INTERVIEW: STIFF LITTLE FINGERS PLAY IN ADELAIDE AT LAST!

[Stiff Little Fingers have grown on me over the years. I was not their greatest fan in their heyday, but some of my friends kept championing them, so I got to hear their first records quite often at parties and other social gatherings.

Hearing them again in these musically insipid days, against a backdrop of songs technologically castrated of all human emotion, SLF’s raw power has finally won me over and I can see and understand their appeal.

I have spoken to the band’s founder and frontman, Jake Burns, a few times over recent years. This is the first of our chats.]

 

Jake Burns is in a good place these days – although this has not always been the case. Coming through a bleak period which included a marriage break up a few years ago and a subsequent period of depression, he has since happily remarried and relocated to the

Jake Burns is in a good place these days – although this has not always been the case. Coming through a bleak period which included a marriage break up a few years ago and a subsequent period of depression, he has since happily remarried and relocated to the United States.

Since those down days he has had a new lease on life, particularly since the release of Stiff Little Fingers’ last album – the crowd funded ‘No Going Back’ in 2014 – and is now looking forward to finally playing a full set to an Adelaide audience with the band at The Gov on Wednesday night.

On the phone from Perth, Burns spoke about a broad range of topics from the current state of world politics to what he sees as the lasting legacy of his iconic band.

Stiff Little Fingers - Portraits

Stiff Little Fingers press shot 2012 November 12, 2012 © Ashley Maile

The Upside News: With the Buzzcocks playing here last week, Glen Matlock a couple of weeks ago, and the Gang Of Four tour on the near horizon, its like the dawning of British punk rock all over again! Is this a particularly good time to get out of Britain or what?

Jake Burns: It’s like 1970’s London all over again!

TUN: This is your second time in Australia within three years. What brought you back so soon this time?

JB: Well the promoter got in touch and we realised this would be only our third time in Australia. The first time we only played in Sydney and Melbourne.

TUN: So many great bands do that. They come to Australia and bypass Adelaide.

JB: Well yeah, it’s such a long way for us to come and only play two shows. It seems insane, but that’s what they wanted us to do. And then the last time we came through we were just part of Soundwave which meant we only got to play, I can’t remember whether it was 30 minutes or 45 minutes, which, either way, was nowhere near what we would normally play. So realistically, this is sort of our first real tour of the country – which is pretty embarrassing as next year will be our 40th anniversary.

TUN: Forty years? That seems like it has flown by in a wink of an eye…

JB: It does. It seems like only yesterday we were rehearsing in a lonely church hall, but then at other times it seems like, ‘Dear God! Is that my entire life nearly gone!’

TUN: So do you still get a buzz out of touring after 40 years on the road?

JB: Yeah, it is still the best part of the job, it really is. Not so much the travelling though. As I’m sure you’re aware, modern travelling is nowhere near as much fun as it used to be. Airports are more like an assault course these days. But once you get that out of the away and get to where you are going and play in front of people – that’s the really fun part. I’ve always loved that instant reaction part, to me that’s more fun than making records. I do enjoy that too, there are very few parts of my job that I don’t enjoy, but playing live is definitely my favourite part.

TUN: The adrenaline still pumps when you hit the stage?

JB: Yeah, it’s funny because I was talking to someone earlier who asked me about ‘stage nerves’ and I realised I now get more nervous than I ever did when I was 18 or 19, and that’s because when I was 18 or 19 I didn’t know what could go wrong! After all this time, I now know everything that can go wrong!

TUN: So compared to when you were younger, when it was all about the energy and commitment, is it more about pride in the craft of your performance these days?

JB: Well, we always had pride in our performance, but, looking back, it is more like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the time that the fucking amplifier blew up!’

You can’t remember anything else about it – it could have been the best gig in the world, but what you remember is ‘That is the time the amplifier blew up…’ You’re just more aware now of what can go wrong, so that’s what makes me nervous about going on these days. And you now have a reputation, and you didn’t have that reputation when you were starting out. And our reputation is something we take great pride in – you don’t want to let yourself or the audience down.

TUN: Sometimes it’s those moments that stay with the fans though. I remember seeing XTC in ’77 in Cardiff and Barry Andrews keyboards fell off stage and into the crowd so he just played air keyboards for the rest of the show…

JB: (Laughs) Ah you’ve got to laugh {at such moments] and there’s no point in losing it because at the end of the day it’s just pop music isn’t it? It’s not exactly the most important thing in the world.

TUN: I have to say congratulations on the last album No Going Back, as well as on the previous album Guitar And Drum; but there was ten years between the albums – is that because song-writing dried up, or did you just take a sabbatical?

posterSLFJB: There’s a number of reasons to be honest, I went through a divorce at the start of the writing of the last album. Basically life got in the way. And that took me a bit of time to come to terms with, and then I, rather foolishly, got married again. My wife won’t read this because it’s in Australia! (Laughs) No, obviously, I love my wife! And getting married for the second time is the best thing I ever did, but that entailed moving to America. And that meant quite a bit of upheaval and that all took quite a bit of time so I took my eye off the ball a bit.

I was still writing songs, but I wasn’t convinced by them.

And then my 50th birthday occurred, when I had nearly finished an album’s worth of songs. This would have been around 2008 – eight years ago. I’m not a big one for birthdays, but my wife was like, ‘It’s your fiftieth, and we’ve got to make a big deal of it.’ She threw a huge party and flew friends in from everywhere. The party lasted for about three days at the end of which I had to go on tour, so I effectively left straight from the party and went off on tour.

So, the 50th was kind of hanging in my mind all the way through that tour – normally I wouldn’t have bothered about it – and I met the guys at the end of the tour and they said ‘Go home and finish off the last few songs and then come autumn we’ll be in the studio ready to record them.’  That was the plan.

So I came home and listened to the demos that I’d made and … I didn’t like them.

I mean being fifty was not playing on my mind in a bad way, but I was listening to the songs and thinking these are the sort of songs you could have written when you were twenty – and you wouldn’t have thought they were that good then. They sounded like Stiff Little Fingers by numbers. Like I was writing songs because I had to, more than because I wanted to, and the songs didn’t reflect where I was in my life as a 50 year old.

So, with the exception of Liar’s Club, I threw them all out.

I kept some musical bits & pieces, but even musically I wanted to change them, because not only did they not not reflect where I was in my life – the songs didn’t reflect anything near my best work.

I sat down and thought, ‘Well, what does concern me?’ My wife had just lost her job and we were staring down the barrel of losing our apartment, and basically it was just the sort of everyday stuff that a lot of 50 year olds were dealing with. I thought this was the sort of stuff I should write about.

And then the next concern was: ‘How the hell do you write a rock and roll song about not being able to pay your mortgage?! It’s not very fucking rock and roll is it? It’s not exactly trashing your hotel room, is it? But I did what I always do and that is to write from the heart as much as possible and put down what I felt.

We then played them to people and amazingly they said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m going through.’

So I wrote songs about losing a job and whether you were going to be secure. I went through a long period of depression following my divorce and stuff, so whether it was dealing with depression – which again turned out to be way more prevalent among people of my age than I thought – these things became as much of a universal theme as Chuck Berry riding along in an automobile was back in the fifties. These were concerns that people have and I guess I didn’t realise it because no-one else had really written songs about them.

TUN: I can hear what you are saying, and I actually had a question here to ask you along those lines: That over recent albums the band seems to have taken a more general personal political & philosophical approach – I’m thinking of songs like Be True To Yourself from Guitar & Drum or I Just Care About Me from the latest album, for instance – rather than tackling more specific contemporary political issues.

JB: Yeah, well Ian [McCallum] wrote the Be True To Yourself song, but I Just Care About Me – I had become very suspicious of the term ‘career politician’. I never though that being a politician was supposed to be a career. You were supposed to enter public service in order to make a difference; make things better for people. And you weren’t supposed to see it as some sort of grasping on to the corporate ladder as it has become.

TUN: Sounds like Australia…

JB: I think it’s world-wide. I am almost embarrassed to say I live in America, because the first thing that people say is ‘What do you think of Donald Trump then?’

Where do you actually start? Start with ‘media buffoon’ and work down from there. And people are taking him seriously!

The thing that scares me about Trump is not him so much, as he is just an idiot, but it’s the fact that he’s up there and getting so much coverage and its like he’s given permission to every rabid racist arsehole in the country to suddenly ‘come out’. It’s like he’s validated their views. Suddenly people are declaring ‘It’s just as valid me being racist as it is you not being racist’, and – no, it fucking isn’t!

TUN: Our local paper ran an article today drawing a parallel between support for Trump and support for Pauline Hanson here years ago where people dismissed her as a racist crackpot, yet she attracted enough support to win quite a number of seats at the time. Trump is a much scarier proposition again though…

JB: Yeah, I remember a number of years back there was a thing called ‘Rock The Vote’. I think Bruce Springsteen was instrumental in it, and they did a tour. I saw interviews with all the guys involved in it – Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, and other folks – and they all spent time explaining why they were getting involved in the movement, and it was obviously an anti-Bush thing. The most salient interview I saw was with Mike Mills of R.E.M, and his interview lasted just one sentence, and it applies even more nowadays. What he said to the camera was: ‘I just want a President who’s smarter than I am.’ And that’s not a bad fucking starting point really!

TUN: So, with you living in America these days, is it hard to get the band together to rehearse and write new material?

JB: Not really. We actually do so much touring. We’ve done an awful lot over the last couple of years. Pretty much since we finished the last record. We finished the record on February 6th (2014) and the next week we were in Auckland. We did the UK tour last year and we are here now. Actually, the miracle of the internet makes it so much easier. You can actually have online discussions as to what songs we should play. Even writing songs has become so much easier because of that, you know I can work on a song at home and send an mp3 to everybody in the band and get a reply within minutes as to whether they like it or not. Whereas in the past, even living just twenty miles away, it would be like ‘Well, I won’t be home tonight until late.’ It seems a strange thing to say with all four of us now living in different cities – two in the U.K. and two in America – but it is actually easier now than when all of us lived in the U.K.

TUN: Is Ali McCordie still playing bass for you?

JB: Yes he is. I haven’t actually seen him yet. He didn’t arrive until midnight last night by which time I was fast asleep. I am sure he’s still asleep now!

TUN: So he’s now a decade into his ‘temporary’ return to the band?

JB: Yeah we haven’t got around to asking him permanently to rejoin, but he just keeps on turning up.

TUN: So the current setlist is a balance between your old stuff and tracks from the last two albums?

JB: Basically what we try and do with every live show is to hit as many bases as we can because we are always aware there will be many who have never seen us before. We have a lot of new young fans. We get more complaints about not playing ‘all ages shows’ than just about any other thing. So coming to play, for what is really the first time, in Australia, we are very much aware of [achieving a good balance]. We are playing roughly the same set we played in the U.K.

It’s really quite hard when you’re a band that hasn’t really had ‘hits’ as such – but we know the songs that people want to hear and hopefully we play most of them. So we’ll play two or three from the new record and the rest from trawling back through all the other stuff. There’s quite a lot of stuff there you know.

You start off by thinking these are the songs we’ve got to play, and once you’ve put those into the set you realise, well, we’ve only got about four spots left!

We can’t play all night, and obviously the club will have to shut down so you’re aware of the time limit. If anything, it gets harder as time goes by. When we were starting out and we only had one album to pick from I used to think, ‘God it’ll be so much easier when you’ve got a few more records to pick from’ – but it’s actually bloody harder!

TUN: Is ‘Strummerville’ in the set? I have to admit I had a bit of a middle aged man weep when I first heard that one!

JB: Yeah, ‘Stummerville’ makes the setlist.

TUN: It seems particularly poignant this year with so many icons dropping off their perches…

JB: We’re just getting to that age in life, you know. It really is that you go to more funerals than weddings these days. But it seemed particularly bad this last winter, every day you woke up and it was somebody different. You knew it was coming with someone like Lemmy but others, like Bowie, came out of nowhere.

TUN: You know, in my mind I always think I’m still a teenager, but his passing made me think otherwise…

JB: I think we all still do [feel like a teenager] and that’s the trouble…

TUN: One last question. The band has a great legacy. What is the one thing you look back on with the most pride when you reflect on the history of the band from a 2016 perspective?

JB: I think we always tried to stay true to what we wanted to be. As far as I can think, we have never actually been dishonest with our audience. I think that’s the main reason the audience has stuck with us for so long. That, plus as I mentioned earlier, the subjects we have chosen for the songs are things we are concerned about and obviously they have touched a nerve with the audience as well. So realistically I think it is the honesty and the connection with the audience that I am proudest of. For the longest time we would argue that we didn’t have ‘fans’, but we had ‘friends’, because that’s what it felt like. A lot of our audience have become friends. There’s a woman and her daughter who come to a lot of our shows in England and they have actually become very close friends with me and my wife, in fact the woman has come and stayed with us in Chicago!

TUN: It must be good not to have to play that aloof, celebrity game anymore…

JB: I don’t know why people do that. Realistically, I am sat here in this hotel room having to do these interviews and it’s driving me nuts! I’d rather be with the guys and walking around the town and seeing the place. Not that I mean to be disparaging! But I mean if you want to play that ‘I’m aloof, I’m above you in my ivory tower’ crap then you’ll just be stuck in a fucking hotel room all the time – and what’s the point of that?

TUN: I’m glad you think like that. I guess I might even get to have a beer with you on Wednesday night then?

JB: Absolutely! I’m always game to have a beer!

TUN: Thanks for chatting to The Upside News, Jake and thanks for keeping on believing in the power of the guitar and the drum!

JB: No worries at all. Thanks for calling, buddy. See you on Wednesday!

Stiff Little Fingers played The Gov on Wednesday March 30, 2016.

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on March 29, 2016.

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INTERVIEW: BO BICE ON SINGING WITH BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS, AND HIS TIME ON AMERICAN IDOL, AND…

[I do not, as a rule, watch TV talent shows of any description, so I had not previously heard of Bo Bice, an American singer who had achieved some American Idol success in the past and was now fronting Blood, Sweat & Tears, the band who brought brass arrangements to the forefront in rock music back in the late sixties.

Bo was very chatty, and not just a little enamoured with his own achievements to date! And why not? He has had solo success and is now touring the world, playing to enthusiastic audiences and singing a repertoire of classic songs every night.]

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Bo Bice is coming to Adelaide to front the latest line-up of jazz-rock legends, Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Whilst he was yet to be born when the band were in its hit-making heyday, a performance of one of their standards, Spinning Wheel, during the fourth season of American Idol by Bice (he eventually was runner-up to Carrie Underwood) aroused the interest of the band’s management and they wooed him, over several years, until he agreed to take up their offer to join them as they embarked on the next leg of their crowded world touring schedule.

Now, three years into his association with the band, he is enjoying the relative freedom of simply being one part of the BS&T collective and not having to deal with the hassles of being a solo star.

The Upside News spoke to him as he was readying himself for the Australian leg of the tour, and we found out that Bo certainly loves to talk!

 

Upside News: Being runner-up to Carrie Underwood in Season 4 of American Idol back in 2005, must have been both a great experience and ultimately a little disappointing not to win –  but, in retrospect, what’s been the greatest benefit of the being part of the Idol experience?

Bo Bice: Well, you know, looking back on it now over a decade since I was on Idol – and I’ve kind of said the same things over the years, Ken, and I don’t use it as an excuse or an easy way to answer – but there’s not a lot of people who are as lucky as I am.

Because, over the ten months that we were all involved in that show that none of you saw – you only saw the competition side – you grow relationships with people. And the people who were in the top 24, a lot of you folks might not remember them, but I remember almost all of them.

The people who made it into the Top Ten, I got very close to them. I was roommates with several of them – Scott Savol, Constantine Maroulis, Nikko Smith – those guys were my roommates and we all shared an apartment. A four bedroom apartment.

So, when you’re standing there at the finale, and you’re standing beside someone who has become one of your close friends, and has been through this whole rigmarole with you, and experienced it all with you, there is a level of anticipation because you want to win or else you get beaten, but I can’t say as I left that night that I shed a tear.

Well, if there were any tears shed, it was only out of joy because there’s not a lot of people who get to see all of their dreams come true in one night. And they get to see their fellow friend’s dreams come true. And I think over the last decade Carrie [Underwood] has shown that not only was she worthy of the crown of being an American Idol winner, but she has had a wonderful solo career and I am extremely proud of her.

And, you know, I haven’t done too shabby myself in my career, and so God’s been good to me.

On the back end side of that, a thing that a lot of folks don’t know about me is that I have been in the business for twenty-five years. So I was in it a long time before the show.

And right after the show [my wife and I] had our first son – now we have four kids: three boys and a girl. And at some point, you know two or three years after Idol, during my career, I really started to understand that I am really good at this dad-husband thing when I am doing it right.

So for me, back in 2011, I decided to make some changes – you know, stop drinking, started to dedicate myself a lot more to thinking about who I am as a person, and as a dad and a husband, because that’s my real job and it just so happens that my gig is going out and standing on stage for ninety minutes a night making people happy playing music.

But don’t ever get it twisted around though, Ken. I’m a dad and husband first, and I pretend to be a rock star on the weekends.

UN: I can certainly empathise with your viewpoint there.

Returning to your Idol performances, was it through your performance of Spinning Wheel on the show that Blood, Sweat & Tears got in touch with you and asked you to come on board?

BB: Well is that not crazy or what, Ken? Little beknownst to me, I did Spinning Wheel on American Idol and I didn’t know that it would be my audition to someday be fronting this band.

From the way I heard the story told, I was giving the performance and someone in the crew, or band, called up Bobby Colomby [BST drummer and founder member] and said, ‘There’s this guy doing Spinning Wheel on American Idol. Check him out.’

And after that, you know, well, you’re very insulated.

If you choose to join ‘the club’, you become very insulated. And I joined ‘the club’ for about three years, and I learned that I’m not really cut for ‘the club’. I don’t really like wearing the green jacket. There’s a lot of rules and regulations that you have to follow when you get the green jacket and you’re in ‘the club’.

So, for me, I got rid of the handlers, and the agents, and the people behind me who were whispering in my ears…

It took a little bit of time but I kind of whittled things down and surrounded myself with the people that I wanted to be around me, and not the people I was told I needed in my life because I had made it to this level now.

Once I did that, and cut back on all of the staff and the handlers and the ‘yes’ men, well one day I ended up getting a call through one of my managers saying that Blood, Sweat & Tears have been trying to reach you for several years.

‘Oh really? They must have been talking to my old handlers. [Laughs] And – the rest is history. They had literally been trying to reach me for about six years. They wanted me just to come out and do some shows.

I finally got in touch, and I said, ‘Take me out for a steak dinner and let’s talk about this.’

So what was going to be two shows turned in to five shows, and then it turned into eight shows – and now, three years later, we are on our second world tour ready to come back over and meet all of our friends in Australia, and Djakarta, and we get to do Honolulu again, but for me that’ll be the first time.

So, you are right. It was that audition, I guess you could call it, when I did Spinning Wheel on Idol, that set all the balls in motion.

UN: It is amazing to think how one small thing can set off a whole process.

Did you have any specific connection to BST and their music before taking on the role of lead singer for the band? Were they on high rotation on your family’s radio when you were young, or anything like that?

BB: Well, I am a musicologist and have loved music ever since I was a young boy. Let’s take you back a bit. I used to listen to the radio and I would tape my favourite songs, you know, put them all on a mix tape and then I would learn that music and that’s what opened me up to it. That, and my mum and dad’s record collection. That’s when your record player used to be a piece of furniture. [Laughs] When I was young they used to have the built in speakers and a table and it was my job to clean it and to dust it, so I would throw on Jim Croce albums, all different kinds of music. And Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of those groups that were in their collection.

But I think more than anything that the musicology side of me is really what drew me in because I am sort of an oracle of music kitsch, so looking back on them, when you say Al Kooper to me, I don’t go, ‘Yeah! Al Kooper – Blood, Sweat & Tears!’ I go, ‘Al Kooper? Wow! He produced one of my favourite albums – Second Helping, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album.’

