Hackney Colliery Band: Collaborations

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Hackney Colliery Band sat in two lines with their instruments

Thomas Rees speaks to Hackney Colliery Band’s Steve Pretty about reinventing brass band tradition, embracing eclecticism and their plans for a collaborative tenth anniversary celebration.

Once upon a time in the UK brass bands played stirring, vibrato-heavy renditions of ‘Jerusalem’ at village fetes, but in the past decade the music has had a serious shot in the arm thanks to groups like Hackney Colliery Band, who drew from jazz, soul, electronica and beyond to create a bold new sound. Ten years on, they’re still innovating and defying convention.

‘When we’re at our best, we surprise people,’ says bandleader Steve Pretty, who chose the band’s name, with its old world echoes, to pay homage to the great British brass tradition where many of the players in Hackney Colliery Band got their start – although Pretty concedes it’s slightly tongue in cheek. Not many colliery bands know their way around sophisticated jazz harmonies, after all, and still fewer can whip up a festival mosh pit with a fire-starting Prodigy medley.

When they were starting out, it was also important to Pretty to ground the group firmly in the UK and to set them apart from American outfits, such as Youngblood Brass Band. ‘We wanted to make sure we had our own sound,’ he says. ‘We’re a band from London not New Orleans. We’ve always been at least as influenced by rock and by European jazz, electronica and UK drum and bass.’

Eclecticism is one of the band’s greatest strengths. ‘From day one we said, within reason, nothing is off limits,’ Pretty says. ‘We were putting out a Balkan-influenced tune on the same record as a hip hop-influenced tune or a jazz-influenced tune... We could probably have been more commercially successful if we’d picked one route, which is what various agents and managers wanted us to do,’ he laughs. ‘We’ve definitely made life more difficult for ourselves, but I think it’s made things much more interesting as well… There’s all this possibility out there, why would we constrain ourselves to just one or two little genres?’

Even in the early days, when they were one of the hardest-gigging festival bands on the scene, they sought to avoid the most obvious covers, which is where that Prodigy medley comes in. ‘It’s really trying to expand what is possible with the lineup that we’ve got and changing people’s minds about what those instruments can do,’ says Pretty. ‘Bringing those instruments to the fore and presenting it like a rock band has been an ongoing mission.’

Highlights from the past decade include a set at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and a tour of the Balkans, particularly significant given how much Balkan brass music has influenced the band’s sound. Then there was the time Amy Winehouse joined them on stage at an early gig. ‘She was just there because she liked the band and then she jumped up to sing with us,’ remembers Pretty. ‘That was pretty special.’

It very nearly didn’t happen. According to the story, Winehouse was hanging out in the band’s dressing room before the show. Their sousaphone player wasn’t too up on popular culture and, having no idea who she was, booted her out. When the band came on, Pretty told the crowd what had happened and Winehouse got up. ‘I thought: “I’m either going to get punched here or it’s going to be really good”,’ he laughs. ‘Luckily it was really good!’

Tonight’s tenth anniversary celebration draws from the group’s new album, Collaborations: Volume One. It’s their most ambitious record to date and sees them team up with more friends and musical heroes, including The Roundhouse Choir, vocalists Angélique Kidjo and YVA, British jazz heavyweights Pete Wareham and Dennis Rollins, Tom Rogerson of the experimental rock trio Three Trapped Tigers, and Ethiopian vibraphone great Mulatu Astatke – another hugely important influence on the band’s sound. Many of those guests will be appearing tonight, among them spoken word artist Rob Auton, whose work is equal parts whimsical and eccentric, touching and profound. There will also be a few sneak previews. As the album’s title implies, the band have more, exciting collaborations in the works as they head into their second decade.

‘It’s been an amazing ten years and it should be an amazing ten years to come,’ says Pretty. ‘I feel so lucky that we’ve been able to do it on our terms and I’m really proud we’re now doing a big show at the Barbican, working with all these amazing people. We’ve always just wanted to do interesting music with interesting people and this is a real celebration of that.’

Performers

Hackney Colliery Band
Steve Pretty trumpet, electronics, composition, visuals
Olly Blackman drums, composition
Luke Christie drums, composition
Jonathan Sweeney trombone
Ed Rieband trombone
James Arben tenor saxophone, flute
Roland Parsons trumpet
Ed Ashby tuba, sousaphone
Jeff Miller sousaphone

Guests
Mulatu Astatke vibraphone, Wurlitzer, percussion
Pete Wareham saxophones
Dennis ‘funkybone’ Rollins trombone
YVA vocals
DJ Yoda turntables, visuals
Rob Auton vocals
Tom Rogerson keyboards
Seb Lee-Delisle laser artist
Gina Southgate painter
Angélique Kidjo vocals (via video)

Roundhouse Choir
Osnat Schmool musical director
Rathi Kumar assistant musical director
David Cumming choir assistant
Roxanne Cavaye choir assistant
Alex Cunnigham
Alex Sewell
Azyba Ellis
Elise Boileau
Ellie Ferrand-Brooke
Ellie Roberts
Eve McQuaid
Hannah Coombes
Indira Lemouchi
Issac Kolapo
Jemima Marie Borges
John Medley-Hallam
Karyma Ellis
Lara Kester
Lauren Dyer
Laurence Morgan
Lily Sellars
Louisa Healey
Lucie Hiron
Luice Wolfman
Mia Chaudhuri-Julyan
Miguel Rivera
Molly Neylan
Molly Shiller
Nicholas Wong
Omar Peracha
Ryan O’Riordan
Solomon Thomas-Lea
Stefania Okereke
Victoria Vickers
Will Young

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