Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: Will Grove-White Interview

It’s been quite a year for the ukulele, but nothing so far has signalled the uke’s arrival quite like its acceptance into the The Proms (the UK’s most famous annual series of classical music concerts). Who could have imagined that the Proms would include a performance of Teenage Dirtbag on the ukulele? The only group that could pull that off are the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

The Ukes have a well deserved place at the forefront of the current uke revival and quarter of a century of playing has slowed them down. As well as the Prom (with a DVD due out before Christmas), this year has seen them providing music for silent films with Ukulelescope and for wartime dreams with Dreamspiel and releasing two live albums. The most recent is Live in London #2 displays their humour and talent perfectly. It features my UOGB favourites Shaft and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. If you don’t have any UOBG CDs in your collection, get the two live albums without delay.

I caught up with UOGB’s Will Grove-White to discuss this year and what’s ahead.

The live CDs seem to convey much more of what the UOGB are. What’s at the heart of what the UOGB are all about?

I agree, the live CDs do capture some of the real energy of a Ukes concert, with the roar of the crowd, the exuberant vim and the authentic bum notes that you get when we play to a live audience. The people that come to our concerts really do seem to have a good time, and I’d say that’s much of what lies at the heart of the Ukulele Orchestra ­ making different kinds of music fun, interesting, accessible, and moving, through the lens of a ukulele. When we walk on a stage armed only with our ukuleles an audience can feel anything from baffled, sympathetic or amused, to totally horrified. It’s only once we start playing that they can relax and understand what it is we’re doing.

Which are your favourite songs to play live?

I’m really enjoying playing Danse Macabre, which we performed first at the Proms, partly because it’s a new one, but also because we’re just wrestling it into shape at the moment. As a rule I think we all enjoy playing new stuff, but there is a great comfort in playing the old set, Anarchy in the UK, Wuthering etc, and an audience can hoot along with it – some tunes have become people’s personal anthems, people feel very close to them.

How do you build up the arrangements?

Rehearsals these days have become a bit of a luxury as we’ve become busier and busier, but we are still managing to get new tunes together – as a group we’ve learnt how to develop new arrangements quite quickly. I think we all know when something isn’t going to work (the ukulele often does that by itself ­ exposing a badly constructed tune within seconds), and we doggedly plug away with songs that have potential. As a rule one of us will bring a song in and the rest of us will pull it apart and play it again and again until it begins to work. Each person brings a particular element to the arrangements ­ Dave’s tremelo, Peter’s fingerpicking etc etc. George is the musical director and is a real virtuoso musician – he has the uncanny ability to reduce a huge symphony (or pop epic) to a bunch of chords, melody and countermelody. Once you start with something like that, then the rest of us can bring our particular skills to bear on it. Playing as a group is very different to playing a tune on your own. In Miserlou, for example, I play only one note for most of the piece. This sounds great when we all play together but rubbish when I want to play it on my own around the campfire! Undoubtedly the best way to get a tune working properly is to play it in front of an audience, and not getting put off if it doesn’t work first time. America, for example, took a while to get right, but is working really well now.

How on earth did the idea of a ukulele prom come about?

It’s funny because it’s something we’ve always talked about but wondered if it would ever be possible to pull off. If anyone is really responsible it’s Roger Wright, the head of Radio 3 – so any complaints on a postcard to himŠ He saw us playing at a festival a few years ago, really liked us, and thought it would be a bit of wheeze to get us on at the Proms. He gave us a very open brief ­ do your thing ­ and we got some new tunes together to give it all a Proms flavour.

What sort of reaction did you get from the traditional Proms audience?

It was hard to see where the traditional Proms audience were amongst all the ukulele players, but the response was so overwhelmingly positive that they must have enjoyed themselves. Apparently we were the first ever late-night Prom to sell out, and I hear we sold out before even the Last Night of Proms (a great example of the growing power of the humble ukulele)! We were all really overwhelmed by the experience ­ something like 7000 people came, and about 1000 brought their ukuleles with them for the Beethoven play-along which was a great moment. I think any Doubting Thomases there were touched by that moment, even if they didn’t appreciate Danse Macabre being reduced to nylon and plywood.

Ukulelescope and Dreamspiel both contain original material. Are we going to see more original tunes from the Ukes?

That’s the plan. I think I can say there’ll be an ‘originals’ album out within the next year or so. We’ve always had a few original pieces on the studio albums, but we’d all like to do a dedicated album ­ there are plenty of ideas around. But that’s not to say we’ve finished playing other people’s music,­ we’re an Orchestra after all.

Are there any plans for a DVD of Dreamspiel?

Not at the moment, but we’re talking about doing a CD, hopefully we can start recording that later this year. It’s a ukulele opera written by George with Michelle Carter, an American playwright, which we’ve only performed once at the Grimebourne alternative opera festival in London. It’s a fantastic piece, about people’s dreams in Germany during WWII, with beautiful music. And when we’ve cleared our desks we can get on with thinking about the DVD! At present most of our energy is going into planning 2010, which is the 25th (!) anniversary of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. We’ll be doing our ‘Silver Jubilee’ tour across Britain all next year, as well as releasing some new DVDs, re-releasing some of the old back catalogue, and I’m busy starting to assemble Live in London #3 at the moment.

Visit the UOGB website and listen to and buy Live in London #2.

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