Leave it the Brits to put a clever spin on anything they undertake. That’s especially true when it comes to their version of bluegrass. Not surprisingly then, the Thumping Tommys are no exception. The band, which consists of Alex Hunter (banjo/vocals), Benedict Amadeus Scrivener (guitar/vocals), Giles Casswell (mandolin/vocals/spoons/washboard), Gerogina Leach (violin), and Tim Fairhall (bass), date their origins to the time when Scrivener, Casswell and Hunter first met, approximately 13 years ago when each was attending university and pursuing studies in jazz.
“A few years later Giles and I lived together, and Alex would often come ’round to drink beer, and hang out in our living room to play and listen to music,” Scrivener recalls. “We realized we all had similar a taste for old acoustic music, so we decided to form a band. We met Georgina doing a gig in a department store called Debenhams, where she was playing for customers in the lingerie department (!), and then met Tim whilst he was playing on the London trad jazz scene.”
Although Scrivener cites such influences as Doc Boggs, Flatt & Scruggs, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and the Dubliners, he says that the individual musicians never really thought about playing bluegrass before they started the band. “It was all a bit new to us,” he admits. “Giles actually only learned mandolin for the Thumping Tommys; his first instrument was drums. So we definitely learned a lot together as a band. I still remember the day we discovered the Louvin Brothers. Many pints were had!”
These days, the group serves up a hearty mix of bluegrass, English, Irish and Scottish folk music, blues, and more overt examples of modern Americana as created and recorded by Bob Dylan and the Band.
“We like to keep it varied but also put our own take on stuff,” Scrivener notes. “We started just doing covers, but over the years, we’ve put more and more of our original music into the set, and now we mostly play original stuff. Some of our favorite covers are classics like Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Jambalaya, Rabbit in the Log, Rocky Road to Dublin, Freeborn Man, and Bad Luck Blues.
To date the band can claim three releases — a pair of EPs (an eponymous collection of covers and Stay in Your Seats) and a full length LP, Live in Bergen. Scrivener says that the band is currently in the process of recording a second full-length album that will consist entirely of their own original material.
They’ve also had ample opportunity to perform live, including an appearance at Costa Del Folk in Portugal in October 2019, where they shared the stage with the legendary British folk rock outfit Fairport Convention. Fairport, in turn, was impressed enough to invite them to perform at their namesake festival, Fairport’s Cropredy Convention last August prior to its cancellation due to COVID. However, their appearance has been rescheduled for this August when the event resumes with the same lineup as previously announced.
“We started out mainly playing in London,” Scrivener recalls. “Our first gig was a weekly residency every Wednesday night at a craft beer pub in Islington. It lasted five years! We’ve now played all over the place — in clubs, pubs, concert halls and festivals throughout Europe. In 2016, we recorded our first live album in Bergen, Norway. The last proper tour we did prior to the pandemic was last August across Estonia. It’s amazing how well bluegrass and folk music go down in far flung places.”
In fact, Scrivener marvels at how well the group’s music has been received by their local audiences. “We were really surprised when we were starting out at what a wide appeal it seemed to have,” he reflects. “It’s often a style of music that some people aren’t aware that they like, at least until they hear it live. Here in the UK, there are comparatively few bands playing this style of music.”
It’s no surprise then that Scrivener has a ready response when asked why he believes the bluegrass has such an enthusiastic international following.
“It’s sometimes happy, energetic, and danceable, but other times it can bring a tear to your eye, or even come in the form of a terrifying song about a murder,” he suggests. “It certainly covers the full range of human emotions. For some people, it conjures up images of a time or place. You feel like you can travel to places in America in your head just through listening to it. It also has a universal appeal to both the young and the old. And, in Europe at least, it’s not something you hear every day.”