19 May 2010


Hollowbelly (government name: John Farr) has risen quickly to become the best known CigarBox Guitar player in the U.K. this side of Seasick Steve. An English Jack White howl and blues sense and a UK-centric punk and political sense of justice, rage and soul Hollowbelly reveals (and pounds new nails in) the old time bridge between the British isles and mines and American blue mountains, piney hills and dirty south. With the release of his new album Punk, Northern and Blue, it's time you get to know more about the man called Hollowbelly.

Let's start at the start.

Well at around 8 years old I heard Little Richard singing 'Lucille'- it was on a compilation album that was in our house during the early 70's-the first compilation albums that had the actual artists singing (on the K-Tel label)-before that the albums had session musicians singing the hits-ha ha-truly awful. But I digress - back to Little Richard- I swear I thought-what the f*** was that!?? There's this black guy screaming and hollering and knockin' 7 shades of shit outta his piano-I loved it.

Well fast forward another 8 years and Punk hit- The Sex Pistols were on TV- my dad hated them which of course only made me love it all the more.  I was an angry young man (now I'm an angry old one- if you wanna know why-switch on the news).  The Ramones, the Buzzcocks,and my all time fave band Joy Division.  It was an awesome time to be a teenager music wise.  Punk was a big influence, I played in a punk band back in the day, and of course its pretty evident in my music.  As for blues, well its the roots of the tree-its home for any musician.  So I guess its no surprise I play punkblues.

You only do your own material?

Well, its a bit of a story- Some aspects of my childhood were pedestrian, some not- I spent from the age of about 8 til 15 playing in a cabaret band-we had to have special licenses due to our age- we gigged the working men's club circuit relentlessly (I don't know if you know what that is in the States).  I'll explain-Well, Its very northern-there are working men's clubs/labour clubs etc, where working class people go for entertainment.  We did so many shows over the years it was crazy-anyway, our set was 100% covers-playing whatever the drunk punters wanted to hear, to dance and forget their shitty lives.  It was good money but artistically bankrupt.  Those poor f***ers in the audience would sing 'My Way' at the end of a night and looking back it breaks my heart-they hadn't done it their way at all-they'd been exploited just like everyone I knew-on the factory floor and down the mines or whatever- I still cant bear hearing that song.  So I'd had my fill of covers after that and swore I'd never prostitute myself again.

Aside from that Rick, I struggle to understand these blues artists who endlessly retread the old blues standards- have they nothing to say? Are they so vacant they have to sing other peoples' words?  Just how many times do people want to hear some well off white fat bastard from Guilford singing about life in the Mississippi delta for f***s sake.  If I have nothing to say I don't speak.  If you ever find me singing 'Sweet Home Chicago' put a .45 to the back of my neck and pull the bloody trigger.  I don't sing about little red roosters cos I don't own one, or milking cows for the same reason- if I sing about a river it's the Mersey not the Mississippi.  I think you should sing about what you know.  Thank God for performers like Honkeyfinger and The Jooks of Kent- proper artists, moving blues forward.

Our mutual friend DJ Hillfunk tells me you decided to do your own album, merch, and distribution yourself at gigs after a story by Bob Log at his 100 Club gig,  Bob was telling about bands owing so much money to labels who promote them...

Oh yeah- Bob has some great stories- I guess you can't be on the road as much as him without acquiring a few. Well, Bob was on tour with this famous band (I'll be diplomatic and not mention who)- he says to them-"wow man- you must be making a whole bunch a money selling all those T shirts" and they turned around and said "Oh sure Bob- if we sell all of them we'll only owe the record company $300,000.." Hmmm- well after me and Bob played the 100 club I see him standing at a little table- selling his Cd's and a few home made t shirts and of course he got paid for the gig.  It struck me, man, that's the way to go- the cottage industry feel to it chimed right with my DIY not EMI philosophy- sure he didn't sell 300 t-shirts but what he made he put largely in his pocket.  He owed no-one nothin'.  Its good honest pay for good honest work. So yeah- it seems to me there's these guys, the Bob Logs and the Scott Birams, flying under the radar and making a bit of money to get by-free from the horrors/exploitation of the established record industry. Seems the way to go to me.

