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Uncynical Champions

Sam Bennett speaks to Danny George Wilson

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Sam Bennett
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I speak to Danny George Wilson the day after the European elections. The Danny and the Champions of the World vocalist was at his polling station at 7am before heading into the record shop he runs in Lewes, East Sussex with his friend Del, with whom he also launched label Maiden Voyage Recording. Before casting his vote he saw some graffiti on a wall reading ‘vote with love’, “which I think is probably a good idea”. I’m not sure what cross that would constitute though. “I guess everyone’s got different ideas about what that would be, but it made sense to me.”

I’d steered the conversation into politics, acknowledging that perhaps his rather uplifting music is the kind of thing we all need at the moment. “Possibly, I think anything uncynical is needed now. Music’s a great way of bringing people together from all ages and walks of life, music is incredibly important, and the less cynical and financially motivated it is the better.”

Danny and the Champs is “very much a London band” but associated with the Americana genre. “Pigeonholing is generally done by other people,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned we just make music, and if there’s a community that embraces it, as long as it’s a community I feel at home in then I’m very happy to be a part of it.” That of Americana is one enthused by the uncynical music mentioned, “and is a real community”. As a fan, he’s been to gigs alongside “the bums on seats” at Danny and the Champs shows, those who play the group’s tracks in their houses, “at their christenings or summer barbecues. That’s what musicians really want, people to take their music to heart and be moved by it.”

He’s “been making what people have come to term Americana music for over 20 years”, starting the band Grand Drive with his brother Julian in the early 90s, releasing their first record in ’97. They would go on to record more and tour the world “probably before Americana was in any way a commercial term. I think people had started to talk about old and insurgent country, but we didn’t consider ourselves a country or Americana band. We were just playing music we’d heard from our dad’s record collection – doo-wop, soul, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen.”

He’s going to a gig with his dad and brothers that night: “Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Little Steven is the guitarist in Springsteen’s E Street Band, but he’s also the guitarist in Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, the first gig I ever went to when I was about 11 years old with my dad. So whenever Southside Johnny, Bruce or any of those guys come over, we tend to convene and make a little family night of it.”

One of five kids, his parents brought the family over to the UK from Australia when he was about five years old. His father – whose parents ran a shop called Wilson’s Empire in Melbourne – left school at 12 or 13. “He’s a fly by the seat of your pants kind of fella. I’ve never had a conversation with my folks about what would be a decent and financially secure career – I’ve only ever had wind beneath my wings from them.” He attempts the same with his own children. “Of course you need to find some money to pay for the roof over your head, but I’ve been very lucky to play music with some great people and to have people who still want to hear it after 20 years.”

The only UK festival Danny and the Champs are playing this summer is Over the Hill in Witney, as presented by Glovebox Live. 2019 marks its debut year, what will it take for it to stick around for a while and thrive? “It’s really tough, I have a few friends who run festivals, it’s an awful lot of work. These days you’re competing with a lot of events for people to spend money they haven’t necessarily even got.” But events like Wood Festival and Over the Hill are “run for all the right reasons, and the people putting them on are excited about creating a space and experience that is for the good.” Glovebox wouldn’t book his band, he says, if they “wanted to make a quick buck”.

He has a side project, with Robin Bennett and Tony Poole, called Bennett Wilson Poole, soon to bring out a second album “very much on the way to being finished”. When this particular project began “there were Champs fans asking ‘is that the end of the Champs?’ No, it’s not. It’s just more stuff, more songs, more gigs.” Just as well really, we’re probably due more cynicism and political turmoil too.

Over the Hill takes place 26 August (bank holiday Monday) at Cogges Manor Farm, Witney

WIN! 4 Over the Hill Festival Tickets with Fat Lils Dining Experience

The beautiful Oxfordshire countryside is destined to become immersed in the world of Amerciana this summer, via the first ever Over the Hill festival. Proudly presented by Glovebox Live

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