Joel Cadbury on South ‘sounding as diverse as their record collection’ — and more

Joel Cadbury, the primary lead vocalist in a the now defunct (but no less excellent) British band  South, was  kind enough to do this Words Away interview.


What connotation does ‘South’ have where you’re from?  The difference between north and south in the U.K. doesn’t seem as raw as the one in the States, but between the trio of yourself, Jamie McDonald and Brett Shaw and another band like The Beautiful South, I wonder what it means to you. 

Growing up in London at a time when a lot of the bands that influenced us came from the North of England — bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays — the name South was a kind of tongue of cheek dig but also by default an association to those bands.

It also confused people, as we’re North Londoners, so in London people thought we were speaking up for South London, but it wasn’t the case.

We never really took the name too seriously.  Although the North/South divide does exist in the UK, it’s not really the same as the States where in each State there is a North/South divide.

It’s easy to see reggae permeating through a lot of British music, including alternative rock or any other variation.  But one would probably be hard pressed to see anybody close to the root of that in any mainstream (even the mainstream indie) sense.  It hasn’t really been an overt influence in much of the work of yours that I’m familiar with, but — from your vantage point — how are people interacting with it at all?

I feel there is a stigma with white guys playing reggae and there shouldn’t be.  Man, Jamie and I had the whole Trojan back catalogue and borrowed the odd riff or melody on more than one occasion. There is also a 7 minute dub instrumental called “Dub Remedies” that came out as part of our 4 track sessions.

I think you’d be surprised how much influence reggae has on the mainstream.

What inspires you?  What’s something you wish more people had heard or read?

Hard to answer, but a record I’ve heard recently that I love is a 70’s record called “Dreamin’ Wild” by Donnie and Joe Emerson.  I am also always in awe of the vast catalogue of Can; there is always more to discover.

I feel like there’s a particularly dream-like nature to the lyrics in a lot of South’s early work, in which the music and lyrics were so evocative that I always felt like I got exactly what a song was about on an emotional level.  But you guys evolved over the course of four albums and to me songs on Adventures in the Underground Journey to the Stars, for instance, had more personal clarity carrying over in the lyrics. 

How has your approach to songwriting and crafting music changed over the years?

Our lyrics started out pretty abstract.  It was about creating a mood that could be expressed in the tone of the song musically as much as lyrically.  I wasn’t really concerned with telling a story — more reflecting half-remembered dreams.

I think the more we worked together the more we would look for new ways to challenge one another to keep it interesting for ourselves. That included being more specific about the themes we wanted to express. On the later albums Brett also took more of an active role in writing lyrics (and singing them).

And his approach was different to Jamie and I.  It did add another dimension to what we were doing.

In addition to being the song you might want to play after you’ve listened to the most banal pop song, “Autumn Morning” is not quite like anything else you guys did.  It’s got this relentless rocking quality, but it’s also funky in a way that I think would make Stevie Wonder and New Order nod their heads.  How did it come about?

South never ever settled on a particular sound, perhaps to our detriment.  We just weren’t built that way.  The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

The music we listened to filtered into our collective consciousness, and we were happy to sound as diverse as our record collections.

“Autumn Morning” is a good case in point.  We were messing around with sampling our guitars and drums and re-triggering them from an MPC.  That gave us the us the basis of the whole track.

It also coincided with the band taking a much more DIY approach to our records.  The big studios and producers were gone.  The big budget albums were gone.

We spent what money we had on building our own studio in Hackney and doing it all ourselves, learning as we went.  Our music of that period did share the DIY aesthetic of bands like New Order.

Songs like “a place in displacement,” which appeared originally on the Speed Up/Slow Down EP, to “lonely highs” two albums later on You Are Here, speak to a sense of isolation that South explored frequently throughout every album.  Also, in lines like, ” in a world gone mad / don’t let it go to your brains”  you spoke to the reality of life, but in a way that (often jubilantly) prompted the sentiment: “there must be more to life than this / no mistaking happiness.” 

Has that been something you’re conscious of?  I can still hear the same sensibility in songs like “Caged Bird” and “Ever Rest.” (songs Cadbury worked on for Unkle’s  “Where Did the Night Fall: Another Night Out”)

It’s weird.  It’s just the way it comes out.  I don’t deliberately set out to write a song about any one particular subject, but I guess in a way we were quite isolated.  We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry. I don’t know how at peace I felt when you always feel you are not getting success (whatever that means).  It can be a brick wall, but then there is always more to life.

We were never the darlings of the music industry; it’s only through fans enjoying our music that we kept going for as long as we did, not the industry.

Per “Tell Me,” have you figured out if we can see more from the other side yet?

You know what?  I think we can see more from the other side. Jamie, Brett and I all now have families of our own and are still good friends and that’s all I can ask, coming through relationships as long and intense as ours.  We met at school when we were 11 years old and we’re now 35 — and to be able to look back and feel as proud as we do about what we achieved is a great feeling.  It’s also served as a good footing for the next stage of our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe one day we will do it all again : )

Cover of first South album, "From Here On In."

Cover of first South album, “From Here On In.”

Is a solo album on the slate?

Perhaps. I have been recording demos but have been working more on film soundtracks recently and have finished composing the music to my first Ballet, and to be quite honest I’m enjoying not having to be the front man for a while.

But saying that, there is always this music that’s got to come out so I’m sure sooner or later it will.


Much thanks to Joel for his time.


South on Amazon:

The top album cover is from South’s fourth and (so far) final album, You Are Here.


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