DJ Hillfunk also says "Although living in the southwest of England Hollowbelly's music is prominently about his old life in the north of England and it's grim side of decay and hopelessness."

Bottom line I can't stand social injustice- never have never will.  Again, I don't know how well this will translate to an American reader, but basically the North of England is, or was until that bitch Margaret Thatcher closed it in the 80's, essentially industrial and working class.  The South is looked upon as affluent and middle class.  A generalisation of course but that's the way it was seen and still is by many folk.  Listen to the laughter on the 'Live at the 100 club' version of the song 'Going Back Up North' - when I say "this songs about something I try to avoid as often as I can-its called going back up north"- the southern audience are only too aware of the Norths' reputation, hence the laughter.

Anyway,when I was 18, it was somewhere to escape from-Warrington town centre was stupid violent- that 'Friday night, f**k or fight' mentality.  That intolerance of anything different.  Like every time we went out = violence- if I was on me own there'd be 4 of them- if I had 3 mates with me there'd be 12 of them- how come that was always the odds? cowardice I guess-anyroad-violence is not my idea of a laugh. Now I don't wanna come across like some working class hero-sure my dad came from the West Bank in Widnes down by the river Mersey there- two up two down terrace with an outside bog (translation for Americans-a small 2 bed house with a toilet in the back yard).  But he educated himself out of there and I was brought up in a 3 bedroom house and an indoor toilet and a garden.We had shoes.We'd 'made it', so to speak.  I actually thought I was well off until I went down south and started seeing a bit more of England. The song "Going Back Up North' is about that love/hate thing that many, many ex-pat Northerners feel about the north.  I mean, its well documented-from Doves to Oasis- they've all had a pop at the north.

I had a conversation many years ago with my late friend Roy from Guisborough in North Sheffield. We talked about how England's north and south are similar to that of the U.S. though mirror opposites with your northerners considered by some akin to U.S. hillbillies. We discussed the difference in accents, too.  England's southerners mocking the northern accents and vice versa. Judging by the number of YouTube videos dedicated to English accents, it appears to be a popular sport. I guess the Thames might be considered your Mississippi River.

It's a fair analogy. London's Calling by The Clash and so on.."I live by the rivuur!" indeed.  I ended up living in London as long as I'd lived up north, but I guess I sing about the river Mersey more cos that's the river I'd played along the banks of as a 9 year old.  That's the river I'd cycle over as a teenager going to see my girlfriend. You can take the boy out of the north, but you can't take the north out of the boy and all that.

How'd you come across the Cigar Box Guitar?

Well, I'd moved out of London 10 years ago and headed West- I had money for the first time ever- I was bored with standard tuning guitar so I found out about blues open tuning and resonator guitars- I can laugh at myself now- I blew the money on this stupidly expensive National resonator guitar from California- you know- those steel guitars you see the old black bluesmen play- I thought 'yeah man-now I'm a real bluesman' -ha ha ha!! An arsehole is what I was.  Well, to my dismay it didn't sound anything like Son House or Fred McDowell.  I sold it at a loss, then stumbled across cigarbox guitars on the web.  Two characters need to be mentioned really-  Shane Speal, an American who was out there promoting cbg's long before they became better known about- and Chickenbone John, a Brit who I often refer to as the Godfather of the cbg movement here in the UK.  I bought a little £30 CBG from 'bone and holy cow- there was the sound I was after- I shoulda guessed that an instrument that was made from poverty would give that sound, given where blues came from.

So then I made my own very crude CBG out of a bannister rail and an old tin and started writing some tunes. 9 months later I'm at the 100 club.

How long have you been playing a CBG and how'd you choose it as your weapon?

I guess its 2 years I've been playing CBG now-my album 'Punk, Northern and Blue'  has only just been released, so that 2 years was spent, as you might guess, writing songs,rehearsing, getting back into gigging (I hadn't played live since the punk days) and getting my setup/show as a one man band all put together- you know, so now I'm at a point where I'm ready to gig regularly.

