Interview: Rob Cooksley – Sons of Liberty

From the deep southwest of the UK comes Sons of Liberty with their own distinctive twist on the Southern rock genre. The fantastic new album ‘Aces & Eights’ has just been released and we caught up with Sons’ vocalist Rob Cooksley to get the lowdown on the album, as well as his hopes and fears for the live music scene still reeling from the pandemic, and how much he is looking forward to playing Rockin The Bowl Festival in Sheffield this September. Check-in with Rob, below.

‘Aces & Eights’ was launched recently with a gig in Swindon, how did it feel performing with COVID regulations in place – a seated audience, etc?

Three of the band come from Bristol, and we were hoping to have it in Bristol, but unfortunately the Thekla – where we were supposed to have it – is a boat, so there’s no ventilation there. We had Ethyrfield down to play with us as well…a great new band that we like, and it was just one of those things and it couldn’t happen. We had the gig in Swindon booked anyway, so we decided to use that as the launch gig.

With regards to the regulations: it’s a very surreal experience. We are a band that likes to get people involved with what we are doing, and with the regulations, it’s very Las Vegas, it’s very lounge-like. Don’t get me wrong, we are very fortunate to have a great bunch of people following us, so we make the most of it, and the crowd has an idea what to expect, but it is very strange, it’s slightly muted, and it is very quiet during the songs because we are not encouraged to get people to sing… but it’s quite hard not to. It’s great to be out playing, but it certainly is a challenge.

I suppose the way that we need to look at it for the moment is that it’s better than nothing…

Yes, table service is another issue, people tend to drink more so the bars seem to be happy! So it’s a win-win for everybody really. There is always a concern that you are overstepping the law, maybe not the law, but overstepping expectations, I mean, we want to play, but we don’t want to take advantage of people wanting to go and see live music. There’s a very fine line. We want to play as much as anyone else, but we don’t want to cause an issue for long-term opportunities. If they had to close down for another six months because of people going to gigs then I’d feel quite bad about that. I do think that there is light at the end of the tunnel though.

One of those lights at the end of the tunnel being ‘Rockin The Bowl Festival’ in Sheffield, where Sons of Liberty will play on September 12th…

Steve and Zhany, the folks running Rockin The Bowl, they’ve had their fingers on the pulse very cleverly, and they’ve kept everyone up to date with what’s going on. They are very approachable people, I’m impressed with the whole setup, to be honest with you. At the end of the day, they connect with concert-goers and have been honest and forthcoming from the start, and I admire that. I can’t see that weekend being a problem, but who knows because different local authorities have different ideas.

All the bands that are playing are really looking forward to it, Call of The Wild Festival was just cancelled, and that’s really sad, so all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that it happens. We are playing Gravesend on the Friday night, so we are coming up, I think, on the Saturday to catch the bands playing that day, then we play ourselves on the Sunday. We can’t wait.

Grassroots festivals are the way ahead and everyone needs to support them in whatever way that they can…

I have to agree with you on that one. It’s in our hands, there are so many damn good young bands out there who are not getting the opportunity on bigger stages, and that’s what makes bands. I understand the music industry, they play safe and book bands who have played in the past, and I understand that as that’s how things work, however, when they do have a new band that they like, for example, Those Damn Crows, or Massive Wagons, they tend to stick to those five or six and maybe not promote the ones underneath a great deal. We are booked on a festival for next year, one of the first bands booked, and then we’ve been told that “…so-and-so wants your slot so you are going to have to move”. I know that’s how the industry works, but I guess it’s just a little bit disappointing. So getting back to grassroots festivals, they are a great opportunity for young bands to get some decent concerts.

With overseas bands unable to play at the minute, it’s a great opportunity for smaller, homegrown bands to get a chance…

Yes, Rockin The Bowl is doing that, they are putting on some smaller bands, damn good bands, and everyone is going to benefit from it. Thunder is doing that with their arena tour, taking a few young bands out with them, and giving them some exposure. There is a knock-on effect though from overseas bands not coming to the UK. We are supposed to tour with an American band at the end of the year, and we are hanging in there and hoping that it will happen, but nobody really knows if they will be able to come over.

