Foster’s EP, which is super exciting. We’re doing the record with Matt Corby, which we’d thought was going to be an EP, but we’re thinking about doing an album now. So there are loads of records.
ILM: And events...?
Kev: We’re doing a project with a venue called the Flowerpot in Kentish Town. Our friend Jay runs it, and we’re taking it over for the week of July 12th-18th. We’re going to set up a recording studio downstairs, and another one upstairs and we’re going to make various bits of it semi-residential. If an artist says “I’ve always wanted a choir on this record,” then we’ll try and set that up. We’re going to record all of those ‘happenings’, and then we’re opening the venue to the public in the evenings and recording those shows. There are also going to be after-show jams, which we’ll record. We’re basically recording everything for a week! We’re generating all the artwork and mixing the record as we go along, so essentially after one week we’re going to walk out with some sort of record. That’s going to be fun, if a bit of an organisational nightmare!
We’re also having a crack at a festival in West London in September called Bushstock. We were going to call it Bushtival, but then decided against it. I still like it! After that I don’t know. Just keep going!