Image Courtesy of The Campervan Dancers
Throughout 2016 Sydney folk-duo The Campervan Dancers have been running (and performing at) the excellent Wednesday night show Folkswagon at Cafe Lounge in Surry Hills. Originally inspired by past Sydney night Folk Club, Folkswagon has a pretty unique calling card – the folky artists that play each week are called upon to perform an R&B or “swag” cover as part of their set.
Gareth Hugh Evans: So Folkswagon is the regular Wednesday night that you guys run at Cafe Lounge in Sydney. Where did the idea for the night come from?
Ryan Collings: We were cruising around somewhere in Queensland on our honeymoon, talking about our plans for the year. We were wondering if we should play a ton of shows or should we do what some bands do and only play selective shows and try to use that as a strategy. And we decided that if we could we’d like to do a regular night.
Chelsea Collings: Running a regular night.
RC: Yeah. Because whether or not it’s the best strategy as a band to be playing the same place every week we wanted to give a format for other bands to play and create a community that is sort of lacking since the end of Folk Club. We loved going along to that and in its absense we thought it’d be good to do something.
CC: In terms it being Folkswagon we weren’t instinctively like “we should run a night that has niche R&B covers”. It wasn’t our first port of call. But we really like naming things – we put a lot of time and energy into finding the exact right name for something. After many many nights of driving from venue to venue and talking about what we wanted it to be called we eventually got to Folkswagon which then really lent itself to “well, we have to do swag covers”. It has to have swag.
RC: It actually just created itself.
GHE: Any time I’ve mentioned it to friends they’re always like “Folkswagon – I see what they did there”. I really like the format you guys have with you guys essentially taking the middle set as an ongoing residency and then giving spots to other artists. And you quite often have a recognisable name as the headliner and and upcoming as the opener.
RC: On the one hand it’s tempting to be like “let’s just get the biggest acts we can, pull as many people as we can”. And then on the other hand you also want to be helping people who are gigging less, helping their sound. Maybe they don’t sound as you think they will in a year but if they don’t play shows they’re not going to get better. We actually try to do that. It’s obviously not super strict but generally we try to have someone who’s hopefully going to pull a few heads and be a recognisable name, and then someone who might be a little bit of a risk. We’ve been really happy with everyone who’s played.
CC: It has meant a lot to us in terms of networking from a professional standpoint. For us to be able to connect with names who we really admire and really respect their work – to have a platform that they’re interested in being a part of is really cool. But as well we both started out as solo singer-songwriters and definitely benefitted from people taking a chance on us and being able to have that opportunity to perform. So it’s really cool to do that for other artists.
RC: We’ve been really honoured by some of the people who’ve come and played. The night we run is not for profit and we’re not paying as much as any of the artists are worth. They get something for their time but it’s great that they want to become a part of it, even though we don’t have the bankroll to pamper them.
GHE: And you’ve built a really nice community that “name” artists want to be a part of.
CC: Everyone’s beautifully humble – everyone’s thankful to have the platform. It’s really cool to see that attitude towards the community, that it is a really special thing to be a part of even if we would consider that they shouldn’t be playing at a night like this.
GHE: I’m interested to know when you play a regular show like this, where you do have a return audience and you’re in the same space, how that’s helped you develop as a band?
CC: It feels like home there now. I still have a sense of “Oh, I’m performing” and I get nervous and want to do really well, but it’s so much more comfortable than any other venue. Even just the regularity of it has pushed us to be better. With that amount of performance practice you just get better at reflecting on what works well and what people respond to. Having that regular audience who gives us feedback on what they really love about us and what songs they like, and even getting some feedback on what they think we could improve on, has been really helpful just in developing our stage presence. I think it’s done a world of difference in progressing us performance wise.
GHE: It’s almost like a weekly rehearsal for you in a comfortable space in front of a friendly audience. Do you workshop songs there?
RC: This year we’ve been playing previous material a lot and a couple of new songs. And then we’ve got a bunch of incomplete songs that we’re working on in the background. We’re trying not to play them.
CC: I think it’s more of our personality though that we really want to make sure things are ready. We were very intentional about what we want to be giving out to the world as a band so we want to make sure it’s right before we play it. But that being said the first place that we would play it would be Folkswagon, just to get a sense of it.
GHE: It’s like instant feedback from people you trust.
