Andy Cutting Interview, Part Three

In the middle of our conversation in December, Andy Cutting went on a wander, performing here, teaching workshops there. I had asked him some questions about the partnerships of his career — especially Blowzabella and Chris Wood. At the end of February, the answers arrived.

Could you talk about Blowzabella? How did you encounter them, and then join?

Andy Cutting with Blowzabella

I knew of Blowzabella for several years before I really met them. Through seeing them at various English folk festivals. In fact before I played the box! When I started to play, I went to a box workshop run by Riccardo Tesi at Sidmouth folk festival. Paul James, [Blowzabella’s piper and sax guy], was helping Riccardo and they asked me to play a bit. I discovered some years later that on hearing me pay Riccardo turned to Paul and said “you need to get him in Blowzabella.” Dave Roberts, box player, had recently left and Dave Shepherd (the violin player) was leaving, so that meant they wanted someone to fill their shoes. Fortunately for me I was in the right place at the right time. They asked me to a few of their gigs and then I received a letter saying I was now in the band. 

This wasn’t your first time playing French and European music, was it?

As far as the European repertoire goes. I hadn’t really heard any until I was given a Castagnari catalogue which had photos of their range of instruments surrounded by LP’s made by people playing their instruments. I used these pictures to track down some of the records. Most notably Riccardo Tesi, Marc Perrone, and La Ciapa Rusa. It was just the catalyst I needed.
The Vanilla recording really made quite the impact, what elements do you think came together to make that such a vibrant piece of work?

When we recorded Vanilla the band had spent a year with the new line up, and we had played a lot of concerts so we were a really cohesive unit. Both socially and musically. Once in the studio we just got on and did the best we could. Recording the hurdy-gurdy (Nigel Eaton), bass/cittern (Ian Luff) and box live, then building the track up from that. It was a residential studio so we were all together with no real distractions. A very enjoyable time for me.
Could you talk about the vision of the group? The focused/multi-cultural, complex/simple, thoughtful/intuitive blend?

As a band. Blowzabella doesn’t really fit into any of the folk genres. We have always just ploughed our own furrow. The band started off playing bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy music from wherever they could find it. Since then we have written more and more of our own music so now it is almost entirely self composed English dance music. Well. Our hurdy-gurdy player (Gregory Jolivet) is French so he is having an influence on our repertoire now. Which is great. I like things to evolve.
With the recent work (Octomento), and work I’ve seen from you and Gregory Jolivet, it feels as if a kind of renaissance is happening for Blowzabella. Is that accurate? Or just wishful thinking on my part?

With Greg and Barnaby Stradling (bass) they have bought a new energy to us all. We are starting to play a bit more and are working on a new record. It is also our 35th anniversary this year. I suppose with all that there is more media interest and so people are being reminded that the band is still a going concern. If that’s a renaissance, then, yes I suppose that it whats happening.
Next:  The Andy Cutting/Chris Wood partnership.

Andy Cutting Interview Part 2: Gear Talk

Part One is Here.

Andy Cutting does NOT have an accordéon collection. Listening to Andy Cutting, one is entranced, of course, by his playing, but one also marvels — perhaps with a modicum of jealousy — at the sound of his instruments. I asked Cutting about his instruments. Is he a gear hound? Does he have a collection?

I wouldn’t say I was a gear hound at all. I’m primarily driven by playing music on a machine and have the instruments I feel I can best do that. I don’t really have a collection, as such. Although my wife would say otherwise! For those who are interested, the boxes I have are:

with the beloved Mory
  • Hohner Pokerwork D/G (my first box which I still play at home) 
  • Hohner one row four stop G 
  • Hohner Club 3 D/G 
  • One of those Chinese one rows
  • A small two row CBA thing that John Tams got in the Crimea when he was filming Sharp
  • Castagnari Mignon Gish, 
  • Two Castagnari Max, one in D and one in A
  • Castagnari Lilly D/G (bought by mistake!) 
  • Castagnari Handry 18 G/C
  • Oakwood (I’ve no idea what model. It was made for me), two row 21 button, 8 bass with stop for the thirds, G/C Bandoneon (octave) tuned, 
  • Two Castagnari Mory C/F and, finally, 
  • Castagnari Mory D/G (my most used and favorite box)

I also have on long term loan a Marcel Messervier Melodeon in D. So as I said, not really a collection.

