In the Court of Tom Ravenscroft
John Peel's son curates a series of concerts at The MAC this September. 'The music of Belfast has always been in our family'
I am at The MAC in Belfast, and Thomas James Dalglish Ravenscroft is sitting in front of me. The clue to his identity is the ‘Dalglish’, for Tom Ravenscroft is none other than the son of the late, great disc jockey John Peel (né Ravenscroft).
Peel’s life-long devotion to Liverpool Football Club led to his four children being given club-related Christian names, in Tom’s case that of Kenny D, one of Liverpool’s most venerated ex-players and managers.
Ravenscroft is now in his own right a rising star of radio, with a regular Friday evening slot on BBC Radio 6 Music, and a reputation as a cultivator of new acts and experimental, off-the-beaten-track music.
Pretty much the ideal candidate, then, for The MAC’s second annual ‘In The Court Of…’ residency, in which a leading figure from the arts world is invited to curate a week of personally chosen events at the Belfast arts hub.
Northern Ireland’s own Duke Special set the bar high with a fascinatingly varied programme at last year’s inaugural ‘Court’ session. But Ravenscroft had no hesitation following in the Duke’s footsteps.
‘None whatsoever,’ he replies decisively. ‘I’ve known Stuart Campbell [programming officer at The MAC] for a while. He contacted me and I just kind of jumped at it. Why wouldn’t you? It’s an amazing thing to be able to do, a luxury. It was just, like, send us a list of people you want to see.’
That list was not long in coming, and first choice for Ravenscroft was New York-based Nina Nastasia, a singer-songwriter originally championed by his father. ‘I think she’s the only artist on there that dad would have known of. She’s our family favourite. It would be outrageous to do anything without trying to get her.’
Nastasia is precisely the kind of under-the-radar, niche performer that Ravenscroft is well-known for espousing, but he finds it difficult to slot her into any particular category. ‘I’m terrible at categorising music,’ he grimaces. ‘I don’t know if I dislike it because I’m not good at it, or I just dislike it because I dislike it. I think it’s because I have no need for it.’
So what exactly do you need, I wonder, to be Tom Ravenscroft? To have the confidence to identify real quality when you hear it? To know what listeners of your weekly show will like listening to, or readers of your blog will find interesting to read about?
Ravenscroft diffidently bats away any highfalutin suggestions that he is in some way specially gifted. ‘I’m not musical at all,’ he insists. ‘I can’t play anything. My parents wasted so much money trying to get me to learn an instrument. In fact all of us were given lessons on various things, and there was just a house full of instruments.’ And none of it stuck? ‘Not a thing,’ Ravenscroft admits ruefully.
Except, he might immodestly have added, the indispensable qualities of good taste and discernment Ravenscroft patently absorbed while growing up in the immersively musical environment of Peel Acres, the family cottage in Suffolk. Indispensable, that is, for a man whose job is sifting, sampling and selecting from the vast quantity of new material fired at him on a daily basis by email, envelope and social network systems.
Is the task of knowing what is out there musically made any easier by the relative ease with which new acts can get their songs recorded nowadays, and almost instantly disseminated digitally to those they wish to listen?
‘It takes a lot longer. The problem is, when you used to have to pay loads of money to get your music put on a record and then post it to somebody, that was actually a major expense. Whereas creating an mp3 and emailing someone is completely free now, and people maybe don’t do the editing they previously would have done.
‘So they say, “Oh I’ll send him all ten records, rather than the one I think is best". A lot of the time they’re actually getting me to tell them what their best record is. So for me it’s more time-consuming. You just get sent more.’
That has, for Ravenscroft, unavoidable consequences perhaps not fully appreciated by acts submitting new music for his consideration. ‘You can be kind of ruthless at times,’ he says, referring to the process of auditioning the phalanx of new tracks that cram his in-box weekly.
So is it all about the first ten seconds? ‘Sometimes it can be less,’ he responds, grinning apologetically. ‘It can be considerably less. You only need to hear someone sing a couple of lines to say, “I know what type of voice this is, and I know what they’re doing, and I know that I don’t like it”. You don’t need to hear very much of a record sometimes.’
One Northern Irish artist that Ravenscroft heard a little of, and liked a lot, is Katharine Philippa, whom he has paired with Nina Nastasia in the double bill opening this year’s 'In The Court Of…' programme on September 24.
‘I’m kind of feeling slightly smug about that, to be honest,’ smiles Ravenscroft. ‘When I was over here visiting, Katharine came up to me at a thing I was doing and gave me a tape. There were similarities with Nina in there, and I thought these two would match up perfectly.’
Other acts appearing at this year’s 'Court' concerts include Ghostpoet, Belfast band Girls Names, Songs For Walter, Moon Duo, Deptford Goth and Kelpe. Also featuring is comedian Adam Buxton – ‘The man can do no wrong in my eyes, he’s very funny’ – whose one-man show, Kernel Panic, is predicated on the contents of his laptop.
Ravenscroft will, additionally, bring his own DJ-ing skills to bear for the intriguingly titled ‘Slow Dance Party’, which he describes as ‘basically like the first school discos you went to, but with a bit more confidence and more booze. And I get to pick all the records.’
Picking the records is what Tom Ravenscroft ultimately excels at, as his father John Peel did before him. Ravenscroft is acutely conscious of Peel’s stellar reputation in Northern Ireland, as the man who put local bands such as The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers on the musical map during the punk and New Wave eras.
‘The music of Belfast, and particularly that period, has always been in our family, and I know how important the city was to dad,’ he reflects. ‘I wasn’t even born then, but having also watched the film Good Vibrations quite recently, it’s nice coming here now and experiencing it. The film was great, but it’s quite a weird thing seeing somebody acting your father. That was odd, very strange,' he observes. 'It didn’t look very much like him.’
In the Court of Tom Ravenscroft runs in The MAC, Belfast from September 24 – 29.