Chonkinfeckle - INTERVIEW with Tim Cooke and Les Hilton

22 Jan 2013

Chonkinfeckle - INTERVIEW with Tim Cooke and Les Hilton

Time for another Got A Ukulele interview, and the first of 2013. I am delighted to have hooked up again with the good guys from Chonkinfeckle – Tim Cooke and Les Hilton.

Chonkinfeckle ukulele band
Chonkinfeckle - Tim Cooke and Les Hilton (credit: Dylan Chubb)

I met the guys earlier in the year and had the pleasure of both hearing them play and played with them myself. They are a ukulele duo based in Wigan in the UK who, in their own words, play songs that “tell stories of everyday life, work, wives, kids and local characters, and often include a little bit of the local northern dialect”. On meeting them I also learned that they are very nice blokes with a great sense of humour!

Got A Ukulele reviewed their last CD “I'm From Wigan Me and loved their easy style with songs that provide both a mix of the amusing to the contemplative and moving.

So thanks to Tim and Les for talking to Got A Ukulele. I very much enjoyed doing this!

Give me a bit of background – how did you guys get into making music and how did you first meet up?

Tim: I come from a musical family, and as the youngest of three, I was never going to escape listening to music in the home from any genres, be it classical, straight through to 70’s pop! 

Dad was a church organist; Mum was in the local choral society, big brother Steve a club organist and sister Andrea a jobbing singer / guitarist. I had always wanted to be a drummer from an early age but Mum and Dad didn’t see that as an option! I eventually got a drum kit at 17, but it was too late. I loved playing but was limited as to what I could achieve. I played in a few bands including a Brass Band, but eventually got fed up at always being the first there to set up, and always the last one to leave by packing all my clobber away. 

I thought there must be an easier way to enjoy making music! So, for my 40th birthday whilst on holiday in Cornwall, the wife bought me a Mahalo Telecaster type ukulele and a chord book. I went back to the caravan and found I couldn’t put the thing down! But I struggled with a few chords, so when I got back home I went to the newly formed Wigan Ukulele Club, and that is where I met Les.

Les: My first introduction to music came by way of my granddad, when we would visit as young kids he would entertain us by playing the harmonica… through his nose! 

One day he gave me the harmonica as a gift. I reluctantly accepted. Now, this harmonica was a double sided one, and fortunately for me, the side with the least glazing on was in the same key as my favourite song of the day, Lindisfarnes ‘Meet Me On The Corner’, which in turn led me to seek out other recordings featuring the harmonica. So while all my school mates were busy platting their legs to the Bay City Rollers at the afternoon Penny Dance, I was telling them about Sonny Boy Williamson, “and there’s two of um you know”… now, it turns out, this is not a good chat up line for a 14 year old!

Tim: Les was performing with another lad at the time we met, but after a few months he asked me if I wanted to do something together. 

Apparently he heard me sing ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls’, and that was my secret audition. Les writes these wonderful stories with added music, with a ‘Lancashire / Wigan’ slant, and wanted someone with a local accent to perform these songs. I’d never seen myself as a vocalist, as not being blessed with the family musical gene, but we got together at Les’s house and tried various way’s of performing. Nearly three years later, here we are!

Les: I felt I’d seen his face somewhere before. He told me he had been the resident DJ on the Antony Cotton TV show. But I tend to think it was Bo Selecta myself….

And what about that name – explain to the readers where that came from and whose idea it was?

Tim: The name is made up of two words really. ‘Chonki’, which means good or great. And ‘feckle’ (fettle) as in order. So if you were ‘Chonki Feckle’ you would be O’reet and in good health or spirits. 

Les: Yes, some years ago I used to work in a factory and as you walked into the canteen for your first brew of the day, one of the old timers Owd Jack would often greet you with the phrase “nah mon, what fettle?” ‘in fettle’ meaning to be in good order (he would pronounce it ‘feckle’). If you were at one with the world that day the standard reply would be “chonki i fettle, the best kind”. Now, if you happened to be in a bad mood for some reason, to much beer the night before or other symptoms often brought on by a nagging spouse, the answer would be “no fettle” i.e. Keep Away! 

So when it came to sorting out an email address one day I remembered that little phrase and put it together as one word spelling it the way I remembered it spoken (Chonkinfeckle)…. It looked better than ‘LesH569 if you know what I mean. 