How has he come by them? How did he first move beyond the Pokerwork?

I have over the years tried and played just about all the makes of boxes I’ve heard of. Some fabulous and a few dreadful. When I had been playing a few months I had the opportunity to play a Castagnari and it was just so much better than the Hohner I was playing. So after a lot of persuasive discussion and an approaching 18th birthday, I somehow convinced my parents that I needed a better box. We had been to Bromyard Folk Festival and I had been given a copy of the Castagnari catalogue by Rees Wesson (a fine one row maker). I sat down with my dad with a mind to get a Nik (two voice, two row, eight bass but with hand made reeds). My dad said that from all that I’d been saying, it sounded like I wanted something much more like … and he pointed to the Mory. I wasn’t going to say no, and so, with a bit of translation it was ordered. Several months later (!!) it arrived … and I hated it! It was so much bigger and heavier than my Pokerwork and I could barely reach the inside row of bass buttons, let alone the stops. I thought about it and knew that I would have to change the way I played. After a few days and a lot of work I totally fell in love with it.

Some items on that list are very intriguing! Two Maxes? Why two one rows? 

When I started playing with Chris Wood it was primarily to play some of the Quebecois repertoire. The only one row I had was in G and not super so I got the Max in D. Later I got the A one so that Chris could play in A. Fiddle players like A. Now I mostly use them in my Solo concerts and a bit with Martin Simpson.
With Chris Wood

And why is the Mory his favorite? Not that this is a hard question … why wouldn’t it be his favorite? But he’s got a Handry 18, G/C, the classic big box played by the likes of Bruno LeTron, Didier Laloy, and other Samurai. Why isn’t the HANDRY his favorite?

I bought the Handry 18 about fifteen years ago. I really like it but it’s just not me. It is in many ways too capable and as I’ve said before, I love the limitations of the instrument. With the big box it feels a little like cheating. I know it’s not, but the challenges that box brings aren’t the ones I’m so interested in.

It’s interesting that the box is G/C and the rest are D/Gs. Switching between the two can be difficult for some (okay, me) as the center of the instrument seems to shift from the knee end of the box to the chin. What’s the method behind Cutting’s key choices?

I play in D/G tuning because that is where most of the music I play is pitched. It is the standard in England. I have always tried to play in both octaves. So, I’ve never thought the difference [between D/G and G/C] too great. When teaching in England I try to get people playing in the top octave and when in Europe I get them to play in the bottom. It’s great practice and after a while you stop going eeak, the fingerings different! and just get on with it. 

Most people I work with are amazingly accommodating. I got the C/F box so it was easier to play in D & G minor with the pipes and hurdy-gurdy. If someone wants me to play and it’s in a daft key for the box. All it usually takes is a bit of explanation and nine times out of ten they’ll shift the key.  The singers I work with have mostly been more than happy to move key’s. 

In general, what does Cutting look for in an accordéon?

When trying out boxes it has to have a great action, an even tone across both ends and most importantly for me, have a very good response from very quiet to reasonably loud. I’m not into the bullworker melodeon, loudest is right thing at all. Volume is easy. Subtlety is not. But that of course depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

For me Castagnari seem to fit the way I play, or rather, I have learnt to play the way they work, better than any other make I’ve tried. That is just my personal taste. I would like a Melodie box and would dearly love to try a Bergflodt.

And, as an aside, what about the electronics?

For miking up the box I use an Audio Technica ATM 350 pro and for the left had I use the element off a PZM (Pressure Zone Mic) made by Realistic (or rather, no longer made by Realistic) mounted on the outside of the base plate with the mic looking through a sound hole. This is wired internally to a jack socket. Of the many mic systems I’ve tried this works best for me.

Andy Cutting Interview Part One

Part Two is HERE.

Andy Cutting was not the first to bridge the channel between English melodeon and Musique du Centre-France, but his work in the 90s — with Blowzabella and Chris Wood — elevated the art form. His style is the envy of many (okay, me!) with its effortlessness, flow, and … rhythmic feeling of levitation? His compositions are intricate and intriguing and they stick with you. A tune like “Spaghetti Panic” draws you in and sparks a compulsion to try and learn it.