It’s one of my favourite albums – it’s got Sweet Home Alabama, Call Me The Breeze, Don’t Ask Me No Questions, [The Ballad Of] Curtis Loew…huge hits.

And people go – ‘Oh, oh I just thought he was in Blood, Sweat & Tears.’

So when I think about guys like that, and you’ve got Jaco Pastorius who was in a previous [incarnation of the] band…

UN: The Weather Report bassist…

BB: …even if it was for such a short span. Al was producing some stuff for Jaco, and then he came in and filled in – please excuse me if I’m wrong – in for a ’75 and ’76 stint. I’m sure there’s some music historian out there who going to say ‘No, you’re wrong!’

I think he came along in ’75, the year I was born. And I do know it was just a short stint, but he made such an impact on the band and on the catalogue, but also you’d have to think that he was one of the pioneer bass players who really made it to where…you know, most of the time, the drummer and the bass player are the rhythm section and that’s just what they do, and they stay there and we get to wrap all this stuff around it. Jaco really showcased the instrument for use, not just the top two of the four strings. You know, for the low hand and the walk-in, he turned it into a servile instrument.

And I think when you are looking back on the history of Blood, Sweat & Tears, and people ask, ‘Is it really true that you have had around 150 members?’

I say, ‘Well no, there’s not been 150 members – but there have been 120 people who have passed through this group.

There are some who are certainly considered alumni, right? They had their stint – like Jaco, who is considered an alumni, so is Steve Katz, so is Al Kooper and David Clayton-Thomas.

Myself, I’ve been here for three years, and I’ll be honest with you – I, only now, in the past several months, feel like I have earned my spot to be part of the alumni. Before that I was a special guest.

Now, I feel personally, and I hope I’m not offending any Blood, Sweat & Tears fans, but I feel like I have earned my stripes here, and mainly, Ken, it’s because when I first came into this and they asked if I really wanted to do it, I said, ‘Yes sir. As long as it never turns into the game show’. Because, we’re dealing with Bo Bice’s needs, we are dealing with people’s memories.

There are people who want the song that they danced at their wedding to, and that was You Make Me So Very Happy; the song that played the first time they were necking in the back seat of the car, and that was Spinning Wheel; and then it’s And When I Die was at [such and such] event…’

These are people’s memories.

And being a fan on this side of the music, I didn’t want the fans on the other side of the stage to say, you know, ‘Here’s this new guy. He doesn’t know his stuff about Blood, Sweat & Tears. I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that I took this on because I want to make sure that the catalogue of music, that is what is going to always continue to be the star of the show. Bobby Colomby runs this show. It is not my band. The music, and the musicianship – that’s the star of the show.

UN: My dear departed mum requested And When I Die to be played at her funeral, so I know what you are saying.

 I was really pleased to hear you talking about the musicology side of the band, because what a lot of people tend to forget is that Blood, Sweat & Tears were a pretty radical musical experiment when they started out. They had that spirit of experimentation. Is that still alive in the band? Or are you tending to accept that you have evolved more into a sort of golden oldie radio station staple sort of band?

BB: Well you know what I think is really great about this band is – and I give credit both to management and to Bobby Colomby – is that this band has never turned into, and you ‘ll have to excuse my term, my analogy – I don’t mean to be offensive, I could be more cute, I’m sure – but it never turned in to a tribute band. It’s never turned into any kind of ‘best of’ band.

And I’m not out there trying to be David Clayton-Thomas, or Jerry Fisher, or any of the other singers. Yet, I believe I was chosen to be a part of this group because o my similarity to their vocal styles. When I come onto the stage and you hear me sing the songs, I do this, again, for the fans. I don’t do my own interpretations, you’re going to come there and hear the songs like you wanted to hear the songs.

But on the back end of that, what’s kept this band from ever being an ‘oldies’ group, or any kind of tribute group is the fact that we incorporate a lot of newer music. Blood, Sweat & Tears have been nominated for ten Grammys. They’ve won three of them. And one of those songs wasn’t even one of their songs – so you know it’s still the same kind of thing.

They have become very well versed in choosing other great songs, like God Bless The Child. They did a version of Crosstown Traffic that’s really cool, All Along The Watchtower, and Fire And Rain. They’ve done some really cool stuff that people ought to know about.

And the current band – well when I came in I said I would never make it ‘The Bo Show’. That really meant, you know, they’ve asked me, ‘Let’s incorporate a few Bo Bice songs in here.’ And I’ve always been like, ‘Nah, let’s not. Why don’t we pick something that people would like, because they might not know my songs?’

And they said, ‘Yeah, but this will give them a chance to get to know you.’ And I was like, ‘No, but what about this…?’ And so, I threw out a few songs, one of them made it.

Our keyboard player, Glenn McClelland did an excellent arrangement of an Allman Brothers song that I love. And so we put that in the set, and people always freak out when we play that song, and they say, ‘Whoa! I never thought that Blood, Sweat & Tears would play that!’

And we also threw in a couple of newer songs, that people would recognise but yet they still fit in the vein of Blood, Sweat & Tears music. We don’t cover songs, we do our renditions of the songs which are usually a lot bigger, there’s a difference. Anybody can sit and say, ‘OK. Play that exact guitar part. You do this. You do that. Listen to the tape and let’s all play it right.’

That’s one of the things about this band, Ken. You never want to be the weakest link. Because there are some very strong musicians in this band. So I just try very hard, every single night, to never be the weakest link on stage, and to bring my A-game, because everyone else with me on stage are going to bring their A-game.

As far as the catalogue of music goes, people are going to hear the hits, and I can guarantee they’re going to hear some surprises that they have never heard Blood, Sweat & Tears do.

UN: Sounds intriguing! So, the Allman Brothers song – is that going to be Whipping Post? Or another song of theirs?

BB: Oh, Ken! I’m not going to give away the golden gift, man! You’ve got to come and check out the golden egg. The goose is back stage!

But I’ll tell you this, whenever we do kick into the song, people are going, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t get it.’

Then they hear that first riff, and you hear it kind of percolate.

And the crowd! Aw, they’re waiting for the vocal to begin. And when the vocal kicks in, they just start to [emulates crowd noise]. Every night when we do that it’s kind of being like a magician. You now the trick is just a trick, right?

UN: Yep.

BB: Well it’s your job to make it an illusion, and not a trick. And when you do it right, it’s really good. It’s good for the crowd, but trust me, it’s good for us on stage too.

UN: Our time is nearly up, so let me just ask you about your solo career. Do you have any new solo projects in the pipeline?

BB: Well, I took the last two years off. The first year was like the honeymoon period between us. Really, I swear. There’s been a lot of artists who have come through Blood, Sweat & Tears and they do featuring sessions, you know. And they do that, and that’s all I was coming on to do, I was just going to be that guest star. So now, that year passed and I decided, hey, I’m going to take a few years off just to dedicate to BS&T – and that’s what I’ve done.

So now, I am just now getting back, when we get back from this tour, I’m getting into the studio. I have six or seven song-writing partners I write songs with, and we’re starting to work on a new project that is for me. It isn’t going to be a Blood, Sweat & Tears project.

In 2018, I’m going to be releasing just a new project. It’s a Bo Bice project, and I’ll probably look to a little bit of gigging off of that in 2018 – 2019.

But to be honest with you, Ken, I’ll shoot you just absolutely straight, man; there’s a lot of responsibility that you have – about 18 to 20 families relying on you to make sure that the wheels on the bus go round and round, and the cheques get paid. And it’s been such a stress relief for me over the past two years. People come up and ask me, all the time, ‘Do this, do this…’, and I say, ‘Hey man..’ and I just go ahead and point. ‘I don’t have a dog in this fight. You just need to talk to one of the bosses.’ And I just point. I used to have to use my thought because I was the guy all the crap would get told to because my name was on the bill. You know, ‘OK – come to me, let me know what problem you got.’

So, it’s been very nice the past few years. I have been able, when I come home, to just be dad and husband, and then when I go out on the road, I’m able to point because I don’t have that level of responsibility.

So as much as I am looking forward to putting out another album in 2018, I am NOT as much looking forward to putting my work boots back on and going out touring on my own – just because of the level of stress that it does cause. I get it, I think it’s just because I’m getting older. I’m 41 now.

UN: Will you be getting any time between gigs whilst you’re here to check out the place?

You’ve actually scheduled your gig here in Adelaide during what we call Mad March? You should try and get out and about – it’s the one month of the year when our city is full of festivals, music shows and half the city is turned into a motor racing track, and all sorts of stuff…

BB: Wow!

UN: It would be a shame if you didn’t get out and amongst it.

BB: Well we do have a few days off in between shows, here and there.

And the last time we were there – I guess it’s been about two years – we took advantage of every opportunity that we could.

I truly mean it when I say it: Australia is on my bucket list. And when they said we had the opportunity to come back, I was just, as you say there – I was chuffed to bits! We had such a good time. Everybody was so hospitable and the hospitality was just amazing.

And to hear that you may have some car racing going on… you see, that’s something I do on the side.

I raced in the 2005 Celebrity Grand Prix, the Long Beach Grand Prix out there in California. And ever since then I ‘ve been kept well away from a racetrack because when we are on tour they don’t want me getting behind a wheel!

 

Abstract Entertainment presented Blood, Sweat & Tears at The Gov, Main Room, on Wednesday March 8, 2017.

This interview was first posted in The Upside News on February 26, 2017.

INTERVIEW: JOHN STEEL, FOUNDER MEMBER OF THE ANIMALS

[It just so happens that the 2017 Australian tour by seminal British rocker, The Animals, was such a huge success that they are returning in 2018, and I will be chatting to John Steel on this very night – look to the The Upside News for that in the coming days.

John was a very generous conversationalist and was happy to chat about the band’s long history as well as some of the things he has experienced personally in his life outside the band.

I am looking forward to catching up with him when he gets to town in a few weeks’ time!]

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When people look back at who were the seminal bands of the sixties British Invasion, a small number of bands hold their place in the top echelon: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and The Animals.

John Steel was the drummer on all of the huge hits The Animals chalked up between 1963 and 1966, and he is still touring the world with the band and enjoying every minute of the ride that he has been on for close to sixty years!

The Upside News had the chance to talk to him about those heady years when British pop and rock bands dominated the globe, and also about his years working on the other side of the fence, in rock management.

 

The Upside News: So, nearly sixty years in the business, John!

You’ve been a part of rock ‘n roll’s life for as long as it has been in existence. What is it you love about still being a part of the music industry? Is it an addiction?

John Steel: Yeah, I think it is really. It’s something you get hooked on, no question. I still love touring and performing and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I get a buzz out of it. I just feel I’m a very lucky guy to still be doing it whilst…I’m still alive! (Laughs)

TUN: So what do you think it was about The Animals music, in particular, that has ensured its longevity and its continued popularity?

JS: Well, I mean, that was a good band – no question – and we were up there with The Beatles and The Stones, and we could hold our own with just about anybody.

So it was a good band. But I think the important thing, you know, with the years that have gone since then, is the strength of the catalogue. The strength of the songs.

You know we had some really good, adult, dark-edged type of songs. You know, It’s My Life and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place and [Don’t let Me Be] Misunderstood and [The House Of The]Rising Sun…they’ve all got a kind of dark edge to them, I think.

So, we were playing really grown up songs before we were really grown up!

And I think that’s why they’ve stood up so well in all the years since. Whole generations of people seem to have absorbed those songs.

You know, we still get teenagers coming to all of our shows who seem to sing along to all of the songs and seem to know know all of the words. It’s incredible how kind of influential we’ve been.

We never thought of ourselves as that important, but in hindsight, you think: ‘Bloody hell! We seemed to have caused a lot of damage around the world!’ (Laughs)

TUN: So, you really had no sense of…I mean, can you remember how you felt, say, directly after recording We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, or whatever. Did you sense then that these were songs that would have this life of their own? Was it a special feeling?

JS: I can’t remember so much with We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, although we knew it was a good song, you know. But the one song we did really feel was special was Rising Sun. There was definitely something about that one.

It was important enough for us to insist on Mickie Most – who was our new producer, the guy who first recorded us and we had one single out with him at that time – that we felt very strongly that this [Rising Sun] had to be the next single.

We turned out to be right. It just became an instant classic.

We were touring with Chuck Berry at the time. Supporting Chuck, [on] our first proper theatre tour.

We had been signed up, soon after we left Newcastle, to the Don Arden Agency. And he was bringing Chuck Berry to tour the UK for the first time. It was a three-week tour, and it was sold out every night – two shows a night.

It was a big deal for us, you know, as we’d only played clubs and bars before that.

And there was definitely a response from the audience from the first time we played that song, and every night. So we thought, ‘This is important this…’ and we persuaded Mickie [to record it].

We broke off from the tour in the middle. We left Liverpool after playing the last show – we closed the first half of the show – and we drove down to London to this tiny little studio in Holborn. It was just a basement. It was only a one-track studio, and we went in there.

In a one-track studio you are effectively recording it live, you know, so you just set up the sound when you‘ve got a band, and then play the song once.

Mickie said, ‘Come in here and listen to this. That’s a hit record.’ (Laughs) And it was.

TUN: It certainly was, and it ran and ran!

JS: Within three weeks or so, it was number one. So that changed our lives completely.

TUN: And Eric Burdon’s voice was a big part of that being a success wasn’t it? Because he sounded so much older than he was…

JS: Oh, yeah!

TUN: And you couldn’t really tell if he was a white singer, or…

JS: It was perfect. And [Hilton} Valentine’s guitar intro, that arpeggio intro – the number of people over the years who’ve come up and said, ‘That was the very first song I ever learned on my very first guitar!’

And Alan Price’s solo in the middle, and on and on – it was just a magic song. Tt was just a classic, and that really set us on our way.

Then we got to number one in America with it, and that was like a dream come true for us guys, because every inspiration and influence we’d had up to that time came from America, and had done since we were teenagers in the fifties.

So for us to go banging off to America with the number one song was our dream come true.

TUN: It must have been unbelievable.

 So you were part of that first wave of hits between ’63 and ’66 – but then you left the band. What made you walk away from that level of success?

JS: Well, I guess it was bad management really, I think. We had worked so hard, we never seemed to get time to stop and think about anything. It was just touring, recording, photo sessions, photo shoots, and every day seemed to be going round and round and round. It got to be a bit of a grind. I mean, I think every band gets to a point where they say, ‘Whoa, hold on! Let’s just stop for a minute.’ In The Animals case though, it was more like ‘Hold on! Get me out of here!’ (Laughs)

TUN: So you went from working with the band, to working with your old bandmate, Chas Chandler, or at least with his management company for a few years…

JS: That’s right, yeah.

TUN: What was your role there? You were still working within the industry. Were you working with people like Jimi Hendrix?

JS: Well, Chas had just parted company with Jimi Hendrix when we got together.

What brought us together was a guy, a businessman, in Newcastle, who wanted us to perform just a one-night show in Newcastle’s main venue, which was, back then, the City Hall. He got us together just to do a charity show to raise money for a cancer charity. I don’t know how he did that, but he did it!

So, we got together in 1968, and Chas, by that time, had had fabulous success with Jimi Hendrix, and he had a management company and had also become a record producer, and he said, ‘It was great to see you guys again’.

So he had a little get together, that was where Chas came over and said, ‘I could use you.’

I don’t know why really, we liked each other, and he just thought I could be of use to him, you know.

I had invested in a kind of fashion shop in Newcastle straight after I left The Animals, with an old arts school friend. I’d opened what was called a ‘boutique’ in those days, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. And Chas heard this and came up with an offer. He said, ‘Well, why don’t you come and work for me?’

So I said, ‘OK. I’ll do it.’  And I moved back to London and started working.

He introduced me to this new little band that he had decided to promote. And they were called Slade. And they became enormous in the UK and Europe!  And they did very well in Australia, as I remember.

So, pretty much from the end of the sixties to the end of the seventies, I worked on the management side of the business with Chas.

There was one peculiar little ‘kink’ in that experience.

There was an American friend of Chas’s, called Peter Kauff, he was a manager and an entrepreneur, who was into movies and things…anyway he’d found a little band.

Three guys who were multi-instrumentalists and all of them wrote songs. They were a terrific little band. They were called Eggs Over Easy. You can check them out, they’re on Wikipedia or whatever.

Peter brought Eggs Over Easy over to London for Chas to work in a studio with, to produce an album.

They didn’t have a drummer, so Chas…well actually, no, it was Noel Redding from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who suggested a guy that he had just met. He had just come to fix his pipes. He was a plumber! (Laughs)

But he played drums, and Noel suggested that Chas should try him out.

Chas put him in a studio with the guys from Eggs Over Easy, and he really could drum. But he was a rock drummer, you know, and he didn’t have a kind of swingy feel to his playing.

Anyway, I went to the studio one day with some contracts for Chas that needed his signature and he said, ‘Perfect! You have just arrived at exactly the right time. Johnny, get yourself in there and try this number out, because – Les, I think his name was – because Les is having trouble’.

So I went in there, and it was actually brushes because it was a jazz thing, basically, and I’d played a lot of that kind of thing.

So I just played this track – it was called One Eleven Avenue C – it was a swingy sort of thing, just in one take.

And that was it. I was suddenly in the band. (Laughs) So, I was working for Chas in the office every day, and I was playing with Eggs Over Easy.

They found a great pub in Camden Town, what used to be a jazz club, and it was empty. So we said, ‘Can we play here?’

We played for nothing. We played and passed a hat round, you now. We started this gig, one Tuesday night a week, and after a month or two, we were packing it out several nights a week. And Sunday afternoon – we did that as well.

It seemed like they were just on the point of, you know, going to another level, but they all suddenly decided to go back to the States and try their luck there again.

It couldn’t have been a worse time, because if they stayed there in London for another few weeks longer…

There’d been DJs like John Peel coming to see them. Do you know of John Peel?

TUN: Yes, yes…

JS: John Peel was a very important DJ at that time and he turned up one night to check the band out because he’d heard about them.

But anyway, they went back to earn a living, basically.

But it was a great time, and I really enjoyed that.

It turned out that they have since been acknowledged as the founders of what became called ‘pub rock’…

TUN: And therefore the grandfathers of punk rock too…

JS: Yeah, exactly. You know, people like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury were checking us out at The Tally-Ho every night, and the band really set this movement going that, as you say, eventually morphed into punk rock – so I was a founding member of that! (Laughs)

TUN: That’s a badge you can wear proudly!

JS: A strange little event…

TUN: I could talk to you about that strand of your career for hours, but getting back to the impending tour in May. You’re playing in Adelaide on the 13th.

JS: Oh yeah.

TUN: The set you ‘ll be playing, is it going to cover the whole range of eras and incarnations of the band? I mean, will you be playing San Franciscan Nights or Sky Pilot, for example?

JS: No, no. They were purely Eric Burdon songs. That was Eric when he was in his psychedelic era, you know.

No, we’ll be playing the original Animals repertoire with the hit singles, and we’ve also got a lot of material from the album tracks and b-sides that we throw in.

The way we construct the set is, basically, play the hits and then have sort of a ‘pick and mix’ from all the rest of the stuff, so that the set is never quite the same every night. We always take one number out and put another number in, and shuffle things about a bit.

Then we finish off with The House Of The Rising Sun.

And that’s the end of it because you can’t seem to follow that number… we just play Rising Sun, and we get a standing ovation! That’s lovely isn’t it!

TUN: And I’m sure you’ll get one here too, because a lot of people have been talking about your upcoming gig since it was first announced.

JS: Great! It’s The Gov we’re playing, isn’t it?

TUN: Yes, The Gov.

JS: So I look forward to seeing you there. Make yourself known and we’ll say hello!

The Animals played The Gov on May 13, 2017. 

 

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on March 4, 2017.

