Ben the Hoose is the award-winning duo featuring fiddler Kenny Ritch from the Orkney Isles and songwriter-guitarist Bob McNeill from Glasgow based here in New Zealand, albeit in different cities. Their music is a spirited interpretation of the dance mu-sic of Scotland; uniquely rhythmic and energetic, they embody the modern Scots tradition. I asked them a few questions by email.
Scottish fiddling is the new gravy on the potatoes of Celtic music. John McCusker is all over and under everything that comes out these days. Is this a good bandwagon to be on? Do you think there is a Renaissance in Scottish music?
Bob: Yes I suppose so. I think the Scottish music world is in a very healthy state. In the last few years I think there’s been a real revival of what I see as the spirit of the music, in contrast to the tendancy for some of the drier institutions to view it a bit academically. There are so many young ones playing now, it’s fantastic. And so much diversity.
Kenny: I’d say that Scottish fiddling has been gravy for a very long time and by that I mean very nice, slightly peppery gravy with no lumps. Being on the Scottish music “bandwagon” is a great thing and Bob and I both know how lucky we are to have grown up with it. A renaissance in Scottish traditional music has been going on for years now. Blazin’ Fiddles injected a lot of life into the scene back in 1998 and it really opened the eyes and ears of young folk all around Scotland who perhaps didn’t appreciate the music they had at their fingertips. Since then young Celtic bands have been appearing all over Scotland.
Do you prefer the guitar for accompaniment rather than the cittern/bouzouki or, for that matter, the piano? Bob, what instruments are you currently playing?
Bob: I like both guitar and piano for accompaniment. It’s not the instrument, it’s the person playing it! Generally, I like far more guitar backers than piano backers. I’m not a huge fan of the “vamp” style on any instrument, especially piano, so I’ll leave that alone, thanks. I also really don’t like the modern splashy right hand style they have in Cape Breton. Kenny and I found early on that guitar worked much better for us in Ben the Hoose, to the extent that I don’t play bouzouki at all in the band now. I wish my piano playing was better!
Kenny: I’ve always loved hearing piano and fiddle together. My Granny, when she was alive, was a lovely pianist and she used to play with me at competitions when I was living at home in Orkney. When Bob and I started playing together, Bob played as much bouzouki as he did guitar. It didn’t take us long though to realise that the sound we were after only came out when he played guitar. Yes, I obviously love the guitar (how could I say otherwise?) but a tune with a great piano player is a magical thing too.
Who is inspiring Ben the Hoose?
Bob: Gavin Marwick, Jonny Hardie, The Iron Horse, Capercaillie (their early music especially), Cry Cry Cry, Richard Shindell, Mark Nevin. A big mix of people.
Kenny: Fiddlers Johnny Hardie and Gavin Marwick are two huge influences for me and the two albums they made together are unforgettable. As far as bands go I’d have to say Session A9 and The Iron Horse and the early Capercaillie stuff. Then there’s Alistair Fraser, Gordon Gunn, Eilidh Shaw, Jennifer Wrigley …
There's a fair bit of kudos in winning the 2006 Folk Tui but is it helpful?
Bob: Well. We suppose it will be especially so when we go abroad (outside NZ) with the band. For us I guess it came across as a sort of vote of confidence in what we were doing – that a Scottish album (albiet with some New Zealand flavour to it) could win in NZ.
Kenny: Winning the Tui was a great thing for us and has certainly helped to boost album sales. Bob and I didn’t set out to win an award with the album – it was just a good way of solidifying a lot of the music we had in our heads – but getting recognition for it is always appreciated.
How do Orkney fiddle styles and arrangements differ from Scottish?
Bob: Orkney has theoretically been Scottish since 1472. However, its culture and by entension music, seems to have remained quite unique until fairly recently. Kenny’s the expert here, but I hear a lot of north east fiddle style in Orkney music now – all the regions in Scotland have borrowed, expecially recently, from all the others – Bands like Blazin’ Fiddles, Session A9 and Fiddler’s Bid, all of which have lots of fiddlers, have encouraged this
Kenny: It’s hard to say if there’s any difference at all. Perhaps 100 years ago you could have drawn a distinction, but not now – there’s just too much blending of influences. That said, I’m sure if you asked a Scottish mainland player about Orkney fiddle playing they’d swear it was fuelled solely by beer and single malt. Who am I to argue?