I chose it as a weapon cos as soon as I played one I knew this was it sound-wise. Make no mistake, a CBG is the instrument worlds' equivalent of heroin-its addictive.  Also, the democratic nature of it appealed to an ageing left wing punk-the fact you didn't have to have any money to have one-now THAT'S what I am talkin' about! You cant get much closer to the punk ethic of do it yourself than making your own guitar,right?  Can't afford a Gibson? No problem- shove a stick in a box, stretch some strings across it and you're good to go. 
That's something I really dig about the whole CBG scene.  Its cultural/social/artistic relationship to punk rock. I'd think that was something that was both exciting and familiar for you.

Oh absolutely- totally.  It ties in with my loathing of social inequality.  That whole 'anybody can do it' thing is so appealing and central to the movement.  I mean you need zero cash- so its 100% inclusive.  Open tuning also democratizes- put a slide on your finger and away you go- you don't need to know scales or read music or whatever- start picking and sing what's in your soul.  There-you're playing your blues- how cool is that Rick?  Very damn cool I'd say.  No more staring into music shop windows dreaming about a Gibson or a Fender.  When the CBG revival was started in the States there was, and still is, a 'no rules' policy- which is also true to the original punk ideology-'heavy metal on a cbg-why not?  Funk music on a 2 string? Go for it. Oh yeah, that's the way things should be.

Indeed. I also love the lack of guitar elitism in the Cigar Box Guitar scene.  Nobody cares if you play a Lowebow or a Shane Speal or a Blues Boy Jag-style CBG or a homemade thing, other than to say "Wow! That's so fkn cool! Can I see it? Can I hear it?"  Each guitar is valid as an instrument and valid as a work of art as well.

Can you tell me about your Cigar Box Guitars? How many have you made? Do you have a favorite? What kind of amp do you use? Do you utilize any pedals?

Well firstly I'd have to say I'm more a player than a luthier.  Nevertheless I played the 100 Club armed with a CBG I'd made in my garage one afternoon- it was a bannister rail shoved through an old rusty face painting tin my kids had left out in the garden. It had, and still has, a tone all of its own (like they all do).  It was just luck, certainly not skill, that it sounded that way.  However, it suffered from feedback in a live situation.  Also the Americans had spotted me by this time,  so they decided to liberate me from my poor woodworking skills.  It was kinda like 1942 all over again- don't worry, the yanks are coming! So John Mcnair sends me over a Reddog cbg, then Christian Beshore sent me one from Pennsylvania.. so my homemade tin cbg got relegated.  I only ever made 2 or 3 cbg's-the first one was a tin tea box from the kitchen- I sprayed 'make tea not war' along the neck, as I wasn't too enamored with what our governments were up to . But like I say, since then people from the CBG community on both sides of the Atlantic have come to my rescue. I'm too busy playing 'em to make 'em.

One other CBG worthy of note is the infamous 'Plank'- this guitar was made especially for me by a Brit called Juju up in Sheffield- it has since become one of the most widely imitated cbg styles- you only have to look at it to see why- hell when I travelled north to pick it up I didn't know whether to play it or hang it on the wall as art. The guy is an artist.  He has the eye.  The mojo eye.

It would be hard to pick a favourite- they're like kids- you love each one for the unique quality they possess. I used the Christian Beshore cbg almost exclusively to record the album- why?  Well, it was fretless, and all the songs apart from 'Black Dog' had been written on a fretless (the bannister rail cbg) so the songs demanded that crude feel/tone that a fretless imparts.  As you intimated- each cbg is valid- I have to tell you a weird thing but I wont lie- each CBG has songs in it, waiting to come out- it's so odd, it sounds like hippy bullshit, but its true. Like Pandora's box, you know, from Greek mythology..stuff waiting to come out..

So amps- well brother I've been through plenty over the years let me tell you. When recording I generally use valve amps (or tube amps as you Americans call them) -I used a 2 watt homemade amp on the album- it was cobbled together from fifties parts by a friend of Bluesbeaten Redshaws (the dude that recorded my album). I used to use valve amps live but that meant using loads of pedals, which I hated. One thing I learned from Bob Log- keep your setup simple.So now I'm using a bog standard Roland cube 30X.  It's relatively cheap, has all the effects built in and is lighter than a valve amp, as all solid state amps are.  Solid state amps are also less prone to breaking down on the road.  It's also Seasick Steve's amp of choice so I thought I'd give it a whirl.
Do you mind explaining where your name Hollowbelly comes from?

