Some towns are synonymous with certain types of music. In the US, it might be Motown and soul with Detroit, or Nashville in relation to Country. In the UK, while most things are rooted through London, trip-hop was synonymous with Bristol, and it’s hard to imagine Manchester without much of the post-punk sound. Other places…less so.
Hardwicke Circus take their name from the best-known roundabout in Carlisle. Carlisle, which lies less than ten miles from the Scottish border, doesn’t have a history of popular music (unless you count sharing its name with singer Belinda Carlisle, but she’s from California). ‘It’s an extreme kind of place, but it’s our hometown and we wouldn’t change anything’ explains singer and guitarist Jonny Foster. ‘It keeps you grounded, we’re not chasing someone else’s dream.’ I draw comparisons with the likes of the Proclaimers, who have always sung in their own accents, or the confidence that Franz Ferdinand gave to the Scottish music scene twenty years ago when they didn’t relocate from Glasgow when they became successful. Jonny in turn cites Big Country as a band who had a distinctive Scottish sound, reflecting where they came from.
Word is spreading, of course. They’ve just released ‘Hits A Gogo,’ a new single. The single features backing vocals from Graham Parker and Nick Lowe, acts who made their name as part of the rock scene of 1970s London. Of course, it helps that their manager is none other than Dave Robinson, a man whose career has included being a roadie for Jimi Hendrix and whose imprint on much of the British music scene cannot be underestimated (but we’ll come to that later). ‘It was a really organic process,’ says Jonny about getting the two legends on board, who have also been managed by Robinson. The song was only recorded in August, ‘we were in album two mode and had to get it recorded.’
The band are heading off on tour for much of the rest of the year, playing a series of dates in both the UK and the Czech Republic. Like a lot of bands, Hardwicke Circus are still in the process of getting back into touring. ‘We played Eurosonic [Dutch festival] just before COVID. COVID really put a spanner in the works,‘ explains Jonny, rather ruefully. But fast forward a couple of years and things are really looking up. The current tour will see them play over twenty dates in the Czech Republic alone. The band got a text from a Czech promoter and they are off on their first real European tour.
‘I feel really lucky that we are able to do this,’ says Jonny of the tour, which is now underway. He adds: ‘Performing live pushes the band to become better. There’s a magic that you get from being on the road. I don’t aspire to do the odd gig now and again. Playing live is an inward not an outward thing, it’s really grounded.’
The band have certainly paid their dues, with over 1,000 gigs under their belt so far. Last year they played at the Glastonbury Festival, where they were recommended to the organisers by no less a musical deity than Paul McCartney. ‘When we first found out about it, I was under our old van, welding a wheel arch,’ says Jonny, amused at the memory. They played at 3:30 in the morning and he recalls walking up to the famed stone circle at the site, and was duly blown away by the whole sight.
While Brexit has not been without its considerable difficulties for young bands (and indeed most of us) –‘it’s created a void for bands like us, it’s difficult,’ Jonny reflects, they’ve taken matters into their hands to spread the word. ‘We did a prison tour of fifteen jails,’ Jonny tells me, adding that ”performing in prisons allowed us to experience what our fellow citizens have to endure on a day to day basis. Many of the inmates are often locked up because of circumstances beyond their control. It’s not Netflix & luxury like some papers would have you believe – prisons are seriously underfunded and opportunities to rehabilitate are scarce, but the majority of inmates want to have this chance, this moment to better themselves via music and art. Not until you step foot inside the jail walls do you realise this. We have ex-inmates coming to our shows on the outside now and it’s so good to see them thriving. It’s that level of communal involvement our ministers must undertake – they would become better people for doing so.‘ This saw them performing to inmates, doing Q & A sessions, and resulted in the band’s live album At Her Majesty’s Pleasure, released last year. This was all made possible by help from the Arts Council. The album was compiled from a couple of shows, ‘it all fell into place at three shows,’ he adds.
‘We’ve had to create our own circuit,’ says Jonny, matter-of-factly. This has meant ‘playing pubs where they don’t usually have live gigs, and we can perform midweek. The band’s not so reliant on traditional methods [of getting their music out there].
