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Interview: PETE FRENCH (Leaf Hound, Cactus)

Rock Stars...

Few rock albums have achieved greater cult status than Leaf Hound's ‘Growers of Mushroom'. Accompanied by the aura and mystique which surrounds buried treasure, the album has gradually acquired a mythical status, acting as an inspiration to generations of rockers, especially in the world of stoner metal, where its explosive fusion of soulful blues and hard rock fury has met with a fanatical following.

Vocalist Pete French has since worked with Cactus and Atomic Rooster amongst others, as well as pursuing a solo career. But he's now put a new version of Leaf Hound together, which was all the excuse Stuart Hamilton needed to grab at the chance of speaking to him.

SAH: Prior to Leaf Hound you served time in sixties blues bands like the Brunning Sunflower Blues Band and Black Cat Bones. Both were tremendous breeding grounds for musicians moving onwards and upwards. What are your memories of that time?

PF: When we were about 18, one of the first bands that my cousin Mick Halls and I played semi professional gigs with were the Switch. We tried, unsuccessfully, to write some of our own material and after the band broke up, decided to look for a new bass player.

Mick and I auditioned Bob Brunning to join us - he was a big fish who had recorded with Fleetwood Mac on a song called Long Grey Mare. Bob had got a record deal on Saga records so we became mercenaries. Our band became his band, The Brunning Sunflower Band, and together we recorded our first record, Bullen Street Blues, which was released in 1968.

Bullen Street was special to me not just because it was the first recording I had ever done, but because Bullen Street was where I had spent most of my childhood - it was my first home. Soon after recording the album, Mick and I decided that we wanted to put a group together with a more ballsy approach so we left to form Joe Poe.

Another breeding ground of talent was the now demolished tiny little pub in Battersea known as the Nags Head where we had the pleasure of seeing so many fantastic bands trying to get a break. Jethro Tull, Peter Green, Chicken Shack and so many others all played upstairs in a room that was only big enough for about sixty people. Joe Poe played a mixture of Spencer Davis, with some John Mayall tunes amongst others.

I later auditioned and got the gig for vocalist for Black Cat Bones. When Rod Price left to join the American band Foghat, Mick replaced him to join us on guitar.

Pete French

SAH: What made you decide to form Leaf Hound?

PF Whilst playing the blues in Black Cat Bones and after a few tour dates, Mick and I thought that we should write our own material, put our own stamp on it and make it sound a bit more progressive. We wanted to break out of the standard blues mould, especially as we were getting so much influence from bands like Cream, Hendrix and the Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck group and later the New Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin. I had been reading some short horror stories and one was called the Emissary. It was about a dog that had died and returned to its master from the dead, and it was covered in leaves. From that, I got the name Leaf Hound.

Black Cat Bones then became Leaf Hound, with Mick and myself leading it as we were doing most of the writing.

SAH: "Growers of Mushroom" was recorded in one eleven hour session. Do you remember much about it, or was it all gone in a blur?

PF: Well it was a long time ago, but boy, I still gotta hand it to the excellent musicianship of the players at the time - they literally played there asses off! Sometimes I guess a bit of magic walks into the studio and bang! It just happens. I could never see it being repeated in the same fashion again today. It really was unique, a one off at the time. We literally wrote and recorded the song titled "With A Minute To Go", having just a few minutes of recording time left.

SAH: Between recording and release, there were some major line up changes. What happened?

PF: Well sad to say, Mick and myself realised that Mick being such a great guitarist had made Derek, the rhythm guitarist's part in the band quite redundant. His brother Stuart was the bass player and they both decided to quit.I thought they were going to be reforming Black Cat Bones again but it obviously didn't happen. I remember vaguely that we had managed to get something like a two week tour together of Germany. We employed Ron Thomas from the Heavy Metal Kids on bass and we were off rocking again, but this time as a four piece band.

SAH: Leaf Hound never really took off in the UK, but you played some legendary shows in Europe around that time, especially Germany. What do you remember about touring back in the day?

