An Interview with Andy Letcher of Telling the Bees
Published by Herne on March 20, 2012
This month we sit down for an interview with Andy Letcher of Telling the Bees in his quiet home in Oxford. This interview was done under the old station name of Grove Radio.
Tucked away in the idyllic setting of one of the oldest cities in the UK is a wonderful band named Telling the Bees, and we managed to get an interview with the lead singer and songwriter himself, Andy Letcher.
Nemetona: So Andy, when was it that Telling the Bees started up?
Andy: It would have been a few years back now, around 2006 when the band was first born.
Nemetona: How on earth did you come up with such a wonderful name?
Andy: I was given a forgotten English calendar a few years ago which featured a different word or phrase every day, and I started collecting some of the most interesting ones. One of these was telling the bees. It’s just an old custom which is only just in living memory now, but bee keepers would have to inform their bees about important family events or they feared that the bees would swarm. So the head of the household would march down the garden and tap three times on the bee hive with an old iron key, and proclaim the news to the bees of what was going on. When the first album came out, we received an email from someone who told us that their Grandma still had the key with which she used to tell the bees any news. It’s just a quirky bit of deeply peculiar folklore.
Nemetona: That’s wonderful! So, you have the new album; An English Arcanum. What was the inspiration behind that one?
Andy: There wasn’t really any inspiration as such, it just kind of came together. The songs we were working on at the time just became an album. An Arcanum is a mystery or a hidden secret, and one main theme in all my songs is nature having its own secrets. Like when you go to a location like a hill, it has a spirit of place and you cant quite put your finger on what it is. That’s the mystery of it.
Nemetona: The artwork featured on your albums is also superb. Do you do that yourselves?
Andy: No, that’s done by a fantastic artist called Rima Staines. She’s based near Dartmoor now, and we found her via Myspace and fell in love with her artwork which draws on medieval and eastern European influences. I thought of the idea of having something representing each of the songs on the cover of An English Arcanum, and she came up with a wonderful image of the spirit of old England all knocked about and toothless but still going, and he’s playing some kind of barrel organ which is a cabinet of curiosities. In each compartment is a symbol or image representing each of the songs.
Nemetona: Absolutely wonderful art. Now, you all have side projects such as Duotone and WOD. Does that bring more creativity and inspiration into the band?
Andy: Hmm…that’s a good question. The songs I write myself and I do that entirely on my own– I always wait for them to come to me, and then I present them to the band. It’s very healthy to have the different projects, as they help bring more influence in. I play in a trio with Jane and Jim from Telling the Bees called WOD, and we play for French and Breton dancers. It’s a much looser structure than with Telling the Bees as everything has to be arranged by necessity but in WOD it’s much freer. Often we’ll be taking a tune which we’ll then play for twenty minutes and therefore you’ll have to find the richness within the tune to keep it interesting for the dancers, so there is a lot more improvisation in that. The aim with Telling the Bees is to be able to get to a point where the music is just flowing through.
Nemetona: So, you’re also a lecturer in Oxford. How do you manage to juggle the time between doing the day job and the music?
Andy: I lecture part time, which allows me the time to do other things that I want to do. I enjoy lecturing, don’t get me wrong, but song writing is a fickle thing and I’m not one of those people who can just sit down and write a song; I haven’t written a song in 6 months. I have learned that it’s ok and they’ll come when they come. The only problem I have is not being able to turn off the Bardic part of me; so when I’m lecturing and the students are falling asleep, dropping like flies, I immediately go ‘Come on, what do I have to do to wake you up?!’ I can’t just ignore the fact that there’s a room full of sleeping people. I need every lecture to be a brilliant gig.
Nemetona: You were also involved in the Newbury Bypass protests. What was it like to be there in the middle of the protest?
Andy: Blimey, it feels slightly like ancient history now, but it fell at a time when I really wanted to do something active. I began life as an Ecologist, and everything was very theoretical and abstract, and I wanted to do something practical. That’s when the whole road protest thing kicked off. I went down to visit Newbury one November evening and I just knew I had to get involved. I have to admit, I am the world’s worst road protester – I get vertigo on a shag-pile carpet! So I’m not much of an eco warrior. I definitely went with a Bardic role, and played an awful lot of music supporting people who were up in the trees. It’s a great way to direct the vibes as inevitably there are moments where it gets heated, but if you throw in the right song, a disaster can be averted. So that was my role, and I feel very privileged to have been there. It is one of the biggest influences in my song writing, and to be able to tell the real stories of the people involved is a great thing. It’s also an art form to be able to make a protest song have the energy it needs without being a three minute rant; by telling the story of past events, you’re telling the world what really happened and allowing them to read into it.
Nemetona: Telling the Bees has been going for quite a while now; where do you see it going?
Andy: It’s definitely building. We’re going to record another album this year, we have booked dates in the diary for recording and we have an initial release date of Autumn this year. I guess now I’ve said it, it will actually happen! We also have a nice gig roster for the summer including the Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham and the Weirdlore festival in June near Bristol, which is very exciting. So the gigs are starting to come in and we have an exciting year ahead of us. Very excited about the new album as we have a new line up with five of us now, so the sound should be more robust and energetic. So, all the songs are written, we just have to decide which ones are going into the new album and then arrange them. So all in all an exciting year coming up!
Find out more about Telling the Bees:
For more information about the wonderful artwork of Rima Staines, you can visit her webstite at: the-hermitage.org.uk