Music

"Selling The Big Issue taught me how to front a rock band"

Ex-Big Issue vendor Paul-Ronney Angel now fronts 'wedding band from hell' The Urban Voodoo Machine - but he has kept his badge as a reminder

Paul-Ronney Angel is the swaggering lead singer of The Urban Voodoo Machine but remembers when he sold The Big Issue in London in the 1990s. “Standing on the street shouting, ‘Buy The Big Issue!’, I guess that was training to front a rock band,” he says. “Being out on the street totally alone… you learn how to deal with hecklers, right?”

Originally from Norway, Angel left his home country in 1992 at the age of 18. “I moved to London with a guitar and a rock’n’roll dream,” he says. “I had a couple of hundred pounds in my sock. That quickly disappeared and I found myself living in squats. I’m not qualified to do many jobs, and when you don’t have a proper address not many people are going to give you a job.

“The Big Issue was a pretty new thing around that time. There were some other people who lived in the squat who said, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ It saved my ass.”

Angel (pictured middle of the front row) knew fame and success were not going to happen overnight but persevered. Around 2003, he founded The Urban Voodoo Machine, with one gig leading to another and band members being added along the way. Their fourth album, Hellhound Hymns, has just been released and the band is in the midst of a UK then European tour. More than a simple concert, they often involve burlesque and circus acts.

We describe our music as bourbon-soaked gypsy blues bop’n’stroll. That’s quite a mouthful, right?

“It is a performance,” Angel explains. “We like to get the audience involved. I really hate seeing bands where they stand and look at their shoes. Saying that, we have really good shoes but we don’t stand and stare at them all night.”

Footwear aside, what does the band actually sound like?

“It’s a mix of all sorts of stuff,” Angel says. “Rockabilly, rhythm and blues, jazz, Latin music, country… We describe our music as bourbon-soaked gypsy blues bop’n’stroll. That’s quite a mouthful, right?”

It’s also quite an earful. Listening to Hellbound Hymns is like hearing all corners of a record shop playing at once in raucous but tuneful cacophony, with Angel’s vocals certainly of the fallen angel variety, sounding like rolling thunder with a tinge of Tom Waits. The songs themselves weave together frenzied highs and poignant depths, in part because The Machine’s guitar player Nick Marsh died of cancer before the album’s completion. His death came nine months after violin player Rob ‘the kid’ Skipper also passed away.

“It’s tough but those guys would have wanted us to go on,” Angel says. “We’re very much a family. When Nick died we started a marching band version of The Machine and did a New Orleans-style funeral for him. We were always called the wedding band from hell but now we’ll take you all the way.”

Being part of a band with constant touring, recording and arranging gigs makes it more of a lifestyle than a job but it is one Angel loves. “We’ve been going for 13 years now and we’re definitely doing this because we enjoy it,” he says. “We’re not getting rich from it, that’s for sure… Not yet!”

There is something Angel has held on to that highlights the twists and turns in his journey – his Big Issue identification badge. “I have kept it all this time,” he says. “It reminds me that you can drag yourself off the streets if you work hard.”

The Urban Voodoo Machine’s new album Hellbound Hymns is out now

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