Billy Mitchell, (seen here second from the left), singer and songwriter with The Pitmen Poets chats with Kevin Cooper about how The Pitmen Poets came to be formed, being back on the road with Bob Fox, The Pitmen Poets’ latest album Seamless, and their forthcoming Farewell Tour of the UK

Billy Mitchell is a renowned singer and songwriter who formed The Pitmen Poets in 2009 with singer and instrumentalist, Bob Fox, leading exponent of Tyneside song, Benny Graham, and much covered Durham songwriter Jez Lowe.

The Pitmen Poets individually and collectively celebrate the triumphs, tragedy, humour and the hard times connected with the North East of England’s coal mining traditions in an evening of music, song and spoken word, illustrated by atmospheric archive photography.

In 1969, Alan Hull, Ray Jackson, Simon Cowe, Rod Clements and Ray Laidlaw formed a band called Lindisfarne, which was to have a tremendous influence upon Mitchell’s life. When in 1996 the new line up of Lindisfarne knocked on his door, he did not hesitate and he fronted the band until they retired in 2003.

When Lindisfarne split, and with Hull and Jackson keeping the name, the remaining band members, along with Mitchell, formed the folk rock band, Jack The Lad. Not foregoing his connection with Lindisfarne altogether, he and his friend Laidlaw have toured with The Lindisfarne Story, which consists of the band’s music and stories from Lindisfarne’s history.

Again with Laidlaw, he is currently performing Clear White Light, a play which utilises the late Alan Hull’s songs. He is also heavily involved with the Sunday For Sammy charity concerts which are held in aid of the Sammy Johnson memorial fund.

Whilst busy rehearsing for The Pitmen Poets thirty-four date Farewell Tour of the UK, he took some time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Billy good morning, how are you today?

I’m very well Kevin, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s no problem at all.

And just how is life treating Billy Mitchell at this moment in time?

I have to say that life at the moment is treating me very well indeed. I am very busy at the moment, but it is all enjoyable.

On the subject of you being busy, you have just released your latest album, Seamless and on the 16th October, you are about to set out on a thirty-four date Farewell Tour.

I now, it’s crazy isn’t it (laughter).

Well we really must talk about both but if it is okay with you, can we start with the album and then move onto the Farewell Tour?

Of course it is fire away.

Well I have to be totally honest with you and tell you that I have been listening to The Pitmen Poets latest album, Seamless for the past couple of days now and I have to say that I absolutely love it.

Thank you that is kind of you to say that.

Are the four of you happy with it?

Yes, we are we really are. There are a lot of live tracks on the album which we recorded on the last tour, and when we heard the results of the recordings, we were so pleased with them that we all thought that we had to use them on the forthcoming album as it was then. So, we went into the studio and recorded another half a dozen studio tracks, mixed it all up and we are all over the moon with the results.

I have to say that I have loved Black Diamonds since the very first time that I heard you guys singing it.

Thank you; it is a great song, a truly great song. As you know, Black Diamonds was written by Jez Lowe so we took Jez’s original production of that song, geed it up a little bit, and made it a Pitmen Poets song now I think. That song says a lot, I love it.

Do you have a favourite song on the album?

My favourite track on the album is Schooldays Over.

You formed The Pitmen Poets back in 2009. Whose idea was it, and how did you all get together?

I would love to take all of the credit for that, but I have to be honest with you and say that it was all Bob Fox’s idea (laughter). Basically, what happened was that there is a venue in Gateshead called The Sage which for those of you who don’t know, it is a big arts centre. The people who were, at that time, running The Sage were in conversation with a group of people who were about to run a new arts centre that was opening in London in The Kings Place. The organisers of The Kings Place thought that it would be a good idea to have some northern culture laid on them (laughter). So, the people at The Sage got in touch with Bob and asked him if he would be interested in putting something on for the people in London. At that point, Bob phoned around, me, Jez and Benny (Graham) who are all the first generation of our respective families who didn’t work down the coal mines, because all of our fathers worked down the pit.

