With a new studio-recorded album 'Rachel Says Boo' and plenty of hot gigs (including Cross Rhythms Fest) under their belt, roots rockers WHY? are going from strength to strength. Tim Walker reports.
By now it is probably beyond all question that the "acoustic roots" sound is enjoying a renaissance unknown since the heady days of the Seventies. To borrow a metaphor from the Eden Burning song "The Joust", the CCM roots scene has grown into an illustrious tournament nowadays, and there's little shortage of eager contestants raring to take a tilt on the field. Why?, a five-piece band from the green pastures of Street in Somerset, have joined the lists with those who have served their apprenticeship in the stables, and are now mounting their chargers to ride off towards danger, excitement and unknown adventures...
May 1992 saw brothers Ant and Nick Parker (vocals/guitar and mandolin/vocals respectively) team up with drummer Mark Davies, who went to a church "just down the road" from theirs. Eventually bassist Steve Barnard and violinist Kitty Roberts were added to the fold. Now the band are looking for a new violinist so any interested roots fiddlers should contact the band post haste. Some of the band were involved in mission before Why? came into being.
"I worked for British Youth For Christ", Ant explains, "On Operation Gideon, and was based in Brixton. A friend of ours on Operation Gideon, Chris Morgan, died in a car accident, and we wanted to raise some money for him." With another artist, Andy Hay, the initial three Why? members (plus bassist Jeff Wiley, an old friend and musical partner of Ant's) managed to gather enough funding from various sources to record and release a benefit single. One side featured Why?'s "Children of Brixton", with Hay's "Through It All" on the flip. Unfortunately, though, there were problems which dogged the release: "The company pressing it went bust, and we lost a lot of the money which was donated, so the first lot of the proceeds had to be paid back to the people who had to re-lend us money. So in the end we didn't make a lot of money on it." (As a footnote, Ant and Jeff Wiley produced a very limited edition tape together in 1990, as a thank you to friends in Brixton.)
From listening to the band, and specifically asking what music styles they go for, their influences appear quite diverse; Steve mentions singer-songwriter Luka Bloom (Why? frequently cover the odd song or two of his) and the much missed Fat and Frantic, and Ant follows up with the Waterboys and the Saw Doctors. To my ears the Levellers are the first band to spring to mind, but Ant is more cautious: "We don't normally like to be associated with them. It's good music, but they're not such nice people. There's so many Levellers-look-alike bands starting up, but we started up before we were ever into the band."
In the tight-purse-stringed world of the British Christian music scene, the artist's home church is often a vital source of support, whether financial or otherwise. I enquired what relationship Ant and Nick's fellowship, Holy Trinity Church in Street, has to the band's activities. "It supports us in that it lets us use its buildings for rehearsals for free whenever we want. Both me and Nick help in the church - I run Pathfinders and Nick helps in the crèche. They're always interested in what we do - they don't support us financially in any way, because it's not really the band's home church. "In addition Mark's parents run the local Methodist youth group, and they lend a hand whenever Why? play or lead worship there, insofar as the band can stay over in the church hall. (Steve is a member of a Baptist church in Midsomer Norton, all of twenty miles away, so it's fortunate for practise purposes that he owns a car!.)
Someone once said that a Christian can write songs either about the light, or what they see in the light. Where does Why? fit in? " It's more the latter", muses Ant. "None of our songs are really evangelistic - in some ways they're more sarcastic towards the world, and also there's a sort of worry and a love for young people. "Is there an element of Bragg-like polemic, I wondered? Ant and Steve wouldn't call Why? a protest band, but both agreed that the group members' faith often gave then cause to comment in their songs on issues affecting the world. "We try to be as positive as possible, because being positive about the things that are working is better than being negative about the things that aren't."
Why? are already a well-travelled band, and can boast of gigs as far apart as Northern Ireland, Brixton Academy, Wales, Yorkshire and Scotland. Greenbelt has already been privy to the Why? experience, as has Mainstage at Harry and Crossfire, and they played Cross Rhythms '94. They also mention they had a gig coming up in Guernsey; it all seems to back up Ant's declaration that "We're free to travel anywhere". Orkney and Shetland Islanders take note.
The Why? library of recordings, and that of individual band members, was larger than I'd thought. Why?'s first studio mini-album, the intriguingly-titled "Yo Skipidy", was taped in two days, track-by-track (i.e. one instrument at a time), and came about as a result of public demand. Ant: "We suddenly got this demand for merchandise, but we didn't have anything. So we went very quickly into a part-time studio run by another band; it wasn't professional in any way." For a studio tape, "Yo Skipidy" does a respectable job of conveying Why?'s live sound - electro-acoustic roots rock a la Eden Burning (for whom Why? have played support - who hasn't?), with fiddle and electric mandolin lending a distinctive touch to the melting-pot. However, few studio sessions can match the energy of a live performance, an area in which Why? are already excelling themselves, and the band clearly realises this. A limited edition live tape, "Nicely Hugged", was released last year at a gig fund-raiser, and now they have tracks for a 12-track "live studio" album. 'Rachel Says Boo' has been released and is already clocking up enthusiastic reviews. If enough cassettes of it are sold, the band hope to put out a CD edition at a later date.
So, whence now for these valiant knights? "In June we went full-time. Our A-levels are finished so we're going full-time, for a year to start off with, and do nothing but gig!" Bold adventurers indeed, who well deserve our prayers and support; after all, dragons and ogres are a pushover compared to the British CCM gig circuit...The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.