Their self-penned description reads, “The Spooky Men’s Chorale is a vast, rumbling, steam powered and black clad behemoth, seemingly accidentally capable of rendering audiences moist eyed with mute appreciation or haplessly gurgling with merriment.” They were formed in the Blue Mo9untains of NSW, Australia in 2001 by Christchurch born Stephan Taberner, the spookmeister.
I sat down with him and a couple of Spooky’s at WOMAD 2018 last month and spoke of origins, choral conservatism and the shifting nature of a Spooky choir.
“I came from a jazz background, but also choral and world music. Through that it provided the window into the Georgian room. It seemed to embody something that was really deep and true. Georgian music has an inherent strength and timelessness to it. I am very respectful for music that speaks across boundaries.”
Georgian songs and music wasn’t the only starting point for the Spooky Men, although it had been a part of Stephen’s background coming in to the group. “I was very inspired by Don McGlashan and the Muttonbirds. Probably in some way I was influenced by the Polynesian music festivals, in Apia West in 1996, it was elemental, thigh shaking, it was clearly good.”
“When we came to do the first Spooky Gig in 2001 the three songs we did were, the Mess by Don McGlashan, a Georgian church song and a mock Georgian song written by me.”
The line-up shifts depending on where the band is. They’ve got a team in the UK that they can call on when they’re in the neighbourhood. 40 guys around the world, Spooky Men everywhere!
Stephen does almost all the writing and arranging for the group, and it’s getting stranger supposedly! Strange seems to work for the Spooky Men, who change hats mid performance, do versions of ABBA and make multiple jokes about men and men’s parts on stage. Strange definitely works. Although as Stephen tells me, the choral world is actually quite conservative, ironically enough, sharing similarities to the folk world.
“Whether it’s left of centre, trade union choirs, barber shop, world music choirs, there’s a certain style to the material, one which we try to subvert and surprise the audience, to some extent. We try to provide a broad human experience, unified by the theme of commentary on the masculinity. But then a lot of the stuff isn’t about masculine activity, so it becomes closer to themes of humanity. I very much want to keep things feeling fresh for our audience, and you open up a space in one area by concentrating on one. We do four loud, stupid songs, and then the audience is craving something, without realising it, soft and sweet. We exploit that people crave the opposite.”
It’s a show they craft and seeing them play you understood this. They asked the audience on the Sunday to guess what male body part this next song was going to be about – they didn’t play what most of the audience expected, yet a few songs later, “We’re now going to play a song about the body part you all thought we meant.” As Stephen says in our interview, some songs have a certain place in a set that they must fill.
If you come across a group of black clad choral singers in your music going adventures, most definitely stop and have a listen, as you’ll be rewarded by exceptional harmonies, belly-laughter and you’ll come away with a warm feeling!