Exclusive Interview: The Sons of Pitches Rewriting the Rulebook

Birmingham-based all-male group The Sons of Pitches have been making extraordinary strides in the past year, having firstly reached the final of the university competition of The Voice Festival UK and proceeding to have commendable YouTube success with their fan-prompted ’3-hour arrange-rehearse-record’ videos. I was lucky enough to get the chance to speak to Tom Mackley, one of the departing members of the group, to learn a little more about the boys and their infamous orange jumpsuits.

UACUK: Tell us a little bit about how a cappella in Birmingham as a whole. How did it get off the ground?

TM: It basically started from the core group Augmented Seven, and the founding member of that group was Mark Nathan. Previous to that there was no a cappella group in Birmingham to my knowledge. Mark was a fresher, and he basically went around some of his friends asking if they wanted to be part of an a cappella group, and managed to get Tom Johnson involved, who was an ex-member of Cadenza from Cambridge University. Obviously he was very interested and brought quite a lot of knowledge and experience with him. They did some arrangements and some gigs, and it gradually got bigger: they actually entered the Voice Festival UK in 2010, I think they went to Cambridge, but didn’t get any awards or anything like that. Then in the following year, Tom and Mark, and the rest of the group, decided they wanted to make it a little bit bigger. So they formed the University of Birmingham A Cappella Network (UBAN), at which point they formed The Sons of Pitches, The Birmingham Songbirds [now known as the Uptone Girls] and The Lorelites, who were originally all-female but have since become the mixed group Voice Versa, and along with Augmented Seven they formed the a cappella network within the university. Then through Tom Johnson’s efforts, we managed to get a round of the Voice Festival going in Birmingham, which obviously raised the profile a bit and ensured a Birmingham-based group made it to the final, which was Augmented Seven that year. And since then the groups have become more and more renowned across Birmingham and, to an extent, across the UK.

UACUK: What’s the current situation?

TM: Well, at the start of last year, Augmented Seven split. I think everyone just decided it wasn’t quite what they wanted to do – some of the male members wanted to be involved with the Sons of Pitches, others had taken committee positions within the network and therefore had less time to commit to rehearsals – it might also have been a case of not getting enough enjoyment out of it to commit to weekly rehearsals. But for whatever reasons, the group disbanded, and so we’re currently left with the three groups, all-male Sons, Uptone Girls and mixed Voice Versa, who are the three that competed in VF-UK this year alongside 95 Keys from Leeds.

UACUK: Tell us about the Sons then – maybe a potted history?

TM: The Sons were formed in late 2010. The group was originally intended to be a barbershop quartet of sorts, but in the first year ended up with six members and decided to take it in a slightly different direction. The group entered VF-UK in March 2011 and won the award for ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ for the first Club Medley. After that they did a few gigs but remained fairly quiet until the lead up to the Voice Festival this year.

UACUK: You then joined the group in September last year. What were your experiences of the group and of a cappella before that?

TM: My experience of a cappella was very limited. I was friends with a couple of the Augmented Seven members, so I’d been to a couple of their gigs; I’d seen a few videos; I knew of The Other Guys, because my brother was at St Andrews and had shown me the Royal Romance video; and I saw a few groups on the Royal Mile at the Fringe Festival last summer, but aside from that I had no real experience in a cappella.

UACUK: Why did you decide to join then?

TM: Well basically, my housemate Joe Vetch wanted to go and audition for them, and basically convinced me to go with him! The problem with universities with less established a cappella groups is that the influx of freshers who have actually heard of the groups is lower than that of St Andrews or Oxford, for example, who may well have seen The Other Guys on YouTube or Out of the Blue on Britain’s Got Talent, and so we were worried that the influx wouldn’t be that big. In the end we had quite a lot of people auditioning, but the problem is that the people who might in the first instance be attracted to a cappella are people already involved in, say, musical theatre or G&S, and won’t want to touch the a cappella scene because it’s not well established enough. But we’re getting there – we’ve taken it upon us as a group to get a cappella out there, to get it noticed, and it seems to be working.

UACUK: That’s what we like to hear. So let’s talk about your early experiences in the group – what did you guys get up to before VF-UK came about?

TM: The group developed quite a new sound because of the influx of new people such as myself. As such, it took time to develop an identity and blend. It didn’t help that for some of us, including myself, the group wasn’t our first priority. I was already involved in two musicals before joining the group and as such I was rarely available for rehearsal, and so it was difficult to give it the commitment it required or deserved, really. So we did a few gigs before Christmas, but only really had a repertoire of about three or four songs. After Christmas, VF-UK was always something to work towards, so commitment to rehearsals became a lot more important, and as we hit our stride, we began to enjoy things a lot more, and learn new arrangements a lot faster. Over the Christmas break, Joe Vetch and Mark Nathan had both arranged a song each, which would eventually form part of our VF-UK set, Settle Down and Club Medley 2, and we really started to click, not just as a group but also as friends. And under the pressurised circumstances that VF-UK brings, we pushed ourselves that little bit harder and tried to polish our set through busking and added rehearsal time. We tried to develop a wider fanbase by creating our Facebook page and starting to really go for the publicity angle – we posted a video of us busking on the streets of Birmingham and extended our network of fans on Facebook and, well, it paid off in the end.