We have always loved the pit songs, and Benny and Bob had previously done a show called How Are You Off For Coals? a few years ago. So, the four of us bought that show up to date, adding a few of my songs together with a few of Jez’s songs, and we all went off to London calling ourselves The Pitmen Poets. We played for one night in London, totally unrehearsed, each of us singing our songs with everybody else joining in, and it went down so well that we came back up to The Sage, performed the show once again and we all thought ‘we might have something here’ because it went down a storm there as well. After that, we decided to do a bit more rehearsal, add a few songs and we are now on our forth UK tour.

Have you enjoyed being on the road together for the last ten years?

I love it; I love every minute of it. They are good lads to work with, we make a good noise together, we say things on stage which I feel are important, and it’s a political show without being heavy. We make points that we feel are important, and we tell people about the life of the coal mining communities in the North East over the past couple of hundred years basically, right up to the time of the miner’s strike, and then the closure of all of the pits by (Margaret) Thatcher. We tell the whole story, in song, in poetry and in some jokes now and again. You’ve seen it Kevin, so you know that it is a light-hearted affair, some of the time and quite heavy at other times (laughter).

To be honest with you Billy, for most of my life I have lived within a mining community and I think that it is paramount that the youngsters of today are made aware of just what Thatcher did to the coal mining industry.

Of course, I totally agree with you. We are not saying by any stretch of the imagination that the current, or indeed future governments, should bring back the coal mines. That is not what we are saying. It was a hard life for everybody but there was a community spirit, there was humanity and there was humour there, and we like to tell people about that.

My fear is that future generations of children will grow up asking “what’s a coal mine dad?”

Exactly, I know exactly what you man. The village that I grew up in was a coal mining village, in fact, there was only the coal mine for the men to work in, and that closed back in 1952. Fortunately, we had left the village by then, but today, there is no sign of that coal mine anywhere apart from one coal tub with a small plaque on it saying that local men worked here producing thousands and thousands of tonnes of coal which helped keep the industry going. These men kept the home fires burning for crying out loud.

Here in Nottinghamshire, if you want to see where the coal mines stood you just have to look for a disused industrial estate or retail park.

Exactly, I know exactly what you are saying.

During those last ten years, you must have had some fun times?

There were lots of fun times together with quite a few interesting times as well (laughter). I can remember the time that we played a one-off show in Buxton, and the poor lad who was in charge of the sound and the PA system just couldn’t get it right, he got so upset that he just turned around and ran away (laughter). It really was such a shame for the lad. However, we did manage to locate him and bring him back and I have to say that he did get it right in the end (laughter). We have had some fantastic times; we have played at festivals all over, we have played at the Great British Folk Festival where I don’t think that anyone in the audience knew what to expect when we went out onto the stage.

We are all getting on a bit. I am the oldest by quite a long way, so when we shuffle onto the stage, we are all sitting down, none of us are up dancing (laughter). Because of that I think that people were blown away by what they saw and heard. These four old fellas up there on stage, and I love that (laughter). Whenever you play to an audience of over two thousand people who are really digging what you do, it’s a great feeling.

I know that the forthcoming tour is labelled as The Farewell Tour but will the four of you ever record together once again?

We may well do, in fact, we may well even perform together again but we certainly won’t tour. This is a thirty-five-date tour and it is quite a heavy one. The thing that you have to remember is that we all have other projects individually; Jez tours the world with his show, Bob was involved with War Horse for quite a while, Bob and I do a show together that we are going to be touring next year, and Benny does his own thing with the Kayleighs and barges. He loves to sing about barges. So, as you can see, we all have lots of other things to do which means that getting the four of us together to do a tour, is such a job to find the right dates, the right times, the right venues, and I have to say that it has been a labour of love to get this tour together.

Don’t get me wrong, we are all looking forward to the tour. It will spread over six weeks, we start on the 16th of this month in Cannock, and we don’t finish until the 24th November at The Sage in Gateshead so for us it is quite an extensive tour. Having said all of that, we will all have a great time on the tour, we love it. There are new songs from the new album that people haven’t heard us play live before, so we are all looking forward to doing those as well as the old favourites.

As you have mentioned, the tour finishes at The Sage in Gateshead, will it be an emotional night?

Of course it will, in fact I would go so far as to say that there could well be a drink or two taken I imagine (hysterical laughter).

