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  • Writer's pictureLeon Riccio

Split The Dealer and Deva St. John - an odd day out

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Split The Dealer at BunkFest 2022. Photo credit: Louis Jean La Grange

“You can drive slower,” Louis says to me impatiently, his full weight balancing between the side of my car door and thin air as he focuses the video camera lens out the window. Behind me, Deva St. John drums her palms on the roof of her partner’s car as Sam drives in convoy. One of her latest singles, Poser, blares out of the car as she lip-syncs to the melody.

This is the third take of the music video segment this afternoon - in one take, we circle a roundabout at no more than four miles per hour for the full three-and-a-half minute song, in another take, Deva, sporting a scraggly cloth sweater, is passionately flailing into the fish-eye lens in a close-up shot. Despite having only met Skye (Deva’s non-stage-name) the day beforehand, I was thrilled I had somehow been roped into taking part in her latest music video.

Several segments had already been shot before my arrival - including footage of Deva (pronounced Dayva) hypnotically dancing around a BMX dirt track, “which made for great dynamics,” the film-maker told me, and a scene where Deva graffitied the word ‘poser’ underneath a bridge in orange spray-paint. By the end of Sunday afternoon, only half of the video had been filmed. Despite this, everyone involved knew they were on to something solid.

Deva St. John in the latest music video. Photo credit: Louis Jean La Grange

Following a break from shooting between the car rides and the previous clips, accompanied by rounds of MarioKart and pasta, I was told Sam Brett, Deva’s partner of 11 years, also made music. The tall, lean, mohawk-donning figure that had been making friendly conversation with me all day was the man behind Split The Dealer - reeling in just shy of 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify - and he was playing a gig later this evening.

It turned out he was playing a set at BunkFest, one of the biggest free music-and-beer festivals in Europe. A short drive later and we were standing outside The Cross Keys in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, listening to four-piece alt-rock act Nineteenth Hour.

A short walk around the corner however, and there were at least a thousand revellers listening to the country and folk artists playing, alongside the usual festival poncho-and-merch stores, and traditional fairground rides for their kids to have a go around. Folk band True Strays performed on the main stage, and had garnered hundreds of festival goers to their show - the music was good, if double-bass and hurdy gurdys are your sort of thing.

After photographer Louis and I blagged our way backstage as ‘press’ and ‘photography’, BunkFest director Geoff Leon told me: “BunkFest began 20 years ago after Bob Wyatt - the landlord at The Cross Keys - got together with friends and set-up a marquee on his 50th birthday.

“He loved folk music, and in that moment BunkFest was conceived. Now the festival is absolutely huge. We took two years off because of Covid, but we have come back bigger and better.”

Admittedly, this was information I had not asked for, but nonetheless I scribbled it all down in a bid to convince him we weren’t total chancers. Also, it was an interesting backstory to the dance, music, and beer-oriented weekend.

Fifteen minutes before schedule however, Sam took to the Portcullis stage and slapped the crowd with Riptide as the opener. Ears pricked up amongst an otherwise relaxed crowd and people started to shuffle closer to the stage. Sporting a plain black tee, white jeans, and matching red gloves and trainers, Sam’s face lit up as his audience grew larger. Supporting guitarist Rory Evans and drummer Harry Batsford - both sporting black tees and canvas cargo shorts - looked just as ready to kick off.

The sparky soloist bounced around the stage in synchrony with the choppy verses, rapping with a 2000s-era-Britpop twang, but with a charming and focussed execution that kept it from veering into cliché. This was not due to lack of vocal talent either - Sam switched between his British-boy cadence to pleasant pop-inflections on alt-rock tune Harmony, and even threw in a hearty death-metal growl somewhere in the set, presumably just for good measure.

Split The Dealer at BunkFest 2022. Photo credit: Louis Jean La Grange

As the band ran through their 10-song setlist, Rory’s howling rhythm guitar held the chaos together while Harry played hard and fast, keeping the rhythm tight on the verses of Dreamstate and going all-out in a one-two punk rhythm on tracks like Dirty Birdy. By the third song Sam had left the stage and joined the crowd, keeping the energy of the performance running with his own unrelenting gusto and guts.

“That was bloody brilliant!”, a man in his late fifties with grey dreadlocks yelled out to the singer. Within the first half of the set, he had won over the punks of an older age. If he hadn’t won over the rest of the crowd by then, the two excellently-executed covers of head-nodding Figure It Out by Royal Blood and guarantee-singalong Heart Shaped Box by Nirvana did the trick.

Out of nowhere, a young punk - gelled mohican, spikes, war paint, and a giant ‘A’ plastered on the back of their denim jacket - started going ballistic in the front row, skanking to their latest single Chinchilla. If Sam and Deva have one thing in common performance-wise, is that they keep it heavy when they play live. At the close of the set, the band took a selfie with the crowd. Mesmerised, around 10 middle-aged members of the crowd came to the front of the show to shake Sam’s hand while he was still on stage.

He shook hands for a solid five minutes after the music had ended. After the performance, I caught up with the punk at the front, just after they got Sam to sign their tattered jacket.

Didcot resident Eve Vass, aged 19 years, said: "I’m a huge music fan, whether that be country, folk, or classical.

“This is the third time I’ve been here [at BunkFest], and it’s just a lovely atmosphere. It is a brilliant venue - you won’t get a better family festival, I can tell you that much.

“It brings in everyone - as you can see, I am a heavy punk, so having heavy music next to classical music is amazing. All punks love ABBA, even if they don’t say it.”

Photo credit: Louis Jean La Grange

The furniture-shop staff member added: “Split The Dealer were amazing, I absolutely love them. I’m going to go see them in London now. That was a real shock to the system, although it was tiring - too many Jaeger bombs!”

Speaking to 28-year-old Sam after the gig, he said: “I’ve been in this band for about two and a half years, but I’ve been making music since I was 15 years old.

“I used to play a lot of solo slower acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, but I grew up on a lot of hip hop, rock, and metal, so the acoustic stuff didn’t really make sense.

“Me and Skye have been together for 11 years and I was writing a lot of break-up songs because that’s what sold, but none of it really made sense.

“I was like right, I want to do something more ‘me’, more what I grew up on, and I’ve got a lot of energy that I wanted to put that out there.”

Harry ran up to us to yell “Split The Dealer rules!” into the microphone and scuttled away.

Sam continued: “It was really good to have a lot of space on stage to run around on, run up to Harry and get on the drum kit or to go up to Rory, especially to be able to jump off the stage and be with the crowd.

“It’s my birthday a couple of days before our next show, so we’re going to try and make it a big gig and have a celebration. I’m looking forward to it.”

To see Sam play live, Split The Dealer will next be performing at The Victoria in Dalston, London, on October 6.

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