UACUK: Indeed. Tell us more about the Voice Festival – what were your hopes and expectations?

TM: Well firstly, we loved every moment. With the Regional Round, we went in with a goal to win it. We knew we had the talent and the arrangements to win the round, and Ben did a kick-ass job with the choreography for Club Medley 2, really bringing it to life, and, as you know, we ended up winning the round, which we were so happy with. Of course the final was a completely different experience – up against the likes of Out of the Blue and The Other Guys who had been there and done it so many times – and so to be up against the best of collegiate a cappella, give or take, was a really big thing for us. We had about two weeks to tighten our set up, and so we sat down and really worked out what we wanted to do: whether we wanted to go and win it, or whether we wanted to be ourselves. We looked at Out of the Blue and All the King’s Men, and they’re both really good at what they do: the classic all-male a cappella stuff. We knew we were never going to beat them at their own game. We realised that our sound was very Top-40, hip-hop, dance sort of thing, and not boyband-y in the slightest. So we kept our own identity, with our flair and charisma on stage and, of course, our boiler suits. We kind of wanted to say: “We are what we are. We’re different.” And we’re happy with how it worked out – we ended up not just making up the numbers, but actually competing with the big boys.

UACUK: Tell us about your middle song in the final – you’ve come under criticism and received high praise for it. What was the thinking behind it?

TM: We went with the Pentatonix arrangement of Somebody That I Used To Know. While it was basically the same arrangement with a few personal touches, we simply felt that it was a better song for us as a group than our previous song, which was a Maroon 5-Bruno Mars mash-up. We were already original, we’d already played the originality card, and so we just felt the Pentatonix song showed us off musically better than the other one and gave us a better chance of winning. In my eyes, Pentatonix are the best group out there, so why not take a cue from the best?

UACUK: Fair enough. Tell us about the ‘Stagecraft’ Award.

TM: Haha! To be honest, whether or not it was made up on the spot, we’re just delighted to have received it, and there were actually people who came up to us afterwards saying that they’d never seen a cappella performed in such a way on stage before, something completely different, and we kind of set a bar for future performances – not necessarily a higher bar, but a parallel bar – so technically it was a deserved award. As I say, we were never going to beat the other groups at their own game, so we invented a new one!

UACUK: What did you think of the other groups in general?

TM: At the end of the day, the Voice Festival is about the voice, and for that reason, All the King’s Men totally deserved to win. I think despite there being four all-male groups in the final, I think they all have very different identities and it made for a very interesting and varied final. But we thoroughly enjoyed meeting everyone and networking, as well as seeing the groups broken down in the very male-dominated masterclass, and yeah, it was a great weekend and a great experience, with a deserved winner.

UACUK: You seem to have gone from strength to strength since the Voice Festival. Tell us more about what you’ve been up to.

TM: For many groups, the Voice Festival is the pinnacle of the year, but for us it kind of acted as a stepping stone to better things. We received and took up a lot of gig offers; we started busking a lot more often in Birmingham – we made enough money to pay off the boiler suits, which was good! – but it was only during the Easter period that one of the lads suggested doing a vote on the Facebook page, to allow the fans to pick songs to arrange and then record and stick up on YouTube. Basically, we all picked one song, and then the winning song we would arrange, rehearse and record in a three hour rehearsal. And I think it’s been a really good idea – obviously, the fans are the ones that are coming to the gigs, and if they then hear a song they voted for at those gigs, then they’re more likely to keep coming along.

UACUK: I watched a couple of the videos and thought to myself – how the hell did they do that in three hours?

TM: Well I think that was the stage at which we finally figured out our real strength – group arranging. Not just one person sitting at home with a keyboard and Sibelius and writing parts for voices that he doesn’t necessarily know that well, but rather all of us, unable to argue about song choice, all chipping in with our own little bits here and there. It’s really stressful, as you can imagine, because of the time limit, but totally worth it, because you have nine guys with completely different musical backgrounds with completely different tastes all contributing to an arrangement which becomes completely original and unique to the group. Once we had finished with the first one, which was Jessie J’s Who You Are, we put it on YouTube and the response we got was amazing. Everyone loved it, there were some great comments, and everyone wanted to know when our next arrangement was going to be. So we just kept going, did three more videos and kept getting some great feedback.

UACUK: Do you use these arrangements in live gigs now?

