10,000 Maniacs pay tribute to British folk influences on new disc - The Buffalo News
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10,000 Maniacs pay tribute to British folk influences on new disc

The 10,000 Maniacs might not be the first band that comes to mind when you contemplate traditional English folk music, but from the group’s beginnings in the early 1980s, British collectives like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span and artists like Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and Richard Thompson had an immense influence on the group that would become one of our region’s most successful exports in the late 1980s to mid-’90s.

You can hear it in the group’s earliest works such as “Human Conflict #5,” “Secrets of the I-Ching” and “The Wishing Chair,” records crafted largely in Fredonia and Jamestown when co-founder John Lombardo and vocalist Natalie Merchant were still in the house. And you can certainly hear it all over the new 10,000 Maniacs collection “Twice Told Tales,” an album dedicated to the interpretation of traditional British folk songs, all of them granted the immaculate jangle and gorgeous vocal/musical arrangements that have informed every Maniacs effort for the last 30 years.

The band will celebrate the release of “Twice Told Tales” – an album funded in part by fan pledges accrued through PledgeMusic.com – with a performance at 8 p.m. Friday in Buffalo Iron Works (49 Illinois St.). During the show, the new material will share space with storied Maniacs classics from albums like “In My Tribe,” “Blind Man’s Zoo” and “Love Amongst the Ruins,” as well as what singer and violin/viola player Mary Ramsey calls “interesting covers and other surprises.”

A love of folk

Ramsey, who joined the band following Merchant’s departure after several evergreen recordings with Lombardo as John & Mary and helped steer it through what could have been a very rocky lineup change, said that the impetus for “Twice Told Tales” came from Irish singer Christy Moore’s version of “The Wandering Aengus,” for which the late Moore set a poem by William Butler Yeats to her own composition. “We started to stick my own version of that into our sets, usually right after something really loud and upbeat,” she said. “And people really reacted to it in a positive way.”

Perhaps the roots of the project can be traced further back, to the classically trained Ramsey’s childhood, when her parents played her a Library of Congress Folk Music Collection featuring the likes of Ian & Sylvia, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger & the Weavers. “My parents didn’t have all that many records, but they had that one,” Ramsey recalled. “And that record gave me an education in folk music, while at the same time turning me on to the tune ‘Greenwood Sidey,’ which we recorded for this album. I’d always wanted to do that song.”

Much of Ramsey’s additional folk education came via Lombardo. When the two would travel together on tour as John & Mary – sometimes opening for the then-Merchant-fronted 10,000 Maniacs – Lombardo would share his knowledge of folk and folk-rock history with her.

“John has an encyclopedic knowledge of this music, and he would play me these mix tapes he made of all of these incredible artists,” she said. “His love for the music, and his understanding of it, filled in so many holes in my education.”

It made sense, then, that once Ramsey and fellow Maniacs Steven Gustafson, Dennis Drew and Jerry Augustyniak settled on the idea of recording an album of exclusively British folk tunes, they asked Lombardo to return to the band. “Once we decided to do this, it just seemed natural that we’d ask him, and that his knowledge and his ideas would go a long way toward shaping our approach.”

Gustafson also credits Lombardo with turning him on to the essence of English folk and folk-rock.

“As a young 20-something, I was rooted mostly in Neil Young, the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley and knew very little about contemporary English folk music until John Lombardo said, ‘You should hear this.’ ” Gustafson said. “I liked Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny at first listen. Nick Drake was a fabulous songwriter. All his stuff is wonderful. Great coming down music, all of it.”

Making traditional English folk songs sound like a genuine 10,000 Maniacs album surely didn’t happen without an awful lot of fine-tuning and arranging. Or did it?

“To be honest, once we whittled down the songs we wanted to do, some of which John and I had done in the past, and some that none of us had ever played, it all came together without forcing it,” Ramsey said. “It just happened so naturally, and every musician brought their own piece of the puzzle to the arrangements, that the music just sort of became our own music, all on its own.”

Recording locally with Armand John Petri in Silver Creek and at Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studio outside Fredonia added a “relaxed, organic and pastoral feel to the music,” Ramsey said.

“I think that doing this away from the pressure to get a ‘hit,’ or to make this music fit some sort of commercial mode, allowed us to do what the music really demanded, which was allow the voice to sell the song’s story in a stripped-down manner, with the music moving under the voice, acting as moving waves that keep the whole thing afloat,” Ramsey added.

British influences

The English always have had a soft spot for the Maniacs from the moment legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel expressed his admiration. The group even worked with prominent producers associated with English folk including Joe Boyd and Peter Asher. Was “Twice Told Tales” designed as a thank-you note to the group’s British fan contingent?

“I don’t think we started out wanting to be a folk band and I don’t think we really are a folk band. In the beginning, we just wanted to be good,” Gustafson said. “The English folk thing was mostly John’s influence, through his songwriting in the band. We wanted to work with Joe Boyd, and he was a big influence on our young musical chops. We recorded ‘The Wishing Chair’ in England in 1985, and lived there for five months. It made us all Anglophiles. Joe Boyd was an American living in London and Peter Asher was a Brit living in Los Angeles. Our A&R man, manager and half our road crew were Englishmen working in America. We couldn’t escape the U.K.”

But in essence, Ramsey said, the album was born “purely from our love of this music, and our belief that we could play it in a way that made it our own.”

Socially relevant

The band has not been reticent to invoke the power of social media, particularly when it came to crowdsourcing the creation of “Twice Told Tales.” Without major label funding, the costs associated with hiring talented producers and booking studio time in elite locations can be more than daunting. The band worked through PledgeMusic.com for the second time while crafting the new album, and found the experience rewarding on two levels – both in terms of generating funds, and interacting with its audience.

“We have very dedicated fans around the world and Pledgemusic.com got us all together in one place,” said Gustafson, who calls himself the band’s “Social Media Czar.”

“A band needs to be very good at social media to succeed at crowdfunding. For young bands today, that’s easy, because they live in social media. It used to be for us that a hard drive was an overnighter from D.C. to Atlanta. Our computer was a briefcase full of pieces of paper with phone numbers scribbled on them.”

Things have changed. Because – well, because they had to.

“The idea of pledge music is involving your core fans in the process of your work by letting them watch you work through video updates,” Gustafson said. “I did 40-plus updates for the ‘Twice Told Tales’ pledge, basically giving the viewer a seat at the table. They saw clips of us rehearsing arrangements, meeting with the producer discussing each song, recording basic tracks and overdubs, mixing, listening back, and popping champagne when we finished. Pledgers got to hear early rehearsal tracks grow into the songs they became. The über fans love that stuff.”

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

WHO: 10,000 Maniacs // WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday // WHERE: Buffalo Iron Works, 49 Illinois St. // TICKETS: $40 // INFO: buffaloironworks.com

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