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