TM: Yes – and the best thing is that you come up with your own part, so whenever we come back to the next rehearsal and give the new arrangement a bash, it’s amazing how much of it you actually remember. And as each part is tailored specifically to your own voice, it’s never going to be in an uncomfortable area of your voice, which allows for a greater amount of blending within the song. Some of those video arrangements are now our favourite songs to do, simply because they’re so unique and original and so easy to sing. Also, during live gigs we’ve started asking the audience for four or five potential songs that we can sing completely unrehearsed – something which can seem very impressive, although we do have a few tricks to drop the beat into reggae or dubstep which we have developed over the past few months. We’ve definitely come into our own since the success of the Voice Festival and the YouTube videos – really found our niche.

UACUK: What’s your favourite moment been since joining the group?

TM: We did a gig organised by the University called Vale Fest which was just incredible. They basically got a load of university music groups as well as some bigger local bands together to perform at one big end-of-year festival. And we managed to get on the main stage at around 2-3pm in the afternoon. When we started the set, there was barely anyone there, and by the end of it there were about 600 people watching. It was amazing. Plus, the fact that the whole group were there for a gig, which is a rarity, made it for me, and meant we ended the year on a real high note. Although there wasn’t quite the national exposure as the Voice Festival provided, the atmosphere was just amazing and our reputation around the university has really been boosted because of it, and should hopefully stand any future incarnations of the group in good stead.

UACUK: So what does the future hold for the Sons of Pitches?

TM: It’s a sticky issue. Obviously the Sons of Pitches in some aspect has to carry on, if a cappella in Birmingham is to become as big as it is in Oxford and St Andrews. However, we do feel as a group that this current incarnation is really something quite special, so we’re reluctant to let it go. But that’s difficult, because five of us are graduating and going to opposite ends of the country. The group might reform a couple of times next year depending on whether we have the time and the gig offers. But we’ll see.

For more information about the Sons of Pitches, check out their Facebook Page

Fringe Focus: All the King’s Men

In the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2012. In the eighth and final edition, we’ll be looking at All the King’s Men, the Voice Festival UK 2012 champions and 3rd best group in the world, who are returning to the Fringe for the third time.

Fringe History

All the King’s Men and their punnily titled Fringe gigs first arrived in 2010, and in both previous years they have performed for a short period of time at the Spaces @ Surgeon’s Hall. Although their Fringe debut was a quiet one, their return in 2011 brought several successful reviews and a sell-out run, and they even gave viewers a special first-chance to see a documentary of their recent US Tour, which went down a treat.

Previous Praise

“I love you! Sign my bra!” – ThreeWeeks, 2011 (*****)
“Truly incredible.” – BroadwayBaby, 2011 (****)
“Thoroughly impressive.” – UACUK, 2011 (8 out of 10)

This Year

The boys have had an incredible year, and to top it off they are bringing not one, but two shows to the Fringe. They’re not here for long, mind, so catch them while you can. Their main show, It’s Reigning Men, is at the Spaces @ Symposium Hall from 13th-18th August – just six nights. In their second show, they will not only be performing, but also introducing fellow a cappella acts such of Out of the Blue, The Alleycats and fellow King’s College group, The King’s Chix in All the King’s Men Present…. These will be happening on two separate occasions – 13th and 14th of August, with different guest acts each night. We admire the work the boys are doing to further collaboration within a cappella, and you’d be mad to miss out on either of these performances.

What To Expect

With international experience, the boys have come on in leaps and bounds in the last three years, and will undoubtedly bring a five-star show to the Festival again this year. Their Voice Festival set this year, which I assume will feature in their set for the Festival, was utterly astounding, and if the rest of their music is at that high a level, any audience will be in for an evening of sensational a cappella. As their press release reads: “One thing is guaranteed: the audience will leave smiling and utterly entertained.” Agreed.

Further Details

Fringe Listing (AtKM Present…)
Fringe Listing (It’s Reigning Men)
Website
Facebook Page

Would You Be Interested In Buying A British A Cappella Compilation CD?

We always like to hear your opinion on the blog, and today is no exception. The question is simple – would a compilation CD of all the best British a cappella tracks of the year be of interest to you? The Americans have BOCA and Voices Only – is it time for the UK to have their own? Have your say below:

Fringe Focus: The Oxford Belles

In the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2012. In the seventh edition, we’ll be looking at The Oxford Belles, who are returning to the Fringe for the third consecutive year.

Fringe History

The Belles debuted at the Fringe as far back ago as 2000, but had a significant hiatus from Fringe Festival madness before their return in 2010, and have been on the receiving end of very favourable reviews since then. Last year they performed for the entire run at C eca and were a constant and energetic presence on the mile throughout the festival.