During breaks in his touring, Andy agreed to an interview-via-email. Part one starts with early stories. Later installments will discuss equipment, repertoire, composition, and technique. The conversation is ongoing, though, so if you’ve got a question for Andy, I’ll be happy to pass it on!

Let’s begin.

You appeared on the scene in the mid-80s. Could you give me some background: where you grew up? Why folk music? Why the accordéon?

I was born in Harrow, North West London. My parents were both enthusiastic morris dancers and as such, from the age of about four, me and my older brother were taken with them on various morris tours and to folk festivals on most weekends of the year. My parents were also keen members of the local folk club. My brother studied the violin and I found myself learning to play the drums. Just before my sixteenth birthday a friend lent me an old beat up melodeon to repair. I fixed various problems with it and a couple of weeks later I gave it back to him. He asked how I’d got on? I explained all the repairs I had made and he said, “No. How did you get in trying to play it?” I played him two or three tunes and he exclaimed, “That’s not fair! It took me about three months before I could play a tune!” I thought maybe I was onto something. He then tracked down an old Hohner Pokerwork and my parents bought it for my 16th birthday. It was only years later that I had realized that growing up around folk music the tunes must have gone into my mind subconsciously so when I first tried the melodeon I was just having to learn the mechanics of it.
When did you realize that you and the accordéon made an extraordinary team? What do you love about the accordéon?

My initial aim was just to be better than the box players I knew. (I was an arrogant 16 year old!) By that I mean, most of the players I knew or saw play would knock out a few tunes in pubs after the morris had danced. Thinking about the classical world there were beginners, amateurs who played in orchestras, people who would rise up the ranks to lead orchestras, professional players and international soloists. It seemed like an unbroken arc. But with the box playing world, that I knew at the time, there were the people who knocked out a few tunes then a massive gap with John Kirkpatrick right at the top with a handful of good players somewhere in between . I just wanted to be able to do more than get through a few tunes. So I set about practicing. A lot. About eight hours a day for nine months or so. I love the limitations of the diatonic button accordion. It makes you think and be creative about the way you achieve the effect your looking for.
Could you describe those early days? What was the scene like where you were? Who were your heroes? What repertoire?
When I started playing I was very much taken under the wing of a great player (Ian Dedic) who used to take me to sessions. He was also not happy just top churn out the same old tunes every week. He was very innovative in his playing and my challenge to myself was to try and emulate what he was doing and maybe even push him a bit? The main session that I started playing at was set up to play anything but Irish music. It wasn’t an exclusive thing. It was just that within a ten mile radius you could go to at least two Irish sessions on every night of the week and some people just wanted the chance to play music from other traditions (mainly English). I was lucky to start playing at that time and to have such a good session reasonably close to home. I rapidly got to hear about other box players. Especially ones from Europe. Most notably for me: John Kirkpatrick. Tony Hall, Martin Ellison, Dave Roberts, Roger Watson, Marc Perrone, Riccardo Tesi, Christian Desnos, Michelle Pichon, Serge Desunay and Philippe Bruneau. I started off playing English tunes then learnt nearly all of John Kirkpatrick’s record Three in a Row, The English Melodeon. After that I started learning tunes from Mark Perrone, Riccardo Tesi and then most of Blowzabella’s repertoire.

Part Two is HERE! Here’s a video of Andy with Chris Wood to keep you warm (thanks Clive Williams).  Go to 6:45 if you were wondering what I meant by “levitation” above.

Spaghetti Panic

Andy Cutting is one of the most esteemed accordéonists in the land. If you wonder why, check out this video.

The tune, “Spaghetti Panic,” is one of Cutting’s best known, in his repertoire for more than two decades. It still amazes. My first reaction, “How???” My second is, “Wonderful!” My third is, “Hey, he gets accordéon face, too!”

COMING SOON: An interview with Andy Cutting! Yes, I’m excited!

UPDATE: Note that the sheet music for “Spaghetti Panic” is in Alexandra Browne’s book, Diatonic Liaisons.