[Cover photo credit to James Vincent]
British Rock band Hardwicke Circus are from the Northern English town of Carlisle and have always allowed a sense of where they come from to pervade their music. You might take a hint from the title of their first full-length album, The Borderland, since Carlisle is very near the border between England and Scotland, but with their second album release in June 2023, they delve deeper into the texture of their lives.
New album Fly The Flag also makes reference to their town, but it gathers up the details of life, external and internal, in interesting new ways as they willingly captured the “hectic” aspect of their lives while making the new album, dividing their time each week between gigging and going into the studio. This allowed them to consider many new songs for the album and select those they felt best fit together. This in turn lead them to an eclecticism in sound that is bound together by energy and a sense of openness and positivity in the face of the unexpected.
Featuring Jonny Foster (lead vox & guitars), Tom Foster (drums & vox), Joe Hurst (bass & vox), Lewis Bewley-Taylor (all keys & vox), and Jack Pearce (saxophones & vox), Hardwicke Circus also have the excellent addition of working with Dave Robinson (former President of Island Records), and a host of high-caliber guest musicians on the album. Their album artwork also features the contemporary British painter Humphrey Ocean’s take on Carlisle’s well-known structure, “the civic centre”.
I spoke with drummer and vocalist Tom Foster about this dive into the “hectic” for Fly the Flag and why it spawned their most creative work to date.
HMS: I know that for your previous album, The Borderland, you seem to have had a specific plan where you went together to one location to work on the album in a focused way. Did you do something similar for Fly the Flag?
Tom Foster: No, it was the polar opposite. I think, at the start of the process, we were trying to fight it a little bit, and take a similar approach to The Borderland, but I think a couple of weeks into the year that it took to make it, we realized that there was no point in fighting the tide. For The Borderland, we’d gigged so much, and all the sudden couldn’t do anything, so we went away and made an album. We were in a bubble, so we couldn’t see anyone. It was the natural thing to do. For this record, we had four gigs a week, two days in the studio a week, and one day traveling. I think we had about seven different band members in and out. It was a crazy time.
It’s very interesting, though, that when I listen back to Fly the Flag, I can kind of hear how hectic it is. Each song is very different. I sent the songs to an old school friend recently and he said, “You can really hear much more going on on this one.” The Borderland is very much like what we play live, whereas this time, it’s a collection of songs where each one is very different. I’m very proud of it because it was very difficult to do, but we did it. And my friend likes it!
HMS: That’s hardest critic to please, the childhood friend!
TF: I know! He did critique little things, but I won’t divulge those things. [Laughs]
HMS: I think you’re right, that each of these songs is very big and has its own world. The way that music is received these days, it’s great that each song is so sturdy on its own.
TF: Yes, especially the way that streaming works, which is more single-oriented. That wasn’t our objective, but it was just that we had so many songs, with all of us writing them. We had five people writing songs, and we went through a crazy time with band members leaving, breakdowns, and all this stuff, whilst gigging non-stop. We each processed that in our own way and that’s why it sounds hectic, because it was.
HMS: Whereas The Borderland was more about enclosing yourselves together, Fly the Flag opens those gates and allows influences to come and go. It has a more festive atmosphere, too.
TF: For sure! I think it’s important to say that The Borderland is very Carlisle-oriented, about Cumbria where we’re from, but on this album, we go more deeply into our upbringing. We talk about things that only people from small towns will really get. When you hear songs like “Our Town” on the record, there are references which are quintessential to small, Northern, working-class towns. That wasn’t on The Borderland, that style of lyrics. Or maybe it just digs in deeper.
HMS: Maybe that comes with allowing yourself a little more freedom and allowing ideas to expand.
TF: Yes, for sure. Also, with The Borderland, we’d been playing those songs live for about five years, so when we went into the studio, we did it in two weeks. We knew exactly how the songs were meant to go. With this one, we didn’t even know which songs we were going to pick out of the recordings. We made many more recordings than we used. We also didn’t really know how the songs were meant to sound. I thought it was really exciting. I remember that every day in the studio was unexpected.
HMS: Was it difficult to select these songs for Fly the Flag? Was it something that Dave Robinson helped with?
TF: We discussed it and Dave said, “These are the ones that I think we can have on it. What do you want it to be?” It was very much a group effort. But there were a lot of songs. We’ve also just recorded an acoustic album, so some of those other songs that are unreleased will be on the acoustic album, which is coming out soon. The lads are in the studio right now. We’re even still writing new songs.
To write the songs, we played them on acoustic guitar or piano, and then we thought about which songs went well together. Some songs we felt were better than others but maybe didn’t feel right to release right now. We were looking for songs that sounded like they were in a batch together. We also wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before.
HMS: Had you played any of these songs live before recording them, or were they totally new?
TF: No, none of them had been played live at all. They were totally new. Now, we’ve been trying to get them into the set a little since we’ve been playing regularly since recording the album. When you have one album, that’s 50 minutes of a set, throwing in a couple of covers. But now that we have two albums, we’ve expanded the set, and it makes live play more interesting and exciting. We can change the dynamics of the set.