Sons Of LibertyOnto the new album ‘Aces & Eights’, once you release an album, do you go back and revisit it? Or is it a case of it’s out there, move on to the next?

Well, it’s interesting, we released ‘Animism’ in late 2019 I think it was, and we were able to play a few shows and play some of the songs from it, but the actual launch night was only a few days before the first lockdown and we had a huge amount of gigs to play that year in support of it. Of course, we couldn’t play them, and that would have been our ‘Animism’ tour, so we missed out on that, and a lot of people missed out on hearing those songs live. So to a certain extent, it’s almost like we have two albums out at the minute. What we are doing on these current shows is playing material from ‘Aces & Eights’, but also playing a lot from ‘Animism’, we are trying to mix it up and not play the same set every time that we go out. We will play all the songs from both albums over the next six months or so.

Regarding ‘Aces & Eights’, it is still at the forefront at the minute, we want to keep pushing that. There is a song on the ‘New Wave of Classic Rock’ album which is coming out soon, and we are using that as a third single. But we are always writing. I was talking to Fred [Fred Hale, SoL guitarist] last week and said that I had some lyrics, and once he was ready and had some stuff down, then let’s start the ball rolling again and get some new stuff written. We are always progressing; you have to. People have come to us quite late, a lot of people are hearing us for the first time. We had the two EP’s which was like an album really, six songs on each, and a lot of people want to hear them also, so it’s a nice dilemma to have, but it’s a sod to write a setlist!

A great problem to have! With regards to ‘Aces & Eights’, it was Josiah J Manning who produced it, how much of a help was it having a fellow musician producing?

Well, the boys were very jealous of him, because he can play everything…and better than we can! He’s changed us. He’s changed our sound, but to what we wanted, he has a very unique way of working. He asked us to send the demo tapes down, and we had 20 or so songs, he went through them and picked the ones that he thought were the best to record. Now I didn’t know this, but he actually recorded them, with himself playing the guitar and sent them back to the boys, saying…” this might work, this might not work”…and initially I think that it was quite hard for the boys to grasp that, but when you are in the studio with him and you see what he means, it is quite phenomenal, it really is. He is an amazing producer, and I hope that we can do more with him, but as his popularity grows then the more in-demand he gets. We call him the sixth member of the band. He’s very considerate about who we are and what we are trying to do, but also, he’s very pushy in what he thinks is the right sound to have. So it’s a great mix really.

When you sat and listened back to the completed album for the first time, what moment gave you the biggest goosebumps?

[Laughs] Well, it’s quite interesting really, we did try and listen to the album down there [at the studio], the raw sound…the way we work is that Fred writes the music, I write the lyrics and we all get together and put our own styles into it. Now, a band doesn’t listen to the lyrics believe it or not, well my band doesn’t anyway…the Sons don’t, they just say…” Oh, that sounds lovely, yeah…great…”, with this one, when we recorded it the boys sat down and actually listened to the lyrics, and it was a bit of a shock to them! When we listened back to ‘Doc’s Remedy’, and ‘Beef Jerky Boogie’ – I believe it’s important to have a bit of humour to your lyrics, tongue-in-cheek – the boys asked…”What is it that you are actually singing about?!”, and when they dissected the lyrics they said…”Oh my goodness gracious, we didn’t know that you were singing that!”. One of the last tracks that we recorded was ‘Fire & Gasoline’, and I decided that I wanted to do some high vocals on it, I was messing around in the studio and singing quite high, and Josiah said…”Right, you’re keeping that in…”, so it was a learning experience, and when we sat down and listened to it for the first time I thought…”Oh, my giddy aunt, that is amazing!”.

I do have experience of singing a bit high, but we are all getting on a bit now! I gave it a go with ‘Fire & Gasoline’ and fortunately got away with it.

Can you play it live though?!

I can play it, yes, as long as it’s in the right place in the setlist! We played it in a venue where they wanted a break in the set, and it was the first song in the second set and my voice had cooled down a bit, so that was a challenge.

