Interview – The Blackbirds get political: “Please America, dont kill us all…”

Words & Photography – Tom Walton

“I hate it when you do an interview and they don’t explain your quotes properly. Someone once asked us what we thought about X Factor and we chatted about it for ten minutes. In the interview it only said ‘it’s s**t’ underneath the question. It made us look like right idiots,” says Mark Flaherty, peering over a pint of Carling as we wait at the Frog and Parrot bar for Tom Matthews, the second half and guitarist/singer of The Blackbirds.

Flaherty, the band’s drummer, doesn’t speak in spite – he’s merely pointing out a valid grievance of giving interviews. No pressure, then.

After forming little under a year ago, the blues duo’s visceral kicks and licks that spin tales of riversides, relationships and current affairs are beginning to light up the epicentre of Sheffield’s music scene.

There’s a zeal to their grizzly guitars and untamed drums – they’ve got a sound and approach that lodges itself into the darkest caverns of your mind. With strong Steel City roots, Matthews (22) and Flaherty (24) formed a little under a year ago out of other local acts Cut Your Wings (Flaherty) and Shot Dead (Matthews) before making their debut live at the Frog and Parrot during last year’s Tramlines festival in July.

“We’re getting a bit political now – we just wrote a new track about the Iran conflict and it’s basically me saying ‘please America, don’t f*****g kill us all.’” – Tom Matthews

Their music tastes are varied, with Matthews obsessing over Fleetwood Mac and early blues artists such as Robert Johnson while Flaherty hits slightly heavier with Metallica and Led Zeppelin, also stating he’s “a massive Dylan fan.” Their influences ooze out of their songs – it’s story-telling blues that’s keeping up with the times, as Matthews explains. “I like having a dialogue in the music rather than just having me making stuff up – like story songs.

“We’re getting a bit political now though – we just wrote a new track about the Iran conflict and it’s basically me saying ‘please America, don’t f*****g kill us all.’”

The Blackbirds – Tales Of The Riverside

They’ve both been heavily involved in Sheffield music for the best part of the last decade, while working other jobs in the meantime – Flaherty quit college and pursued an apprenticeship doing “CCTV and house alarms and stuff” before quitting to concentrate on music.

“It didn’t have the flexibility I needed – you can’t be on call all the time and be in a band at the same time.” Matthews, on the other hand, worked several jobs before heading to Newcastle University where he’s currently studying construction management: “I’ve had loads of jobs, me. I’ve been a labourer, tree surgeon, a plumber,” before Flaherty interrupts laughing: “Tell them about the fish farm,” and turns to me: “Make sure you get this in…”

“Personally think that every candidate since Thatcher has been s**t” – Mark Flaherty

“I was changing the sex of fishes for a bit at a trout farm. Male trout die in the winter because they’re asexual and most trout can change between male and female, but not all of them. So in the autumn, to save the fish from dying, I injected them with this hormone which saved them. I lived on the trout farm for about two months with gypsies out near Chesterfield – it was a right laugh.”

The Blackbirds – Love Rat

Despite the front-man spending a lot of time in Newcastle while studying, the band are tight unit. They’ve got a blues sound with a feral rock undertone and they’re becoming increasingly influenced by politics as Matthews explains: “I’m left but I hate Labour. They aren’t left anymore, they might as well be Lib Dems. I’m more socialist. I vote Green, I like all the environmental stuff, it’s important.”

Flaherty adds: “I’m not that politically influenced but personally think that every candidate since Thatcher has been s**t. I’m more concerned about this division between the world, with people saying ‘we need this much money, we need that.’ It might be a bit communist but I just don’t get why people can’t share?

“I didn’t get people fighting in the playground at school and I don’t get it all now. Just f*****g share it out – you’ve got oil, we’ve got money, what’s the issue?”

“All I want to do is play music and if it can pay my rent and get me a pint on a Saturday afternoon then that’ll do me” – Mark Flaherty

With a sound that isn’t far from the now heavy-hitting, record-shedding blues combination that is The Black Keys, they are perhaps a band that have a niche to set them apart from the pop cyborgs that dominate the UK’s top ten charts.

Even if they do, it’s not the most important thing to The Blackbirds. They’re here to make music primarily, anything else that comes their way is a bonus, as Matthews points out: “Some people play football on a Sunday, I play in a band on a Friday and Saturday. It doesn’t really matter how far it goes – it’s just what we do,” before Flaherty interjects: “Don’t get us wrong, I would give my left bollock for us to get signed but it’s not why we do it. I don’t want to be famous, I have no aspirations for that. I’m not materialistic at all – I don’t need loads of money.

“I would be happy on the basic.  All I want to do is play music and if it can pay my rent and get me a pint on a Saturday afternoon then that’ll do me. We aren’t chasing anything and we aren’t running around trying to get signed. I just want to do what I love for a career.”

The Blackbirds – Keep The Lights Turned On

It’s a romantic idea but the life of a guitar band is not what it once was in an industry that’s dictated by talent and award shows. It’s something Matthews knows all too well: “Dance and electro has taken off in a big way. The drummer in my old band is touring Europe now, drumming with DJ’s and he’s charging £500-700 a night. Guitar bands are lucky to command even £100 and that can be between five or six people. DJ’s don’t even need a record or CDs anymore, there aren’t any overheads – they just turn up with a memory stick, play some songs for a few hours and f**k off.”

But as the economy continues to look precarious, unemployment rises and the nation remains indifferent or, in most cases, angry at the coalition government, Flaherty feels that it’s time for a band to stand up and be counted during an increasingly bleak economic climate: “There is no one big voice of this generation.  It does need something.  Let’s face it – it’s not going to come from Adele, is it? She’s too busy rolling round in the deep and complaining about not getting a modelling contract!

“I’m not saying that it’s us or whatever. As long as we can play our music to people that are interested then that’s all that matters. I would rather play to ten people that love it than 100 people that aren’t that bothered.”

The Blackbirds have edge and a sound that cuts through the decades yet they’re astutely tuned into a modern age. Get with the times and turn on the birds.


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