Phat Bollard is a nomadic busking band from Cornwall, England. Along with their families and dogs, they travel the U.K. in their lorries (vans) and make a living performing for the public. Everyone sings, including the dogs.
The group consists of Patrick Shevlin and Adam Whittaker on guitars, Aaron Barnes mandolin, Ash on banjo, Irie Reilly on stick-box bass, and Brian Dunbar on percussion. Patrick, Aaron, Adam, and Ash are all highly talented songwriters with distinct musical personalities.
According to Shevlin, “We started playing music together in each other’s kitchens when we all lived in or close to a small Cornish village by the Tamar River called Calstock. Whilst we were puzzling what to call ourselves, my then two-year-old daughter was enjoying the sizable bollards (stone boat moorings) in the village. As she shouted ‘Phat Bollard!’ up the valley, we decided it was as good a name as any.”
Phat Bollard’s sound can be loosely categorized as folk and skiffle, precursors to American bluegrass and rock respectively, but their delivery and quick wit are uniquely English, or Cornish, to be precise. The first track from their previous release Spare A Little Change is a spoken word piece titled “Cornish Prayer” and presumably a farcical take on the Lord’s Prayer rendered in a hybrid of Cornish and English. The effect is cryptic yet familiar as certain words are recognizable and others incomprehensible.
When asked what makes Cornwall unique, Shevlin says, “It’s beautiful and quiet. If compared with every other county in the country, Cornwall is a bit warmer in both vibe and temperature. The North West coast line is where I always return for refuge as the waves are strong, and the weather that comes in from the Atlantic is both humbling and awe inspiring.”
Thematically Phat Bollard’s work tends to deal with life on the streets, income inequality, and consumer waste, but they balance it all with sardonic humor, a scrappy defiance towards authority, and above all an appeal for change. Their refusal to compromise their message or omit expletives keeps them off corporate radio, and so much the better, for it is this authenticity that makes them so endearing.
Phat Bollard became an underground sensation several years ago when a cell phone video of their tune “Millionaires” went viral. They have been viewed over three million times on YouTube and featured twice on the BBC. Adam Whittaker penned the lyrics which lampoon the callous indifference of global corporations and our slavery to them.
No I don’t give to the busker
He’s talentless and lazy
He’s ruining the country
I think he should get a job
Instead I give my money to:
Walmart, for its tax evasion
Primark, for its child labor
Texaco for the next invasion
Don’t give a fuck about you
Give my money to the millionaires
And I don’t give a fuck about you
About the song’s appeal Shevlin says, “I think ‘Millionaires’ has struck a chord with so many people because we are so horribly governed by the wealthy few, yet we all do as we are told. We buy shit we don’t need and care less and less for those who have even less than ourselves in fear that we will lose the little we have.”
All the media attention has resulted in people seeking them out on the streets and even driving great distances to see them. If the increase in popularity has been strange at times, it’s also helped financially. With cheeky humor and humility, Shevlin says, “We’ve had a pickup of sales, and we’ve bought ourselves a new wheelbarrow.” Indeed, said vehicle is how the band transports their gear from campgrounds to city centers and is the graphic that adorns the cover of their latest release Brew For The Barrowman.
Despite the group’s collective nature and with the exception of a few collaborative efforts, writing is done individually. “Someone usually writes the lyrics and the chords by themselves, and then they bring it to everyone else. We all add additional instrumentation afterwards. If the song survives everyone’s critique, it’s a good one” explains Whittaker.
Like most interesting bands, they defy easy categorization, but give rich rewards for deep listening. Their tunes are both cerebral and heartfelt, topical and timeless, often with dense lyrics that burst at the seams as is the case with “Leave Behind”, another Whittaker composition.
There’s gotta be more than living
Whatever this is we’ve been given
Wage slave to microwaves
And a soap opera at seven
And the awful nagging doubt
Of feeling you’re missing out
On the big picture, and then it hits you
Like a fist into your mouth
You’re only what you leave behind
Time is what kills you
When you’re busy killing time
And you’re only what you leave behind
For your material possessions
And unanswered questions you will find
Was the world a better place ’cause you were in it
Or did you just toe the line?
Regarding influences, Shevlin cites “too many to list” and his big brother while Whittaker asks, “Do you know Jeffrey Lewis? He’s from your neck of the woods. I think his words are great. Likewise, Rory McLeod and Jake Thackray from this end. Loudon Wainwright, Dylan, and Cohen. Fella from Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union. Folk-punk, anger, and self-deprecation. Anything honest. My favorite Loudon song is “Man’s World”, not ’coz it’s a particularly great song, but ’coz it’s so brutally honest about what a massive, misogynistic bastard he is. The news is an endless comic-tragic source of inspiration. We spend too much time in towns and cities witnessing the consequences of our inherently unfair system to not write about that. Would much rather never leave the woods and write songs about squirrels...”
About the current state of affairs in England, Shevlin says, “The political and social climate in the UK these days is sad. People are being lied to and the poor and disabled are suffering still.” Aaron Barnes’s brilliant, scathing tune “Negative Politics” speaks of systematic rot and even the 45th president of the United States.
