The B-Bar can be found at the top of a short flight of stone steps just up from Plymouth harbour in this maritime city’s historical Barbican area. It’s here in this arty venue-slash-comedy-club-slash-eatery that Haunt The Woods began their very first residency just after they formed nearly nine years ago, building a small but growing following with each gig they played.
“When we started, we were getting maybe 30 or 40 people,” says Haunt The Woods’ guitarist Phoenix Elleschild, nodding towards the compact stage half a floor below us as we sit on the B-Bar’s even-more-compact mezzanine level. “By the end of it, there were 130 or 140 people in there.”
“Way more than should have been in that room,” adds drummer Oliver Bignell.
A decade on, that early promise has blossomed into something more powerful. The four-piece’s second album, Ubiquity, is a transcendent listen, channelling folk, alternative rock, prog and something far more intangible into a set of songs that are simultaneously grand and enigmatic.
The four men arranged around tables on the B-Bar’s mezzanine floor are, with the best will in the world, anything but enigmatic. These four self-professed “Cornish hippies” are funny and friendly, knocking back Prog’s misguided attempt to paint the West Country as a magical Avalon that’s psychically and spiritually separate from the rest of the UK. “Yeah, people turn up to our gigs in a horse and cart,” says Bignell drily.
It was here in Plymouth that singer and guitarist Jonathan Stafford began busking as a 14-year-old. “Outside the local Tesco,” he says proudly. He was a fan of singer-songwriters such as Nick Drake, Damien Rice and Jeff Buckley, whose dazzlingly acrobatic vocal approach his own voice echoes.
Growing up, he was a big Bob Marley fan too. “Early Bob Marley,” he stresses, keen to separate himself from the Bob Marley’s ‘Greatest Hits’ crowd. He comes from a military family, and it was the Jamaican singer’s message of freedom that struck a chord. “He was anti-establishment, a rebel. But his central message was love.”
By contrast, the teenage Elleschild was a bedroom shredder. “I loved my metal,” he says. “All I wanted to do was stay in every night and play. It was Jon who got me out of the house.”
The two teenagers met at a house party. “Well, it was more like a bunch of people getting stoned,” says Stafford, who had graduated from busking in front of Tesco to playing the stages of various local clubs and bars, performing pared-back acoustic music. He talked Elleschild into coming onboard as a back-up guitarist.
“I remember going to see Jon play and being amazed at the voice that was coming out of him,” says the guitarist. The pair began gigging as the Jonathan Stafford Band. The singer is winningly vague as to how and when Haunt The Woods came into existence. “At some point,” he says, with a benign shrug. “We’ve been going nine or 10 years.” The name had no real significance other than the fact they liked walking around the local woods. “We had it down to Haunter Of The Woods or Haunt The Woods,” says Stafford. “We really liked the band Dry The River, so it followed the format.”
The line-up was soon fleshed out by Bignell and original bassist Alex Skinner. The drummer studied electronic music production and composition at college, but he loved Middle Eastern and African music and could play hand percussion instruments such as the djembe and the darbuka. During his first shows with Haunt The Woods, he played the flute and the cajón – a Peruvian drum designed to be sat on like a crate.
The djembes and crate-drums were soon jettisoned, but that early spirit of adventure has stayed with Haunt The Woods. Their first two EPs, 2017’s The Line and 2018’s Circle, established their sound from the start: sometimes stark and atmospheric, sometimes detailed and intense, distinguished not just by Stafford’s spiralling and swooping voice but also by Elleschild’s protean guitar and a general willingness to stray from the accepted path. Rather than working against each other, their patchwork of influences – folk, art-rock, global music – dovetailed perfectly.
The Circle EP marked the debut of current bassist Jack Hale, who graduated from playing violin as a young kid to playing in Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk rock bands (mercifully, there’s no discernible funk rock in Haunt The Woods’ sound).
One of Hale’s earliest gigs with the band was also one of their most important. To launch the Circle EP, they booked a show at Carnglaze Caverns, a man-made cave in a slate quarry near the Cornish town of Liskeard that had previously hosted gigs by the likes of Marillion, Fish and Steve Hackett. “We were really unsure about it,” says Bignell. “It’s this cave in the middle of Cornwall, with no bus routes, massive overheads on it. By this point, we’d only done residences here and there, maybe a few other little gigs. We thought, ‘Can we do this? Do we even have a following?’ So we decided to do it and find out.”