So the other guys need to think about you then, as you are the one doing the heavy lifting!

[Laughs] Yes! Well, I do look after my voice, I tend not to drink on gig night, and I warm up properly, I’ve got to look after it.

It is one of the standouts on the album…

Yes, it was quite a challenge! It just goes to show that when you are working outside of your comfort zone the end results can be worth it. As you know Josiah plays the organ in Kris Barras’ band, and he’s an incredible player, he has that old Hammond sound, and he said that he wanted to add some Hammond, and Fred said…” No, you can’t do that, we don’t have a Hammond in the band, maybe it’s not a good idea…”, so Josiah played a Hammond backing track in the background, and it added a totally new dimension to the song.

It is very subtle…

It is, yes. It’s a beautiful sound, it’s an inspiring sound, I’m a great fan of Deep Purple and it was always a sound that I loved. With us not having a Hammond player in the band we couldn’t overcook it, but it was nice having it filling up some space.

Where does the love of Southern rock come from?

I’ve got a colleague In America called Sam Morris, he plays in a Bob Seger tribute band, but he’s also got his own band, and has just written a new album and I’m very pleased to say that I’m on the single, I’m singing with him on that. And he asked me something similar to what you’ve just asked, he asked me why a UK band would play Southern rock. Well, basically Fred and Andy [Andy Muse, SoL guitarist] were the ones that put it together, they knew me because I was in a band with Andy playing cover versions, and they mentioned that they were forming a Southern rock band and would I like to join them. I said – “Absolutely”. I find it wholesome music, it’s a brotherly-sisterly thing, it’s family, but it’s not soppy like country music: it’s a little bit edgy. I was a fan of the Marshall Tucker Band, and then you have Lynyrd Skynyrd of course, but I was more of a Blackfoot fan, to be honest. I like it rough and ready around the edges. I always compare Lynyrd Skynyrd to Zeppelin and Blackfoot to Deep Purple because they were a bit edgier whereas Skynyrd was pure.

Blackfoot was one of those bands who never got the success or recognition that they deserved…

Bands like Blackfoot, and Molly Hatchet, are good live bands, and I think that we are a better live band than a recording band. I think seeing us live is an experience, I believe in putting on a show, and I think that those bands did as well. They put on a show and got the crowd involved, and there was raw energy, and that’s what is important.

They certainly were a fantastic band, now one last question, and this one needs an answer from someone within the music business like yourself. Earache Records have just released the new album from Buckcherry, and in order to get it charted, they have slashed the price on Amazon to £4.99 for a CD, and £11.99 for the vinyl version. Surely that’s devaluing the product?

We couldn’t afford to do that. We are independent, we manage ourselves, and every bit of money that we make goes straight back into the band. It has to. It’s like peaks and troughs, one minute you are £1,000 in the black, then four weeks later after some advertising, you are £7,000 in the red. Maybe Buckcherry can afford to do that? I suppose at the end of the day they are in a lucky position. But, by doing that they are not helping the industry in the slightest. They are undercutting other people.

As you will no doubt know, the costs involved in creating and manufacturing a physical product are incredible and constantly rising, surely £4.99 for a CD and £11.99 for vinyl doesn’t cover costs?

You can afford to do that if you have money behind you, if you have a label behind you who is prepared to make a loss on it as long as it charts. I know that bands like ourselves, and Scarlet Rebels, and Piston, and Ethyrfield, we couldn’t afford to do that. The costs involved in getting an album pressed are incredible, vinyl albums are pressed in the Czech Republic now, and to get these things made, then shipped back to you, that costs an arm and a leg. Desperate measures are taken sometimes, and my personal opinion is that if I saw a new album coming out for £4.99, then I would think that it’s not that good. Of course, you don’t have to sell as many units these days in order to chart. It’s not like in the past.

 

‘Aces & Eights’ is available now, stick two fingers up at Bezos and purchase directly from the band themselves, here. 

Sons of Liberty play Rockin The Bowl in Sheffield on September 12th, full line-up and ticket info available here. 

Interview – Dave

Photo credit – Alex Toze

Live images – Rob Wilkins

 

 

 

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