INTERVIEW: STEVEN WILSON, PROGRESSIVE ROCK’S BIGGEST STAR TALKS ABOUT TRUTH, TOURING AND ‘TO THE BONE’

[I have been a huge fan of Steven Wilson for years now – ever since a Swedish friend of mine sent me a compilation CD he made for me with IEM, No Man & Porcupine Tree tracks on it amongst others from still obscure Scandinavian artists…

I am reposting this now – even though this year’s Steven Wilson shows are still a couple of weeks away because maybe it’s not too late to get yourself a ticket!

It was a great privilege to share a half an hour of phone time with Steven – all the more so because this man just does not seem to know the definition of the term ‘down time’! So to have him stop writing, recording, performing, painting, engineering, remixing, producing or walking his dog for those thirty minutes was pretty special!]

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It’s hard to imagine that at Steven Wilson’s first public gig, as the guitarist for his teenage heavy metal band, Paradox, that he could have been so self-conscious that he could do no more than sit at the far side of the stage and stare at the ground as he played, because the thought of eye contact with an audience was way too daunting to contemplate.

It’s even harder to imagine, for those who have seen any of his live shows over the last three decades, that he believes it has only been a mere three or four years since he has finally broken free of his self-doubt to feel fully confident in himself as a performer.

The facts are, that after well over three decades of producing some of the most influential and fascinating rock music of the modern era, the 2017 release of his latest album, To The Bone, saw him finally ascend to the top of the British mainstream album charts, and the subsequent 3 hour shows he has been performing to promote the album have seen him playing in ever larger venues to ever increasing numbers of rapt Steven Wilson fans.

This November, Steven Wilson returns to Australia for a limited number of Eastern seaboard shows, which will coincide with the release of Home Invasion, a live album / DVD documenting his triumphant sold out Royal Albert Hall performances from earlier in the To The Bone world tour.

The Upside News had the chance to speak to Steven and he seemed more than happy to share his views on his recent positive change of fortune, his latest album, and the upcoming Australian tour.

 

The Upside News: If we could start by going back to the 2010 Insurgentes documentary, where you were filmed conferring with a fortune teller at a tarot card reading, who tells you that ‘a sense of abundance – [will be] coming to you’ very soon.

Does the huge level of success that has followed the release of  To The Bone mean you have to concede that you believe in fairground prophecies now?

Steven Wilson: (Laughs) Well, you know those kind of people are very good at telling you what you want to hear, aren’t they?

All I’ll say is, you know, I think it hasn’t been easy. I wouldn’t describe it as a struggle, but it has been a very gradual process of building an audience through releasing records and touring, and that’s a kind of old fashioned way of doing things, in a way.

I don’t know that I necessarily feel successful. Actually, it is a difficult question, because ‘success’, on one hand, would be being satisfied with what you’re doing, being fulfilled as an artist, being able to make a living from what you love doing, and I can definitely say ‘yes [I am]’ to all of those things.

But, at the same time, I’m also constantly frustrated by the fact that I don’t have more of a profile in the popular mainstream. And so, I’m what you might call, quintessentially, a ‘cult artist’. I kind of exist outside of the mainstream.

I do have an audience. I am able to tour. I am able to get quite good numbers when I put out records, and when I put tickets on sale. But, to all intents and purposes, I’m still very much an underground artist. I’m pretty much invisible in mainstream culture, and that does continue to be slightly frustrating to me.

Of course, to a lot of people, that would be their gauge of success: how often you are on television, how often you are on the radio, how often you are in magazines – and I’m not really. In many respects, I guess, I should be grateful for that fact because it has given me freedom, really, to conduct my career without any sense of compromise at all. And don’t get me wrong – I certainly don’t undervalue that.

TUN: So, when you talk about the ‘frustration’ that has been sitting there, not consuming you, but being felt nonetheless, is it fair to say that this [climb to more commercial success] has been a fairly calculated process? I mean I am sitting here looking at the Transience compilation from 2016, and the K-Scope sticker on the front of the CD says: ‘an introduction to the more accessible side’ of your work. At the time that I bought the disc I thought that line seemed a bit dismissive of a large portion of your prior work. But was it, looking at it now, part of the longer-term plan to reposition you in the market place?

It was also the first album to feature a close-up picture of you on the cover. Was this all part of the strategy?

SW: Well firstly, that was the label’s idea not mine, but I thought it was a good one.

Let’s just say this – as long as I think the music itself is being made without any degree of compromise, and as long as the songs are being written, produced and recorded without any consideration for an audience, a manager, a record label, or whoever these other people are that are engaging with the music, and as long as I am making the music for myself, I have always been happy to do whatever it takes to reach a wider audience and to share the music with as many people as possible.

I just think more recently I’ve become a little bit more confident about being a front man and that is something that’s only really happened in the last four or five years – that confidence to actually stand up and present myself as a personality.

And I have come to realise that actually, that’s what fans like, that’s what they want. They want you, in a way, to be – not a popstar – but they want you to be a personality. They want you to engage with them and to put [across] some kind of strong identity, strong face, to go with the music. I think I’ve realised that in the last few years, and I’ve certainly become a little bit more confident about putting my face on the covers.

But I think you’re right also. It is a reflection that the music has become a little bit more accessible, a bit more direct, perhaps. There’s a little bit less of me hiding behind the conceptual layers, and the conceptual artwork has become less relevant to me on the last couple of records.

TUN: It’s interesting that you say that it is only in the last few years that this confidence has been apparent to you. Are you saying that up until then, inside, you were still that shy boy sitting up on the stage at school looking down at the ground while you played your guitar…are you really trying to tell us that after thirty years in the business you were still feeling that way?

SW: I’ll tell you what – it has been a really gradual process.

I know it seems like a crazy thing to say, that it’s only really changed in the last few years for me, but I’ll tell you what, there’s one thing that the increased success that the solo records have had – and remember I have only been a solo artist for about nine years now, and that I came out of a band situation where, let’s just say, I was not encouraged by the other people in the band to be that front man. Quite the opposite actually. But since I have been a solo artist I have made a conscious decision to try and be much more of a personality and a front man. And that did take me four or five years really, of touring with my solo band, and of the records having increased success, and through feeling that kind of glow, if you like, of acceptance and love from the audience, for me to really want to step out and be that person.

And it’s actually true, that it’s only been in the last three or four years that I have really started to feel that confidence.

TUN: Well, I saw your first Australian tour with Porcupine Tree, and saw the Hand. Cannot. Erase. tour in Sydney a couple of years back and you oozed confidence at both so that was why it was such a surprise to hear you say that.

Can we focus a little bit more closely on the latest album now?  

It’s fair to say that a number of your long-term followers were a little angsty in the period leading up to the album’s release, when information started to leak out that it was going to be slightly more commercial. In the end, it threw Ed Sheeran off the top spot [on the British charts] momentarily, so it obviously did achieve that appeal, but it must be really satisfying to you that your instinct for a change of approach was correct, and your old fans seemed to have been satisfied and retained as well?

SW: Yes, but I think in some ways that’s part of the contract. You know, the sort of unwritten contract that you have with the people who listen to your music. And, in a way, I think if that sense of confronting their expectations is not happening, then I think that is a problem because it means that you are simply delivering more of the same every time.

One of the things that I remember being a kid – and actually I still have this now as a fan of other musicians – is having that kind of trepidation you do have when an artist that you really like changes direction and you’re not sure about it to begin with.

But there’s something about the confidence you have in that artist, and in the loyalty you have for the artist, that makes you give them the benefit of the doubt.

So, you kind of go along with the change. I think that’s part of what I love about following the career of an artist over a long period of time – that they do change direction, and sometimes there is this kind of period of adjusting to that change of direction that occurs.

Maybe, even something you didn’t think you were going to like, but because it comes from an artist you have respect for, you actually grow to like. And I love that!

I mean, I look back at the careers of people who were real icons to me – people like Bowie, people like Prince, you know, people like Frank Zappa – they were people who were constantly reinventing themselves and, very much, risking disappointing their audience by not simply delivering more of the same every time. And, ultimately, I think that’s what gives an artist a long career, gives you longevity, the fact that you have regularly reinvented yourself. I love to do that from album to album.

I don’t like this idea that any album is interchangeable with any other album in my catalogue. So every album has to feel, in a sense, like some kind of evolution, or progress – well actually, not even progress – sometimes it can be just a step sideways into something completely different. And I like to think that that is pretty much the hallmark of my whole career.

TUN: I agree with you, and just like the two artists you mentioned, Bowie and Prince, I have followed your career for the exact same reason!

In the deluxe version of To The Bone there is a lengthy ‘diary’ that Stephen Humphries put together of his regular discussions with you about the genesis of the album, and there were a couple of pretty interesting things that come out of that when you read through it.  One of them is that you are quoted saying to him that you were in ‘a good place, happy in your career and your personal life, happy with your current work and having a lot of fun.’ How did you manage, being in such a positive emotional mindset, to create a body of work that focused on the rise of terrorism, the widespread corruption of truth, compulsive over-possessiveness…

SW: (Laughs)

TUN: …It’s an album which describes a future ‘where the world is exhausted’ and there is ‘wreckage…all around’? I’m fascinated by that…

SW: Yes…but let’s not forget that there is some quite joyous music on there too…

TUN: True.

SW: …In some respects, quite unusually [joyous] for me, because I think there is one thing that people would point to as a kind of, you know, a characteristic of almost all my music, and that is that it does tend to dwell on the darker side of things.

I’ve always felt that part of the reason that I am a fairly contented person in my private life is because I am able to kind of exorcise those darker thoughts through the music. I think that’s one of the real gifts that an artist has. And by artist, I mean not just a musician, but a film-maker, painter, poet – whatever it is you do as a sort of creative outlet – you have an opportunity to use that art as a kind of cathartic process.

So everyone has – we all have – a dark side and we all have a light side, And I think what I choose to channel – and maybe not even as a conscious decision, but it just seems to be the way the process always works for me – is the darker side, which tends to go into my work.

Consequently, I am quite a contented person in my private life. I’m not sure what I would be like if I didn’t have that kind of outlet. You know, maybe I’d be completely fucked up! (Laughs)

It kind of works, in a way as the kind of yin and yang – the work and the person – are two quite different sides of the same person in that respect.

TUN:   To The Bone is certainly an album that raises a lot of questions, And one thing that does – if we can go back to the prescient fortune teller idea for just a moment – is the spoken intro to the album’s opening track. Jasmine Walkes’ spoken intro to the album’s title tune, where she talks about ‘truth’.

It’s amazing that this track was recorded before the ongoing nightmare of the Trump era really got started, and there she is questioning the way truth is now more regularly considered a malleable concept by people in power. It must give you a sort of perverse pleasure that that now seems an even more prescient comment than perhaps you first thought?

SW: Well, ‘pleasure’ would be the wrong word, of course. Because it is, in some respects, also quite depressing to have foreseen that.

But remember that when the song was written the whole election process was well under way, so we were already – all of us in this world – already immersed in a world of fake news and disinformation, and the bullying tactics of the Trump administration. Or at least, the ‘pre-administration’ as it was at that time. So, I think the writing was on the wall that that was the way that the political landscape was going.

Social media was a very powerful tool for spreading that kind of disinformation and manipulating the truth in that way.

I do think we have to look a lot to the internet for part of the reason why that’s been made possible. The internet – one of the greatest inventions in human history – is also something that can be used as a tool for manipulating people, for evil, and I think we have to recognise that and talk about that. So, of course, that’s what I am doing on this album, yeah.

TUN: Is it fair to say then that Trump was at the forefront of your mind when you wrote The Same Asylum As Before?

SW: Yeah, kind of. But also, there’s a lot of stuff going on in Britain as well at the moment with politics. I mean, the whole Brexit thing…

I think the sentiment of that song is quite simple – it doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t matter who gets in to power, you’re still stuck in the same madhouse that you were before.

Politicians are very good at promising things and then not delivering. They’re very good at telling you what you want to hear, but then, ultimately, continuing to do exactly what the previous administration did. It seems odd to me the idea that you have a vote and you can put someone into power but then they really aren’t that much different to the people that preceded them.

TUN: Well, if you have been following Australian politics you’ll know we vote and put someone into power only for the politicians to repeatedly decide they don’t like our choices and throw them out mid-term. We have had something like eight Prime Ministers in ten years…

SW: Wow! I wasn’t aware of that!

Now obviously there is a big difference between Obama and Trump – philosophically, there’s a big difference – but in many respects there is a lot of stuff that is always going to be the same. You know, with the whole issue with gun control where nothing ever seems to change. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, nothing ever seems to change.

TUN: Getting back to the album again, I thought it was an interesting pairing of tracks at the start of the album where you had To The Bone, a song which opens up with some fairly bleak subterranean imagery, then, in the second track, Nowhere Now, having it start in the same place but then launching us into the stratosphere, where, arguably, the perspective is sort of similar.

It struck me that, seeing that you had been performing Space Oddity so often in the wake of Bowie’s death, maybe your song was a sort of companion piece to the Bowie song. Was that any part of your deliberation when composing it?

SW: That’s interesting! You know, you might be right. There are certain things, I think, that creative people do, if I can describe myself as that, that sometimes we are not even conscious of ourselves.

It’s quite possible – you’re right – because I was performing Space Oddity a lot, and now you say that, I can see, yes, that there is a sense of someone drifting high above the Earth and seeing it as this beautiful thing far removed from all the politics and the terrorism, and all the bullshit that is going on down on the surface of the Earth. Seeing that actually there is a wider perspective, that the gift of life is an extraordinary thing, and that the human race has achieved extraordinary things.

So I think that the song marks the beginning of what I referred to at the beginning of our conversation – that there is a more positive, slightly more joyous and optimistic perspective on this record. I think I was conscious that if I hadn’t put this other side in, this album could have been really depressing!

Do you know what I mean? As you pointed out, there is a lot of depressing stuff – the refugee crisis, the terrorists, the politics – it’s all pretty depressing stuff. So I think, maybe subconsciously, I had to present the other perspective as well, which is that there is beauty, and there is joy, and there is extraordinary stuff going on all the time on this planet.

TUN: You say you range over a lot of depressing material, but I feel your great strength is that you present these ideas but yet have your listener feel almost uplifted by the way you present and explore the material. It’s something I often marvel at when I’m listening to your records.

We can’t leave a discussion of the album without discussing the song, Permanating. According to the Stephen Humphries diary, this was the last song that you wrote for the album, and quite clearly the most jauntily positive sounding song you’ve done. Has writing a song like this opened a conduit to you writing more in that mood and vein, or is that just a delightful one-off?

SW: Well, the simple answer to that is that I don’t know. I mean, I’m really proud of that song but to be honest I have been trying to write that song most of my career. (Laughs)

It’s very hard. Let no-one ever tell you that writing a simple, direct piece of joyous pop music is easy, because it’s the hardest thing of all to do. And as you’d probably know if you have followed my career at all, you’d all know that I grew up in a house where I heard the heavy conceptual rock of things like Pink Floyd, but also things like the joyous pop music of artists like ABBA and The Bee Gees, and I love both equally.

And it’s been a source of constant frustration to me that the other side of me has not manifested more than it has. Permanating is the first time I ever really felt like I wrote a successful piece of pure, joyous, uplifting pop music – but it wasn’t for want of trying.

And you know what? It may be the first and last time I ever manage to pull it off!

I am writing for my new record right now. I’m writing for the next record, just beginning to, and let’s just say that nothing quite like that has come along yet! (Laughs) It’s much more going back towards the darker side of my musical personality.

But listen, I’m very proud of Permanating and I’d like to think it wasn’t a one-off, but those [types of songs] seem to be very rare in my catalogue.

TUN: Can I just finish then with some questions about your upcoming tour and the impending release of Home Invasion, your DVD record of your recent Royal Albert Hall shows?

Will the DVD feature the full three-hour show that you are touring at the moment?

SW: Yes!

TUN: Excellent!

SW: Yes it will.

You know the funny thing is that when we cut out all my talking between songs it went from being about three hours to about two hours and forty. (Laughs) Which shows you how much I love to talk!

The DVD and the BluRay have well over three hours of material on them because we also filmed a lot of other songs that were not in the main show – we also filmed things that were part of the sound-check in the afternoon, so there is actually well over three hours of repertoire on both the BluRay and the DVD.

TUN: And will that be released before you arrive in Australia? Or will we be purchasing it at the shows?

SW: I believe it’s out pretty much the same week that I arrive in Australia. I think it comes out in the first week of November, so it should be just about out by then, yep.

TUN: And the Australian shows will go for three hours? So, the new album, if you play that in its entirety, that accounts for an hour – that will leave two thirds of the show to be drawn from other things. What should we expect? Will the remainder be drawn just from your solo career, or will it be a full career retrospective? What should we be looking forward to?

SW: I’ve got to the stage now where I don’t really think of any of the songs I’ve written as being songs that are specific to any particular band or project.

To me, right now in my career, having been a solo artist now for the best part of ten years, I just think of my songs as ‘Steven Wilson songs’. So whether they were originally recorded by Porcupine Tree, or they were originally recorded by Blackfield, or originally recorded under my own name, to me they are all, to me, just Steven Wilson songs – so I think that answers your question!

It will be a career retrospective. I go about twenty, twenty five, years into my back catalogue and there are songs associated with various projects, and not just the material released under my own name.

TUN: Fantastic! Well, I have my ticket and I am really looking forward to the two days of driving to get over to see your show…

SW: Wow!

TUN: …and I know it will be as great as your Hand. Cannot. Erase. show which totally blew me away last time you were here.

Thanks for giving us so much of your time here, and also thanks for thirty years of great listening!

SW: Fantastic! Lovely to speak to you, Ken!

 

Main photo: Hajo Mueller

 

Steven Wilson will be performing in Brisbane, Sydney & Melbourne in November 2018.

Tickets on sale from: Steven Wilson tickets

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on September 8, 2018.

The live DVD/BluRay, Home Invasion will be released in November 2018.

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INTERVIEW: STEVE HACKETT – FORMER GENESIS GUITARIST – REVISITS HIS MUSICAL PAST

[My last post here was my interview with Vincent Cavanagh of Anathema, and I spoke of my adolescent love of the music created by the Peter Gabriel era Genesis.

One of the crucial components of that sound was the guitar genius of Steve Hackett, so it was a no-brainer when I was asked whether I would like to interview him in the lead-up to his Australian Genesis Revisited shows…]

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Progressive rock pioneers, Genesis, have only ever toured Australia once – and that was the more pop-oriented line-up in 1986 – so most have us have never had the chance to hear material from the seminal Genesis albums that guitarist Steve Hackett contributed to during, what many believe was the band’s early 1970s golden age, live in this country before.

This situation will finally change later in the year when Steve Hackett brings his Genesis Revisited live show to Australia – playing Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in August.

Once again, no Adelaide dates have been scheduled this time out, so long-time fans will have to make the road trip east once again, but based on YouTube evidence of recent shows from around the world, the long journey will be worth it!

I had the chance to talk to the guitar virtuoso and sussed out just what he will play at these must-see gigs and found out a couple of other fascinating facts along the way about his ability to speak Venusian, and how he has had to adapt his playing, Django Reinhardt style, to accommodate the residual effects of a major hand injury.

Read on!

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Ken Grady: Thanks for speaking with me, Steve. And thanks for so much great music over the years!

Steve Hackett: Oh, thanks! I try to keep it coming, you know, I’m still making a noise for a living.

KG: And what a great noise it is! Can I start with an obvious question, why has it taken so long to organise an Australian tour? 46 years is a tad long to make your fans wait to hear you live don’t you think?

SH: I tell you what I think it is. David Williams approached my management team some years ago, but unfortunately those people did not pass on the information to me. I had a big falling out, and a big court case with them, not because of that but because of a whole bunch of other things. And some times, the wrong kind of management can deliberately keep you in the dark.

All I can say is, for the last ten years, my wife and I have been self-managing and that has opened up the world to us. She loves to travel, and so do I. I love to play live. So apologies for not having gotten there in all that time.

