INTERVIEW: The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican

After watching The Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican own the stage at Watchet Festival last year, I was incredibly pleased to hear the hilarious trio were heading back this Summer. They were the highlight of my weekend and one of my favourite discoveries of last year. With a busy Summer ahead I thought I would catch up with them whilst I can! I asked Scott, all round cool dude and knitted sweater enthusiast, all about Watchet Festival, the new album and their 1000th show! 

It is great to hear you are heading back to Watchet Festival this Summer! What do you think you will do differently to last year?

I always keep a copy of our set-lists, because, particularly when playing some festivals who have had us back on consecutive years (like Watchet kindly have since 2013), we don’t want the act to grow stale. We know that in a festival set we are likely to have somewhere between 30-60 mins maximum, so every song counts… it’s not like our normal stage shows where we do a marathon 3 hour set! We have to work fast, but that brings a certain energy to our festival sets, so that people hopefully haven’t got time to get bored and see something on another stage.

In terms of the song choices, there are a bunch of songs that have become favourites, that we know fans of the band don’t want us to drop from the set, but we always try to put a bunch of new ones in too to keep the act fresh, and by comparing the previous year’s set-list  we can continuously mix it up.

In terms of doing things differently, one thing that I did learn from last year’s festival is that crowd-surfing in a dinghy hurts if you fall out of it, 8 feet, on to your back, so I may stick to a more tried and tested method if I am daft enough to go back for more. I turned 40 this year, so I guess I am not getting any younger… but growing-up is for old people!

The one thing that we can never plan for is the audience. The three of us are pretty quick to react to things going on in the crowd (Björn is very fast, and is razor-sharp), which means that even if you have seen us before, something funny will no doubt happen that most likely won’t happen at another show. A great example of this was when we played Bearded Theory last year. Just as I was about to get the dinghy out onto the crowd, a pirate in an inflatable unicorn boat turned up on top of the crowd gesturing for me to jump in. Rather than obliging I raced them to the bar on top of the audience. You can’t plan for that kind of madness. Some people thought we had staged it, but we really had no idea it was about to happen!! Bjorn once took somebody’s phone off them at a festival in Lichfield, because they answered it while he was talking. He spoke to the person who was on the other end of the phone, before hanging up. Nobody is safe when the Doonicans hit the stage.

What is it about the Festival which makes you go back and play there?

We all love Watchet. Everybody in the band, and our partners just love the festival and also the town itself – if you come from outside Watchet and have never ventured into the town during the festival, make a point of wandering down the hill. Pebbles Tavern is a favourite haunt for us whenever we visit, as is the Corner House Café (their breakfasts are the perfect festival hangover cure, trust me).

You also have to go a long way to meet a team nicer than Jackie & Mark Bale’s festival team. They are like a big happy family and they are a pleasure to work with. Jackie once very kindly described us as their “second house band” (after West Country legends and thoroughly lovely chaps, The Wurzels), so how could we say no!? Normally we like to be there for the whole weekend, but due to a booking at another festival on the Sunday, we will only be able to play the once this year on the Main Stage earlier on the Saturday afternoon. It’s always a party, and well worth the 237 mile drive from Barnsley.  


You have been working on a brand new album. How’s it going?

We have. The new album, Place Of Spades, is out in summer, and features a load of new songs. We try our best to write an albums-worth of songs a year to keep the act fresh. After 13 years of doing this, it gets harder each time, but I like to think that we aren’t just turning stuff out that is sub-standard; if it makes us laugh when we are working on it, then it goes on the album, if it doesn’t we ditch it. We are pretty good at self-editing, and nothing goes out into the world until it is just right.

It’s our tenth studio album, and I personally think it sounds like the biggest and most adventurous we have ever sounded as a band. Our current line-up has been stable for five years now, and I think our main strength is that we work great as a team and continue to make each other laugh. I love working with Björn and Alan. We’re friends as well as band-mates, and that hopefully translates on stage. We are more than aware that to call this a job is a bit of a joke, but it really is the best job in the world.

When is the album out?

