From Bridgend in south Wales, via Brittany and Borneo, it’s been a busy couple of decades for Jamie Smith’s Mabon.
The self-described ‘InterCeltic’ act have been peddling their infectious brand of folk for 20 years, and they’re returning to Hampshire as part of the anniversary tour.
To mark the anniversary the band have put out a live album simply titled Twenty, recorded across 10 shows earlier this year.
Band leader Jamie tells the Guide: ‘To be honest, studio albums are always good, but everyone who knows the band knows this sort of music – trad music, celtic-infused music – is best experienced live, and I think a lot of people would agree with that.
‘The great thing with this album is that we’ve really managed to capture the energy of the band in full-swing, live.
‘Sometimes we find ourselves doing quite big gigs of a thousand plus, but then a couple of the gigs were 100 or so people in village halls, and the atmosphere in those is as good, if not better sometimes.
‘We spent a long time listening to everything which was an interesting educational experience, learning about what the band gets up to live! We did a live album about 10 years ago, but that was a straight-up one gig affair, so this was a nice way to do it this time.’
And they ended up with the rather nice problem of being unable to whittle it down to just nine or 10 tracks – they finally settled on 12.
‘Some [song] choices were straightforward, some took a bit more to-ing and fro-ing. When it was hard, it was mainly because they were so similar, which is kind of good, because it shows the band is a well-oiled machine.
‘With it being a live album, and with it being about celebrating 20 years of the band, we thought it was a good enough excuse to pile more music on.’
From serving their musical apprenticeship over several years at Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany, the band have gone on to play across the world. ‘One of the things that’s been great about being in this band is the variety of experiences, the variety of types of concerts we’ve ended up doing, from big concerts down to very small intimate concerts. You get to travel, we’ve been to places we never thought we’d play - some are places you might go again, some of them are one-offs, like a few years ago we played at the Rainforest World Music festival in Borneo.
‘When you look back at that, you think, I can say I’ve done quite well there. Things that seem obvious to me now – like playing Celtic Connections, or Cambridge Folk Festival, it’s still like when we get a booking at one of those, it’s oh yeah, brilliant. When we started the band, it was how can we ever get a gig there? Your perspective shifts over time.
‘The idea is that you have to keep pushing, what’s the next target? Right, main stage at Glastonbury…
‘We do like going to Europe as well, we love going to Lorient in Brittany, that’s always been very important festival for us – it’s one of the biggest celtic festivals in the world. It’s always had a special attachment for us - it’s the first place we had a jam as a band with the original line-up. Myself, my dad on guitar, Iolo – our drummer, and Iolo’s brother, and we ended playing together informally. From the back of that, we thought: “That was good, maybe we should start a band?”
‘We worked really hard there, they had a sort of fringe at all of the bars and we’d play six/seven 45 minute sets across a day. You know like Hamburg was for the Beatles? That’s how this was for us, it was how we forged our sound. After several years of doing that, we built up a following and the official festival started booking us. Now when we go back it feels like a home from home, it’s one of my favourite places when I think about Mabon.’
This summer just gone the festival focused on music from Wales.
‘This year there was another milestone for me. We played the really big venue with some other Welsh artists, in a special night of Welsh bands. We’d never played on this stage before, there were 2000 people in there, so that was another one ticked off for me. I remember being a teenager and seeing other bands playing there who I looked up to, so I wanted to be playing on that stage one day.
‘And sometimes you have a wishlist of festivals and things you’d like to play, and over the years we’ve ticked off nigh-on all of those one way or another. I need to draw up a new list don’t I?’
Jamie describes those first years of the band as a ‘slow build’ – he was still at school when they formed.
‘We always took it seriously in terms of wanting to do it well and to a high standard – you don’t get that standard overnight. If I do anything, I tend to do it to the fullest I can, so in that sense, the attitude was always there to do it as professionally as possible.
‘It’s been a gradual education and learning from mistakes and how we can improve to grow the band.’
But in between the running around on tour, Jamie returns to his home on the Isle of Man where he’s lived for the last five years – it’s where his wife’s from.
‘The travel disadvantages are more than made up for by how nice a place it is to live and it’s great for the kids and my wife. It’s a really cracking place to live and I also like it because when I’m away I’m so busy and then I can go to Peel and it’s really quiet and chilled out. It’s a good balance.’
JAMIE SMITH’S MABON
The Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Friday, November 16