DS Interview: Skinny Lister on “Down on Deptford Broadway,” the US/UK folk punk scene, and much more

It probably goes without saying that one of the gigantic perks of a “job” like amateur punk music journalist is getting to discover brand new bands. Typically this happens by way of emails of links to Soundcloud or Bandcamp or Youtube pages, but bands tend to make the most impact when you can discover them live. Such is the case for Skinny Lister. Admittedly unfamiliar with them prior to their opening slot on Flogging Molly‘s Green 17 tour a couple of years ago, they were quick to win the audience (myself included) over with a captivating performance and an infectious energy (particularly on the part of co-frontpersons(?) Daniel Heptinstall and Lorna Thomas and the latter’s brother, Maxwell) that damn near matched the evening’s headliners. The sing-along heavy set (which featured some rather memorable crowd-surfing by the double bass player Michael Camino) ranks on the short list of best live performances I’ve had the privilege of witnessing.

The two years that have passed since that installment of Green 17 wrapped have featured the English pub rockers perform successful stints at SXSW and on the Vans Warped Tour, as well as a high profile opening slot on the road with Dropkick Murphys. Their sophomore album, Down on Deptford Broadway, is due out tomorrow (April 21st) on Xtra Mile Recordings, and is an enjoyable step forward from their debut, Forge & Flagon. We traded emails with singer/guitarist Daniel Heptinstall to chat about the new album, and the experiences entailed in making a fairly quick leap from English pub band to big-time, international tour life. Check our chat out below!

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): First and foremost, congratulations on Down on Deptford Broadway! I’m still a big fan of Forge & Flagon, but I think you’ve outdone yourselves on this one…seems to be a logical step forward in sound and intensity. Well done!  Down to business…a lot of times when we talk to bands about songwriting process, we talk about the guitar hook or the main lyric hooks being the part that comes first, and then the song is structured around those parts. Because the “sing along” bit is so prominent in so many Skinny Lister songs, are there times where the singalong or the gang chorus gets written first, then the song gets fleshed out around it?

Skinny Lister (Daniel Heptinstall): Generally the melody, lyric and chords come first. We try to make sure that bit is strong before we start fleshing it out with the other instruments. With a song like ‘Raise A Wreck’, that was written originally as just a gang vocal, very much in the style of a traditional sea shanty. We then fleshed it out with instruments to help take it somewhere else, and threw in a few key changes to boot! But yeah – we do like to have a few moments in there where we can have a good old drunken pub kind of singalong, “Six Whiskies” has a good boozey ‘la la la’ section that really comes alive when we’ve got a full crowd singing along with us.

Skinny Lister have a well-earned reputation as being one of the best, most energetic live bands going today. After the first couple listens, it seems like Down on Deptford Broadway seems to ratchet up the energy level from Forge & Flagon. How much does how a song translates live impact the way that a song gets written or ends up sounding?

Yeah – we think we’ve captured more of the live energy on Down On Deptford Broadway. Our producer Ted Hutt certainly helped with this. Before we started working on the album he came to one of our London shows and got a good idea what the band was about. We then took that spirit into the studio with us. The other thing we took into the studio this time was a drummer. Whereas the percussion on Forge & Flagon comprised mainly of me on stomp box, we now had a full kit at our disposal. I think this gives the record, as well as our lives shows, a punchier sound and a backbeat we didn’t have before. With regard to how songs translate live, we usually have songs written and arranged before we start playing them, but audience response does certainly help us fine tune arrangements. Also – the way a song is received live will often decide whether a song makes it onto an album or not. We trust our crowd!

In spite of the energy level you guys are known for, songs like “Bonny Away” and “The Dreich” and maybe “What Can I Say” show that you’re more than capable of writing lush, slower-tempo traditional folk songs. Is it important to the band to be able to pull off both types of songs? Does that help keep you from being pigeon-holed as too much of one thing or another?

I think doing the slower tracks does help us not get too stuck in the ‘punk folk drinking band’ category (if that is a category?) I really love writing the more delicate songs like “Bonny Away” and “The Dreich,” and they represent a big side of our character. It’s just not necessarily the side of us that we’ve become more known for at our live shows. But even live, a track like ‘Bonny Away’ can sometimes be a welcome breath of fresh air in a mainly up tempo set, and act as a calm before the storm before we step on the gas again.

