Sam Sweeney chats about 'Made In The Great War'

Sam Sweeney , he of Bellowhead, Sweeney & James, The Full English, The Hurricane Party and The Remnant Kings and now finally fronting his own project. Without question one of the folk music's most in demand musicians, has just started a month long tour with his new show - a multimedia experience which recounts and brings to life the intriguing tale of a violin he bought six years ago in Oxford. Originally made but left unfinished by luthier and part time music hall performer Richard S Howard, who found himself called upon to do his duty for King and country and whose sad death in the Great War left the instrument unfinished. Over ninety years later, the carved pieces, one bearing the '1915' label inside, was found and finished by Oxford luthier Roger Claridge and put up for sale. It just so happened that our Mr Sweeney happened to be passing his shop and…well, the rest is about to become history.

The first thing we wanted to ask was about how, having researched and discovered the full story of the fiddle, did things progress from being an interesting story to the musical concept he's created? Sam explained: "I was lucky enough to be awarded a small creative bursary from EFDSS which was supposed to give me the opportunity to do something outside of my comfort zone. Neil Pearson from EFDSS asked me if I had anything interested brewing and I told him about this amazing violin I owned. I had been sitting on the story for years but it had never been anything more than something I told people at the pub! This bursary meant I could team up with my favourite story writer and teller, Hugh Lupton, to weave the facts we'd discovered into a story. It was supposed to be for one gig only, but then I met Terry O'Brien (the agent for the project) backstage in a London venue. She thought the story was simply too good not to tell to the whole country. Eighteen months later we have a twenty one date tour, a great show and an album!"

Apart from himself and Hugh, Sam has called up a couple of regular partners in crime in Paul Sartin and Rob Harbron to work on the project him. Rather than be a case of 'better the devil you know', hey obviously have a strong musical bond. "Rob has long been, and continues to be, my favourite musician. I know that if I work with Rob on something, it will be brilliant. He's a phenomenal player and composer so going into a new scary project like this, I had to have Rob with me. A few months later as the music for the show started to develop, it became clear we'd need Paul. He has the voice to pull off some of the music hall numbers in the show and his oboe playing really adds to the ensemble. A dream team really!"

Sam is also well known for playing quite a wide range of instruments, including the famous nyckelharpa which made an appearance in The Full English project and even playing drums for support artist Neil McSweeney on a recent Bellowhead tour. Apart from asking what he's going to be playing in this particular show, we wondered if he had a natural gift for being able to pick up and play any particular instrument. "I can't play any woodwind, brass or keyboard instrument. The only instrument I can actually play well (I hope!) is the fiddle. The other things I dabble on are just things I've collected over the last ten years or so. The problem is, people keep asking me to play instruments I'm not very good at in their bands! It's great fun, but sometimes I do think to myself, "Really?!" I'm only playing the violin and viola in this show! It's quite refreshing not to have thousands of instruments with me. Anyway, there's no room in the van with the huge amount of set we are carrying!"

What's also interesting about the 'Made in The Great War project is that for onec, Sam Sweeney is the name which is at the forefront. Going from being part of a band to being the lead name, Sam said: "It is scary. It has been the most difficult thing I've ever done. I have been working on this show for eighteen months and it has completely consumed me, but I have to admit, I'm really looking forward to playing in other people's bands again and shrinking back into the shadows for a few months. It does feel great to be acknowledged on all the programmes and posters, but at the same time, we're all in it together. Hugh plays a bigger role in the show than any of us, and without Richard Howard none of us would be here, so when you think of it like that, the pressure isn't really on at all!"

As far as the show itself is concerned, he went on to explain the ideas behind the staging and how the show would look and sound. Having done the Full English gigs last year to showcase the Full English archive and recordings, there seemed to be an element of that experience which had rubbed off. "The first half of the show lasts about 35 minutes and basically sets up the second half (the main event) with bits of song, music and spoken word that all contributed to the shaping of the story. It covers all the material that we came across in researching and developing the show, but we couldn't fit it into the story. It's great because we get to set the scene both musically and thematically for the audience before they hear the emotional roller coaster of the second half. Then we have an interval and come back for the story that people have come to see. I won't give too much away, but there is beautiful set designed by Emma Thompson, great music (newly composed and traditional) from Paul, Rob and myself, some projected films and the best story teller in the world. It'll be a night to remember!"

The album has just been released and the tour is already well underway and receiving rave reviews, but Sam had a word of warning: I really want people to see the how before they listen to the album because the CD is basically like watching the show blindfolded. It's basically the same as what you'll hear on the night, and the story will ruined if you hear it before you see it. People are free to do as they wish, but I seriously recommend not spoiling the end of the story for yourselves before seeing it in the flesh!

Aside from all the recent activity, Sam has also just completed the Leveret album as well. After a busy end to 2014 with the Bellowhead tour and some more Full English dates, what would 2015 hold for all the music with which he's involved? "It's an odd year for me because I'm not playing with Hannah James anymore, there isn't a Remnant Kings tour, and there's no Hurricane Party in the Spring. A lot of the things I normally do just aren't happening. Leveret will be launching the debut album early 2015, and I'm so incredibly proud of it! Then some more Full English, more Bellowhead and who knows, perhaps some time off to develop another show!"

Mike Ainscoe
Photocredit Elly Lucas

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