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“Can you hear me now?!” Hunched over a laptop is hardly an ideal way to interview a band, but this was my best chance to speak to siblings Max and Lorna Thomas of the band Skinny Lister. They exude cool on stage, having become famous among folk circles for their raucous live shows and punkish style, but you wouldn’t know it now, with Max (melodeon, mandolin, vocals) and Lorna (vocals) humbled by the mundane realities of free satellite technology. You can tell the pair are close as we try our best to get the technology to work. They mock each other with the kind of friendly sarcasm that only siblings know how to do. “Your picture’s not even working!” teases Max.
Ten minutes into the interview Lorna’s connection cuts out, but Max and I go on to talk about what it’s like to be in a band with a family member and how their dad, “Party” George, has become a bit of an icon for their fans. Max comes across as a gentle soul with his scruffy blonde hair, curious blue eyes and red knitted jumper. He surveys the magnolia room he’s Skyping from in Bristol as he speaks, regularly plays with his ear and leans in intently to listen to my questions. He speaks calmly with the wisdom of a man who’s travelled the world and seen it all.
Indeed, Skinny Lister have clocked up thousands of miles across the globe since 2012, and have just returned home after supporting popular wordsmith and fellow Xtra Mile Recordings artist Frank Turner in America. Which probably explains why Max is sounding a bit hoarse this evening. Usually they drive themselves around on tour and it’s only really in Japan where they have received the VIP treatment, although Max says it’s starting to get to the point where they “need more help”.
But it’s fair to say Skinny Lister are still in touch with their DIY roots: their father George has been in charge of the band’s merchandise whilst they’ve been away. “He’s been writing out notes and sending off T-shirts to our fans, much to their delight.” I ask if he’s signing the merchandise. “Yes!” Max describes fondly how Skinny Lister fans chanted his father’s name at a gig at The Monarch in Camden last July. “Bless him, he hit the big time. My mum says he’s going to shoot past us! Before we know it we’ll be following in the footsteps of Party George.”
A musician himself, George has attained cult status with Skinny Lister fans, occasionally joining the band on stage for renditions of ’40 Pound Wedding’, which he wrote in 2002 and which features on their first album Forge & Flagon. After a guest appearance at a festival in Cropredy, Oxfordshire this year, fans gave him the nickname “Party” George and it seems to have stuck. “He’s always been one for a party. I think my sister takes after him.”
What’s it like being in a band with your sister? “It’s pretty easy actually, it’s not really like being with my sister.” Max describes the band as its own family, “so to have a family member in it is obviously very easy for me. When we get old we can sit there and natter on about all of these great experiences.” Max sounds sincere when he confirms that the pair have always got on, bar around two years in their teens. Who’s the elder of the two? “I am the oldest but you shouldn’t put that you asked, otherwise Lorna will take your head off,” he says laughing.
Despite the “privilege” of being able to travel the world, Max still sees London as the band’s spiritual home after they formed in Greenwich six years ago. Although they rehearse in London and Brighton, Skinny Lister have split their time between Hastings, Bristol, and the capital for the last few years. Lorna describes how Down on Deptford Broadway, their second album, was inspired by all the “mischief” they got up to in the big city. “London’s great for Skinny Lister, it’s our home show anyway,” says Max. “The last album’s got a nostalgic tint to it, I think, because we’ve got a bit of distance between us and it as well.” It was not a musical choice that led them to leave London: “I think we’d love to be there, but the life of a musician is not conducive to the rents and the expenses of living there really.” Considering a “dilapidated” shed in Peckham sold for £1 million in November, it’s hardly a shock that a band that formed just down the road has been forced to leave.
There have been some adventures along the way, including a tour in a narrowboat and gigging in the back of a Land Rover. These have been more than just gimmicks though: “The narrowboat it was amazing. It was like getting paid to go on holiday!” For Max that was the beginning of feeling like they we were getting somewhere. Even though they ended up playing at quiet pubs along the canals from Bedfordshire to Camden, he explains how they picked up “loads of boat people along the way” and recorded their Grand Union EP on board. He says the Land Rover gigs were slightly more uncomfortable, but “we got a lot of creativity out of it”.
Skinny Lister genuinely appear to enjoy trying different things, and at a time when we have become immune to the monotonous grind of album cycles and touring, why not try something new? It’s certainly earned them a lot of fans along the way.
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Cover photo by Paul Hudson