Q&A with The Questionnaires (Steve Hall & Jane Wade) - their music floats around alt folk, alt country and pop.

"I really don’t believe that popular music or art in general have had a real political or social impact since the 1950s. Corporations are well aware of what George Orwell called the ‘controlled opposition’. That’s what they do."

The Questionnaires: Timeless Music

The Questionnaires are from Newcastle upon Tyne in Northern England. Jane Wade and Steve Hall play guitars, sing and write songs. They've both been around a bit. Featuring the cream of Tyneside session musicians, the music of new album ‘Atlantic Ridge’ (BoomChang Records / Release: 15th January 2021) flows in a current of Americana and rootsy, intelli-pop that sees Jane and Steve’s return to the fray of the music industry – in Steve’s case - after 30 years in academia! As a young guitarist - and motivated by the playing of Steve Cropper, Freddie King and Terry Kath (Chicago) in particular- it was with Newcastle legends the Eastside Torpedoes that Steve began to gain a formidable reputation that has since seen him play alongside Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams. The Torpedoes debut album was produced by ex-Jimi Hendrix Manager, Chas Chandler and co-incidentally, it was whilst Steve was with his previous band (who included The Animals’ Hilton Valentine on rhythm guitar) that he was ‘head hunted’ for the Torpedoes, who were  apparently one of promoter Harvey Goldsmiths’ favourite ‘live’ bands. Performing in front of over 20,000 people in support of Ray Charles at Knebworth Jazz Festival was just one highlight of their busy ‘live’ schedule. Great things were expected of them, signing a four-year deal with EMI following their success in a prestigious ‘Melody Maker’ competition. In the 1980s, Steve left music to forge a career in academia. Now an Emeritus Professor of Criminology, his work has been published alongside leading intellectuals such as Jean Baudrillard, and Slavoj Zizek. He has written and co-written 11 books.                        (The Questionnaires / Mark A Hunter Photography)

Jane Wade sang with all-woman band Jazawaki in the 1980s, signed to Abstract Records, releasing the cult single Don’t Panic, and touring Britain and Europe, appearing on local and national television. There were also BBC Radio 1 sessions for Janice Long, as well as ‘live’ sessions for Capital Radio. Influential presenter and author Charlie Gillett was a fan. Jane’s music work has been interspersed with acting jobs including ‘Lush Life’, featuring the songs of Ella Fitzgerald at Live Theatre, Newcastle and a highly acclaimed revival of Alan Plater’s ‘Close the Coalhouse Door’ for Northern Stage. Most recently, she appeared in the multi-award winning Beyond the End of the Road for November Club. She has also been commissioned to write songs and music for a variety of theatre productions and to provide musical direction. One of the best voices in the business, Jane has sung on National TV ads and is known as Northern England's finest interpreter of the songs of Kurt Weill. An in-demand vocal coach, she is a renowned singer in her home city of Newcastle upon Tyne and has been compared to both Annie Lennox and Helen Watson for her strong, smoky vocal delivery. Jane also gained much acclaim in reviews for her duet with Billy Mitchell (Lindisfarne, Jack The Lad) included on his 2005 album, ‘The Devil’s Ground’ and has also worked with John Miles.

Interview by Michael Limnios / Photos by Mark A Hunter

Special Thanks: Dave Hill (Tenacity PR), Jane Wade and Steve Hall

How has the Roots and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Jane: The main thing I think is a sort of acknowledgment of the interwoven nature of the worlds music and humanity. A sense that music itself can take you on journeys- and the journey can be more interesting than the destination. Connecting to music from other cultures gives a glimpse into that reality- whether it’s possible to really gain real understanding of other ways of life is a bit dubious but it’s a good way in. Travelling to other countries as a performer can plug you straight into a whole network of like-minded people- you don’t feel so much like a tourist but someone who is exchanging music and ideas.

How has the Blues and Folk Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Steve: I was always suspicious of the American counterculture because from about 1960 it seemed to be corporate led. You can see the shift in advertising from that year, from the traditional family as the target to the rugged, individualistic ‘Marlboro Man’. The music industry replaced artists like Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Sam Cooke, who had genuinely clear and important things to say, with obscurantists like Dylan and absurdist’s like Zappa. So, where we are influenced by blues and folk, we tend to draw from basic musical traditions rather than the countercultural versions. We ignore the blues police and the folk police – thankfully many blues and folk artists do the same and keep their genres alive – and take what we want. Where I differ with Jane is that I also wasn’t very enamoured of the punk movement, which I also think was a big corporate fake, but these differences as well as the similarities make us a creative duo.

