Saturday, April 9, 2011

Talking with The Dodge Brothers

The Dodge Brothers are known around England for their robust approach to  American music. Described as "wonderful stuff" on British radio, this UK-based group plays an exuberant hybrid of American country blues, jug band, skiffle and rock-a-billy. In the current lingo, they could easily be described as a “roots music” outfit - with a strong rural feel.

The Dodge Brothers are also know around England for their accompaniment to the 1928 Louise Brooks film, Beggars of Life. They have performed their original score to this acclaimed silent film twice within the last year - and each time to great acclaim. They will be doing it again on Sunday, April 10th,when the British Film Institute screens Beggars of Life as part of the 14th annual British Silent Film Festival at the BFI Southbank in London. Accompanying the film will be The Dodge Brothers, who will be joined on-stage by the acclaimed silent film accompanist Neil Brand.

The movie, and the 1924 bestselling book it was based on, are fast becoming classic works of Americana. The Dodge Brothers accompaniment is a natural fit. Beggars of Life was directed by future Academy Award winner William Wellman and was based on the acclaimed book by “hobo-author” Jim Tully. The film stars future Academy Award winner Wallace Beery and silent film stars Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks. Edgar "Blue" Washington, a noted African-American actor, also has a small part. The film tells the gritty story of a girl who dresses as a boy and goes on the run and rides the rails in pre-Depression America.
Mike Hammond - the group's singer (and silent film expert) took time out to answer a few questions about their score, their music, Louise Brooks, and silent film.

Thomas Gladysz: The Dodge Brothers will accompany Beggars of Life on April 10th. For those not familiar with the Dodge Brothers, what can you tell us about the group?

Dodge Brothers: Well here is the short version. The Dodge Brothers are a four-piece band modeled on the skiffle and jug bands of the 20s and 30s. Each of us plays more than one instrument, Aly plays acoustic guitar and mandolin, Alex plays washboard, snare and wine bottle, I play guitar, banjo, piano and tap dance while Mark plays double bass, harmonicas, accordion and is soon to unveil his prowess on the bag pipes.
We started from a love of the music that leads up to Elvis, which ranges widely from railroad songs, murder ballads to ragged street blues. We got going learning ten songs (‘Frankie and Johnny’ and ‘Stagger Lee’ among others) and over the years we have amassed about 150 songs. A couple of years ago we started to write our own songs that resulted in our album Louisa and the Devil. Mark started this by bringing in ‘Church House Blues’ and saying it was by an old jug band. We still do that; if it fools the rest of us into believing its authentic then we play it. (Did I say short version?)

Thomas Gladysz: With that said, what can one expect  - musically speaking, from your score?

Dodge Brothers: The score for the film will draw from those old songs from the period. I am a silent film scholar and I know that Paramount had the most film theatres in the rural areas so it was not uncommon for them to release different versions of films, one for the big cities and one for the rural towns. I have kept this in mind when thinking about the score. The lovely Troubadors version of ‘Beggars of Life’ was meant as a theme for the film and we will be incorporating a version of that but combining it with motifs which call up railroad songs that were popular during the period, particularly those by Jimmie Rogers. Lots of those songs are really about hobos riding the rails and they have a wonderful wistfulness about them, a mixture of loneliness and humor that both fits the film and the way we play.

Thomas Gladysz: Beggars of Life is unlike any of Brooks' earlier American films. Had you seen it before? And what were your impressions?

Dodge Brothers: You’re so right about it being an exceptional Brooks film. Most people associate her with the Jazz Age flapper-type but in this film she plays a girl on the run, dressed as a boy! None of us had seen the film before and it was our fifth member, the fabulous pianist and silent film composer Neil Brand, who drew it to our attention. Brooks really ‘pops’ out of the screen and holds her own with Wallace Beery, which is no mean feat. The tension that is generated by her masquerade as a boy amongst a lot of rough hobos is tight as a drum. There is a real sense of menace and danger from the beginning where ‘The Girl’ (Louise) takes matters into her own hands with a firearm. She reminds me of Louisa in our song ‘The Ballad of Frank Harris’. Maybe that’s what I really like about this film, she is self-sufficient and an equal partner with Arlen. And she can shoot a gun!

Thomas Gladysz: Are you a fan of Louise Brooks?

Dodge Brothers: Oh yes and not only because of the fact that she is the most compelling of screen stars. She is intuitive as an actress and gives the sense that she is being rather than acting. I do think Pabst understood that best. However, I am as big a fan of her writing. She is incisive and brutal in her analysis of Hollywood and, perhaps most touching, of herself.

Thomas Gladysz: When did you first come across the actress?

Dodge Brothers: I can’t speak for the rest of the guys. I first saw her in an undergraduate film class in the 80s. It was Pandora’s Box. I remember thinking; of course these guys are giving away everything for her, who wouldn’t?

Thomas Gladysz:  Louise Brooks has been getting the musical treatment of late. Rufus Wainwright recently released a musical tribute to Louise Brooks titled All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. And of course, it was preceded by earlier rock and pop musical tributes by the likes of Orchestral Manuevers in the Dark (OMD), the prog-rock group Marillion, Australian Jen Anderson, Mike Doughty's Soul Coughing, and others - even the cartoonist Robert Crumb. Where might your score fit into this history?

Dodge Brothers: Well all of these tributes are really great and it’s nice to be in their company. I haven’t heard Rufus Wainwright’s but I guess in this history we will probably be closer to R. Crumb’s. We are trying to bring a flavour of the kind of music that might have been played in the rural areas of the US to this film. Remember that the orchestras in most of those theatres at the time would have been as small as a quartet. They also played to their audience who would have known the railroad songs as well as the popular tunes of the day so they would mix them up. We’ll be doing something similar and hopefully support the wide-ranging emotions in this film, from lonesome and sad, to tender, to fast action and gunplay. Louise does it all here and, come to think of it, that’s a good description of The Dodge Brothers’ music too.


For more info: The 1928 Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life will be shown at the BFI Southbank (Belvedere Road, South Bank, London, SE1 8XT). Start time is 18:15. More info at this page. The Dodge Brothers have released two albums to date. The group is made up of  Mike Hammond (lead guitar, lead vocals), Mark Kermode (bass, harmonica, vocals), Aly Hirji (rhythm guitar, mandolin, vocals) and Alex Hammond (washboard, snare drum, percussion). More about the Dodge Brothers can be found at http://www.dodgebrothers.co.uk as well as http://www.facebook.com/dodgebrothers and http://www.myspace.com/dodgebrothers. A few video clips can be seen at  http://www.youtube.com/dodgebrothersuk

2 comments:

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  2. I went to see the boys accompany "Beggars of Life" at the BFI and it has to be the most fun I've have in a cinema (without 3D glasses Mark!)in a very long while.

    My gushing review is here: http://ithankyouarthur.blogspot.com/2011/04/beggars-of-life-dodge-brothers-deliver.html

    Thanks for this interview (and so much else) Thomas!

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