Alt-bluegrass stars The Dead South prepare to headline Portsmouth Guildhall BIG INTERVIEW
They're a Canadian band, playing their own spin on a genre of music which originated in the Appalachian mountains of the United States back in the first half of the 20th century.
And three albums in they have yet to trouble the charts on this side of the Atlantic.
Yet somehow alt-bluegrass band The Dead South have become a wildly popular, word-of-mouth success story in the UK with a massively devoted following.
Part of that is down to the viral online popularity of their video for In Hell I'll Be In Good Company – 172m plays on YouTube and still rising rapidly. But as anyone who’s seen them in the flesh can testify, they're also an incredible live act.
On consecutive tours here, the Regina, Saskatchewan-based four-piece have stepped up a level each time – two years ago they filled out The Wedgewood Rooms, then last year they sold out The Pyramids Centre.
And on their current tour, with several dates already sold out, they’re playing at Portsmouth Guildhall – which at the time of writing is also on course for a sell out.
The Guide caught up with vocalist and guitarist Nate Hilts while the band were on the road in Florida, while on tour across the US.
‘It’s been going really well, we did a whole Canadian leg, and then last month we did the west coast leg, and now we’re wrapping it all up. We’re definitely seeing a lot of growth, and in places we’ve never even been to before – like we sold out the room in Charleston (South Carolina) last night which was awesome. And Tampa (Florida) has sold out, we’re seeing some good movement, for sure.’
In October last year, the band released Sugar and Joy, which scored them their first number one album on the US Bluegrass chart.
It was also the first time the band had recorded away from home – they travelled down to renowned music hub Muscle Shoals in Alabama to work with famed producer Jimmy Nutt.
‘It was great,’ recalls Nate. ‘We rented this Airbnb which was just down the road from where we recorded, so we would go the studio and record all day, and then we’d go back to the Airbnb and write and hang out and jam all night, it was a great experience.
‘In the early days we would get together quite a bit and jam, but we’d write songs quite consistently, then we’d go in to the studio with more songs prepared.
‘This was definitely a different approach to it.’
The album’s 13 tracks are packed with slices of life from the wrong side of the tracks, all delivered in Nate’s gravelly, whiskey-soaked voice, and ably assisted vocally by his three brothers-in-arms.
Try and probe Nate for where he gets his ideas from though, and you don't get the sense of any deep, dark well of angst there.
‘A lot of them just come off the top of my head when I start writing,’ he says. ‘You just get a feeling and you kind of roll with it, and then you start having fun with moving stuff around, and seeing what works where.’
Back in 2015, banjo maestro Colton ‘Crawdaddy’ Crawford left the band, burnt by the rigours of touring, but he returned to the fold in 2018.
The Sugar and Joy song Crawdaddy Served Cold is essentially the band’s apology to him.
‘Yeah, he left the band for a little bit of time, and shortly after that, I ended up writing that,’ says Nate. ‘I had no intention of it being a Dead South song or anything, it was just something I was playing around with, but I showed it to the other guys and they loved it.’
What did Colton make of it when he first heard it?
‘He was such a sissy he cried and cried and cried.’ he laughs, and it immediately becomes clear Colton’s there in the background.
With the band a popular festival draw, it was inevitable they would end up at Glastonbury, and they made their debut there last June.
‘We played a couple of stages, I can’t remember which ones off the top of my head, but we had a great time there. It was like a desert, man, it was hot.
‘It was quite amazing the amount of people who come to that, and we were excited to go around and catch the Wu-Tang Clan on one stage, The Killers on another, and we went to see Idles – they were amazing.’
Closer to home, they played at Regina Folk Festival last August – its 50th anniversary, and an event close to the band’s hearts.
‘We did it once or twice before, but it was nice to go home and play a festival at home after a summer of awesome stuff. It was a good way to celebrate.’
And you got to sleep in your own bed afterwards?
‘That was the best part of it all!’ Nate chuckles.
Although the band has no drummer, they play with a ferocity and a swing that would put many a rock act to shame.
And great as the records are, it’s in the live arena that the band really makes sense.
‘There definitely is that difference,’ admits Nate.
Do they find it frustrating trying to capture the raw energy of their live shows? ‘I wouldn’t say frustrated, but there’s that curiosity thing.
‘You go in to the studio and you try to make it sound as good as you can and when you’re playing it live. But you're given a whole new energy by the people in the room when you’re playing live, and there’s this atmosphere that’s created – it’s quite different.’
With things going well for the guys, they have long been able to give up the day jobs – except cellist Danny Kenyon, who resumes work as a structural engineer in the band’s down time.
‘The rest of us do this full time, when we go home we tend to get stuff together and make it all work, but Danny’s happy to do his job – that’s what he does.’
With the new album to promote, the rest of 2020 will be spent largely on the road – but the band are careful to look after themselves these days.
‘We’re set up pretty much for three weeks on, three weeks off, that’s the regimen we’ve got set up now for all year long.
‘We’ll finish the year like that, then reassess touring after that and how we can make it manageable.’
And how do they feel about the growth they’ve achieved each time they come over here?
‘It’s amazing, seeing the growth like that. When you announce a show half a year ahead and then it sells out it’s pretty cool. it’s something we can’t even fathom.
‘We’re just one foot in front of the other kind of guys, so it’s all awesome...’
The Dead South are at Portsmouth Guildhall on February 26, doors 7pm. Tickets £26.93. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.