Playing the opening spot at a major music festival can be the proverbial double-edged sword for an up-and-coming band. On the plus side,
there's the kudos of sharing a bill with some big names and a valuable line on your CV; on the minus side, you're likely to be performing to an almost empty field, since most of the audience have yet to turn up.
That was the questionable position in which The Incredible Magpie Band found themselves at last September's Bingley Music Live event, for although 15,000 people would later throng the town's Myrtle Park to see such as Embrace, Ella Eyre and the Super Furry Animals, the Normanton quintet were greeted by perhaps a fifteenth of that number scattered around the grass for their Sunday-at-noon appointment.
However, rather than the acreage of empty arena before them sapping their spirits, the sheer scale of their surroundings – especially on the stage – served, if anything, to inspire the band to a full-on show for their knot of loyal fans down the front and the curious onlookers beyond.
It was all the more creditable given that the previous night (Saturday 5 September) they'd also been one of four bands playing at Unity Hall, in Wakefield, at an event to mark the first anniversary of the venue's reopening.
"The weekend was a bit of a whirlwind," said guitarist Ben Hardcastle, when WfL caught up with the band in the refreshingly-unshowbiz surroundings of Normanton Comrades Club a couple of days afterwards. "I think we could get used to gigs of that magnitude! It was the biggest stage we've played on, without a doubt."
"To be honest, that made things easier," added frontman Lee Knowles. "You can actually hear yourself singing, for a start! On a small stage you're usually standing in front of your
amps, which is OK as a guitarist, but you struggle as a singer. Up there it was a doddle, though.
"Plus there were about ten stage crew at our beck and call and they're all professionals. Everything was just so easy."
The Magpies' appearance at Bingley (which, incidentally, we can thoroughly recommend to anyone who reckons the Leeds Festival has
grown too big and too expensive) was one more step on a ladder they've been steadily climbing since the band got together in 2012.
After cutting their teeth on the Wakefield and Leeds live circuits – not forgetting regular hometown gigs at the likes of Hopetown Liberal Club and the much-lamented 'Linnet' a.k.a. Woodhouse Hill WMC – in late 2014 they supported The Rifles on several dates, while in February 2015 they played Nottingham Rock City on the same bill as the legendary Jesus and Mary Chain. Bassist Lou Taylor was also featured in the July 2015 edition of Bass Player magazine.
Two months prior to that article, their debut album, Introducing The Incredible Magpie Band, garnered plenty of praise for its melody-rich mix of 60s rhythm and blues, psychedelia and a shot of scouse skiffle: write down names like The La's, The Byrds, The Beatles, The Who, The Coral and Syd Barrett-vintage Pink Floyd if you fancy compiling a list of influences.
Call it retro if you will – but you won't find any of the boys complaining about that label. In fact, as their name suggests, they've never made any bones about where they find their inspiration, plucking the best bits from some classic British (mainly) bands and moulding it into something fresh but timeless.
Within those three years of good, solid progress there was, however, one incident which arguably did more to boost their profile – and, dare we suggest, their collective ego – than everything else added together. It came in the totally unexpected form of a tweet from Liam Gallagher, who having been persuaded to check them out at a London gig in June 2014, cleverly combined praise for the Magpies with a
dig at brother Noel's band by declaring "listen up, there's only 1 high flying bird and that's the incredible magpie band".
"He's probably one of the biggest rock stars in the country, even the world," said Lee. "So for him to say that about five lads from Normanton blew our minds – especially as we're all massive Oasis fans."
"I was in here," [the Comrades Club] recalled Lou. "Everybody was saying 'Have you been online?' but sometimes you can't get a signal here and I'm like 'What are you on about?'. Anyway, I managed to get a signal and there were already 3,000 people had seen the tweet. It was just crazy."
"It gives you a massive boost to know that someone who you hold in high regard yourself, who you listened to when you were growing up, thinks that about you and will go out and say it," added drummer Andy Layton. "We didn't even know he was going to come and watch us until about half an hour beforehand."
The endorsement of Gallagher junior had another unexpected but welcome side effect when they were featured on the website of his clothing label, Pretty Green. In turn they were picked up by Fred Perry and then mod label Merc – the latter leading to a photoshoot on the streets of Wakefield decked out in some pretty sharp Merc threads.
This points to the fact that in an era when many bands pay little heed to image, the Magpies also follow classic rules with regard to their appearance – in fact it was noticeable that all four interviewees (guitarist Matty Davey was absent with tonsillitis) turned up at the
Comrades Club in one variety or other of retro Adidas trainers!
Something else which sets the Incredible Magpie Band apart from their contemporaries is their background. They're no fresh-faced students setting out on their first musical adventure: there are husbands and dads among their number and they've honed their craft in numerous previous bands. Likewise, when one-time private schoolboys and privileged theatre school graduates seem to be taking over the charts, this band's genes are 100% working class.
However, that's not something the band play up to or are even particularly conscious of. “It's just who we are,” said Lee. “I think a lot of middle class people get a better chance to be in a band, because when you're working class you go to school then when you leave you feel you need to get a job – that's what you're brought up to expect.
“We've been to London and there's kids getting up with £3,000 guitars, Fender twin amps from the 1970s. Who's got them that stuff? They haven't bought them.”
Or as Ben succinctly put it: “You can't afford them on a paper round, mate!”
“If any of us didn't have any money to buy strings or leads or equipment, we wouldn't just get it, we've always had to work for the money you need to be in a band,” added Lou. “OK, we all had help from our parents but it was never going to be a case of them saying 'When you've finished school, you can try being in a band for a couple of years and we'll look after you'. We all have to work at our jobs and then work at the band.”
Given that the songs on Introducing… are getting on for three years old, it was no surprise to hear a smattering of unfamiliar numbers in their Bingley set.
"We've got an album's-worth of new tunes which we're just getting right in the studio," said Lee. "It'll take some time but we'll probably be ready to record them by the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
"Songs grow, they change, you get ideas as you play them and you work those in. Even the old tunes are still growing."
The first album was recorded at Greenmount, a small Leeds studio run by a familiar Wakefield face, Jamie Lockhart of the band Mi Mye, and Lee Smith of Middleman.
"It's a great little studio," reckoned Lou. "There's some really nice retro equipment in there so you're using all the old methods, which really suits our style."
"I don't know if we'll record the next one there, though," said Lee. "We'll see how things go, but there's a lot of work to do before then."
In the final reckoning, perhaps it's this identification with the work ethic, rather than with their place in an increasingly blurred class structure, which makes The Incredible Magpie Band who and what they are. Others may get a head start but these five grafters from Normanton are proof that hard work – and no little talent, of course – can still bring big rewards.