Col. Mustard and the Dijon 5 may be the Hardest Working Act in Showbiz.
Certainly in festival season, you can’t pass by a field (or, in 2019, a theatre) without catching a flash of yellow preceding a joyous outpouring of unabashed audience participation as the Dijons take the stage.
Thus, when we set up an interview with the band’s leader, Colonel John McMustard, in August 2019, it did take him a while to get back to us – “the Fringe was manic and hectic,” he told us. We, in turn, sat on his responses until now, thanks to our own, admittedly self-made, chaos.
However, and despite the less-than-topical nature of our chat – festivals? – we decided that we might relive those happier times with one of our most charismatic and entertaining musical figures.
Firstly, we expressed concern about McMustard’s solo record ‘Sports Mixture’ – could it be that as the main songwriter it could spell the end for the Dijons?
“No, the Dijon 5 are still going strong, we’ve been writing and recording for our second album this year and have a massive schedule lined up next year including a new single due for release in January to coincide with our Celtic Connections Old Fruitmarket gig on Friday 17th Jan 2020.”
Good – so how does the solo stuff fit in with the band?
“Although I’m the main lyric writer in the Dijon 5, most of the band write tunes, but with my solo ‘Sports Mixture’ album, my aim was to explore more of the spoken word side of my writing and then I did my family theatre show ‘Colonel Mustard & The Big Bad Wolf’ and the original songs in that ‘I’m A Vegetarian But I Don’t Like To Talk About It’ and ‘Hipster Or Wolf Which Are You’ seemed to fit in with the other tunes on the album.
“I write nearly every day, so from a creative point of view it became a compulsion to get some of my other songs and ideas out, it was also great fun collaborating and writing with Gordy Duncan Jr, Colin Hunter, Stuart McKay and Jon Mackenzie and all the other artists on the album. It felt fresh and liberating to do something so quickly – we recorded the album in 8 sessions at 16 Ohm Studio with Tommy Duffin.”
So how does the solo material differ from the Dijon releases – the recordings do sound like a full band.
“In some ways it’s an extension or at least a cousin of what the band does, there are singalong melodies, but I could maybe afford to go a bit swearier and sometimes darker in the lyrics, exploring different themes and highlighting stupidity.
“I didn’t consciously do this, but it also feels like a human at different stages of life, from the innocence of childhood in ‘Kerby’, to the teenage angst in ‘The Wrestler’, to the sadness in losing a grandparent in ‘My Grandfather’s Chair’.
“There are points being made sometimes in a shocking way, like anti-bigotry song ‘You’ll Simply Never Walk Alone The Best’, but there is lots of humour throughout and tongue-in-cheek moments.”
Confusingly you’ve had two different Fringe shows – how did it feel to be doing shows indoors – and to presumably a smaller crowd that the usual festival audiences?
“It was great fun doing the Fringe shows, although it’s completely true as a working class artist after all the costs and hidden costs of the Fringe you make next to no money.
“It was an expensive risk, that artistically paid off, but financially left me considerably out of pocket, effectively working the whole of August for nothing.
“I learned a lot and had some great times and also introduced audiences to loads of great acts from the world of poetry, music, cabaret and comedy. I’ve got a Chinese company that want to take ‘Big Bad Wolf’ over there, but the Dijon 5’s “difficult number 2” is the main priority just now.
“The nighttime shows in the museum were crazy, most of them went well, but it was anything-goes fun, humour, getting in the audience, everyone joining in. I did get too drunk on one of the nights and apparently had “several complaints”, although others that were at that show said that was the best one.
“My house band The Daddy Bellys were brilliant. It was good honing my compering/stand-up skills and not having the big band safety net. It’s important to get out your comfort zone and lose control sometimes.”
And the kids’ show – when did you realise that you had appeal beyond the adults?
“This year has been a bucket list kind of year, I’ve just tried to pursue as many artistic avenues as I can and I approached Andy Arnold (the director at the Tron) about doing a family show with fables… I wanted to get across some old and some modern life lessons, ones that I’m guilty of as well like being on your phone too much, but with laughs for everyone who comes along and a mixture of Dijon 5 songs and originals.
“Andy being the legend he is seemed to get the concept and allowed me to develop it alongside actors and writers and we performed three shows at the Tron, which was successful and that lead onto the Fringe where it got a great reaction and picked up some cracking reviews – we’ve had some school education honchos interested in it, on top of China, although a part of me is already thinking about the next thing I want to write.
“I loved being immersed in the magic of theatre and I had a great cast – Jack Stewart, Anna Russell-Martin and Natalie McConnon – who are already going onto bigger and better things, although I produced it myself for the Fringe so it had its stressful moments – negotiating with actors’ agents and organising props isn’t how I imagined it would be.”
And are you having to rein it in a little for sensitive wee ears? (material-wise as well as volume!)
“There are laughs there for the whole family, we just tried to be clever about getting the right mix of slapstick, gags, fun characters and song and dance.
“The audience feedback has been all positive apart from one woman who complained I threw a wrap into the audience when her child is gluten-free. That’s how you know you’re at the Fringe. That was the last time I threw bread at an audience!”
Are your audiences, I assume, your fans who’ve decided their youngsters might like the shows too? Is this part of some sort of masterplan to have a ready-made audience for when your regulars get too old to go to gigs?
“Because we play mainly family-friendly festivals we’ve got a wide-ranging fan base, I knew after we developed the show our fans of all ages would be into it, as it ticked so many boxes that the band’s gigs do.
“I do daft characters and make up stories for my own kids, just like ‘Cross The Road’ was a song I used to sing to them long before I sung it in the studio to the band, the character Rickety Rackety Ralph, the Big Bad Wolf, had terrorised my household for years. It’s just fun kidding on you’re a wolf for a fortnight.
“As well as realising some of my own ambitions, it’s about inspiring my own kids and hopefully other people to follow their dreams and try out different artistic endeavours.
Can we hope that The Kids get a bit of education (or indoctrination – in a good way) with the ‘Simply Never Walk Alone’, and the “Morrissey is murder” lyric?
“Some of my lines obviously go over the kids’ heads, just like ‘Pass The Dutchie’ by Musical Youth went over mine as a kid… as long as the tune is good, in years to come hopefully they’ll look back and enjoy it in a different way, but unfortunately in our country we do know or think we know what bigotry is from a young age, because you’re either indoctrinated into it in a bad way, or your parents guide you to keep an open mind, that’s why my anti-bigotry song is important and an antidote for folk who know how ridiculous bigotry is.
“It’s divide and rule nonsense, but can be life and death for some people. Laughter is a mature tool in challenging stupidity – luckily there are lots of different leisure pursuits now, so sectarianism will continue to slowly die, it’s just not happening quickly enough for me.
“If the kids that come to our shows go away thinking and inspired that’s all I can ask for; hopefully some of the lyrics and ideas get adults thinking as well though.”
Are you a vegetarian? Are you just singing about it instead? (Plus I bet a sports mixture has cochineal and whatever the heck they put in chewing gum)
“When I first came up with the concept I was a vegetarian, for about a four month period, but I’m sad to say I’m back on the meat. I just used to say that for a laugh to people.
“The point of the song, though, is not to be to judgey. It puts people off that might be on the fence. Extreme left-wing people are closer to right-wing people in their absolutism, whilst all the people in the middle are just looking to the left and right thinking ‘what is actually going on in the world?’ They’re just the wings whilst we’re the body and brains.”
“I went a bit deep there, apologies!”
More at www.colonelmustarddijon5.com.