Sammy Horner of The Electrics
Interviewed by: James Stewart at Cornerstone '99 and again by phone in March 2000
Sammy Horner of The Electrics is a man well at ease in interviews. In a light-hearted press conference, backstage at a concert or festival, or on the phone, he is happy to discuss the finer points of Irish music, contemporary culture, and a library of jokes.
Like most bands of their endurance, The Electrics's line-up has changed considerably over the years. The core of the band is made up of Horner on bass and vocals, along with Paul Davie on drums. At their Cornerstone show, these two were joined by Kenny McNicholl on pipes, Dave Lyon on accordion and Tim Cotterell on violin and mandolin. The band's US profile had been growing for a while, but was raised considerably when Five Minute Walk released The Electrics, a compilation of tracks re-recorded from their first three albums. The album revealed the folksy side of the band, with plenty of dancing songs, and many assumed they were a new band, but in reality they had been touring Europe for a good eight years and their style of music had shifted considerably over that time.
Last year's Cornerstone festival was a turning point in the band's journeys onto American soil as they announced that their contract with Five Minute Walk had come to an end. Given the good relationship band and label had appeared to share, that may seem strange. "I think this tour--we always love Cornerstone, and we really aren't just saying that because we really do love this festival--I think by and large we felt that we really didn't want to do this again," Horner offered. "The record company have been fine and everything, but the past two years we've come out here and done exactly the same things. We kept telling them to get us out to the East coast for St. Patrick's week and things like that but they're a west coast company and wanted us to tour between festivals, and we realized that we couldn't do this any more. It's been okay--it's still crazy touring with long drives and not sleeping."
Despite the end of their US record deal the band has recently released a live recording through the UK's ICC Records. Recorded at Germany's Christmas Rock Night for the band's tenth anniversary it captures the band at their energetic best.
Many will be wondering whether the band plan to return to the US, and it is something they are giving much thought to. "I think in the US we could probably do what we're doing without the help of a record company. Because to come out here and play and not earn anything is easy," Horner quipped. "I'm going to come out here and do an acoustic Celtic Praise tour in the US with about three of us, to see how it goes and how churches react to what we say and the worldview of the Celtic church. It'll either be very good or very bad. It'll be very church based."
"The problem is that the market here is so flooded with albums it's just another thing," he continued, "I know things like Eden's Bridge are selling here, which amazes me."
Horner is known as something of an authority on Celtic Christianity within music circles. I wondered how he responded to the recent flood of attention in "Celtic music" from Christian circles, when Christian musicians had been exploring their Celtic heritage for many years. "It's all just the same to me," he admitted. "I'm more concerned about the teaching and the lifestyle. I think so much of it [the recent music] is nonsense. I actually did phone Word records about one or two of their projects and complain bitterly. And it's not a sour grapes issue and it isn't an issue of you're putting money into this or that. But it isn't based in the tradition or the theology; it's just a bunch of praise and worship stuff with pipes stuck under it.
I think that it's about a bandwagon. I think when bands like Eden Burning kicked in and when we started as well it was something that was happening, but folk rock music is like oral tradition and it's always there, it doesn't come and go with styles--either you do it or you don't. I don't like much of it, to be honest with you, I dislike a lot of it. And I think if you're going to do it, do it as well as you can, be true to it, and don't just do it for the money. I can understand why it's popular. I think it's okay to have background music, but what bothers me is that it's done and people assume that's what Celtic music is."
"You don't need to analyze folk music. It's simply oral tradition and there's certain things you do within it that make good folk and Celtic. And there're lots of variations within it. Eden Burning was a good example of mandolin driven English folk, even when they went more grungy and became more rocky you could still hear the folk within it. They were pretty extreme in what they did, but it was still there. I think that's the secret. Guys like Paul [Northup, Eden Burning vocalist] from the very beginning wrote in a particular way and his voice was very English and they stayed with that even though the music expanded a little bit. If you listen to the first Electrics album, it was more rock and big guitars and we've gone the other way, more acoustic. I don't think the people who do Eden's Bridge are bad people or anything like that, but if they're going to do the music, why don't they just do it right? Why don't they do Irish, Scottish, and Celtic music?
That oral tradition and omnipresence of folk music is one thing which has allowed The Electrics to continue doing what they do for so long. Changes are always coming, but the core of the band remains strong. "Our pipe player's going to be leaving us. he's getting married and staying in America. There're two reasons why we've stayed around so long. The first is that we're friends and we love to play, more than making records we just love to play. In America it's strange because they think Celtic folk music's new, but there's loads of bands who do what we do. It's like the blues. It doesn't matter about fashion, it'll be there. I think what The Electrics do is very danceable and it's fun. The Electrics will always be that -- chaotic and fun and danceable. And hopefully people leave an Electrics show a little bit happier and a little bit fitter.
