The following interview took the form of a series of questions sent in the post by Ralf Koppelkamp for ‘Our Own Way’ Magazine in Germany (after he had seen The Whisky Priests’ show at the Logo in Hamburg in 1996, having first seen the band live at the Zeche Carl in Essen in 1992), which Glenn answered by return post in April 1996. The text was later translated into German for publication but we here reproduce the interview as it was originally conducted in English.
Last year you celebrated your 10th Anniversary. How did it start, who raised the Priests, how were the members selected and how was the kind of music you’re playing chosen? Are there idols, inspirations or something like that?
The Whisky Priests was formed in August 1985 by myself and my twin brother, Gary (we are the only remaining original members), and we played our first gig in October 1985 in our hometown of Durham. The whole concept of The Whisky Priests was created by the two of us. The original line-up consisted entirely of old school friends but only Gary and me really had the vision to carry on our concept as far as we could take it, so, after a while, all the other original members left as their lives moved in other directions and since then members have come and gone on a regular basis, to the point where nearly forty different people have been in The Whisky Priests in ten and a half years. As long as Gary and me are involved, however, the band will continue; it was our co-creation and we will see it through to the bitter end!
When we started, one of our main sources of inspiration was the area we were brought up in, County Durham in the North-East of England, and many of our songs dealt with life in this region. Now, however, it would be more correct to say our inspiration is life, generally. We regard our music as very natural to us, as well as honest and real, and unique. Other people, outside the band, seem happy to make all these various comparisons and descriptions, etc, but to us this is all meaningless. We just regard ourselves as The Whisky Priests and we get on with doing what we believe in with passion and conviction, regardless of other people’s opinions about us.
What have you all done before?
Gary and me formed the band immediately after leaving school, but it was a few more years before we turned fully professional. In the early days of the band, when we were amateur / semi-professional, we spent periods of time in badly-paid office jobs or unemployed, whilst at the same time trying to build up the name of the band and establish some kind of following throughout England.
Of the three new members, Paul (drums) has always been involved in playing music, as has Thomas (guitar, mandola, mandolin) and Mick (bass) is an ex-coalminer, who began playing music after losing his job following the Miners’ Strike in England in 1984-5.
Your outfit was the clothes of the English workers. Did it just happen, was it ‘designed’ to the music or was it you everyday clothing?
The clothes Gary and me wear, both on and off stage, are very much our natural appearance. It was never ‘designed’ to fit in with the music. This has been our natural ‘image’ throughout our adult lives. We’ve never followed fashion, we’ve always just done our own thing and, in fact, even when we were at school, we were always ahead of everybody else in terms of fashion interests, musical tastes, etc. We’ve never worn jeans, for example, since we were 13 or 14 years old. We’ve always gone our own way and I suppose we always will, and that’s probably been an important aspect of the band over the years, because by not following trends we’ve always had our own style, and now that’s rubbed off on other people and I think a lot of other bands have now begun imitating us, both musically and visually, which is weird.
Especially your outfit was a thing I liked very much, because it was the right thing for the music. Why are only you and Gary left wearing these clothes, the rest of the band reminds me more of the Levellers than The Whisky Priests?
This is a very exciting new era for The Whisky Priests. We have never felt more confident about the band. It is very important to us that the new members just be themselves and fit into the band naturally. We don’t want to have an image of the new line-up of the band that is false. Also, a lot of people seem to have many misconceptions about The Whisky Priests, so it’s great if the new line-up can help break down all the misconceptions and destroy all the false myths and rumours that seem to exist.
Turning to the music, I must congratulate you for ‘Bleeding Sketches’! It can be read in the booklet how it arose, but how was Gary inspired to create the different kinds of music. Reading the lyrics, it could have been a record with 90% slow ballads!
Obviously, with ‘Bleeding Sketches’, it was a totally different approach for Gary to write music to somebody else’s words, but I think he found it a challenging, exciting and valuable experience.
Most of the lyrics were written specifically as poems, rather than song lyrics, so in some cases lines and verses vary considerably in length and structure quite regularly. Typical examples of this are ‘Peterlee’, ‘Mother, Waiting’ and ‘My Father Worked On Ships’. Rather than restructure the words to fit the music, Gary was able to adapt the music to suit the flow of the words, because he believed, quite rightly, that it was really important to maintain the poems in their original form as much as possible.
Really, the music just developed quite naturally out of the poetry, each in its own way. There was never any kind of ‘plan’ to the music on the album, it just happened.
Who had the idea to get Marie for a further voice? It was a very nice step of development! How do you think you will replace the missing voice of Mick? Was it an idea to get a fixed female voice?
