Sons of Caliber Aim for Chart Domination
Andrew Farmer has ambitions for his band to be as big as Mumford & Sons, and he's not afraid to say it. 'I don't want to be an old man singing other people's songs'
Authenticity is a hugely sought after quality in the world of popular music. Keeping it 'real' is a difficult thing to master, but Andrew Farmer has managed to impress Northern Irish audiences and critics alike with his assured brand of folk music.
In order to achieve an authentic sound, he went directly to the source. 'I lived in America for a year,' he begins, his laid-back county Antrim drawl belying a fiercely committed persona. 'When I was out there, I spent a lot of time with good musicians in North Carolina, so I learnt the trade. And when I came home from the States, I had a new bag of tricks.
'For about six months it was kind of slow, but then one of my buddies from America, a guy called Stephen George Williams, came over and lived with me for four months. This became Sons of Caliber, the two of us on banjo, guitar, vocals and kick drums.'
With many people categorising their sound as Americana, it helped that they had a genuine American in the band – no-one could accuse Farmer and Williams of being disingenuous. And with a string of exceptionally well received live shows under their belts, and solid songwriting skills that hit the target every time, the duo found the offers coming in thick and fast. Then came a rather insurmountable hurdle.
'We played a lot of shows, and got confirmed for the Open House Festival in Belfast,' recalls Farmer. 'But then, because of his visa, Stephen had to go home, and we were left with all these shows to do with no band.'
After quickly re-thinking the plan, Sons of Caliber became a fully-fledged band with Farmer as the fulcrum. He fleshed out their acoustic sound into something more visceral and powerful with the addition of new members.
Managing to translate the essence of their original sound, Farmer and his new bandmates – Michael McNeill, Rosie Barry, Conor Barry and Dave McComb – kept up the momentum, generating impressive reviews of their live shows and building a solid fanbase.
For people looking for something raw, powerful and 'real', Sons of Caliber were exactly what was needed. 'To impact on people’s attention, you have to hit them with something violent,' Farmer argues. 'For me, this is where Sons of Caliber is going. That’s how we’re going to make it as a band.'
This last statement is very telling. In the world of indie rock, particularly at the moment, 'success' is a word that is rarely spoken; rather a ramshackle charm and a sense of underachievement are what most acts seem to strive for.
For Farmer, though, anything less than platinum sales would be a waste of time. His confidence propels Sons of Caliber forward, driving their songs straight into the hearts of their audiences. Rest assured, his isn’t some misguided sense of self-belief. Rather Farmer is an artist who has set incredibly high standards for himself and his collaborators, and if audience reactions are anything to go by, it's been worth it.
'I’m not just playing music for the sake of something to do. I aim to do well,' he admits, almost protesting his innocence in the face of some perceived indie snobbery. 'I aim to make enough to retire, and maybe one day build a forest, or a garden centre,' he jokes. 'That’s the day job!
'For me, there’s no other point. I don’t want to be an old man in a bar singing someone else’s songs. By 35, I’m prepared to stop doing this. It depends how well it goes. If it’s not happening, at 35 I’ll just stop playing and stay at home, maybe start my own label. I’ve learned a lot in two years, from being a farm boy to doing this.'
For many people in the indie world, these words will surely come across as self-aggrandising, but there’s something in Farmer’s tone of voice that suggests he means it. It’s not about the fame, or the money, it’s about knowing you’ve been successful, taking something you believe in and making sure that it connects with people.
Of course, current musical trends are working in Farmer's favour. Mumford & Sons have pulled off the incredible trick of cracking the American market and silencing the naysayers with the statistics to back up their popularity. It might seem a way off, but Farmer has no doubt that Sons of Caliber could go the same way.
'There’s a few bands like Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes – they paved the way for this modern thing, but folk music is timeless. It’s popular now, but it’ll be popular one hundred years from now too.
'It’s music by people, about people. Mumford’s second album, Babel, has done so well, and it can only help bands like mine. It keeps the window of opportunity open, even though I don’t really like to mention the 'M' word.'
He laughs at this last statement, but realises that such comparisons are inevitable. 'Sometimes it’s the best way to talk to a stranger. If someone can’t picture what it is that you do, you mention the 'M' word, and they put you in that box. You have to give them the demographic, you know? But we’re Northern Irish – for me, I don’t want to sing songs about America, or England, I want to sing songs about someone who’s been born and reared here.'
Mentioning other bands in the same breath as your own is, of course, marketing on a basic level, but it can be the kiss of death in some circles. Whilst Mumford & Sons may be raking in the Yankee dollar, they are regularly crucified by critics for their lack of authenticity, and are continually accused of dressing up in the clothes of folk without being able to grasp the essence of what the music is really all about.
But Farmer understands the importance of image, and this mixture of commercial ambition and creative integrity lies at the heart of the Sons of Caliber mission statement. It's an intriguing contradiction, but it seems to work. Their performances possess a burning intensity, yet they are, quite rightly, driven by a collective goal to share their music with as many people as possible.
'I know we have something special, and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way,' Farmer concludes with remarkable honesty. 'I'm a selfish writer, in that the songs are about me and they're for me. They're my therapy. If I don’t believe in this, no-one else will.'