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Interview: The Austin Francis Connection

2 May 12 interview: Paul Klotschkow
photos: Carla Mundy

The Austin Francis Connection are scattered across the country, but we’re claiming them – Edi Johnston, Jack ‘Hobbit’ Hobbs and Mark Finney - for Notts...

How did you get together?
We hooked up about six years ago at a festival in Cheltenham; Mark was there to coordinate it, I was comparing the hip-hop stage, and Hobbit was one of the acts; I got up and did some emceeing with him. A guy who was a fan of my previous band who owned a studio asked me if I wanted to do a solo project, but I told him that I couldn’t play any instruments and he said not to worry about it. So I got a sampler and started making some tunes and at around this time I then went to this festival. I came up with this idea of having this guitarist and I had got in to beatboxing through this guy called Tyke, who was one of the guy we tried to book for this festival, but we couldn’t do it so he suggested getting this young guy called Hobbit. We ended up getting on really well and the three of us just went in to my tent and jammed through a few ideas. It just started from there as I was living in Bristol at the time and they were living in Gloucester. Then about three years later I moved to Nottingham.

Is that why the band is now split over two cities?
We're a band divided by the West Midlands. It’s quite good in some ways - we have a good reputation in Coventry as that is in the middle of where we are and that is where we meet up. Since the initial lot of writing we have tended to write songs at gigs. We get there two hours before soundcheck, have a drink and a catch up, and then we go through some ideas. Our rehearsals are really sporadic and we know that if we really wanted to push it and try and break it we would have to do a whole lot more rehearsing.

You guys smashed it at the Future Sound of Nottingham final...
It’s always fun when you are a band like we are with just acoustic guitar, beatbox and vocals and there’s nothing else there. The only thing that I didn’t want to do was go on at the start, because when we go on at the middle of stuff we stick out more like a sore thumb and people think, “hang on, what’s going on here?” We just wanted to get a crowd to hear more of our songs really. During the soundcheck we realised that Hobbit’s beatbox sounded massive in the big room. Even for a beatboxer he has a genuinely big bass. Nottingham has a healthy beatboxing scene, and MotorMouf and The Petebox realise that Hobbit is renowned for a big bass, so throwing that through the Rock City PA was nice.

Were you gutted not to have won?
I wasn’t expecting to win. We have been going for a long time and we have never really tried to break it in Nottingham. We got talking to Tastebuds, who mentioned that they had been given advice about building up a following in their home town; we don’t have a hometown, which is a problem for us. Nottingham is never a place where we have pushed things as it’s so far for the other boys to come. I had been in touch with Mark Del from Nusic as we played at the Hockley Hustle a couple of years ago and Mark came down to see us and introduced himself afterwards. He said that he wanted to see us as the name interested him; he didn’t know what we sounded like. So we found out about the competition through our link with him.

Have things changed much since the competition?
I think more people in Nottingham are a little bit more aware of us. We are now at the stage where promoters get in touch with us and I can’t thinking that we might be able to get a show here, as it’s not just us relying on a few mates from work to come down, we have actually got some people who genuinely like us in Nottingham. So since we’ve had a few enquiries from people who want to book us. We should have more gigs come October - November, and a lot of people seem to like what we are doing. What’s cool for me about entering the competition is not about wanting to win it, but more to do with who was on the judging panel - the guys from LeftLion, DHP, people who have a stature in Nottingham music and to introduce ourselves to them was such a great opportunity.

What is hard to get gigs in Nottingham before?
It’s always difficult when you are a band like we are. We rely on performance so much, that trying to put across all of what we do on to a CD is impossible. In terms of getting gigs, word of mouth or people having seen us, that is what we were going for. The idea of opening Splendour would have been amazing. I saw photographs of The Money playing and they looked like they had a whale of a time. When there is three of you and only one of us is from Nottingham we were pushing our luck to get the the FSN final, so we were pleased with that.