So Donald Trump
You must be a plot
Ridiculous white boy
You dangerous puppet
I can see your strings
Who’s controlling you
From the wings?
So swing to the left
Swing to the right
The people at the top
They don’t give a shite
It’s all a distraction
A slight of hand
They can drop more bombs
They can take more land
Round and round it goes
Where this thing stops nobody knows
The provocative, infectious chorus is sung in rounds between Aaron and the rest of the lads, which adds infectious dynamic. It’s hard to resist chanting along.
When the band sings of hard living, it’s because they have known it first-hand. Shevlin has been homeless himself and states, “When I was young, I found myself on the streets of France in my early 20’s singing songs for pennies for me and every other hungry homeless I would meet. It was a good way to survive.” He adds, “Today the travelling community of people living in vehicles here in England is growing ever so fast with no one being able to afford rent or get a mortgage or pay their bills; so living in vehicles becomes the only viable option.”
And about life on the road, Shevlin says, “Travelling together as a musical group is good as we are here to help each other when found in a tricky situation. New places, new towns, new adventures, new views, new people etc., are some of the amazing advantages of being a travelling musician. Some of the challenges are unexpected and hard to manage. We have found some rather horrid park ups where you would never want to bring a family or stay a second night, and we have found some park-ups where mysterious diseases have damaged our dogs and given us massive vet bills.
Sometimes what appears to be a problem can be a blessing though, and an open mind and a friendly approach normally saves us from one sketch into another. When busking around the country for weeks on end, I like to bring my family with me. The confidence a street education has given my daughter has been amazing, and she loves to sing with me and my friends which is great.
Some of us have vans and vehicles with burners and kitchens in and some of us don’t and with the help of the good god google and its mapping of everything we have found many many free and friendly park ups around the country. In some parts of England van dwellers are welcomed and cared for, and in some you are pushed away by complaining fearful locals or over officious council workers or PCSOs. You got to take the rough with the smooth and be as friendly as you can at all times as a moment of patience in those moments of anger saves many moments of regret.”
If the nomadic life is tough at times, all is not bleak, and Shevlin’s keenly observant mind finds joy in the wonder of little things as in “Banquets of Mold” which begins as a duet between him and his dog. He sings,
Inside every clam with grit
In its own world
Turns shit into pearls
People are, people do as well
Those who yell can’t be heard
As sheep escaping from a herd
It is this recognition of duality: the micro and the macro, the negative and the positive, the good and the bad, that gives that band’s songs such depth and nuance.
Despite recognizing the “shite” side of life, positivity and a strong sense of humor are pervasive throughout each of the group’s albums evident in titles like “Cheese”, “Chutney”, “Dementia”, and “Guinea Pigs” on Brew For The Barrowman.
When asked about the possibility of touring the USA, Shevlin says, “I have been to America a few times and would love to come over again and tour the country singing songs from venue to venue, town to town, and state to state. I know that the music you hear on the mainstream in England or in America is not a true likeness for the talent that is out there. You have to find the diamonds amongst the muck; that’s the fun bit.
I have recently been introduced to The Tallest Man on Earth who is an amazing singer songwriter and guitar player who I don’t imagine is on the mainstream at all, but thanks to social media I can find him along with so many others. Sadly, though since the internet, the music industry has taken a blow as it is hard to pay a musician when you can hear all their songs for free, which is what brings us to the streets.”
In regards to the future, Shevlin takes it “one day at a time mate. It’s all very much hand to mouth still. We earn what we earn, and it goes into our mouths, cars, etc. Any big dreams seem a bit forced. Let it all happen organically. If we get played on the radio, then that’s really nice, but if we don’t, we’ve earned our money from brightening up the little towns across the country. That’s about the best we can do. I don’t really know if I want that much airplay or to go on television or to do any of those things. It’s quite nice just to write and sell songs and hopefully grow enough so that we’ve got a bit of land.” “Just a few more gigs in the winter and a few festivals in the summer, that’d be nice,” adds Whittaker.
If the band has an overarching philosophy, it seems to be “Carpe Diem” and making the best out of the hand they’re dealt. Again Shevlin says, “Busking in England is not easy at all, but it is great fun. There are so many hurdles from one town to the next and so many jobsworths who want to move you on and cause an unnecessary problem, but I have found if you can make someone laugh as they walk past, they are more likely to be generous with the pennies they have in their pockets.”
Seizing the day in response to life’s fleeting nature permeates the album’s most moving, soulful track “Live and Learn” which speaks bittersweet truths.
Tomorrow’s a new song
We fall so ever fast
And our lives dim at last
Well you live and learn
Die and forget it
Strange old place
This world seems to me
Well you live and learn
Die and forget it all
William Shakespeare famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage...And one man in his time plays many parts.” Phat Bollard have reclaimed the streets as their own stage, a powerful act in disenfranchised times. If you’re lucky enough to catch them live, you can buy CDs from the band directly; otherwise their music is available for purchase on their website and well worth every penny. phatbollard.co.uk
This author is seeking help raising money to bring Phat Bollard over to tour the USA next October. If you have international grant writing experience or would like to contribute, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mike Cobb
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