"I became a social scientist because apart from music the other thing that drives me is curiosity. Is that an emotional thing? I suppose so. But I soon found that social science is not driven by curiosity and simply doesn’t want to know about some aspects of reality." (Steve Hall / Mark A Hunter Photography)

How do you describe The Questionnaires music philosophy? Where does band's creative drive come from?

Steve: Just love of music in the broadest sense. More specifically, we share a love of melody and harmony. Where I know my way around chord progressions, Jane is great at weaving in melodies. Since the funk revolution, the standard way of writing a song has been to lay down a rhythmic groove and bass line first. We work the opposite way round, the more traditional way. We write songs from chords, melodies and lyrics, with verses and hooks, and ask our rhythm section to play with it and find the most appropriate rhythm. We chose Steve Dolder and Steve Cunningham because they are so flexible and sensitive to that way of working, and, once they have the right rhythm for a particular song, they sit on it so well. They had both worked with big name song-writers such as Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze), Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout) and Alan Hull (Lindisfarne), who tended to write in the traditional way, so they were accustomed to doing it. They’re both just great.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us? Which meetings have been the most important experiences? 

Jane: Playing percussion into the night in Utrecht, Holland using overhead metal lamps and tuned bottles with local drummers. Having to miss supporting Gill Scott-Heron at a big London gig because a big theatre tour had come in.

Steve: We’ve had some good experiences all the way through. We were never confident about our song-writing, but right from the beginning in 1988 the top session musicians in our region volunteered their services and said they loved the songs. When we made our first demo, superb drummer Paul Smith played on it and it was ‘demo of the year’ in one of our regional music magazines. EMI were interested in opening negotiations with the band, but Jane and I had made the very difficult decision to split up and go in alternative directions – theatre and academia. I remember one early recording session when a great session band got one of our early numbers – ‘Ghosts In Your Eyes’, from our first album ‘Arctic Circles’ – cooking so good that after the final beat we all shouted “yes!!” in unison. We really regret using a drum machine on our first album – it wasn’t what it could have been, but still has some good songs and good moments. Another great moment was a gig at the Corner House in Newcastle in 2002, launching that album. We were unknown and expected three people and a dog to show up, but as soon as the doors opened people flooded in and the place was full. A buzz had started about us, and we were relieved. Again, we had a great backing band and the night was a real success.

"The main thing I think is a sort of acknowledgment of the interwoven nature of the worlds music and humanity. A sense that music itself can take you on journeys- and the journey can be more interesting than the destination." (Jane Wade / Mark A Hunter Photography)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Jane: I think a lot of modern music is more about grooves and rhythm and I’m a sucker for a melody. I don’t really like the sound of auto tuned vocals- they don’t really sound human to me- we seem to be headed that way! However, I’m encouraged by some of the brilliant young people I’ve met who are able to marry technology to tradition. We’re living through such strange times that there is bound to be a creative outpouring.

Steve: For me, and I think it’s safe to say for Jane also, we miss melody and harmony. Have all the great melodies been written? I don’t know. So much of today’s music is rhythmic, atmospheric, slick, well produced and texturally beautiful, but where are the tunes? Very few songs would pass the old grey whistle test. There are only 12 notes. Have we finally run out of tunes? I don’t think so. Maybe the corporate music industry isn’t signing the acts that can write them? Sometimes I think we should go back to the old tin pan alley system where great songwriters wrote great songs for great singers. I’m not sure we would get a job but who knows?

Why do you think that the Kurt Weill's music and Ella Fitzgerald's songs continues to generate such a devoted following?

Jane: I think that the Ella Fitzgerald/ American Songbook songs are still loved and revered because they are so tuneful and embrace universal themes- beautiful melodies that never go quite where you expect- and nobody sings like Ella! I love the songs of Kurt Weill - bleak, savage lyrics and a kind of punk/ musical ethos with a lot of blues and Jewish tradition thrown in - people still love them because there has been little so challenging since. They are also pretty hard to sing, and that’s half the trick- to sing them so they don’t sound difficult!

