Some things are meant to happen.
The coming together of Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires), Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’) to form UK Americana supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole is one such thing…
Fate led to a meeting of minds and musical talent – and thank God it did, as it’s resulted in a wonderful, self-titled debut album that will undoubtedly find itself high up on Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year list come late 2018.
Produced by Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that takes in Byrds-meets-Tom-Petty/ Traveling Wilburys jangle-pop (Soon Enough), gorgeous, soulful balladry, (Hide Behind A Smile), mystical country (Find Your Own Truth), sunny Americana (Wilson General Store), shimmering psychedelic sounds (That Thing That You Called Love) and moody, powerful protest rock in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Hate Won’t Win and Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself).
High on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies, it’s a stunning collection of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock and pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues.
I met up with Bennett Wilson Poole in a North London pub after their second ever gig – at Islington’s Union Chapel – to find out why this collaboration was always on the cards, how the record was made and why they love working – and playing – together…
Q & A
You’ve formed a supergroup. Are you the new Traveling Wilburys or Crosby, Stills and Nash?
Danny Wilson: Yes! The name Bennett Wilson Poole does kind of have a similar feel to Crosby, Stills & Nash. People have been mentioning the Traveling Wilburys quite a lot. The supergroup thing is mad…
Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s there was a trend for supergroups, but it seems to have died off…
Danny: Maybe we’ve brought it back. Howard [Mills – the band’s manager] said that us getting together was inevitable because of where we’re coming from – we all write the same kind of music and we’ve done stuff together before.
So how did you all meet each other?
Robin Bennett: When I had the band Goldrush, we opened for Grand Drive a couple of times and we were fans of theirs. That’s when I met Danny – I then played with Danny and the Champions of the World and on their first couple of albums.
Danny: I made a record with Tony – he produced Hearts and Arrows [by Danny and the Champions of the World].
Tony Poole: I know Danny through a guy called Peter O’Brien, who had a magazine called Omaha Rainbow and who was a fan of my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing. He was a teacher at Danny’s school. Starry Eyed and Laughing played at the school, in Wallington, but Danny probably wasn’t born then…
What year was that?
Tony: 1872! No – it was about 1974.
Danny: Rock photographer Tom Sheehan’s first ever professional photography job was taking pictures of Starry Eyed and Laughing at my school!
So, it was fate that brought you together – it was meant to be…
Tony: Yeah – it’s kind of weird. I was a fan of Danny’s and he asked me if I’d work on Hearts and Arrows. I couldn’t say no – at that point I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing. We did the Hearts and Arrows album really quickly and everything came together – it was easy. I loved doing it and I loved the music. It was a rediscovery for me.
‘I was doing lots of stuff with bands like Steeleye Span and it was so heartless. I loved mixing music, but I hated what I was doing’
Robin: I was playing a Dreaming Spires gig in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, Tony was there and we got talking.
Tony: I went to their studio in Steventon to listen to some tracks and they put an electric 12-string Danelectro guitar in my hand… I ended up adding some stuff and mixing some of the tracks – it worked out really well.
So what prompted the move to form a supergroup and write and record your debut, self-titled album?
Tony: I got a call out the blue from either Robin or Danny to say they’d been writing songs together on FaceTime – that’s the modern world, isn’t it?
Danny: I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good. We’d written some songs and we both said that Tony would be perfect for them – we rang him and he was up for it.
Tony: How could I not be? Everything was so fast – they’d written most of the songs and when they came to my studio, I had some bits of songs that I’d started. All three of us finished them in the room in about 20 minutes – that had never happened to me before. It was unbelievable. We did two recording sessions and then one for overdubs – the spirit of it is the live thing that we did. It’s like Crosby, Stills & Nash – we were sitting around with three guitars and three voices and we recorded it. That’s the meat of it.
‘I go in the kitchen, drink a bottle of wine, get a guitar, FaceTime a mate who has a guitar and you have some new songs! It’s good’
The cover artwork of the album is a nod to the first record by Crosby, Stills & Nash, isn’t it? You’re all sat on a sofa, outside a saloon at Truck Festival, and, just like the Crosby, Stills & Nash cover, the names of the band members don’t match the order that you’re sat in the picture…
Tony: The Crosby, Stills & Nash photo is by Henry Diltz – the picture was taken before the band had decided on the order of the names. When they went back to reshoot the pictures, the house had been torn down.