We plan to have an official launch party show on 30th June, which will be very special indeed and will be announced later this month, but as we are celebrating the band’s 13th Birthday a fortnight before, we decided to ensure that anybody who pre-ordered the album will get it a fortnight early, and that our birthday shows in the West Country in Talaton in Devon, Washford near Watchet in Somerset, would double up as the pre-launch parties too. In fairness, every show’s a party for us!

What have you had to overcome to make the album happen?

There was nothing as such to ‘overcome’, but it has been a very different recording process this time around. We have always enjoyed recording at home rather than working in big expensive studios, and for the last three albums, Björn and myself have co-produced together, working very closely. Björn has recently started a music degree, so he has moved from Barnsley to Nottingham, which means that we have had to work more remotely than previously. I spent a few months recording large sections of song arrangements, emailing them across to the others, and once I had finished, Alan and Björn came round on two separate full day sessions to add their accordion, banjo, mandolin and fiddle parts. It was sometimes tougher to have the wider vision of how it would sound in the end, but now we are done it sounds huge. Joel Howe from the band Black Thorn, who has mixed and mastered our previous two albums, is back on board, so it’s going to sound stunning. I have heard early mixes of about half of it, so far, and it’s shaping up nicely. Joel is a great guy to work with and always seems to know exactly how we want it to sound. He is a real talent.   

I’ve always wanted us to be independent, with no management or record-label to make us do things their way, and so far it hasn’t hurt us. The album has been crowd-funded, but thankfully, because I prefer us to march to the beat of our own drum, we didn’t use an online platform like Pledge Music, we did it ourselves. Pledge Music has hit the headlines recently as it has gone bust, and I have seen several bands in crisis as a result of that, unable to fulfil commitments to fans, and without any way of reimbursing them. Our fan-base might not be the biggest in the world, but they have helped us to create something very special and I feel we owe it to them to deliver the goods. I’m hoping people like it when it lands.

I think there is always that preconceived idea by people that have yet to see us, that because we are a ‘comedy band’ that it is a novelty and therefore we can’t be decent musicians. At the heart of what has been done on the new album, as well as writing songs that make us laugh, the arrangements are often even more complex than the song choices. In the early days we were creating parodies of songs that maybe had three chords… on this one, it’s been fun arranging full orchestras of instruments, string and brass sections – a full palette of sounds. It is still quintessentially very ‘Doonicans’, but, a bit like my heroes Queen, who could be extremely extravagant in the studio, we know that we too can still strip it all back to our folk instruments when we play the new songs live.

Your 1000th show is fast approaching. What has been some of your favourite moments over the years as a band?

I can only speak for myself, as I know that both Björn and Alan will have different highlights from their time with the band, but there have been plenty. It was both fun and utterly terrifying to play at Fairport’s Cropredy Covention last year in front of 20,000 for our 900th show, and to see a sea of folkies in deckchairs eventually warming to us to the point where they were all on their feet by the end of the set. That was special. I also loved every second on stage at our first visit to the Big Top at Beautiful Days Festival last August… that show felt like a culmination of everything we have worked at since 2012, when we first arrived on the festival circuit. The tent was full, and allegedly the crowd was 15 deep outside the doors. How we attracted that I will never know. At the same time, it isn’t just size that counts… we often do smaller seated venues when we aren’t doing festivals, and pretty much all of the shows on last year’s Christmas Knitwear Tour were amongst our best to date, and a genuine pleasure to play.

What are you looking forward to later in the year?

There are a few shows this year that I am really excited about. Some of them, we aren’t allowed to mention yet, so I need to be careful what I say, but of the ones we can talk about, playing a sold out Buxton Opera House supporting the Levellers in May is certainly something I think we are all mega excited about…  The Levellers are a band that all three of us love, and the Opera House is a venue that I have wanted to play since I was a kid. What is quite amusing is that we wanted to book the Opera House for our 1000th show, but due to very limited availability in their calendar, and because they said they couldn’t see us in their programme (whatever that meant!), we opted to do the 1000th show at the gorgeous Palace Theatre in Redditch instead… and then the Levellers asked us if we wanted to support at Buxton. Dreams do come true, kids.

Bearing in mind that this when we started out as a band, we only ever planned to do a one-off show. With that 1000th show now on the horizon, I have to question how the hell this all happened?!!


For tickets click here! 


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