There are no other groups on the current folk/roots scene to compare with this highly original band; no one comes within a mile of the Whisky Priests’ unique style.
The nucleus of the band centres on the Miller Twins: Gary (vocals, acoustic guitar, mandola) and Glenn (accordion, piano). The brothers have taken more than a few knocks over their ten year history, but their incredible enthusiasm, faith in their music and sheer bloody tenacity has always seen them through. As part of their tenth anniversary tour the band paid a call to Oliver’s Bar in Gosport where Folk on Tap caught up with Gary and Glenn.
So how did the name The Whisky Priests come about?
It’s actually taken from the Graham Greene novel ‘The Power and The Glory’, and there’s a character in there called ‘The Whisky Priest’. It’s nothing to do with the notion that we’re all very religious and drink loads of whisky.
The lads were a little peeved to know there is a band in the current scene known as ‘The Whiskey Preachers’, which we all agreed was way too similar. Gary explained that occasionally people wrote to them complaining that they’d gone to see who they thought were The Whisky Priests and felt cheated when they realised their mistake.
One guy was really mad about it because the venue in question refused to give him back his money. I think that reflects badly on us. The last thing we want is confusion.
What was the driving force behind their new album ‘Bleeding Sketches’?
Well, it’s the best album we’ve ever done. Ever since 1989 we’ve been planning to collaborate with northern poet Keith Armstrong and the opportunity only came along at the start of this year, because we’ve always been too busy. It was now or never, and we’re pleased with the results.
It’s really odd, but a lot of the material was written years ago. Gary is a really prolific songwriter but as a result of doing this album with Keith we’ve got about two-dozen new songs, so we’ll be starting on the next album early next year.
I was amazed that any band could turn out new material so quickly. No sooner is ‘Bleeding Sketches’ hot off the presses, than the brothers are planning the next one. But then The Whisky Priests are famous for being one of the hardest working bands on the circuit. With a punishing schedule of tour dates and an impressive collection of albums behind them, how on earth do they get time to manage themselves and form their own label, Whippet Records?
We carry ideas around in our heads, and the moment we get a chance to write it down, we do. I’ve actually jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to write lyrics down. When we’re at home (in Durham) we’re basically doing a 9-5 job managing the band’s affairs.
You don’t get much time to relax and do anything else then?
That’s right. We’ve never had a holiday, not one since the band started.
Well, no one could accuse the Miller brothers of being slackers. So how did the band originate?
We formed the band just after we’d left school, and we just did loads of local gigs, in pubs and clubs around Durham. It was only around 1988 that we started to get more serious and began putting records out. We’ve only been fully truly professional for 4½ to 5 years now. The first ever gig we played was ten years ago now.
I first saw The Whisky Priests two years ago at the Heineken Festival in Portsmouth, when I was very taken with their unusual style of music. Glenn explained that during that particular gig they were feeling very low indeed.
It was a very stressful gig. We’d played in Belgium the night before and came off stage at 2am. We had two hours sleep before getting back on the road, but when we got to the festival they brought the time of performance forward. We had to go on stage straight away and immediately after the gig we had to share a dressing room with The Pogues. They weren’t too happy either and they chucked us out of the dressing room. We really got the rough end of the stick that day.
I asked Gary if he thought the term ‘pitmatic’ (as used in many articles to describe their music) was appropriate or not?
Well, one person coins a phrase, others see it, and it just gets used again and again. It’s a bit like ‘Chinese Whispers’. The music we play is difficult to describe because it’s not contrived in any way. I don’t want to sound arrogant but the music we play is very honest and it really is straight from the heart.
I wondered if the brothers contrived a working class ‘down t’ pit’ image, or was it an entirely natural look? Certainly their style fits in with their music. A change of dress might lose something integral to their performance.
Image is important in the way people perceive the band, but certainly Glenn and I have always dressed in this particular style, it’s quite natural to us.
So was life as a band of travelling musicians all it’s cracked up to be?
When we started, it was all drinking and Rock ‘n’ Roll, but you soon learn you’ve got to look beyond all that and get professional. The fact we are in total control of running the band makes us harder on ourselves. If you’ve signed to a label and you have a manager to sort out all the arrangements you’ve undoubtedly got a lot more time to party than we have.
Did the brothers not secretly crave the luxury of having a manager?
If we could find the right person, then yes, but we’ve been messed around so much in the past, we’re very dubious about it. Part of the reason our profile hasn’t grown in the way it should in England was down to mismanagement and legal battles with record companies. You name it and we’ve had it in the past.
Did they find that southern audiences were more or less appreciative than in their native north?
It varies from place to place but generally we don’t have a problem. I think if anything the worst place for us to play is in our own area of Durham.
What about their relationship with the press; was it a productive one?
I don’t think the press are generally wise to us at all really. We’ve been misrepresented, misunderstood, mis… everything really. A lot of it is down to second-hand rumours. I don’t think the press has ever given us a chance.
I think partly because we manage ourselves. We don’t have a fancy record company to represent us. We don’t have the muscle or the clout or the time to really push ourselves forward as much as we’d like. We’re very much a word of mouth band.
I was interested to learn a little more about the band’s collaboration with Keith Armstrong.
We met Keith years ago and he gave us one of his poetry books, and in the spirit of the moment he said, “Why don’t we collaborate on something?” We felt Keith was very much a kindred spirit and we could relate to his poetry. We’re very similar in many ways, because we both write about our local area. His poetry motivated us to want to do something with it. In some ways it could have been total commercial suicide but as we’re not that commercial anyway I don’t suppose it would have made a lot of difference.
Yes, we feel we’ve benefited immensely from the experience, but we didn’t do it as a publicity stunt. It was a natural diversion into another field, which is good.
We would have done this long ago, if only we had a bit more time.
When do they get any time to do anything?
I know, I know. I was talking to Sean McGhee (editor of ‘Rock ‘N’ Reel’) and I happened to mention about Gary being recently married, and Sean said, “Bloody Hell! The Whisky Priests are the last band I’d ever expect anyone to get married from. How did you find time for that?”
If you listen to The Whisky Priests’ lyrics, you’ll discover a deep realism in them. They use industrial images like shipyards and coalmines and transform them into poetic material. I asked the brothers if they found stark, bleak imagery a romantic source of inspiration?
We’ve both got a romantic notion of things anyway. It’s easy to see beauty in a pastoral scene but if you can find it in an urban inanimate environment it’s something that can be very, very strong. We’re very close to our roots and our area, so if you’re going to put your heart and soul into something, it might as well be something relevant to your life.
The Whisky Priests are certainly one of the most deserving bands on the current scene. Their faith in their music and their determination to succeed should, in an ideal world, eventually pay off.