What are the lines that connect the legacy of UK roots music from Skiffle, Blues, Folk to Americana and Rock?                 (The Questionnaires / Mark A Hunter Photography)

Steve: Well, this was the love affair that British culture had with America after WWII. Britain was poor and riddled with austerity in the 1950s. It was a bit miserable and its popular musical forms, so well-received during the war, were sounding rather tired. America was big, brash and sexy, so we started to import its musical forms with more enthusiasm than we had done in the 1920s. Skiffle, for instance, was a hybrid of American jazz, folk and blues played on cheap instruments. Where the Americans had more musical skill, the Brits have always been innovative, so our bands started hybridising and changing American musical forms, creating their own sounds. Some Brit musicians and listeners latched onto American folk, blues, jazz and country in their purer forms, but most just mixed them together and integrated them into pop music. It was a very creative time in the 50s and 60s. Record production and playback systems weren’t as good, musicians didn’t have quite so many fancy chops, but the tunes were much better.

What touched (emotionally) you from the criminology? How important was/is politics or philosophy in your life

Steve: I became a social scientist because apart from music the other thing that drives me is curiosity. Is that an emotional thing? I suppose so. But I soon found that social science is not driven by curiosity and simply doesn’t want to know about some aspects of reality. It was a big disappointment to me – as a social scientist in criminology I set up a movement called ultra-realism, which caused a big stir and is still ongoing. Google it if you want. Our first album Arctic Circles contained a lot of political songs, from a broadly left-wing perspective but not party political in any way. We now tend to keep politics out of our music or express them occasionally in a more subtle and less relentless way. Jane’s lyrics are now very eclectic, ranging from interesting characters you meet in pubs to ordering too much junk from Amazon. About life, really.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Steve: Firstly, that the whole broadcast industry is sewn up by the big music corporations and independent artists don’t really stand a chance. When I was with the Eastside Torpedoes back in the day we were produced by former Jimi Hendrix manager Chas Chandler. Of course, he was vastly experienced while I was just a young kid by comparison, and one of the things he said to me that stuck was “don’t do music unless you love it. Almost everyone who makes it as a musician loves music. If you do it for any other reason, you’ll always be disappointed, even if you do make it”. So that’s what keeps us going even at our age. We love it. We don’t love the corporate business by any means, it’s a monster, but we still love music. Other people tell us we can still do it and they enjoy what we do, so we keep going. What else is there to do?

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Jane: I have tried not to let other people’s attitude define what I can and can’t do but there is a sense of constantly having to prove yourself! Developing a hard shell to cope with the casual sexism that was pretty much a constant, you then are perceived as a bit aggressive and stroppy. Sometimes feels like you just can’t win!  Things have improved in some ways but for many it’s still show business as usual. At least now women’s status is what they make it!

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Jane: I like to tell stories- it’s one way that we develop empathy, we’re a species that likes a narrative. Music can be a bit tribal I would like our music to spread across the lines.

Steve: I really don’t believe that popular music or art in general have had a real political or social impact since the 1950s. Corporations are well aware of what George Orwell called the ‘controlled opposition’. That’s what they do. A while ago young people on social media were campaigning to get Rage Against the Machine number one in the charts rather than one of Simon Cowell’s manufactured autotune cowboys, but of course both acts were on corporate labels – in fact think it might have been the same one. So, ask yourself, who benefitted and have politics or people’s lives got better since in any palpable way? People need to wake up a bit. We want nothing to do with this fakery now, so we just play music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Jane: Back to 1965 Newcastle City Hall - Dylan’s first tour with a band. First-half acoustic and then the volume cranks up - shocked folk devotees booing in outrage- I think it would have been thrilling.

Steve: Back to the canoe room in the YMCA building in Consett in 1971, where we were allowed to practice for free as long as we put on some free gigs, when the band I had formed with 6th form schoolmates finally got all the way through the first number we had written ourselves without making a mistake. We all shouted “yes!!” together that day, too.

The Questionnaires - Home

(Steve Hall of The Questionnaires / Mark A Hunter Photography)

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