Tim: I think it was me who started to use it right at the beginning, as I thought, there will be no other buggers going around with that name! Stick it into Google and just our ugly mugs pop up!

Chonkinfeckle in Wigan
Les and Tim in Wigan, alongside a statue of famous Wigan user - George Formby

So how did your first performances go – tell us the good and the bad!

Tim: Well, we sort of hit the ground running, the first gigs we did we both playing ukulele and had the backing tracks on a minidisc player.

Les: I think our first performance was in Wigan town centre. We’d posted a YouTube video of the song ‘I’m From Wigan Me’, which had been spotted by the town centre manager – there was a festival going on in town and he called us up at very short notice asking if we would perform the song in the gap between bands changing over. One song was never going to be long enough to fill the gap, so they asked us to do ten minute slots! Luckily we took a few backing tracks with us. At this time we had only done a few songs together, and so after fumbling our way through we promised ourselves we would start rehearsing…. A promise we often find hard to keep.

Tim: Our next gig was a fair size smaller which was for a local art exhibition to which we had contributed some recordings of Lancashire dialect, and they asked us if we would like to perform at the end of the exhibition. It was in an old mill, very small audience of about 20, and you could see the whites of their eyes, but it was a great gig! And that experience really opened up all the other possibilities of playing our stuff live.

Les: Chonkinfeckle usually only perform when asked, which is not a bad thing as people generally know in advance what they’re letting themselves in for, and we usually have a lot of fun. But for me some of the low points of performing come when we turn up to events (often for no fee) that are poorly attended. Recently we have been involved in a couple of Local Heritage days that have included amongst other things, clog dancing, dialect story telling, steam engines, vintage cars, fairground rides etc. Lots of effort put in by lots of people only to see a handful of people turn up on the day. It’s very sad.

One thing I find refreshing about you, is that you are songwriters, not a covers band. Tell me about the writing process that works for you.

Tim: Well, Les writes all the music and lyrics, so this section is all his!

Les: We have only ever played original songs or instrumentals. There are plenty of other acts doing a much better job at cover songs than we could offer. 

All our songs are usually conceived and written in my Taxi, often picking up on stuff I overhear or conversations I have with passengers about life in general and the things that matter the most…. Partners, or marriage, nostalgia (when I was a lad), kids, work, beer…! This often reminds me of my own experiences, sometimes I write a song as my way of getting my own back on someone, like a mean boss or a cowboy builder, so be warned! 

I keep a cheap ukulele and note pad under the drivers seat in the taxi and during quiet periods (and there are many) I’ll take an idea and slap it around a bit to see if there’s a song in there. To be honest I’ve had no training as a writer of songs, but most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and a reason to exist. The hard part can be finding a chorus that ties it all together.

So do you bounce ideas of Tim or find yourself writing for his distinctive vocal delivery?

Les: I usually record a bunch of songs first then let Tim have a listen. He then decides if a song would suit him. Some work only as recordings, it’s during the recording stage that we will alter some of the words or phrases to suit Tim’s style. As for live performances, Tim needs to consider what accompaniment he is going to use, and more often than not a song will come out different from the original recorded idea.

Tim: Les is very generous with his songs. He constantly asks me for any input or ideas I may have. The trouble is, I ain’t too hot on the song writing front. I may come up with a line or so, or a certain rhythm for a song, but generally it’s all Les’s work. 

I did write one song though about how I met Fred Dibnah as a kid. I showed it to Les, who basically scribbled most of it out, and re-structured it properly. At the time though, he was preparing a meal in the kitchen, so as well as chopping & cooking, he was rewriting my song! Who said blokes can’t multi task! (Bloody smart arse!)

What do you make of the current ukulele ‘boom’ we seem to be in at the moment?

Les: The first time I picked up a uke was in 2005, and I’m pleased to see its still a very popular musical tool. I get the feeling that the boom has levelled out though. I think the days of it being considered as a novelty may be over and it seems to me more widely accepted for what it is. It’s the norm these days for music shops to stock a fairly decent range of ukes, when once your only choice was either Spongebob or Flying V. 

I think it gains more credibility when it gets used by some young and new acts as well as old ones. Did I see a Robert Plant pictured with one somewhere? (Yes you did it's HERE!)

