It somehow seems appropriate that when we speak, Pete Flood, percussionist and songwriter for one of Britain’s most innovative contemporary folk bands, Bellowhead, should have recently finished a collaboration with two of folk music’seminences grises, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. “A great buzz,” is Pete’s assessment of the experience. “It’s been one of the best parts of curating a show at the South Bank in celebration of the UK’s folk roots, and it involves playing a lot of the old stuff that leads up to the kind of music that we’re trying to create today.”
Having started at Dunannie at the age of five and remained at Bedales until he was 16, Pete’s exposure to music of every conceivable type was comprehensive and enduring. “It was a great environment to be in if you wanted to play music,” he acknowledges. “I played the violin and the piano and suddenly, at the age of eight, I was seized by a visceral desire to play the drums. Because I was so keen, the school arranged for a percussion teacher to be drafted in, which is how I came under the spell of Jack Richards. Jack didn’t say much, he was more of a doer, but he could play just about anything that you could imagine and a fair bit that you couldn’t. In one performance, I remember that he got me to pop a balloon as part of it! The basic lesson was that as a percussionist, you’re not in control of melody, but you have a duty to be a master of timbre.” It is, perhaps, no accident that Pete’s percussion range includes such eclectic instruments as the frying pan, glockenspiel, knives and forks, clockwork toys, megaphone scratching, stomp box, coal scuttle, party blowers, broomsticks, ratchet, Casio VL-tone, shakers and tambourine!
It was a great environment to be in if you wanted to play music
When Pete left Bedales for sixth form college, it was with a desire to study music, as well as to play it. “I hadn’t been able to do music GCSE at Bedales, so I couldn’t study it at A-Level either, which was incredibly frustrating,” he recalls. Undaunted, Pete took some time out, went to Los Angeles for a while and concluded that the city was already saturated with musicians. When he returned to the UK, it was to Goldsmiths, where he took a music A-Level within a year and pursued the subject with sufficient vigour to gain a first-class degree. “I was raring to go when I got to university and by the time I graduated, I started to think that music really was what I wanted to do with my life,” Pete reflects.
In the years between graduating and joining Bellowhead, Pete, by his own admission, “dabbled in a lot of esoteric stuff”. Working as a buyer in a record store, playing in Algerian bands, recording house music and doing some physical theatre work undoubtedly fit the esoteric label, but Pete was keen to distil his musical influences into a single focus. Enter Bellowhead, at the time a ten-piece band with an almost unclassifiable style, variously described as “electric folk”, “folk rock” or “folk punk”. “We’re definitely a bit anti-fashion,” says Pete, proudly. “In singing songs from the past, we focus on dramatisation, rather than self-dramatisation. You won’t find us singing about ex-girlfriends, for example! We play folk music as it seems to us it should be today, not by imagining how it might, or should have sounded years ago.”
Pursuing their independent path doesn’t seem to have cost Bellowhead much in the way of success. The band has released four albums, of which the third,Hedonism, is the highest selling independently released folk album of all time. “Our recording process is a stark one,” Pete observes. “We do it in as few takes as possible, which means that you sacrifice musical perfection for something that feels more like the stuff of life. It doesn’t give the music an intrinsic value, and I’ve no wish to sound self-righteous about it, but it feels right to us and perhaps separates us from our peers.”
There has been an undeniable explosion in English folk music over the past decade or so and it’s one of which Pete generally approves. “At its best, folk is unpretentious music played by unpretentious people,” he notes. “There was a time when English folk was quite a hard sell around the world, certainly by comparison with Celtic music. That has now changed completely, with the sole exception of the US, where Celtic music is still very much what people seem to want to hear. It’s a bit strange for me, since, although it doesn’t sound like it, I have two American parents and an American passport, but English folk just doesn’t seem to translate well over there.”
Bellowhead are by no means the only string to Pete’s professional bow these days. He describes himself as a percussionist/composer/teacher and accordingly, he is shoehorning in myriad other things alongside touring Bellowhead’s new album Broadside. As visiting lecturer at Kingston University, Pete is partly responsible for bringing along the new wave of innovative British musicians. “A lot of them want to play versions of the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” laughs Pete, “which is fine, but I try to convince them that they also have to keep their lecturers interested, who may be devoted to Cage and Stockhausen. I consciously try to keep away from heavy technique and talk about the aesthetic of music and the need to aim for virtuosity, if possible.”
Pete has also recently composed the incidental music for Pinocchio at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington. It is clear that film and theatre are areas where he has unfulfilled ambitions. “Oh, I’ve got quite a long check list of things that I’d like to accomplish,” he agrees. “Theatre, dance, film, some more classical stuff….basically, I love collaborating with other people. I want to continue my career in as many facets of music as possible. I find all of it to be such a pleasure and with any luck, I’ll still be playing music when I’m 80.”
And still marching to the beat of his own drum.
Pete Flood was interviewed by James Fairweather in February 2013.