Wellerman hitmakers The Longest Johns bring their sea shanty style to Ports Fest
As practitioners of a fairly niche genre of music – sea shanties – The Longest Johns were already doing well within their field.
Three albums in, touring regularly, and firm festival favourites, the four piece were making a living from their music, singing a mixture of these traditional work songs about life at sea and their own originals.
But at the start of 2021, they got swept up in the first big internet craze of the year when Scottish postman Nathan Evans’ version of the standard, Wellerman, went viral on the TikTok social media site.
With a version of the song on their 2018 album, Between Wind and Water, the Bristol-based band suddenly found themselves starting to attract more attention than ever.
And now they are coming to play a show as part of this year’s Ports Fest – the new name for the Portsmouth Festivities – on July 2.
They were originally slated to perform at 2020’s festivities, which were pulled due to Covid. It's fair to say a lot’s changed for the band since then.
Over a Zoom call, band member Robbie Sattins looks back at the start of the year: ‘It was very interesting. Things got very, very serious, very suddenly.
‘We ended up getting a manager out of it because he was getting all these phonecalls from everyone in the music industry asking him: “Have you heard of sea shanties?” “Do you know any sea shanty bands?”
‘I think they were originally ringing him about Nathan Evans, and saying, “What do you know about him?” And he was directing people to us, saying: “No, the ones you want to get on are The Longest Johns”.
‘By that point, we were already living and breathing the stuff, so it came about at just the right time for us.’
So they were quick to capitalise on this newfound interest from the mainstream?
‘Oh yes! It's nice when people ask you what you do, and you can say: “I'm in a sea shanty band” and they won’t be confused, now they kind of know what we mean.
‘Then they immediately start singing Wellerman to you, and all of your emails start with an "Ahoy lads!” or something like that.
‘Don’t get me wrong, it's been great, but it is still a bit weird.’
The attention even drove their version of Wellerman into the top 40 singles chart, and it has been streamed on Spotify more than 35m times.
Although the song was already a regular part of their live sets, Robbie adds with a laugh: ‘We can never not sing it in the set again. It's going to be our Rembrandt's Friends theme song.
‘We still love the song. It just fits the pocket so well, it's got a great story, it's easy to remember, it's a very jovial sort of thing.
‘We’re not such a big fan of all the variations we keep hear popping up, selling various things...’
What about the dance remix of Wellerman that went to number one?
‘So far we've found it prudent to be aware of its existence,’ Robbie replies diplomatically, ‘but it is what it is! It's catchy, I'll give it that.’
Of course others have been quick off the mark to cash in on this ‘craze.’ Robbie asks if The Guide has heard Shaggy and Conor Maynard’s take on Drunken Sailor – renamed Early In the Morning? When we reply in the negative, he says: ‘Give that a look... it's, um, yeah. Intriguing.’
Your writer has since listened to it. It is horrible.
Have they had any contact with Evans?
‘We've had almost no interaction at all with him. We're keeping ourselves separate – it's not like: “We're not touching that with a barge pole”, just I think he's got a different plan for it all.
‘Our paths may cross at some point but we honestly haven't had any reason to get in touch.
‘I think there's been a couple of attempts to get us together – a couple of emails to our management, “Hey wouldn't it be great if you guys did this together...”
‘But the projects that were being suggested didn't really sit right with us.’
Earlier this year, the band put together a project that aimed to unite their fans in lockdown – The Wellerman Community Project. It attracted thousands of submissions, which were all stitched together in one video.
‘I think it was around the 6,500 mark in the end. We were trying to get an actual number down but people were sending videos with eight of them in it and things like that, so we were trying to figure out whether we count that as one or… We got a little lost.
‘It was a lot of editing time, but worth it in the end. We were really pleased with it.
‘Try giving decent airtime to 6,500 people in a two minute song – it's rather hard!’
Given there's a clue in its name, it was the communal aspect of the project that appealed to the group.
‘If you look around where you live, there's probably one or two sea shanty fans, and if you add the elements of the internet together and the way that works, you find out there are tonnes of people who like them, they're just not necessarily in the same place.
‘Using this format has been a great way to get all these people together and go: “Hey, that weird music you like – you're not alone! We think it's great as well”.’
The day before we speak the band have done a paid-for livestream concert specifically for their American fans. A first for them – they’ve yet to physically perform stateside.
‘Our US audience has been slowly growing for a while. I don't know if it's something to do with the way we went about building our internet presence over Covid times.
‘It’s since we started doing videos and streaming (during lockdown) – now it's a big portion of our fanbase. It's just a pity we can't get over there to make the most of it! We're looking forward to being able to make the most of what we've built up, we're just waiting for that time.’
Thanks to Spotify's analytical tools they even know exactly where they're most popular.
‘For some reason Chicago is our biggest city in America, we can't really figure out why, but we're dying to go there and check it out,’ he chuckles.
Perhaps the biggest long-term effect of the past few months’ frenzy is that they’ve been signed by a major label, Decca.
‘The band started in 2012, I've been here since 2015, but we've spent the last several years doing all our own work, all our own merchandise, marketing, booking shows – we've been a one-band record label for ourselves.
‘So now we're having to switch that responsibility over to people who really know what they're talking about, and do it big-scale.
‘The deal we've signed with Decca feels like it's very much in our favour.
‘In order to give away a certain amount of our creativity and control, it's a hard thing to come to terms with, but we thought it was worth taking a gamble on.
‘All the things like live agencies, we were horrible at booking our own live shows, so that's really nice to be able to go: "You take that!”
‘They're really happy with all our creative input, there's no vetoing anything.’
Although their last album, Cures What Ails Ya, was only released last June, the band have nearly completed a new album, recorded at Peter Gabriel's famed Real World Studios near Bath.
‘It's coming along very well, we're in the final stages, we're getting some mixing done. It's very tempting to add creaks and boat sound effects on to everything, but we're drawing that back in...
‘It's been really fun, we've been in the studio for the last two weeks with our producer and engineer and got everything done.
‘It's the first time we've not had to rush an album in a couple of days – in/out, quickly, quickly, money, money money!’
They have yet to decide on when the new album will be released.
‘We haven't had any opportunity to tour the last one yet – the livestream gig we did last night was the first time half of those songs have seen daylight.‘We're in a weird place where we're thinking, do we sack off that album and just concentrate on the new album..?
‘Throughout the pandemic people have been making tonnes of music – it's not like music has stopped, you just can't do it live.’
The Longest Johns at Portsmouth Grammar School, High Street, Portsmouth on Friday, July 2, from 7-10pm. Support comes from Chris Ricketts and Gary Blakely. Tickets £10, £8 concessions.
Ports Fest, the city’s annual celebration of the arts is running a reduced three-day programme in 2021. Other events include talks by Michael Rosen, Will Self, and Michaela Strachan, open-air theatre, asrt exhibitions and screenings.
For more information and tickets go to portsfest.co.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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