Claire Mahoney speaks to Stone Foundation’s Neil Sheasby about working with Paul Weller at Black Barn on their new album Street Rituals.
Seventeen years ago Stone Foundation band members Neil Sheasby and Neil Jones started work on a tune called, ‘Your Balloon is Rising’. They had the genesis of the song – a great chorus ,a few verses and a basic melody, but it was never really completed. The song needed its moment.
Little did they know that when that moment came it would involve Paul Weller as guest vocalist.
‘It was actually singer Neil’s suggestion that Paul should sing it,’ says Neil Sheasby. ‘We have always had guest vocalists feature on our previous records such as Graham Parker, Carleen Anderson, Dr Robert, Nolan Porter etc, so it was still something we were keen to incorporate and we thought that song would suit Paul. Thankfully there was no resistance and he duly agreed. So to finally revisit it, re arrange it and then have Paul Weller sing it has been some journey for that tune. I did feel fairly emotional upon hearing the playback of it once it was fully complete.’
It’s been quite a journey for Stone Foundation all round who have gradually been building a solid following and recognition amongst those with a penchant for modern blue-eyed soul with a particularly British stamp on it.
Since 2011 when the late Specials drummer John Bradbury suggested they join them on tour, Stone Foundation, have barely looked back. In 2014 they were chosen by the Visit Britain campaign to tour Japan. Their ‘Find the Spirit’ album which featured guest vocals from the likes of Carleen Anderson, Nolan Porter and Andy Fairweather Low, even managed to make it into the Top 75.
‘A Life Unlimited’ followed, again with Nolan Porter guesting on a number of tracks, and continued Stone Foundation’s special brew of a old soul cut with a modern groove.
New music is always on Paul Weller’s radar so it’s no surprise that a sound so in tune with Weller’s own musical roots pricked up his ears. What has come as a surprise, however, is that Paul wanted to become so involved with the band that he asked to produce Stone Foundation’s next album. The resulting ‘Street Rituals’ features ten tracks recorded at Weller’s very own Black Barn studios in Surrey and is out at the end of March.
‘I think we had been on his radar for a while,’ says Sheasby. ‘A mutual friend had passed on our last couple of albums which he’d obviously enjoyed. Initially he contacted us about an idea he had for Steve Ellis (of the Love Affair), Steve was putting together an album of other peoples songs for which Paul had agreed to contribute to, he had a rough demo that sketched out a chord progression and he contacted us to see if we wanted to finish it. He may have been testing the water, I’m not sure, but myself and Neil obviously jumped at the opportunity, we added lyrics and melody and developed the idea into what became the song ‘The Limit of a Man.’’
Recording at Black Barn was, of course a golden, if surreal, opportunity for the band. ‘He’s very anti rock star,’ says Sheasby of Weller. ‘The first thing he did when we arrived on the first day was put the kettle on and make us all a cup of tea.’
Weller invited the band down for some initial sessions and they recorded four complete songs over a couple of days. They had made sure they were well prepared beforehand by working on the initial sessions minus the horns.
‘We had put quite a bit of time in at our own rehearsal space with our old friend Andy Codling, recording our rough ideas. The arrangements soon came together for four solid songs that we presented to Paul on that first day at Black Barn. He basically jumped straight into them with us and joined the band for the sessions playing guitar, piano and contributing vocals whilst constantly making suggestions too. It just clicked from day one.’
The working environment at Black Barn and the contribution of sound engineer Charles Rees – all added to the experience. ‘We found it easy to work under such inspiring circumstances,’ says Sheasby. ‘We didn’t feel in the least bit intimidated at all. It felt so natural to work together, actually it was obvious there was a mutual respect, he enjoyed playing with us as much as we were buzzing from being in his presence. He was constantly complimenting us on our musicianship, maybe not in a ‘muso’ type of way but it was evident that we had some musical chemistry happening between us. It was there from the moment the sticks clicked.’
As we as taking on the role of producer, Weller sings and performs on a number of songs. The album also features guest vocals from William Bell and Bettye LaVette.
‘After those initial sessions it was obvious that things were working out between us, both the band and Paul himself wanted to pursue and continue our musical alliance. We didn’t really know what we had until Paul suggested that we go away write another batch of tunes and repeat the process again.’
Weller’s role as a musical mentor on the album has obviously borne fruit as on listening it has a much more consistent and fuller feel to it than their previous work. What did they learn from the whole process?
‘I think there’s been numerous things to take from our time together but mainly it was evident that it’s always best to keep things simple and not over think or complicate a good idea. The songs came together very quickly, they got recorded quite spontaneously so maybe we would have picked them apart but Paul taught us to trust our instinct, if it sounds great first or second take then it probably is, why tamper with it?’
Street Rituals is released on 31st March via 100% Records.