Do you keep tabs on the local music scene?
I’ve been in touch with a little bit of it because of Hobbit. He’s been at the East Midlands heat of the Beatboxing Championships as either a competitor or a judge. That is our usual jaunt and I get to see people I know a little it about, such a Karizma and Inkrument, who were phenomenal last time. So I know a little bit about the beatboxers and people like Scorzayzee. I’m not down with it as much as I should be or I would like to be.

Your music has a sense of humour running through it. Are you worried that you could be perceived as a joke band?
That’s fine, I don’t mind if people see us as a bit of a joke. Whatever it takes for people to come away from our shows with a smile on their face. If I wanted to take things so seriously I wouldn’t dress up like I do on stage, I wouldn’t put in so many stupid gags, and to be honest, I wouldn’t write about the things I write about. We class ourselves as ‘acoustic hip hop to make you smile’. If people put us on a huge stage with a big crowd I have absolutely no doubts that we would hammer it. We just entertain, we put on more of a performance than a show.

Any standout gigs in Nottingham?
We had a show at the Malt Cross and it was a nightmare. The Malt Cross has its stage in between the downstairs and the upstairs and we rely on interaction with the audience and people feeding off us. I didn’t know where to look, there was nothing in front of us. We had a absolute shocker.

Is the live aspect of the band is the most important part of what you do?
That is what we do, we play gigs. We put on a performance, we are part gig part cabaret. But having stuff down recorded is also important. We struggled for ages getting the album together and trying to get it sounding like the stuff we do. We recorded in a studio and it sounded too sterile. We did a live CD which didn’t have enough depth to it. It took us 2-3 years to find the right place to record and finally got it all together. We don’t have a manager, we don’t have a label, it is all us doing it ourselves. We did all of the artwork, we pressed it ourselves, a mate of ours did the photos, someone else did the illustrations, and I pieced it all together on PowerPoint - to the embarrassment of both of my bandmates, who are both computer wizards.

Hobbit has a huge reputation as a beatboxer...
We were really lucky as a band to get to know Hobbit at a really young age. Hobbit on his own is actually more expensive to book than the Austin Francis Connection, because that is his livelihood. So essentially he does Hobbit gigs and does AFC as a bit of a favour. He got invited over to America to introduce Kenny Muhammad at the International Beatboxing Convention. He gets invited all over the world and people ask him to do adverts, and if you speak to anyone connected to beatboxing in this country and around the world they know the name Hobbit. Every now and again I get this feeling that he is going to blow up;  we are essentially on borrowed time. Mark and I often speak about what we would do if Hobbit left the band and it would be the end. We couldn’t train another beatboxer to do what Hobbit does. One of these days he will get snapped up, which is why I keep writing songs about him, to feed the ego.

What’s next for the band?
We hopefully have a bunch of gigs coming up in Nottingham. But the plan is to hopefully be playing loads of festivals next summer. It’s at festivals where I think we fit in. It’s a good sound, we don’t take too long to set up. I promote ourselves as the ideal support band. As long as we are not headlining we are alright, if you are headlining you have got to bring loads of people in.

Where does the band name come from?
Originally we were called Shambles, but our Myspace site got deleted. I got in touch with Myspace and discovered that a band in the States had already registered the name The Shambles, so we weren’t allowed to use it. And it was like ‘seriously...’. So we were looking for a name for ages and there’s a couple of stories around it, the one I tell journalists and the real one.

Okay, tell us the real one...
The real one is one that I don’t want to tell anyone yet. One of the stories is that a mate of mine was coming up with names based around an old jazz trio. I won’t say the whole thing now as it will ruin my whole spiel if it goes in to print, but the real story is known by a few people. The real reason is just that it sounds cool.

The Austin Francis Connection play The Maze 15th Birthday Extravaganza this Saturday, alongside 25 Past The Skank, Seas of Mirth and Just James. Tickets are £5 or £4 if you come along in some item of fancy dress.

AFC website

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