Well Rick I've been in and out of hospital plenty over the years, for all sorts-some rough old times I'd have to say.  I lost my large intestine to the surgeons knife so the name 'Hollowbelly' seemed appropriate.

What kind of effect do you think the appearance of Seasick Steve had on the English blues scene or music scene in general after his appearance on Jools Holland's Hootenanny show in 2007?

Well it was like manna from heaven for anyone who liked blues- so many of us were of the opinion that all the black blues greats were dead, that all the mythology of hoboing, riding the trains etc that seems so impossibly romantic to white British people, had been buried alongside them. Then hold on-whats this-some bearded white guy in dungarees, I have to admit I, like so many others, dug his story as much as the music- it was like he checked all the boxes for bluesmen:

Been homeless- check.  Been in jail- check. Rode the trains- check.  Wears dungarees- check. Has a beard-check. Heh heh- and of course lets not sideline the music- hell he played so good. He was so unassuming and charming.  It was what people wanted- sick of MTV polished r n' b crap- with endless semi-naked people in a music video shot in a Beverly Hills mansion they obviously don't own, surrounded by women that had been hired for the shoot- oh purlease-so Seasick was a welcome antidote to all that plastic fake bullshit.

I believe you have had the pleasure of doing shows with the staggeringly amazing gentleman known as Honkeyfinger and with the always wicked Mr. Scott H Biram. Both dudes personify the lack of snobbery in the punkblues scene. Who have you heard lately that's maybe an up-and-comer in the CBG or punkblues scene?

Well the CBG scene here in the UK is so embryonic there aren't that many musicians flying the CBG flag exclusively- Bluesbeaten Redshaw is an interesting character- this guy can play despite his youth.  He plays regular guitar as well as diddleybowsHe was the guy I trusted at the controls for the album- it was recorded by him at his farm up in Yorkshire.  Top dude.  Personally I think he has a shedload going for him-young, talented, he has drive and is a top bloke.

Honkeyfinger is doing what a true artist does- taking the blues and moving it forward- he is the bastard son of John Lee Hooker and Black Sabbath. You gotta love the 'finger- he sits like some crazed warlock, stirring his cauldron of effects pedals as he whips up some heavy ass hoodoo sonic magic- when I played with him at Hastings he had the entire room dancing like forest imps to his skronk magic- oh yeah-gotta love the 'finger.

Haven't had the pleasure of playing with Scott Biram yet- though I'd so love to- he is the real deal- you reading this Scott? Need a support act? Drop me a line- I'm there.

Jooks of Kent- again no nonsense dirty blues played the way I like it. Filthy. Notice how their name refers to where they're from (Kent is a borough outside London). You can always spot the British blues acts worth avoiding- they usually have 'Mississippi' or 'Delta' in their name- despite the fact they've never been there.

What's happening for Hollowbelly this year? You've just released Northern Punk and Blue which is already recieving great acclaim. What's next?

Well I'm ready now to do more gigs- I have a solid album to sell and a live show people seem to enjoy. It's really a matter of me finding more regular work- up til now I've been playing a show here and there when a promoter happens to come across me, but its time now to get on the road. Until then, I'll be headlining the second UK CBG festival here in England in October, then I'm off to play the Baublues Festival in Belgium- it's my first gig in continental Europe so that should be fun- my right hand man DJ Hillfunk is riding shotgun with me on that one, so expect lots of Guinness to be consumed. I really must have a word- he drinks too much-ha ha ha!

Friend & Follow Via:
HOLLOWBELLY @ Cigarbox Nation

Both Hollowbelly albums are available @CDBaby.
Live at The 100Club currently available @iTunes/Amazon with
Punk, Northern and Blue arriving any day.


Steal these songs from Hollowbelly 
and share them with everyone you know:
HOLLOWBELLY - Going Back Up North - MP3
HOLLOWBELLY - Bad Girlfriend (3 string acoustic unreleased version) MP3
HOLLOWBELLY - Three Chords and The Truth - MP3



Naz Nomad said...

Superb interview ... and anyone who hasn't bought Hollowbelly's album yet, why the Hell not?, it'll change your life.


Annotated Margins said...

Awesome post!

olds sleeper said...

fukin a...hollowbelly rocks.