In fact, John Wetton and I used to commiserate the fact that we’d never been to Australia. We’d done other places. We did Japan together – the late, great John Wetton, a lovely guy and a pal – and it [Australian tour] had never happened at the height of his fame with King Crimson, and Asia and…

KG: Uriah Heep…

SH: …Uriah Heep. ‘All that’, he said, ‘and it never happened for me.’ And I thought, ‘Well, will it ever happen?’

I mean it was a long time before I made it to Japan – way after most people made it, but I think it was precisely because you think you’re making the right choices with the people that you have who are close to home, but then it turns out that all conspiracies and stuff are going on behind your back.

Funnily enough, I had dinner, many years ago, with Bob Geldof after he’d not long done Live Aid, and he was saying that whenever he got through to managers to get people for Live Aid, they always turned him down [laughs] and whenever he got through to the artists…

KG: They always said yes?

SH: They said yes. And I said, funnily enough, I was trying to get Genesis to reform then to do Live Aid. And at the time Tony Banks [Genesis keyboardist] said to me, ’It’s great that you’re trying.’ And then Bob said to me, ‘Had I known that you were pushing for that, I would have pushed from my end.’

Ah, you see? There was another agenda wasn’t there? Phil [Collins] was doing it, and being the busiest man on the planet, perhaps there was another agenda there.

KG: You’d think everybody would be on the same page.

SH: You know what I’m saying. You know, politics plays its part.

Basically, I’d like to play everywhere, and that’s what I’m all about. That’s what I do, and I’m probably at my happiest when I’m touring. It’s a great big purge of all sorts of things.

You know, if I ever feel that I am not doing enough, when I am on the road and I am flat out, it’s an ongoing wrestling match with all the vagaries that is touring – the uncertainty of food, sleep…you know, all of it – uncomfortable travel and all the rest. You are always pitting yourself against what’s humanly possible. But the joy is, and the big payoff is, you get in front of people, and even if you are completely shattered, they give you the energy. They give you the enthusiasm. They are the true owners of the music. They are the enthusiasts.

KG: And there are a lot of those enthusiasts here in Australia, believe me.

SH: Well, I am really looking forward to it. I get a sense that there is.

Well, I mean, no-one knows if there’s goodies in the bag or not, all I can say is that I’ve now spoken to people on the phone, quite a few now, and I think, ‘Wow! I seem to have been doing more media interaction now than I’ve been doing in some other places, you know, that I have visited time and time again. I have to say the publicity [for the upcoming Australian tour] has been extraordinary so far, and that’s heart-warming and reassuring.

Nobody knows what’s in the bag until you show up in a new territory – it could sell out or it could be three men and a dog! Nobody knows.

I know it’s more scientific than that, but we are touring around so much there’s now the time to find out.

KG: I remember Steven Wilson being surprised when he first played in Australia with Porcupine Tree a few years back, having not made it down here before. He was absolutely blown away by the size of the audience, and the reception he got. I’d be pretty sure you are going to get the same.

SH: Well, that would be terrific and I know that Steve has been encouraging me in that way, and Nick Beggs, who plays with Steven’s band, and who played with mine before he was working with Steven Wilson, has been down there with Wilson…

KG: Yes, I saw him in Sydney last year. Fantastic.

SH: There are places that are on the map, and there are some that are off. We seem to going to more territories this time, you know, bridging new territories, that I’ve have not been to before. This year seems to be busier than ever with that, and I’m very much up for the adventure of it all.

KG: Hopefully you’ll love it enough to come back and make sure you cover the whole country. Touring acts seem to only visit the eastern seaboard and underestimate how big Australia is.

SH: I’m looking forward to this tour enormously, but initially I could only go with what’s on offer, because everybody is testing the waters. And if the waters are warm it will be a different story next time, I suspect.

KG: Now you just mentioned before that Nick Beggs is still in your touring band. Will we be getting the band that is touring with you at the moment – Nad Sylvan, Roger King, Gary O’Toole and Rob Townsend?

SH: Yes. That is the band. They’ve been the regular band for a while. In some cases, when I’ve been looking at the bass playing chair, it has sometimes been Nick Beggs, other times it has been Lee Pomeroy who is working with Jon Anderson & Rick Wakeman these days and Trevor Rabin, and I’m very pleased for him that he is doing that. He’s been working with ELO, all sorts of things, Take That…

And we had Roine Stolt doing bass for a while but also guitar as well. We had a twin guitar thing going there for awhile. I’m not adverse to another guitarist being in the band, and what a guitarist he is too!

So, I’m open to all of that…

KG: So you won’t be bringing any other guest ‘stars’? I was watching your Royal Albert Hall show from a couple of years back with Ray Wilson [former Genesis lead vocalist] singing a few songs, and he was sounding fantastic. No chance of him coming?

SH: Well, I think we were able to do that in London, and we were able to do that in Germany, where he is hugely popular.

There have been a whole bunch of guests with all of this.

In fact, we did one of those Caribbean ‘Cruise To The Edge’ tours and the late great John Wetton was on stage with me, and the late great Chris Squire, because they were great mates and we’d done a lot of recording with each other over the years. And we also had Simon Collins, Phil Collins’ son.

I think there is a YouTube clip of that with all of us playing, if I remember correctly, ‘All Along The Watchtower’. Not an original tune for us, but something simple that everyone could get their teeth into, and it was just that gesture of having those twin bastions of bass on stage doing something together. That was the first time we’d ever done anything together, and the last time. And the first time I’d ever been on stage with Chris Squire.

Both of those guys were a joy to work with in different ways because they were tremendously enthusiastic. And they were friends, first of all.

Friends first, players second – which means music is always great.

KG: Will you be playing any of the Squackett [Steve Hackett – Chris Squire recording project] material in tribute to Chris whilst you are here?

SH: Not this time out, no – I’m not doing that.

Funnily enough, people have been…it’s  a strange thing, although we did that album a few years back, we didn’t tour it.

We were offered to headline a festival in London, I believe it was called the High Voltage Festival, and I said to Chris, ‘You know this could be really good. If we’re going to go in for doing a live thing, this would be a great way of us auditioning to an audience who are already there for us.’

And he said, ‘No, I’ve got a date with Yes that will come in the middle of it’.

Then at other times he would say, ’Why don’t we go out on tour?’

We had the big moment here!

And the idea of doing something much smaller, I thought, was not necessarily the best idea. So we never got around to it, apart from on the boat as I said.

It’s just one of those things, so they’re both with me in spirit now…

KG: Yes, it’s sad that they are gone.

Now, this year’s Genesis Revisited tour is celebrating forty years since the release of Wind & Wuthering, which was your last studio album with Genesis…

SH: That’s right, yeah.

KG: Your Australian shows will obviously be featuring tunes from that album, but will there be a broader range of songs from the six albums you worked on with Genesis, seeing as you haven’t made it to Australia before?

SH: I tell you what, yeah, there’s different material in different places.

Now there’s a kind of flexible setlist that’s sort of been going backwards and forwards so much with David Williams, all I know is that on some of the shows we are playing – and I could belt through all of the numbers…it’s ‘Dance On A Volcano’, ‘Squonk’, ‘Every Day’, ‘Blood On The Rooftops’, ‘El Nino’, ‘Afterglow’, ‘In The Skeleton Gallery’, ‘Behind The Smoke’, ’The Musical Box’, ‘Eleventh Earl Of Mar’, ‘Shadow Of The Hierophant’, ‘Dancing With The Moonlit Knight’, ‘Firth Of Fifth’, ‘Supper’s Ready’, ‘Fly On A Windshield’ and ‘Los Endos’.

It’s going to be an acoustic show at one point, and that will be different material.

So some of the ones that I reeled off are solo ones but, as you can see, most of it is the Genesis stuff, from albums, variously from Nursery Cryme to Foxtrot to Selling England By The Pound, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering. So we try and cover as many bases as we can. It’s mainly a Genesis show.

KG: You didn’t list ‘Carry On Up The Vicarage’ [novelty tune with ‘Laughing Gnome’ style vocals from early solo era] there, I noticed…

SH: I didn’t get into that one.

KG: [Laughs]

SH: I have done that one live though, but not in recent years. And that was when I was hard up for material when I was doing my first live shows ever! And it was a band that had neither played on Voyage Of The Acolyte, my first one, or neither had they on Please Don’t Touch, so we did that and a tiny bit of Genesis…

KG: Congratulations on your latest album The Night Siren. The tracks I have heard off that are great. I love the film clips, that stunning Icelandic one…

SH: Yeah, it’s gone alright hasn’t it? And it’s charted in a number of territories. It’s zoomed up. I’m thrilled with the response to that. It’s been terrific. Its sales in the first week have outstripped its predecessor straight off the bat, so I might be doing something right!

We’ll be doing three songs from the album. We haven’t attacked anything else because we’ve been in harness and it’s a little bit tricky to start things from scratch. It’s already quite a memory test for everyone, getting through everything, we’ve got about three hours worth of stuff.

I guess live it could be anything from two hours, two hours ten, two hours twenty, two and a half hours, you know, it all depends…we’ll see how it goes.

KG: A few questions about your early days with Genesis. The way you came to join the band originally was quite unusual – not responding to an ad for a guitarist, but with the band responding to an ad that you placed. How did that play out?

SH: Yes, that’s right. Well, I advertised in the back of that trade paper [Melody Maker] for four or five years, every week. So I was a persistent offender and, in the end, I think if you keep coming back to the tables, you do create your own luck because you’re gambling on yourself. You’re advertising yourself and your ideals, and I had a very highly idealistic ad, which in the end is what caught Pete’s eye. So if Peter Gabriel hadn’t have called me up I doubt whether the others would have bothered. But he had his ear to the ground in those days, and an eye on the future. And he was great and enthusiastic…

KG: Was that the only reply you got in four or five years? Surely not…

SH: Oh, no, no, no… I’d had hundreds of replies over those years and I’d already done an album with a band called Quiet World…

KG: ‘The Road’

SH: But I was invited to be a writer with Genesis from the word go, you see. [Pete said] ‘We are a writer’s co-op, that’s what we do, so from the moment you play guitar on something, the moment you write a guitar part, you are a fully-fledged equal partner in the writing team.’

So I thought – ‘Can’t be bad!’

KG: Now legend has it, that the band were fairly, shall we say, ‘fiery’ over creative differences at times. How did you cope stepping into a band that had been together for a long time, old schoolmates, and that were a bit feisty?

SH: Yeah, they kind of had their own language which you had to learn. So I very quickly learned to quick Venusian…

It was very different to everything I’d known and Phil [Collins] was from a different background too. Phil had been at stage school, so in his way he had interacted with more people. He’d been on stage singing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! And he’d been in films.

He downplayed a lot of that. He just wanted to be the drummer, but he happened to have a great voice. He was a logical choice when Pete left as his replacement.

KG: You stayed for two more albums after Peter Gabriel left Genesis…

SH: Yes, I did.

KG: I know you are on record as saying you were going through a pretty harrowing time in your personal life but I also read somewhere that you really badly damaged your hand. How long did it take to recover from that? And has it had any residual affect? Are you sort of like Django Reinhardt [French jazz guitarist who played with permanent injuries to his fret hand] playing with an issue, or…

SH: Well, there is a sort of Django Reinhardt effect. I don’t look horribly maimed or anything, but I severed a tendon and a nerve in my thumb which meant, to this day, that I can’t bend the top joint properly. So I support my hand in a different way. And I learned to do freestanding vibratos somewhat stronger now, so I can incorporate that. Single vibrato was the toughest thing, but I wasn’t particularly good at that in the early days anyway. I’m much better at that now. So, yeah, I recovered from that. It was a harrowing, and difficult time, yeah.

KG: A few more questions…

SH: Actually, I seem to have over-run again…I have another call waiting. Are you OK with that?

KG: Yes, even though I have another five hundred questions or so…!

SH: Ah, well maybe we’ll get to talk again in the future? And we can cover those when I get to meet you in the flesh!

KG: Maybe at the Melbourne show?

SH: Yeah, that’d be lovely!

KG: Well, thanks for talking with me, it is really appreciated.

SH: No problem. Nice talking to you.

 

Steve Hackett brought his Genesis Revisited live show to Australia in August 2017. Dates for the Australian tour were:

Brisbane: Wednesday 2 August – The Tivoli

Sydney: Friday 4 August – Enmore Theatre

Melbourne: Saturday 5 August – The Palais

 

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on April 26, 2017.

INTERVIEW: TALKING OPTIMISM WITH VINCENT CAVANAGH OF ANATHEMA

[In my youth – a wannabe punk rocker – I sneered at anything labelled ‘progressive rock’.

Or so I wanted everyone to think I did!

Secretly, I never stopped playing my Peter Gabriel era Genesis albums, ELP, Rare Bird’s first record, King Crimson, and esoteric experimental music by David Toop, Gavin Bryars & the Ichihara All Stars…

As I have grown older, I have unashamedly allowed my tastes to diversify.

I discovered the work of Steve Wilson a few decades back when a Swedish friend sent me a CDr he had put together for me of his current faves. The disc included IEM, No Man & Porcupine Tree tracks – the common thread through all of these, of course, being Steven Wilson. And I have been hooked ever since.

So, when the chance arose to speak to a member of UK prog rock band Anathema, a band who had shared a label with Mr. Wilson and who had worked with him on their albums, I could not refuse!

Now, if only one day I could get to speak to the great Steven W. himself…!]

 

Those familiar with the music of Anathema, the post-progressive alternative rock band who have released, to date, eleven studio albums full of some of the most transformative music you’ll ever hear, will know that emotional tension and dramatic intensity are two of the most utilised tools of their trade.

But little did I expect such tension and drama to be in play when I rang Vincent Cavanagh, Anathema’s singer and multi-instrumentalist, late on a Friday night only to be met with a whispering reply to my introductory spiel informing me, on the eve of the band’s latest Australian tour, that he was at the doctor’s surgery awaiting treatment for an uncomfortable eye condition and we would have to reschedule our chat for another day.

It says a lot about the quality of the man that he was so polite, even in his discomfort and distress, and in the face of having his secret revealed – that rock gods are only human after all, subject to the frailties of we mere common folk!

Stoically, Vincent picked up the phone again, as promised, on Saturday, to fulfil his promotional obligations. With his eye a little better now after treatment, he chatted to me, openly and enthusiastically, about his philosophies on life and music. And his excitement about the band’s current stage show that they will be bringing to Australian shores in just a few days’ time was palpable.

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Vincent Cavanagh: (Over a fierce industrial roar) Hello there mate, can you hear me OK?

Ken Grady:  Yeah I can  – is that the vacuum cleaner?

VC: Yeah. (laughs) That’s me missus…

KG: First of all, just let me apologise for ringing you last night at the doctor’s…

VC: Oh, that’s fine, man. It was alright in the end. I just spent most of the day in waiting rooms, you know. You know how it goes.

KG: Everything OK?

VC: Yes. It’s all good, yeah. It got treated and it’s all fine. I just had a problem with me eye. I had a corneal abrasion, almost like a scratch which had caused me a dry eye. But it’ll be fine. I’ve got some drops and stuff to use. It was quite painful for a while, but it’s fine today.

 KG: I’ve had some eye issues myself, so I can empathise with you.

I’ve got a few questions to ask you if you don’t mind.

VC: No man, go ahead.

KG: The first one would have to be the most obvious one. Three times to Australia now, in four years, after not making it down here for twenty-five years. What keeps you coming back? What’s grabbed you about Australia?

VC: I think part of it is that you’ve got to give credit to our manager, Andy Farrow from Northern Music. I think he obviously had the connections over there. Obviously, John Howarth, our Australian guy as well. He’s been working with us for the last few years.

So it’s just been the last few pieces of the puzzle getting together really that’s enabled us to get over there [and return] quickly. So, hopefully now, it’s going to become a regular thing because obviously our tours keep evolving, the band as well, I mean we’re constantly progressing with different set lists, and doing the new album and putting all of those songs into it. Doing a new show and doing new visuals, and putting it all into a whole new production. So, yeah, for us it’s exciting really to have everything come together.

I think, in general, as well, we’ve been to Japan for the first time; been to America a couple of times, and we’re about to go back. And all of these things happen – good things happen – to people who work hard, you know…

KG: And you certainly do…

VC: Yeah, it’s a combination of hard work, momentum and obviously people liking what you’re doing. I do like to put a lot of emphasis on how much you put into something the more you get out of it…

KG: And obviously with your latest album, The Optimist, winning prizes and getting rave reviews that is testimony to all of your hard work.

VC: Well it was hard work to do, so yeah.

You know, it’s worth it, really worth it, in the end. I mean your ultimate reward is in the work itself – if the work is complete, and there’s nothing else that you would do to change it, or at least very little. And if you’ve left yourself with very little to regret it’s going to be something that you’re going to be able to stand by for the rest of your life.

These things are extremely important. It’s your output. You only do these things every couple of years, you know, so it’s got to be good. You’ve got to be able to stand by it for the rest of your life, and I definitely can with The Optimist.

It feels more of a complete picture really, because it’s got the whole visual story attached to it as well. And the artwork is amazing, and I really like the way the whole thing seems to be a bit more of a coherent whole rather than just a collection of songs.

KG: Can you talk us through a little about the concept for the album for those who have not heard it yet?

VC: Well it goes all the way back to [Anathema’s 2001 album] A Fine Day To Exit. And the artwork on that album implied that someone had faked their own suicide – the classic scenario of leaving clothes on the beach and then disappearing, never to be found.

The idea there was that he had started a new life and we never once implied that he had actually gone through with it.

But then this new album, there’s different ways to take it. The events on this album, you could see them as being the events that led him on to the beach in the first place. You could also see it as what happened to him immediately afterwards, after the beach and sort of linear, or maybe something happened, and this is all like a flashback happening in an instant.

We don’t really say, because I think that all of those could be valid. But it certainly fleshes out more of the character’s back story, of the things that led up to this event and the consequences of it, really. And I suppose it’s a struggle, one person’s struggle, but at the same time there’s a conclusion to it which is not the one that he expected, but it is ultimately the right one for him.

So, I don’t like to be too literal about this kind of story because it’s not a concept album, it’s more like a visual story really, with artwork and songs and the parts in between are like scenes from a movie. It’s more that kind of thing really.

KG: And was the San Diego beach [whose map co-ordinates provide the title for the first track of the album] chosen at random, or was there something specific about that particular location?

VC: Well that was where the original cover of A Fine Day To Exit was shot. A place called Silver Stone Beach in San Diego. Travis Smith is from San Diego – the guy who shot the artwork – and he still lives there. So, it made absolute sense for us to start there and then continue from there.

So this whole story about someone having a hallucinatory breakdown is shot in the sunshine state of California, where everybody is, you know, supposed to be happy and life’s supposed to be fantastic. There’s a kind of amusing irony in that.

KG: I was going to say it was ironic and is the title – The Optimist – ironic too? Because ‘optimism’ is not usually a word I’ve heard associated with your music. I’ve heard, you know, ‘cathartic’…

VC: (Laughs) Yeah…

KG: …’emotional’ and ‘intense’…

VC: Well it sounds better than The Pessimist!

Yes, it is ironic, but at the same time there is some scope for a light at the end of the tunnel with his story, so you know there’s two ways of looking at it.

KG: You said The Optimist was based on an idea from an album released back in 2001. Are you finding, as you go through your career, and you change emotionally as you age, that you are looking back at your old material and reassessing it? Is that something that you do a lot? And is that one of the ways you now find new inspiration – by looking to build upon things that you have done before?

VC:  I think that it is interesting to have connections with all of your work.

It is something that The Beatles used to do. They used to leave little clues, or write about a certain song, or a certain moment in their life from a different time, you know after a few years passed. And I think that’s interesting especially if you’re being, in some way, autobiographical with your work, because all music is connected – it’s connected to your story as a human being, and your life.

So, there are connections. And there are little clues in all of our work, especially in our most recent albums where you’ll hear a little lyric, or a little melody from something that we’ve done before. We won’t make it overt. It’ll be hidden in some way. I like those things. They’re like little secrets to discover. I enjoy that.

But we’re very much a forward-thinking group of people.