CC: It is. I feel like we worked pretty hard at the beginning to really create the environment that we would want to play it. Initially it was a very loud and unappealing place to play – people weren’t really used to prioritising listening to musicians. So we tried a bunch of strategies to just improve that and I feel like that’s helped a lot. It means we get that instant feedback even if it’s just a core ten people that are there – at least they’re present and engaged.
RC: And in Cafe Lounge with the nooks at the back it’s good that there’s a space that people can hang out and they don’t have to feel like they have to be really quiet. There’s space for everyone.
GHE: I was talking to the wonderful Fran Martin who is Folkswagon’s biggest fan and your resident MC and she was gushing about how much The Campervan Dancers have grown as a band since you started playing there. She said she can tell the difference between where you were six months ago and now. Is that something you feel has happened?
CC: I think probably a big impetus for that was being booked to play at Beyond Festival. We were playing a slot after Katie Noonan and before Blue King Brown so we really wanted that to be as good as we could possibly make it. It gave us a big kick up the bum to think about not just the songs and how they sound but the whole package.
GHE: Your stage banter has improved. It’s all about trying to connect even if no one is connecting back.
RC: It can feel a bit contrived. We don’t plan everything we say – a lot of what we say is very spontaneous – but we’ve put thought into it and discussed it. Be on the same page at least.
CC: Be able to maintain the energy between us regardless of the room. We want to bring as much joy and vibe to it as we possibly can.
GHE: You guys went from fortnightly to weekly after Little Features finished up their string of shows at Cafe Lounge. Was that a hard decision?
RC: We kind of went right for it. Initially we were going to do it every week. We were chatting with Little Features at the start of the year before we did anything and we both had a similar thing that we wanted to do.
CC: We were like “why don’t we join forces and do it together”.
RC: It’s been over six months now – we’ve just had our twentieth show. And Fran has been a stalwart, really solid. We couldn’t do it without her.
CC: Moving from fortnightly to weekly came at a good time. At that point the night had built up quite a lot and there was definitely just more interest – we were getting approached by people who wanted to play. And being a regular thing it feels more consistent.
GHE: Yeah, it as consistency. From a punter’s point of view you just want to be able to know that there’s going to be good music there on any Wednesday night.
RC: And that’s how I felt about Folk Club. I didn’t go every week, but if I was free I’d go.
GHE: As long as you maintain the quality, which you guys do. People will return for the night, not just because of a single artist.
CC: The majority of our audience is local regulars, people who are patrons of the venue and now know that there’s quality live music on a Wednesday. We’ve been very strict in really trying to uphold a standard.
GHE: So Folkswagon’s going to continue into 2016?
GHE: But I heard you guys are leaving us next year?
CC: Yeah, we’ve bought our tickets to the UK and we’re leaving on March 5th.
RC: For our “European tour”. And Folkswagon may be expanding in Sydney but there’ll definitely be some kind of European presence for it.
CC: We’re thinking of either establishing a regular night in one place or doing a Folkswagon road trip. Just because we’ve found it’s been a very successful brand, people like the style of it, they like the niche-ness of it. We love hearing other bands and sharing the stage with them. Fran will be holding down the fort over here, fairy gigmother that she is. And no one can command a room like Fran.
GHE: So is the UK the big focus for you at the moment?
RC: There’s kind of a couple of focuses. We’ve got our first single “Slow Down Butterfly” which was meant to come out last March, but it’s definitely going to come out in the next few weeks.
CC: It’s taken a while to get mixed.
RC: We’re excited about it. And then the next thing after that will be a Pozible campaign so we’re going to need everyone’s help to try and get us over the line for that.
CC: We really want to release an EP. Pretty much at every single show we have people coming up asking to buy our CD. We’re looking forward to hopefully put something out from that if that’s successful.
GHE: That will be a nice bookend before you head overseas
RC: That’s why we really want to do it – it would be great to take over there and just have something that booking agents and managers can have something that represents what we sound like. Hopefully the year of really intense gigging is going to pay off on the record. We’ll sound together.
GHE: Thank you so much guys – and congratulations again on the success of Folkswagon so far.
RC: Thanks so much!
Wednesday 25th November – Snail, The Campervan Dancers, Liam Gale
Wednesday 2nd December – Sam Joole, The Campervan Dancers, Timothy James Bowen
Wednesday 9th December – Callum Wylie, The Campervan Dancers, Maia Jelavic