'Wickham Festival 2021, here we come... at long last!' | Big Interview
March 2020, Cole Stacey and Joseph O’Keefe – the folk duo India Electric Company – are on tour in their ‘other’ job, as part of Midge Ure’s backing band.
And they couldn't be further from home – they’ve just finished in New Zealand and are now playing dates in Australia.
The Guide speaks with Cole while they are in Brisbane, across a 10 hour time difference, to talk about their then forthcoming album, The Gap, and to preview a UK tour which never ultimately happens. ‘Coronavirus’ was still a new word to all of us, and it is just starting to have an impact on the entertainment business.
As Cole says: ‘We're supposed to playing in Dubai on the way back and now that's been pulled, there's all sorts of rumours doing the rounds, but we're just holding our breath. It's pretty crazy…’
Some 17 months later we’re speaking again, with IEC due to play at Wickham Festival this weekend. This time he is safely esconced near Crewkerne in Somerset, with his musical partner Joe ‘down the road’ in Exeter.
‘It feels like the start of a movie and the end of a movie,’ says Cole looking back on that Australian tour and now. ‘The pandemic was just starting.
‘It chased us around in Australia and we nearly got stuck on the way back.
‘We spent 36 hours in Dubai airport and then we came back and the next day Britain went into lockdown, so we were pretty lucky really. It's just been bizarre.’
While the pair were unable to tour their second album, Cole is not one to dwell on the negatives.
'I do count myself as fortunate –I've got a roof over my head, and I've got my health. And in a funny sort of way, we've been able to do things that we hadn't been able to do before.
‘It was catastrophic, but at the same time, we've been able to write more songs than we've ever written, we've practised more things – all those things you can't do when you're on the road.
‘I think there’s this perception that you should always be on the move, and that had been the case for the last few years, but actually, time just standing still's probably been very good from a creative point of view, and certainly from a writing point of view and trying out new production ideas, and being able to stop and listen to what other people are doing, is invaluable.
‘We may as well take the positives from it, it's almost too easy to see the negatives.’
While the pair ostensibly operate in the folk world, they draw on influences from across the globe – whether it’s incorporating Afro-Cuban Bembe rhythms, Irish reels, or being inspired by the writing of activist and poet Sarojini Naidu, ‘the nightingale of India.’
Their track Five Senses draws on Naidu's work The Golden Threshold.
‘We wanted to draw influences of those street scenes in India 100 years ago, and street scenes in London today, and how it hasn't really changed. We like that blending of the cultures and the different traditions.
‘We live in funny times where it feels like there's lots of barriers and walls between us, but there's so much in the narratives, in the continents and countries and times gone by that is the same.’
Speaking last March, Cole explained their musical outlook: ‘The album as a whole, as always with us, we try to draw on our own explorations, touring and travelling.
‘We both spent some time studying and travelling in parts of Asia and America, not as long as we'd like, but it does feel like we live a life on the road and in transience.
‘We're very lucky, it's kind of the amazing part we never appreciated about being musicians that you get to travel around and get inspired – if you just open your eyes and ears you can learn so much while you're away.
‘We're still very much in the stage where it's one big learning curve and we’re trying to be sponges and absorb as many different musical ideas as we possibly can. It's really exciting to try and put that into what we create musically.’
During lockdown vocalist Cole and multi-instrumentalist Joe hit a rich seam of ideas and songwriting, putting out three collections via the online platform Bandcamp – but each one was only available for a day.
They also released a cover of Chris Isaak’s classic Wicked Game, giving it their own distinctive twist.
‘It was similar to the trilogy of EPs we did a few years ago,’ explains Cole, ‘a way of taking your audience with you on a journey and trying some new ideas you wouldn't necessarily put out on an album.
‘What it enabled us to do was move forward and work with different production techniques.
‘We've introduced certain Moog synthesisers. I don't know if Midge knows we've still got his synthesisers, but we've got two of them kicking around. He might be a bit surprised on the next tour when the folk band turns up with more synths than him!
‘Joe's been really getting into that, and we've worked with a couple of drummers, and just expanded the sound a bit more and explored new ideas.’
While unable to physically travel, they’ve broadened their listening habits, taking in everything from popstar du jour Billy Eilish to German classical/electronic composer Nils Frahm.
‘It's been really good for broadening our horizons.’
While they’re sticking with the duo format for now, there’s potential add to their line-up in future.
‘Certainly for the next album, it will be a bigger sound, just because of the techniques we're using.
‘It's one of those things, certainly with festivals and the bigger stages we're playing on, it's us trying to do the songs justice in our head and enable that kind of connection with using a lot of different rhythms that we've built some of the songs on.
‘We’re lucky, we know so many amazing musicians and it's fun to potentially have some drums on board and have a bit of bass from the Moog synthesisers... it's something we're definitely exploring.’
And it seems working with Midge – the former Visage and Ultravox frontman – has rubbed off on them.
‘I think that's stemmed from working with Midge in a band format, having the four of us out there and playing massive shows. When you walk out at the Palladium, you can't really be shrinking violets – you need a good old sound.
‘We have a good time with Midge and the collaboration's being going on for five years now, it's great. We love it whether we're playing to 3,000 people with Midge, or 30 people in a folk club, and that's the gift we've been given, to play in so many places to so many different people, and you can't get away from how much you learn from doing that.’
Friday’s slot on the main stage at Wickham is the start of a busy weekend for the boys – the next day's back with Midge at the ’80s festival Let’s Rock in Shrewsbury, before their own headline show at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford on Sunday.
‘I'm going to need another year off after this!’ jokes Cole.
Wickham Festival opens today and runs until Sunday. Full weekend tickets £200 for adults, day tickets from £45. NHS staff are half price. Children under 10 free. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.
A message from the editor, Mark Waldron.
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