The Trans-Siberian March Band – Interview

Formed in London in 2007, the band is a colourful explosion of flamboyant, high-energy performances and musical miscellany. As well as originals, the mix includes traditional Balkan, Klezmer, Turkish, Russian and Gypsy tunes, plus even a small hint of hip-hop.

TSMB is a fearsome blend of clarinets, brass, percussion, guitar and vocals. Highlights from its strange and wonderful history include shows at Glastonbury, the Royal Albert Hall, WOMAD, Kensington Palace, HMV Forum and The Roundhouse, as well as recording at Abbey Road and Air Studios. The band has taken the music all around the Balkans and as far afield as Georgia in the Caucuses and beyond!

Always open to adventure, the band’s recent projects have included a unique collaboration with DJ Yoda which proved a firm festival favourite, and curating an ongoing series of events as part of a residency at Shoreditch arts hub Rich Mix.

Our Sponsors

You got together around 2007, what were you all doing prior to this date?

Nick: Some of us had been in the London Gypsy Orchestra. The TSMB was formed out of the LGO brass section, plus our bandleader Issy and some others. There was a violinist and a mandolin player initially.

Issy: I had originally studied as a clarinettist at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and originally had trained to play clarinet in a symphony orchestra. However over the course of college realised that although I loved classical music, I wanted to explore other musical styles too – I had spent some time in West Africa and Czech Republic and realised that I need to play more than just classical music. After leaving college I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to really do, but then discovered this style of music through the LGO and fell totally in love with it and haven’t looked back since!

Emily: I’m a relative newcomer, having joined in late 2011, and the band was a total change of scene from what I had been used to – jazz, and before that some classical whilst studying. I had just returned to the UK feeling slightly negative about pursuing music after teaching it abroad, and TSMB was exactly what I needed to revive and completely reinstate my enthusiasm for playing!

What brought you all together and how did you decide on that moniker?

Issy: Some of us would meet up before LGO rehearsals and jam different tunes. Then at one of the LGO gigs, we were short on the set length and the conductor asked if we wanted to play some of the tunes we had been working on, and TSMB was born! After that, we then got to play at a Balkan Beats night in the Buffalo Bar and Radio Gagarin night at the Notting Hill Arts Club and things just sort of grew from there onwards.

There was a bit of a joke at the time about how it would be awesome to have a gig as the in-house band on the Trans-Siberian Railway and one of our members has actually contacted them a few times to offer this service, though we have never heard back. However, the name stuck!

What are the diverse influences that shape your current sound?

Nick: We like a range of current and past Balkan sounds. I like everything from Klezmer from the 1920s to the soundtrack pop of Goran Bregovic, the somewhat traditional sounds of bands like Taraf de Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia to modern electronic oompah from any of the countries, east of Berlin, doing it.

 Issy: When choosing songs, I also have been looking a lot at Turkish artists such as Selim Sesler, Tarkan, Sefarad and Candan Ercetin. I have also learnt a lot from other musicians I have played with in the past such as Çiğdem Aslan (She’koyokh) and Illana Cravitz (London Klezmer Quartet).

Emily: Our repertoire spans a pretty wide geographic area. It’s mostly arrangements of traditional tunes, but through our mish-mash of musical backgrounds and influences (not only Balkan and Klezmer but classical, jazz, South American, African, punk…) the band has come to develop its own distinctive sound. From this, some of the tunes have grown into rather personalised takes on the original style, as opposed to faithful reproductions!

Nick: Too add to what Emily says, there are so many of us, and our ages range from mid-20s to mid-70s, so we all bring something with us from our own experience and memories of music, and culture in general. One of our trumpet players, Pippa, saw Louis Armstrong play in the late 50s, for instance, and quite a few of have lived abroad, in Eastern Europe and Turkey, and you can’t help but pick up a bit here, a bit there, not all of it conscious, but it definitely emerges, helps us onto the same wavelength, I think.

At present you are a 13-piece band, how does that function when touring and the onstage set-up?