When Gary wrote the music for ‘“Spring”: Pit Pony’, he felt the song would be best suited to a female voice. We treated each song on its own merits and did what we felt would be best for each song. I think it worked very well using Marie’s voice; it was definitely the right approach for the song. Gary and Keith both knew Marie; in fact she lives in the same village as Gary. She is a professional folk-singer. All the guest musicians on ‘Bleeding Sketches’; Marie, Chuck, Jez, are friends of Gary, Keith and myself and they are all well-known professional musicians in their own right. We decided to use extra musicians, who we all knew, on a few of the tracks because it felt like the approach for this particular album and would help add to the album’s strong regional flavour.
In September last year, the whole of the previous Whisky Priests line-up, except of course for Gary and me, was replaced, so we have already replaced Mick. We are very happy with the new line-up of the band; as far as we are concerned the band has never been better. The new members are much more enthusiastic about the band and the music than anybody else we’ve ever had previously. Gary and me were sick of working with people who had a bad, unprofessional and lazy attitude. We’ve had some unpleasant people in the band in the past, who treated Gary and me like shit, even though we did all the work. All they were interested in was having as easy a time as possible and getting paid for it. The new people are not like that.
In England, and most other countries, Gary and me have always been regarded as the nucleus and essence of The Whisky Priests, and also in England Gary has long been acknowledged for his brilliant songwriting, and the sheer passion and uniqueness of his singing. In Germany, however, Mick Tyas’ role in the band seems to have been exaggerated. Why should we need to replace his voice when he only sang five or six songs? I think Mick’s large size made him popular in Germany because of its novelty value, plus the fact that he sang ‘Dol-Li-A’, which has always seemed to be our most popular song in Germany, even though we regard it ourselves as the most throwaway song we’ve ever done. We have so many far superior songs, which we’ve never been acknowledged for in Germany. People in Germany should realise that Gary and me alone have always been the heart and soul of the band and that Mick’s contribution to the band was always very much less than ours during his time with us.
Our music has progressed considerably since the new line-up came together, in a way that would not have been possible with the old line-up.
What about your connection to ‘Torfrock’? Will you do the ‘Bagalutenweinacht’ again and again? Is there anything about a common record?
Our connection with Torfrock came about when their manager, Dietmar Kolk, saw us play a gig at the Markthalle in Hamburg, quite by accident, in 1992.
Something about our show must have impressed him because he came up to us in the dressing room after the show and said, “You are the only band who can support Torfrock”, and he immediately invited us to be Special Guests at their Christmas shows.
Dietmar is a truly wonderful man and we have since become very good friends with him and the members of Torfrock and their crew. He regularly comes to see The Whisky Priests when we play in our own right in Hamburg.
The first year we played with Torfrock was so successful that we have been invited back again and again. We have now played the ‘Bagaluten Wienacht’ four years in succession. How much longer it will continue, I don’t know. I think it is important to Torfrock not to be too predictable, so they might decide to try a different support act next year, just for a change. But it would be nice to continue; if we are asked, we will certainly play again. We always enjoy gigs with Torfrock because they are such wonderful, kind and generous people. They have done so much for us; it is almost unbelievable. Nobody else has ever done so much for us, in fact, they are the only people in this business ever to have helped us at all, and we are eternally grateful to them for that. The music does not even come into it; that is not important so much as the generosity we have been shown by Torfrock and their friends.
In August last year, we travelled to Germany to record a song together with Torfrock, planned for inclusion on their next album. The song we recorded was, appropriately enough, ‘Let’s Work Together’ (a.k.a. ‘Let’s Stick Together’). The recording session was great fun and very relaxed but I’ve yet to hear the end result and I don’t even know when, or if, it will be released.
What are your personal/musical plans for the nearer/further future?
In a couple of weeks, we begin recording our new album, which is due to be released in September or October. We’re all very much looking forward to it and we’re very confident that it will far exceed the quality of our previous work. In the summer, we’ll be playing various festivals throughout Europe, followed by a tour between September and December to promote the new album. We are now working with a new agency, based in London, who are representing us on a worldwide level, so hopefully the tours will get even better and we’re also looking forward to the opportunity to tour a lot of countries we’ve never played before, including some outside Europe.
Gary has already begun writing further material for the album after the next one. The whole process just keeps going on and on, it’s never-ending!
We’re always busy and we’re always full of plans and ideas. It’s just difficult to look beyond the next year, you can’t plan too far ahead, and things always change. We can only really hope to survive for a year at a time, and then we start worrying about the next one!
Gary and me hope there will come a time soon when we have other people to help us with the management and business side of the band, which we have always done ourselves, as well as running our own record label, Whippet Records, and our own mailing list, which now contains over 5,000 names and addresses worldwide. It would be nice to have more time to concentrate just on the creative side of the band, in other words, the songs and the music, but whatever happens, we’ll just keep working as hard as we can and try to enjoy ourselves at the same time.