Interview: Groanbox . . . with Norman Darwen

Posted on: Friday, Jul 6, 2012

Here’s an interview with Groanbox at the time of the release of their “Gran Bwa” album:


From the website bio: Groanbox, the North American trio of Paul Clifford, Cory Seznec, and Michael Ward-Bergeman, are a musical hybrid of ideas and ideals. At first glance a roots band steeped in the traditions of American music, they play with all the guts of rock and roll and all the soul of the wandering troubadour. But somewhere along the way, that troubadour turned off the road and, setting sail from the melting pot of New Orleans, began a journey that would take their sound to new, unchartered territories with influences from around the world.

Michael Ward-Bergeman – MWB

Paul Clifford – PC

Cory Seznec – CS

I’ve seen you described as ‘world-folk’? How do you feel about labels and is that one pretty accurate?

(MWB) Labels are for cans.  Paul removes all the labels from his cans before he plays them. There is no label that can contain what it is we do. Paul really does play cans, and he does burn the cans in fire to remove labels and other “industrial mojo.”

(PC) I burn them in fire to remove industrial mojo.

(CS) We’re music junkies, and as such we just like to stew up our own concoctions out of our sundry interests. “World folk” is what is being imposed on us as a way for the marketplace to begin to know where we are coming from musically. As far as we know we are of this world and we are folks, so maybe it is accurate.

How did you guys come together – and how/ when did two become three?

(MWB) Two became three when we added one guy who plays cans about a year ago.

(PC) I think I was with them from the beginning, but was the silent one in dreamland. Only when I stepped on Tony’s lead did I get plugged into their collective, and my fingers started talking.

(CS) Happenstance – a fluke decision to move to London, a message on Craig’s list, a duo that played clubs and pubs around England with a self-made rhythm stick inspired by shamans, New Orleans and morris dancing. Our Canadian percussionist entered into the orbit of the rhythm stick after hearing about us in a blues club in Putney and has been with us ever since.

Why ‘Groanbox Boys’?

(MWB) We add a member a year and lose a word a year.  We are now ‘Groanbox’. We started out as “The Groanbox Boys” changed to “Groanbox Boys” and are now “Groanbox.”

(PC) We are half onomatopoeia and half hard vowel.

(CS) We grew up, so we dropped the Boys. Groanbox is 30s jazz slang for the accordion. All of our instruments are boxes of various kinds, and they all emit groaning noises of various colours and / or frequencies.

Who are your influences?

(MWB) I’m influenced by a big fat old bloke with a long white beard that was playing a plastic toy guitar with three nylon strings and singing his balls off in an alley in Liverpool.  You think Seasick Steve is good, you should have heard this guy.  And he kind of looked like Santa. This is sincere and happened about five years ago.

(PC) Similarly, I saw ”Static Man” in Athens. He was a big smelly dude with an overcoat on a corner with transistor radios blaring static from inside of his coat. Any urban noise was washed by his in-between radio stations – brilliant act.

(CS) Everything that doesn’t seem to be mellifluous sap coated in the teasing saccharine din of the gold-gilded sound-surgery fantasy machine that makes up a large part of the modern music industry.

Tom Waits seems to be mentioned quite a bit when reviewers write about the Groanbox Boys – any thoughts?

(MWB) “Tom Waits” is the name of a new record we are working on which is inspired by the Samuel Beckett play ‘Waiting for Godot’

(PC) I had a dream 1.5 years ago, where I was invited to his house that was built on a giant stage, I was just about ready to record with him in a big room with metal, all hanging on the walls, when the rooster woke me up- dang!]

(CS) People need to compare us to something. Need to find a category. A cubby hole. File us away. The Enlightenment caused us to be very doctrinaire in our approach to the world. This way of thinking tends to gloss over the messiness of life. We’re all jumbled up in this world together. There are touches of Tom in our music, but there are also touches of Rimbaud or the wind in the trees and the night-bugs in Maryland, so it’d be mistaken to put us in the “Waits-wannabes” section of HMV. We can’t shut our ears, everything is an influence.

Who are your favourite blues performers and why?

(MWB) I’ve always been a big fan of the two blues on the outside edges of Blue Man Group. They spill the most paint when they play drums. (I wasn’t creative enough to think of anything other than the Blue Man Group to answer this question in a different way.)

(PC) That frequency that has been lost inside Howlin’ Wolf’s voice due to hard living, the one that makes him sound the way he does, is where I like to live. There is nothing like a good Thelonius Monk piano solo, There you can hear that lost ‘Wolf’ frequency. My biggest influence however, is my pineal gland.

(CS) In terms of “blues”, we like the sounds of pre-war music, when it wasn’t all about “blues” or “country” – it was all mixed up. Black guys playing ballads, white guys playing blues. Ragtime, gospel, hillbilly, mountain, mazurka, calypso, swing, vaudeville. Same hill of beans really. Melting pot. Consumerism brought the need for categories. The cult of the performer doesn’t really interest us, we just like music. Community over the individual.