Tim: The ukulele boom has been around for quite some time now. I don’t really know if the ukulele ever really fell out of popularity, but I think the introduction of the instrument into schools has helped enormously. For a child to pick up the uke and be strumming a tune in a short scale of time is fantastic. Plus it’s a natural progression to the guitar. The thing about the uke is, it’s light, it’s easy to play, but most importantly it’s fun to play.

I saw that you played the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain at Cheltenham. How was that for you and what other highlights have there been?

Tim: Well, what can you say about that experience!! We were a little bit gobsmacked at first, as this is the premier ukulele festival in the UK. And with the calibre of artists we were on the bill with, I must admit, it was a bit of a ‘bum twitcher’! 

The worst part about it was having to hang around backstage, waiting to go on. It’s a large, very impressive room, so that is the thing that makes you nervous. I wasn’t nervous really about playing, as we had put a lot of time and effort into the set, but it’s not your usual audience. What we primarily do is to tell stories over the music; we just hoped that came across. We had some great feedback afterwards, and once we’d done our bit we could enjoy the rest of the day!

Les: Cheltenham was a great experience for us, though as Tim says, a nervous one. My concern was how would our local stories and sayings go down in an international setting? The Jury’s still out on that one. 

Tim and I had attended the two previous events as members of the audience, so you can imagine what a shock it was when we found ourselves on the stage! We had a couple of technical problems – the drum-kit decided to dismantle itself before and during the set, and EQ’ing the washtub bass for the sound engineer was not the easiest task. We learned a lot from it though, and I’m thankful for being given the opportunity. As an added bonus I got to busk a bit of harmonica with Manitoba Hal, not bad considering we would have been there anyway. 

I think playing at the festival has given us more confidence as performers, plus we don’t have to worry about the drummer anymore… he sacked us! 

Tim: 2012 really was the busiest we’ve been. Apart from the festival of GB we supported The Lancashire Hotpots at a big festival in town. We played the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre in Bolton – we are huge Fred fans, so this was a dream job! Getting to mooch around his home and workshops and chat to some of his old mates as well. 

We also got on the bill at a very popular folk festival in Coppull where one of the other acts was Joseph Boe, brother of the famous singer Alfie! Joe Boe runs the Fleetwood Folk Club. 

Les: Other highlights for me were performing at the St Helens Rugby stadium to a crown of more than 16,000, and having the chance to do some live radio. I think we made six appearances as well as a Christmas Special by BBC Lancashire. 

Tim: Yes, we got picked up by the late show presenter John Barnes. From that experience we got to play for the BBC at the Great Eccleston Agricultural Show, and from that go to perform on the Sally Naden show on BBC Radio Lancashire. 2013 has a lot to live up to! 

Les: Recently we received a request from Mike Harding for all six albums to be sent to his studio. Short on coasters no doubt! 

Chonkinfeckle at Cheltenham
Chonkinfeckle take to the stage at the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain 2012 (credit Peter Johnson)

Six albums is impressive. What’s next on the horizon? 

Les: Yes, six albums are available at the moment from our website, and album number seven which is titled ‘Francis Powells Foot’ is already recorded and will be out last October…! Or, as soon as Tim gets the chance to come and do the vocal tracks, which ever is the sooner. 

There may also be an album of instrumentals after that. I’ve been experimenting lately with some exotic drum loops, but with any luck this phase with pass and I can get back to writing daft songs. I get lots of ideas….. They’re not all good ones. 

Tim: Les finds it hard not to write stuff down. He has quite a bit of time on his hands, so his creative ‘juices’ tend to be flowing nonstop! I literally can’t keep up with him. It seems that every time I go round to his house he presents me with new stuff. Trouble is, I’ve not learned the last batch of songs yet! 

Francis Powells Foot – now there is an album title. What’s the story? 

Tim: Sir Francis Sharp Powell, 1st Baronet (29 June 1827 – 24 December 1911) was an English Conservative politician. He was first elected as MP for Wigan at a by-election in January 1881.

Now, there is a statue of Sir Francis Powell which stands in Mesnes Park, Wigan. It was erected in 1910; the statue is made from bronze and is green in colour. The statue shows Powell sat in his office chair, deep in thought. It also shows his right leg crossing in front of his left, which makes his right shoe protrude out further than the statue's base. 

