Will Grove-White has been the youngest (and handsomest) member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain since he joined them in 1989. He has just put out a solo album Will Grove-White & The Others and kindly agreed to chat about lost ukes, Pebble Mill and strum holes.
How did you get involved with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain?
I joined when I was 16, in 1989. I’d not been tempted to take the guitar path at school and so I formed a little uke trio, playing 1920s and 30s stuff. I read about the Ukulele Orchestra in a newspaper and became a total fan. From then on I always went to see them play in this pub in north London, started pestering them for music after gigs, and when someone left the band I was asked to join. I started off as a quiet little lad, just strumming, but began singing after a year or so, and have ended up mostly squawking gibberish. I had to get the day off school do my first gig, we played ‘Chinatown, My Chinatown‘ on Pebble Mill at One, with Ronnie Spector watching us.
What was the impetus for your solo project?
In recent years, the Ukes has become more of a full-time job, making it harder for all of us to do other work, as the Orchestra’s demands grow and grow. I now find myself, at 35, a full-time Ukulele player – not something I ever thought I’d say, of course – I used to have a proper job. This album was really about seeing what it would sound like if I did something on my own, that could sit happily alongside the Ukes. The impetus was really from my wife, who kept telling me to get on with it.
What can we expect from your solo stuff?
Well, of course there are Ukuleles, but also plenty of other much maligned and overlooked instruments – the Musical Saw, Tuba, Melodica, Clarinet and Cardboard Boxes. I wish more mainstream musicians would cast their nets a bit wider in their choices of instruments. Bass, guitar and drums is a pretty tired formula. I think I can say it’s a good-time album, upbeat and optimistic – sort of Sid James meets Hoagy Carmichael and Tom Waits at a bluegrass concert.
What are your three favourite songs to play on ukulele?
Tricky question, but three I like are: Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot‘, otherwise known as ‘Hot Tamales’, in C, really falls off the fingers; Syd Barrett’s ‘Here I Go‘ was the first song I worked out for myself on the uke; and at the moment I’m a big fan of the Ukes version of Limehouse Blues, a real mad strum-fest which should appear on an album soon I hope.
What’s in your ukulele collection?
I mostly play my Martin Ukulele which I got from a second-hand shop after I left my old Martin on the Tube (it was given to me by Ian Whitcomb). I’d fallen asleep and woke up at my stop, rushed off the Tube and only realised I’d left it when the train was gone. No-one ever handed it in, I always
imagine some guy picking it up and thinking, “Oh, a toy guitar! My kid will like this”… it was a pretty terrible day. Since then I’ve added some geared tuners (shock, horror!) to keep it in tune with the bashing I give it (I’m aiming to strum a hole in it buy 2010).
I recently got an Ohana uke from the Ukulele Shop which has a great sound for the price.
As spares we carry flat, black Bruko ukes, which we got from the eccentric Thomas Allander (Ukulelemannen) when we were in Stockholm. They’re Black Maple Ukes (S001) and are great for throwing in a suitcase. You can even post it to your friends through the letterbox. Other than that I mostly own old battered ukes that decorate the bookshelves, and even a few old banjo-ukes that get the occasional outing…
What advice do you have for the wannabe international ukulele superstars?
Pick some good fellow band members, who you can envisage sitting with for hours and hours on a bus, then a train, then a plane, then a bus, then another train, then another bus, and then share a room with. And never fart in the dressing room.
What can we expect from you and from the UOGB in the future?
At some point soon I’ll start more recording of my own, and get some live shows together with The Others. As far as the Ukes go, a hectic gigging schedule looms, lots of stuff in Britain, as well as Germany, Sweden and Austria, also some interesting new projects coming up next year. Right now
we’re in the final stages of assembling our first live CD – to be titled ‘Live in London #1‘ – which should be ready in the next month or two. I think it’s a real cracker, really captures the whole spirit of the band in a way we haven’t quite done on a CD before. And after that, of course, we shall all be enjoying a nice quiet Christmas together.
You can buy Will Grove-White & The Others on the UOGB site and visit his website here.