Well just to let you know, I will be coming along to both review and photograph the show at The Palace Theatre Mansfield on the 20th October.

Really, well that will be great. I always love playing in Mansfield; that was a hell of a coal mining area. I have got some good friends around that part of the world. We are really looking forward to getting down to Mansfield. It will be great.

Just make sure that they don’t take the wheels off your bus (laughter).

(Laughter) we will take care of that, everything will be fine.

I couldn’t possibly speak to you without mentioning The Lindisfarne Story. Will you and Ray (Laidlaw) be continuing to tour that?

To be honest with you, it is, at this moment in time on the backburner. Ray and I recently did a show in Newcastle, and we did actually say that show would be the last show of The Lindisfarne Story. We did a long six-week tour earlier this year and that was the forth tour that we had done of that show. Both Ray and I thought that maybe it was the right time to give it a little bit of rest. Don’t get me wrong, neither of us are saying never, we will never say never. It’s the same with The Pitmen Poets, although we have said that this will be our final tour, we will probably play festivals, a few one-off gigs here and there, so never say never.

You have mentioned that you and Bob will be back out on the road next year. Where will you be playing?

We will be all over the UK in March, April and May next year. We are looking at playing around twenty-five dates, something like that. It has been a long time since Bob and I have worked together, what with his War Horse involvement and me doing The Lindisfarne Story, meaning that we have never been able to fit a tour in. So, Bob and I were chatting away one day and we both thought let’s do it; let’s have an adventure before dementia (laughter).

When Lindisfarne’s main songwriter Alan Hull went off to perform his solo projects, the remaining members; Rod Clements on bass, violin, guitar, vocals, Simon Cowe on guitar, mandolin, banjo, vocals, and Ray Laidlaw on drums formed Jack The Lad with a certain Billy Mitchell on guitar and vocals. How did it feel when the UK media persisted on labelling you ‘the Geordie answer to Fairport Convention?’

(Laughter) some journalists and media people have to have a strap line, they have to pigeon hole you somehow, and that’s fair enough. I personally have loved Fairport Convention from the kick-off; they really are a fantastic band, and I always thought that for Jack The Lad being compared to Fairport Convention was favourable anyway. Having said that, we were nothing like Fairport Convention really (laughter). Basically, what we did was, when we kicked off with the five-piece line-up, we took a lot of traditional Geordie and Northern songs, beefed then up and gave them a bit of a rock style, putting our own style on them.

We recorded an album called The Old Straight Track for Charisma in 1974 which really did take off, becoming Melody Maker’s fourth album of the year and we were really pleased with what we had done. We really loved it, but what we didn’t want to do was to go down the heavy folk style at all. All of the albums from then on featured the occasional traditional song, but mostly they were modern, self-written songs.

Whilst we are speaking about Jack The Lad I have to say that I really did love Why Can’t I Be Satisfied; I have always thought that was a cracking tune.

I have to agree with you on that. It was a great tune, written by Rod Clements, a wonderful song with great sentiment, and it sums up perfectly just how Rod felt at the time that he wrote it.

I’m so glad that you have mentioned Rod as you and he worked together with Lindisfarne. Were they good times?

Oh yes, absolutely. I loved every minute of it. Whilst The Pitmen Poets are happy to sing about life down the mines, I am personally pleased that I never had to work in those conditions. For me to have had the life as a musician has been a real treat for me. It is wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

Putting you on the spot, Alan (Hull) sadly passed away on 17th November 1995. Just how special was he?

What can I say, he was brilliant. In fact I would go as far as to say that he was amazing. I feel that Alan is undervalued as a writer, as a poet, as a musician, his song writing was always stunning. Ray and I are in the middle of performing a play at the Live Theatre in Newcastle. It is a play called Clear White Light which is based on eleven of Alan’s songs most of which he wrote when he was working in a psychiatric hospital in Newcastle. The play is about a young nurse’s first night working on a male psychiatric ward in Newcastle. It is a cross between that and The Fall Of The House Of Usher which, as you will no doubt know was a narrative short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe published way back in 1839.

