“We often busk to earn a crust.” says Toby Parker. He was once a solo singer-songwriter back in Herefordshire where he grew up, however, after moving to Liverpool a few years ago, Toby recruited Eric Ng on the double bass and Parker and the Suitcase was formed. The pair play a mix of blues, bluegrass, country, and rockabilly with a real rural edge to it.
“I put an advert up in Curly’s Music Shop in Liverpool. Eric was actually the second double bassist I got a reply from. I had another guy who auditioned and was accepted, but he was being given way too many shifts at Nando’s. I was going to get a drummer but thought we could stick to foot drums, for better or worse.”
Toby Parker had been writing and playing songs as a solo artist for years and was sort of a one-man-band. With his harmonica, guitar and his dusty old suitcase-with-kick-drum-attached, he would busk in the countryside towns of Herefordshire playing covers and his own original tracks. After releasing his own solo EP in 2012, he is now working with Eric on Parker and the Suitcase’s debut release.
“We’ve been attempting to record an EP these last few months on something of a tight budget. The busker’s salary is not usually exorbitant! So it’s been slower than you’d expect, with using more home-studio engineers who have to fit recordings around jobs and such. Anyway, I’m definitely pleased with the results so far. I think it is creating a sort of upgrade in our sound, away from a more punk, DIY-with-cajons, boom-tish-boom-tish sound to something more steady and with more roll baby.
“We want to finish that, it’s been pretty much all sort of slight ‘b-sides’ from my last solo EP, and some older songs, which I still think would make for a good recording. Once that’s out the way, I think we need to crack straight on with an all original new album recording.”
Last year was a busy one for Toby and Eric, with the pair performing around 40 gigs. “We had only just started playing together at end of 2013,” he continues, “and we ended up doing quite a few gigs between April and October. It was nice to know there was some kind of hunger for what we had to offer. At the beginning of the ‘gigging calendar’ – let’s say generally that’s about March to October – we put on one of our own gigs at a pub. I found the experience dispiriting because the act I booked as the support ended up getting far more people in and we just brought in a small handful. Bit of a blow to the ego!
“At the time I thought I could just remedy that by playing at cool events and just letting the coolness rub off on us. So we ended up playing at some good events last year, like Nozstock Festival, Liverpool Craft Beer Festival, and at Liverpool’s Kazimier garden to name a few, and we made some good impressions. But it’s not translated to much of a buzz. I guess there’s no substitute for the grind of doing relentless self-promotion and keeping up the ‘grassroots’ gigs. I sort of had this realisation when reading this music business blog, Ari’s Take.”
So with that in mind, Parker and the Suitcase are now embarking on their debut tour. “It’s mine and Eric’s first tour. Damn it, I am 28 now and I have been having feverish dreams since I was first in a band at 18, about stringing a few dates together and so being ‘on the road’. We did a couple of extended weekends in August last year, doing a string of gigs within a 50 mile radius, which was like a little tour I guess. But this time we are starting in Cardiff today (22nd April 2015), and then going to Bristol to perform at No. 1 Harbourside tomorrow on the 23rd. We then have a day off on Friday, unfortunately, and then on Saturday we have an afternoon session and then an evening gig. Then finally on Sunday we are booked in for a busking session at a market.
“So we’re a bona fide travelling band and I feel good about it! I think it has motivated us, I mean, this is what being a performing musician is all about, getting out there and going places and meeting people. These last few days I’ve just been carrying out overdue repairs on cars, guitars, amps, and pedals etc. It certainly makes you ‘fix up sharp’, so to speak. We’re being joined by Amelita Mercer, vocalist of Liverpool’s Harlequin Dynamite Marching Band, much to my excitement, for these tour dates. She’ll guest star on some songs, which could be the start of an exciting cameo role in the band (something I am keen to develop with her and other musicians!).”
And what is going to happen after the tour ends? “Gigs-wise I am thinking more along the lines of building a fanbase and such, so have been holding off from time-consuming festival bookings, which can be logistically complicated, frankly difficult to make money at, and thinking more along the lines of further UK touring, and really looking into Europe. We need to talk to some of our more experienced peers about booking gigs in Europe and get out there into the big wide world.”
Touring and playing gigs is the next step for Parker and the Suitcase and Toby himself, who has been a professional busker for many years.
“I started busking in Hay on Wye at the Literary Festival in 2006, with my good friend Sam Elkin. We busked together, both with guitars, often just doing exactly the same thing in unison! It was a simpler time I suppose. [laughs] I then carried on busking the whole time I was a student in Liverpool and London. A friend from Liverpool and I took our guitars to France and busked outside the Pompidou Centre and arrived in a near-deserted Lyon in the height of summer. It seemed fairly easy to charm people over there.
“I’d say it has got a lot more competitive now, it’s lot to do with amplification. In the big cities it’s near impossible to make any sort of large sum of money without an amplifier for your voice and guitar. It cuts through the ambient noise and general distractions. What with that recession thing, there’s been an increase in buskers. I think perhaps people see that it has some sort of job security – no one’s going to fire you! It does seem to create this funny sort of breed of people that don’t see themselves as musicians and still play guitar and sing songs to make a living, with their amps drifting their sounds across the high streets of Britain…
When listening to Toby’s songs, as himself and in Parker and the Suitcase you can’t help but get drawn in. There is something about his music, and well-made bluegrass in general that has the ability to paint a picture and tell a story at the same time. “I guess I try to write from another character inside me or another version of myself. I also think of how somebody from the past might see the present day. I try to think about what my upbringing in rural Herefordshire means to me as a musician. I wouldn’t have thought too many people would brag about being from there in terms of their urban street cred, so I wanted to kind of contrarily bring that up as something to be unique with.
“I guess culture all lurches towards the big cities. You get songs from all over the UK sounding like they have the modern London accent in them and it’s a bit desperate and a bit dull. Does it not dull down the uniqueness of all the different communities of the UK? I guess you had that in the old folk songs and that’s now all in the past. So I want to sound modern but think about my background and what it means in a post-modern world… Or something. I write the odd ‘political’ song, but I still feel that side of my writing is weaker. I want to work on that.
“I have a notebook where I note down a musical phrase that pops up in my head. Then I will sit there on trains and on the John, or wherever, just working it into a full song with choruses and a plot with twists and all that. Sometimes I get a chord sequence in my head that goes round and round. I pick up my guitar and play that. Often I have started a new song by playing something on my guitar when I have been busking, and record it into my phone. Then when I play it back and all I hear is a load of clanging… But I eventually hear the idea.”
Many people from the countryside head to the big cities to make music. Toby left the hills of Herefordshire and now resides in Liverpool. I asked him if there is a difference in the two music scenes. “Very much so. I was very much a Dylanesque sort of clone when I was in Herefordshire, still seeking a musical identity. As a 16-year-old, and throughout the rest of my teens, I was spellbound by Bob Dylan and I don’t think anyone else individually has lit such a fire in me as he did. His long-form songs in his ’65-66 albums were something I aped a fair bit in my earlier songwriting.
“But in Liverpool I felt the appetite for a sort of south-English folk guy was pretty low. So I felt I had to get more into the rocking stuff – blues and rockabilly. They like that spirit. It’s competitive here, you have to stand out. They like live music and there’s definitely a sort of reverence. It was a town that was very down on it’s luck for a long time, and ‘the four lads from Liverpool’ gave them a lot of pride. Though I wish I was as big as the Beatles and the time for that has almost certainly been and gone, I feel the stiff competition has made me a better musician.”
Words by Adam Rowden
Photo courtesy of Kit Taylor.