Robin: What’s even more appropriate is that the structure in our photo also no longer exists…
Tony: The saloon at Truck has been destroyed…
There’s definitely a whole Crosby, Stills & Nash vibe to the record – in more ways than one..
Tony: We didn’t do it consciously, but it seemed natural. When we on our way to do a shoot with photographer John Morgan, we passed the saloon… He took four or five shots and that was it.
Maybe for the next album, you could recreate The Notorious Byrd Brothers cover and replace one of you with a horse?
Tony: It will be me!
Is it fun working together?
Robin: I kind of pinch myself – I just love these guys’ music.
Danny: The same here.
Tony: It’s so natural.
[To Tony]: You produced the album. How was that?
Tony: I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like – mostly anyway.
Danny: We love working with Tony. Not only are we all good friends, but me and Robin are massive, massive fans of Starry Eyed and Laughing and Tony’s production is so brilliant. He kept sending us stuff when we were working on the album and asked us for comments. We said ‘it’s brilliant – we love it!’
Robin: That’s not how things usually work…
‘I take the Jeff Lynne role – I’m a bit of a control freak, but, luckily, everything I do, they like – mostly anyway’
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the album. The first single, Soon Enough, came out in early February. It’s a classic jangle-pop tune, isn’t it? It’s very Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty and The Byrds. You filmed the video at the Didcot Railway Centre museum. How was that?
Danny: The video is a knowing nod to the Traveling Wilburys song End of the Line – we wanted it to be like that.
Robin: It’s also quite A Hard Day’s Night. Quite a lot of our songwriting reminds me of that mid-’60s thing.
The track Hide Behind A Smile is a gorgeous, soulful ballad, but, lyrically, it talks about coping with depression and anxiety…
Danny: Me and Robin wrote that song. I think everyone will understand it – it’s something we all do. We all put on a brave face to mask things – a smile is obviously a facade at times.
The song Wilson General Store, which was written by Robin, was inspired by Danny’s family history. Danny’s grandparents had a shop in Melbourne, Australia called Wilsons Emporium…
Danny: That’s where my mum and dad met.
Robin: In the middle of our writing session, I went to bed and woke up with the idea – we’d been talking about the shop. By the time we started writing again the following morning, I’d already finished the song.
Danny: My folks are huge music fans. I gave my dad a copy of the album, but I forgot to mention Wilson General Store. When he heard it, he said, ‘Is this our song?’ He loved it – it’s his favourite on the album.
You’ve filmed a promo video for your PledgeMusic campaign in which you feature in a Two Ronnies-inspired comedy skit…
Danny: With that video and the one for Soon Enough, we’re quite happy to be humorous and have a laugh. I think it takes something to be removed from your ‘day job’ project and to give you the distance, so you can show your personality – there’s no trying to be cool. It just is what it is and it frees you up – it’s been a pleasure because it’s not too important. Sometimes the precious things that you hold on too tightly to can be crushed…
Hate Won’t Win is one of the songs on the album that has a darker edge. It’s a protest song and was written in response to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, in 2016. Musically, it’s a nod to Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s classic counterculture anthem about the Kent State University shootings in 1970, isn’t it?
Tony: Yes – when I heard the news about Jo Cox it was a Thursday [June 16, 2016]. I remember sitting in the garden with a guitar and I thought about the story behind Ohio. Neil Young had written the song, Crosby got them in the studio and the song was out a few days later.
My tune came from the same place – I wrote a verse that was kind of reportage and was quite vicious. I sent Danny and Robin a phone recording of it and when they turned up at mine on the Saturday, Robin had written another verse and we finished it off and recorded it – it was out on YouTube on the Monday [as Hate Won’t Win (Song For Jo Cox)]. It was an echo of the time of Ohio. What can you do? We can’t change the world, but we put it out there… On the album, we purposely haven’t used the subtitle (Song For Jo Cox), as it’s now universal, but it’s still a nod to her – she inspired the song.
With our songs, like Hide Behind A Smile, the chords are quite simple and the tunes are quite jangly, but if you dig a little deeper, there’s more under the surface. But it’s not like ‘we’ve suffered for our art, now it’s your turn’ – we don’t do that.
Danny: Interestingly it’s the flip side of what I was saying about doing the videos. Working with these guys on a song like Hate Won’t Win is something that I wouldn’t approach in one of my normal projects – it gives me an extra dimension. It’s not a career move – it’s just something I really love doing. You can afford to be a bit more serious, or, like in the videos, a bit funny.
Robin: With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects.
The album closes with Lifeboat (Take A Picture of Yourself) – another song that tackles a social issue. Tony, you started writing it after seeing a photo of a refugee boat in the Mediterranean adjacent to an article on selfies…
Tony: It was so vivid – the world we’re living in and the other world. I had the idea – picture yourself in that lifeboat. You can’t explain things too much – they just come out.
It’s a great song – with the heavy electric guitar, it’s very Neil Young-sounding. The lyric even mentions the phrase ‘on the beach’, which is the title of a 1974 Neil Young album…
Tony: We were sitting in the recording studio with a pad and it took five or 10 minutes.
Robin: I couldn’t tell what Tony was singing, so I just wrote down what I heard.
Tony: I was singing phonetic stuff and he turned it into words for the chorus.
‘With this record we were able to do some things that we might not feel brave enough to do with our other projects’
You’ve played a couple of gigs as Bennett Wilson Poole – one in Oxford and one in London, at the Union Chapel. What it’s like playing the album live?
Tony: It’s taken it to a new level – as we’re playing it, we grow into the songs. As we get further along, we’ll get right under the skin of them. It was quite a fast recording process, but it’s somehow like a record that was made by somebody else. I keep listening to it… Vanity, eh?
Robin: We are slightly distanced from it – it is like hearing someone else’s album. You’re not hearing your own voice all the time.
Danny: When I do a new album with the Champs, it’s so raw to me – I hate all of my vocals and the songs! It’s so difficult to listen to it, but with this album, I listen to it everyday! I don’t know what that says about me…
That you’re in the wrong band?
Tony: A lot of people have said that you can keep listening to the album over and over again and you hear new things, which is great – that’s a good sign. If it makes you feel good, we’re adding to the sum of human happiness…
[To Robin]: I’d like to ask you about the song Find Your Own Truth, which you wrote. It’s not the first time one of your songs has dealt with the subject matter of looking for the truth. I’m thinking of the title track from the Dreaming Spires album Searching For The Supertruth…
Robin: The evidence is piling up! I don’t know why… I wrote Find Your Own Truth in five minutes, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s one of my more cosmic songs. I’ve been working on a solo album – I had a list of songs and that was one of them, but it really felt like it could be a Crosby, Stills & Nash thing.
Tony: Robin sent his home demo to me and we put some harmonies and electric guitar on it. The idea was for it to be a song like Helplessly Hoping [by Crosby, Stills & Nash] – that was my vision for it.
You’re launching the album with three gigs at the Betsey Trotwood in London – March 21-23. That’s a London residency…
Robin: When Danny suggested three nights at the Betsey, I thought he was insane, but they’re all sold out.
Can we expect a triple live album?
Danny: Good idea.
Robin: We are recording the shows – the Betsey is our spiritual home. We’ve all played there.
Tony: The lovely thing about doing three nights there is that even though we’re only playing to 30-40 people each night, it’s got the feeling of three nights at Wembley. Some people have bought tickets for every night, so we’re going to mix it up.
When you’re watching us, you can relax because we’re pals and you can see we’re all getting on. There are three times in my life I’ve had that happen – my band, Starry Eyed and Laughing; when I produced The Men They Couldn’t Hang in the ’80s; and with this band. Sometimes when you watch a band, you can see that they’re not getting on and it makes you feel bad…
So, can we expect a second album from Bennett Wilson Poole?
Robin: I think we could do it.
Tony: Absolutely. We’ve got an extra track that’s not on the album – it’s really good. It’s like a rare Beatles track.
•Bennett Wilson Poole release their self-titled debut album on April 6 (Aurora Records).
For information on their PledgeMusic campaign, please click here.
They will play three album launch shows at The Betsey Trotwood, in Clerkenwell, London – March 21-23. All three shows are sold out.
Bennett Wilson Poole will also appear at The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, Bucks Student Union, High Wycombe: April 6-8.
More information here: https://www.bucksstudentsunion.org/ramblinrootsrevue/