KG: Does it make it easier because there is so much shared family experience invested in that, so that when you say you can bring in those little moments [from your past work and life experiences] it is because everybody is on the same wavelength, having maybe experienced these things with a similar emotional outlook at the time.

VC: Yeah, well the connection we have as a family [Vincent has two siblings in the band Daniel and Jamie, as well as brother and sister John & Lee Douglas being members as well], obviously runs extremely deep and having stayed together throughout our lives and expressing ourselves in this really honest way for so many years, we sort of know each other inside and out really. There are some times we don’t really have to communicate verbally at all.

KG: Sort of genetic instinct?

VC: Yes. But there are some other times where we’ll actually put something very personal into a song, but it might not be something we’d talk about. All of these complexities of our personality are something we’ve silently grown to understand about each other.

I mean, when you think about it like that, objectively, its unnatural. It’s not a very common thing for families to be forced into this working environment which is so intense. It’s like some form of marriage, living on top of each other – I mean you’ve got to allow a little bit of breathing space, you know.

But we’ve found a happy way to do it. Everybody gets along.

KG: So you’ve said there are some things you don’t need to verbalise, so there hasn’t been a moment where Daniel has put something in a song where you’ve gone, ‘No. We’re not going to go there.’ Has that happened at any time, where you’ve touched upon things that other band members don’t want to share?

VC: Where it’s too personal? Like it’s too close to the bone?

KG: Yeah.

VC: Yeah, there have been some things. There might be a couple of little things whereby I think [Daniel] should protect himself a little bit more sometimes. Because more often than not Dan – all that Danny does is – wears his heart on his sleeve. It just pours out of him. And I’ll say to Danny, ‘You know this bit is fine as it is. You don’t really need to go that confessional at this point. You know what I mean? You’ve got to keep something back for yourself I think. Danny essentially is expressing everything about himself throughout his music, and always has done.

John, on the other hand, is one of those kind of people who will say something that is just as deep, but there will be a certain type of angular poetry to it, so it won’t be as…

KG: It’s obscured a little bit, it’s not direct?

VC: Yeah, it’s obscured. It’s a little more fluid in its vocabulary. It’s less literal and contains more imagery. It might just be a strange sort of use of grammar as well. He’s got a very fluid mind, John. He doesn’t follow literary rules, you know, all of the time.

You’ll still find the same amount of confessional lyrics, and you’ll find his deepest concerns in there but, again, there could be something that he won’t actually verbally communicate the stuff to you. There could be something that he’s turning over in his head, and he’ll write about it in his poetry and in his music, but he never really talks about it.

And it could be things like the deepest things in his relationship. He recently had a break-up in a relationship that was very difficult and very, very hard to go through because he wanted it to work – they both did – but then, eventually, it didn’t. And he wrote Distant Satellites [from the 2014 album of the same name] about that. You know, the idea of two people being satellites in orbit around each other but…

KG: It’s a fantastic metaphor…

VC: …but it just didn’t work out, you know.

KG: And what is happening there is he’s tapping into something that can be seen as universal…

VC: Yeah. A lot of these things in our lyrics are the biggest things that happen in your life. You know, when you fall in love, when you break up with somebody, or when somebody dies who was close to you. You have a little mental breakdown. These things happen universally.

And we choose to put these things into music because it’s our best way of getting through it and expressing how we feel about it.

KG: It’s like an exorcism?

VC: In a way. It is cathartic, without meaning, necessarily, that you’re healed. Or that you‘re free. It’s just a means of going through it, you know. Especially with certain mental health struggles. Most people will probably struggle with those things for the rest of their lives, if they have any severe issues. Then sometimes you find a way to function, but it doesn’t mean that you’re all better now just because you’ve written a fucking song about it.

KG: It just releases the pressure briefly, that outlet…

VC: It can help you to understand things that little bit better, let’s put it that way. And I think, for the listener who might be from the other side of the world, from Australia, or from anywhere with a completely different background, different language, different culture, everything, there’ll be something in a song – not just our stuff – but in any song that makes you feel automatically connected to that song, and the person who wrote it, that makes you feel less alone. There’s somebody else going through something that you exactly feel. You feel as if these songs could be written about you, but they aren’t about your life. And you’ll never meet that person who wrote it, but their themes are so universal and so prevalent across all of the human condition…you know how they make you feel…

KG: Yes, I do know how they make you feel…

VC: You feel less alone.

KG: Yeah. I was playing Distant Satellites up fairly loud last night just before I rang you, and it is interesting hear you say that it was about relationship break-up because there is so clearly a sense of that level of emotion there.

 I mean, your band does make really transportive music that just takes you into an emotional zone and affects you. It is a universal language that you use in that particular combination of chord changes, or of vocal melodies, where the language of the words is not so important because the emotion their delivery carries is so sincere…

VC: Yeah, you can express things like falling in love, breaking up with somebody, the death of somebody very close to you, or the contemplation of your own mortality, or the birth of your child, or all the things that are the biggest things that ever happen to you in your life. You can express all of these things without words. You can express these things with music. For example, I listen to a lot of instrumental music. I always have done. And there’s a sort of…I’m trying to find the right word here…’beauty’ in the non-verbal expression of an emotion that is very difficult to actually quantify and put into words afterwards. It’s almost like you’re trying to analyse something that doesn’t need to be analysed.

Erik Satie’s [20th century French avant garde composer] Gymnopedie Pt. 1. The minute you hear that piano refrain…well, I could imagine him being the very last person on Earth, and he’s resigned to that fate and he’s fine with it, and there’s an intense joy and there’s an intense melancholy in that music.

It’s a very complex thing and I don’t really think I’m able to communicate it properly, but if you were to write a lyric on top of that it wouldn’t improve it. If you were to add a cello part to that it wouldn’t improve it.

If you’re really trying to get to the core of an emotion, of what you’re trying to express – let’s remove the lyrics from the equation for a second and let’s just look at the music – you have to say, ‘Are you putting anything in the way of that emotion?’

Quite often, if you’ve got a full band with a couple of guitars and a keyboard player and a piano player and drums and three vocalists and orchestra and all this shit, right? You could be cluttering it up when all you really fucking need is just a piano and very little else.

So the trick of writing music to express an emotion is in what not to play – and to get out of the way of yourself, get out of the way of the music and to allow the music to really dictate what it is trying to say without your fucking ego on top of it trying to tell you ‘Hey, I need a guitar solo!’

Do you notice there are no guitar solos in Anathema’s music? Do you know why? Because they don’t make any fucking sense!

On a rare occasion you can find a space for something but not in the show-off way that is associated with a lot of rock music.

KG: Particularly progressive rock music with its frequent changes…

VC: Especially progressive rock music. In progressive rock music you might have a song that is very heartfelt, you know, like a lot of progressive rock music lyrics, ironically, are about heartfelt subjects, and I don’t know progressive music very well but we went on this prog cruise and I was talking to some prog fans, and I said, ‘Listen, what is it about prog rock that you like so much?’ And they said it was the emotion behind music. I said, ‘Really?’ They said, ‘Yeah, yeah – it’s very emotional music.’

Fuck! That was the last thing I expected to hear! So apparently there are a lot of bands who write very emotional songs – but then they’ll go off into a fucking three and a half minute guitar solo, or keyboard solo! It doesn’t make any sense to me.

KG: Whereas Anathema’s music builds the emotion in a sort of trance like way at times…

VC: It’s all very layered but it’s all very deliberate. We strip a lot away. We’re very brutal with our stuff. We’ll chop whole sections out and cut and splice things together. To make a full album we’re very conscious of stuff like, ‘How long’s this intro here? Does that fucking need to be a minute and a half before we hear the vocals? Nah. Ok, so now it’s thirty seconds, alright? Yeah, that’ll do’ You know, it’s things like that. And they don’t bother us at all. You’ve got to know when to kill your ego in music, kill some of things you thought were important, because quite often they’re not.

KG: So is that the place that you’ll always aim for, that razor’s edge between joy and melancholy? Is that the target for most of your music?

VC: Somewhere around that, yes. Because there is a joy in melancholy in music. An intense joy. Practically all of the music I have listened to in my life has that. Think of some of John Lennon’s best work. The Beatles were known to be, from the time they first started out, great melodists, supreme songwriters – the best there’s ever been – but then as soon as John Lennon wrote In My Life things got a lot deeper. And that song, for the most part, is in a major key but there is a melancholy to it. And there’s a reflectiveness to it, and there’s memories and philosophy, and there’s all sorts in there that happens to be very moving.

And ultimately, it’s all about something that moves you in some way and it could be a melancholic joy or it could be a euphoric joy. It’s the same thing. As long as it moves you to that extent. Music has the power to do that and so that’s what it should do.

I don’t think music is for thinking. Do you know what I mean?

KG: That’s an interesting thing to say…

VC: When I listen to the best music I listen to, I don’t put my chin in my hand and think, ‘Ooh, that’s clever.’

KG: Music replaces thinking. It fills your head rather than your own convoluted ways of trying to read into it…

VC: Well I always come back to this one term. It’s a genre of music, but to me it means so much more than that – and it’s ‘soul’. I mean, does your music have soul? If it has soul…I mean, Oasis have soul. Do you know what I mean? Fucking AC/DC have got soul. There’s something real…it moves you. You get it, and it gets you.

There’s a certain thing about it. I mean certain electronic music can have soul. Jon Hopkins’ [British producer and musician, Eno collaborator] music is extremely moving. Max Richter, the contemporary classical composer, Aphex Twin, even Deadmau5…there is soul in synthesisers. And in drum machines. You can have that. It is possible, you know. It doesn’t have to be a guitar…

KG: That’s right. If the performer is inhabiting the music, rather than, as you said before, just showing off their virtuosity…

VC: Exactly! ‘Inhabiting’ it is the word. Do you inhabit a human fucking being? I mean, you can spot it a mile off. You see a guitarist on stage, right? And he might be able to play the guitar way, way better than Dave Gilmour, for example, but he’ll never play a solo as good as Don’t Leave Me Now, off The Wall. Now, the Don’t Leave Me Now solo is a minute and a half long and there’s five notes in it. But it’s the way he holds these notes and he bends it and controls the feedback in such a way that it’s extremely moving. And in that place there is space for a guitar solo like that because it’s five notes and it’s a minute and a half and there’s more emotion in that than in most of these shredders whole careers. That’s because Dave Gilmour has soul, you know. And a lot of these other people are studying things mechanically and reading off the page, but they can’t play something with soul.

KG: What’s the point of having the land speed record for fretwork when the punter just wants to go to the bar and not really be transported, or having the performer have them transcend the moment…

VC: Yeah exactly, transcendence that’s the thing.

I absolutely feel that that will always be there in music. And no matter how technologically advanced we get with our music, and no matter how easy we make things for ourselves with our technology, to have soul and have real human emotion that’s what it’s always been about. And that’s what it always will be about.

KG: I could talk to you for ages about the power of music, but I must ask you a couple of questions about the Australian tour.

Those who have seen A Sort Of Homecoming, your most recent live DVD, have they seen the sort of show you are bringing to us this time? Or will it be The Optimist played in its entirety? How is the set going to look?

VC: It’s going to be different to both of those things. What it is, is that we have decided to bring in a few songs from A Fine Day To Exit because the two albums are artistically and conceptually linked. Some songs that we never usually play live like Pressure, Panic, Breaking Down The Barriers, Looking Outside Inside. These things are all cool songs but they were somewhat overlooked because we never played them that often. So what we decided to do is to break up the set list a bit. We’ll start off with some Optimist stuff, then go into Fine Day To Exit stuff, then into other parts of the catalogue, before coming back to some Optimist stuff. It’s quite a long show. There’s a visual side to it as well, it’s going to be cool, man! It is going to be cool!

We’re doing things in a slightly different way. We’ve got new equipment and instruments on stage we’ve never really used before and we’re using slightly more electronics and I’m playing synthesisers and vocoders and playing a bit of drums in a certain part. It’s really interesting for me to have my own little, new world of instruments to play on, rather than just being up the front with a microphone and a guitar.

For me personally, I’m really enjoying the shows. It’s great.

KG: It sounds really cool. The last time you came to Adelaide, on the acoustic tour, the only time you’ve been to Adelaide before, I was out of the country, so I’m really looking forward to seeing you this time.

VC: That was good, man.

KG: So just a quick tour of Australia and then you go to Turkey before you go home. That’s a very Christmassy thing to do – a bit of Turkey for Christmas…

VC: (Laughs) I see what you did there! Yeah, kebabs all round. Turkey kebabs all round! But I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t eat meat anymore.

KG: But I had to work that line in there somewhere…

VC: Yeah. I’m sure we’ll have a couple of kebabs for the lads, but I’ll see what I can do. I’ll see if I can get some haloumi.

KG: Well your tour starts in a couple of days, you must be leaving for Australia very soon?

VC: Yeah, I’m going tomorrow night.

KG: I’m really looking forward to catching the show – and just keep making fantastic music.

VC: I’m going to bring me shorts and my fucking pasty arse over there and see what happens! It should be good!

KG: So thanks for the chat Vincent, and I’ll see you next Saturday night.

VC: Awesome! Cheers, man.

 

Anathema played The Gov on Saturday December 9, 2017.

Anathema

 

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on December 13, 2017

INTERVIEW: BLACK STAR RIDERS SINGER RICKY WARWICK THRIVES UNDER ‘HEAVY FIRE’

[I have always been a huge Thin Lizzy fan. It seems to me that their catalogue of albums sound better and better as the years go by, and Phil Lynott was a giant talent who is still sorely missed.

When Thin Lizzy announced they had appointed a new lead singer, Ricky Warwick, I was ready to be disappointed as I felt no-one could possibly fill Phil’s shoes adequately. After all, Phil’s vocal inflections were as much of an integral part in the band’s sound as was that wonderful twin lead guitar attack…

So, I was hugely surprised, and not just a little relieved, when Ricky Warwick’s voice turned out to be such a perfect fit for songs in the Lizzy canon.

Soon, Thin Lizzy changed their name to Black Star Riders because the band had started writing songs that were not just worthy of being added to the classic repertoire but could stand alone on their quality, and they did not want to be seen as an entity whose sole raison d’être was to simply recycle Lizzy hits on the oldies circuit.

BSR have since prospered and have released three terrific rock records up to this point in time.

Long may they thrive…!]

 

In 2010, revered Thin Lizzy guitarist, Scott Gorham, asked singer, Ricky Warwick, a man who had made his name screaming out hard rocking tunes with heavy noise merchants, The Almighty, to step into the hallowed spotlight as frontman for his legendary Irish band.

Warwick knew he was being asked to sing the songs that the much-loved and sorely missed Phil Lynott had written and once delivered with unrivalled conviction and soul when he had fronted this great Irish rock institution in the seventies and eighties. It would be a gig that could either bring him great reward or, as had been the case in those less than successful experiments replacing Freddie Mercury in Queen, or in finding someone to take Michael Hutchence’s place in INXS, he might incur the wrath of over-critical fans and music journos and be seen as damaging the Lizzy brand.

It was a challenge Warwick could not resist taking on. He was, after all, a long-time Lizzy fan himself.

His curriculum vitae, that also included stints with New Model Army and Stiff Little Fingers, coupled with the fact he had released a brace of solo records under his own name, made it obvious to all that Warwick was a credible choice and more than qualified to step up to the microphone.

The new Lizzy recruit soon proved himself to be an excellent choice, and fans were immediately satisfied with his vocal power and approach.

Once in the line-up, being a prolific songwriter himself, along with other members of the now revitalised Thin Lizzy, he began writing a lot of excellent new material that the band soon decided needed to be recorded and heard by the public.

Feeling it would be disrespectful to put material out as new Thin Lizzy product without Lynott’s involvement, the band made the courageous decision to drop their famous trademark name and forge a new career under the Black Star Riders banner.

Now, on the verge of releasing their third album, Black Star Riders are going from strength to strength, having won over old Thin Lizzy fans and cultivated a new audience who have been hypnotised by the band’s blend of powerful, melodic rock licks in new songs which build upon the bedrock of the dual guitar attack pioneered by Lizzy in their heyday.

The new album, ‘Heavy Fire’, is full of thought-provoking songs and memorable hooks, and is due to be released in early February, through Nuclear Blast.

I recently chatted to Ricky Warwick about the new record, the band’s career so far, his recent solo work and Thin Lizzy’s formidable legacy…

 

Ken Grady: So, the band’s third album, Heavy Fire, is due to be released very soon.

It follows the first two records, All Hell Breaks Loose and The Killer Instinct, both of which were great. And, after listening to the new album last night, I can confidently say this new one sounds just as good.

Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the band’s latest offering? Did it come together quickly? Or did it evolve over the two years that have passed since the last album came out?

Ricky Warwick: You know, it did come together really quickly. Damon Johnson and myself – we basically write most of the material – don’t really stop. We’re writing all the time.

So there is always stuff going on. There’s never a period where we don’t have any songs, no having to ‘go away and write the album’ kind of thing.  We both come from song writing backgrounds from the other bands we’ve been in – that’s something which has stood us in really good stead, you know?

As soon as the last one, The Killer Instinct, was done, we just kept on writing. And then, about this time last year, Damon flew out to L.A. and we went down to my manager’s house at that time, for a week.

We just set up camp there and went through basically everything that we’d got, as well as any riffs that Robbie or Scott had thrown into the mix as well.

By the end of that week we had the nucleus of twelve or thirteen songs pretty much written.

Then, over the course of last year, we would just work on them whenever we were together, and we also wrote another seven or eight.

By the time we went in to record, there were twenty-one songs there.

I’ll be honest with you, I find writing to be very easy. It’s very natural. Hopefully, I’ll always be able to say that to you! It’s certainly not a labour of love, it’s something that I find really therapeutic and I just find it really easy, you know?

KG: When you say that all the band members come with material, is it always a fully collaborative effort? Do you all come with snippets of ideas and then put them together? Or do you come with fully formed songs and…

RW: No, not really. I mean, I write a lot of the material. I write all of the lyrics and I write a lot of the guitar riffs as well.images

What I usually do, is I’ll get an idea and then my first port of call will be [guitarist] Damon Johnson, and I’ll go: ‘This is what I’ve got. What do you think?’

And he’ll go, ‘That’s cool. Why don’t you do this?’ – that sort of thing. You know, ‘Why don’t you add this riff in here? We could do this dual guitar solo here…’

And that’s how it works.

Scott Gorham, being the legend that he is, will also walk in with two or three killer riffs, and Robbie Crane, our bass player, he delivered a couple of riffs too on this record. Ninety percent of everything else though, is pretty much just myself and Damon.

KG: Can you talk us through a few of the songs on the album that made the cut from the twenty odd that you originally had? Where, for instance did the idea for a song like Who Rides The Tiger come from?

RW: That was a Damon Johnson guitar riff that Damon had emailed to me.

He has to send them to me because we live miles from each other – he lives in Nashville, and I’m in L.A.

So, he emailed me the guitar riff that you hear at the start of that song, and I hit him back and said that it was great.

I had a phrase stuck in my head – ‘Who rides the tiger / is afraid to fall off’. It’s a very old phrase, a very old saying. And all of this shit was then going down in America…I don’t know if you’ve seen the news today, but there has been another shooting in Fort Lauderdale…

It was just the stupidity of out-dated American gun laws, and the failure of the Government to act and that whole thing. That was all happening at the time that Damon sent me that riff, so I just fired off the lyric.

It’s an angry riff and it deserves an angry lyric.

And that’s what Who Rides The Tiger is about.

KG: Was that song written before or after a song like Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed, because thematically there seems to be a link there?

RW: Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed came first. That’s from a conversation that I had with some guy.

You know, it was just one of those weird things where I was at the park with my little girl – quite a few years ago now, actually.

She was three at the time, and she needed to use the bathroom. I brought her into the bathroom, and there was this guy in there.

He’d obviously been living on the streets for quite some time, and the first thing he says to me is, ‘Hey man, don’t push those fucking shoes at me, man.’ And I’m like, ‘What? Have you got a problem, mate? I’m here with my little girl – watch what you’re saying…’

And he goes, ‘No, no, no – you don’t understand!’

