An interview with Ben Murray
by Tom Knapp (4 Nov. 1999)

Tarras started out as just another traditional band from the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

But the trio of friends "just weren't fulfilling the kind of sound we wanted," said Ben Murray, the band's accordion player. "We wanted to play traditional music in a different way."

So he, Rod Armstrong (guitar, cittern) and Joss Clapp (bass) recruited Emma Hancock, a classical violinist who was making waves in their region. The decision to get a violinist, rather than a traditional fiddler, was a conscious one.

"We wanted a different kind of violin instead of the predictable sort of sound," Murray explained. "We knew we wanted to play traditional tunes and sing traditional songs, but we wanted to do it in a more contemporary way. We wanted to be accessible to people today."

The last piece they needed, he said, was percussion.

"We wanted Latin and African percussion, we really wanted that groove," Murray said. "Then one day we were in Durham (near Newcastle) and I saw this guy with dreadlocks and a big African drum on his shoulder. I knew he was the one. ... He played a gig with us the next night."

With the addition of Jon Redfern on percussion and guitar, Tarras was ready to go. They released a debut album, Rising, which includes eight originals and a handful of traditional tunes in a pop-roots style that's very much the band's own. But, Murray quickly admitted, Tarras went a lot further and a lot faster than anyone expected. Murray, contacted by telephone in Boston, where the band was preparing to launch its first U.S. tour, said the five young musicians were all still a bit overwhelmed by the transition.

"We're just catching up on our sleep and getting used to the idea of being in the States," he said. "We're taking it in slowly. ... There's a lot to see."

They're also still absorbing the turn of fate which brought them here. A world tour wasn't in their plans when they started jamming less than two years before.

"Our feet haven't touched the ground for a year and a half," Murray, who lists '70s British folk-rockers Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span as a big influence in the development of Tarras's eclectic and electric approach to roots music, said. "We got together purely for fun, and then all of a sudden we were signed to a record label over in our country." Rounder Records didn't take long to sign them up for distribution on this side of the world, either. A tour, beginning in Lancaster, Pa., before heading west to Colorado, Arizona and California, was quickly arranged.

"Ever since then, we've been picked up in this whirlwind and it hasn't put us down yet," Murray said. But he's certainly optimistic about the future. When asked where the band wants to be in five years, he didn't hesitate: "Madison Square Garden."

Then he laughed and said they're not thinking too hard about tomorrow.

"Since we're all so young (average age: 21), we're just taking it one day at a time," he said. "We're enjoying the fact that we can come here and play -- and get paid for it. ... It's just really good to be doing it. We hope it lasts a while."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy Rising from Amazon.com.