I’ve Brought Gold: An Interview With Goblin Band

Goblin Band take Patrick Clarke on a wander through Tottenham Court Road’s lost orchards to discuss plague pits, knitwear, and carving out a space for queerness in the London folk scene

Photos by Enrico Policardo

tQ meets Rowan Gatherer and Sonny Brazil opposite Hobgoblin Music, near Tottenham Court Road, the shop where their group Goblin Band first formed during after-hours sessions, and where several of their membership are still employed. The posh coffee shop across the road is too full, so we take advantage of unseasonable warmth to find a seat in nearby Soho Square. There, Brazil points out the mock-Tudor hut in the middle of the park – an access route to an electricity substation designed to blend in with its historic surroundings – and tells us of rumours that it is the cottage where the term ‘cottaging’ to mean gay hook-ups originated. Within ten minutes, the square closes unexpectedly and we’re booted out, so we wander past St. Giles’ church – raised slightly higher than its surroundings, Brazil points out, due to there being so many corpses dumped there during the Black Death that ground above them was pushed upwards.

Unintentionally, we’ve followed an abridged route of an outing that the band hosted a few weeks prior – ‘A Musical Tour Of Tottenham Court Road’s Lost Orchards’. As well as the site-specific wassailing songs that were performed as they went, they also left soggy slices of bread in their wake. “There’s a lot of spikey fences in the area, so we used them instead of apple trees – you’re supposed to put wet slices of bread on the branches for the spirits,” says Gatherer. It was as much a drunken pub crawl as a history lesson that got “more and more unhinged” as it progressed, as Brazil puts it. They ended up, as we do in The Angel pub next to the church. “Apparently Samuel Smith’s [the brewery who owns that bar among others] forbids live music in their pubs, but there was no stopping us,” says Gatherer.

Did they get funny looks as they wassailed around central London? “Loads, yeah,” says Gatherer matter-of-factly, “but there was no rude shouting.” That kind of thing happens more in smaller towns, he says like in Margate where he was heckled with cries of ‘Harry Potter’. “It’s been happening my whole life,” he sighs. “I have a similar bone structure to Daniel Radcliffe, but I don’t know what they think they’re articulating.” Brazil, for the crime of wearing a brimmed hat, was once declared ‘Indiana Jones.’ “My partner was once wearing a big red cape and someone walked past and was like ‘It’s Paddington Bear!’ That was very annoying, because Paddington doesn’t wear a red cape at all. He wears a blue duffel coat!”

They are, admittedly, eccentric people. At one point I return from getting a round at the bar to find the pair have made a map of the British Isles on the table out of some moss growing on the pub garden wall. They are dressed the way their music sounds; Gatherer wears traditional nautical knitwear from a small Hull designer called Deckhand, a linen shirt, women’s trousers that he’s widened himself, “hobbitcore” suspenders with custom brass buttons, and what he calls his ‘Breugel Jacket’ – a collarless number that “makes me feel like a character in one of his paintings [commonly depicting peasants], carrying a bundle of something.” Brazil wears a moleskin hat that Gatherer made for them out of a shrunken sweater, a jumper that had previously been in possession of Gatherer and before that Gatherer’s partner, a belt that Brazil made from scratch, and a Swedish military surplus jacket from the 1950s. Brazil pulls out a pouch carrying an assortment clip-on earrings. “I keep this for emergency occasions,” they say.

And yet, both Brazil and Gatherer are not pretentious. None of their image is affected, the latter insists. “Because folk music is omnipresent in our everyday lives, the fashion thing is an extension of it. The politics and history of clothing is a part of the politics and history of traditional music. One of the things I think about is how modern clothing is shit. When the economy was based less on globalised exploiting of people in other countries, and more on local craftmanship, people made good shit because they had to.” Adds Brazil: “I’ve replaced all the clothes in my wardrobe with clothes that are old, and that’s not because I want to look ‘vintage’, it’s just because they’re better. It’s funny when people think I’m into craft beers when I’m really not. I’m just wearing a hat.”