Nick: We’ve toured using just public transport – long train journeys through Austria, Hungary and Bosnia – and using local drivers and minibuses. It looks chaotic from the outside, I guess, but usually everybody and everything gets gathered up together! We are lucky enough to have several sound engineers in the band, who have been able to quickly sort out the various onstage set-ups – sometimes, in the Balkans, these have been products of enthusiasm rather than expertise, lethal in the wrong hands…

Issy: I think we have known each other for a while and have learnt to deal with difficult situations together. Also, even though we are numerous, we don’t actually need a lot of onstage equipment such as drumkits, and we are equally at home playing acoustically or plugged in.

Emily: We have a giant water bed big enough for 13 that we take with us on overnight trips. Not really, but we did once manage to get some people to believe that in the bar after a gig.

What can someone that has yet to see your live show expect to see and hear?

Nick: We put on a big show, I think, no matter where we play. We are kind of loud, and now have a large repertoire of songs. We dress up a bit, make up a bit, wear clothes from the Soviet Union, are into wigs and frocks. We feature horse-dancing competitions, singalongs and trumpet duels.

Issy: The live show is generally quite interactive – I can be quite merciless on the audience! I think though our main feature is fun – both for the performers and for the audience. There is definitely no standing around looking moody and staring at our shoes whilst onstage.

Emily: It’s very energetic stuff, and works best of all when the audience are willing to throw themselves into the spirit of things! Recently we have had a massive, high-speed, hokey-kokey-style circle-dance, people on each other’s backs pretending to be galloping horses, and Madonna singalongs in a Russian oompah style. I’d like to say it makes more sense when you’re there in the middle of it, but maybe it doesn’t. You’ll have to come and see and judge for yourself!

What types of people do you attract along to your events?

Nick: I’m not sure there’s a typical TSMB audience member. We’ve played for late-night crowds off their faces in clubs and at festivals, for shoppers innocently heading for Primark, for tourists and locals passing by in squares in Bosnia, for people in parks in Georgia, and for children and their parents in Regents Park, and none of them have thrown things at us.

Issy: We generally have quite a mixed audience of all ages and nationalities. This has been quite noticeable at our monthly events at Rich Mix, where there have been people who come along every month to see us.

Emily: For a while there was a group of people dressed as Elvis that used to show up quite regularly.

Nick: Oh yes – the Elvi. (Presley, not Costello…) Where are they now, I often wonder… sometimes wonder…

You have played many big established festivals and historic venues, what were the high and low points and stand-out memories?

Nick: I loved playing on the bridge in Mostar in Bosnia on our first tour. It was a real highlight, the first of many. I also loved playing to big mad crowds one night in Glastonbury, while the next day’s gig by the side of some tent – it wasn’t even in a field – to some hippies, toddlers and a dog (and the dog didn’t even stay) was NOT the best experience. However, you play to whoever’s there. One of the many gigs we did during the London Olympics was so badly organised we played to about 5 people, but we still played our socks off, as did everybody on that bill I love regular nights like the Hootenanny in Brixton, where people go determined to have a good time, and you can really feel that.

Issy: Playing in Sarajevo was real privilege and it was incredible to play to a room full of people who sang along to every word and jumped to their feet at each new tune. Also playing at WOMAD was absolutely unbelievable. I think my least favourite gigs have been when we have played at corporate events – although those gigs are good for the bank balance and allow us to invest in new albums etc, they are somewhat hard work…

Emily: We’ve played to some of our biggest and most enthusiastic crowds at festivals, and I have to say I enjoy playing at our current ‘home turf’ Rich Mix as well. It’s also great to play at specific Balkan nights as you get to perform for people who already really love the music. My least favourite gigs are any that book us to march for long periods of time in the freezing cold and rain, which happens more frequently than I’d like as a downside of the implication of having ‘March Band’ in your name.

What Countries are most receptive to your current set?

Nick: We’ve played in the Balkans, and had no ‘coals to Newcastle’ moments. Imagine if a group from Sarajevo came here playing Morris Dancing music, we’d probably throw rocks at them. We get a good reception wherever we go. A kid in Gori (Stalin’s birthplace in Georgia) did ask us to play some Led Zepplin, which we weren’t able to do!

Issy: Also randomly according to our online sales, we get an awful lot of downloads in Japan!

How do your songs develop? What is the usual process of writing new material?

Nick: Music for the TSMB has to fit a certain brief: usually minor chords, a tune that will fit into the modes used in eastern music. I’m a bit crap at lyrics, and don’t care for them, much, but the ones I write are on-topic: sad tales from what I call the Soviet Onion.

