Neil Sutherland plays upbeat acoustic punk. His optimistic and at times cathartic lyrics are all backed by music which restore my faith in what a man and a guitar can do. He released a split last summer with partners in crime Pj & Gaby, a £2, 15 track acoustic triumph produced completely independently. This is a conversation I had with Neil in the summer of 2007 about how he got started, playing gigs without amps and how he got the split CD recorded for free!
LH:What is Posi[tive]-acoustic?
My little tag line is Posi[tive] acoustic, ‘cause I’d never heard of “posi” up until I started playing in Southhampton when everyone was like “posi this” and “negi that”, so I like it to be positive but keeping the “posi” so I still look cool. And I can still relate to the cool kids. When I wrote the first songs, I wasn’t really intending it to be positive, but then PJ was like, “Ahh yeah it’s like positive stuff” and that’s where it sort of stems from. And the idea of being positive and uplifting.
LH: Who are your main musical influences?
Influentially, politically and growing up with it, the two main ones for me are Antimaniax and Strike Anywhere, they’re the big ones. I listened to their music I was like “Fuck, people can have real strong ethics but still make really good music and still make music that reaches people” , they were the ones that really got me thinking out side of standard punk music. Acoustically, I’m not sure. I haven’t really been exposed to a lot of acoustic music, it’s only really been about the last year and a half. Probably Ghost Mice is where I first started listening to it, and PJ was a big influence, when I fist started listening to his music.
Also I don’t know if this is going off the point a bit, when I first got into listening to acoustic stuff was the Anti-Flag protest song [with the Donots] it was when I first heard that I was like “oh, bands do acoustic stuff” , not that it’s a great song. Then Antimaniax’s Survival as well, which is the end of the Desert of Concrete album, and when I heard that I was like, “ok I’d really like to do acoustic stuff.”
LH: How did you first get into playing acoustic punk shows?
I’m not sure where it all stemmed from, I used to be in a band and that went really quiet for a while and I had these lyrics which was “Detonation” and I had that it was a really heavy song to start with, I was like “I’m going to wrtie the lyrics, I’ve got this little riff, I’m going to put it together.” So I did that even before I’d really known that there were folk-punk singers, I’d heard about the King Blues and they were the first acoustic band that were actually doing something that I knew of apart from general singer/songwrtiers. After that I spoke to PJ and we started chatting and then I got more into Russ Substance, Al Baker and James Black and I started to see them and I was like “Oh they just play house shows, they don’t have to pay to play a place”. It was sort of like a mindset change, you don’t have to just be a standard punk band that begs to play a gig and pays to play a gig. You can just go out and play at someones house or hold a show at your own house or something like that, and I think that’s how it started.
LH: How do you manage to balance your time between music, work and studying?
Well, with work I work one day a week, I work a 12 hour shift and that’s on a Friday night. As far as studying goes the last couple of years it’s worked ok. I’ve managed to like keep my gigs to a minimum when its exam time but saying that, this year I didn’t really. I had a lot of gigs when I should’ve been studying and the days before exams. Normally I think “what would my mum say if I play a gig tonight?” and most the time I’d speak to her. This year the gigs really gave me bit of an outlet, as cliched as that sounds. I could go out and have some fun and come back and study. But yeah I think it’s quite easy with the acoustic stuff because it’s just me I don’t really have to practice. It’s just like I write a song and that’s it![laughs] It’s not too difficult, mixing the time. It was with the band though [The Forgetfuls].
LH: How did the European tour go?
It was fucking excellent! It was something I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never played abroad before and it was such an amazing experience. It was a shame it was only for a couple of weeks and for only 7 or 8 shows because I’d love to do it [again] and it motivated me to want to push it [the music] even further. It was an amazing experience and it really put faith in me, in the whole scene and people in general, everything. I had some of the best times of my life there. It was fantastic!
Little amusing anecdote here[laughs], when I played a show in Stretham, I was playing, I didn’t actually hear it but PJ was there. I was playing, I can’t remember what song it was, but a girl came in and she was like “ah that’s really cool, I really like Irish music.” And then in Bradford, the show after, a guy came up to me and was like, “ Oh dude that was really cool, It’s really cool that you still keep the Irish music alive.” I was like, “Cheers dude.”