The driving and the approach to Celtic music aren't the only things about the USA which require some work for The Electrics to adapt to. The cultural differences run much deeper. "There's a very, very conservative wing in the church in America. I think that a lot of that's nutty. The divorce rate is astronomical here--anyone can make a mistake, but when you're on your fourth or fifth wife...--and then they complain if you have a can of beer. To me, we can play a show in England in a pub and it not be an issue. And that very simple thing shows how a band like The Electrics could really get ourselves into trouble in America just for doing what's quite normal for us to do. We're not talking about getting drunk or being bad boys, but there's a thing here where you have to play by the rules, or at least be seen to be playing by the rules."
"Believe me, we've been on the road with lots of these bands and if I told you what went on backstage I know a lot would have tours cut. And we're talking about some of your big, big CCM bands. They're not doing anything that's desperately bad, to us it would be nothing. Very often we'll play in a church and if there's a local bar we'll go down and play for them for free after. We were down in Lancaster a few months ago so we went down to a bar a few blocks away and said, 'we're playing in the church' and we went and told the people in the church and we went to the bar and played a few songs and talked to people."
Despite finding many of the culture's idiosyncrasies confusing, Horner is anxious to point out that he does like a lot of what he experiences while touring on the western side of the big pond. "The enthusiasm of people here is second to none and they think big all the time and achieve a lot. But I think CCM here's become an industry that really baby-sits the church and I don't ever think that's what we were meant to do. Worship's something that by and large is for Christians to somehow come close to God. Alternative worship's still trying to do that but trying to widen the horizons a little bit. What we call CCM should challenge, uplift, support and also be salt and light outside the church. Everyone talks about this big crossover thing. What's crossover? Either it's good enough or it's not, there should never have been a need to crossover."
"The Electrics play a very raucous kind of Celtic rock. What we play is a little rough around the edges but if you take any of the top guys who did what we do--The Pogues, the Waterboys, even Eden Burning when they were doing the folk thing--that's what it's supposed to sound like. We've been around a little bit, but we can play anywhere and stand up. Rock'n'reels magazine, the big folk rock magazine across Europe, consistently says that everything we do is as good as anything in the genre.
"I dislike the industry a great deal, not every one within the industry, but what it's become. Because it really is, let's face it, about unit sales. And it's not sour grapes, we don't sell many records here but we only come here two weeks a year. I don't care about selling records, never have, it's great when people buy your album but that must never be what you're about."
Unsurprising when you consider his views on the music industry, Horner's tastes veer left of the center of "Christian music". "I'm a big fan of This Train, the kind of rockabilly surf stuff, and Mark [Robertson]'s a good friend of ours anyway. I went to see them at GMA 98 and they were the only band who I stayed for the whole set, me and about 40 people, and they were great. We've been trying to set up a European tour with This Train and The Electrics but we can't find anyone to pay for their flights. If we can get them there we could do it. They're like a rockabilly version of The Electrics they're funny and yet it's got a lot of truth in it--it's kind of subtle but you doesn't miss it. I love Buddy Miller. His stuff's out on Hightone and he's in a whole other class--whether you like country music or not you can't deny that. And I love Julie Miller. But I think This Train is my favorite.
In Scotland there's a new young band called Superhero--I've been hearing good things about them live. Fabulous tried real hard but they're splitting up. Around the UK there's a girl called Gemma McQueen--she did an independent album for a charity, she sounds a bit like Kate Bush, kind of 80s, and raised 5000 pounds. But she's got the most beautiful album. She phoned me and asked if we could write together and I think we're going to do an alternative worship album together. And I'm producing an album for Riki Michelle. She's going to come to Scotland in 2000. Buddy produced our album because he liked what we do, so did Phil Madeira. I like Phil's stuff--same with [UK based singer/songwriter] Sam Hill."
The Electrics is not a full-time
occupation, and I asked Horner what he did to fill the rest of his time.
"I work for John Smith, the biker guy [an Australian evangelist/sociologist,
known for his love of motorbikes and biker culture]. The Electrics tour
maybe two months a year, spread out, but I work in primary schools, looking
at any subject they want. Trying to teach strong values and things that
are worth having, all based on the teachings of Jesus. I also do some speaking
at conferences and stuff, but not so much these days." Horner is also involved
in worship music, and has four "Celtic Praise" albums to his name. Far
from the synthesizer and pipes of many albums going by that name, Horner's
offerings are stripped back organic material performed on a range of traditional
instruments. At the time of writing he had just returned from writing in
Nashville with Phil Madeira, John Hartley, and Mark Robertson. A publishing
deal looks possible as his writing is more widely appreciated. As the new
year takes root, things are once again taking shape for the Electrics.
The chance of a mainstream deal on the European mainland, always a hotbed
of Electrics fandom where they headline festivals and tour with support
from bands getting VH1 airplay, and a full European tour in the autumn
make for a positive outlook. The band also hope to hook up with a small
US independent to make sure their new American fans can get hold of their
material. Maybe after a decade's hard work the band's platform could finally