Remember life before lockdown? At the start of the year, all we had to worry about was how to cope with a massive, post-Christmas comedown – little did we know what was around the corner…
Luckily, as 2020 kicked off, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we had Choke Hold, the debut single by UK Americana band West on Colfax, from Preston, to cheer us up. As we said at the time: ‘Influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt, it’ll put a jangle in your January… two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.’
Now, five months later, after two more singles – the similarly jangly and equally irresistible Misty Morning Blue and the ragged country-rock of Barfly Flew By – as well as an impromptu EP called Lockdown Lowdown, which was hastily put together while the band members were in isolation and showcases a more mellow, acoustic side to their sound, including the gorgeous, banjo-assisted ballad, Back Out On The Run, West on Colfax are gearing up to release their first album Barfly Flew By.
It’s already one of our favourite records of the year. From the ’70s Rolling Stones country feel of The Line, with its bluesy guitar licks and warm Hammond organ, to the late-night barroom romance of Cowgirl of the County (“She was the cowgirl of the county – she leant into me gently. We chose the songs on the jukebox – I don’t think I’ve been as happy”), the twangy Tinsel Heart, the rough and ready, battered and beaten-up road trip of Tyre Marks (“The tyre marks you left across my heart are all that’s now left…”) and the world-weary, yet, ultimately, optimistic, electric piano-led ballad, Light Again, which closes the album, it’s clear West on Colfax wear their classic country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana influences on the sleeves of their well-worn plaid shirts. These are songs that are best listened to while staring at the bottom of your glass, but they also have a reassuring warmth to them. The band describe their music as, ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives but with hope.’
In an exclusive interview, we chat to Alan Hay (vocals and guitar); Scott Carey (bass) and Pete Barnes (lead guitar and vocals) about the roots of the band, get the inside story on the writing and recording of the new LP, find out how these barflys have been coping with the Covid-19 lockdown and ask them to tell us what music has been keeping them sane…
How did the band come together?
Alan Hay: I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in! We were just doing cover versions and it was very casual, but, after a while, I approached Scott with the idea of doing some original stuff and taking things a bit more seriously.
Scott Carey: I met Alan when I was in a fledgling Americana covers band called The Low Highway and we needed a singer. Alan answered the ad and although he’d never sung in a band before there was something about him. We became friends very quickly, bonding over our love of Americana music. Someone suggested doing a couple of our own original songs. I was reticent at first, as it’s hard pushing your own stones up a hill.
The covers we were doing were fairly obscure to your average pub punter – Wilco, The Jayhawks, Mudcrutch, Richard Hawley, The Band etc. Alan asked me if had any lyrics? I said, ‘No – but leave it with me.’ That night I sent him the words to The Line, which is the second track on our album, and he turned it into a song that we actually liked.
That opened the floodgates and led to The Low Highway set becoming mostly originals. Since then we’ve written enough for four albums and we’re still going. We had some line-up changes and then Alan and I decided to give it a go [as West on Colfax]. We then found a great lead guitar player, Pete Barnes, through an advert, and changed our drummer three times! We’ve just got together with a multi-instrumentalist called Ian Aylward-Barton, who has provided the final piece of the puzzle.
‘I came across some guys who were looking for a singer – Wilco were mentioned, so I was in!’
Pete Barnes: I joined Alan and Scott in very early 2018. They already had the band name and were working on some originals of theirs with a drummer, Adrian, and keyboard player, Nick. I was looking for something to do musically and their ad caught my eye, as it was very different to the usual – it was specific, pretty straightforward and name-checked some lesser-known bands that I was into, like Whiskeytown. The problem was that the ad was for a drummer, not a guitar player. I answered it anyway, and I thought, ‘well I can probably hire a kit for a bit and I know I can bash out a basic beat’.
As it transpired, the original drummer, Adrian, had re-joined the band in the meantime, so Scott, having discovered I was really a guitar player, asked me to come down and try out on guitar. I quickly relaxed and realised they were a good bunch of guys – the music came together really naturally. We played a few gigs and recorded a couple of songs, Stars and The Line, then, a bit later, Adrian decided playing originals wasn’t really his thing so he left, followed by Nick a few months later. Eventually we found Mike to play the drums, and then Ian joined more recently.
The band name is a reference to the work of songwriter and author Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines), isn’t it? The first album by The Delines is called Colfax…
SC: Yes. I had the phrase ‘West on’ for a couple of days and was playing Colfax by The Delines. I asked Alan if West on Colfax would be a cheesy name? He said it wouldn’t. Shortly afterwards I went to a book reading and a performance by Willy Vlautin and The Delines. I told him about the name and he seemed genuinely chuffed. He signed my copy of his novel Don’t Skip Out On Me: ‘To West on Colfax – good luck with your band!’
You’re based in Lancashire – the North West. What’s the Americana scene like there?
SC: We all live about a 20-mile radius away from our base, which is Preston. We have been trying to start a scene there, putting on a quarterly Americana night at The New Continental, whose promoter, Rob Talbot, is really supportive of us.
We’ve built it up with regular people returning and we’ve been making friends along the way with local bands that we’ve put on : Red Moon Joe, The Amber List, Simon James and the River Pilots, and The JD Band, as well as artists from Manchester: Matt Grayson lead singer of The Swells, and Cornelius Crane.
We’ve played with Matt Hill [aka Quiet Loner] – I worked with him in London – and Nev Cottee, who I played with in Seventh House and also in the first line-up of his solo band. We’d like them to appear with us in Preston in the future.
You’ve had a busy year so far. You put out your debut single, Choke Hold, in January, then you followed it up with two more, plus the Lockdown Lowdown EP, and now your debut album is out soon. How has the Covid-19 lockdown affected you as a band? Obviously it’s meant that you haven’t been able to play any gigs…
SC: The album was going to have three different songs on it, but lockdown put that on hold, so we’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound, which we will be exploring more in the future, in tandem with the more upbeat material.
AH: The lockdown has probably affected the band more than any other part of my life – a lot of things have just carried on as normal, but with minor disruption. Yes, we’ve had to rethink our plans for 2020, but I suppose we’re fortunate that we don’t rely on our music to make a living. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to carry on going out to work as normal, so haven’t had the psychological or financial worries that a lot of people have had during lockdown.
‘We’ve been sending songs to each other during isolation. We’ve been able to look at a more acoustic sound’
PB: Lockdown has been strange for us, as it has for everyone. We are all key workers, so we’ve still been going to work, or working from home, but obviously, we’ve had no rehearsals or been meeting up. On the flip side, it has been quite productive, as we’ve produced the Lockdown Lowdown EP, which contains songs that may not have come out yet under normal circumstances. In fact they weren’t originally planned for the LP, but we decided to put them together with some stuff we recorded late last year, to balance the album out.
I think it makes for an interesting listening experience overall. Also it’s a good indication of where the band are at right now and where we may be heading in the future, as there is a broader mix of styles on there than we might have had if it were not for the lockdown changing everyone’s circumstances.
Let’s talk about your album, Barflew Flew By. How was it written and recorded?
SC: Alan and I wrote most of the songs on the album, but I wrote the lyrics for the track Barfly Flew By and Pete turned it into a song. He also wrote Back Out On The Run, which is wonderfully catchy and mellow – it’s our Elizabeth My Dear.
The process is that I write the lyrics, which are mainly about lessons learnt through life and past experiences, or imaginary characters, like in Barfly Flew By and Cowgirl of the County. Then I give them to Alan, who has the hard job of making them into something we want people to hear. For every track that makes it, there are two that don’t.
AH: We didn’t have to write songs specifically for the album – a lot of the songs had been around in the live set for a few years, but some weren’t intended for this record. We had about half the album recorded, but lockdown forced us to re-think. It’s not the album we intended to make, it’s born out of circumstance, but I’m glad about that. I think it’s got more balance to it than it might have had.
PB: Whoever has an idea brings it to rehearsal and we all try to contribute and improve on it. It’s a fairly democratic process and I have found there is a lot of room in Scott and Alan’s songs for me to add things and play quite freely. The arrangements get shaken out a bit during rehearsals and, again, it’s quite open. We seem to have a pretty natural chemistry, so it never feels like we have to force anything – it tends to come quite easily. We’re just moving into me doing lead vocals for my own songs, like Back Out On The Run, which, hopefully, will broaden our sound a bit more.
