BILLY MITCHELL / THE PITMEN POETS INTERVIEW
The Pitmen Poets consist of Billy Mitchell, Bob Fox, Jez Lowe and Benny Graham. Together, on stage, they represent a musical force with which to be reckoned. Here, in an interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Billy chats about how they got together, their touring schedule, and their latest CD…
Hi Billy, how are things, and how has 2016 treated you?
I entered my eighth decade in 2016, and it’s been a case of “so far, so good.” This year has been one of the busiest for me since the demise of Lindisfarne in 2003. New, exciting projects appear like magic, and I never know what’s around the corner. So far this year, I have done a UK tour with The Pitmen Poets, performed at two sold-out “Sunday for Sammy” concerts at Newcastle City Hall, toured the UK with Ray Laidlaw in “The Lindisfarne Story,” played some festivals (including the first-ever gig on Lindisfarne Island) with The Lindisfarne Story Band, done a gig or two with my old pal Bob Fox, played a few solo dates (plus some with my son, Tom), and have been the master of ceremonies in a musical celebrating the life of “Tyneside Bard” Joe Wilson.
So tell us a little about how the The Pitmen Poets got together…
In 2011, Bob Fox was asked to organise a show for the newly opened Kings Place Arts Centre in London. The idea was to take a bit of northern culture to the heathen south. Bob got the four of us together, and The Pitmen Poets were born… for one show! We decided to do the show one more time at “Sage Gateshead,” and it was so well received that a national tour was mooted. And here we are… about to embark on a 35-date UK tour in 2017!
Whose idea was it to incorporate spoken word segments and “background” photography into your shows?
Benny Graham is such a wonderful interpreter of Geordie dialect poems and songs; it was an obvious addition to the Poets’ repertoire. Benny also drew the short straw in putting together the multimedia background to the show.
Were you all friends before “banding together”?
Bob Fox and I had been working together on a couple of albums and a few tours since 2005, Bob and Benny had worked together on a project called “How Are You Off For Coals?” and Jez and Benny were working together on various projects, so all of our paths were crossed in lots of ways, and we all knew of each other’s work. The blend of different characters, playing styles and singing styles was accidental, but the mix works perfectly.
To what extent is your connection to coal mining a “personal” connection?
I was born and dragged up in a coal mining village called West Wylam in Northumberland. My elder brother, father, grandfather, and all of my uncles were coal miners. I was the first of my line not to have to go down that black hole.
With which member of The Pitmen Poets do you have the most in common?
We could all give the same answer to your previous question, so we all have that bond, but since Bob and I have toured and recorded so much together, and fought over the last drop of red in the bottle… well, there’s your answer!
Are you devoting your time and energy exclusively to The Pitmen Poets at present, or are you still touring The Lindisfarne Story with Ray as and when opportunity permits?
The Lindisfarne Story is on the back-burner for a year or so, as we have toured three times in the last three years. We only finished our latest tour at the end of October. The Poets’ 2017 tour will be the last one for the foreseeable future, as Bob will be touring with “Warhorse” for the next couple of years, so all of our efforts will be going into making this a show not to be missed.
You’re poised to tour the UK with The Pitmen Poets throughout January and February. Which towns and cities are you most looking forward to visiting?
Obviously our shows in the North East are extra-special, but it will be good to take the story to parts of the UK that don’t have connections with coal mining, to inform the folk who come, through our songs and stories, about the humour, triumphs and tragedies of the coal mining tradition of Northumberland and Durham.
Have you been pleased with the response that “The Pitmen Poets Live” CD has received?
We have been totally overwhelmed at the response to the CD. The whole thing was recorded live at a concert, and the spontaneity shines through. All of the introductions to the songs are there, which adds to the feeling that the listener could have been in the audience that night. We have had some great reviews, along with hundreds of positive comments from folk who have bought it, and it is still selling well at concerts.
Looking ahead, what do you have planned beyond your 2017 tour? Are you hoping to record another CD anytime soon?
We have recently recorded a new album of songs called “More Black Diamonds.” There are fifteen songs on there, some of which have appeared in the live show, some new songs, and some old ones. It was all recorded live around the kitchen table at Boomchang, Newcastle. It will be available via our website, and at all of the shows on the tour.
Finally, what’s the best way for people to find out more about The Pitmen Poets?
The best way to find out about The Pitmen Poets is to come to a show and experience us first-hand, and then buy both CDs to relive the experience time and time again! All info is at www.thepitmenpoets.co.uk
The Pitmen Poets will be appearing at Pocklington Arts Centre on Wednesday 18th January. Visit www.pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk for more details and tickets
Hankering after travel inspiration? Pick up (or download) Steve’s first book, “Pulse,” here