PF: Well we must have been hot because we got great receptions everywhere! Mick's guitar playing was brilliant, Ron's bass playing was really cooking and Keith hammering away on drums meant it all worked wonderfully together. I can't recall exactly where the gigs were in Germany, perhaps some fans who were there might remember.

SAH: Then you split up. Why?

PF: Well, the tour was meant to promote the album, but after flogging our guts out, we realised there was no promotion, and no record release date. We were so pissed off that we ended up telling the management to get lost. We felt completely let down and frustrated and regretfully broke the band up. To our complete amazement, the album was released nearly a year afterwards. What a bloody joke!

SAH: My first exposure to your vocals were on the Atomic Rooster album "In Hearing Of". (as anyone who knows me will verify I am a huge Rooster fan). Especially, for me, regale me with memories of that time!

PF: After Leaf Hound broke up, I began writing and singing, together with Cozy Powell, with Birmingham band Big Bertha. Cozy and I seemed to hit it off but we weren't really sure if we were happy as to where the band's direction was going so we both left. Cozy came down to London and stayed at my place, and we both ended up getting gigs at the same time - Cozy with Jeff Beck and myself with Atomic Rooster. We couldn't believe our luck. This was a crack at the big time for both of us.

SAH: You also played alongside former Vanilla Fudgers Tim Bogert & Carmine Appice in Cactus, appearing on the album "Ot'n'Sweaty". What was it like touring the US in such heavyweight company?

PF: While Atomic Rooster were playing together with Cactus on our American Tour, Tim Bogert asked if I would ever consider leaving Atomic Rooster and joining them. I was completely knocked out by Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice's playing – to me they were to me like America's answer to Led Zeppelin's John Bonham and John Paul Jones, it was raw Rhythm and Blues with power.

Vincent was a great musician to perform with but I was missing that good old rock guitar sound and Vincent was proving to be a difficult man to communicate with - a bit of dark horse. There wasn't the freedom within the band to put my stamp or influence on the writing that I had hoped for and although I had gained plenty of experience with my performances, I had gained very little else and made hardly any money.

I left and joined one of Americas heavyweight "great rocking rhythm and blues bands" and lived and recorded in the states completing the album ‘Ot ‘N Sweaty on Atlantic records. We did some great gigs and had a lot of fun along the way, but unfortunately Jeff Beck asked Carmine and Tim to make a kind of super group together and that was Beck Bogart and Appice - at the cost of breaking up Cactus.

I collectively wrote two songs for their album with them – "Lady" and "Lose Myself With You". Although offered to form a new Cactus for their American management, I declined - a decision which was to cripple my career for over two and a half years and also stopped me from forming a new band with the Robert Stigwood organisation with Jimmy McCullough from the band Blue. After returning to dear old Blighty and ‘arghhh new wave and Boy George crap', I almost completely gave up.

SAH: Then it was off to Germany to sing with Randy Pie. I next picked up your career with your solo album "Ducks in Flight". How were you faring in those days?

PF: That came about when I realised that all my former contractual agreements had expired. I was offered an audition with this awfully named band called Randy Pie who were a really good bunch of musicians. Their music was more towards funk than rock which was quite a change but I gave it a shot and got the gig. This gave me the opportunity to live in Hamburg and to tour again and write and work on recording the album Fast Forward in California.

Whilst there, I had a rather unique offer to record a part in a ‘futility of war Rock Opera album' titled "Der Furher" with Marti Webb and Neil Landon amongst others. Polydor was starting to get pretty fed up with the way the band were goofing around with the record company and not meeting commitments, so amazingly, the record company sacked the band, but offered me a solo album deal.

I was completely knocked out, but I was now in Germany without a band so I got in touch with my cousin Mick Halls and we started writing for the album, Ducks in Flight - the title was taken from Coronation Street's Hilda Ogden and the ducks that were stuck on her wall.