Issy: It tends to be a mixture of traditional tunes which myself and other members transcribe and arrange for the band and then originals in a similar style written mostly by Nick, but also Emily and Sarah (our trombone player). We have also brought in tunes and jammed/arranged them as a group.

Emily: They often come in fully arranged (as it’s easiest to approach writing for a band of this size with a certain degree of organisation), but do also evolve. When we’ve played with new percussionists they’ve sometimes added their own spin to an ‘old favourite’ tune and we end up with a totally different and fresh feel underpinning it which the rest of us will follow and develop.

What are your Heroes and Zeroes from music and beyond?

Nick: I have a lot of respect for people who stick their necks out to do something that goes against the grain. So in pop I like early Roxy Music and 1970s Bowie, from punk I was a big fan of early Adam and the Ants and The Clash. I’m a big fan of people like Lee Perry and Toots Hibbert (the most unique voice in reggae). Joni Mitchell is brilliant, an innovator, and without the ego of the other people from that whole sixties thing, a lot of which I hated – I love sixties pop. I’m a big Shangri-Las fan, too. I’ve liked most of what Bosnian bandleader Goran Bregovic has done, though part of his drive to create new music in the Balkans seems to have involved not crediting a lot of the original musicians. Filip Koutev, who brought lots of Bulgarian music to the fore, was amazing. I love Balkan music pioneers the Three Mustaphas Three. And I still love bands from what now seems like long ago, like The Monochrome Set and The Band of Holy Joy, still innovating after all this time.

Issy: I am a huge fan of ska and reggae, so probably one of my all-time favourite bands is the Specials. I generally admire people who try and say and do something with their music or art form, such as Pete Seeger.

Emily: In a similar vein, I respect artists who are innovative and original (Björk, Miles Davis, Prince, The Beach Boys). Having said that I can also appreciate the craftsmanship, if not the artistic vision, behind a well-produced pop song.

What is your current favourite music and influences? What do you think of the current music scene?

Nick: Being well over the age of anybody I would have listened to when I was young, I sort of don’t offer a strong opinion. Ha ha, but here’s one anyway: A lot of it seems very bland, X-Factor-type stuff, young people’s music paradoxically determined by old farts. Middle-aged parents seem to like the same music as their teenage kids, and I don’t think that’s ever good for culture in general. However, I’m sure that’s not the whole picture! The current bands I know and like are Vampire Weekend and Bastille – there, that’s their cred gone… I also think Imogen Heap is doing some interesting work.

Issy: Malian musicians such as Amadou and Mariam are great and I really love the guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. I think there is a massive schism between how the music scene is represented in the mainstream media and what is actually happening. I would say it is a really exciting time to discover music: whatever you think of it, the Internet has given us the ability to access music from around the world and the live music scene in London particularly, is incredibly diverse – on any night of the week you could probably see any style of music you wanted. I mean the fact that we, as a bunch of English people in London, play Balkan music, and people actually come and see us is amazing, and I think testament to the vitality and inclusivity of the current music scene.

Emily: I agree that a narrow range of music is hugely over-represented in the mainstream media. I think Issy is completely right about the diversity of interesting music available, if you just scratch the surface. In booking bands to play during our residency at Rich Mix we have tried to represent this and offer something to people that is outside of their usual listening habits – prog rock, Bollywood, folk, a funk band with 5 trombones – nothing is off limits! In terms of my current favourite music, I like Beirut a lot – they also heavily incorporate the Balkan brass sound and other ‘world’ musics – we play a Turkish song called Şiki Şiki Baba in the style that they covered it in.

You have collaborated with DJ Yoda, how did that come about and work out?

Nick: Rob Kelly, our percussionist and soundmeister at the time, wrote him a fan e-mail, almost, suggested we do a collaboration, and so it happened. (I make it sound easy; it took a lot of hard work from our bandleader Issy.)

Issy: We thought we were playing a gig that DJ Yoda was headlining and I had been quite a fan of his for many years (went to quite few of his early gigs when first arrived in London as a student). Down the pub after rehearsal I was talking to Rob about how awesome it would be to play a track with him and Rob said why not? So the next day he sent him an e-mail and he got back to us! It transpired he wasn’t actually playing the event (was the promoters’ mistake) but had listened to our stuff and was up for a collaboration. So we met up, chatted about some ideas and then jammed some in our next rehearsal. The initial process comprised of trying stuff out, recording it, seeing what worked until we pieced together a set.