‘We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track – it’s not perfect, but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful!’
SC: We recorded the album with Matt Gallagher and his pal David Shurr, who are both really good artists in their own right, at The Premises in Preston. Wilco are one of Matt’s favourite bands and Sky Blue Sky is his favourite LP – I agree with him on that, so I knew he was the right person to record with. We hit it off instantly.
We recorded most of the album straight to tape, so we captured a live performance for the basis of each track, like bands used to do. It means it’s not perfect but I think that’s good. Imagine the Felice Brothers recorded to a click track – that would be awful! They’re a much better band than us, but we love that vibe.
The first single, Choke Hold, reminds me of Teenage Fanclub…
SC: Yes – we’re huge fans. Teenage Fanclub sound like Big Star, who in turn, wanted to be The Byrds – it’s linear. We’re all looking back to go forward. That said, we believe we have something to offer – we’re more than a tribute act and we are proud of our songwriting. Our other influences are Drive-By Truckers, Richmond Fontaine, The Byrds, R.E.M, Golden Smog…
AH: We have some of the same influences as Teenage Fanclub – The Byrds, Big Star etc. I’m a big fan. Wilco are a huge influence as well – the list is endless, I think all the music you absorb during your lifetime has some influence, whether you realise it or not.
PB: Alan and Scott love Teenage Fanclub – that comparison has been made a lot. They never featured in my imagination much, to be honest, but since joining the band I’ve listened to them for the first time and appreciate them a bit more.
We all have different influences. Aside from the obvious Americana ones we share, like Neil Young, War On Drugs, Wilco, Whiskeytown, The Jayhawks, The Byrds etc, I also listen to other genres – all sorts. I think the other guys are the same. We like anything that’s good, really – we’re all massive music fans. Sixties stuff like Love, as well as folk music, like Bert Jansch and John Martyn, are influences.
‘Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting’
I’m getting into Townes Van Zandt and I also quite like some early ‘90s shoegaze-type bands like Slowdive – their most recent album is fantastic. Those very early Verve singles and their b-sides, Gravity Grave, She’s A Superstar and Feel, as well as their first album, A Storm In Heaven, meant a lot to me growing up, along with some some ‘70s punk and New Wave. The Pogues and The Dubliners are in there too, as well as Miles Davis and Can, and some ambient/electronic music too. Guitars are where it’s at for us, but we’ll listen to anything within reason. Influences only get you so far I guess – it’s when you start doing your own thing that it gets more interesting. I think, in truth, we’re all probably more obsessed with our own band than any other.
I think your song The Line sounds like The Rolling Stones at times…
SC: I’ll leave Alan to answer that, but being told we sound like The Stones and Teenage Fanclub is okay by me.
AH: It’s a fair comment. I love The Stones and I wrote the music in an open G tuning, on a Telecaster, so maybe that was inevitable. The Line was the first song Scott and I wrote together. I love the lyrics – there are some great lines in there.
Back Out On The Run is one of my favourite songs on the album – it has a more stripped-down, traditional country/ Americana feel than some of the others. What can you tell me about it?
PB: The song is a pretty dark, small town love story about truth, retribution and freedom. It’s about long-lost lovers brought back together by seismic events. It’s quite a short track on the album, but it’s like a mini movie in my head.
‘I’ve gone through some bleak years, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything’
I wrote the song pretty quickly and recorded it at home. It’s really just me playing guitar and singing, with a bit of extra guitar and backing vocals, so it is simple and stripped-back. A bit later Ian put his banjo on and that was it. I really like the energy and simplicity of it. It does sound a bit different to the other songs and it’s a new direction for us, which I’d like to take further and build on.
SC: Pete sings on it and he has just a natural ability to sound melancholy, but be darn catchy while doing it. I wake up with that song and Light Again in my head a lot.
Let’s talk about Light Again, which is the final song on the album. It’s about being world-weary – someone who is being dragged down by the toil of everyday life, but it’s ultimately an optimistic song isn’t it? It feels apt for these times.
