Louis Barabbas was once threatened just before going on stage to perform at a bikers’ wedding: “If you don’t play well, I’m going to shave you!” Fortunately he lived to tell the tale, beard still intact, which meant I was able to steal a couple of hours with him between touring with The Bedlam Six and catching some Louis-time in the south of France, and before he jetted off to the most recent Un-Convention event, in Uganda.
One could be forgiven for thinking, however, that the biker got his way; Louis now sporting a more trimmed representation of facial hair than the super-beard he has been known for over the past couple of years. A perfect opportunity then, to find out more about what lies beneath the energetic force which drives and fronts the Bedlam Six.
Louis Barabbas is constantly questioning; himself, his music, the business he is in and the world around him. This is not a self-depreciating, ‘woe-is-me’ artist but more an artist trying to manoeuvre his way through the challenges of an ever changing industry, over-populated with people trying to ‘make-it’.
LB: You might be flavour of the month one minute, then suddenly you lose your grasp. A couple of years ago, when Dubstep was everywhere…I mean, it goes from everywhere to nowhere. What happened to all those people? Are they still trying to write the same sort of music? What are you if you’re not part of the fashionable trend? What do you do when you’re not that relevant?
Beard Rock: So what keeps you going?
LB: Sometimes you get so wrapped up in trying to make a success of yourself that you forget to do the things that you are supposed to be doing, like writing a new song. It’s about sustainability – you can live off touring but you need to keep writing new songs or the audience will crack.
I have friends who are trying to ‘get noticed’ and get their music in the right people’s hands but if they just toured, just did it, it may not work but at least they wouldn’t be filling their time with empty dreams. If you sit on a bunch of songs and don’t just put them out there yourself you don’t move on. We’ve got four records out already and no-one knows who we are!
BR: People talk about the downfall of the record industry, blaming ‘free’ music and the internet but clearly it can be sustainable for people like you, who are working at it and making a living.
LB: People look at the internet and think of it as all these little people who live in the internet. Some people don’t realise that they are people, on the other side of a connection, and if you just talk to them they might buy something off you, rather than steal it.
For bands like mine, the internet is amazing. There’s no way that anyone in Germany would know who we are. We had people coming from neighbouring countries on our recent European tour to see us. I was thinking, “How do you know who we are?”
At [Un Convention] conferences, when I’m talking about how to market yourself, people ask “how did you get where you are?” and the honest answer is “I don’t know!” I suppose it’s just by doing the best you can. It’s so unscientific because for so long we gigged, “doing our best”, and nothing happened but then you don’t know if those seeds were sown five years ago.
Whenever I get frustrated about people not knowing about us I think back and remember to when I was 17 and what a pleasure it was to know about a certain band. I loved the Delgados then, and now I’ve actually played the places that they used to tour. So now I think, actually I’m at the same point they were and the people who know who we are and like us own something other people don’t. I remember loving that feeling about knowing a secret. I quite like the idea of me being that secret!
BR: Where did the character of Louis Barabbas come from? Was it a thought-out process or did it evolve?
LB: I’ve been writing songs since I was 17; very much folky, pretty songs. Most of the first few were about a girlfriend who’d just dumped me. But that kind of thing was what I resurrected with the Louis Barabbas stuff. When I started mixing theatre with music and realising that my strength wasn’t singing, I realised that I could play a quite good psychopath. I looked back and those old songs were all about being obsessed with something and if you imagine a 17 year-old in a 45 year-old’s body, that’s Louis Barabbas.
Whilst the Black Velvet band [The Bedlam Six’s previous incarnation] were going through a rough patch, I wanted a get-out clause for my creativity so I created Louis Barabbas as a side project to that – as a solo thing. If you wanted one single inspiration it would probably be Ron Moody [the actor who played Fagin in the 1968 film of Oliver!].
BR: How did Debt Records come about [the independent record label Louis Barabbas co-founded]?
LB: We were talking about what a label has now become and it’s just that, a label. Since everyone can now self-publish music digitally, on a global scale, thanks to iTunes and the like, record labels’ names just help people identify what type of band you can expect to be listening to, if they are signed to them.
As we were already part of a South Manchester scene, with members of bands playing with each other in different formations, Debt just formed out of that. It’s not just “me and my mates” but it was a way to put a label on the scene we were in.
Three years ago it started out just as a bunch of self-published people. But the goal is that the bands can use each other to help promote and gain gigs. Once we can gain the ear of a promoter, like at a festival, more often than not they’ll book another artist on Debt as well.
BR: So if it’s not about money-making, is it about being philanthropic?
LB: We were banging our head’s against a wall trying to get gigs. If you’re a band trying to get a gig and your email address is email@example.com people groan. But if it says suchandsuch@something_records.com, people sit up; they think “Oh, a middle man – I trust what this email will say”!
There are no contracts, it’s just based on the notion that if someone gets some kind of break, it will hopefully filter back to the hub.
I want it to be better than it is, really. It’s not quite fulfilling the goal, in terms of the recognition the bands are getting. We get requests from bands to be part of the label but I don’t think we’re doing well enough for the bands who are already on it, to take more on.
BR: So you do consider yourself part of the Manchester music scene?
LB: Very much so. It’s a good place to be a musician as you are surrounded by creative people. But being here and meeting the people I’ve met, playing with the people I’ve played with has all made me better.
BR: Is the music scene of Manchester unique?
LB: I can’t speak for other cities as I don’t live there. What I can say is that it took me five years to get a full house in Manchester but it took me three gigs to get a full house in Liverpool.
Liverpool has the Beatles and they sit there on Mount Olympus saying, “we’re here and no-one can be the Beatles”. So everyone else says “Phew, no-one can be the Beatles, what a relief. Let’s do this then.” Whereas in Manchester you’ve got The Smiths, The Stone Roses, New Order, Oasis, Happy Mondays and people are thinking “who’s going to be the next thing?” because there are always a few contenders for the throne. There’s no royal family, there’s just lots and lots of warring tribes. There’s an unhealthy interest in competition at the moment in Manchester.
My experience of the folk scene in Manchester though is that everyone talks to each other and is generally very helpful. When I was in a band in London, no-one talked to each other; it was like you were all enemies. In Manchester people talk and maybe share band mates for a while. Maybe that’s a folk thing and not a city thing, I don’t know.
BR: Where do people find out about new music now? Where is the source of new music in the mainstream media, in today’s climate?
LB: What’s a shame is that I read a piece in one of the broadsheets last year that said “2011 was the most boring year for music” and I just thought “you smug bastard! If you weren’t confining that to your Inbox…” All the things they are reviewing are being put out by people paying for the journalists’ lunches, taking them out to snazzy cocktail bars. If you just took a cursory glance at what is going on, on the periphery, you’d find some really great things. Instead they’re writing some article about how it’s all so bland these days. It’s only bland because they haven’t looked around!
I find it very frustrating that I’ve got to jump through certain hoops in this country, just to get the ear of the tastemakers, whereas in Germany, for example, they just come to shows. Audiences just come – they see a poster, find out who the band are and if they like what they’ve seen on the internet, they’ll just go.
In the UK, you start off in a position where people don’t like you and you have to earn their love. If you go out for a night in Germany, people just want to have a good time. It’s just about going out and enjoying some live music on a night out!
Photo copyright Karyn Dickinson 2012
Posted: Thu 14 June 2012