My little girl is hiding behind me in terror at this guy by then, but he starts opening up. We walk outside and he starts telling me about his life.

I don’t know if it was true or not, that he’d been to Vietnam and he’d done his time, and he had these conspiracy theories…it was just stuff he was coming out with.

Everything was a quote. Everything was so wonderful. And I talked to him for about half an hour, and we left and I thought, ‘I’ve just got to remember this and write a song about it.’

And the last thing he had said to me was, ‘Don’t think too much ‘cause it could get you killed.’ I thought, ‘That’s brilliant! I’m having that!’ You know what I mean?

So, with a lot of our stuff I’ll write the lyric first or I’ll have the lyrics and then we’ll have the guitar riffs and the melodies and we’ll see what works with what and what fits. That’s how that song came about, we had got the bass groove going for it, with a kind of Clash guitar…stuff going on in the choruses, you know, and it just evolved from there.

KG: That was an amazing story about the guy in the public bathroom, just showing how song ideas can just come to you from the strangest of places…

RW: Yeah, I just wished I remembered them all. That was just one of those times. Usually, you tend to forget them, but that guy was so amazing, and so…

KG: Impossible to forget?

RW: …On fire. I don’t know if that’s the word I’m looking for.

I just walked away pretty much remembering everything he told me in our conversation.

KG: The second single from the album is Testify Or Say Goodbye, which was previewed on the internet just a couple of days ago, and it seems to me to be an instant classic, right up there with Finest Hour and The Killer Instinct, as one of your best…

RW: Thank you.

KG: How’s the reaction to the song been since it was previewed?

RW: Oh, it’s been really good!

We knew it was a special song when we wrote it. I mean, I’ve always been a big fan of Northern Soul and Tamla Motown, and the whole Stax thing – the whole Detroit scene. And that was a big influence.

I wanted to write a song with that feel and that vibe musically. So I sat down to do that.

Again, the lyric I had was from a poem that I had already written. The verses were from a poem that I’d written a couple of years ago. They instantly seemed to fit in with the whole flow of the music that we were working on.

It’s a very positive song. Basically, I just wanted to write a song about standing up for what you believe in. You know – speak your piece, or don’t speak at all.

In the end I think that’s the meaning behind it. Yes, it’s a big, bad world. Yes, there’s a lot of crazy people out there, but, we’re all here – so get up, make the best of it. Try and be a good person. Try and do your thing. Try and do what makes you happy, and try to spread the love.

I think that’s what we tried to get across in that song.

KG: That does come across. It’s got such a great vibe to it.

RW: Thank you.

KG: You just said that you always liked Tamla Motown and similar sounds. Looking at you specifically, and your path through your career – starting off in cover bands…

RW: Yeah.

KG: …Then you spent time in punk bands, like New Model Army, then moved into classic hard rock and some of your recent solo stuff is more acoustic, so you obviously have a very diverse range of musical tastes.

Has that made writing easier for you? Songwriting comes easy to you, you said, is that because you can draw ideas from just about any style?

RW: Yeah, I do. And that’s why I listen to anything and everything – as long as its got some soul and its got meaning behind it, I’ll be a fan of it.

That could be dance music. That could be Slayer. That could be Discharge. Could be Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. It doesn’t matter to me, I just like to consume it all.

It’s like, ‘Why are they playing that? Why is that melody working over that bass riff?’ And I love it. I get a buzz out of it. ‘Why did they record the drums that way?’

It’s just fascinating for me, and it’s a fire in me that just never seems to go out, or wane.

KG: If I can digress, just a little, away from Black Star Riders, your ‘twofer’ double album, When Patsy Cline Was Crazy And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues and Hearts On Trees, only came out here last year. I had it in my top ten for the year…

RW: Oh, thanks man!

KG: …and to follow on from what you were just talking about, the title track where you talk about your dad getting you to play the 45s for him when you were a kid, I’m guessing that it’s autobiographical, as it sounds too real not to be…

RW: Yeah, totally.

I’m sure you are aware that I wrote that double album with a really good friend of mine, Sam Robinson, and him and I, we’re both from East Belfast and we support the same soccer team and had very similar upbringings.

We wanted to write an album about where we’re from and the influence it had on us, and about the people we knew. Not specifically about ‘the troubles’ – honestly, that’s been done to death – but more about the people at the heart of ‘the troubles’, and the places, and the times, and the sounds, and the smells.

I don’t know what it’s like in Oz, but in Northern Ireland they’ve always had a huge love of country music and, no matter where you went, there was always a Patsy Cline album in somebody’s house when I was a kid.1000x1000

The song is true. That’s what our dads did. They were working class guys.

Our dads would finish work at the end of the week, have a flutter on the horses and, if their horse came in, their mates would come over, the whiskey would come out, and the cards would come out.

Being eight or nine years old, you’d just be in awe of these big men sitting around the table having worked all week, and they’d all be cursing and swearing and playing cards. And your dad would be going, ‘Go on – put that Elvis record on’ or, ‘Put that Johnny Cash record on’, or, ‘Put that Patsy Cline record on.’

They were magical times, and it was our first introduction into music. That experience was my first real taste of what music was all about. And what a great way to start.

KG: Yeah, exactly. My heritage is Welsh, before my family emigrated to Australia, and my dad’s hero was Chet Atkins, so we heard country guitar at home all the time…

RW: Oh, fantastic!

KG: …and he’d get his mates around and if it wasn’t Chet it would be Welsh choirs or Django Reinhardt…

RW: Aw, beautiful stuff! And that would make you appreciate your heritage as well. I don’t think you realise that so much at the time.

Certainly, as time goes on and you start to look back, you do. For me, and I know for Sam when we co-wrote that song, we now know what a huge part that time played in shaping us and our lives.

KG: Well, another solo track of yours, Tank McCullough Saturdays – I probably played that track more than anything last year –  even though I know it was about a local football legend, or inspired by him, it had that chorus: ‘For everyone I ever needed / For everyone I ever believed in / I won’t cry no more’, and it seemed so apt in 2016, because we were losing so many people who had been so important to people in their formative years…

RW: Absolutely! It is.

You know, I lost my father in January of last year – it’ll be a year next week since I lost him quite unexpectedly. He was a fair age but he was in fairly good shape until he passed suddenly – and you know [that song] now becomes even more relevant.

Sam also lost his dad a few years ago too, but there we were just writing about being eight or nine years old, and going to the football with our dads: the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the characters…and the whole thing that went on back then on a Saturday morning, the excitement of going to see your team play.

We just wanted to try and capture that in a song as best we could.

And ‘Tank’ McCullough was the centre-half for Glentoran, you know, and he was a local legend. Hence, the song title…

KG: I have to compliment you, because that song transcends regionality and really strikes a universal chord…

RW: Oh, thanks for saying that! And that’s really important that you said that, because we were very aware when we were writing it that we didn’t just want people to go, ‘Well, what are they singing about? I don’t know these places, I don’t know these people. Why is that relevant to me?’

So we were very careful to make sure that, whilst we were writing about what we knew, that somebody like yourself, on the other side of the world, could go, ‘I can identify with that.’

I think we achieved that, and the fact that you’re saying that now means a lot. That’s really, really cool, you know.

KG: The solo album took two years to be released though, so what was the cause of the delay? It had an initial limited release a few years back…

RW:  I did it originally through the Pledge campaign [a crowd-funding site]. So it first came out towards the end of 2014 for everybody who had pledged and helped fund the actual making of the album.

So when that was done, and we had closed the pledge period down, I then did a licensing deal with Nuclear Blast to actually re-release it properly on a worldwide basis. That obviously took a bit of time to negotiate and put together, so that really accounted for the delay in getting it out there.

KG: Well, I’m glad you did!

RW: Thank you.

KG: Let’s get back to talking about Black Star Riders – even though I could continue talking about your solo album a bit longer, I better not!

RW: No, hey, that’s cool! I’m happy to! It’s no problem…

KG: Do you think, three albums in as Black Star Riders, that the brave decision, I thought, to change the band’s moniker from Thin Lizzy to Black Star Riders, has now been vindicated? Do you feel you are now an entity in your own right, and that people look forward to going to see Black Star Riders, and are not disappointed that they are not hearing the Thin Lizzy repertoire?

RW: Yeah, I know for a fact that that is the case.

As time’s gone on, and we’ve toured, there have been less and less Thin Lizzy songs within the Black Star Riders set.

In fact – by the time we came off the road at the end of 2015, after being on tour with Def Leppard and Whitesnake, we were only playing, I think, three Thin Lizzy songs in the set.

And I know, that now with over thirty songs at our disposal, and with the band being so established, we’ll probably only do one or two Thin Lizzy songs in our set on our next tour.

To be in that situation, and to be dismissive of such an amazing, wonderful, iconic, influential band is nothing short of a miracle.

We knew that people would say to us, ‘Yeah, we get it’ when we went, ‘OK, we are not going to record under the name Thin Lizzy’.

But people thought that was just the end of that, and that we would just keep touring as Thin Lizzy. But obviously we had written songs that we believed in and we wanted to move forward. So we said to people that we were going to change the name and they were all saying, ‘You’re mad. You’re crazy. Nobody will get it.’

We didn’t know what would happen – we were terrified with All Hell Breaks Loose too, you know – were people really going to care? Were they going to get it? Or were they just going to want us to get back out there playing as Lizzy?

So, the fact that we’re four years into the band now, and that I’m sitting here talking to you about our third record, is just testimony to the people out there for supporting us, and, I think, to ourselves for sticking to our guns – and it was absolutely the right decision to do it.

I mean, one hundred percent the right decision.

Even more importantly, looking back now, the idea that we briefly considered recording new Thin Lizzy material without Phil [Lynott] horrifies me.

Playing those wonderful songs live, and keeping them alive, and bringing in people who had never seen Lizzy, and spreading Phil’s gospel, as I call it, bringing the Thin Lizzy sound to new people and to people who want to go back and relive those songs again and hear them live, that’s all one thing. That’s totally cool, and it’s great – it is what it is.

But, I think, to record without Phil would have been a travesty in my opinion.

And changing the name and moving forward was I feel, a hundred percent the right thing to do.

KG: I agree with you. And it helps that you have got such strong songs that actually sound like a natural evolution from the Lizzy sound.

RW: Cheers, I appreciate that, thank you.

KG: I love your voice, but one of the secrets of the success of the band, is that whilst lots of bands have lost their original singers and tried to replace them and failed – Queen and INXS come to mind – your voice, whilst not being Phil’s voice, just seems to have a natural, complimentary quality to it.

You have the phrasing that just seems to fit so well. So when you first joined the band – was that your natural voice? Or did you tailor it a little bit to fit the Lizzy sound more closely?

RW: Well, first of all, credit must go to Scott Gorham for recognising that I am me. I mean, I’ve known Scott for a long time and when Scott offered me the gig I think he knew how much of a Lizzy fan I was, and I think he knew I could do the songs justice.

But when Scott went, ‘You’re the new lead singer of Thin Lizzy’, suddenly that changed everything.

How was I going to replace someone who, to me, was the greatest rock and roll frontman in the world?

Well, you can’t replace him.

So, OK, I thought, ‘He’s irreplaceable – what do I do?’

I always say I couldn’t stand in his shoes, so I’d try and stand beside him, as best I could. And that’s what I tried to do.

I immersed myself in it. I knew that people wanted to hear the songs as close to the way that Phil would have delivered them as possible, but not in a tribute band, cheesy kind of way.

KG: Yeah, exactly.

RW: So it was trying to walk that line of: ‘OK – Phil was edgy. Phil was aggressive. Phil was passionate. Phil was a great frontman.’

I think I’m edgy. I think I’m passionate. You know, I think I’m a pretty good frontman. I think I am – I believe in myself.

I believed that I could put my own slant on the role without being disrespectful, and without tarnishing the legacy. And so that’s what I tried to do.

I mean, I’m a fan. When I close my eyes and think of Thin Lizzy, I see Phil Lynott. I don’t see Thin Lizzy with me singing. I see it with Phil – and that’s the way it always should be.

I’m just carrying the torch. I’m just keeping those songs warm and bringing them out there.

So, the long answer to your question is – I studied the band for three years. I studied Phil’s lyrics. I studied the man more closely than I ever had. I read stuff about him, I read his poetry.

You know, for six months, I didn’t listen to anything else.

My wife works in the music industry and she’s always bringing stuff home, you know, ‘Hey check this band out’, and what have you. And I said, ‘No’. All I would listen to was Thin Lizzy.

I had lyrics stuck on the fridge. I had them stuck on the stairs. I’d be taking my little girl to school and we’d be singing Lizzy songs in the car.

So I totally consumed myself in Thin Lizzy and I think that changed the way that I sing.

I think, as I’ve got older, my voice has developed more as well, which helps. In The Almighty I just shouted. And that was fine – I just tried to shout in tune. Being aggressive and being loud, that was what The Almighty was all about.

When I started doing the solo records it was actually [Def Leppard’s] Joe Elliott going: ‘You know, you can sing. I’ve heard you – you don’t have to shout to get your point across. Why don’t you just try singing?’

And he was right. He really coaxed me into developing a singing style, as opposed to just shouting. So, I give him credit for that.

And my voice has just matured, I mean, studying Phil and Lizzy during the time I was first in the band – well, now it’s just engrained in me. I think that’s just part of who I am now, do you know what I mean?

KG: I do.

RW: That was a very long-winded answer to your question. (Laughs) I’m sorry! (Continues laughing)

KG: No, that was a great visual of the lyrics being displayed around your house stuck on your stairs, and on your fridge…

RW: Yeah, yeah…you know it is funny.

I’ve got a great story I’ll tell you about my little girl.

She’s nine now, but when I first had the Lizzy gig she was only three. And I was taking her to day-care, and we were driving along and singing The Boys Are Back In Town, a song which she loves.

It gets to the bit that goes… (Hums a guitar lick)

You know that part in the song?

KG: Yep.

RW: And I was singing along with the dual guitar hook, and when it gets to that bit at the end, all I can hear from the back of the car is, ‘Elmo. Elmo’s bedtime!

So, I’m like, ‘Great!’ And now every time we play the song live I’ve got this vision, when we get to that part, of Elmo’s bedtime! (Laughs)

Nothing like a three-year old to bring you back to earth and take the wind out of your sails!

KG: If I could ask you a couple of quick last questions – I know that we are running out of time…

RW: Go for it.

KG: According to the internet, you are actually making an independent movie with your good friend, Joe Elliott and Al Jourgenson from Ministry as well as Joey Santiago from the Pixies. What’s that all about?

RW: Well, I was asked to be in it by the young fellow who was making it. He was trying to put together a crowd-funding campaign. I don’t really know what happened to it.

That all started two to three years ago and there was a lot of fuss about it, like it was going to happen.

I don’t know if the funding came through…it kind of just went dead in the water. I’m not stressing over it.

I mean I got a phone call – ‘Would you like to be in a movie with Joe Elliott, Al Jourgenson and Joey Santiago?’

I know Joe and Joey, and Al Jourgenson from Ministry, well, obviously, great band… so I said, ‘Yeah! Fuck, that sounds great!’ but, that was the limit of my involvement in it.

[I said], ‘You know I’m not an actor, what do you need me to do?’

He said, ‘You will play an Irish drug dealer.’ And I thought, ‘Well I think I can actually do that!’ (Laughs)

But then it just went quiet, unfortunately, and I never heard anything else about it. And I haven’t heard anything else about it for a year, or year and a half now. So I don’t really know where the guy is up to with the project.

KG: And as time goes by, the logistics get too hard don’t they, so it might not eventuate?

RW: Well, that’s it. People start getting busy, and tours get booked…I think I’d be a terrible actor anyway, so maybe it’s all for the best!

KG: Now, I’ve got one Thin Lizzy question that has been bugging me for years…

RW: Go for it man, go for it…

KG: There was a snippet in the newspaper, I don’t know, maybe about five or so years ago, where it was reported that an old colleague of Phil Lynott had came forward and said that he had a cache of Thin Lizzy recordings that were the equivalent of something like seventy new albums worth of material…

RW: Yep.

KG: And then Scott Gorham was reported as saying the band were working through the material and they would be putting out a box set at some stage, but I’ve heard nothing about this since.

 And of course, as a Lizzy fan, it is like, ‘What’s going on? When are we going to hear that stuff?’ So do you know anything about that?

RW: Yeah, there’s this Swedish guy called Perls, a great guy, a lovely man, and he was a very close friend of Phil’s.

He had a lot of stuff that Phil left him – recordings and demos and stuff like that.

I know he’s working through all that and trying to put something together, and has been for some time.

I mean, I think it was touted about there was something like three hundred songs, blah blah blah…There’s nowhere near that amount, but there’s certainly a lot of stuff. He’s got early demos of The Boys Are Back In Town with different lyrics, which is kind of amazing, and uncanny when you hear it.

The guy’s played me some of it.  I think he’s even got some of the demos from – I don’t know whether you know this, but Phil went and did some recordings with Huey Lewis & The News when he was working with them in America – so he’s got stuff like that.

It’s not really my business, so I don’t know where it will get to. But as a fan – like yourself – as a huge Lizzy fan, I wanted to hear that stuff, so he very kindly played me some of it when I was in Sweden last year.

I think he’s working with Universal to try and put something together, and I don’t know if it will be one album, or two or whatever, but it is definitely being worked on.

KG: I’m glad it hasn’t disappeared into the ether, because it certainly got me salivating when I read that stuff was out there…

RW: Oh, there’s definitely some good stuff there, but certainly not in the kind of amounts that everybody was bandying about. But there’s definitely some very interesting stuff that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, and I think it would be great if people could hear it. I mean, why not?

KG: OK, last question – and it has to be asked.

 It is going to be a busy year for you guys, touring a new album, but is Australia going to be on the itinerary at anytime in the near future?

RW: Listen man, we would come there in a heartbeat.

You know, it’s the old thing. It’s financial – you’ve got to make it work. And obviously, we were there three – no, four – years ago with Thin Lizzy and we had a wonderful time.

It’s a country I love very much, and so yeah, absolutely.

I know we are trying to talk to promoters and see if we can come down there and play because we’d love to. It’s a no-brainer for us.

KG: Well, if it does come about – beg them to put Adelaide on the itinerary because we get left off far too often…

RW: Yes, that would be good, eh? It would be very good.

I mean. It’s been awhile. As I said, four years since we were there last time, and my first time was way back in 1991 with The Almighty when we toured with The Screaming Jets. I think my liver is still trying to recover from that one!

We did six weeks with those guys. It was just the best time. We had such a laugh! Obviously it was our first time, and obviously we were a lot younger back then but we got to go to crazy places like, you know, Broken Hill, and Wagga Wagga and all those places…

KG: The classic Australian pub touring circuit…

RW: Dave Gleeson’s got a radio show now, I believe, is that right?

KG: I heard that he had – but I haven’t heard his show myself. He’s still playing gigs and being pretty active…

RW: Oh that’s cool. Good stuff.

KG: Thanks so much for giving me so much of your time…

RW: No man – thank you! It was great. Great questions, and I’m really happy you like the solo album so much. I’ll actually pass that on to Sam Robinson over in Belfast. He’ll be delighted to hear that someone on the other side of the world is vibing on our stuff. That’s great!

 

Black Star Riders’ new album, Heavy Fire was released worldwide through Nuclear Blast Entertainment on February 3, 2017.

 Ricky Warwick’s paired solo albums, When Patsy Cline Was Crazy And Guy Mitchell Sang the Blues and Hearts On Trees are available through Nuclear Blast Entertainment.

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on January 13, 2017.

INTERVIEW: BAY CITY ROLLERS’ LES MCKEOWN – THE SEQUEL!

[Nobody expected The Bay City Rollers to return to town quite so soon,  but the previous tour had been a great success so their promoters brought them back a year later.

Having had such a ‘hit’ with my last interview with Les, I could not refuse the chance to reprise the experience and chat to him a second time…]

 

Time’s a funny thing, ain’t it?

