Touted as one of the finest banjo players in the UK as well as being a superb singer, songwriter and guitarist, Dan Walsh is described as ‘the real deal’ (UNCUT). He now has three critically acclaimed solo albums with new album Incidents and Accidents receiving excellent reviews. Grapevine’s Tony Bell caught up with Dan ahead of his appearances at FolkEast.
Music seems to come naturally to you, did you set out to be a musician?
I did yep, pretty much from day one. Literally I had the “what do you want to be when you grow up” conversation when I was small and it was always about being a musician.
How did you set out to do that then?
Ah yes, that is a more complicated question! Basically I took up the guitar, that was what I always wanted to play and I took that up when I was about 8 or 9, I think. Then the banjo thing came along when I was about 13. I’d been listening to a lot of Irish and Scottish stuff which my Dad had a lot of at home. I heard banjo in that so my parents went to the local music shop and asked if there were any banjo teachers about. There was a guy in Cannock, not far from our home in Stafford, a guy called George Davis. By great good fortune he was just about the best mentor I could ever have had. I had a trial lesson to see if I took to it… and I most definitely did so my parents got me a banjo for Christmas and it all escalated from there basically. The banjo became the main instrument which I hadn’t originally intended it to, I though it would sit secondary to the guitar but I completely fell in love with it.
You are described as a “claw hammer” banjo player, forgive my ignorance but does that mean?
Ah, good question. It describes the playing style, the instrument is a five string banjo, what most people would associate with the banjo used a lot in American Bluegrass. Claw hammer is a slightly funny looking style where you play with the back of your fingernail in down strokes and you use your thumb a lot as well – you hand literally does look like a claw – hence the name. If I am really being honest, when y parents found this teacher and said he teaches melodic claw hammer that meant absolutely nothing to me. I had no idea about different banjos or different ways of playing them. It is a unique style, a full sound you can sound like you are playing three parts at once which is harder to do in the finger picking style. That was the style George taught, a very happy accident for me.
I’ve heard you play funk, jazz, bluegrass… are there any boundaries to what you will play?
No! Not because I especially good or anything, just because to me I never had any particular idea of what the banjo was “supposed to do”. It was only when I started to play in pubs when I was about 16 and everybody started to shout “deliverance” at me, and various other things! They obviously had a very specific idea of what the banjo did, but I didn’t! I just kinda liked the sound, and never saw any reason not to try any style. I have always been a very eclectic musician in terms of my taste. For me, no genre is out of the banjo’s reach – but it may be out of my reach!
You have been lucky to colaborate with a wide range of people, including Alistair Anderson, Suhail Yusuf Khan and Meaghan Blanchard. How did those collaboration come about?
They vary – Alistair Anderson was a tutor on my degree in Folk and Traditional Music so that was a big thrill to play with him because he really has been there, seen it done it, he has toured all over the world, played with Kate Bush and various other people. It often just happens, you have a bit of a jam together and think, that was fun we should do that more often – and this is how it often comes about I suppose.
In the case of Meaghan it was sort of a musical “blind date” I suppose in that two musical bodies including Music PEI (Prince Edward Island) have this musical exchange programme where they pair different musicians up and they do a tour of each others countries. I went to Canada to tour with Meaghan, I had never met her before and we had three days to get a set together! And to write songs together!! That was quite daunting because I though, if we don’t get on… this is not going to be a lot of fun! Fortunately we got on very well so that worked out rather well but it could have gone either way I suppose.
It tends to happen when you see people live and you think “God, they are great players” and then maybe one day you think to yourself I’d really like to play with a fiddle player and you think of that person, the musical chemistry works and you end up working together.
Last year you joined the Urban Folk Quartet, you seem to be a very natural fit with the band, how does it feel?
Oh I love it! I absolutely love it. It has been a real joy, I was a fan anyway and I was particularly a fan of Joe Broughton, I’d seen him play when I was quite young – he doesn’t like me telling that story! I was 10 or 12 or something and I was knocked out by his playing that day – I never thought that I’d get the chance to play with him so it was great. We get on fantastically as people as well as musicians which, hopefully, comes across when we play live, there is a good buzz on stage. It has fitted in well because I have much the same philosophy as them which is that we just want to make the best music we can and have a good time and send the audience away a little bit happier than when they arrived.
And you are playing with the Urban Folk Quartet at FolkEast, yes?
Yes – that is going to be a busy weekend actually. I am playing with a mandolin player from Norwich that weekend, Nic Zuppardi as well, its going to be quite a weekend!
Have you ever been to FolkEast before?
I have, I did it solo last year. It was brilliant, it was great. I think it was the day after Green Man Festival in Wales or maybe two days after with Urban Folk Quarter. That was an incredible gig on a really rocky, dancey sort of stage so it was a really really lively gig and I though any festival after that is going to be a come down but it didn’t. I remember FolkEast the marquee was full of people and they gave me a great time. It is a lovely festival.
The new album: Incidents and Accidents, with a title like that there must be a story behind it.
It truth, it very easily could be about my life. Strange things seem to happen to me that don’t seem to happen to anyone else particularly on trains and travel, I seem to have had a series of varying disasters. But no, in actual fact the title was inspired by a line from “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. Paul Simon is a great hero of mine and I have been know to cover “You Can Call Me Al” on occasion. I was asking people if they had any ideas for album titles and a friend had seen me play that song and said what about Incidents and Accidents. And I thought it was a perfect a great album title, my producer Mark came up with the idea for the cover, me trying to catch a falling banjo, which fits the title quite well.
As a relatively young player how does it feel to have the likes of Seth Lakeman singing your praises?
Well, to be honest, anyone singing my praises is great! Like any musician it is always nice to be appreciated. You need to take the praise on board for what it is – a great compliment but also, don’t let it get to your head too much. My parents always kept my feet on the ground when I was growing up. I used to play a lot around Stafford and people would be saying “you are going to be famous one day” – they don’t know that solo banjo players don’t get famous generally. What matters is that you make the best music possible not that you get a big head and that has stayed with me.
Thank you Dan – it has been a pleasure talking to you. I am going to seek you out at FolkEast this year having contrived to miss you last year which I am very much regretting!
For more info, check out:
Dan Walsh http://www.danwalshbanjo.co.uk/ and
The Urban Folk Quartet http://www.theufq.com/