Mark Kermode has two great passions: films and music – and both dominate his life. He is coming to The Bath Festival to talk about his musical memoirs and to play skiffle and blues with his band The Dodge Brothers. Words by Emma Clegg
Chief film critic for The Observer, co-presenter of BBC Radio 5’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, and film critic for Film4 and Channel 4, Mark Kermode is the nation’s favourite film buff. He is now presenting a movie soundtrack-themed show on Scala Radio, opening up his second great love – music. But music has never been hiding in the wings for Kermode, who has been in a band since he was eight: “Alongside the film stuff, I’ve always played music and it’s been a big part of my life.”
Kermode’s first band was with his brother in the back garden, using any household implements they could find. Then at school he was in rock bands and built an electric guitar from scratch. “Once I’d discovered you could build a guitar from string and glue and chipboard and wire, and that it could work, then I thought then I can pretty much do anything. I’ve always had this thing in my head that if you believe in something for long enough it will just come true.”
Building the electric guitar was a key moment in Kermode’s musical journey. “If you haven’t got something, build it. And believe me if I can build an electric guitar then anyone can, because I am the worst woodwork student imaginable,” Mark says.
After the rock band phase, Mark formed with friends a band called The Railtown Bottlers – they went on to win the National Street Entertainment of the Year competition, played at the London Palladium and were the house band on Danny Baker’s BBC One Saturday night chat show in the early 1990s. “What we were playing was old American blues and skiffle, or in America, jugband. We got quite big on the British skiffle circuit, which is a very small pond,” explains Kermode. “And then we were the house band on a BBC One TV series, and I was the musical director for the BBC despite the fact that I can’t read music. Playing with Rick Wakeman and Aimée Mann and Lloyd Cole, I just kept thinking ‘I have no idea how we got here.’”
In 2001 Kermode formed The Dodge Brothers with Mike Hammond, Aly Hirji and Alex Hammond, with Kermode on double bass. They have produced four albums, the latest Drive Train, released last year. They also specialise in playing live accompaniments to classic silent movies at music and film festivals, with silent movie pianist Neil Brand.
Kermode has always specialised in skiffle, a type of music with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences. Popular in the 1940s and 1950s, it used improvised instruments such as washboards. “As a kid I used to listen to rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly and an awful lot of that is very homemade. So I’d always been in that area; I just hadn’t thought of it as skiffle. Then when The Bottlers started, calling ourselves skiffle became a thing. It’s just a DIY ethos that really appeals to me.”
I’ve always thought you should never be frightened of musical instruments and they are your friends
Kermode has no false pretentions about his abilities: “I’m not a good musician. I’m famously cack-handed, but that’s never stopped me. I’ve always thought you should never be frightened of musical instruments and they are your friends. My musical career has been odd – it’s been much more successful than I ever thought was possible.”
“I just look like I know what I’m doing. Also, I’m playing bass – no one can hear a wrong note on a bass.” Kermode’s honesty
is disarming. “But surely,” I suggest, “you are downplaying your abilities?”
“I don’t talk down my musical talent,” Kermode insists. “I know what I can and can’t do. I play double bass, guitar, accordion and bagpipes, all with the same level of ineptitude. I know that I’ve got away with things by the skin of my teeth.”
One of these skin-of-the-teeth experiences was when Kermode played John Barry’s theme from Midnight Cowboy on the chromatic harmonica in the Royal Festival Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra as it was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. He hadn’t played the chromatic harmonica until two weeks before the performance. Kermode’s new book, How Does It Feel: A Life of Musical Misadventure describes the experience leading up to the performance at the start of the book. “No matter how much I practised, I just didn’t get any better. Learning a new tune is one thing; learning to play it on a new instrument is a whole different world of pain.”
“Somehow I got away with it. You can listen to it. It’s not terrible, it’s not brilliant, but it’s fine.” Kermode says that sheer persistence is the key to his musical success: “I’d rate enthusiasm and persistence over talent. And that’s been a guiding light, that you shouldn’t be put off by being unprepared or technically inept. I have managed to surround myself with other people who can play. And actually that’s the trick.” n
Mark Kermode talks about How Does It Feel: A Life of Musical Misadventure at The Bath Festival on 18 May, 8pm at the Assembly Rooms. He will then be joined on stage by The Dodge Brothers. £15; thebathfestival.org.uk