The first time The Spooky Men’s Chorale played at Wickham Festival exactly 10 years ago, they were on before prog-rock titans Jethro Tull.
Spookmeister-in-chief Stephen Taberner laughs at the memory: ‘That was a pretty funny gig. The audience was pretty much there to see them so it was a tent full of Jethro Tull fans, which is an interesting subsection of the population.’
The Australian-based 16-strong group has made a name for itself with its quirky covers and interesting choice of headwear, but is also capable of surprisingly tender moments too.
In recent years they’ve slipped in to the habit of touring here every other year – packing in 30 shows over the summer, including a Friday performance at this year’s Wickham, alongside Seth Lakeman and Show of Hands. Other days include KT Tunstall, The Levellers, Lau and many more.
‘We’ve never had a tour that’s gone so well,’ says Stephen. ‘It’s partly like an invasion – we’re like an army, it’s all about the logistics, you’ve got to have people who are good in their roles and keep good morale among the troops.’
While Stephen was the founder and mainstay, other Spookies come and go, because as Stephen puts it, ‘It’s mostly about people keeping the wreckage of their domestic lives together. It’s been 16 years now, we began on August 4, 2001. It wasn’t supposed to be the beginning of an epoch of ridiculous masculinity but it just happens – what can you do? You can’t fight it sometimes.’
We began on August 4, 2001. It wasn’t supposed to be the beginning of an epoch of ridiculous masculinity but it just happens – what can you do?Spookmeister-in-chief Stephen Taberner
The group’s most recent album was 2015’s Warm, and they’ve started work on its follow-up, but aren’t going to rush it.
‘This year we made a decision not to try to force a new album through. The material is becoming more contemplative, and we’re still enjoying doing the songs from Warm. We’ve got four or five new songs coming through, and we’re also pulling up some old songs we haven’t done in a long time and there’s a few experimental forays we’re doing this trip, so it’s a really big ask to come up with a new album every two years.
‘This year we’re just saying: “It’s cool, we’ve got enough songs to sing”.
The return to our shores also allows the main group to reunite with their UK-based offshoot, A Fistful of Spookies.‘They’re like the guys who get abandoned on the desert island and somehow maintain the culture,’ says Stephen. ‘It’s been amazing reconnecting with them this time, they’ve done so many gigs, they’re fresh and chirpy and really on top of the material we’ve been doing over in Australia on a national tour so everyone knows what they’re doing.
‘We’re in probably the best shape we’ve ever been in.’
And Stephen is noticing some interesting feedback.
‘I think the interesting thing is how the audience laugh a lot at the funny songs, but the ones they mention at the end of the show are always the beautiful songs. I think that speaks to the way human beings are wired for variety. We like to have a full human experience and explore our humanity, if you like.’
Off Blind Lane, Wickham