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Mike Humphries aka Happnin’ Boy has been part of the live scene around the Harlow and Stortford area for over 15 years, both as a band member and now as a solo artist. Often likened to Jack Black, Mike is one of the most entertaining and energetic live performers you are likely to see anywhere in the country. As well as his solo career, Mike also runs a regular and very popular jam night at The Half Moon in Bishops Stortford.
Mike: I’ve always been interested in music, right from an early age. My parents had rock n roll albums, 50s and 60s stuff, but they also had a lot of those Top Of The Pops albums from the 70s with Slade on them, people like that, so I’d always got a thing for rock n roll music. It was about 1980, I was living abroad and had nothing else to do but listen to music and got into The Police, Madness and ELO, things like that, and then later on heavy metal as well. I decided I wanted to play drums, but couldn’t afford to buy a set, so I did the thing with pots and pans and old boxes. I think I realised I was a shit drummer, and I had this battered acoustic guitar lying around, so I had some lessons so I could learn the basic chord structures.
We eventually went to live in Zimbabwe and I basically played guitar all day, sat by a swimming pool. I wrote my first song when I was sixteen and got into raw delta blues music.
MZ – So where were you getting your music from, living out there?
Mike: There was a guy called John Law who was an old hippy who had decided to retire out there and he had an amazing collection of albums by all the greats – John Mayall, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Groundhogs, people like that. So I used to go round there and listen to all these and got hooked on it.
I did my first gig with a band called The Steamrollers at the tender age of 17, and I didn’t have anything to wear particularly, so I came on with this old shirt and a pair of jeans, and to be rock n roll I wore a couple of old school ties wrapped tight round my arms. I jumped off the stage into the audience at the end of the gig, the audience comprising of 3 men and a dog I think! The best bit of crowd surfing I’ve ever done in my life!
MZ: Can you remember the first album you bought?
Mike: Very difficult – I think it was Judas Priest – British Steel, which summed it all for me at the time. I had an intense love affair with heavy metal for a while there.
MZ: Did you get into African music while in Zimbabwe?
Mike: I loved it! I still use those influences. I’ve written a few songs that use African guitar and I love that, Freedom Man for instance, which I’ve been doing for years has always had that African-type style to it. It’s just repetitive but at the same time it’s what people love to dance to, it’s got that infectious beat. So I did take a lot of that African stuff with me, and went to see a lot of African bands, from people just doing their own thing with a guitar or marimba’s to 8-9 piece bands with brass. I went to Paul Simon’s Graceland gig in Harare in 1987, with Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Mirium Makeba who was fantastic – it was an amazing gig. And of course, there’s a link with the blues with that music.
Zimbabwe was an amazing place to play and write music – so much space and peacefulness. I used to take a guitar and walk 2 miles straight, out of Bulawayo where I lived, into the bush where there was nobody else around with my backpack armed with a couple of cans of coke, and I used to sit on this rock and I’d play guitar for hours. One time I was there and I heard a rustling coming from a bush nearby. So I’m thinking, is this a lion or something, when I small, old African man wonders out on his way back from work in his overalls, pushing a bike with a huge cardboard box on the back. So he stops and watches me for a while, playing my guitar, and when I finish he applauds and out of the box he gets an ice-cold beer which he gives to me and off he disappears back into the bush. That moment was pivotal for me in deciding that I wanted to be a musician. This is why that country is magic. It’s a shame it’s gone the way it has now. People like us should be living over there and making music. People aren’t living on top of eachother like over here.
MZ – What happened when you moved back to England?
Mike: It was a bit of a culture shock at first, but I got used to it. I’ve always been a person who’s wanted to party, so I adapted quite quickly! I went to Harlow College, and signed onto the BTEC music course, which is where I met loads of the local musicians. We were very lucky in the years that I was there – there was a fantastic amount of talent – Dave Pritchard (Houston 500), Terry Mascall (The Hurt, Uncle Funk), Paul Furnace (Rock The Monkey), Dan Filby (Velvetone) – Dan and Paul were in Wasted In Pedro together, Dave and I formed Oi Oi Saveloy, we had a really good scene. We used to get riotously drunk but we were able to experiment and form some great bands. We were all playing at The Square in Harlow, The George and Dragon in Epping, Rose and Crown in Stortford and The Army & Navy in Chelmsford, pulling some great crowds.
MZ: I remember Oi Oi Saveloy winning the Harlow Rock Contest that year – who else was in the band?
Mike: It was me and Dave Pritchard, Mark Caldwell on guitar and Dave Temple on drums, who was a genius drummer. The band seemed to gel just for that rock contest, but as soon as we took it out beyond that, it fell apart and we split up.
I used to have a real saveloy hanging off me bass – it would get thrown into the audience who would be taking bites out of it! Quality! I used to crowd surf at those gigs too, but the audience would just drop me!
The promoter at the Square at the time hated us so much that he tried to fix the semi-final so we wouldn’t win. Didn’t work though, he got found out and left under a cloud as I remember….
