The Brit Folk/Punk Band Skinny Lister Gets Political on Its Latest Single

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CONNOR MACRAE
  • Connor MacRae
The members of the British folk/punk band Skinny Lister first met in London about ten years ago. Singer Lorna Thomas' brother, singer-mandolin player Max Thomas, initially formed the band with singer-guitarist Dan Heptinstall; the two knew each other from playing folk clubs in Greenwich, an old naval town that's just down the river from London. They put the group together and started playing traditional tunes at house parties.

"It was pretty wild," says Thomas in a recent phone interview when asked about the era. On tour in support of an expanded version of its 2016 album, The Devil, the Heart and the Fight, the band performs with Will Varley and the Outside Voices at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 7, at the Grog Shop. "We were just playing music for friends. We liked going to festivals and I basically joined the band to get into festivals for free. I started handing out party favors that helped us get us into festivals. We would break into festivals but now we actually get invited."

Early on, the group recorded the Grand Union EP on a boat. They tried to record a song a day on the boat, sitting on the roof and playing as it rolled down the river.

"I guess we always wanted to be on a canal boat and our manager at the time wanted us to build a story around the band," she says. "We thought we could have a holiday and party in every pub along the way. By the end of the boat ride, we handed out about 100 EPs to the people who had been on the boat. It was great fun. At that point, we never imagined we'd be playing in Cleveland and these various places."

In 2012, the band got onto the Warped Tour after an impromptu audition for Warped head honcho Kevin Lyman. The band members "hunted him down" and played for him no the spot in a parking lot. Impressed, he added them to the bill.

"What happened was that we played South by Southwest," she says. "Somebody that knew Kevin Lyman, a good friends of ours from L.A., said he should see us. He got us to meet us in a car park where we played two songs for him and had a few beers. Within a week we were signed to SideOne Dummy records and on the road with Warped Tour, which was really a experience."

With 2014's Down on Deptford Broadway, which the band recorded at historic Rockfield Studios in Wales with producer Ted Hutt (Dropkick Murphys), the group honed its songwriting skills. Album opener "Raise a Wreck" features fervent call-and-response vocals and the tender "Bonny Away" allows Thomas to show off her supple voice. "Trouble on Oxford Street," a song about a real brawl that involved Heptinstall and a gang of punks, sounds like vintage Clash. Thomas says that while the band embraces its pub rock past, it also hopes to transcend the genre.

The group's latest release, 2016's The Devil, the Heart and the Fight, takes another step in that direction.

"Our albums have evolved," says Thomas. "The first ones are really folky because that's where we were. When we went on Warped tour, it felt like we could do with drums and that was where we could take the sound. We raised the bar we felt. We don't want to be pigeonholed. We just want to write the songs we write and hopefully the Skinny Lister sound will hold it together. It's slightly different sound on each of the albums."

A beautiful ballad, "Devil in Me" features Thomas on lead vocals. She says the music video, which finds her taking a sledgehammer to her lover's Ford Fiesta, proved particularly fun to shoot.

"I think we all have relationships where there's a bit of a sadistic side," she says. "The song is about the passion that one experiences in a relationship. I think about the audience and how much I love being in the band when I sing the song. It can be destructive to be on the road and having to party every night but at the same time I love it. In the video, I fulfilled a lifelong ambition and smashed in a car window. Since then, a friend of ours even designed a cocktail called Lorna's Hammer."

Recently, the band reissued the album with bonus tracks.

"We had songs we wanted to get out quickly," explains Thomas. "'Thing Like That' is our response to Brexit and Trump as well. The last time we were in the States, we played New York on Results Day. We normally wouldn't sing about politics, but our politics is that everyone is welcomed, and we couldn't help but comment on things."

The bonus disc also includes acoustic sessions from the Paste studio in New York City and the Xtra Mile Outside Broadcast Truck. A lo-fi version "Boy Ashore" concludes the album.

"That song was inspired by Hastings, a small fishing town," explains Thomas. "It has a shipping community that exists in the UK. It's still thriving. It's a song about that. The song has been around for a little while. We all love it. It just never found a place on an album but the extended version of The Devil, the Heart and the Fight was perfect."

The band has a busy year ahead of it. It will play a Flogging Molly cruise in April and then hit the festival circuit in the summer.

"We also hope to spend some time in the studio," Thomas says. "We've written some new material that we're trying out at the shows. Things are really good, and it's amazing that we can come over and tour the states and can play cities like L.A. and Cleveland. We feel so privileged."

Skinny Lister, Will Varley, The Outside Voices, 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 7, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $15, grogshop.gs

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