Since emerging from the Blue Mountains of Australia 18 years ago, armed only with their voices, a fine selection of hats some original songs and their idiosyncratic cover versions, The Spooky Men’s Chorale have become an enduring international phenomenon.
Led by spookmeister general Stephen Taberner, they are currently on a UK and Germany tour which sees them cramming 28 concert and festival dates into five weeks – including their Isle of Wight debut at Rhythmtree Festival and a return to a regular haunt – Wickham Festival.
The choir, self-described as ‘a vast, rumbling, steam powered and black clad behemoth, seemingly accidentally capable of rendering audiences moist eyed with mute appreciation or haplessly gurgling with merriment,’ released their seventh album, Welcome to The Second Half last week.
The Guide caught up with Stephen earlier this week as they were five days into the campaign, which started in the tiny Scottish village of Torphichen before moving into more conventional locations in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
‘We’re just testing out our jokes on the Scots,’ deadpans Stephen. ‘They’re coping.’
So why Torphichen? ‘It’s a place with a lovely wee kirk and we’ve played there a couple of times. They’ve got quite a strong tradition of supporting the arts, and I knew some people there and asked them if we could have our secret training camp there at the start of the tour. It’s better for us to start in a little place and align the forces and get our stories straight...’
Give or take, there are 15 spookies on stage, and they’ve also acquired a few indigenous types who stay here in the UK and perform as a Fistful of Spookies when the rest of the choir returns to Australia.
‘By the time we get down south, there will be four or five English spooky men – we pick up a bit of the local wildlife and they become part of our menagerie.’
The new album’s title track has actually been part of their set for a while now, when they would use it to literally start the second half of their shows.
‘Yeah, we’ve been doing that one for a few years. We released our last album (Warm) in 2015, and it was quite soon after that we started singing the song, but there is the double meaning.
‘It’s nice to take some motivation from acknowledging what’s actually happening: “We’ve got another song, here’s what’s happening, we’re up here in the light, you’re down there in the dark”, and it’s nice to speak from a position of truth about exactly what’s happening, so it begins, “Welcome to the second half, it won’t be like the first half”.
‘It doesn’t take long before one senses the opportunity for some double meanings in terms of it being the second halves of our lives, and there’s lots of jokes around that, and it gets quite reflective. It’s an experiment and I think it’s working where we’re being foolish, then whimsical, then quite contemplative and inviting the audience to move there with us.’
And Stephen says that songs like this are a better reflection of where they’re at today, rather than the more ‘obviously frivolous’ songs of their early days,
‘We’re possibly less attracted to that now than we are to the stuff that’s more resonant and contemplative.
‘That said, we haven’t given up being absolutely ridiculous.’
On that note, one of the new songs is Rhapsody in Bluegrass – their, as the name suggests, take on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, in a vocal bluegrass style.
‘There’s a big festival in Australia called the National Folk Festival and it’s our glorious ordeal every couple of years, when we’re invited to it, to be in a competition to do a cover version of someone’s song.
‘It’s a really nice challenge, and this year the subject was glam rock. I don’t know if you’ll agree with this sentiment, but as far as I’m concerned the costumes in glam rock are a lot better than the songs. So we ended up returning to Queen – we’ve done a Queen song before.
‘If you’re doing a parody, it’s interesting because you end up stripping the song back to its basics and if the song hasn’t got much going for it, you’re really up against it.
‘When we did Dancing Queen for example, it’s actually a really good song – you take the style and the genre out, it’s a great song – same with Bohemian Rhapsody, regardless of where and when it was made.
‘We’re not really singing the song, we’re using it as the basis of a fantasia, but a good song is inspiring to work with.
‘I’ve heard straight bluegrass covers of it and to me that’s not particularly exciting. We wanted to be a little more surprising.’
At Rhythmtree, they’re playing on Saturday, July 13, the same day as Saving Grace, the new project from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant.
‘Ah yeah!’ says Stephen as we talk about their island debut. ‘There was some talk of us doing a Led Zeppelin flashmob, we’ll see what we can do. I don’t know if that’s going to work, but that’s the talk…’
At the other end of the itinerary, the tour’s penultimate date is at Wickham Festival on Friday, August 2. It will be their sixth time there.
‘The first time we did that was supporting Jethro Tull,’ he recalls with a laugh. ‘Wickham’s a bit of a regular one for us so it will be good to be back there.’
The choir try to tour here every two years, which given the numbers involved, can prove challenging. As Stephen puts it: ‘The guys have got to hold together the shattered portions of their domestic lives as best as they can, so we have to see if the demands we continue to make are doable.’
Given the effort involved, it’s why they cram in as many shows as possible. So what's life on the Spookies tour bus?
‘There’s a lot of snoozing, a lot of cheese and a little bit of whisky, but the good thing is that the schedule mostly doesn’t involve long drives or onerous soundchecks because we don’t have instruments.’
And by the end? ‘It’s a combination of elation and complete exhaustion. It’s fantastically, enjoyably, brutal.’
Rhythmtree Festival takes place in Calbourne on the Isle of Wight from July 12-14, featuring Saving Grace, The Orb, Alabama 3, Cast and many more. Adult day tickets from £35-40, weekend tickets £100. Go to rhythmtree.co.uk.