So Oi Oi Saveloy split and we formed another band called Infinity Inc., but that only lasted a couple of gigs. By that time I’d started moving away from the funk rock thing, which was so prominent at that time, and got back to playing traditional rock n roll. I also wanted to play guitar again, having played bass in Oi Oi Saveloy, and write my own songs, which I did a bit of in Oi Oi Saveloy, but my songs didn’t fit that funk rock style we were doing. So I formed XA, which is actually a South African slang word meaning “Buddy”. The band was Nick Foote on bass, Dave Temple on drums, Paul Furnace on guitar and Chris Lambertti on keys and trumpet, who is now in Uncle Funk. I remember getting very excited on stage one night and pouring a pint of beer down his trumpet! He was blowing bubbles out of it for the rest of the night! He wasn’t that happy I don’t think, but he saw the funny side eventually!!
The band used to drag me up onto the stage tied to a crucifix, but it was such a bloody heavy piece of timber that they used to drop me, face first! Everyone used to think it was hilarious!
(Your MZ hack is laughing so much now that he is incapable of asking any more questions for a while….)
We had some great times there, mostly drunken. There are some videos I think, but they’re all illegal. I remember seeing Dan Filby on the floor in hysterics at one gig. I was playing the guitar, really getting into the opening number, jumping up and down and running up and down the stage when I see this guy in the audience holding a lead, the lead that should have been in my guitar!!!
We then got Jim Bird in the band who was notorious for getting drunk and naked on stage. We played a gig in Sudbury where we ended up covering ourselves in kebab sauce…! It took three days to clear it all up!
So then after XA finished I started the blues jams, which are just about getting all these people together and having a good time. My problem with bands has also been the clash of personalities, it’s a hard thing because you’re like a family and you’ll have good days and bad days. This is why I do my own thing now
MZ (having regained composure): You’ve been a solo musician for a while now, how did you get the name Happnin’ Boy?
Mike: Yep, I haven’t got any friends anymore! The Happnin’ Boy name was given to me by a Zimbabwean guy – this guy Zack used to listen to me playing the blues and he said I should have a blues name like “Blind Willie Johnson” or something, so he suggested Happnin’ Boy as he thought things always happened when I was around, I was a burst of energy to him. So I thought it was OK, but I didn’t use it until years later. It didn’t really take off until I met some guys in London, in the late 90s. They had heard my stuff via some recordings I’d made and got in touch and asked me to record in their studios in London. So I recorded there for a few weekends and played some gigs at the Borderline and the 12 Bar Club in London, which was great experience for me. So we recorded an album, but it wasn’t what I wanted when all was said and done. So then I did a diploma in youth work which took up three years of my life to this point here.
MZ – So you’re recording a new album now – tell us about that.
Mike: I’ve recorded 10 tracks, some stuff from the past and some recently written. Some of it’s acoustic, me on my own with a guitar, some with another guitarist, cello, that sort of thing, and some with a full band. I’m recording some of it with Paul Furnace’s studio, which is great and some in Chelmsford. I’m also about to go into Hatfield Forest with my 4 track and record in there with the ambience of the forest as an experiment. I hope to have the promos out by January. There’s really two sides to Happnin’ Boy at the moment, one is raw blues, and the other is acoustic folk rock, and it’s these two sides that are going to feature on the album. I love Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters…I love the wailing sound these guys get from their voices and I try and do that with my voice. The other side is more in keeping with The Beatles and The Stones, as well as Radiohead, Coldplay, Jack Johnson, that sort of thing.
MZ – You get a very authentic blues sound from your guitar…
Mike: I’ll tell you a story –I was working at Our Price in Romford years ago, and passing Oxfam on my way home one day I spotted this old guitar in the window. It immediately caught my eye even though it was really dusty and had only one rusty string on it. So I asked the assistant to have a look and gave this old string a pluck, and the assistant looked at me and said “that guitar’s made for you isn’t it?!”. It had a guttural noise like I’ve never before. It had a very heavy body and a thick neck and a sound so earthy that I just had to have it. I got it home, dusted it down and strung it with electric guitar strings and sounded like something from the 1930’s. A genuine delta blues sound, perfect! I went to a music shop sometimes later to get it valued. They told me I had a 1926 Hofner Jazz bass body with a homemade neck. It’s a beauty and I’ll never get rid of it. It just oozes the blues.
MZ – Blues is obviously a big influence, but are there any current bands that do it for you?
Mike: Anybody and everybody really. I can put on a drum & bass compilation and follow it with Barber’s Adagio For Strings, you know? As long as it talks to me musically, as long as it has substance. Watching bands like Rock The Monkey and Uncle Funk were an influence. Music has such a wide spectrum you can’t afford to be narrow-minded.
MZ – So when you’ve recorded the album, are you going to gig it with a band or as a solo artist?
Mike: Well, I did some stuff with a band set-up in Ealing, and it worked very well, but I still I have this love of doing it on my own. It’s like the idea of one man against the world, no-one else to support you with pre-gig nerves, but when you start playing it all comes together and you feel great. I’m an entertainer and I get off being on my own with a crowd to please.
MZ – And finally, when can we see you hosting another blues jam in the Half Moon?
Mike: Sometime in November – a Friday or Saturday, I haven’t confirmed a date yet so watch this space!