Initially their horns united over a passion of party covers and live shows, but the nine piece group have since become well-loved for injecting brass band with hip hop, funk, Balkan folk, ska and anything else they can find. As they say, it means they have a sound as diverse as the borough which birthed them.
A debut album – Common Decency – has seen them start perfecting their own material while a performance at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics 2012 meant they have played for a huge, global audience of millions. The group’s Steve Pretty tells us how they are modernising this traditional music…
How did you get into brass?
Most of us come from a jazz or classical background. But we started listening to bands, who at the time were coming out of America. We went to go and watch Hypnotic Brass Band and Young Blood, and basically thought – ‘we can do something with this in the UK’. We’re still very influenced by the New Orleans tradition. At the same time, we’ve tried to integrate that with a bit more of an understanding of European brass bands.
Increasingly, I’m really interested in linking with the traditional heritage. Obviously our name is a bit of a nod to those bands. It’s a homage, which started off slightly tongue in cheek but increasingly we really see ourselves as a modern update of that tradition. We have a lot of respect for it and although we’re different, we’re going to think about our place in it more seriously in the future.
Why are brass bands still relevant for new audiences?
It’s a really visceral music. You can’t ignore it. There are a nine of us in HCB and there’s something really big sounding about that many instruments. You don’t see that many on stage unless you go and watch a big orchestra.
I also like messing with people’s expectations. When people hear the name, they think it’s going to be a traditional sound, they ask why we’re they playing this festival when the previous act was holding guitars? People are really surprised by the sound you can make with just people blowing through bits of tubing and hitting sticks on drum skins.
There’s also something about the character of the brass. There are a couple of moments during the set where we like to bring it down and have that warmth and mellowness you get from trad bands. It evokes musical memories in people.
Why is the sound so versatile?
The trumpet and trombone both have a very warm sound and we like to tap into those tones if we’re doing a ballad. But they’re also able to bring a lot of energy and volume and grab people’s attention. There’s a huge sonic palette you’re able to get with that instrumentation.
There are a lot of bands with horn sections now too. The likes of Amy Winehouse and those other new soul acts have got people warmed up for it.
Are there any unique challenges to composing for brass?
One of the big ones is writing music which is physically playable. It’s a very high energy set so the physical side of playing at full tilt can be tricky. When writing or arranging, it’s something you’ve got to be aware of. It’s not like a big band where someone comes into reinforce a passage. The instrument is on your face the entire time. So the physicality is a big thing, although it’s something people like to see. That comes across in our recordings and playing. Much as we love our albums, we like to put on a really great live show and people can see the effort we make. An audience sees that and the commitment it requires. That contributes to the enjoyment levels.
How did you find performing at the London Olympics closing ceremony?
It was an interesting one. It was a very exciting thing to have done. It’s not likely that a brass band of any sort is going to be playing a stadium any time soon. But in a lot of ways, we were relieved when it was over, as it was quite hard work dealing with the Olympic organisers.
I was also surprised I didn’t get the kind of buzz I was expecting from playing to that sort of size audience. Although you’re playing to 85,000 people, they’re not in front of you like they are at a gig or festival. It feels a bit unreal as it’s all around you. The next night we did a gig at a pub in Hackney as a bit of a come down from the event and something we could do on our own terms. It was a lot more fun playing to 150 people in the pub. I’m really pleased that we did do it but we prefer playing to a crowd who love getting stuck in.
What’s next for you?
We’re working on new stuff once we’ve finished this summer tour. We’re doing a gig every Monday in September showcasing the new music. then heading back into the studio to record it all in October, then launching at the London Jazz Festival in November. People can expect more originals, less traditional music and some collaborations in there. We’re really excited by the next phase.