That said, both are keen to point out that had they known I was going to quiz them about clothing, they’d have worn something far more flamboyant. It’s not their aim to provoke people, Gatherer says, although “it’s quite a fun side effect to freak people out with their own traditional culture and be like, ‘Actually, this has been here for your whole life, you just weren’t paying attention and now you’re being confronted.’” Recently, Gatherer recalls, one irate online commenter claimed that because many members of Goblin Band are openly and visibly queer, that their ancestors “would have killed them” for singing traditional songs. “It’s mostly insane people on the internet. We did have one guy in a pub threatening to beat us up, but he was off his fucking kettle,” he says with a laugh. Brazil, for the record, says they envy their bandmate’s self-confidence.

There was, however, some groundwork required before Goblin Band could properly carve out their place in traditional folk. Brazil had been trying to pursue a solo career, but found it “all very lonely,” before they were introduced to Gatherer via a mutual friend. “They pushed us together, we went for a pint, and got very excited about the idea of doing a session out of the shop,” Gatherer recalls. It would be a chance to pursue their shared passion for traditional folk music in an environment in which they felt comfortable, he continues. At an old-fashioned pub session, “you’re going into an environment where you’re a minority. We’re young, and we’re queer. I’ve been to folk sessions since where it’s [an older] demographic and they’ve been really nice, it’s not been hostile, but you still don’t feel like it’s your space. When we started our own thing we were really just desperate to play with people who were like us. We were longing for a community like that, so we threw one together.”

The Hobgoblin sessions went on for a few months, in which time its attendees realised they weren’t alone in that desire. They were soon drawn into the orbit of Folk Of The Roundtable, a fortnightly meetup in south London which has a similarly progressive and inclusive ethos. With that session taking some of the weight off, back at Hobgoblin some of the attendees were beginning to coalesce into a more straightforward band: vocalist Gwena Harman, violinist Alice Beadle, drummer Paul Gardner and mandola player Piran Casely joining Gatherer and Brazil. Goblin Band, a placeholder name, ended up sticking. They make an unusual grouping, ranging in age from Beadle in her early 20s, to Gardner in his 50s. Brazil has their roots in theatre and performing arts, Harman, Casely and Gatherer in visual art, while Beadle is classically trained. “It demonstrates the way we all kind of fell into the band together in quite an organic way,” says Brazil.

That network of similarly-minded young London folk musicians that Goblin Band were gradually becoming more ingratiated with became increasingly crucial. The Broadside Hacks project – an amorphous entity that consists of a band, a record label, sessions and regular Folk Club concerts – are putting out their debut EP Come Slack Your Horse!. It was recorded by their friend Iona Vallance, one of the organisers of Folk Of The Round Table, through her Two Larks Productions company. “The only reason we have music to release at all is because we’re lucky to have met so many generous people who helped us out,” says Gatherer.

Brazil argues that the existence of this wider scene is testament to the same pining for community, that prompted those early sessions at Hobgoblin. At first, they say, it had felt natural to pursue a solo career, “go and be a folk person in the middle of the forest on your own, live in a cottage and al that sort of stuff. We’re all very much internet babies, it’s easy for us to be dragged into hyper-individualism, and initially it’s very enticing. But quite quickly you realise that without other people there’s just no joy in any of that whatsoever. I think we all probably went through a similar thing.” The pandemic had something to do with it, they suggest – Broadside Hacks began partly as an excuse for indie musicians to meet up and play something after their respective tours had been put on hold by lockdown restrictions.

More broadly, it’s probably no coincidence that the boom in community-oriented folk projects have roughly coincided with England’s political lurch to the right at the end of the 2010s, most notably in the aftermath of Brexit. “It’s something that really kicked everyone up the arse because it was so intense,” says Gatherer. “Everyone felt so divided and isolated and worn out with this dystopian world that we’re living in. I think part of the attraction to folk music is driven by desire to escape to a time before it was this overstimulating and insane.” That said, he stresses, the project is progressive more than it is nostalgic. “The way we’re doing it is trying to get your head out the depressing present, but also to imagine what is possible, what we have had access to in the past in the land and each other, a culture of our own that isn’t dictated by commercialism and capitalism, that you can bring that into the present again.”