I was allowed to record the album in London and worked with some great musicians including Kenney Jones, Brian Robertson and Micky Moody. But although the album was well received, Polydor would not sign up the rest of the band and expected me to continue on my own which definitely was not what I was about.

SAH: Again, it seemed to be Germany that came to the rescue in 1994 when "Growers of Mushroom" was re-released by Repertoire Records, to the delight of stoners and chagrin of bootleggers everywhere. Did you know how feted the album had become?

PF: Yeah what a surprise eh? Andy Davis from Record Collector had contacted me to tell me that he had just heard this album and that it had blown him away, and then asked how come such a buried treasure like this had not been discovered before. I was gobsmacked! Repertoire Records in Hamburg were really keen to bring a limited addition out on CD but there was no band, and Mick was now was living in the States. To be truthful, I didn't think any more about it, or that anything would come from it.

SAH: Then you decided to put a new version of Leaf Hound together. Why now?

PF: Again how strange life is! I had a phone call out of the blue from Vanilla Fudge -apparently Tim Bogart had been trying to contact me to tell me that they were playing at the Underworld Club and would I like to come down and join them. It was great to jam with the boy's again and I got up and sang Rod and Carmine's song, "If You Think I'm Sexy".

After the gig, I was told that bands appearing at the club were playing songs from my Leaf Hound album, and would I like to meet some of my Leaf Hound fans? I thought I was hearing things. Fans? I went on to the Heavy Load Club not sure what it was all about, and to my total surprise, met young dudes who were raving about how great they thought Leaf Hound was. I was genuinely inspired to find so many people enquiring about whether I was going to put the band back on the road again.

While at the club, I met a fan who was to become my new drummer - Jimmy Rowland. Through talking with Jim, I later auditioned Luke Raynor on guitar, and Ed Pearson on bass. They were all great players, we hit it off and the new band was created.

A meeting was arranged with Repertoire Records in Hamburg which had shown interest in re-releasing the original album, "Growers of Mushroom", and I offered another track, Too many rock n' roll times, to help promote the new band .The entire CD was digitally remixed and remastered and has sparked great interest in the band which I hope lasts!

Pete French

SAH: How has the gigging been going?

PF: Well touch wood, so far so good. We have been well received at places like the Underworld and the Borderline, to mention a few, and had a great reception at our concert recently in Sweden. We are playing at the Roadburn Festival in Holland in April are definitely looking forward to that one.

SAH: And you're thinking about recording new material? Is that wise given the stature accorded the original album?

PF: Well I ain't gonna roll over and die just yet! Yeah, we're recording a new album, titled ‘Unleashed' which will be released as soon as we think it will be ready, probably around March I hope. It is a tough call to try to be as good or better than the original band's album was, but a challenge is always good to try and meet. We have played a few of our new compositions at our gigs and they have been equally well received.

There will soon be a small collector's edition released by Rise Above records on vinyl of Leaf Hound Live at the Borderline, featuring the new band playing "Freelance Fiend" and "Too Many Rock n` Roll Times".

SAH: The Leaf Hound track "Freelance Fiend" has also made an appearance on the new Neil Jordan film, "Breakfast For Pluto" alongside those legendary songs of the seventies, "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" and "The Wombling Song"! How did that come about?

PF: Your guess is as good as mine, but I ain't complaining. Apparently the film is set around the same time as when we wrote the song, and they liked it .

SAH: And what's next for Pete French?

PF: Well I am going to be appearing at the Swedish Rock festival with a reformed Cactus band with myself and Carmine and Tim together with the original Cactus guitarist Jim Macarty in June. Possibly, other dates will follow, so watch this space.

I have also been recording some blues tracks with a band called the "Ambulators" which were to help try to raise money towards the New Orleans disaster. I'm also attempting to write a horror thriller story called "Hallows Gate."

The very next thing is our gig at the Half Moon in Putney on 29 January........

SAH: Thanks to Tanya Reed for setting up this interview.

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Interview © 2006 Stuart Hamilton

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