“Colin Foster – who he?” I can hear you asking and it’s a reasonable question. Colin is Merry Hell’s new bass-player, as you might guess from the photograph above. He wasn’t so much thrown in at the deep end as totally submerged and held under the water just a few months ago. But more of that later. So – who he?
“I’m from Wigan, specifically Orrell, which is more or less the same place as the Kettles. I grew up within a few miles of where they grew up.”
There’s our first link. Was bass Colin’s first instrument of choice?
“No. Guitar was my first instrument, like a lot of bass players I think, and it was through learning guitar that I expanded into other stringed instruments including bass, but ukulele and mandolin although I’ve yet to really get around the banjo. So I came to playing bass as a guitarist and when I got serious about music in my early forties – I’d always been in bands as a hobby – I thought ‘I’m really going to do it now’. I had a really inspirational guitar teacher and a big change of career. I trained as an engineer in acoustics, so we did noise surveys, planning applications, designing buildings for good acoustics. Quite interesting but it was a bit hollow so I decided to change tack and try to make money full time from music.
“I had a couple of years of practicing intensely all the time. That was all I did and it was brilliant and it moved me to the next level and going through that process I discovered how much I loved learning about the theory and that tied everything together. From that I started to give guitar lessons and then people started asking for bass lessons and I thought I could give that a go. I got a bass and started to learn that.”
I wanted to know if Colin thought that bass-players were cool but, more sensibly, he pointed out that they are in demand. “There’s no vacancy for a guitar player in Merry Hell; John’s got that well and truly covered. I think they are cool, actually. The more I know about bass players, I think they’re the understated ones.”
So let’s dig a little deeper into Colin’s musical history.
“I’ve been in a number of bands because of the era I grew up in. As a teenager I went through a metal phase and that was my first obsession and that morphed into more, like, indie music so I went through that phase. I was in a funk band for quite a long time. I’ve nearly always been in original bands where we’ve written our own music and I like that process. I have been in function/cover bands to make money and to play to bigger crowds because doing original music is really hard work – just to ac reach an audience. Trying to keep bands together can be tough. Going back to a family analogy; it’s like trying to keep a family together and keep everybody happy and going in the same direction.
“My love of folk music – and I do love folk music although I’m not a connoisseur – my parents were in the Woodcraft Folk, they were leaders and looking back now we used to do a lot of folk singing and there was a lot of exposure to traditional folk music right up to 20th century issues like CND. I grew with singing being something that took place around me and some of my earliest memories are of hearing really good singers and really powerful songs. I think the metal thing was a bit of a teenage rebellion.”
Sadly none of those bands got anywhere near a recording contract. “It was always a part-time thing and the lifespan was probably two years or so. You would go through the process of write, record, pay for it all yourself, have a product and then fall apart because that product never made enough money or became successful enough to sustain. I’ve got a few old CDs that we made but none of them have been known outside of friends and family. Merry Hell was my chance to join a band that already had that structure in place.”
Which brings us neatly to the question of how that happened. It’s a bit involved and here comes our second link.
“I teach at a music college in Wigan and John [Kettle] teaches there as well. John has been there much longer than I have but I’ve been working there part-time for about five years. Because of my background in acoustics he was interested in picking my brains about his recording studio and there was that respect from John.
“I knew of Merry Hell and Tansads, who were a big Wigan band when I grew up, way back in the early 90s and their first couple of albums were really important and when I left to go to university I took them with me as a memory of Wigan. It was a good time for music – it felt like it was more open to different styles. John and I would work together on music and do the odd teacher band at college so I got to play with him then.
“The way it happened was this. Last summer we were making a cup of tea at college and John was bemoaning the fact that Merry Hell’s bass player would have to leave.” I should explain that Nick Davies’ partner was expecting their first baby and they had agreed that Nick would give up life on the road and devote himself to his proper job and his family.
