The Re-entrants: Interview

Now I’m in Derby I officially have some hometown ukulele heroes. The Re-entrants are a ukulele cover duo who have been cause a stir with their live performances across the country and have recently released their debut album Uke Man versus The Strummer. I caught up with Phil and Ian for some routine interrogation.

You’re both songwriters, what made you decide to become a cover band? Are you ever going to do your own songs?

Phil:It was unintentional – we met on the ukulele cosmos forum, realised we lived close to each other and got together for a jam. We both picked some songs so we’d have something to play, and realised our lists were very similar. After one meeting we realised we had something. The Re-entrants are now reasonably well known for what we do, so it’s unlikely we’ll add originals to the set. It’s easy to be snobby about being an ‘artist’ and not demeaning yourself by doing covers, which is nonsense. A good song is a good song, whoever wrote it, and people like listening to people playing good songs. Ian has a brilliant line, “We play other peoples material on a small 4 stringed instrument, which is also the job description of the principle violinist of the Berlin Philharmonic”.

Plus doing covers has introduced us to the novel idea of getting paid for playing, and we’re actually managing to make a meagre living playing uke!

Ian:Arranging cover versions takes a different set of skills to writing original material; there’s less room to say: ‘That’ll do,’ because people are already familiar with the song: I think a well-arranged cover is a creative challenge equal to writing original stuff. In many ways it’s more difficult, and certainly more rigidly structured. There’s nowhere to hide; everyone already knows how it’s supposed to sound.

I still write my own songs, and I would like to perform them at some point, but it isn’t appropriate for The Re-entrants. The audience has certain expectations, and you put so much of yourself into writing that a chant of ‘Britney! Motorhead!’ would be dispiriting. We’d all be disappointed then.

Phil and I both write, but our style is very different. We’ve never tried writing together, and I doubt we would; the emphasis on what we do is on fun, and I think we both like it that way.

How do you get the right balance between the humour in your music and the serious musicianship that goes into what you do?

Ian:The balance between fun and musicianship just seems to happen organically. We never go for comic effect; we try very hard to recreate the original track as thoroughly as we can within the limitations of the arrangement. Even the vocal ‘impersonations’ aren’t really comic impressions – sometimes the vocal style is part of the identity of the song, so you have to get it as right as you can. It isn’t just about the ukuleles – they are just one aspect of the overall thing.

Phil:There was never any humour intended, we simply wanted to play the songs well. I think more humour comes from the fact we are two bald men both rapidly approaching middle age, singing songs you wouldn’t expect, like Britney or Madonna. That’d be just as funny with guitars. There is also humour derived from the fact that people don’t expect us to do a good job because of the reputation of the uke as a comedy instrument. We often get told “I thought it was going to be rubbish, but…” People laugh when they hear us throw in the brass part or lead guitar part, or a rap, because they are surprised at the fact we’ve put in the details, and there is something inherently funny about a screaming, high, bent note played on a uke, complete with rock and roll grimace (or indeed a fat, white bloke rapping!).

We both like to have a laugh on stage, which is something we’ve always done even before the uke came along. We aim to be entertaining. As for musicianship, we rehearse every week and gig 5 to 10 times a month, and we are very comfortable on stage as we’ve both been performing for over 20 years. We always wanted to be gig-ready all the time and we’re at the point now where we can do a 2 hour show at the drop of a hat, all from memory, without a second thought. It’s a nice place to be, as you can actually concentrate on enjoying the gig rather than panicking about what you’re playing.

What makes for a good ukulele cover?

Ian:It’s all about that challenge for me. I deliberately go for songs that have some quality that is incredibly difficult to reproduce – whether they are massively long or complicated arrangements, have iconic hooks or solos that must be note-perfect or difficult, idiosyncratic vocals.

Phil:We don’t really think in terms of ‘ukulele cover’. If it’s a good song, well played, it’ll work. That said we do have a few ‘rules’. Firstly it has to be a song recognisable to anyone in our audience. Most of the people we play to are not uke aficionados; they are people out for a good night’s entertainment and expect to be able to sing along! Secondly, if a song on the radio screams out ‘uke cover’ to us, we probably won’t do it. If we think ‘how the hell could we do that?’, then we’ll try and find a way of doing it. The arranging is at least 50% of the act. It’s fun to find songs that have lots of parts, potential for vocal harmonies, etc. We endeavour to make our covers as true to the original as possible – part of the experience is that, as the screaming guitar solo or whatever approaches, the audience will start to think ‘hang on, I know what’s comes next on the record’ (you can actually see it on there faces!), ‘are they going to try and pull that off? Blimey, they have!’

What’s in your uke collection?

Phil: I have a Pete Howlett concert Uklectic (a solid body electric), a Pono mahogany concert with a pickup, a Rob Collins triangle soprano uke in walnut with a pickup (the twin of Ian’s), a Ken Timms mahogany soprano, and two ukes by Simon Bush, an ash soprano and a cherry concert. I’m very much on a UK builders trip at the moment!

We don’t have loads, because, as a working band we feel our instruments should earn their keep. However, we also allow ourselves the luxury of a new uke we want, rather than need, every so often! Since we got together two years ago we’ve had a ridiculous amount of instruments pass through our hands, more than 50 between us.

Ian:I love sopranos, and part of the appeal is the extra difficulties they bring into it; all my ukes are sopranos. On stage, I play a matching pair of Applauses; acoustically, I have a Kiwaya KTS-7 that I adore. I also have a Fin-der plastic uke which has a lovely plunky sound, as well as an old no-name banjo uke with my face painted on the skin! How vain is that? Recently I’ve acquired a couple of handmade UK luthier-built instruments, both of which are lovely: I have the Simon Bush Sopramericano, which I was initially loaned to review, and which I couldn’t part with; I’ve also just got one of a pair of Rob Collins triangle ukes which were built specifically for the Re-entrants. That was a fantastic experience, adding our own specifications to a build. They are great ukes.

What advice would you give to new uke players?

Ian:To new ukers, my main piece of advice is not to worry too much about the fingers – the most important body part to a player is the ear. Listen, listen, listen, play, play, play.

Phil: Have fun. Work hard at it, and you’ll get more out of it. Play with other people. Get the best uke you can afford. Oh, and the secret is in the right hand, not the left…

You’re appearing at the London Uke Festival. What can we expect to hear from you?

Ah, that would be telling! We never introduce songs, so that the audience can have a bit of a ‘pop quiz’ and try and guess from the intro. We’ve done nearly 100 gigs and always played ‘…Hit Me Baby One More Time’, so it’s unlikely we’ll break that tradition! We don’t do many gigs to uke players, maybe only 3 or 4 a year, so we’ll probably try and pick songs unlikely to be played by anyone else there. Sadly, we won’t be around for the record attempt, as we have another gig 150 miles away in the evening!

Any closing remarks?

Phil: I also think it’s worth mentioning that you can over-intellectualise this sort of thing. People do it with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain all the time. The’ irony’ angle (we hate that. There’s never been anything ironic about what we do), the ‘reflection of / reaction to popular culture’ angle, the ‘cute/ quirky/ twee’ angle. Most of it is nonsense and related much more to the media’s inability to avoid cliché and pigeon-holing. We love what we do, we enjoy playing and we’re getting lots of great gigs and even being asked for autographs (!), but we never forget that we are just a couple of blokes playing the ukulele. We mentioned ‘rules’ earlier on, but rule number one when we first got together was ‘no egos’ and it’s served us well!

You can buy The Re-Entrants’ debut album Uke Man Vs The Strummer on their website or on iTunes.

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