Currently Oysterband consists of founder members John Jones (vocal, melodeon), Alan Prosser (guitars, vocal), and Ian Telfer (violin, keyboard, vocal) with Dil Davies (drums), Al Scott (bass guitar, mandolin, vocal), and Adrian Oxaal (cello, guitar, vocal).
At first – around 1978 – purely a dance band (“The Oyster Ceilidh Band”), we soon started experimenting with radical arrangements of traditional songs and with home recording, and even put out 4 albums in the early 80s. These sound harmless enough now, but at the time their home-made, try-anything attitude was controversial. We were determined that traditional music should not be just a branch of the heritage industry.
Other musicians came and went. The name shortened to The Oyster Band. We began to learn how to write songs. In 1985 we met a new roots-music label, Cooking Vinyl. Step Outside (1986), with Ian Kearey on bass and Russ Lax on drums, was their first release. We went on to make 9 studio albums with them.
In the late 80s we toured almost continuously. As well as territories opened up by our new record company in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and North America, and shows with similar-minded artists such as Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg, we toured for the British Council in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco. Travel on this scale had a powerful impact on our attitudes to the world and on our songwriting.
It also made normal domestic life difficult. First Ian Kearey left in 1988, to be replaced by Ray Cooper; then when Russ Lax left in 1990 Ray called up his old friend drummer Lee Partis. The name shortened again at this point to Oysterband. Russ’s last act was to record Freedom And Rain with us and the great English folk diva June Tabor. Although it was essentially a covers collection, the songs were shrewdly chosen, and the album was very well received, particularly in the US. “Imagine if Aerosmith and Madonna announced they were to tour together??!!?” said Rolling Stone, excitably.
Meanwhile in the UK the ground was shifting. As we were expanding from a folk background, others were expanding from a rock background in a folk direction, and the convergence became a new scene. The Pogues, The Levellers, The Waterboys, Celtas Cortos….we found ourselves working in a different context, often called “Celtic” (though the word seems to mean something different in every country). The US became harder, but we acquired new audiences in the UK, Germany and Spain. The high-point of this period is probably Holy Bandits(1993); the first song “When I’m Up I Can’t Get Down” was later a substantial hit for Great Big Sea in Canada. (Thanks, guys!)
By 1997 our relations with Cooking Vinyl had cooled somewhat. We didn’t seek a new contract, but we co-operated with the preparation of a “Best Of” 2-CD collection, Granite Years (2000), covering the years 1986-1997.
In 2003 we were honoured to receive the “Good Tradition” award at the BBC Folk Awards, and in 2005 were voted “Best Group”.
Lee Partis spent some years training as a counsellor/therapist, even while drumming and singing for Oysterband. In 2008 he fulfilled a long-term ambition and left us to work in a prison in the north of England, possibly a first in the history of the entertainment industry. The very experienced Dil Davies then took over the drummer’s stool.
In recent years, we’ve consciously tried to evolve our songwriting beyond the clichés of the “Celtic” style, and with Rise Above (2002) and especially Meet You There (2007) we think we’re getting somewhere. Meet You There was hailed widely at the time as our best recording ever.
However, just when we were thinking of taking a tea-break, everything was turned upside down again by the remarkable success of our reunion album with June Tabor, Ragged Kingdom, released in 2011. Waiting 21 years to make a follow-up to Freedom & Rain may seem perverse, but hey! both parties were seriously busy. We never lost our friendship with June in the meantime, and even played the occasional show together; and one day the time just seemed right to try recording together again. Ragged Kingdom gained us 3 more BBC Folk Awards (Best Album, Best Group and Best Trad Track, plus Folk Singer of the Year for June). We toured it very enjoyably through 2012 and 2013 and featured on BBC TV’s Later….with Jules Holland.
In early 2014 we put out a collection of new material, Diamonds On The Water. The 6-piece line-up with Al Scott and Adrian Oxaal is getting well bedded in, and gigs are possibly even more fun now than they’ve ever been. We’re beginning to contemplate doing a “Best Of… Vol 2” to cover the years since 1999. Even after so long a career, we can’t help feeling the most fruitful time might be right now.