How did Smerins start?
Way back near the beginning of the millennium in Southampton, where most of us were students, we started playing mainly acoustic sets for beer and food at a couple of pubs. It was Spanish guitar, a bit of brass, clarinet and so on. Buena Vista Social Club covers, that sort of stuff. We started getting offers for bigger things, parties and club nights, so the band got bigger too. It was a ‘more is more’ approach in terms of lineup. There wasn’t much else like it happening around there at the time, and it was fun being an eight-piece band taking up half a venue and blatting it out to a cramped dancefloor, people jammed up against the bar and half the band spilling off the stage into the crowd. The lineup hasn’t changed much since, incredibly. Eight of us have stayed at it through a change of cities, some of us having kids. But the sound’s changed a lot over the years.
And what inspired the name?
That came with a very early incarnation of the band. I believe it came from George Smerins and a few people practicing in his bedroom while there was a house party going on downstairs, and somebody coined the name because of the Buena Vista tunes they were covering at the time, and it just kind of stuck. I remember there was a brief discussion about changing it at some point in the early days, but nobody came up with anything better. It’s always funny when people don’t get it. We’ve been billed as Samaritan’s Anti-Social Club, George Smerin and his Anti-Social Band. We once played a gig billed as Smerin and the Jazz Bags, but that might have been our own doing.
You collaborate with others too – such as Nuala Honan – what are the benefits of that?
We’ve always been predominantly an instrumental band and I think we always will be. I think it pushes us to find other ways of making stuff interesting, not having lyrics or vocals as the focus. But it’s great having guests to contribute words and singing too. It brought a completely new dimension when we started collaborating with Nuala a few years back – she’s got an amazing voice and we always love the stuff she writes for us, even though what she does on her own and with other bands is pretty different. It’s just fun having things pulled in different directions.
You’re regulars on the festival circuit. What’s your favourite and why?
That’s a tough call; there are a few that have really taken care of us over the years so it’s a bit like asking to choose your favourite parent. Shambala comes to mind – we first played there back in 2003 or 2004 when it was a much smaller festival, and they’ve had us back in some shape or form every year since. They’ve often said they’ll leave us off the bill to vary the lineup a bit – which is totally fine by us, we understand that – but they’ve always ended up squeezing us in somewhere. Some of the organisers have said it’s not Shambala without a Smerins gig! We’ll be there this year with the Chai Wallah’s stage, which is always great fun. Probably our favourite festival venue. They’re hard working guys. But there’s loads of festivals that we all love and when we get too old for all this traipsing around fields, we’ll be blessed with a kaleidoscopic mess of festival memories – even if we can’t remember exactly where we were at the time. The great thing about doing a lot of festivals is the little surprises, like Fusion festival in Germany, which we did last year. Beautifully anarchic festival on an old decommissioned airbase, basically a four day long rave with venues in aircraft hangars and all these crazy vehicles driving around like something out of Mad Max. For me personally, WOMAD a few years back was a real high. A main stage gig at such a prestigious event with amazing acts from all round the world, when we were on out way back from a road trip after playing in Croatia, made for a pretty memorable summer.
How do you approach writing music? Do you all get together and do it?
Usually somebody – mainly Humph, sometimes Tom or Toby – bring brass arrangements along, sometimes ideas for other parts too, and we usually put things together as a band by jamming through the ideas, bringing new elements into it, sometimes fucking it all up and rebuilding it again from the start. Occasionally little rhythm section bits come out of jams, which someone takes away and does something more cerebral with in terms of putting brass arrangements on it. Often we play new tune ideas out live for a while and then all start to have different opinions about what works, what feels good, and then we sometimes strip things down again in rehearsals and rebuild sections, sometimes cast bits aside. So what starts out being somebody’s focussed and coherent idea usually ends up being something quite different once we’ve all put a bit of our own personalities in it – especially since we all have varied and conflicting tastes. But I guess that’s what makes us the band we are, for better or for worse. And I’m not a trained musician and don’t read music so even if someone writes bass parts for me I usually end up playing my own interpretation anyway. Much to their annoyance, probably.
What’s the biggest challenge to being such a big group?
See above! Everything tends to be a bit of a slow process in terms of getting things organised. We all have real lives too, unfortunately, so getting everyone together sometimes is hard. Smaller stages can feel pretty cramped at times, and there’s never enough beer in the rider. We’ve travelled a lot together and shared some pretty close sleeping quarters, so we are very familiar with each other’s odours. But luckily we all smell damn sexy.
And the best thing?
The best thing is that we’ve all kept doing this together for so long. It’s not a bad life, going to all these festivals and visiting new places with your mates. That we like a lot of different music between us is a good thing too, it stops us focussing too far in one direction which I think is a big part of what shapes us as a band. It means there can be quite an eclectic playlist on long days or nights in the bus. And of course there’s a pretty complex bouquet of sexy aromas in that bus after a long journey. It’s special.
Who do you see as your peers?
Tough question. Who’d accept us as their peers? I don’t think any of us see that we’re part of any kind of scene, or anything like that. There’s a few bands that we see on the same festivals and the same stages as us, so I guess that’s the closest thing. Bands like Cut Capers, who are also from Bristol, who do a good high-energy show. And they’re younger than us so they can still jump about without getting dizzy. Dizraeli and the Small Gods, who we all revere, we’ve haunted the same lineups as them for quite a while. There are loads more, my mind’s gone blank.
How do you rate the Bristol music scene?
I’d give it four out of five on TripAdvisor. There’s still plenty going on, it lives. It’s what brought us all to the city just over a decade ago. To be honest, I don’t keep up with it so much nowadays. Most of the Bristol bands I know are through festivals. The Bristol music scene is like a travelling circus in the summer. Maybe we’re the sideshow. There are still loads of cool bands playing regularly in Bristol.
Who would be on your dream billl?
My dream Bill would be a genetic hybrid of Bill Bailey, Bill Murray and the jazz pianist Bill Evans, with a smattering of Bill Oddie. A very entertaining guy with sound bird knowledge. We’d be best friends.
Sum up your sound in one sentence…
In one sentence: a quick-release high-calorie suppository of schizophonic delights. In one word: weeeeeeeyaaowwwwoooooosssssshhhhhbleughrrrrhhhhfuhfuhffffuhpop!