By Jordan Reisman
Photo courtesy of Feral Mouth.
Feral Mouth of Norwich, UK goes about their business in a slightly off-kilter manner from the way they dress, the way they approach their music, and the conditions in which they create said music. Even the slang that they use will take you by surprise if you’re not conditioned to hearing Britain’s poetic colloquialisms. They play a sort of American bluegrass but when you take into consideration the fact that they’re playing this in Norwich, already a town that is both shunned by and flat-out ignores the British mainstream, then what you have is a group of people playing music that is made for the sake of making it.
In their world, Mumford & Sons does not even register as contemporaries and they haven’t the kindest words for them. Though, given that their name is “Feral Mouth,” which in the British parlance means “one who runs off at the mouth,” then it all starts to make sense. BTR was able to speak with two of the members, Jape (aka James Pearce) and Noel Dashwood, about their outsider standing and what it means to have a feral mouth.
The catalyst to all the talk of being an English outsider, and a poorly dressed one at that, was a hat that Pearce was wearing, a take on the famed Indiana Jones hat. He describes the band as “quite notoriously badly dressed” comparing their look to a “Western hobo.” They recall a show at a Cuban bar where their drummer Pete “turned up” with an orange jumpsuit, looking as Pearce describes “a bit Guantanamo.” It turns out the band just dresses badly but when pressed about it, they say they’re going for “Western hobo,” to which Pearce says, “that level of sincerity is also applied to the music.”
As we expand and unpack the persona that is Feral Mouth, we get to their name, which in their case says a lot about them. There is the common platitude that a band name is arbitrary but not when you have such a specifically British phrase. Pearce goes into the name and why it had to be theirs:
“It’s a bit of a joke like you’d wake up with a hangover and your mouth tastes like rubbish and you’ve got a bit of a ‘feral mouth’ or it could be somebody who swears too much but I kind of like to think of it as meaning that you speak freely and undomesticatedly so your views come through in a wild way like you are indigenously just being yourself and expressing yourself rather than being channeled through some domestication. That’s kind of my pretentious answer, my arty answer.”
The band started originally as a three-piece called Trapdoor playing what Pearce could only describe as “Nirvana unplugged in New York” which although it is vague, it’s also completely specific. He was into “grunging” but eventually wanted to make the shift from the “plugged” Nirvana sound to an “unplugged” sound, though the other guys weren’t really chomping at the bit. Pearce eventually left Trapdoor and started playing Old Crow Medicine Show songs looking for others who were feeling what he was doing.
He even convinced the now-banjo player Gareth to “pick up a banjo and have a go at learning.” He describes the early stages of the band as “unassuming, it was serious in a musical sense but it wasn’t serious like, we wanna get somewhere with this.”
Playing the style of music that they do in Norwich of all places, which has a rich history of strictly English folk bands (see Port Isla and The Sound of Sight), the band must have some kind of consciousness that bluegrass is an American musical form with no real historic ties to England. Though, as is the case with a globalized world, one can make connections between countries through music which is exactly what Pearce did.
“We’re not a traditional British folk band or something like that and it is very American-influenced but my argument has always been that where we come from, Norwich, is a little bit like the Deep South,” says Pearce. “It’s rural and it’s kind of disconnected from the main part of Britain and so the parallels when you listen to Americana music talking about ‘the land’ and about poverty and farming and those kinds of things, I wouldn’t say that’s something that’s on the forefront of my daily experience all the time but there’s something about the open expanse of that sound that I think we relate to. Doing what we do in the place that we do it, we’re not very connected to the fashions of what happens. If something is really fashionable in London, we are unaffected by that; we’re not really following a style.”
In speaking of what is “fashionable in London,” the music that they’re making takes a bit of a strong stance against the “indie-folk boom” that has been happening. He calls the Americana bluegrass sound in England a “novelty” and although he likes to playfully hate on bands like Mumford & Sons, it’s all in good humor. It mostly stems from Feral Mouth getting compared to Mumford so often and trying to find their unique voice, and Mumford just doesn’t happen to be what he’s “interested in.” What Pearce is interested in is for “that bass to be on the one’s and two’s, and I like the skiffle beat, and I like the harmonies, and I like the structuring.”
One way that Feral Mouth is intentionally setting themselves apart is in the aforementioned beat that Pearce seems to be so interested in on their EP Olympus Chympus. Specifically in songs like “Number 62”, the band slows the straight ahead bluegrass beat down into more of a, dare I say, hip-hop influenced beat. The band attributes this to their “funk drummer” who’s a “random guy,” but also in a hip-hop group. They pride themselves on setting the music apart from the radio friendly folk, including a cellist instead of a violinist and the hip-hop loving drummer.
“Something that was quite a profound influence on me growing up is my dad and I would listen to the radio. He would be talking about a song and analyzing it, this was when I was like eight, it would be some new pop song where he would be saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s all right but it’s not a proper song, is it?’ I can’t really explain what he meant or what I understood him to mean by ‘It’s not a proper song’ but it’s something that stuck to me,” says Pearce.
As it turns out, you could be trying to set yourself apart from the mainstream but in your own head, striving to do something the “proper” way—the way that would make Dad proud.
Set your folk apart with Feral Mouth by clicking here.
Check out Feral Mouth’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.