We discuss the challenges of making music and getting it out there, I put forward the view that while the internet has never made it easier for people to get their music out there, the sheer quantity of music [this writer gets sent more music in a day than he could possibly listen to] means it’s possibly never been harder to be heard. ‘If it was easy, everybody would do it,’ Jonny says. ‘It has to be accessible.’ He points out the problems of social background even now -‘the difficulty of getting out there if you’re from a comprehensive.’ He adds: ‘The internet democratised music in a way, but you have to wade through all of the other crap. There’s still an attraction to being on the radio in my eyes,‘ he says, thinking about the appealing idea of 100,000s listening to the same music.
To this end he is concerned about the danger of the BBC’s Introducing programmes being taken off air, when they have given so many acts the chance to be heard by the wider public over the past few years. Exasperatedly he tells me ‘they’re trying to close the shop door by door. The BBC needs propping up.‘
Of course, this is not to present Jonny as an angry person, rather he’s incredibly passionate and fired up. We return to talking about the idea of local and regional identity. ‘Regional identity is what makes music,’ he says, citing examples of the Arctic Monkeys in Sheffield, The Smiths in Manchester and U2 in Dublin. Nearer to home, the year will finish with a hometown show in Carlisle on December 23. I ask if the band are considered local heroes in their hometown. He laughs. ‘They ask: why did you name yourselves after a roundabout?‘
A night later I catch up with the band’s manager, the aforementioned Dave Robinson, who’s sitting on the tour bus in Sheffield. Having lead a fantastic and varied career in the music industry, he considered himself ‘pretty much retired‘ (he’s now in his late 70s). The idea, he tells me, was that his son was going to be the band’s manager. Then when his son’s photographic career took off, he felt that he couldn’t let the band down, having watched the early steps.
Photography was important in his early career, and he recalls going up to Liverpool to photograph The Beatles ‘when they were covering Motown.’ He sees something of his current charges with the hardworking efforts of the pre-fame fab four in Hamburg in the early 1960s. Much like the Beatles would often play several sets in one night, so too do Hardwicke Circus.
We talk about how the music business has changed over the years, but he reckons that it all comes down to the song-writing. Having been a roadie for Hendrix, he comments that Hendrix was very shy about his own song-writing. Hendrix had of course learned his craft on the road, and was at heart a blues musician. ‘The basics are so exciting when played well, everybody goes for that‘ he explains. In the 1970s, Robinson was the booking agent at London’s famed Hope & Anchor pub in Islington, and pushing against much of the prevailing musical interest of the time. ‘A lot of the music [in the UK] was to do with the theatrics, whereas American music wasn’t.’ This was the era of both progressive rock and glam rock. Robinson managed the rock band Brinsley Schwarz, meeting Nick Lowe for the first time. He recalls a young Declan MacManus, later to change his name to Elvis Costello and sign to Dave’s label Stiff Records as being a big fan of the Brinsley’s ‘and hanging on Nick Lowe’s every word.’ Having brought Canvey Island’s Dr. Feelgood to London (‘they were a tough blues band. [The band’s ] Lee Brilleaux and Wilco Johnson fell out because Wilco didn’t drink), Stiff Records followed in 1977, a sort of logical progression. It became home to the likes of The Damned, Ian Dury and Costello, later on also featuring Madness and The Pogues on the roster. Talking to him about this time, it’s easy to see why he’s managing Hardwicke Circus.
Of the Pogues, who played Irish folk with a punk attitude and would later achieve immortality with their perennial Christmas hit ‘Fairytale Of New York, he tells me: ‘I’m into people who write about their environment. Hardwicke Circus are far away from London.’ There’s a different ethos to them compared to so many, and being several hundred miles away from London means that they can look at the situation from outside the goldfish bowl of the London media, and plough their own furrow. ‘England doesn’t revere its musicians or songwriters. You have to overdo things to get attention. English television is like that – over-exaggeration‘ adding at the moment the only thing he’s watching on TV is the rugby.
Talking to both Jonny Foster and Dave Robinson is a reminder that sometimes you need to step back from what are regarded as expected and accepted paths in any situation if you want to stand out. There’s a passion and shared interest that binds them, along with a hard work ethos that is delightfully at odds with the current status quo. There’s a feeling that the band are in safe hands, with steely determination on both sides.
Keep it in the family, folks.
Hardwicke Circus are on tour until the end of the year. For ticket details see here.