With that in mind, even the more pastoral aspects of Goblin Band’s debut EP – a meditative medley of ‘Birds In The Spring’ and ‘May Morning Dew’ for instance – have a power that goes beyond just the prettiness of Goblin Band’s arrangement. “Birds and their connection to the changing of the seasons is one of the uniting things that is now in turmoil because of climate change. The birds in the spring we hear now are not the birds in the spring that people have been experiencing for thousands of years. It’s all connected to the capitalist machine that has ground humans and animal life and the climate into one big pile of ash.” Sometimes their songs’ powers are dependent on context, such as ‘Turmut Hoer’, a jaunty song about farming sung in the Wiltshire dialect, so inherent to the area’s local identity that it was adopted as a marching song by the county’s infantry regiment. It is also sung on every election day by whoever is elected as MP for Salisbury, a seat that save for a one year swing to the Liberals from 1923 to 1924, has been held by the Conservative Party since 1886, “so you always get disgusting posh boys putting on a working class Wiltshire dialect, singing this song about working the land,” Gatherer says. The Conservatives, he says, “hate the farmers, they’re destroying the traditional culture of it. It’s a beautiful song, about someone who really loves hoeing turnips, which is not something that you get many songs about and feels very pure. It’s so perverse for someone who’s actively a part of destroying that to co-opt it and sing it back at the people they’re manipulating.”

Elsewhere it’s easy to read an overtly queer message in what Goblin Band sing. Lead single ‘The Prickle Hollybush’, for instance, a song known in many different versions and by numerous names on both sides of the Atlantic, in which a person condemned to be hanged is visited by one relative after another, none of which has brought the gold they had hoped would secure their freedom, and has in fact arrived merely to watch – perhaps even relish – the execution. In the end, the necessary gold, silver, and salvation must come from their lover instead. “It’s easy to map that on to the queer experience,” says Gatherer. “Of your family letting you down and not supporting you. In the band, none of us are unfortunate enough to literally be in that situation, but among our queer friends there is a communal experience of your family not understanding you, and not being the ones to save you. The salvation in the song is a literal saving of someone’s life, but we interpret it as a symbolic, romantic expression of something that for us, thankfully, is more the salvation of your spirit and your identity. I feel like my partner and my friends, my chosen family, have saved me and made me able to be who I am. In our community, we’ve all enabled each other to be who we are.”

In some ways it’s a comedic song, the verses relentlessly repetitive as each family member arrives one at a time. Onstage Gatherer will play around with the audience by pretending to run out of breath. But then, with the lover’s arrival, the verse changes by only a few words – “I’ve brought gold” rather than the “I’ve no gold” of the mother, father, sister and brother – and yet within that slightest of change is an ecstatic relief. “It becomes a kind of joyous, triumphant thing. At a gig someone came up to us crying afterwards, saying, ‘The whole thing really affected me, and made me feel really seen and really safe.’ We were totally shocked by that. You don’t expect a song to have that kind of power, but it does.”

Curiously enough, it was only after the band started playing ‘Prickle Holly Bush’ that they detected that queer subtext. Ultimately, says Brazil, “these are just songs we enjoy, and because we’re queer, it’s always going to be a queer performance.” Rather than cherry-pick the songs with which they think they might make the biggest political impact, they ultimately sing the songs that best articulate their love for what it is they do. Take ‘Widdecombe Fair’, for instance, which closes the EP, and recounts the story of too many people riding the same horse to get to the titular livestock fair, resulting in the creature’s death and its riders haunting the local moor forevermore. Well-known to older generations in the area (including Gatherer’s partner’s family, from whom he learnt it), it is essentially a memory game for whoever’s reciting it, the aim being to recall the names of all the people riding the horse. Extremely kitsch, part of the appeal to Gatherer is “the cringe value, that it’s jolly and jovial and the way that it comes with that baggage of being popular with the older generation who are considered not to be cool,” he says. Exploring the song within their own practise, “feels a little dangerous, especially now where it’s like, ‘OK, so do you dark, moody folk music so we can put you in this camp? Or do you do wacky, silly, tacky folk music with sound effects so we can put you in the other camp?’”

For Goblin Band, the answer is neither. “That separation is ridiculous,” says Gatherer. “What if it’s just entertainment?” They play ‘Widdecombe Fair’ for the same reasons as any of their darker or more poignant tracks: “Because we love it. It’s the one that most people remember because it’s so much fun. Most of the time it’s younger audiences that haven’t heard it before, and it feels exciting to bring the younger and the older generations together, to forget about all the optics, and realise that this is actually just really fun. There’s something to be said for not trying to make yourself fit a mould.”

Goblin Band’s debut EP Come Slack Your Horse! is released on 1 May via Broadside Hacks

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