Vipers on the MAC

Moving on Music brings US band Petunia and the Vipers to Belfast

Idiosyncratic seven-piece band Petunia and the Vipers are the very epitome of Americana, playing a unique blend of rockabilly, country, gypsy and blues. So when the idea of a UK tour was first mooted, drummer and vocal harmonist (with occasional fiddle or harmonica) Marc L’Esperance admits that they were ‘a bit unsure’ about whether audiences would respond to them.

‘We knew audiences had some exposure to Americana,’ he says, ‘but the UK already has so much great music. However, it’s been fantastic so far.’

Although, he adds with a chuckle, ‘so far’ only means Glasgow. Petunia and the Vipers wowed audiences at the acclaimed Celtic Connections festival, and were impressed with the ‘great, down to earth atmosphere’ – not to mention the great Glaswegian cuisine.

L’Esperance describes Petunia and the Vipers music as a mixture of original songs penned by Petunia (the band’s lead singer, also known as Ron Fortugno) and covers both well-known and obscure. ‘Everything from country to 40s swing music, from jungle jazz to depression era cowboy yodelling,’ he says. And while he hesitates to define Petunia’s musical style for the lead singer, he admits that ‘the range of styles give some hint as to what influences Petunia’s writing’. But only some.

‘Writers have two kinds of influence,’ he explains. ‘Passive – that’s music they’ve listened to – and active – that’s music they’ve experience. Petunia has travelled widely and experienced a lot of different music, he brings all of that into his song-writing.’

It is obvious that L’Esperance has a great deal of respect for his co-musicians in Petunia and the Vipers. If he didn’t, he explains, he wouldn’t be playing with them. ‘I could not abide being in a band with a lousy lead singer,’ he jokes.

There is some truth there, though. In addition to his nearly  life-long harmonica practice (‘I was five years old when I started.’), ancestral fiddling inheritance (‘I have musical ancestors in my east coast maritime family roots’ and a fiddling champion great-grandfather) and drumming, L’Esperance is a well-respected producer and sound engineer. A career he pursued specifically so he’d never have to play music he didn’t like.

‘It was an alternative outlet. I wanted something that was musical, but not dependent on playing music,’ he explains. ‘I’ve seen a lot of people trying to make a living out of playing music, and they had to take a lot of gigs they didn’t really want to. I was also fascinated with the technicalities of engineering.’

In fact, it was as a producer that L’Esperance first got to know Petunia and the Vipers. He had worked with both Stephen Nikleva (electric guitar) and Jimmy Roy (lapsteel guitar) when they were part of Roy Condo and the Ricochets – a band that ‘paved the way for the stuff Petunia and the Vipers do’. L’Esperance also spent time in the studio with Petunia and ‘jumped at the chance’ to play with the unique modern-day troubadour.

‘He’s a great singer, very unique,’ he explains. ‘I’m fascinated with his artistry.’

And even though he’s found gigs he wants to do with Petunia and the Vipers, L’Esperance hasn’t hung up his producer’s earphones. Between tours he can be found back home in his own studio, working on albums.

‘It’s nice to take time off from playing music sometimes,’ he says. ‘Then take time off from producing music to play it.’

The MAC gig on February 8 will be Petunia and the Viper’s first visit to Northern Ireland. L’Esperance has been to the UK before, but only got to see some English towns. Hopefully, their unusual sound will appeal to audiences here as much as it did in Glasgow.

Petunia and the Vipers are at the MAC, in association with Moving on Music, on February 8