Previous Praise

“Tight harmonies.” – BroadwayBaby, 2011 (****)
“Very refreshing.” – ThreeWeeks, 2011 (****)
“The Belles blend magnificently as a group” – UACUK, 2011 (7 out of 10)

This Year

The Belles have moved from C Venues this year and are performing at Spotlites @ The Merchant’s Hall from the 1st-18th of August, and will be looking to further improve on an already solid foundation and widen further their already significant popularity in the city. I am particularly looking forward to seeing their live performance of Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts, which won the ‘Outstanding Soloist’ award at this year’s Voice Festival competition, and with a lot of recent gig experience in and around Oxford, the girls are sure to provide an inventive and original a cappella show.

What To Expect

The introduction of so many new Belles has of course brought new and unique challenges to the group, but the addition of new voices and personalities to the group has also allowed the group to be more creative and musically ambitious in the past year, and this should culminate at the Festival this summer. They lacked real punch last year, but some of the new voices in the group are extremely powerful and this could bode well for this Fringe, as the girls as a group will undoubtedly have a more powerful stage presence. The group’s repertoire is generally very broad, and they will no doubt produce a thoroughly enjoyable and watchable show which may well be their best yet.

Further Details

Fringe Listing
Facebook Page
Website”

Fringe Focus: The Alleycats

In the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2012. In the sixth edition, we’ll be looking at Choir of the Year Category Finalists The Alleycats, who will be returning for their third year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Fringe History

The Alleycats debuted back in 2010 with a short six-day run and went down extremely well, earning themselves a Fringe Sell-Out award, impressive for a debut performance. They returned the following year in C Venues for a two week run, and have been consistently praised for their energetic performances and especially their choreography.

Previous Praise

“Each member is strong and dynamic and brings vivacity to their performances.” – BroadwayBaby, 2010 (***)
“Infectiously entertaining.” – FestMag, 2011
“Triumph [...] flawless [...] superb.” – UACUK, 2011 (8 out of 10)

This Year

The Alleycats are returning to C Venues this year from 12-27 August and will be performing a 50 minute show from 5.30pm, one of the later a cappella acts this year. Alongside their show, which will be showcasing some of their more recent arrangements, including songs from their recent Voice Festival UK set such as David Guetta’s Titanium and a couple of their upbeat dance-RnB mash-ups, they will also be selling their recently recorded studio album, which will be their eighth, after the show. The group promise to provide an ‘energised a cappella act’ leading to a ‘purr-fect evening of entertainment’.

What To Expect

One word: energy. Their choreography was praised by one and all at the recent St Andrews Regional of the Voice Festival UK, and combining such complex moves with such energy and keeping things still in perfect harmony almost saw them through to the final – alongside winning them deserved awards for Outstanding Choreography and Vocal Percussion. The group thrives on providing dynamism and energy to a performance and even giving the audience a chance to get involved in making music. If you go and see the Alleycats you will definitely be entertained and may well come out of the show feeling exhausted yourself, due to the sheer amounts of energy the group produces during a show! Well worth setting aside time for.

Further Details

Fringe Listing
Facebook Page

Fringe Focus: The Accidentals

In the lead up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, every week we will be producing special focuses on our collegiate groups who will be performing at the world’s largest amateur arts festival in 2012. In the fifth edition, we’ll be looking at The Accidentals, Voice Festival UK Finalists in 2011 and Fringe debutants.

Fringe History

The Accidentals have never performed at the Fringe Festival before, and will be only the second group from the University of St Andrews after The Alleycats to bring a show to the Fringe.

Previous Praise

“Nothing short of exceptional.” UACUK of their 2012 EP.
Outstanding Soloist Award – Voice Festival UK St Andrews Regional Round – 2011 and 2012.

This Year

In their debut year, the girls have been placed in one of theSpaces venues, SpaceCabaret @ 54, at the early time of 11.15am, and can only be caught for 6 days between 13-18 August. In order to fund their run, the girls recently released a 4-track EP, which will also be on sale after their show in Edinburgh, and is well worth buying. The girls mix the freshest songs with the fiercest beats and their set is expected to consist of some of the songs in this year’s Voice Festival set, including Christina’s The Voice Within and their mash-up of Shorty Fire Burning and Tinchy Stryder’s Number 1. I think the girls are wise to go for a short run this year, something which they can potentially build upon in coming years.

What To Expect

The Accidentals girls always bring attitude to their performances. With the exceptionally talented Ellie Mason at the musical helm, they have a creative mastermind overseeing arrangements, blend and harmonies. The girls are also blessed with some incredible soloists: Vicki Robertson, Anna McDonald, Grace Hardy and Tessa Stokes to name but a few. Go and see these girls, even if it’s just to see a debut act at the Fringe and therefore something you may have never seen there before, because they will bring energy, enthusiasm, sass and attitude, and may just knock your socks off.

Further Information

Fringe Listing
Facebook Page