Mumford & Sons Trumpeter Nick Etwell Sells Us On Seeing His Jazz Band on Its First U.S. Tour.
Nick Etwell's two main gigs are nothing alike.
Like, at all.
While the trumpeter has toured the globe extensively with the Grammy-winning, multi-platinum folk rock outfit Mumford & Sons, his first love has always — always — been big band music. For the past decade Etwell's fronted the Blue Note Records-style jazz outfit The Filthy Six. But, unlike Mumford, that band has never performed west of Ireland.
That'll change this week as the band kicks off its first nine-date swing through the U.S. tomorrow night at The Prophet Bar. And while that room's 350-person capacity is a far cry from the 20,000-person capacity at Gexa Energy Pavilion where Etwell last performed during his last trip to town with Mumford & Sons, he couldn't be any more thrilled by the prospects of playing such an intimate room this time through.
Etwell told us as much when we caught up with him to discuss his upcoming gig over the weekend. He also told us why American audiences are so much more exciting to play for, and what it was like teaching members of Mumford & Sons to play jazz growing up.
How long will you be over here for?
My girlfriend's in Boston, so I'm flying out there to chill out and have the calm before the storm. Then I fly down to Dallas on Wednesday. We're doing nine shows. We're doing Dallas, Austin, Jackson, Mobile, Nashville, Florence and Tupelo. Then we go down to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. I only really put this thing together in the last two or three months, so it's been kind of an eleventh-hour mission. Because it's Jazz Fest, everything is booked up. I've been down to Jazz Fest two or three times. I love New Orleans. It was in my routing plan anyway, so I thought, “Well, fuck it, we'll go down and hang out.” So we're going to go down for two nights and hang out and then head back west to Houston to finish up at a festival — the Texas Crawfish Festival in a town called Spring. Hence the title of the tour: East Bound and Round.
Tell me about The Filthy Six. It seems like you've been doing this thing for quite awhile now.
The processes that you have to go through to acquire a temporary work visa to come over to the States is quite an undertaking — to put it lightly. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. Some of them are set on fire. It's hard work, but I realized, going through the history and drudging up everything the U.S. Immigration people wanted to know, that it's our tenth anniversary as a band this month. So it's kind of a perfect time to come do our first U.S. tour.
So you've been doing the Filthy Six thing way longer than the Mumford thing.
Yes. I don't know when they started. They started before I joined. I think I did the first things in 2009 — the first couple of recordings. They'd been together a year or two before that. So, yes, a little bit longer. But not with quite the same level of worldwide success that they've had.
What drew you to jazz music and maybe specifically towards playing the trumpet?
My dad used to play [trumpet]. He used to run a dance band in the '60s over here in a place called Swindon, which is about two or three hours west of London. He kind of gave up when he was 21 to concentrate on his engineering. But he had a trumpet around the house and, once in a blue moon, he'd get it out, usually around Christmas when he'd had a few [drinks] or whatever. And I'd sort of be intrigued. I grew up in Wales in a place called Pentyrch near Cardiff. It was halfway up the Garth Mountain. He and his friends would go for a stroll up there at Christmas time, and he'd take [his trumpet] out there and play out into the surrounding valley. I was always intrigued by that, obviously. I don't remember this, but apparently I asked for trumpet lessons when I was nine years old. For my tenth birthday, I got them. And that was that, really. I just sort of fell in love with it. I wasn't the hardest-working student — I think it's fairly rare when people are — but it was something that spoke to me and it felt like something I could do. When you have relative success at something quite quickly, you go, “Ah, I like this. This is good.” I played in school bands and in county bands up to the age of 14 or 15. One of the first jazz things I heard on the radio was The Cat by Jimmy Smith, and I fell in love with the Hammond organ there and then. Obviously, that record is a great big band record. Lalo Schifrin arranged the tunes, and it's got some fantastic horn writing on it. I kind of had the best of both worlds. A friend of mine, who is a fantastic jazz pianist, and I got into listening to records. He had a great jazz selection that his dad had. My dad's record collection had a lot of Count Basie. He was a big band fan.
Was the trumpet the first instrument you picked up?
I played piano for a year or two before then, but I was lazy and never really practiced that. The trumpet was the first thing that I literally picked up and went, “This is good. I like this.”
Do the other guys in your band play in other people's backing bands as well?
Yes. We're all musical whores, basically. We're all making a living as session guys, freelance musicians. So we all do lots of different things and play with lots of different people. In fact, because this was kind of a last-minute put-together, this tour is going to be sort of a U.S./U.K. musical alliance. Half the band just couldn't make the dates. We basically got offered the Texas Crawfish Festival by a guy I met a couple of years ago, and I said, “Hell yes.” And I thought I'd try to put a tour together around it. It turns out, the guitarist and organ player couldn't make the dates. We have two sax players that regularly do the gig, and one of them was away on tour. So I'm basically bringing over the frontline and then picking up the rhythm section over there. So, for the Dallas and Austin gigs, we've got a guy called Wes Stephenson from The Funky Knuckles. They're a Dallas band who are fantastic. They've got an album out called Meta-Music at the moment. And we've got an organ player from Austin called Nate Basinger from a band called The Lost Counts, who are fantastic. And a guy called Kevin Scott, who is a bass player that's played with Ruben Wilson and Bernard Purdie. So we've got a kickass band lined up.
What are some of the other big bands your regular bandmates play with?
