IF one family can be said to epitomise the spirit of Wigan’s popular music scene in recent times, it’s the Kettles.
Siblings John, Bob and Andrew have been at the heart of the town’s creative scene for more than 30 years, providing the instrumental and song-writing heart of one of the borough’s best-loved cult acts, The Tansads, as well as their current band, folk-rock seven-piece Merry Hell.
John has also provided valuable support to a whole generation of young Wiganers hooked on music as a producer at his own Jaraf House studio in Bamfurlong, which is where we meet to discuss the family’s life in music.
As soon as they are seated together, the three brothers are instantly swapping tales from their time on the road as a band, with anecdotes about hotel stopovers and playing outdoor festival stages in torrential downpours, the kind of grass-roots experiences which inform their music.
Growing up in Pemberton, John, 48, and Bob, 46, quickly became fascinated by music at a young age, though some of their formative experiences were not ones which might be associated with two young Wiganers in love with loud electric guitar music.
John said: “I’m one of those people who could really do nothing else other than be involved in music. I felt it deeply as a kid and from school leaving age all I ever wanted to do was put on a guitar and play.
“We were brought up as a church-going family, and I remember being utterly moved by hymns.
“I still love communal singing and anthemic melodies, and I hear hymns as a kind of cross between folk songs and pop anthems.
“On some early Tansads songs I interwove some hymn tunes, and there’s definitely bits of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind in a few of my songs.”
“At the end of the church service they would fling the doors open and start playing something like Bach on the organ as the building flooded with light, it made the atmosphere into something really beautiful. That was definitely a major musical experience,” adds Bob.
While the two elder Kettle brothers were eagerly exploring punk and rock ‘n’ roll, with Bob’s horizons in particular expanding through a growing interest in reggae and sounds emerging from Africa and the Caribbean, they began songwriting and playing in various bands from around the age of 14.
Although younger brother Andrew, 40, did not immediately show as much interest in music, a chance moment led to him also being drawn into the musical scene.
He said: “I grew up surrounded by instruments and people playing music but didn’t participate. I just learned to play songs I liked, and one day I was playing Kathy’s Song by Simon and Garfunkel.
“John popped his head around the door because he heard me singing, and asked if I wanted to be in a band with them.”
The brothers would go on to form The Tansads, who became a part of Wigan musical legend with their five albums of punk-influenced folk-rock which saw them headline a gig supported by a young up-and-coming Wigan act called The Verve and become renowned as a British underground act.
Following The Tansads’ split the Kettles simply disappeared from the music scene to pursue other avenues: Bob completing his Master’s in English literature and teaching at Liverpool John Moores University, specialising in the Romantic poets, Andrew moving to Scotland and working with vulnerable children and the elderly, and John setting up the Jaraf House studio to move from the stage to the mixing desk.
However, following the long layoff a series of Tansads reunion gigs in 2010 paved the way for their return to music with new act Merry Hell, a band which they describe both as like and unlike the act that had originally made their names.
John said: “Nothing we’ve done has been designed. We came up with the idea of having two singers because we already had Janet Anderson in The Tansads but I knew I was writing songs which needed a male voice too, and we’re still using it now.
“The Tansads taught us everything we know about how to do gigs and write and present songs, but it’s a done deal and we’re looking into the future with Merry Hell.”
Andrew concurs: “I’ve never had a style as a singer, I’ve just found a certain way that’s worked for me. The only thing I’ve tried to do is resist giving an American twang to my voice, which I’ve noticed a lot of singers do.”
In forming as Merry Hell the number of musical Kettles working together moved from three to four as John’s wife Virginia joined Andrew on microphone duties, and her inclusion as both a performer and a songwriter has been highly significant in terms of how the group’s albums Blink...And You Miss It and Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain have turned out.
John said: “If we didn’t have Virginia we would have been able to continue as a group but I’m not sure we would have progressed artistically as quickly as we have done.
“Since the band started I’ve done much more arranging and polishing of songs, the ideas increasingly come from her. We also have great contributions to the song-writing from Bob and our keyboardist Lee, it’s a band that throws a great deal of energy into what we do.
“When we were starting an amazing thing happened. We’d done some demos of a few songs and our manager took it to a folk music conference.
“Steve Heap, who manages the label Mrs Casey Records, swept it into a bin liner but something pricked his conscience so he listened to it on the way home.
“All the staff at the label’s office loved it, and within a few minutes he was on the phone asking if we wanted to sign for them.”
However, in returning to the scene the band also had to come to terms with the way their reputation had spiralled during their years of hiatus, which they say sits oddly with the down-to-earth nature of both the group and their music.
Bob said: “It’s a wonderful thing to find your music spreads further than your immediate environment, and one of the most satisfying things possible is when an audience sings back to you the words you’ve written.”
“We were at a festival recently and a man in his 50s was nearly tearful because of our gig. It’s a very strange experience because to us we’re a bunch of blokes from Wigan and St Helens,” Andrew adds.
In making the shift to become Merry Hell the band have made the move from the rock to the contemporary folk scene, a transition which allows them to be heard by younger audiences and by music fans who share a common background and set of influences with the band members.
However, through his work as a studio producer John is constantly in touch with what younger Wigan acts are doing, and says that although musical styles continually shift and change the reasons which drive people to make music are identical to when he was starting out.
He said: “It’s comforting to me to see that bands are singing about the same issues which concerned us at their age, and are still thinking in the same way about instruments and arrangements of their songs. It’s exactly the same for international colleagues too.
“Bands are positive gangs where music allows them to open doors into the world and represent their own particular locality. For me broadening horizons has always been at the heart of what pop music is about.”
With their two albums so far being released to near-universal acclaim, the band are already hard at work crafting their next set of anthemic songs, fresh from another summer on the road at the UK’s festivals.
The group will, however, take a brief break from the studio this autumn for one of the highlights of their annual calendar, the Merry Helloween bash at The Citadel in St Helens.
John said: “We’ve started the long process of getting the new album together, and it will take us about six months. We’re going to see what happens but the intention is to continue developing the band artistically.
“The St Helens gig marks the end of the summer season. We’ve played a lot of big gigs there and it’s our spiritual home.”
Sounds like the Kettle brothers’ loyal fans will be able to enjoy plenty more musical Merry Hell-raising yet.