On the day, the band dutifully trooped down into the cave to set up, hard hats on their heads. At one point, Bignell had to return to the band’s van to pick something up. As he walked out of the cave into the open air, he remembers seeing a bunch of people queuing for the show. “I was like, ‘Thank God for that,’” he says.
The show itself was a triumph. “In some ways, I’d always felt that doing this long-term was kind of ridiculous,” says Stafford. “But that gig made me realise that maybe we could do it.”
Since then, Haunt The Woods have picked up two key cornermen. The Line marked the first time they worked with producer Peter Miles, owner of Middle Farm Studios in nearby Newton Abbot and a man whose production CV includes albums by TesseracT and Martin Grech (whose earthy-ethereal sound doesn’t sit a million miles away from Haunt The Woods’ own). Miles returned for the band’s 2020 debut album Opaque, and is back for Ubiquity, lending it a depth and richness that other, more high-profile bands would give their eye teeth for.
But they’ve another, less public supporter. In July 2018, before they began recording Opaque, Haunt The Woods played a show at St Pancras Old Church in London. Afterwards, they received a Facebook message from a guy named Phil Davies telling them how much he loved their music. Davies was an animator and artist who had made his fortune creating the children’s television show Peppa Pig, and he had since decided to pay his success forward by supporting young artists financially.
Haunt The Woods were the first musicians he’d approached. There was no catch – if there was any way he could help them out, he’d love to. The band had already raised some money via a crowdfunding campaign, but Davies offered to fund the rest of the cost of making the album. “It was incredible,” says Stafford. “The only thing he asked for was if he could come down to the studio and see us making the record.”
The offer was repeated ahead of Ubiquity, allowing them to make the record without a label bankrolling them (the album is released via Spinefarm, home of Sleep Token and Crown Lands). Haunt The Woods are exultant in their gratitude today.
“We offered to pay him the money back when we signed to Spinefarm, but he didn’t want it,” says Stafford.
“He doesn’t want the attention, doesn’t want celebrating,” says Hale. “He just loves music.”
“Sometimes the stars just align,” adds Stafford.
Ubiquity sees Haunt The Woods continue their association with composer Simon Dobson and The Parallax Orchestra, the classical collective who have become rock’s go-to orchestra via their work with metal bands Alter Bridge, Bring Me The Horizon and Architects. Haunt The Woods first hooked up with Parallax in 2015 via Peter Miles; they add a grandeur to several songs on Ubiquity, not least the stirring title track. The latter centres on what Stafford calls “having a moment of realisation of togetherness, how everything is connected, and being quite awe-inspired by it all.”
That awe comes in part from the singer’s interest in physics. He did a foundation degree in the subject before being sidelined by music. “But it’s also quite spiritual,” he says. “Spiritual and scientific. The two things go together well. Science can tell you how things work, but they can’t tell you why. You can describe pretty much everything that happens in reality with an equation, but no one can tell you what happens when you’re dead. That’s where spirituality comes in.”
This esoteric blend isn’t the only influence on Haunt The Woods. All four of them still live in the West Country, and its history, landscape and weather have shaped the band’s sound.
“Just being down here, with the all this nature and the slower way of life, it makes you more internalised,” says Stafford. “You’ve just got more time to do whatever you do, whether it’s write music or pick mushrooms that naturally grow on the moors. Not that I’ve done that,” he adds unconvincingly.
“I do think we’d sound different if we were from the big city, where there’s a million other bands all in competition,” says Bignell. “There’s not a massive scene, there’s not loads of venues, there aren’t those distractions. It’s all about the music.”
Hippie-talk, for sure, but there’s also a steely drive to Haunt The Woods just below the surface. They cite Radiohead as a band whose career is something to aspire to, not just musically but the way the Oxford band turn left when they want to turn left, not when they’re told to.
There’s an undercurrent of mild frustration on Stafford’s part at the length of time it’s taken for Ubiquity to come out – it was finished over two years ago, but its release has been delayed by both the pandemic and the necessary promotional set-up that comes with being signed to a proper record label (their previous records were self-released). “I mean, I’ve written about three more albums since we made this one,” says the singer. “Patience isn’t my strong point.”
For now, it seems like Haunt The Woods are content to follow the well-trodden music industry path. But even then, there’s something out-of-step about them, a bone-deep restlessness and desire to steer their our course.
“It’s clearly about the music,” says Stafford of his band’s long-term ambitions. “If we wanted to try and make loads of money, then we wouldn’t be playing the music we play, which isn’t really that accessible. Or we could be a wedding band, we’d certainly make money that way. But for me, this is about the music we’re making and the people I’m making it with.”