National Folk Festival Interview: Mustered Courage

Mustered Courage
Image Courtesy of Mustered Courage

Melbourne based new-grass band Mustered Courage have had a massive couple of months, touring the US, picking up a Golden Guitar at the Tamworth Country Music Festival and spending time in the studio recording their epic new album. With an appearance at this weekend’s National Folk Festival we sat down with Mustered Courage’s banjo player and lead vocalist Nick Keeling to reflect on the past few months and look forward to the year ahead.

Gareth Hugh Evans: First of all congratulations on the Golden Guitar win this year! That must be pretty exciting for you.

Nick Keeling: Yeah. It was a pretty good night there. Tamworth can be a bit of a hard slog – we played like 10 gigs this year in a row. So on the last day to win a little bit of a shiny thing, it’s nice. And then the phone rings a little bit so that’s good to.

GHE: Yeah, I imagine that suddenly there are a few people who’ve never heard of Mustered Courage who are now paying you a little bit of attention.

NK: Mustered Courage kind of sits in between a couple of different genres and different music scenes and the country scene is definitely one of them. If we can make inroads into the folk scene, the country scene, the roots scene, the indie scene – we just want to be everywhere.

GHE: I feel like the Australian country scene can be a little bit closed at times – its very hard for bands to break into. But maybe that’s going away a little bit?

NK: I feel like it’s just about participation. I don’t think there’s any kind of clique or wall. Just get up there and do it! I keep urging bands that I’ve seen at one Tamworth and then I don’t see the next to say “why didn’t you come back?”. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ve just got to keep chipping away. It’s basically an open door policy as far as I’m concerned – you want to play in the country scene, then play in the country scene. The only thing stopping you is your own desire or intent to do it.

GHE: How were the audiences in Tamworth?

NK: I really did feel like the audiences are changing a little bit. It’s getting younger, the next generation of country music listeners is intact. Hopefully that will then encourage more bands that are maybe in the scene to go up there. We had the Green Mohair Suits in Tamworth for two years in a row, Little Bastard came back, Wagons came back. I look first to our closest peers – you kind of need an army to lead the movement, you can’t do it by yourself.

GHE: You guys are heading to The National Folk Festival this year, which will be your second time there. What’s drawn you back to The National?

NK: I think it’s one of the greatest folk festivals in the country by far. I’ve been to dozens of festivals, I think they do it really well. I lived in Canberra for a long time, Julian [Abrahams] our guitarist is a Canberra boy, so it’s a bit of a homecoming in that regard. The best thing about The National for me is almost every concert I ever went to there is packed. Some people might get a little bit grumpy when they have that sign out the front that says “Venue Full” but you just learn to get in a little bit earlier and then you know the vibe’s going to be good. Some festivals, without naming any names of course, may spread themselves too thin on some shows. I think the beauty is in the programing and size management. When you go and see a show half of what you want is atmosphere and if a festival works hard to make sure that atmosphere is good for the band and the audience then there is no excuses.

GHE: And the audience that goes to The National are genuine music lovers.

NK: You go and you know there’s going to be a great camaraderie at The National as well. The session bar after hours, that’s the best musicians get together and party that I’ve ever experienced.

GHE: I don’t think there’s anything quite like the session bar. It’s one of those places where you can jam with your musical heroes. Where else does that happen?

NK: No where! I’ve been to a lot of back stage picks but this is just anyone. It’s really cool. From a personal perspective I’m gonna know about a hundred people up in there so it’s a good party.

GHE: I know people who pay for a season ticket and then spend their entire time in the session bar. They don’t go and see any of the programmed music, they just wait for the music to come to them.

NK: That happens at a lot of the great festivals of the world where people don’t leave the parking lot. That’s one of the great things about festivals, it’s a lot more than just going to see the bands. There’s a lot of stuff to do.

GHE: So you’ve been in the studio recently?

NK: Yeah, we’re just putting the finishing touches on the mixes now.

GHE: I saw crazy photos on your Facebook page of timpani and orchestral percussion. Is this a “big sound” Mustered Courage?

NK: It’s a big sound. We’ve kept the bluegrass thing at its core for sure – every track is acoustic guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro. But then we built more around that which was one of the visions that we had for a long time, to orchestrate things a lot more. There is timpani, tubular bells, marimba, horns, organ, electric pianos, electric guitars and some other exotic instruments. Oh, and drums! I forgot – when you get too deep into the bluegrass scene people are like “drums?” but then the moment you stick you’re head out everyone’s like “of course you have drums. Bands have drums”. It’s definitely the next evolution of the sound – I would describe it as bluegrass with indie/Americana/folk/rock stuff that we don’t know has been done before, but it’s worth a try.

GHE: Sounds like you guys are really pushing the boundary of what Mustered Courage is.

NK: It’s still the same at the core. We try to write good songs. The vocal harmonies that we’ve really focused on for the past four years are still the main feature and the picking is still underneath and in the breaks to tantalise the ears. There’s just a lot more textures.

GHE: Did I see that you guys are heading back over to The States again this year as well?

NK: Yeah, we’re leaving in about seven weeks now. I feel like we just got back. The last tour was three months, no less than, no days off. Any day that was considered a day off was a couple of interviews and a 12 hour drive. We still played 50-something shows, nearly killed each other a few times, killed a few vehicles and we drove 27,000 miles. And we’re doing it again! We’ve got some good festivals lined up in the summer of bluegrass scene.

GHE: Is it important for you guys to chip away at the American scene while still maintaining your base in Australia?

NK: Yeah. It’s expensive for us to get over there but as far as the audience goes, we’re trying to build an audience for this kind of stuff here but over there there’s a ready made one. Our management and agencies don’t want us to lose any of the ground that we’ve got from going last time. We’ve managed to get on some really, really good festivals. One is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – it’s kind of little bit of a dream festival for us. It’s the place where new-grass all started. Just to be a part of that makes this trip worth going and it makes the last trip worth it to because obviously we made an impression enough to get noticed by the people that you want to [notice you].

It’s tough because sometimes the tours feel like they have no rhyme or reason to them. They’re just town to town to town to town to town to town and you’re like “how can we even start to make a fanbase in these towns if we just play one little show and leave”. It’s a good thing we have some people driving this train that know what they’re doing because a lot of it has to do with trying to create hype with publicity. Basically the words “publicity tour” were important in what we did last time.

GHE: Well I’m glad you’re heading back there but I’m also glad I’m going to be able to catch you at The National Folk Festival first.

NK: Thanks mate – see you there.

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