Semi-Toned

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We caught up with Tommy Hamer (musical director), Eddie Henley, Sylvan Rackham, and Henry Edwards from Exeter University’s award-winning all male a cappella group, Semi-Toned, to discuss their very busy year.

I’m amazed at your range of musical styles, one minute you sing Jungle, the next Fleetwood Mac. How do you choose what songs you use? 
TH: We have various people bringing in arrangements, so it’s not exclusively the job of the Musical Director. I think the variety comes from the way in which we approach it so openly; everyone is welcome to bring in an arrangement.

How do you decide who takes leads?
TH: When you do these arrangements, you usually have someone in mind for these solos. We all know each others voices really well and what will suit them. Americans have a mechanism of auditioning for songs, but our way is much more natural.

In response to your US tour, how does a cappella differ between the UK and the USA?
EH: America is a lot more cheesy. A cappella is really huge, everywhere you go they have about ten groups. Exeter is quite unique, in that we have eight, but in America everyone does it, and everyone knows it. But musically, it’s a lot more cheesy there.
TH: Everyone in the UK is progressing so fast though, but musically I think we are more avant-garde.

Would you say that you have seen a rise in popularity since you started?
EH: Definitely, even since last year! There’s lots of factors: Gareth Malone has just had a TV show, so the genre is getting more exposure, Pitch Perfect, Glee. We’re getting to the point that a cappella groups are putting videos on YouTube and getting millions of views.

Do you find the dance moves come organically through rehearsals?
SR: More for some than others [laughs].
EH: We don’t choreograph all our pieces, we mainly choreograph for competitions, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. None of us are dancers, all our choreography is a group effort.

Are Edinburgh Fringe Festival and The Voice Festival UK on your radar this year?
EH: Very much so.
TH: We’re definitely going to Edinburgh next year. We’re planning on doing a few competitions this year, the ICCA – the ones on Pitch Perfect – we just sent our video in for that audition. We may be in America for during The Voice Festival though.

Can you give us some info on your EP?
EH: We recorded it quite a while ago now, in September 2014. It was us trying to get the most varied songs on it as possible. All of the songs meant a lot to the group at the time, and we wanted to immortalize that.
TH: We released it in February, and got it on a load of streaming services. Hopefully, more and more people might stumble across our music for free, then that’s really exciting for us.

Is there anymore on the horizon?
TH: There is: Spring 2016.
EH: We’re going to record something very soon. There is a company in America that recorded our Rich Man single [which you can download for free here], and they are coming over at the end of this month to get another five songs down. A lot of it is going to be really recent stuff, and one or two from last year as well.

Are you thinking of doing a companion video?
TH: There should definitely be more videos on the horizon – given the success of Rich Man, and all the positive feedback we had from that.

How was filming your first video for Rich Man?
TH: It was such a good experience. It was something we’ve been dying to do for so long. Then, before we knew it, we had a date. One of our member’s, Ted’s, older brother came down to film us, and we spent ten hours one Saturday filming the video.
SR: I had quite a clear picture in my mind in how I’d hoped it would look, but I didn’t think it would actually come out that way, and somehow it did.
HE: It’s had a brilliant outreach as well, as obviously it came out the month before I came here. And I thought, “Wow these guys are so cool.” Then I realised they went to Exeter, then I bumped into them at Freshers Fair and signed up for auditions
TH: We were given a very generous sum of money from [for winning] The Voice Festival, as a prize for winning it. That money went all towards filming the video, and they paid for the recording. They’ve been fantastic in their support, since the beginning.

How do you balance your social and academic life?
EH: We don’t [laughs].
TH: No, with difficulty. When you come into the group in first year, I never could have imagined how much it would take over my life – in a good way! Even by our standards, recently we’ve just had gig after gig. We’ve upped our rehearsal schedule. We’ve been learning new pieces like crazy.

What’s the future, other than the EP, the tours…?
TH: You’ll see us everywhere in December. We’ll be hiding in a room for a few days at the end of November recording. Lots of society balls. Sunday 6th December you can catch us at The Firehouse, and ECU Carol Service on 7th December. Also we are currently trying to raise money for Movember, and we have a Movember page which you can get through on our Facebook. You can see updates on our page. We are very, very busy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

You can buy Semi-Toned’s EP on iTunes here.