Music has the ability to break down the most stubborn of boundaries. As a universal language, it offers a unique freedom of communication that cuts across perceived norms.
For example, when South London trio The Fish Police take to the stage, their edgy original rap pop, delivered with presence and style, distinguishes itself as something quirky and innovative. The fact that two of its members are autistic has no relevance in the context of their performance. They simply entertain, as they will demonstrate when they play a headline set at Plymouth’s Funky Llama Festival on Saturday, May 31.
Singer and songwriter Dean Rodney is a showman, oozing character and charm, while Mat Howe prefers to play guitar further back in the shadows – unless you ask him to dance. On bass, sometimes keys, backing vocals and co-songwriting duties is Charles Stuart, a seasoned musician and session player, who is a regular member of Grace Jones’s touring band. He first started working with Dean and Mat about ten years ago when he co-led a regular music and drama session with Heart n Soul, a charitable creative arts organisation with its focus on young people with learning disabilities.
“They are very musical guys,” says Charles. “It’s been quite a slow thing and it can be tricky, but we have got to know each other and at this point I know how to get the best out of both of them.
“I started out writing some songs with Dean; originally he was playing bass and singing, but he shines as a frontman, so I am playing bass now.
“Mat was slower getting into performance. It was clear straight away that he had potential on guitar and he has a distinctive style when he plays – one chord per song; we call him the ‘one chord wonder’.”
Taking their name from a US cartoon based around fish characters living underwater, the trio follow Dean’s lyrical lead, often informed by their love of Japanese culture, computer games and fast food.
“All the ideas come from Dean and his world; some are fictional and some true,” adds Charles.
From their first tentative airing of The Fish Police Theme and Black Scissors for the Heart n Soul Squidz Club back in 2005, they have gradually built up their repertoire. Having cut their teeth playing within the Heart n Soul family arena – including shows in New York and Istanbul – they now have a confident hour-long live set. Last year they took a big leap forwards, releasing debut album The Marzipan Transformations and made their first music video for single Fishwater. Last month they went on tour around the UK, drafting in a live drummer rather than using backing tracks and playing seven gigs in front of new audiences in cities including Leeds and Brighton.
“People really loved the show and it got better as we went along,” says Charles, who also works with the Music in Prisons organisation. At Funky Llama he will also appear with Heart n Soul artist Kali Perkins and her funk and soul group Too Hot For Candy.
Singer Kyle Coleman from Gwithian near Hayle is also on the all-day line-up. Kyle, 27, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and was almost totally non-verbal until he found his voice through music therapy a couple of years ago. He recently released LP Beyond the Syntax, a collection of original songs that offer a window into his world.