Steve Hall talks about The Questionnaires new album.
An earlier interview with Steve talking about his time in North East band East Side Torpedoes features on the blog in March 2019. The Torpedoes were signed to EMI, regularly toured the UK and played the Knebworth Jazz Festival in 1982 supporting Ray Charles. After suffering bad luck in the recording studio the band called it a day in 1986.
Steve took up a successful career in academia while playing in local bands like The Questionnaires who supported Paul Young at the North Shields Fish Quay Festival in 2003.
In the interview Steve talked about ‘not being suited to life on the road and enjoying more the writing and recording side of music’. This brings his story up to date, as The Questionnaires have been busy in the studio with new album ‘Atlantic Ridge’.
In early 2019 guitarist and Dobro player Jim Hornsby and drummer Steve Dolder, who I’ve known for a long time, heard an earlier version of one of the songs, Hide and Seek and persuaded me to make the album. Initial sketches of the songs were made by Jane Wade and I in my home studio, just vocal and acoustic guitar. Some of our other musicians also own home studios or small semi-commercial studios.
Over time we evolved a performing and file-sharing process that worked, recording various instruments, bouncing rough mixes back and forward and re-doing them until everyone felt it was right. We said we wouldn’t be happy until it sounded like a band who had played together for a long time. It wasn’t easy.
By the time we were happy with the basic tracks, in effect we had played together for a long time. Atlantic Ridge was made between June 2019 and August 2020.
Who plays on the album? Our first album Arctic Circles, released in 2002, was a touch on the esoteric side, but we wanted Atlantic Ridge to be more down-to-earth, with a country/folk flavour to most of the songs. We chose the musicians very carefully.
They all had to be good enough to handle one or two tricky arrangements but at the same time sensitive enough to interpret the songs and come up with the parts that sounded right and conveyed the mood for each song.
To be quite honest we think we found the perfect combination. Jim Hornsby (Prelude, American Echoes, Martin Stephenson) on Dobro and guitar is a legendary country/Americana player, and as well as a great player, a great listener – every part he contributed in some way complemented the melody and harmony.
Steve Dolder (Eastside Torpedoes, Prefab Sprout, Glenn Tilbrook, Sid Griffin) on drums and Stephen P. Cunningham (Lindisfarne, The Proud Ones) on bass are as solid a rhythm section as you’ll get anywhere.
Anyone who cares to listen to the album will soon find out why Connecticut-born adopted Geordie Niles Krieger (Assembly Lane, The Often Herd) is regarded as one of the very best folk/bluegrass fiddle players in the country.
That was the core of The Questionnaires’ recording band, and we drafted in some special guests to put the icing on the cake – Roy Pearson on percussion, Liam Fender on organ, Les Watts on piano and Bevan Morris on bowed bass all show why they are constantly in demand for live and recording work on the North-East music scene. One fellow-musician and songwriter commented ‘This is the North East’s Wrecking Crew’.
They made the production of this album a real pleasure, and where Jane and I pushed them to their limits they pushed us beyond ours.
What themes do you explore through the lyrics ? The themes that Jane’s lyrics follow vary from thumbnail portraits of interesting characters you meet in pubs and on the streets in provincial cities like Newcastle, to broader themes like the state of the world in these strange times and how it is affecting people.
General facets of modern life like addictive internet shopping and in the sadder moments, broken hearts and lost love. Some of it is quite serious, some of it is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Lyrical influences vary from jazz, ‘60s pop, folk and music hall songs. I think the stand out track is Heavy Heart.
How did you find recording the album in these uncertain times for the music industry? I knew that recording and promoting independent music is an uphill struggle if ever there was one. The corporate music industry has so many of the promotional platforms sewn up. They produce some great music and a lot of nicely produced crap, but they succeed because it’s their great music or their crap you hear on the radio or see on the TV every day.
The quality of independent music varies too, but it’s far harder to get airplay, so you don’t come across our great music or our crap on the airwaves every day. Some broadcasters who support local independent musicians – such as Chris Donald, Gary Hogg, Paul Kirsopp and a handful of others – are the salt of the earth, but we knew it would be a hard road, especially in a band whose ages vary from 29 to 73.
So, we began with the intention of just knocking the songs into shape because we love doing it and always have done, and keeping the recordings for friends, family and posterity.
But we’re all pros or ex-pros, and as we got going we began to think, well, you know, this is sounding OK, so why don’t we put a bit more effort into it and try a release?
As I said, our method of working was tricky. Working in home or semi-commercial studios owned by some of our musicians, initial song sketches on vocal/acoustic guitar sent to the rhythm section, guide drums and bass put on, everything redone again, add guide guitar and fiddle, percussion, organ, backing vocals, rough mixes bouncing back and forth, nobody happy, do it all again and on and on.
Of course Covid knocked us onto the back foot for months. But we persevered – we worked out that if a record label had been paying for the time we all put into Atlantic Ridge it would have cost over a million quid. As it all came together, we began to enjoy it more and more. By the time we finished we all agreed that this was easily good enough for a commercial release. We ran it past some pretty hard-headed music industry people we know and they said it was one of the best albums they heard in years.
‘Atlantic Ridge’ main sales is through the site Bandcamp https://thequestionnaires.bandcamp.com/
The album is available as a limited edition CD or digital download. It’s also available on Spotify, I-Tunes and all the other digital platforms. This is a special release for our friends and social media followers.
After a promo campaign Atlantic Ridge will be released nationally on January 15th, when, hopefully, if we get past the gatekeepers, you’ll be able to read about us in the press and hear us on national radio stations.
Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2020.