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.

Related Posts
Live in London #1
Will Grove White and the Others
How to set up a ukulele group, club or orchestra

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15 Comments

  1. Armelle September 28th, 2009 8:13 pm

    Glad you interviewed a member of the UOGB, Al !

    I really hope to see the UOGB live one day (I’ve got their excellent Anarchy in the ukulele DVD). As far as I know they’ve only held one concert in France so far and I missed it.

    I can’t believe the UOGB is already 25 years old !

  2. zym September 28th, 2009 8:18 pm

    I care about your interviews ;)

  3. Byjimini September 28th, 2009 10:06 pm

    Awesome stuff, your questions were great and not just the generic “so how did it all start?” tosh that we always read in the mainstream media.

    I was fortunate enough to see them at Darlington, absolutely incredible. Waiting for them to come back up this way so I can take all my mates along as well.

  4. Acilius September 28th, 2009 10:38 pm

    Thanks for doing this interview, Al. I for one am very curious about Dreamspiel and am eager to see a DVD release.

  5. ronhale September 28th, 2009 11:27 pm

    Maybe it’s just me, but to me anyway, the Ukes are (at least) as much a visual treat as they are a musical pleasure. Some of their songs are not just songs, they are musical skits in which the
    acting is at least as important & enjoyable as the music.

    Something like You Don’t Bring Me Flowers or Orange Blossom Special, which shine on the Anarchy in the Ukulele DVD, would be virtually pointless on a live CD, & hearing audience participation just doesn’t cut it
    compared to seeing the audience members, too. Even songs that are not skits always have something visual happening, as each band member has a unique musical/visual personality & the visual personality is lost
    on a CD.

    People who love their DVD or videos should just close their eyes & see if the impact is the same. It isn’t. It’s been four years since the DVD, & a new live DVD is most welcome, but they should not pretend that they are simply a music group, & ignore the visuals. Some of them come from acting/comedy backgrounds, after all.

    Hard to imagine Shaft without that one audience shot (not a visual of the band, of course), or The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly without seeing Jonty break-up.

    Anyway, maybe my emphasis on the visual aspect of the band is just me, because Will doesn’t say a word about it. And I would love to hear what the other people think about this, because (to me, anyway) they’re only as
    popular as they are Because of the extra-musical, visual aspects of their shows that people experience live & on the many videos floating around. Ukulele performances alone are just not going to bring civilians into the ukulele fold, but ukulele entertainment can.

    Toss in Wuthering Heights & you have my three favorite Ukes tunes, but the WH on Live in London #1, is a pale, pathetic, poser wannabe of the DVD version.

    The Ukes, of course, have played the Electric Proms, joining the Kaiser Chiefs on Ruby (one of my favorite videos of them).

  6. Byjimini September 29th, 2009 8:22 am

    Amen to that, Ron.

  7. cardboardfrog September 29th, 2009 5:38 pm

    its excellent to see that the band which encouraged so many people to take up the uke is still at the front of the movement.
    not so sure about the new layout though woodshed

  8. LonnaB September 29th, 2009 5:44 pm

    Great interview as always, Al.

    How out of UkeHunt touch am I? I’m just now noticing the new format, it’s pleasing to my eye.

  9. Woodshed September 29th, 2009 6:24 pm

    Armelle: I hope you get to see them soon.

    zym: Thanks!

    Acilius: You actually inspired the Dreamspiel question. I read your post right before I did the questions.

    Byjimini: “So how did it all start?” is the sort of question I usually ask. It’s really tough to come up with questions when you don’t know the act well. It’s one of the reasons I’m giving interviews a rest for a while.

    ron: Thanks for the write-up. Some of their skits do need to be seen to have their full effect. But I’m more than content just to listen to them. Their arrangements are always juicy enough to keep me satisfied.

    cbf: Yeah, it looks like ass but it’s enforced. Massive blog problems. It’s a miracle it’s up at all.

    Lonna: Don’t panic, it’s only changed today. It sweet of you to lie ;)

  10. Acilius September 29th, 2009 11:17 pm

    Thanks for putting the question to Will Grove-White, Al! I’m amazed something from my blog could have an effect like that. By “an effect like that” I mean “any effect whatsoever.”

  11. Woodshed September 30th, 2009 11:45 am

    Acilius: Your blog often makes me think.

  12. New York Times posts about Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain « Ukulele Perspective September 30th, 2009 9:09 pm

    [...] September 30, 2009 by ukuleleperspective Thanks to Nick on the tip about the New York Times’ article covering the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.  Al on Ukulele Hunt had linked to the YouTube video of their performance in a  recent post where he interviews Will Grove-White. [...]

  13. Howlin' Hobbit November 15th, 2009 3:14 am

    In my continuing efforts to catch up with the stuff I like on the intertoobs I’ve just gotten to this. And only two months late.

    I’d like to see a website with just one page and on that page — in really, really big letters — would be this quote from ronhale’s comment:

    “Ukulele performances alone are just not going to bring civilians into the ukulele fold, but ukulele entertainment can.”

    Then we make all the ukulele players who want to play in public bookmark the thing and visit it regularly, sort of like meditating on a koan.

  14. Woodshed November 15th, 2009 5:19 pm

    Hobbit: I’ll get to work on that.

  15. OK Go – This Too Shall Pass (Tabs and Chords) | Ukulele Hunt March 23rd, 2010 7:25 pm

    [...] And that doesn’t mean you need a band full of flash players. James Hill’s ukulele big band arrangements consist of each person playing one note at a time. And Will from UOGB only plays one note through most of Miserlou. [...]

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