LH: Do you think the acoustic scene in the UK is getting bigger?
I’ve experienced a lot more of it. I’m not sure it’s getting bigger, from the way I’ve come into it. It’s really nice because most of the people who play a lot on the acoustic scene, we’ve all become friends now. There’s Al Baker who lives up in Manchester, there’s a lot of people who come from far away like Jonny One Lung. It seems like everyone’s got together. I’m not sure it is getting bigger, I think it’s more well known, at shows people seem to be more accepting of it as opposed to before people were like “Why do I have to hear someone playing acoustically? Why isn’t it a band?” So I hope it’s getting bigger, I think [it will] the more people see it and know that you can just get up and play the guitar. From people that I’ve spoken to, a lot of people are getting into it more.
LH: Do you have a specific motivation for writing your songs?
There are some songs which I have a real reason to write, like the one I’ve got at the moment “Letters Home”; that’s quite a personal one. Some songs just come out of nowhere. I find that when I’m on my own it’s the best time. When I’m just on my own I can just think about stuff and It’s like romantic poetry [laughs], that’s just how it comes out. My songs aren’t particularly political. So it’s not always a motivation from a political angle, that I really feel the need to write about a certain political subject. But I think it’s more personal stuff, and just when I’m feeling a certain emotion I write stuff down and it sort of goes from there.
LH: Do you think the acoustic scene is different to the electric scene?
Yeah, I do. The experience I’ve had playing in a band and the ethics and morality behind it. This is from my experience, and I’m speaking from a very limited experience of electric. But the acoustic scene is much more positive. People get of their arses and do stuff in the acoustic scene. In the electric scene I felt it was a bit more stagnant. It was kind of like, “We’re going to write songs, we’re going to go to a gig we’re going to go home.” I think the acoustic scene is much more than that, and you build friendships with people, you don’t go out to do it, it’s not a conscious thing, but you do build friendships. I’ve made 10 times as many friends in the last year that I have in the past 10 years of my life. I think it’s a more personal scene and I think, again, it’s a more positive scene. A posi-scene! [Laughs]. Saying that I think bands like the Steal seem to [have] the same sort of ethics as the acoustic scene but in the electric scene. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t think the acoustic scene is better than the electric, it’s just my experience, I prefer the acoustic scene.
LH: You’ve just released a split with PJ & Gaby, how did that come about?
I met PJ & Gaby over the internet [laughs]. I’m still not sure if they’re perverts or anything [laughs] I hope they’re not. I found PJ through the King Blues Myspace and I heard his songs, and this was when I’d only done one song, I was like, “This is amazing,” I loved it and I messaged him and before we’d even met we decided to go on tour together. And then I dunno it just sort of came about, it just seemed like a totally natural thing to do. We just all clicked so quickly and I hope it’s not the last split we do. I’d really like to do another one with the guys. It seemed like the natural thing to do. We didn’t sit down and go [In a grave tone] “ I think it would be best to do a split now guys.” We both had songs ready to go and it would either have been a case of us both recording an EP each or doing it together, and we both sound quite similar we thought it would be good.
LH: Why did you decide to keep the record DIY?
I printed off some things to go in the CD which asked, “Why DIY?” you know, why should we do this in a DIY way? To record [the split], we haven’t gone to any CD companies, we haven’t gone to any record labels, we haven’t gone to any distribution companies or shops or anyone to stock it. We’ve done that totally off our own backs. We made all the casing. The only things we bought were the CDs. I’ve taken the cardboard from work, I photocopy stuff at libraries. Again like we said about the acoustic scene that was a really important thing and it’s definitely something I wouldn’t now turn my back on. It’s not going to reach as many people, if you go to a distribution they’re going to sell it to a load of people but I’d rather keep it in a DIY way, like our friends who care about it record it, we make it and it’s distributed amongst us. If it goes on from there then I think it’s on our conscience. I’d rather not go through a big company to promote it.
LH: Did you pay Chris to do the recording?
No he did it for free! Well, I cooked him food and got him drunk for the whole week! [laughs] That’s the thing, Chris is 100% DIY he does it for the same reason we do, it’s not because you want to get a big cheque at the end of it, but just ‘cause you want to do it, clichéd as that sounds.