It has long been a long standing superstition that the rubbing of Powell's protruding shoe will bring a person good luck. Local belief in this tale is so strong that the shoe of the statue is never allowed to turn green due to the constant rubbing by locals and tourists. And believe it or not, they have just had to do extensive repairs on his foot, as it was, basically worn out! So as kids, we would go to the park, and give the foot a good rub, but I’m still waiting for my 6 numbers to come! 

Les: I tend to think there’s one in every town! Anyway I was talking to someone the other day about the statue and he said, “who is he anyway?”. And if you ask any of the locals, nobody seems to know. Then he said, “the only famous Powell I know is Baden!” 

A few of the songs on the new album deal with luck (the lack of or need of)… but not all of them. The first one is about by Uncle Bill, but that’s another story as they say. 

Tim, we have to talk about your tea chest bass. It’s become something of a talking point at your gigs hasn’t it? 

Tim: Well, this came about way before the big Cheltenham gig. What Les and I had a problem with was, playing 'live' to backing tracks. They were great to start off with, but you become 'slaves' to it after a bit. You have not got the freedom to experiment, and to go off at a tangent. So without the backing tracks, just us two on ukuleles, the sound was a bit 'thin'. It worked on the instrumental tracks, but not on the others. So, I was in a charity shop in Wigan, and they had this old tea chest, on sale for £3.00! So, I parted with my hard earned cash, took it home and attached the washing line & a broom handle. And to be honest, I was well impressed with the sound. A deep, warm, resounding noise it made. Even more so when I stuck a pick up underneath! Plug that baby into a sound system, and we have got some serious bottom end to play with! 

And that was that, it breathed new life into us, and playing live was a completely new experience again.  

Then Les had an old water butt, which he cut in half, so the same thing happened again. So, I have two basses to play with. But the only trouble is, now I've gone onto percussion! I got an old Zimmer frame, attached a washboard to it, a couple of old pans and tins, and voila!! A homemade drum kit. So my dreams of becoming a drummer finally came a reality....only 40 years too late!! 

Chonkinfeckle on BBC Radio Lancashire
Performing on BBC Radio Lancashire

So what ukuleles do you play?

Les: I only have three ukes. The one that lives under the seat of my cab is a Stagg Soprano given to me by a friend to replace my black Bruko Soprano that was stolen by a passenger (Bastard!!). I have a Risa Ukelectric tenor that I use on most recordings and gigs. I have it tuned F, B flat, D, G with a low F). 

I also have a six string (no name) tenor ukulele which is my favourite one at the moment. I’ve changed the order of the strings to suit fingerpicking and also prefer it tuned down to low F. For anyone who is interested in the reason for the low tuning, it’s my attempt at trying to fatten up what can be, to my ear, a thin sounding instrument for our current setup of washboard and harmonica. 

Tim: I still have my original Mahalo and I have a Risa soprano. 

And finally, the question I ask all the people I interview – what are your best tips for new ukulele players? 

Les: Don’t keep your instrument in its case… Once you polish it up and put it away nice and safe in its case you’ll be amazed how much effort it can take sometimes to get it out again, especially if there’s a good film coming on telly… Always have it to hand, that’s what I say. 

Tim: I would say, join a club. Even if you can’t play a note, you will find someone there either in a similar situation or there will be someone to show you what to do. Plus it’s great fun playing with other people. And the main thing is to enjoy it and have fun. That’s why I do it any how! 

Les: I would also recommend getting yourself to a club or similar. After all, that’s where I met Tim and we’ve had some cracking ukulele adventures so far. 

I couldn’t agree more fellas. Thanks so much to Tim and Les, and be sure to check them out on and on their YouTube channel.

Their impressive range of CD's can be bought HERE together with their Chonkin' T-Shirt which I regularly sport at our jam sessions!


February 22nd -- Unity Club, Standish. All profits to Coppull Folk Club weekend of 'Free Music' 14-16 June

March 3rd - Mesnes Park, Wigan - FREE EVENT - 12.00noon - 3.00pm

March 9th - Wigan Town Centre - FREE EVENT supporting Lancashire Hotpots from 1.30pm

March 17th - Haigh Hall, Haigh, Wigan - FREE EVENT 12.00pm - 3.00pm


  1. Highlights of 2012, no mention of UkeFest Shady Oak! come on guys... :)


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