Forty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to bring myself to admit that the Bay City Rollers had any musical credibility at all, such was the black and white adolescent certainty, in those days, about what constituted good music, and what did not.

In the eyes of my equally snobbish pimpled cronies and I, The Rollers were the epitome of what was wrong with modern music – manufactured, saccharine and musically lame. How could so many thousands of people get it so wrong? How could so many beautiful young people swallow their collective pride and feel it was OK to be seen wearing ‘Roller Strollers’ in public?

Then, ten years on from their heyday, on one of their ‘comeback’ tours, I bought a ticket to see them play at a local sports club on a cold, snowy night in Canberra, and sang along without guilt, albeit ‘ironically’, with their hits – annoyed when the show was interrupted twice by prank bomb scares.

Thirty years further on, and now with a greater sense of perspective, I have to see the music of BCR as one of the many glorious colours that make up the tapestry of modern pop –  because their music, in its deceptive simplicity, and sweet layered harmonies, provides a conduit to reignite the intensity of emotional feeling that those formative years held for so many. They did sell 300 million records, after all!

When Rollers’ lead singer, Les McKeown, brought his latest incarnation of the band to Australia last year the response was emphatically positive. Due to their delight at the success of the tour, the promoters quickly offered the band an opportunity for a return visit in 2018 – an offer that Les, on behalf of the group, was only too happy to accept.

Speaking with Les on the phone, he spoke enthusiastically about his forthcoming return, and seemed pretty happy with the way things are currently unfolding for him and his band.

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Ken Grady: Hi Les, it’s Ken Grady in Adelaide once again…

Les McKeown: How you doing, alright? (Laughs) We’re coming back to Australia!

KG: That’s right! It was only a year ago that we chatted, and you were saying how excited you were about coming back to Australia for the first time since 2007.

LMc: Yeah…

KG: So, no waiting for a decade this time around.  What’s bringing you back here just a mere twelve months later?

LMc: I think it was just the reaction from the fans, really. Metropolis Touring are a really good outfit over there – they’re professional, and the dust hadn’t really settled on the [2017] tour yet and I was asked to come back this year. So I said, ‘Yeah! Why not?’ The fans were really digging it – there’s a word from the old days, eh, ‘digging’ it! (Laughs) – and they liked what we do, saying they wanted us to come back, so – yeah! We were really pleased.

KG: Yes, it is great that you are coming back. Were you surprised at the level of interest that was so evident last year? I mean you were on TV talk shows, interviews on other media, and obviously the shows went really well…were you surprised?

LMc: Yeah, it never fails to surprise me how popular the Bay City Rollers music still is. I mean, over here in the UK we tour three months in springtime and three months at the end of the year and the places that we play – you know, there’s lots of [fans?] as you are probably well aware – so there’s a lot of places to go, and we just go and play everywhere, basically! (Laughs)

KG: Last year you did say you had been doing around 150 shows a year in the UK – are you still keeping up that frenetic pace?

LMc: Um yeah – but maybe slightly less than that this year. I wanted to do, like three a week, rather than four or five a week. I’m getting a little bit old! (Laughs)

KG: Well people seem to be blind to the fact that you are ageing – fans still seem to be keen to relive their youth when they come to see you…

LMc: Yeah, it’s a great atmosphere at the gigs, it really is. I mean, we all treat it with great respect. We try our best to reproduce the music the way it was on the records, we wear the iconic shirts that the Bay City Rollers were famous for, and just keep the right attitude about the whole thing. You know, we tell some little anecdotes about when we were younger and all that kind of stuff. It seems to go down really well!

KG: So, will this year’s show be a reprise of the greatest hits show that you did last year, or will there be some new surprises this time around?

LMc: Well we try not to fix anything that’s not broken. I think the fans of the Bay City Rollers want to kind of ‘relive’ a moment in time, you know, so we don’t really want to…I mean, I have a new album out with my own stuff on it, songs from the past that I wrote back in 1974-75 called The Lost Songs – you can listen to that on iTunes, if you’d care to – and I’ve got another album that’s almost finished and that will probably be finished by the time I get to Australia, and maybe I’ll be able to bring some of that out with me. But [playing new material] is not something we try and do at our concerts, we try and focus it on reliving the Bay City Rollers days, if you know what I mean.

KG: The Lost Songs album…you mentioned that last year, telling me how the tracks on it were old songs that you had found up in your attic, but I’m interested to hear you have a new album coming up. Is the new one a Les McKeown solo album? Or a full Bay City Rollers album?

LMc: It’s just going to be my album. With new material. I haven’t even come up with a title yet – that’s always a last minute thing, that…

I’ll be going up to Glasgow to finish it. There’s about three songs I need to finish, I need to revoice – and that will be it. Done. And then we’ll do some cover photographs , or whatever.

You know, maybe it should be a Bay City Rollers album. Maybe that would get more traction! (Laughs)

KG: Are the songs on the album in that classic BCR pop form, with classic pop themes? Or is it more topical?

LMc: Well, it is pretty much Bay City Roller-ish, but there are a couple of songs I’ve done, sort of poignant sort of songs – one’s called Bones, which is very interesting. It’s sort of retrospective, I suppose. I’ve been looking back over the years and thinking about what did I do really well back then? People still want that happy-go-lucky kind of song from me. But there are a couple of real depressing ones on this album! (Laughs)

KG: That must be the age – the wisdom – coming through is it?

LMc: Yep. (Laughs)

KG: It’s interesting that you were saying that you’ve been looking back to see what you did really well. One of the questions I wanted to ask you was since you’ve been playing and singing these songs from the Rollers songbook for so long, do you ever stand back objectively and look at those iconic songs and analyse and appreciate the factors that made them have such longevity? Do you ever just marvel at the songcraft that went into creating them?

LMc: I dunno. Because I’m doing it all of the time – you know, I’m more or less permanently on tour. Let’s see March, April into May…that will see us finished with touring in the UK, and then we’ve got festivals to do through June, and then we’re coming to see you guys in Australia for July and August…and then when we come back, well we’ve got a few days off and then we start our autumn tour in the UK! Then, of course, we go over to Japan in February, and then – who knows? We might get asked to come back to Australia again next year! You just never know.

KG: That’s pretty frantic isn’t it? Not a lot of time for reflection then…?

LMc: Well, no. But I kind of like working at this kind of level. It’s pretty good.

KG: Would you have thought forty years ago that you would still be this much in demand now?

LMc: No. (Laughs) I’ve recently actually tried to calculate just how long I’ve been singing. I’ve been on the stage since I was fifteen and a half – that’s forty seven years that I have been singing in bands! And I got to thinking, ‘God almighty – where did the time go?’

KG: If you tried to tally up the hours on stage over those years, you’d be even more amazed!

Today’s musical landscape seems to be so crowded with all sorts of new genres and new artists, are you surprised that there is still room for so many bands from your era to still have such a – I won’t say ‘comfortable living’ – but to have that demand for you all still there so strongly?

LMc: I feel pretty privileged that there is still such a great audience who wants to sing along with our songs and reminisce and be reminded of times that were completely different to the ways things are now that we’re older. It’s a bit about escapism, that kind of thing, and at my gigs there’s always smiling faces, and people are always happy – about as happy as they  can be, really. So, yeah – I think I’ve got a pretty good job!

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KG: You mentioned a few minutes ago, about the summer festival season. I notice that whenever I see advertisements for British festivals that the line-ups are so diverse – do you gravitate more towards the 70s – 80s artist packaged festivals? Or do you find yourself, sometimes, coming on stage between sets by, say, a death metal band and a hip-hop outfit, or something like that?

LMc: Absolutely. We’re doing a thing called ScotFest up near the airport and that’s got pop bands from different era (NB: The 2018 line-up features The Jacksons, Five, B*Witched, 5Star, East 17, Liberty X, Boyzone….) – you know, boy bands, girl bands and DJ mixing and all that kind of stuff – I dunno, I don’t listen to that kind of stuff myself, but…

Yeah, you know, when they want a bit of history they usually have me come along and do the festival – I don’t know if it’s because they want to put a stamp of some sort of authenticity on or not. I don’t know.

I do often end up on a really strange bill, you know, with other people. It’s not always with people from the seventies, or historical stuff – some of the time it’s with new bands I have never even heard of.

KG: So how do you go down with an audience when you are on one of these strange bills? I mean, do they respond positively and respect you guys?

LMc: Yeah. (Laughs) You know, I just think people appreciate good music played well, no matter what era it is from. If the guys are doing good, and they’re putting on a good show, and they are playing the instruments to the right calibre, then I think music fans appreciate that – no matter who is on the stage, you know what I mean?

KG: Yeah. So, I notice that we occasionally get tours that come through town with more than one band on the bill – last year we had Racey, Paper Lace & The Rubettes, and we had Howard Jones here together with Kim Wilde, for instance. When I talked to them, they said they do a lot of these combined tours with their contemporaries back from their time on the charts.

I see that last year you went out with The Sweet and David Essex – even The Osmonds – and bands like that…So do you all sit around over a whiskey or two and share old tales about being on Top Of The Pops and of dodgy record deals and other old music biz war stories?

LMc: No, not really. (Laughs) Usually you hardly see the other people that you are on tour with. They are on stage, when you’re getting ready to go on stage, or you’re getting packed to leave. There’s not, like, a really big ‘green room’ kind of type atmosphere where everybody hangs about – because we’re all busy doing something, or going somewhere, or arriving from somewhere…

KG: Aw, you have just dispelled this little mental fantasy image I had where you were sitting around with all these people who you used to be competitive chart contenders with, and, you know, you bury the hatchet and…

LMc: Well, yeah, we always do that, yeah! (Laughs) There you go…

KG: If we can go back to The Rollers heyday, one of the things that strikes me now, in hindsight, is that the band covered a pretty diverse range of songs by other artists – like songs by The Four Seasons, Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, The Raspberries, people like that. So that is, collectively, a pretty tasteful bunch. So it makes me wonder – were you all pretty serious students of classic pop? Did you get to choose those songs yourselves, or was it a decision made by your management?

LMc: [We’d sometimes sit around] a table where we would listen to songs that either some people in the band liked or that we thought would suit us. The song Bye Bye Baby just popped out as a really great song with all those harmonies and stuff on it. And that proved to be one of the successes that came from those sessions that we used to have, you know, where we used to bring along some records and have a listen to them – ‘What do you think about this one? What do you think about that one?’

KG: Were there any songs that the band covered back in those years that didn’t fit the image at the time that are now locked away in the record company vault and are going to come out in a boxed set soon?

LMc: (Laughs heartily) No, I don’t think there’s any that are going to come out in a boxed set very soon! (Laughs)

KG: It seems to be all the rage…

LMc: Yeah, but I think we’ve released, more or less, everything the Bay City Rollers did since their inception…

KG: Again, if you listen to the Rollers songs now, it seems that they have everything going for them – they’re melodic, they’re catchy, they can be played ‘straight’, or with heavy irony by other artists – so why don’t more people cover Rollers songs? It seems to me that we have so many rehashed songs that come out at fairly regular intervals, but the Rollers material doesn’t seem to ever get a guernsey. What’s your view on that?

LMc: It’s a difficult thing to fathom really. The Bay City Rollers were, like, an unique thing that just happened. You know they tried to put us in with ‘glam rock’, they tried to put us in with ‘boy bands’… they tried to categorise the Bay City Rollers, but we never seemed to sit anywhere, really. They were just a thing that happened. And they meant a lot to a lot of  people all over the world and they are a special memory for everybody.

KG: Yes – which would lead to, you would think, more people wanting to cover the songs and bringing them back at regular intervals because they were so important to people’s lives…

LMc: Yeah, but we were missing a Lennon and McCartney in our band – we didn’t have two great songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, so we had to find our songs from other places. And some of it was by accident, and some of it was by design. But the biggest thing about the Bay City Rollers was the ‘event’ itself. You know, that kind of ‘Rollermania’ thing. That was the thing. The songs, of course, played a huge part in it but there wasn’t so much great stuff being written inside the band at that time.

Let me think. I’m just trying to think…well, there was one called Money Honey that was written by Eric Faulkner, which is a really strange song because, although it was a hit and all that kind of stuff, it doesn’t go down very well at a live concert. It’s just…awkward.

KG: In what way?

LMc: It’s just the style – the beat of it – the tempo, and the whole rock thing. It just doesn’t sit right, with the key, with the others we play. We very rarely play that now. We might play it for Australia – because Australians like a bit of rock, don’t they?

KG: We do, we do. I’m going to have to go and dust off the old vinyl album and play that song now that I’ve spoken to you, to see exactly what you mean. It surprises me, because I remember that song quite well – it got a fair bit of airplay over here.

LMc: It was very successful. But it is just one of those songs that when we play it, it doesn’t get the kind of reaction that you think a hit song would get. It’s just weird. It just doesn’t sit right, so we very rarely play it.

KG: You mentioned ‘Rollermania’ a minute ago. Do you still have to bring extra tartan shirts on tour these days, so that you can wear one on any given night whilst the previous night’s is being repaired after people have ripped off the buttons and the pockets for souvenirs?

LMc: (Laughs) Yeah! No, not these days. They don’t rip our clothes off anymore. (Laughs) Thank God!

KG: What form does Roller fan fanaticism take these days then?

LMc: Well, I suppose it’s a little bit like it used to be, but maybe just a little bit quieter! There’s not so much screaming…

But everyone still says to me that the memories come back. There’s a lot of tartan on the stage, and, you know, they are looking at their idol from when they were thirteen years old, or something like that, and having a great time singing the songs that they’ve loved all these years. It’s pretty emotional, man!

KG: I’m not immune to it myself. You’re talking to someone who is going to fly over to the UK this year to catch the latest Mott The Hoople reunion…

LMc: Nice!

KG: I’ll be one of those emotional old fans weeping at the back…!

 LMc: Great!

KG: Unfortunately, I was overseas last year when the band hit town, so I didn’t get to see your show. I’m pretty sure though that we would have given you the rousing welcome you would have come to expect from an Australian audience…

LMc: Yes, you did – absolutely!

KG: Can you remember how the gig went down? You played at The Gov which is a great venue…

LMc: Yep, and we’re going to be playing there again, I think. All of the audiences in Australia were great. It really surprised me that I was still so popular! (Laughs)

The Metropolis touring people are really, really good. It’s a proper company, do you know what I mean? I have been offered the chance to be have been brought over to Australia before, but I’ve never really liked the conditions because they weren’t really proper promoters – and I didn’t want to be presented in a bad light, that sort of thing. I wanted it to be done proper. And when I got the opportunity to tour with Metropolis, that was exactly what I had wanted – so everybody was happy.

KG: They have got you doing more shows this time around – more towns, and the secondary cities around the country?

LMc: Yes, it is going to be fun.

KG: So, will you be getting much downtime to be the tourist?

LMc: Well, let’s see, we are out there for about four weeks – and out of those four weeks we will have a couple of days off each week, on the nights that, sort of, nobody goes out. A Monday, or Tuesday, or something like that. So we will have a little bit of time to do something – you know, wherever we’re near…a beach, or last time we went to a lot of zoos and stuff like that. That was good fun!

Or maybe we can just…sleep! (Laughs)

KG: Well, Les, our time is up – thanks for giving up some more of your time to chat to me once again…

LMc: No worries, buddy. Come to the gig and say hello and let’s hang out!

 

Now there was an offer my teenage self would not have expected that I would ever receive!

 

 

The Bay City Rollers played at The Gov on August 2, 2018.

 

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on  April 17, 2018.

INTERVIEW: YESTERDAY’S HERO, BAY CITY ROLLERS SINGER LES McKEOWN – STILL GOING STRONG!

bay-city-rollers-les-mckeown-2-540x0-c-default-e1494850635536

 

[If anyone had told me that my most widely read interview over the last few years was going to be Les McKeown, lead vocalist for The Bay City Rollers, I would have assumed they were making it up would not have believed them! But then truth is always stranger than fiction…]

 

It is hard to imagine it, but there are currently thousands upon thousands of successful people in this world who once made the tragic fashion faux pas of being happily seen in public in their full tartan bedecked ‘roller strollers’, proudly declaring their allegiance to their favourite, and once most popular, band in the world: The Bay City Rollers.

The Rollers amassed in excess of 300 million record sales, and, in their seventies heyday, songs like: Shang-A-Lang, Give A Little Love, Saturday Night, Summerlove Sensation, Money Honey, Bye Bye Baby, Remember (Sha La La), I Only Want To Be With You as well as their hit version of John Paul Young’s song, Yesterday’s Hero, dominated AM radio airwaves and inevitably featured on Countdown every Sunday evening for years.

Those heady days, however, took their toll on the ‘Classic Five’ line-up of Les McKeown, Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood, Derek Longmuir, Alan Longmuir & Eric Faulkner.

Management hassles, naivete in contract negotiations, and the descent into the temptations of fame – drugs, booze and debauchery – meant the centre could not hold and the group inevitably broke apart, before reforming in various incarnations multiple times, only to break apart again and again.

Now, in 2017, a much healthier and happier Les McKeown is bringing his latest version of BCR back to Australia for a series of shows celebrating those heady days when Rollermania rocked the world.

I recently spoke to the former teen heartthrob, and found him in particularly high spirits…and despite a very bad line distorting the signal and making his thick Scottish brogue sound like he was talking through his tartan scarf at times, it was clearly evident that he was very excited at the prospect of returning to Australia once again this July.

Ken Grady: Hello, may I speak to Les McKeown please?

Les McKeown: (pause) Erm…Just hold on a minute. I’ll see if he’s here. Hello, Les? You here? Yes….I’m here…

KG: (Laughs) You had ‘McKeown’ there…!

LMc: (Laughs) How you doin’, alright?

KG: Great. Hey, it’s been a while since you have been to Australia. What do you remember about those ’75 and ’76 Bay City Rollers tours?

LMc: I remember it was very hot…!

KG: Well, they were both just before Christmas…

LMc: And loads of girls trying to get hold of me…and that’s all I can remember! Not that that was a bad feeling…

KG: It was a bit of a whirlwind for you, wasn’t it, in those days?

LMc: It was. They were great days. Great days.

I really have great memories of Australia.

I’ve been to Australia many times. The last time was 2007 when I was part of the Countdown Spectacular Tour, and there was Molly Meldrum and John Paul Young who composed one of our hit songs, Yesterday’s Hero

KG: That’s right – so you had that Australian link from very early on?

LMc: Yeah, and what was great about that tour was I got to meet a guy who used to play guitar in The Bay City Rollers. I’d never met him before – David Paton.

KG: Is that right? The guy from Pilot?

LMc: Yeah, exactly. He was the one who wrote January, and It’s Magic…(sings) ‘Oh ho ho, it’s magic…you know-ow…

KG: I actually saw you on one of your earlier Australian tours, back in 1985 in Canberra.

LMc: Oh, that was one of those reunions, was it?

KG: Yes, I think so. And the crowd got evacuated a couple of times during your set due to bomb scares…was that the sort of thing that you had to deal with all the time?

LMc: Yeah. I can’t actually remember that particular event – but it sounds familiar, to tell you the truth.

KG: I don’t think that was a very happy tour for the band anyway. I read somewhere that Eric (Faulkner) walked out at the end of that tour, didn’t he?

LMc: Yeah – he did a lot of that. (Laughs)

KG: That sort of stuff had to be expected, I suppose. I mean you guys were pretty young when the band started…

LMc: We were. I had just turned eighteen, in 1974, when I was asked to join the band, and at the time they were already considered to be a one-hit wonder band, because the only hit they’d had was in 1971. But I was young and I wanted to join up with a professional outfit, so I joined up with the Bay City Rollers and they had these – what I think – were brilliant songwriters, Phil Coulter and Bill Martin. And our first song was called Remember, and I had to re-voice that because their old singer was on the original song, but they hadn’t released that.

So I re-voiced that, and Keep On Dancing, Saturday Night…all those kind of songs that those guys wrote.