Bob, your original songs are particularly well crafted and evocative of the bleaker bits of Scotland and its history. There seems to be a very methodical approach to you songwriting, is this so? Who is covering your material?
Bob: Thank you! But that’s really only one aspect of my writing. I’m not a historical writer at all in fact – just that, when I started writing songs, I found that type of song easier to write. Most of the stuff I’ve written in the last three years has been contemporary, about modern themes.
I can’t do what somebody like James Keelaghan can do with real stories. (By the way, the Scotsman newspaper described him as the “Master of Disaster” - brilliant).
I think when you’re talking about songwriting you can get very technical about some-thing that really isn’t – there’s a particular evocation of sound and melody that I’m going for, every time, to frame the words and the way the character is saying them. The lyrics, phrasing, singing style, guitar style, chord shapes and tuning are all textures that, if you get it all right, will make the listener hear what you heard, when you wrote the song. Great songwriters make you feel what the character feels, not what the songwriter feels, I guess. That’s what you aspire to.
Who’s covering me? I don’t actually know, a lot of the time. But I do know that people are. I get emails asking for backstory and lyrics etc, the two most recent ones from Ireland and Germany, and I do get the (small) cheques, too, so I know people do actually do them and report it, bless them. I don’t Google myself much. Should I?
Explain the cuisine component of the full Ben the Hoose experience.
Bob: Difficult. I refer the interested reader to The Playboy Gourmet Cookbook by Thomas Mario. There you will discover a world of cuisine, elegance and class that I personally found hugely appealing. It may be a strange thing to say, however, in my opinion at the time, this was what was missing from Scottish music.
Kenny: When Bob and I started playing together in mid-2005 we quickly realised that we both have a bit of a passion for good home-cooked food. We did a wee workshop at the Dunedin Celtic Arts Festival that same year that involved us playing tunes and yapping while cooking steak (with a particular tasty red wine sauce). We did plan on putting recipes on our album sleeve but it never happened. Anytime we’re together having a tune, mince and tatties, bacon sandwiches or steak feature high up on the meal list. Music and good food is a killer combination.
Rumours of Bob's imminent departure from these shores would appear to put the duo into recess - or is it something that can be maintained and developed despite the 'tyranny of distance'? Does Ben the Hoose intend to do some international touring? Does Ben the Hoose aspire to being an internationally recognised unit?
Bob: Yes. Yes. Yes.
I wouldn’t think that if either of us were to return to Scotland it would make all that much difference to Ben the Hoose’s modus operandi. We tend to do gigs in bunches anyway, and living in different cities, we have to do a fair bit of planning ahead. Currently gigs have to pay a certain amount before they’re feasible – that’ll just get more pronounced. We’ll just do fewer gigs, but bigger ones. Longer term, having one of us in Scotland, for example, would be a big advantage – there are a lot of festivals over there.
Kenny: Certainly Bob being in Scotland is a trickier situation than him being in Wellington but we intend to keep things going. We’re looking at the possibility of touring Scotland, Ireland and parts of Europe and having Bob based over there will make that easier.
Both of you being musicians AND working in computers must make you Super Geeks. How do you manage to communicate with your audiences?
Bob: For me, it’s the left brain – right brain thing. It may sound hackneyed, but it’s true. A good balance is to use both. I suppose that our core audience is from the Web generation as well, they’re our age anyway, but I hadn’t really thought about it like that… I’ve always regarded having a day job as fairly separate from what I do at night.
Kenny: By talking out of our mouths. In these days of email and text messages it’s quite a novel way of communicating, but it really does work. But, if that fails, the following computer code usually works:
10 Print “Hello, we’re Ben the Hoose”
20 Print “Here’s a set of Scottish tunes …”
30 GOTO 20