SC: Yes – exactly. It’s about depression and how it’s circular. Dark times and good times. It’s a message of hope, of saying: ‘look you’re down now, but hang on, you’ll get through it’. I’ve gone through some bleak years recently, which I thought would crush me, but I’m still going. I’ve leant on songs my whole life. I hope we can prop someone up, if only for three minutes – that would mean everything.
In true Americana fashion, there’s a fair amount of melancholy, heartbreak and drinking on the album. When it comes to the drinking, I’m particularly thinking of the title track and Cowgirl of the County. What can you tell me about those songs?
SC: Barfly and Cowgirl are two sides of one coin. They are about how men in general deal with problems from the bottom of a jar. The character in Cowgirl realises he’s just like his dad but is rescued by love. The Barfly character has no such luck – he’s damaged and broken and lives out his days in a perma-neon lit gloom, where hope is for others. The guy and his ‘friends’ who live this life aren’t hopeless, but have resigned themselves to it – that is all there is for them.
Are you big drinkers?
SC: I used to drink heavily, but not now, as it doesn’t help me.
AH: I’ll give you the same answer I give my doctor – I enjoy a small sherry on the Queen’s birthday.
PB: I think we all like to have a drink to unwind sometimes.
Have you written and recorded any new songs during lockdown?
SC: I’ve written five new lyrics, which I’ve sent to Alan. He’s put them on the pile and I’m waiting to see how they’ll turn out.
AH: We’ve always got songs on the go. We recorded our EP in lockdown but didn’t write the songs at that time.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Will there be another single from the album? Will you be playing gigs when the live music scene returns?
SC: We have some songs we’ve already worked on that are lined up for another album – we’re getting them to a stage where we can record again. We want to play some gigs. There’s a country music festival in Wrexham at the end of August – I just hope it happens. We were looking at doing an Americana all-dayer at The New Continental – it may now have be a Christmas special.
AH: I don’t see another single coming from this album, so the next release will be something new. We had a couple of exciting gigs lined up that had to be postponed, so we’re looking forward to new dates for those.
You’re releasing your material on your own label, Greenhorse Records. Do you plan to sign any other artists to it?
SC: Yes. For now it’s a vehicle for West on Colfax, but I want to put out a compilation of the bands that have played our Americana night. In the future we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album.
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? Any recommendations?
PB: I’ve quite liked the quieter lifestyle to be honest, and having some time to be more relaxed and not rushing about everywhere. Music-wise, I spend a lot of time listening to our band or my own songs that I’m working on. Other than that I’ve been listening to The Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass for the first time in a long while, and I’ve heard a bit of the new Jason Isbell album [Reunions], which is quite good. I’ve also been listening to Tennessee Square by Whiskeytown and I’ve really got into Sunflower Bean over the past couple of years. I think they’re a brilliant group – a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band and great musicians and songwriters.
‘Our label, Greenhorse Records, is a vehicle for West on Colfax, but we’d love to put someone else’s record out, if we find the right album’
I heard Elephant Tree on the radio recently for the first time and I really like their new album Habits – it’s a bit like Alice In Chains meets Slowdive. It’s not very Americana, but I’m into any genre really, as long as it is good music and moves me.
I briefly met Joana Serrat after she supported The Delines in Bury last year and I picked up a copy of her record Dripping Springs, which is a great album. The songs are simple but well arranged and accompanied. It sounds very natural and immersive – she has a beautiful voice.
AH: There’s so much good, new music around and it’s so accessible that it’s hard to keep up. My daughter bought me the re-release of OK Computer on vinyl, which has rekindled my love of Radiohead so, yeah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead.
SC: Of late I’ve been listening to Dropkick – we want them to come to Preston, so we’ve discussed gig swapping in the future. I’ve been watching Peter Bruntnell’s home gigs streams, as well as Wilco gigs on YouTube, and I’ve been listening to Jeff Parker’s new LP, as well as various old stuff. I’ve made a Spotify playlist – some of the tunes that are helping us keep sane.
You can listen to West on Colfax’s lockdown soundtrack here.
Barflew Flew By (Greenhorse Records) is released on June 17.