Funny thing about Saturday Night – it was a bit of a flop in 1973 when they released it, and then that, of course, was chosen as our debut single for America, and when it was released it went straight to number one! So a quite bizarre run of events…

KG: It is bizarre isn’t it? And back in those days you wouldn’t have had much say over what was released, or in what sequence…

LMc: Well absolutely not. And that’s what led to the release of The Lost Songs, my new album, which is all songs that I was composing back in the day, but people like Phil Coulter and Bill Martin said they were a bit rubbish and that I should leave the songwriting to the professionals, like them…

So, disillusioned, a little bit dejected, I left those songs. Obviously, a professional had told me that these songs were crap songs, so I’d better just forget about them.

Then all these years later, I met up with a Scottish producer who asked me, particularly, if I had any songs from that era.

So me and the wife, we went up in the attic to try and find anything that looked like it could be an ideas tape, or something like that, from the past. And we found an old briefcase, and inside the briefcase were these little microcassettes with ‘Ideas One 1974’, ‘Ideas Two 1975’, on them and all that.

So we put these to the producer and he said, ‘These are fantastic! We’ve got to work on these!’ So we went to work on them and we turned them into my new album, called The Lost Songs, which you can now preview on iTunes!

KG: And I will…!

LMc: So I’m really happy about that. After forty years, my songs have made it to a CD! (Laughs)

KG: Well, everything goes in cycles, doesn’t it – everything gets its turn.

LMc: Oh, I never expected it. That’s for sure.

KG: So when you replaced…it was Gordon ‘Nobby ‘ Clark wasn’t it…back in ’73…

LMc: Yes, Nobby Clark left the band in 1973 and I was asked to join them.

KG: I think there was one personnel change after that, and then that was the ‘Classic Five’ line-up. What was it about the chemistry of that particular group, at that time, do you think, that caused your popularity to explode?

LMc: Who knows? I mean, that’s the thing about chemistry. You just don’t really know what…there’s no science to it. That’s just the way it happens. I couldn’t tell you what it was that changed the [fortunes of] the Bay City Rollers.

Of course people will say, ‘Well, the singer was different.’ That was me. They might say that when I came into the band, things started to happen. But it could have been a multitude of reasons really.

But, in the event, it did happen – and I’m really happy it did happen, of course, but I didn’t really think the Bay City Rollers had the…what I mean is, that we all had this image of the Bay City Rollers when I was young that they were a one-hit wonder, and that they weren’t actually going to go anywhere else.

But when I joined, and I was only nearly twenty or so remember, I thought: ‘Well they’re a professional band. They’ve got their own P.A. system, their own roadie and the van, and lots of gigs.’

So that’s the reason I joined the Bay City Rollers – because they were working quite hard.

TUN: It seems to me it was like a perfect storm. There were others, like Kenny and Slik, and other bands of a similar ilk, but they didn’t achieve the success that you guys did. It was a phenomenal time…

KG: Yeah. Well, those bands you just mentioned, they were post-Bay City Rollers. They just tried to recreate us, you know.

It was, I suppose, a type of ‘boy band’ type of thing by having bands like Kenny and Slik, and all that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t meant to be for them. They were too manufactured, if you know what I mean.

KG: So when you look back on all the things that happened after your success – you know, the fight for royalties, and there were other hard times – do you look at the boy bands of today and say to yourself, ‘I wouldn’t want to be doing that again’? Or do the good times you had back then outweigh all that…

LMc: (Laughs) Yeah, I suppose, in a way, I wouldn’t want to be doing that again because there were some really bad times involved in all the good times.

We’ve settled with our old record company, and I’m really happy about that, but it just takes it out of you. Lots of years feeling ripped off, and all that kind of stuff.

When you think back on it, you think that was a waste of time, and you should have just let it go a lot earlier. Should have said, ‘Right – tough luck, you’re not getting paid for it. Just get on with your life!’ (Laughs)

KG: So did it cost a lot of friendships in the band, those hassles and ongoing troubles?

LMc: It definitely did. It really messed with everybody’s heads, and that manager we had was a real animal, a real beast of a guy. So that affected everybody in the band really.

KG: The band, over the years, have semi-reformed a number of times in various combinations. Is it just you this time around, or do you have any of the ‘Classic Five’ still with you?

LMc: No just me. Just little old me. And I’ve been doing that now for at least ten years. I’ve been building it up and bringing the Bay City Rollers’ name back into the public domain, sort of thing.

I did put together a reunion with Alan and Woody in 2015 and 2016 at Christmas time…

KG: I read about that…

LMc: That was successful. We were only going to do it the one time, but then we said we’d do it just one more time, and now that’s it. Done. Done and dusted.

So now I’m just back on the road with me and my own band. Some of the guys have been with me for 27 years or so. We’ve been building our audience up, and now, these days, I do about 150 gigs a year in the U.K.

But this year I won’t be doing 150 – because I’m coming to Australia!

KG: And your setlist, will it be solely BCR classics, or will there be some of The Lost Songs and other more recent songs to add a more contemporary feel to things?

LMc: No, no, we won’t be doing any new stuff. In fact, I’ll only do one or two things from my new album. It’s mostly a retro show, and the musicians we’ve got, we try and reproduce the records the way they sound on the records. So, all the guys in the band sing and play. We’ve got great harmonies, and when the guitarist plays his solos it is exactly the same as it is on the records. I try to reproduce the records as closely as I can.

KG: And do you still wear the ‘Roller strollers’ and the full tartan gear?

LMc: Not the bottoms, but the tops we do. The trousers now, well they’re just normal trousers…(Laughs) But we wear the iconic shirts.

KG: I was telling a few people that I would be speaking to you this evening, and there were some ladies of a certain age who suddenly went all glassy-eyed…

LMc: Hey, great!

TUN: And they said to ask Les if he’s still wearing the ‘Les tartan’, and then they started reminiscing about wearing all of their tartan regalia back in the day. It was funny to see just how many Bay City Rollers fans came out of the woodwork…

LMc: There you go, hey! And hopefully they’ll come along to the concert and have a great time going down memory lane with me.

KG: They said they certainly intended to when you get here in July.

 So is that the bulk of your audience these days? Those people who idolised you back then?  Or have you attracted new fans over the years?

LMc: Well, over the years, things have changed a little bit.

There’s more guys who come to the concerts. There’s more kids who come to the concerts. Whether or not they’re the husbands, or boyfriends of the girls, or their kids, I don’t know, but there’s a big, diverse audience who come to see us now – which is quite amazing, because when you’re looking out and you’re singing to the crowd, they’re all happy singing along and, all the guys, you can tell, know all the songs inside out, singing all the lyrics.

It’s quite good. I don’t know what it will be like in Australia, but you never know…

KG: I think you’ve still got a pretty big fan base. And I guess those guys who sing along, when they were younger, wouldn’t have been seen dead doing that…

LMc: Right! That’s right, absolutely! Guys would never come to a Bay City Rollers concert, back in the day…

KG: Now a last question, if I could…

A few years ago, I read a book by the journalist Caroline Sullivan called Bye Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair With The Bay City Rollers, and she shyly didn’t name the guy in the band she had a crush on…

LMc: Oh yeah.

KG: It was you wasn’t it?

LMc: Yes (Laughs)

KG: Did you read that book?

LMc: Yep. I met up with Caroline Sullivan [again?] about ten years ago, and she was telling me about that. I was the apple of her eye, apparently…

KG: You obviously have made a lasting impact on people all over the world!

 LMc: Look, I’m super-happy that I’ve still got an audience to sing to, that’s for sure.

KG: I’m sure your Adelaide show is going to be fantastic. And I know as soon as we posted  that your tour had been announced, there was quite an incredulous response from people saying it will be great, and people have certainly been buying tickets…

LMc: Thanks very much.

And Ken, if you’ve got time, come to the show and do a review. Come along and let me know what you think.

KG: Thanks Les, I might just do that.

LMc: Great! This is Les McKeown – saying goodbye!!

 

Les McKeown & The Bay City Rollers played sold out shows at The Gov on Wednesday  July 12 & 13, 2017.

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on May 15, 2017.

 

INTERVIEW: HOWARD JONES GETS TO KNOW US WELL…

[Howard Jones toured Australia with Kim Wilde in 2016.

I had forgotten just how much chart success he had enjoyed in Adelaide. It was a real surprise to see how many people attended the double bill primarily to see Howard and joyously sing along with his many hits.

Our discussion was a lot of fun.

Howard was in very good spirits, and a pleasure to chat with.]

 

Howard Jones is excited about playing a series of Australian shows this November with his old friend, Kim Wilde. I caught up with him recently to talk about what’s in store for his Adelaide fans when he hits the stage at The Gov on November 12 – but we actually ended up talking about a much more diverse range of topics than just the upcoming show in our short conversation.

Ken Grady: Howard, thanks for making time to talk with me. You’re coming back to Australia? It’s not been that long since you were last here – you must really love the place.

Howard Jones: Yeah, yeah, I do – it seems quite awhile though since I was last there. It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?

KG: Well, I used to work with a colleague who once told me that you were her teenage musical hero, and I remember her getting all excited only a couple of years back because she knew you were coming to town. That couldn’t have been more than four or five years ago at the most…

HJ: Yeah…?

KG: And you toured here once before with Kim Wilde, didn’t you?

HJ: (bluntly) No.

KG: No? I’m sure you did…back in around 2003?  I read somewhere that there was an 80’s artists package touring around the country back then, and amongst the headliners were both ‘Kim Wilde and Howard Jones’…

HJ: (laughs) Absolutely – and categorically – no!

KG: Well there you go, you obviously can’t believe everything you read on the net! So then, how come you have paired up to tour with Kim this time? What brought that about?

HJ: Well, we actually meet each other regularly because we do various festivals together. And some of the members of her band and my crew are the same, so we’ve always got that connection.

We thought it would be good to share bands and share crew on a tour so that we could actually get to Australia. That’s always the thing, because it is quite [an issue] to travel all that way with all the gear. So it was quite an expedient way of doing it.

And we’re actually really good friends as well, so we think this will be a great tour because it’s a great bill!

hj-2010-4KG: And do you each do separate sets, or are you going to perform on stage together? Do you alternate being the headliner each night?

HJ: No, I’m going to do my show, then she is going to do hers, and then we will do a song together at the end.

KG: Well one thing is for sure, the show is certain to be wall to wall hits, and everyone is going to be pleased with that. I mean, from memory, I think you alone have had 6 or 7 Top Twenty hits in Adelaide. No doubt you‘ll be dusting all of those off?

Do you know what your biggest hit was in Adelaide?

HJ: (tentatively) No…I don’t. Was it ‘No One Is To Blame’?

KG: No – it was actually ‘Look Mama’.

HJ: Was it? Wow! (incredulously) I haven’t even got that in the set! (laughs) I’m in trouble!

KG: (laughing) That was your highest charting hit here and the one that stayed in the Top Ten the longest…I was a bit surprised too when I checked that out today. I thought it would be one of your other well known songs, maybe ‘Like To Get To Know You Well‘…

HJ: I’m going to have to play a bit of Look Mama then. I’ll just do a sort of vocal and piano version of it. Just put it in there somewhere.

That’s a good ‘heads up’ for me, thanks!

KG: My pleasure.

Will you be trialing any of the material you are going to be using on your Songs & Stories British tour next year? That sounds like a pretty interesting tour coming up?

HJ: No, that will be a completely different thing – you know, just songs and a piano. This tour is the electronic thing, so there is no relation between them really (laughs) – apart from me!

But I will be playing some of my new stuff. There’s one of the Eddie The Eagle film tracks that I wrote – I’m doing that – and also a track from the Engage album, the last album.

KG: And will you be bringing any of the multi-media elements from last year’s Engage tour in to your show here? That seemed like it was a big production.

HJ: No…no. (laughs again) It’s just the gritty, stripped down version of the show…

KG: They’re most often the best!

HJ: Yeah! (still laughing)

KG: Now, delving back a little into your history, if I can.

You were one of the first people to offer live recordings of live shows straight off the desk. Why didn’t that idea catch on more broadly across the globe? I know that Concert Live over there in the U.K. do it at some shows, and I know Springsteen sold USBs at his last Australian shows so that you could download the show the next day – it seems like a fantastic idea, why hasn’t it taken off more widely?

HJ: (laughs) Well…I guess it has really!

For me the fun was in doing something new. We were manufacturing it ourselves backstage. We took photos at the show, and each show had its own artwork. We managed to get a certain amount of CDs ready for people to take away and then people left their address so we could send stuff on.

I got a really interesting album out of that, because there was like twenty shows and I edited all the shows together – all the best bits from places like, Newcastle, Birmingham and, you know, Coventry – and the actual live recording jumped from all these locations and it was such good fun to do. That is the sort of thing you can do when you run sequences and do it the way we do it. Yeah, it was great.

KG: I’ve been looking at your schedule, and coming up in the future you get to play in some of the most far-flung places. I see you get to play in places like the Dominican Republic – what is it about your music, do you think, that has such universal appeal? You seem to be able to go anywhere and people seem to know your songs…

HJ: Yeah, but I kind of specialise in only a few places though. A lot of what I do is about the lyrics and about what I play and the stuff in between songs – the chat and such things – so I feel really at home when I’m in English speaking nations. And, fortunately, that’s where I’ve had most of my success.

You know, if I go to Europe there are a few countries there – Italy, Sweden – where I had a few hits, but they’re not like America, the U.K., Australia and Japan, but between all of these places there is enough for me to do…

I’m still responding to your idea that everywhere I go [people know my work well] – you know, I don’t feel that. My main places to tour are those countries that I mentioned so they’re the places that I concentrate on.

KG: So those more exotic locations on your tour schedule, is that more just you wanting to go there and see them for yourself then…

HJ: (bursts into laughter) Yeah, the Dominican Republic appeals a lot! (continuing to laugh) On the sunshine level…

KG: Well, I guess it just stood out to me as strange that you are going there…(regaining composure) Going right back, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into synth pop from selling fruit and veg off the back of a truck?

HJ: Well, being a fruit and veg salesman was expedient means, really, to get to where I wanted to be. I needed jobs that were flexible so that I could go out and do gigs during the evenings. Everything – from the age of 14 – everything, was geared towards the goal of making records and being on stage and just doing it…

KG: So you had that vision from when you were that young?

HJ: Oh yeah! I went to the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1970 and saw, really, the iconic gods of rock and pop music play – Jimi Hendrix, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and The Doors and The Who, Joni Mitchell…you know, the list just went on and on.

And I thought this is really what I want to do, and from that point on everything was geared, and orientated towards, getting there. So I worked hard at my piano lessons and all…

Yeah, the jobs I did, like I worked in a factory, I gave piano lessons, I did the fruit and veg round…it was all so I could buy keyboards, do gigs…it was all about that.

KG: You started out as a classical pianist didn’t you, and then you made that leap into pop music, or was it just a natural thing [to do both together]…?

HJ: No, no. I honestly learnt the piano because Keith Emerson was classically trained, and it just made me a much better piano player to play the music that I loved – which was pop music and rock music.

So it was really to get my chops into good shape.

KG: Did you get a lot of encouragement at school? Were they supportive of your talent?

HJ: At school? I was absolutely discouraged!

The head of the music department wouldn’t let me take my ‘A’ levels because he didn’t like me. He wouldn’t let me take the A level music course. And when I told him I had Grade eight piano he didn’t believe me – that’s the highest grade you could get – he said come up to the Queens Hall and play me something. So I played him one of the pieces I had played for my exam and he almost fell over! But he did not want me to do music, so I did sciences. (Laughs) And I worked towards getting myself into music college.

So, yeah, I was totally discouraged – but the interesting thing was, it all came round in the end because, later on, I was invited back to the Royal Grammar School, in High Wycombe, to open their new music department with a proper ceremony and everything. And there was a plaque on the wall, you know: ‘Music department opened by Howard Jones’, with the date, and the only other person who had a plaque in that place was the Queen! She had opened the main hall. So I thought that was sort of ironic payback really.

KG: (laughs) So it sounds like your knighthood must only be a year or two away then?

HJ: (laughs) No! No! I have no interest in that! I mean, honestly, look at the people who get knighthoods!! They’re crooks and criminals, half of them…

I do not want to be honoured in that way. That is just bullshit, and I would never accept it. (laughs)

KG: You sound like Bob Dylan snubbing the Nobel Prize committee…

HJ: Well, you know what? I am totally with him on that. I mean this is a guy who has stood outside…he’s been a counter-culture figure for the whole of his career. Why would he want to suddenly sign up for being part of the establishment?

KG: I agree.

HJ: It seems obvious to me – obvious that he wouldn’t even acknowledge it. And good on him.

KG: Let alone the fact that the prize was established by a bequest from an armaments manufacturer. I agree with you, it seems silly to be making an issue about him not wanting any part of it.

HJ: I think that is interesting. What is it about our times that people don’t even understand that he would refuse that? If you’re a counter-culture figure, you would just not be a part of that. And people just don’t understand it.

It’s just another thing that is so bizarre about the time we live in. It’s like we just have to say yes to everything. Well…no!

TUN: Just a couple more questions.

Can you tell us a little about working with other artists? What’s the artistic payoff of working with others? I know you’ve done some collaborations in recent years – in particular I’m thinking of the Cedric Gervais reworking of your song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’…

HJ: Yeah.

KG: So what’s the value of having others work with your material – deconstructing it, rebuilding it…?

HJ: With that sort of thing, it’s really choosing the right person. With Cedric, I really liked his work. I get loads of people sending in remixes of my stuff and I absolutely hate it.

I do follow what’s going on, I’m not a newbie who goes, ‘Oh yeah, this is a sort of dance beat, so its got to be good…’ No, there are people who do it really well but there are a lot of people who don’t.

But people like Cedric Gervais – well, I really respect what he does, so working with him is easy.

The bigger question, though, is that it is really important to work with other people, because if you just stay at home in your own studio, with your own thoughts and your own decisions, well, (a) it gets boring very quickly, and (b) other people bring different things out of you.

I’ve recently been working with an amazing trumpet player, who is the lead trumpet in Michael Buble’s band. His name is Jumaane Smith. We’ve been doing piano and trumpet improvisations and, honestly, it has pushed me into this different direction that’s been really good for everything that I do.

So it’s really important to work with people whatever field you are in. It’s hard. It’s always harder, because there will always be something you don’t like and they’ll challenge you. But that is really important too.

KG: Is it similar to having your songs used in something like the TV show Breaking Bad, where your music is put into a context that you didn’t originally envisage. Do you find yourself reassessing your work through having that sort of experience?

HJ: Yeah. Well, for a start, I was absolutely thrilled to be in Breaking Bad because I’m a mad fan of it. I love that show. I think it’s the best TV ever made.

I met the music supervisor, and he told me that every single song in that whole series was carefully placed because of what each song said.

In Breaking Bad, the scene is that [the character] Jesse Pinkman is in this café, at a crisis point deciding which way he is going to turn – whether he’s going to go back to working with Walter White, or just leave and ditch it all – and New Song comes on and says: ‘Don’t crack up / Bend your brain / See both sides / Throw off your mental chains…’.

I think that’s unusual, that a music supervisor knows songs and their lyrics so well that he can put a song so perfectly into place. And of course, I love that, because it suggests the sort of detailed level that I work at in my own craft.

KG: Yes, normally they seem to just choose songs for their atmospheric sound rather than the precise lyrical meaning…

HJ: Yes.

KG: Howard thanks so much for speaking with me. I’ll be going along to your Adelaide show at The Gov on November 12 and I’m really looking forward to it…

HJ: Thanks, and hey, shout out ‘Play Look Mama!(laughs)…in case I forget!

TUN: Will do!

HJ: And then I’ll just do a little bit of it…

TUN: I will, as long as you don’t call for security and say, ‘Get rid of the heckler!’

HJ: (Cracks up into laughter) No, no, no. I’d never do that!

 

Howard Jones appeared with Kim Wilde at The Gov on Saturday November 12, 2016. 

This interview was first posted on The Upside News on