It is a very Gothic play. Alan’s songs are woven into the play, which Ray and I play live with a five-piece band. I even get to do a small acting part. I don’t know how I got the part, I play a very old, aging, very grumpy old man, who is suffering from mental problems.

What can I say; there is no typecasting there at all Billy, is there? (laughter).

(Laughter) none at all (laughter). Going back to your original question, I feel that Alan was grossly underrated as a songwriter, and I feel that he is up there with the best of them. He is up there with (Bob) Dylan and Leonard Cohen. He was a brilliant, brilliant writer.

And then you were asked to fill Alan’s shoes and became the lead singer with Lindisfarne. How long did it take you to accept the position?

It took me no time at all. I had been involved on and off with Lindisfarne for thirty years before that telephone call came. I had been in the band before they were called Lindisfarne, as you have mentioned I was in Jack The Lad which was a spinoff of Lindisfarne. Alan and I were drinking buddies; we knew each other for a long time and we were pals, and when he passed it was a tragedy, but the band had to continue. So basically, there was no one else either old enough or who knew the songs as well as I did. For me, it was a no brainer and of course I went straight into the band.

On 19th July 2012, following a public campaign led by Barry McKay, Lindisfarne’s manager during the 1970s, a memorial plaque for Alan Hull was unveiled on the front of Newcastle City Hall. What was the feeling like on the day?

It was wonderful. There were a lot of people who turned out for that. Ray Jackson came back, and he sang a couple of Alan’s songs on the steps of the Newcastle City Hall. It was a wonderful moment and well deserved. And that plaque will be there forever.

In 2013 Ray (Jackson) put together, let’s say, another version of Lindisfarne.

That’s right, he did.

When I interviewed Ray (Laidlaw) we spoke about that and he said that he was both bitterly disappointed and upset that he hadn’t been asked to be a part of the new project. Can you see where he is coming from?

Yes, I can, and I think that Ray was quite rightly upset and offended. Ray was the cornerstone of Lindisfarne. Ray and Rod Clements started the band when they were still called Downtown Fraction when they were kids. They were the nucleus of Lindisfarne. Ray Jackson was invited to join the band, as was Alan Hull, and Simon Cowe. Simon was there from the start, but Jack and Alan were late arrivals if you like. They both joined the band just before it became Lindisfarne. So yes, I think that it was a cruel blow that Ray wasn’t even informed that they were going to start a new band called Lindisfarne. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure that Ray wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of it, but I do think that he should have at least been informed that it was going to happen and asked if he wanted to be a part of it as well.

You have been heavily involved with the Sunday For Sammy biennial charity concerts which are held in aid of the Sammy Johnson Memorial Fund, a fund which benefits young performers. Will you continue to participate in those in some capacity?

Well it is the twentieth anniversary in February next year, and all that I can say is that we will see what happens after that. I have fronted the show for the past twenty years now. I have been the compare, and I have to tell you that I have enjoyed every single minute of it. Maybe it is the right time for some of the younger elements to take the reins. Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that I am not going to do it; I am simply debating at the moment.

Testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?

The first album that I bought was an album called Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets. It was released shortly after Buddy Holly had died, and Bobby Vee joined The Crickets who had been Buddy’s backing group. They recorded an album and I loved it, it was great. I actually won the money to buy the album on a horse race (laughter). It cost me two pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live?

I saw The Beatles with Tommy Roe and Chris Montez on one of the Package Tours in either late 1962 or early 1963. That was at Newcastle City Hall and I sat in the choir stalls at the back of the stage and spent the whole-time throwing Jelly Babies and Dolly Mixtures at Ringo Starr’s drums (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That would have to be A Walk In The Sea which is one of Alan Hull’s songs which we actually feature in this play that we are doing at the moment. In the play it is sung by the two main actors; Charlie Hardwick and Joe Caffrey who are both fantastic actors from the North East of England. They sing the song as a duet in the play and it is very poignant. I play the guitar for them when they are singing the song and I have to say that there was a tear in my eye.

On that note Billy, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been a real pleasure. You take care and I will see you in Mansfield.

My pleasure, it’s been good to talk to you Kevin. Let me know that you are there, and we will have a pint after the show. Bye bye.