Balkan folk, with a hint of jazz and turbo funk.  That’s Sheelanagig, a fiercely original collective of gypsy-swing inspired musicians based in Bristol.  17 March sees the live launch of their 5th album to take place at Bristol’s Thekla:  Beard Town.

The Sheelanagig has many wild and wonderful origins – steeped in myth, and depicted upon the most gothic of churches and cathedrals around Europe and beyond.  Some say, this gargoyle-like creature is a symbol of fertility, others prefer to take the view that it the cure for witch craft.  Perhaps, on the other hand, it is named after the extremely brilliant song by PJ Harvey.  Either way, the name becomes rather insignificant when you are immersed in the crowd of one of Sheelanagig’s shows.

“It’s both things really.  It does come from the church carvings – I saw a sheelanagig when I was a teenager, in Kilburn church, and I was quite intrigued by it.  We used to be called Thingamajig so we changed it to Sheelanagig – we thought we could get away with that.  Most people just think it’s a nonsense name.  Sheelanagig are quite interesting carvings, noone knows exactly what they were meant to be representing.  Lots of papers have been written on them, I’ve read a few of them.”  Aaron says.

Aaron Catlow of Sheelanagig plays violin, percussion and sometimes the mandolin.  Along with his four band members Adrian Sykes (flute, tabla, banjo), Kit Hawes (guitar), Jon Short (double bass) and John Blakeley (drums, percussion), they create mayhem of the circus inspired variety.  Apparently stemming from their desire to remain champions of the European Busking Contests over the years.

“In the early days we did a lot of busking in Bath, Bristol and Europe.  There are lots of European busking festivals in Italy, Switzerland and Germany.  That’s where our crazy stage show comes from.  We were up against fire eaters and acrobats and jugglers, so we had to up our game to keep the audience.  We always hire out some props, we build human pyramids, we swap instruments – we’re quite theatrical in our stage show.”  Aaron says.

“We’ve basically got attention deficit disorder, we can’t decide on one style.”

Frustrated acrobats and trapeze artists they might be, but as yet, they’ve not succumbed to the temptation to run away with the circus.

“Our guitar player used to play for the Invisible Circus House Band – so he ran away from the circus to join us!”  Aaron says.

Sheelanagig are definitely accustomed to carving a life less ordinary.  Formed over a decade ago, they’ve played many a festival including last year’s WOMAD, Beautiful Days and the Shrewsbury Folk Festival:

“It was fantastic, absolutely brilliant.  It was chucking it down with rain, it was in this wooded glade, and everyone was dancing around in the mud.  It was a really nice gig, everyone was lovely.”  Aaron recalls their WOMAD gig.

Their debut album ‘ Uncle Lung’, released in 2006, was recorded alongside Portishead’s Jim Barr at his studios.  To tie in with the WOMAD theme, they recorded their fifth album ‘Beard Town’ at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, just outside of Bath.

“Real World Studios is an amazing place.  We did four days there, we even had a French chef cooking food for us, it was amazing!  We tried to do it as live as possible, we were all in different rooms but all playing together to capture that live sound.”  Aaron explains.

The songwriting process might seem very spontaneous and ad-hoc, when watching the five piece band on stage – but rest assured, there is some method to the madness, as Aaron explains the workings behind their new album ‘Beard Town’:

“We’ve basically got attention deficit disorder, we can’t decide on one style.  We haven’t digressed totally into rock ballads or anything like that. It’s pretty similar – but this time 90% of the album is original stuff, whereas before we did a lot of European folk traditions. We’ve incorporated this into our own original material now.”  He says.

“We tackle subjects that other people can relate to – laughing at other peoples’ misfortune…”

Adrian and Kit would be the main songwriters, lyrics wise – with the rest of the band throwing in their two cents worth at every opportunity.  A song might begin in its most basic form, and gradually mould into its finished result – in all its high energy, turbo-folk glory.

“We tackle subjects that other people can relate to – laughing at other peoples’ misfortune, and making it a bit light hearted.  We’ve got a lot of high energy pieces on the album, plus also a few mellow songs to give it some variation.”  Aaron says.

Adrian is also an artist and creates the artwork for Sheelanagig’s records.  John is their live gig bookings man.  Aaron met Jon and John while the three of them were studying at Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, Devon.  Upon moving to Bristol, they met with Kit and Adrian.  The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s always about creating new stuff, you don’t want to get stale.  It’s really important to keep that creative process going.”  Aaron says.


Upcoming Tour Dates:

17 March – Thekla, Bristol
18 March – The Cellar, Oxford
19 March – Old Road Tavern, Chippenham
28 April – The Islington, London