“I came away from that conversation thinking ‘was John tapping me up there?’. I wasn’t sure but I’ve reached the age where if you don’t ask you don’t get so the next time I saw him I said, ‘if you’re looking for a bass player I’ll throw my hat into the ring’. He was interested and I met the entry requirements but he said that he had offered it to someone else, ‘but he’ll say no’. Twenty-four hours later he phoned me up and it was a horrible phone call, ‘I’m really sorry but the guy’s said yes’. I was disappointed because it was an excellent opportunity, just what I wanted to do but that passed.
“Then, just before Christmas, John pulled me to one side and said ‘it’s not worked out with the bass player, are you still interested?’ and I was like ‘Hell, yes’. So he gave me twenty-five songs and there was a period when John was checking that I’d learned them sufficiently and could play them properly and was taking it seriously. That was that; I met the rest of the band and on we went from there. John was promoting the fact that Merry Hell is like a family – there’s a bit of an entourage – and was keen to welcome my family to the big family as well. We share the same values, they things they sing about and their politics, if you like, are the same as mine and I’m proud to be part of it.”
It struck me that Colin has, potentially, a lot to offer Merry Hell over and above his bass playing, although they haven’t let him near a microphone yet.
“I don’t think John’s heard me sing yet! Nick has a far better voice than I have and when they did ‘The Coming Home Song’ he was excellent. But in rehearsals I do get the opportunity to just sing but not in front of a microphone. There’s usually two-, sometimes three-part harmonies going on and I can sing along and start to experiment – so maybe in time.”
And other instruments?
“I’d very much like to do that. John and I have never discussed this and his role is musical director although Virginia and Bob have clear ideas about how they want their songs to be. I’d be really interested if there were opportunities – to have two guitar parts or try a different string instrument – but the bass has such an important function in the band so it would have to be a special song or a small section.”
I met Colin at The Half Moon in February (and shamelessly buttonholed him to get this interview) at was only his second gig with Merry Hell. How was the first one?
“The first one was at the Atkinson Theatre in Southport – we were actually in the side room but it felt very ‘theatre’. There was a lot of space around and the audience seemed to be a long way away and it felt very much like being on a stage in a theatre rather than at a gig. The Half Moon was the opposite – it felt quite squashed and it was much louder because everything was closer together so it had a different energy.
“I’d been working very hard to learn and rehearse the set list and on that Saturday night we played virtually every song that I knew. It was only after the gig that we thought, ‘we’re playing here tomorrow and probably half the people we met and spoke to were coming back on the Sunday’. We couldn’t play the same songs and that Sunday felt really triumphant because some of the songs we played hadn’t been rehearsed. I’d kind of learned them but we hadn’t practiced as a band because we hadn’t had time. We had to do a lot of work that night and the next morning to come up with a set that was sufficiently varied and I think we did it.”
Colin’s playing at the moment is best described as clean, solid and unfussy.
“Yes. That’s spot on. I’m sticking well within limits and not doing anything experimental at the moment. I’m not saying that I’m going to start being Jaco Pastorius – I wish – but I’m definitely looking forward to being comfortable with the songs to be able to embellish them a little bit more.
“The way that I approach the bass at the moment in Merry Hell is that I see myself as the foundation of the harmony. They are a very harmonic band. You’ve got the guitar which has a rhythmic function and you have usually got a couple of vocal harmony parts and you need something underneath to ground it. That’s what I’m doing at the moment is being the ground in the right place at the right time. You can always hear the bass because you’re playing through a PA system and if you hit a wrong note it’s really obvious.
So how is the summer of 2022 shaping up?
“There’s a lot going on. We’re going on tour with Ranagri – as soon as we hit the college holidays we’re off all around the country. We’re going to Milton Keynes then down to Devon for a couple of nights. Then we’re in Birmingham, a few dates in the north-west, Hull, Chester and I’m really looking forward to consecutive gigs and the musical tightness you get from playing together night after night.
“We’ve got a very intense period and then across the summer, Damian has got us at different festivals most weekends. I’ve always loved going to festivals and I’m looking forward to some of the folk festivals I’ve never been to.
John Kettle remarked in passing that Merry Hell is a bit like Spinal Tap when it comes to bass players but I think that Colin is going to last the distance. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Colin Foster.
Merry Hell’s tour starts on April 2nd in Biddulph. Full details can be found at www.merryhell.co.uk