What shows/events have you got planned for the near future?

Nick: We’ve been booked to play at a brass band festival in Paris, in the Champs de Mars, underneath the Eiffel Tower, which will be brilliant. Our residency at Shoreditch Rich Mix continues till July (middle Wednesday in the teenths each month) and on July 15th we have the Band of Holy Joy headlining. We haven’t played the Hootenanny for a year or so, and being back there will be great.

Issy: Also got some upcoming gigs in London (Hootananny and Magic Garden) as well as some festivals (Wilderness and Boomtown so far confirmed).

Are you involved with any other outside projects?

Nick: I’m working on a bunch of tunes for an imaginary eighties girl band called the Angri-Las as part of one of my writing projects. I also play in a Clash covers band – not so much ‘dad rock’ as ‘walking stick punk’.

Issy: Just started recently rehearsing with a group called Klezmer and Cake.

Emily: I play in a Mariachi band, as well as in various bands’ brass sections as and when the opportunities come up!

Nick: Various members of the band are professional musicians, and work on a variety of projects – percussionist Chris gets around playing everything from a full kit to a triangle, and Sarah, one of our trombonists, is running away to join the circus for a while and playing in the band, putting up tents and, possibly, some tiger / clown management.

How does the Media generally respond to you?

Nick: We are generally ignored. Does that sound bitter? I’m not sure that we mind! We got a bit of mainstream press coverage when we worked with DJ Yoda, though some of it was on the lines of ‘Yoda’s got this brass band in tow’, and mentions of us ‘wiggling, tooting and parping along’, as if we we’d been slotted in as an afterthought.

Issy: A certain famous daily newspaper has on numerous occasions got its facts wrong which is quite amusing, once described us a “Bavarian oompah band” and another saying we are from Russia! However we have had some lovely reviews, particularly memorable was the review the Times did of our WOMAD show (“But better than both was the  Trans-Siberian March Band, a 13-piece Balkan brass ensemble of flamboyantly dressed Londoners, who played a hugely entertaining collaborative show with the hip-hop turntable virtuoso DJ Yoda. Lively and witty, they proved to be perfect festival crowd-pleasers.”) and also a great review form the Arts Desk when we supported Mahala Rai Banda.

Emily: I would say that the reviews we have had have been generally very positive (particularly of our festival shows), but that the vast majority of the time they do get our name wrong (‘Trans-Siberian MarchING Band’).

Nick: Yes, the ‘-ing’ thing. On the one hand it’s not that big a deal, but on the other it’s slightly annoying if we’re working with people who can’t even pay THAT much attention. There was even a teeshirt printed after one series of gigs we took part in, with our name spelt wrong.

Is there anyone that you would dream to work with on a mini-project?

Nick: I think Imogen Heap would be perfect to work with; open to ideas and influences, and not afraid to be adventurous. I think we could do great things with almost any kind of act, but it’d have to be something we could contribute to, in the same way in which we worked with DJ Yoda – part of the main course, and not the watery side salad.

Issy: Quincy Jones or Nile Rodgers.

Emily: Open to suggestions. As well as mashing our tunes up with 90s hip hop, we have also been on stage with banjos and with Bollywood Brass Band, so I’m pretty confident we could make just about anything work. In fact we always enjoy as good challenge!

Please feel free to plug any of your recordings that may be for sale?

Our first CD The Tractor Makers’ Ball is a collection of originals and classic Balkan tunes, and is available as a CD or download. 

What does the future hold for you all?

Nick: We carefully plan all of our chaos: the ‘difficult second album’ has been recorded and will come out sometime this year; we have a load of gigs arranged up to the summer.

Can you tell us a joke please?

Emily: What cheese would you use to hide a small horse?

Nick and Issy: We don’t know. WHAT cheese would you use to hide a small horse?

Emily: Mascarpone! (# Total silence ensued for quite some time as did the sound of distant Church Bells)

Nick and Issy: Hmm, lucky we’re musicians, and not comedians…

Social Media and Web Links






Show More
Back to top button

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker