When Metropolis reaches Skinny Lister frontman Dan Heptinstall, he’s messing around on a computer trying out ideas for a new song. It’s not exactly what you’d expect of a band whose specialty is pre-internet Celtic folk and a guy who plays something called a “stomp box.”
“I use my computer as a tape recorder,” Heptinstall says, denying any suggestion of digital literacy with a laugh. “All our songs start on an acoustic guitar, voice or accordion.”
But despite the English outfit’s folk bona fides, the band is very much a creation of the digital era. “There’s a small festival in Germany called Haldern … we did an impromptu gig for the crowd waiting in front of the main stage,” Heptinstall explains. “A massive party kicked off, and it was filmed and uploaded to the net, and that really helped to break us.”
Skinny Lister (named for a high school classmate) launched in 2009 in Greenwich, England, a district of South East London. “There used to be a pub next door where they had a folk night—we were inspired to become part of it,” Heptinstall recalls. “Also, our members Max and Lorna Thomas [melodeon player and vocalist, respectively]—their father has a folk heritage. He’s been writing folk songs for years, and they grew up being taken to traditional folk clubs with him.”
The group began singing sea shanties as well as traditional jigs and reels. They also perform a number of the elder Thomas’ songs live—including a rousing number called “Forty Pound Wedding.” Heptinstall says, “They’ve become sing-alongs that everyone in the crowd gets into.”
The online popularity of roots folk bands like Skinny Lister, Mumford & Sons or America’s Lumineers may be a case in which—to turn an adage on its head—the medium isn’t the message. Audiences are definitely yearning for something organic, and if the medium of distribution happens to be digital, so be it.
“We don’t align ourselves with bands like Mumford & Sons—they sound more American,” cautions Heptinstall. “We consciously try to be quite English and a bit Irish in what we do. We love The Pogues, and the subjects and attitude with which they deliver them. We align ourselves more with that than the current crop of folk bands. But the current folk wave has definitely opened some doors for us.”
Skinny Lister’s current invitation to Japan—and release of their forthcoming album on domestic imprint Uncleowen—traces back to what has become a familiar route for bands into the country: a barnstorming debut at the Fuji Rock Festival.
“Japan was one of the highlights of last year—it was unexpected,” says Heptinstall. “We knew we were playing Fuji Rock, but we didn’t foresee such a response. We played the pre-party, and we must have had several thousand people watching it, and they were going crazy. Then the next day everyone seemed to come along. It exceeded our expectations and we can’t wait to return.”
Fuji Rock offers a release from Japan’s unforgiving day-to-day, blessing bands with ecstatic receptions that can be hard to repeat at a standard club gig in Tokyo. But for Heptinstall there are other rewards to be had than simple applause. “As a songwriter, it’s a cathartic experience to get something out of your system,” he says. “That would exist without me needing to perform in front of people. And then for other people it can be a similar thing—people put their emotions into it. And if you’re feeling good, music can help that along. And if you’re feeling like it’s the end of the world, music can help you work through that, too.”
Oct 8, Club Quattro. See concert listings for details.