The Payroll Union

Strolling Attercliffe at dusk, The Payroll Union’s Pete David presents a striking silhouette against the darkening sky. Gathering at Bad Merchant studios in Sheffield’s Crystal Ship music dreadnaught to record In Session, the smartly dressed three-piece are a formidable prospect. With a love of American History, a fascination with semi-obscure polygamous religions and suspiciously in-depth knowledge of the Lincoln assassination they reminded Exposed’s online editor of that photo of Jack Nicholson with the depression era revellers at the end of The Shining. Rob kept checking the pics on the walls of Bad Merchant’s studio to make sure Pete, Paul and Ben weren’t leaning out of a photo of confederates.

The Payroll Union and their founder Pete David have been around for a year or so now, knocking out a couple of quality EPs in that time including the recent “Your Obedient Servant”. We worked around director Mark Bull’s fairy-lit set dressing for a chat with frontman Pete, bassist Paul and drummer Ben to put us in the frame about life in the nineteeth century noir pop trio.

There’s lots of South American influences in The Payroll Union’s sound. Was it a long journey from there to here?

Pete: I grew up on Bob Dylan and Neil Young and there was a natural progression from that when I was learning to play. I very much wanted us to be an Americana band, but I think we’ve evolved quite significantly from that now, certainly in the last twelve months or so.

Ben: A nice thing about the band is that it hasn’t been contrived. We like this type of music and we all enjoy playing together.

Songs like ‘1826’ and ‘St Lawrence River’ have a really strong sense of story and place. Do you write your lyrics before composing the music?

Pete: It tends to start with me being interested in something and wanting to write about it and then everything else comes from there. I see it as tapping into veins of truth from an historical time or event and bringing something out of that. For example, I’m really interested in the Mormons at the moment.

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The Mormons? How’d they catch your attention?

Pete: Well it’s the period really that the Mormons and Joseph Smith came about in. That period of America in the 1820’s is so fascinating. In West New York where Joseph Smith Jr (Founder of Latter Day Saint Movement – Exposed History Ed) had his revelation, you’ve got the Burned-over district which had this revival element to it, alongside the development of the canals and the railroads which all brought this incredible trade in. When that happened you had tradesman becoming businessmen, which then developed the dynamic of the working class and big bosses who were all freemasons. This of course then saw a strong anti-mason movement. Mormonism wasn’t really a reaction to that movement but it came from that all that going on and it’s a period that I find very interesting.

Someone described your music as ‘acoustic murder ballads’. How useful do you find genres and labels like this?

Pete: Well I love genres! I love the constraints of it and that it just pitches you inside this castle.

Paul: Castle?

Pete: (laughing) No, it’s true! Genres are wonderful and people think they’re a constraint but I think genre is freeing. To me, it’s like having no barriers because you need constraints to have something to break away from.

Ben: I think genre is something you perceive from the outside. I’m not sure we ever really think about the genre of our own music.

You launched your latest EP [‘Your Obedient Servant’] in the Lantern Theatre which is a great little venue. What was that like to play?

Pete: Amazing. It’s such a beautiful place and it was a brilliant gig.

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Any good venues coming up gig-wise?

Pete: There’s a gig coming up in April which we can’t talk about yet. But look out for it. We’ve also been asked to play the folk forest at Tramlines so you’ll see us there as well!

So take us through the cobwebby cobbled alleyways of tonight’s session. What are you playing?

Pete: We’re playing two new songs, the first of which doesn’t have a name yet.

Paul: The Mormon song?

Pete: It’s not going to be called The Mormon song. But that song is kind of about the Mormons, specifically a persecuted religious group who are burnt out of their homes. I suppose it’s about the intolerance of the people at that time, as well as my own intolerance towards religion as well.

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Paul: We keep it light though, right?

Pete: The other song we’re going to play is called ‘Mary Lamson’. Which is my favourite song of ours at the moment. She was the wife of Edwin Stanton who was Lincoln’s Secretary of Way. She, his daughter and his brother all died in a short space of time and he went a bit mad because all these people were dying around him. It’s about how this pure love he had for this wife is gone and it changes his character completely. He becomes cynical and driven only by money and success. I found it a fascinating story and wanted to write a song about it.

Ben: This is the first we’ve heard any of this by the way.

Pete: (laughing) Yeah. Anyway, it’s a song that I love playing. And finally we’ll be doing a cover called ‘Smoking Too Long’ which is actually an anonymous tune but really made famous by Nick Drake.

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