The Treacherous Orchestra stay faithful to their reputation for loudness without betraying folk roots

The Treacherous Orchestra’s high-octane energy has made them a hit at Celtic Connections, and they’re back again this year, writes Fiona Shepherd

ONE of the biggest noises on the Scottish folk scene in the past few years has come from a buccaneering big band whose players hail from all corners of the country (and a bit of Ireland).

The Treacherous Orchestra is a pedigree ensemble, comprising members of such respected folk fusion outfits as Croft No 5, Salsa Celtica, Session A9, The Peatbog Faeries and Old Blind Dogs, but this Venn diagram of Celtic connections has produced an invigorating new crossover sound, delivered with precision, energy and a cheeky flourish of showmanship which has reached the parts that even the progressive parent groups have not.

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My first encounter with the Treacherous Orchestra was at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2009, only six months after their buzz-making debut at that year’s Celtic Connections. Closing the main stage on the final night of the festival, they attracted every teenage boy on site to their set, generating a moshpit worthy of a Biffy Clyro gig. Six months later, they sold out the Old Fruitmarket for their second Celtic Connections triumph, whipping up a storm in front of a remarkably broad constituency of fans, from seasoned folk diehards to glow-stick-waving students. Forward-thinking folk bands are nothing new, but these guys have succeeded in tapping into a fresh audience without alienating traditionalists.

“The majority of us in the band don’t really go to folk gigs,” says piper Ali Hutton. “We listen to all sorts of stuff.” Influences on their eclectic sound range from Scottish piping legends Gordon Duncan and Martyn Bennett to rock behemoths Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, from the epic, emotional soundscapes of Sigur Ros to the orgasmic highs of dance music.

By channelling the energy of a rock gig and the crescendos of a euphoric club set, they have become the go-to group for a hands-in-the-air party. But behind the sheer exhilaration of their sound, there is a wealth of musical skill, compositional flare and respect for tradition among their number. The 12 members wear their virtuosity lightly but between them they have years of experience, playing with luminaries from Bela Fleck to Stevie Wonder and bright young folk things including Kate Rusby, Julie Fowlis and Roddy Woomble.

Having learned their craft performing other people’s music, there was a hunger to create something of their own. Gradually a solid group formed out of playing together in various configurations over the years, whether in bands or at sessions in pubs and at parties around Glasgow.

“I enjoy playing with lots of people but there was something about getting together with these guys that was special, a different vibe and energy,” says Hutton. With the foundations of the group already laid at these informal sessions, they made their union official at the invitation of Celtic Connections director Donald Shaw and have since become an annual fixture at the festival.

“I think it’s important to stress that it’s not a collaboration,” says accordionist John Somerville. “It’s a band.”

Like any orchestra, there are different sections, consisting of a number of musical double acts – two pipers, two fiddlers, two flute players (initially), two guitarists, drums and bodhran, and what Somerville likes to call the “instruments of hell” section featuring himself and banjo player Eamonn Coyne. Having set sail in their musical Noah’s Ark, their next challenge was how to tame the menagerie.

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“We started off thinking everything had to be fully democratic and we had to vote on everything,” says double bassist Duncan Lyall. “Then we realised the beast that it was.”

With everyone juggling other musical commitments, whether touring or teaching, it can take some time to get the full orchestral complement in the same room at the same time. Photo sessions are a major challenge apparently. Certain members have now fallen into administrative roles but musically it remains an even playing field, with allcomers invited to contribute melodies and ideas for arrangements.

“It can take a bit of time because you’ve got maybe five, ten ideas to try out and you’ve got to try them, otherwise you’re not giving everyone their fair say,” says Lyall. “You might think ‘that’s not going to work’ but when you play it you like it.”

“We’re all still a bit wary of putting our tunes on the table,” says Hutton. “You’re baring your soul and sometimes people can have such a strong vision of where they think it should go. We do over-egg it sometimes and you usually find that’s the set that doesn’t always make it out because we’ve found that there’s been too much in it.”

“We want a powerful sound,” says Lyall, “but we do have to be aware that musically you need space to breathe in a set.”

That dynamic balance has already been struck at their gigs, with lovely lyrical lulls between the incendiary salvos, but how do you capture that live lightning on a recording without sacrificing the subtlety of the arrangements? That question will be answered next month when The Treacherous Orchestra launch their debut album at – where else? – Celtic Connections.

Origins features tunes mostly familiar from their shows, ranging in mood from piper Ross Ainslie’s mournful, mesmeric Easter Island to the robust riffola of Adam Sutherland’s March Of The Troutsmen (which is begging to be sampled by Jay-Z or some other superstar rapper for their latest muscle-flexing epic), all bound together with mischief, chemistry and a desire to push things forward.

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With new material in the mix, Lyall is already talking about a second album – mainly because if they don’t start talking about it soon it could be another three years before they produce a follow-up. Now the group is off and running, they want to keep up that creative momentum.

“Before us there were people like Wolfstone and Martyn Bennett who showed it was possible to achieve that crossover,” says Hutton. “We’re part of that progression and directly influenced by those people. But not everyone is fortunate enough to know that there is more out there.”

“I felt at school I had to slightly hide from the mainstream,” recalls Somerville. “It wasn’t trendy to be playing Scottish music. Now with the Feis workshops, there are people learning instruments because it’s cool. I’m not saying it’s changed everywhere but there is a greater awareness now and there’s been a real renaissance, which is great to see.”

The hope is that the music of the Treacherous Orchestra might also influence a new generation of kids to take up the folk baton; the likelihood, if you were to ask those moshing boys, is that they already have. «

• Origins is released by Navigator Records and is available to buy now on Treacherous Orchestra play the ABC, Glasgow, on 4 February as part of Celtic Connections.

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