Speaking of “Bonny Away”…that song’s been kicking around for a while now. I feel like we heard that on the tour with Flogging Molly and Dave Hause a couple years ago, correct?
Yes – “Bonny Away” has been around for a couple of years now. We even recorded a version of it in my bedroom that was included in the deluxe version of Forge & Flagon. But we didn’t feel we had done it justice at this point. So when we were doing pre-production for this album, we played it to Ted (our producer) and he thought it was a great track and one we should consider reworking. This was actually another great aspect of Ted’s input – in that he pushed us to write a whole new middle 8 section, which I think really adds something to the song. I think Lorna delivered a great vocal on this version also. And the addition of Roger Wilson on the fiddle also helps lift it to another place.

Down on Deptford Broadway was recorded back at the end of 2013 with Ted Hutt. Is it frustrating to have an album in the bag for so long before getting to unleash it on the masses? What was the main hold up in getting it out?

The delay here was record label issues. After recording the album, we ended up moving record labels, and that took a little time. We ended up putting this album out through Xtra Mile Recordings (Frank Turner, Against Me, Beans On Toast) who’ve been great to work with. So, although frustrating at the time, in the end we’re happy with how things have unfolded.

Skinny Lister has played in most corners of the Northern Hemisphere in what seems like a fairly short amount of time. Outside the UK, what are some of the best markets for Skinny Lister (being based in the Boston area, I’d like to think we’re on the short list)? Are there any markets that were perhaps unexpectedly good the first time you’d played them?

Not just saying this, but Boston is one of our favourite places to play. We’ve had amazing times there with both Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy’s and also at our own shows, and we’ve met some great Boston folk during our times spent there. The US in general has been very good to us, and we’re very grateful for that. We’ve also had great times in Germany where we’ve gathered a decent following. The most unexpected amazing reaction has to be Japan. We had never been, and dropped straight into Fuji Rock (a big festival over there). The response of a 5,000 plus Japanese audience going crazy for Skinny Lister was incredible, and a moment we won’t forget in a hurry.

On that same note, how does the typical Skinny Lister crowd or show in the US compare to shows on your native side of the Atlantic?

A great Skinny show in the US would be surprisingly similar to a great UK Skinny show. Drunken merriment and a good old sing-along. Saying that, I don’t think we’ve ever had a circle pit in the UK like we had most days when we played the Vans Warped Tour. That was an eye opener!

In another time, Skinny Lister might get classified as a traditional folk band, but more and more lately, there’s a growing crossover crowd between the punk and folk crowds. What’s your take on why there’s so much overlap?

I still consider Skinny Lister to be first and foremost a folk band. Our sound comes from our roots playing in local folk clubs and singing at local shanty sessions. We still play the traditional English Morris tunes as part of the set, and also reference them in our original material. I think it’s more the attitude we deliver it with that is the punk element of Skinny Lister. I also think this aspect of the band was ramped up after we did 7 weeks on Vans Warped Tour, and then toured with Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphy’s. And yeah – we just toured with Chuck Ragan who’s travelled in the opposite direction to us – moving from the punk world more into the folk world – yet there is still plenty of punk in him and his audience.

Follow up #1 – Yet there are some newer British “indie-folk” bands or whatever we’re calling them now (Mumford & Sons, Noah & The Whale) that don’t really get much, if any traction, in the “punk” world. What do you think makes Skinny Lister so approachable for this community? Is it the booze? (I’m kidding, of course…or not).

It may be that our music is more based in traditional music? Mumfords may have had acoustic guitars and banjos (before they went electric) but the core of the sound was not a traditional folk sound, it was more pop. Same with Noah and The Whale. The booze and the general attitude of Skinny Lister probably also has something to do with it.

In spite of being a comparatively “young band,” at least in the States, you guys have hit the road in direct support for a lot of heavy hitters, whether it be acts like Flogging Molly or Dropkick Murphys or Chuck Ragan. Is there a particular tour partner you’ve gotten the most out of being out there with, or do you take something from all of them?

We definitely take something from all of these great bands. We’ve loved playing with them all and feel honoured to have had the opportunity. It’s inspiring to see these guys on the road connecting with so many people. It’s sometimes daunting to stand there between the audience and the headline act who they’ve paid to see, but we’ve generally managed to win a lot of fans over and made a lot of new friends.

Once again, congratulations on Down on Deptford Broadway! Looking forward to catching up when you’re back in the Northeast!

Thank you and likewise!

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