New Midlands band NUFFSED, offer an intriguing mix of pop songwriting craft and folk root authenticity. Tim Walker went to Birmingham to investigate.
Followers of Christian "roots" (ie, acoustic-based, folk tinged) music must have been wondering in the last couple of years whether at one point they died and went to Heaven. After years of sheepishly hiding their Parchment and early Garth Hewitt albums behind their Amy Grants and Michael W Smiths whenever their trendy Christian friends came round, it appears that the recent rejuvenation of Britain's CCM industry has chosen the once-derided and unfashionable roots genre as its vehicle. The most popular acts in Britain these days, more often than not, tend to be either solidly folk/acoustically based (eg, Eden Burning, Jonathan Day) or imbued with elements of this form to some degree (eg, Pink Dandelions, Sam Hill).
A new band which falls into the latter category is Nuffsed. This nine-piece combo was formed in 1992 by various members of Willenhall Christian Fellowship in the Midlands; all but one of the line-up worship regularly there. Although not all members can participate at every gig due to them having "day jobs", the band's personnel "pool" (their term) is Terry Mills (lead vocals, guitar and mandolin), Adam Bird (vocals, keyboards, trumpet), Andrew Smith (electric guitar), Nicky Bird (guitar, keyboards), Kati Bird and Jackie Mills (vocals), Theresa Bird (vocals, sax), Roger Wilcox (bass, vocals) and Lee Rigby (drums). Their ages range from 17 to 48 and eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that almost everyone is related in some way. But why nine of them?
"It just evolved, really", replied Terry, when I talked to him recently along with Kati and Jackie in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral. "We didn't sort of sit down one day and say 'Right, our optimum number is nine!' There was a nucleus of five or six of us, and then as we came across people like Andrew...". (At this point, Kati added that she can't remember a time when all nine members have been present at a gig!) "There are a few of us who have been in there all the time, like Lee -we can't play without a drummer! Andrew's been an ever-present, like Nicky and Terry. Everyone's pretty versatile, though", Kati continued, only for Terry to comment modestly that "he can only play one thing!" Indeed, the band as a whole seem to have a refreshingly down-to-earth, self effacing character to them, certainly if the three I talked to are representative of the rest.
Moving on, I asked about their musical influences, as from the tracks which I've heard from their very fine, very fresh debut album show little that is obvious. Nuffsed's sound, which is spectacularly hard to pigeonhole, lies somewhere between pop, folk and their own style; nevertheless, the three in front of me were certain of one band they're all keen on: "REM!" came the chorus. "Almost everyone in the band likes them", elucidated Jackie, with Terry mentioning how he likes Gallagher & Lyle and Enya, and how Andrew likes Madonna... Interestingly enough, Nuffsed sound nothing like any of these; presumably this is accounted for by the comment that musically they like "a bit of everything, really." Off the record, Terry mentioned that he's also partial to the Beatles and Buddy Holly!
Why did they gravitate towards the "roots" sound, I enquired? Kati helped to clarify the others' views: "We set out, first of all, to try as many different styles as we could - that was our aim. Then, it came about that you can't please a whole audience at one time, but the common theme turned out to be roots." As it turned out, this direction was signposted by none other than Tony Cummings, who produced their first album, 'Fields Keep Calling', for Kingsway. "We needed that pointer", explained Terry, "because none of us wanted to upset everyone else (regarding choosing a style). We needed someone objective to say 'I feel this is the best way to go'."
'Fields Keep Calling' will be out in time for Greenbelt and distributed into Christian bookstores in September. It was recorded at Stairway Music in Walsall; the three Nuffsed's are unequivocal in their praise for the engineer Paul Hodson ("There's just one word for him -brilliant"). Guests on the project are from amongst the cream of the British Christian roots scene; they include the Pink Dandelions' fiddler Pete Wright, Jonathan Day on mandola, Irish folk singer Mike Stanley and ex-lona woodwindist Dave Fitzgerald. These musicians obviously made an impact on the band, particularly the latter: "He was an absolutely amazing musician, but at the same time he was the most modest and amiable guy you could imagine." Terry, for his part, was so impressed by Jonathan's mandola playing he's now looking for an instrument himself!
Nuffsed's home church has been pivotal to the band's existence up to this point. "Absolutely fantastic", said Terry, citing one very significant area. "When Tony offered to do an album with us there was the big question of finance. At the initial amounts involved our jaws just dropped and we said, 'Well, that's it then - we can't do it!'. But because it was something we all wanted to do, we went to the church with it, and they were absolutely brilliant - they gave us a gift, and a part-loan as well!" I commented that this may have to be the way forward if the growth of musical gifts of artists in British churches is to be nurtured. Kati agreed, "I suppose not all churches feel that music is very important; we were fortunate in that our church felt it was important enough to support." As a footnote, it is interesting that bassist Roger is one of their fellowship's elders.
One of Nuffsed's most
frequented mission fields is the prison network, with the band often
playing to a captive audience (sorry - it was irresistible). This is
in part due to the fact that Katy's dad works for the Prison
Fellowship, but even before the band started individual members did a
lot of prison work so it was a natural progression.
So what of the future? In keeping with their modest air, the band appeared almost surprised at how things have progressed for them in so short a time. "Looking back at how things have developed, it's like a dream you have at school, and it's all coming true", Terry replied. "From a little four-track to this - it's just incredible..." He added that it helped that a couple of their songs touched Tony C when he heard them and that he happened to live near them at the time. "It's already gone further than we thought", added Kati. "We're talking about the future - it's already passed!" Jackie summed up their feelings, "I suppose if we have got one particular aim for the future, we would like to do evangelistic work. I was saved through a song - "Jesus Take Me As I Am" -and that's why I think music is important in the Christian world. It's the language that talks to everybody..."