You have three CDs – can you supply a bit of background to each?

(MWB) ‘Smokestack’ had a muted colourful background, ‘Fences’ a textured black and white, and ‘Gran Bwa’ was printed too dark and no one can read the credits. The Gran Bwa background is indeed too dark!

(PC) Three kids; all adopted, the first kid traveled the states eventually settling down by a river, the second left home and did community work for the elders, the third kid lives in the bush, fights off bugs, and has learned how to see with his feet.

(CS) ‘Smokestack Trilogy’ – our “bluesier” record – was recorded at Harefield Hospital in Middlesex in 2006. Artwork from a trip to salt flats in Bolivia.‘Fences Come Down’ – our transitional record was recorded on Cory’s folks’ farm in Annapolis, MD USA in 2007. Manual labour during the day made its way onto the album lyrically, percussively, and in the general soundscape. ‘Gran Bwa’ – our new sound with Paul Clifford on percussion, recorded in one night’s time in Edinburgh in 2008. Directly influenced by the Highlands of Scotland and the crazy music/sounds we listen to.

“Gran Bwa” – will we be seeing Paul playing the French-Caribbean percussion instrument ‘ti-bwa’? He does seem to pick up instruments!

(MWB) Paul is actually working on a ti-bwa made entirely of milk cartons. This is for the “Tom Waits” record we are working on.  Different images of God have been superimposed on all the milk cartons.  Paul has changed his name to Tom for this record.  He doesn’t play a note on the ti-bwa, he just stands there looking at all the deities on the cartons and waiting.

(Tom Paul says nothing)

(CS) Wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled that out at some point.

There’s a strong French influence on the accordion but also an awareness of how the accordion has been used by different cultures. Any favourites?

MWB) I always loved what suburban 1960’s America did with the accordion.  They put them in the basement or in the attic, where they rotted until they were taken outside in the 80’s and sold for $5 at a garage sale. This is a factual account of the history of the accordion, and one that has informed our music immensely.

(PC) I got a fiver…

(CS) Anything goes in the name of the groove-gods!

You have the remixes on the website, which only increase the weirdness for a change. How did they come about and do you have any plans to do more in this vein?

(MWB) We have an ‘increase the weirdness’ knob which gets stuck sometimes. Remixes usually result when this happens.  Although there was one time we wound up recording a version of Don Ho’s Hawaiian War Chant.

(CS) The Amazing Rolo aka Yann Seznec, who recorded and co-produced the three cds, did the remixes. He is an electronic musician and new technology wunderkind. Check him out. Hopefully he’ll do more at some point.

Reviewers often mention the shamanic quality of your music- and the freedom boot kind of emphasizes this, at least visually. Is this deliberate? And can you talk about the freedom boot a little…?

(MWB) We are deliberate about not being deliberate. Talking about the freedom boot is like walking about the taste of fruit.

(PC) Yes, most authors do not talk about their work in progress. It is however, an antenna that receives and transmits at the same time {read; static man}.

(CS) Nothing is deliberate, though I suppose there is an attempt to make sense of the inanities, strange encounters, odd coincidences (if they are indeed coincidences), bizarre juxtapositions, and constant freakish flux of the worlds we find ourselves floating in like bits of binary bumping into each other at random and yet perhaps totally planned. Call it spiritual, shamanistic, whatever. We try to lock in and let loose and maybe find some sort of deeper significance along the way.

How do you write/ pick your material?

(MWB) We usually convene the Groanbox villagers for a pow-wow and take some Sapo venom.  Then we deliberate about not being deliberate. By the way, in the 80’s – the same decade accordions started coming out of the attic – researchers found one of the constituents of Sapo venom in the urine of autistic children, and developed an entire theory of autism around it.

(PC) My limited experience with the band has been we grind ourselves into delirium then sit under a tree, and allow the instruments to do the work because we are so tired. Cory’s gourd banjo seems to rise to the occasion if the sun is right.

(CS) “If you can’t get rid of the family skeletons, make them dance” – George Bernard Shaw.

What kind of audiences do you prefer to play for?

(MWB) We prefer to play with an audience, not for them

(PC) That sums up the band, the Freedom Boot, and the lost ‘Wolf’ frequency perfectly.

(CS) As Michael said, we play with audiences not to them. We are merely channelling the energy that we sense in a given situation and music to bind us all together. The boot draws the energy in and emits music bolts through us.

What can we expect from The Groanbox Boys in the future?

(MWB) You can expect the past. We are Groanbox now.

(PC) A further exploration into day dreams, and collaborations with our inner CCTV cameras kick started by said pineal gland.

(CS) As Michael put it, you can expect the past. We are Groanbox now. On to more absurdist journeys of quixotic self-discovery and cathartic self-abandonment.

Norman Darwen

(Pic: Oscar Cainer)

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