BOFF WHALLEY talks to Susan Darlington about Commoners Choir, a collective of singers with a radical ‘art-punk’ agenda
IF THE ubiquity of Gareth Malone has made you run scared from group singing, then Commoners Choir are here to challenge your preconceptions.
Based in Leeds, they’ve been formed by ex-Chumbawamba member and occasional Red Ladder playwright Boff Whalley and the 58 members are a “fairly broad-based bunch of socialists and anarchists,” he says.
Conceived as a combination of “Crass and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” they sing angry and hopeful songs about food riots, putting Boris Johnson’s head on a stick and homelessness. They’re just about to release their eponymous debut album, out on September 1.
Whalley first started to experiment with writing music without instruments when he was recovering from an accident which left him unable to play guitar for a year or so. He’s since worked on a number of vocal projects, including a collaboration with theatre maker Dan Bye on a scratch choir that performed site-specific songs in Manchester and a project in the Tate Gallery singing about Turner’s paintings.
The drive to take music out of concert halls and into the community continued with Commoners Choir, whose very first event was a walk up Kinder Scout to commemorate the mass trespass of 1932. “It didn’t matter if nobody was there to see it, it was a declaration of intent,” explains Whalley.
More of an art-punk project than a traditional choir, the Commoners were built on an 11-point manifesto inspired by the “classic art movement” and that was developed before there were any choristers.
One of its pledges is to “share out the organising.” They’re more than just empty words — each member makes a valuable contribution to the group, whether it’s printing up silkscreened choir patches to wear or organising a coach for an event.
That collaborative spirit extends to composition, for while Whalley is credited as the songwriter and arranger, the tracks change when taken into rehearsal. This can sometimes be “an idea to change a melody or phrasing or lyrics,” Whalley says.
At other times, the input can be much more significant. Three Boats, one of two songs on their debut eponymous album to address the migrant crisis, was originally based on a choral backing of people counting.
Whalley took it to the choir and a member suggested singing the counting in Swahili and Arabic, to tie in with the journey these refugees were making, while another added a harmony part in the third verse.
The members also contribute to the topics covered by the songs. “Sometimes we sit down and write down ideas about a particular subject and I go through them all picking out the best bits to use,” explains Whalley.
This is usually a non-controversial process but it led to a particularly heated debate about Song For Woody, a one-line track that riffs on Guthrie’s This Machine Kills Fascists guitar sticker. It “became an issue because it openly advocates violence against fascists, albeit with its tongue in its cheek,” Whalley says.
“I’m all for confronting fascists with violence, I think it’s necessary. But I understand why some people in the choir were uncomfortable with it. We discussed it and discussed it and some people wrote lengthy reasons on both sides why we should or shouldn’t sing it.
“We resolved it mainly with lots of references to the source of the quote and its original placing during the second world war.”
This framing of contemporary song narratives and events within history is a recurrent theme across the album’s 21 songs. Mechanical Movable Type celebrates the power of literacy, with a section taken from an old broadside ballad, while Bread Or Blood (Ely & Littleport Riot) draws parallels between an 1816 riot and the ever-increasing number of people using foodbanks today.
Whalley thinks it’s important to sing about history because “it’s used to make choices over what we do here and now. And we’re wanting to make sure the best parts of history, the bits where people forced change for the better, the bits where we made real progress despite the prevailing powers-that-be, are remembered and celebrated.
“When we sang at the scene of a food riot on the Aire and Calder canal in Castleford, we linked it with bringing a boatful of donated food for the local foodbank, making that explicit link between history and present.”
Whalley’s also intent on making the choir go down in history. “I think an arrest or two would be good for our profile so we ought to sort that out,” he jokes when asked about the group’s future plans.
“A couple of our members — that we elect by secret ballot obviously — being dragged into police vans at the Tory Party conference in Manchester singing The Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song in harmony, that would be good.”
Commoners Choir, on the No Masters label, is available for £11, including p&p, from commonerschoir.com. There’ll be an album lauch at Sunny Bank mills in Leeds on September 3 and the choir will perform in Wigtown, Manchester, Ilkley, Hartlepool and Exeter until November 5.