Scotland's Black Diamond Express set to tour Canada and play NxNE festival

Scotland's Black Diamond Express will soon be touring across Canada, culminating in an appearance at Toronto's NxNE (North By Northeast). We speak exclusively to songwriter Toby Mottershead about the tour, and their forthcoming album

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 01 May 2014

Playing an intoxicating fusion of blues, folk, rock and roll and traditional Celtic music, Black Diamond Express have been building a reputation as one of the most energetic, dynamic and impressive bands on Scotland's live circuit. Now, the band have been awarded funding by Creative Scotland, to assist them in touring across Canada, culminating in an appearance at Toronto's NxNE (North By Northeast), Canada's answer to SxSW, happening at the end of June. They will be the only Scottish band appearing on this year's bill. 

We spoke to songwriter and front-man Toby Mottershead about his excitement for the coming tour – he told us that one of the reasons the band chose to tour Canada was because of the Celtic influences in their music. With a huge section of Canada's population claiming Scottish ancestry and fascinated by Scottish culture, there is a long tradition of Scottish artists touring there, and capitalising on Canadian nostalgia for the old country. 

The band headline a fundraiser for the forthcoming tour tonight (1 May) at Edinburgh's The Bongo Club, with support from The Jellyman's Daughter – details about The Darktown Strutter's Ball can be found here. The Skinny wishes the Black Diamond Express boys all the very best on their tour – below, read our interview with Mottershead, where he tells us about his influences as a songwriter, the usefulness of funding for emerging bands, and how the spirit of rave animates their performances.

Black Diamond Express are a very diverse and dynamic band – what are some of your prime influences as a songwriter?
My own influences started with early Delta blues. I got into guys like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson when I was a teenager. Over the years I kept getting into these artists deeper and deeper, then I started discovering other styles of music, and I realised that blues seeps into jazz, into country and bluegrass. I spent a lot of my early musical life thinking I was born in the wrong place. But there was a point, which was when I discovered Alan Lomax, which led me back over to the UK, and I began to discover people like Hamish Henderson, playing traditional Celtic folk music.

I realised there was this interchange between British and American folk styles; the music had travelled over there, and then come back. So that took me back to my Celtic roots a little bit more. More recently, we've added some gospel and chain gang accapella songs to our repertoire, and because we are a big band, with eight voices, we're trying to get everyone singing, like a gospel band – but in our own style.

Most of the artists you mention are pretty sedate, or stripped back – but a Black Diamond Express show can be pretty full-on, you guys know how to rock. What inspires the more intense, upfront elements of your band's performance?
If we were alive in the 1920s, we'd probably be more sedate in our performances, but we've lived through all of the evolutions in music that have happened since punk – part of our influences are classic rock, Jimi Hendrix, even dance music. We're aware of all these things as well, and I think sometimes, when we're rocking out, there's an element of the rave days. Even though we're not a dance band, by a long stretch, we do have that in us. We can never truly be just a traditional band. I bring a lot of blues influence to the band, but a lot of the other guys weren't even aware of some of these artists I like – they bring their own influences to what they play.

How important is funding to a band like yours, given the massive sea changes the industry as a whole is currently undergoing?
We wouldn't have been able to do this tour without help. The music industry has definitely changed – there isn't the kind of money thrown at bands that there used to be. I know so many talented artists who, if they had been alive in another decade, might have been signed by now – but these days, they're just doing it themselves. Things go in cycles – there was a big boom in record labels, then that died off, and there's a more underground scene emerging, with people designing, releasing and pubicising their own things. That, in a way, has got to be good, because the bands have total control of what they say about themselves.

Besides, the opportunity was not offered to us on a plate – we had to stick our nexks on the line, and just go for it. We started planning the tour last year, and we had some good leads, but then there was a period where everything went a bit quiet, and we weren't sure it was going to happen. We just decided, 'We are going. Whether we get the funding or not, we're going to make it happen.' It was strange, but when we made that decision, things started to happen. We signed contracts for the gigs, but we only confirmed the funding a few weeks ago, so if we'd pulled out, we'd owe money. But we got it, thankfully!

When do Black Diamond Express plan to release their debut album?
We've released a live album, but we'd like to do an album proper, something with a thread that binds it all together. I wrote the songs for it last year, and it's themed around the Chinese Year of the Snake. A lot of songs have a snake theme. It's a mixture of original compositions, and interpretations of obscure, old-time pieces. We're ready to record, but we don't want to rush it. We hope to have it out before the end of the year, and we hope to record an EP to take on tour with us before we leave.

Black Diamond Express play The Bongo Club on 1 May with The Jellyman's Daughter