HMS: Do these songs pose challenges live because you allowed more layers and components when building them in the studio? They are more ambitious than your previous songs, for instance.
TF: “Yes” is the short answer. It’s hard in one way, but in another it’s easy. The song, “Our Town”, for instance, is one that we’ve played three or four different versions of live. Like “The Color in Everything”, you can kind of bend them and twist them, and they work in a number of ways. Because there’s a lot of stuff to them, but at the end of the day they are simple songs, they work in a number of different ways. There are a few that we haven’t necessarily worked out yet, like “Night Train to London.” That’s a one-dimensional live song where you’re not going to do an acoustic version of it, or a slow version of it. You kind of have to do it in that way for the time being.
“Bang My Head” was originally written in a Skiffle style, and everything was on the up-beat, and everything was written on an acoustic guitar. I thought that was really good, and then I sent it to Dave, and he said, “No, it needs to be a dance beat. It needs to be like Philadelphia.” Ever since I’ve heard the Philadelphia style, I think it needs to be played that way. Some songs were easier to adapt and some songs were harder to adapt from The Borderland, too. I think it’s something you learn to do well the more you do it.
HMS: For the song “Our Town”, I wondered how you all chose the lyrics because they are very detailed, but there’s so much that you all could have put in, it might have been hard to narrow it down.
TF: Johnny wrote that one. He had the idea for a really long time, I know that. I know that he tried to write the lyrics numerous times. I think that he’s probably got thirty verses to that song. Along the way, either Dave or someone else would say, “I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think that’s it.” He just kept doing it. I think it is very detailed, but I also think that if you’re from a town like ours, the things he mentions are everyday things. It’s not abstract at all. You walk around and see the things that are in the song. I actually never asked him why he chose the lines that he did!
HMS: How about “Every Day I Find The Luck”? That was one of the first singles for the album. It seems like that’s a good song to suggest the personality of the band right now. Do you think that’s true?
TF: Yes. That song was one that I had written in bed. We’d just done the demos for the first album on this farm, and lockdown had just started. No one knew what was going on. We were on this farm with no wi-fi or anything and we didn’t actually know the gravity of the situation. There was no TV. We knew things were bad, but we didn’t know any details. We’d demoed these songs and were ready to go record the album. I was in bed early in the morning, and I had a phone call from Dave saying that things were really mad in the world, with lockdown coming with no end-date.
Momentum had been really on our side. We’d be gigging for five years and were writing good songs. Dave said something like, “This band, we don’t need luck. We need Big Luck!” I thought that was quite funny. I just stayed in bed and wrote the song. Then I gave it to Johnny and Johnny tweaked around with it and wrote the second verse. That was it, really. It just sort of happened. It was such a weird time. You could go on a run in England, but there was really nothing to do, unless you forced yourself to do something.
As for describing how the band is at the moment, it’s described us for the past three years, really. That was one of the first songs written on the album. I think if you asked any band, at that moment, they were probably going through similar things.
HMS: I think what’s interesting about the song is that it expresses some aspects of optimism or determination but it doesn’t get too unreal about it. There are some struggles hinted at there.
TF: I’ve always thought it was funny, and I still do. I think the chorus line is funny. Throughout the song, it’s one line of optimism, then the other line dismisses it. Line by line, it’s a contradiction. And that makes the chorus quite funny. You find some luck, but you can’t even reach it, then you decide that it’s better that you couldn’t even touch it in the first place. I might be the only one who finds that funny, but I do!
HMS: It has a certain attitude and mood because of that, which gives it a unique feel.
TF: It’s also just three chords. It was a morning feeling, playing three chords, like all those old Folk songs. I have a book in my room called The Great Folk Discography, which Johnny bought me for Christmas. There are two of them. It goes through all these great Folk songs and classic American Songbook songs. The words are one thing, but when it comes to the guitar, you realize it’s all just three chords.
HMS: Do you think that the simplicity of the music is what encouraged you to use multiple vocal lines on the verses, too, giving it a kind of Folk feeling?
TF: I think it’s more about what we were listening to at the time. One of my favorites it The Kingston Trio. They have a song called “John Dooley.” These three brothers sing and come in on certain lines. Their song “Greenback Dollar” has an incredible vocal line. The chorus is huge and two other voices come in. Kind of like The Everly Brothers. I think it’s something we do if we feel like it’s necessary but don’t do if we think the single vocal line is very good. But we can all sing, and we do all sing, so that’s part of it. We love The Band on Big Pink, where everyone is singing. When we get to choruses, we over-indulge, I think!
HMS: It’s not as common to do that now, so it renders a distinctive sound.
TF: I don’t think many people do it right now. I think people do listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and this isn’t something that we’ve come up with. It’s kind of weird, since in girl bands, they still kind of do the whole backing vocals thing. Everyone sings.
HMS: You’re right! They do.
TF: They still kind of do it. You take all that Phil Spector stuff, the Shangri-Las, and The Crystals, The Supremes. They did it then, and people still do it now. With male bands, they all used to do it, like The Four Tops, but now they don’t seem to do it. I don’t where that stopped. Somewhere along the line, it became normal for male bands not to do it, whereas female bands still do it.