At the moment, the sax player is playing with a guy called Robbie Williams. For his sins, he's playing with Robbie Williams. He's on the gravy train right now. He's played with Jack White, Mark Ronson. Frank, our sax player that's coming over, played with Amy Winehouse for years and is currently Tom Jones' sax player. Our guitarist played with Pee Wee Ellis. Our drummer's played with Dionne Warwick. I've played with a few people. Mumford. I did a concert with Beck last year. I played the world premiere of Song Reader — there was an amazing concert at the Barbican in London last year. It was Beck, obviously, Joan as Police Woman, Jarvis Cocker. I can't think of who else off the top of my head. But it was an amazing concert with all these amazing musicians bringing their own touch to these Beck songs, which, of course, there's no versions to compare to because that was the whole idea. Every version is going to be different. But that was quite an interesting evening. It was great fun.
Do you find American audiences are as receptive to jazz and other forms of instrumental music than audiences in Europe are?
I've been on tour with the Mumford guys over there, and the reception they get is phenomenal. Everyone goes crazy for them over there. The best thing about touring with them over there is, at the end of each tour, I take myself down to New Orleans and hang out on my own for a few days to soak up Louisiana life in New Orleans, which is a wonderful place on Earth. The kind of reverence and appetite for jazz music there — that's where the genre was born — is like nothing else. The life they give the music, you really get that from the audience. Jazz is American music. It's an American art form. And I think that's very obvious. Coming from the other side of the water, when you go to America, you really get that appreciation that people have and the respect for the music and the people that perform it. That's why I want to come and see if my music can work over there and see what people think of it. I think that's kind of the worldwide benchmark. We have fantastic jazz musicians over here, but the audiences over here can be a little dry. They can be a bit reserved. I think it's the English way. Everyone's polite. Sometimes, when you're playing a gig and you're giving it all you've got — all your blood, sweat and tears — you're not getting people screaming like you do at gigs I've been to in the States. I think that's why so many people want to go and play in the States.
How different — besides the obvious ways, I suppose — are tours with this band as opposed to tours with Mumford and Sons?
The obvious thing is that I'll be driving the van this time. There won't be a nice 20-foot-long tour bus waiting for me at the end of the evening so I can just climb into my bunk. It's a different world. It's great. I love playing small venues. I like having the audiences that you can reach out and touch — that kind of closeness. Of course, of the nine dates, I've only been to one of the venues before. So I'm kind of excited to see what these places are like. I kind of asked around friends in the States and got recommendations. I found The Prophet Bar through Michael League of Snarky Puppy, who are obviously legends of the Dallas music scene. The last gig I did in the States was in Kansas City with Mumford & Sons last September, which was a huge amphitheatre-type thing with 18,000 people. Having never played west of Ireland before, nobody really knows our music. It'll be interesting to see a) how many people turn up, and b) what their reaction is. But, yeah, playing smaller venues is definitely an exciting prospect.
I imagine, driving the bus, you'll get to see a lot more scenery than you would have sleeping in the bunk and waking up at the venue.
A lot of people talk about being in the tour bubble. Like, last summer, when a lot of the venues were these big amphitheaters, a lot of times you're staying 40 miles outside of the town. So if you want to see the town, you had to try and get a lift off one of the runners, or get a taxi or a train, which we did. The good thing about not being in the main band is that you don't have to do the interviews and promo stuff that the boys had to do on a daily basis. But me and Dave [Williamson], the trombone player from Mumford, Ross [Holmes], the fiddle player, and Ephraim [Owens], the other trumpet player, would wake up on the tour bus, go have breakfast and head into town and check out as much as we could for a few hours before heading back for soundcheck. I'd hate it when we didn't get a chance to do that, when we were too far out of town or whatever. Then you just literally see the backstage of the venue, do the gig, see the people and then you're back on the bus again. It's amazing to play those kind of gigs and see the reaction and see the audience — it's a great buzz — but one of the major parts of touring that I love is to visit the towns that you play in. Hopefully, all these venues are going to be pretty central, so we can go for a walk around and we can go to the bar around the corner for a quick pre-match drink. That's the best part of touring for me, checking out new places and meeting new people.
The Prophet Bar should be a good place for that. It's right in Deep Ellum and there's a lot of blues and jazz history in that neighborhood.
I've heard about it. My friend Ephraim Owens is from Dallas. He went to Denton, same as the Snarky Puppy guys. A lot of great musicians I know have come from [the University of] North Texas. It must be an amazing music course up there, because all of the musicians I meet from there are fantastic, world-class players. Ephraim, who now lives in Austin, has told me about Deep Ellum. I'm excited to check that place out.
I read somewhere that you used to give Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons piano lessons when he was younger. Is that true?
Yes. Part of gigging and being a working musician is the teaching. I taught Ben for a few years. Jazz piano at school. Him and Marcus [Mumford] were in a jazz group together, and I used to coach them. A few years later they asked me to play on a record. And, next thing, I'm touring the world with them, which is a crazy sequence of events. It's a sequence of events that caused me to lose my teaching job that I met them at. So it's kind of bizarre. It is true — although I don't take any credit [for it]. They do their thing.
What instrument was Marcus playing in their jazz group back then?
He played drums. He's a good jazz drummer! He [still] plays drums a couple of times during the set. But I think he's itching to play more.
You mentioned that you kind of coached them. Ever make them play Filthy Six songs?
Funny enough, I used to get them to play Lou Donaldson tunes and Grant Green tunes — old, late '60s Blue Note stuff, which is the complete inspiration for the Filthy Six. I used to take them along tunes that I was doing with the Filthy Six early on. Some of the jams we've had after the gigs, we've got out the old Detantes — that was the name of their band — songs. There was kind of a mutual thread to the choice of tunes. Maybe it was just me being lazy and saying, “Well, I'm doing these tunes anyway. Let's just do these. I know these.”
The Filthy Six performs Thursday, April 24, at The Prophet Bar.