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Interviews

'Rock 'N' Reel' Magazine, UK - issue 6, Winter 1989-90

 

The following interview with Gary Miller, Glenn Miller and Mick Tyas was conducted by Sean McGhee, editor of ‘Rock ‘N’ Reel’, for Issue Six (Winter 1989/90) of his magazine. Although somewhat naïve, it has, shall we say, a certain raw charm and is a rare example of an early Whisky Priests interview, offering a unique early insight into the band.



Although the band has now developed its own unique North-Eastern style, what were the main inspirations on the band’s formation?


Gary:

When we started off, there was just Glenn and me, so it’s basically, what is our inspiration? We were sort of into the history and tradition of the North-East of England anyway, so I suppose that’s where it all springs from – just our interest in the region, and we said, you know, this is like a great place where we live, the region, alright it used to be great.


Glenn:

Basically, it’s jingoism! (Laughs)


Sean: No big words, I can’t spell them! (Laughs)


Gary:

We’re just very interested in the local region and the history and all that, and there’s just so much there to draw upon. I suppose that was what it was all about. I just bought an acoustic guitar and I said, “Let’s play some of these traditional songs, there’s some brilliant tradition and history in the North-East and that’s where it all stemmed from. But Mick and Pete have been playing this sort of music for 15 years now.


Mick:

I suppose a lot of people get into folk music from the acoustic sort of finger-in-the-ear side, that wasn’t the same with me. I started off listening to electric folk like the Albion Band and Fairport Convention and stuff like that and I got interested in it from there and I met Pete, oh, 10-12 years ago, and I’ve been in various acoustic folk bands with him over that time.


Sean: Since your formation, you’ve played a lot of gigs all over the country, where are you finding you go down best? And what’s been the most memorable gig to date?


Gary:
Glasgow is one of the best places for people getting into it, that’s where we’ve gone down as well as anywhere. We did a good tour of Wales last year, about half a dozen gigs in Wales and they were all brilliant, Bangor University, that was a good gig. We take every gig as it comes. Every gig is a good one, from your point of view, it’s got to be, but Glasgow, man, you just can’t beat it, it’s as if the whole town turns out to see you, everybody’s so into it. And we’re finally starting to get a good reputation in our own area now, we’re about the biggest band up there at the minute, which is encouraging after a slow sort of build up there, we took a while to take off, but now it’s really rocking up there, and we’re selling out gigs all the time.


Glenn:
I mean, it’s surprising if you get the North-East going, because they’re the most sort of laid back audience you can get.


Gary:

We’ve got a lot of gigs coming up in London and we’ve gone down sort of reasonable there, and we’re going to try and take that by storm.


Glenn:
We’ve always gone down well down south, even though we sing about the North-East, they seem to like it.


Gary:
I hate to say this, but we’ve got to get to London to really sort of get the name going, that’s where they pay attention to you, I just Hate the idea of having to do that, but that’s just the way it is.


Glenn:

It’s encouraging that we get letters from fans all over the place, even from abroad. I don’t think there’s any particular place we wouldn’t go down well, it’s just there’s certain places we haven’t managed to get to yet, and yet we’ve got fans in those places who would no doubt turn up to see us.


Gary:
Poland, we’re big in Poland, we haven’t played there, but we’ve got a lot of fans in Poland.


Sean: You supported The Bhundu Boys on tour a couple of years back. How did audiences react to you? I find a lot of world music fans tend to dismiss our own indigenous folk-based music as boring or, in other words, un-hip. Did you find audiences standing through your sets and dancing to The Bhundu Boys?


Glenn:

It’s going back a couple of years now, so we weren’t at our best then anyway.


Gary:

That was the old line-up; we went down really well.


Glenn:

The audiences were great, there was like a big audience when we went on and they were all into it.


Gary:
For support band, we went down really well.


Sean: Do you think at that time there wasn’t the trendiness associated with African and World Music?


Glenn:
Possibly. It was starting to come in, I mean, everyone was there to see them, and we went down all right.


Gary:
We went down great. We got the impression the audience was there to see good music, we went down really well. We were surprised and really pleased about it.

Apparently, you used to come in for stick from the more traditional side of Folk Music because of your treatment of traditional songs. How do you feel about that sort of attitude? And do you think that with the band now including two members with long backgrounds in traditional bands that attitude will soon disappear?


Gary:
I would slightly disagree with you there, Sean, because you’re on about coming in for stick for being traditional based and all that, but all the people that we know from around our way who are into the tradition…


Glenn:

They like what we do; they think it’s good.

I think what I was getting at was last year you mentioned somebody didn’t like you as you were “messing around with traditional songs”.


Gary:
I think at first we got that. People were saying that before they’d heard us, but as people got to hear us, they changed their opinion.


Glenn:
I think at first they thought, “This is weird, what’s this?” But when they gradually got to see we were pulling people in, and there was an interest in us, and we could actually play reasonably well, they seemed to like it.


Gary:
But local ‘trad’ musicians in our area, like Alistair Anderson and Chuck Fleming, love what we do, they think it’s really good and they’re right behind us. I mean, we do what we do, they do what they do, I mean, I wouldn’t say what we do is necessarily particularly ‘folky’ anyway, though it’s based on traditional music, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve never had anyone come up and complain about what we do.


Mick:
The whole thing about traditional music is that it’s made to be handed down and if we treat it with what we’ve got at hand now, electric instruments, but the thing about traditional music is it goes down through the generations just to carry it on, and it’ll be changed, the words will be changed the tempo will be changed, but the basic idea is always going to be there.


Gary:

Like Mick says, he’s the only member of the band that doesn’t play a traditional acoustic instrument, the rest of us are all acoustic. I mean, we’ve even got northumbrian smallpipes, which are like an instrument of the past, which have recently, with people like Kathryn Tickell, started to come back, so we’re carrying on the tradition there.


Glenn:
I wouldn’t so much say it was sort of, when you’re on about traditional music and all that, what I would say is that what we’re doing is very traditional within the North-East, it’s not really the music, it’s sort of the whole feel of it, really, it’s what it’s all about.


Gary:
And another thing we’ve noticed is people seem to respect the fact that the majority of our material is original anyway, and that we write our own stuff and it’s bringing new songs into the spectrum of it all.


Mick:

The more we go on, the more traditional things we’re dropping out. I mean, folk songs have to be written somewhere, and possibly one day in the future one of Gary’s will be classed as a traditional classic.


Sean: Keeping with the traditional side of the music, I know the band have a great respect for the tradition of songwriting in your native North-East, and the older musicians from the area. You also join in sessions with the older musicians in pubs. What do you hope to gain from this or is the experience enough?


Mick:
Free beer! (Laughs)


Gary:
There’s no big deal about it, really. We’ve got this local pub where we come from called ‘The Colpitts’. There’s a plug! Nice pint of Sam Smiths! The Colpitts on a Monday night is like the meeting place of all the folk musicians in Durham, and sometimes, if we’re around, we go in there on a Monday night.


Glenn:
And then we’ve got Pete (French) in the band, who’s played with all sorts of people, and playing with him has been a good experience for us. I think it’s improved us, certainly myself, my playing’s been improved, I think, by having Pete in the band. At the moment, he hasn’t contributed much towards new material and arrangements and stuff, but I think in the future we’re going to see some of that coming as well. Maybe to people who’ve seen the band as a five-piece and then with Pete in, they don’t notice the difference, but it makes a hell of a difference to the rest of us.


Sean: I noticed last night the horsehairs on his bow all going and the rosin stain all over the body of the fiddle, he really gives it some whacking.


Mick:
Oh, he’s not bad for an old timer! (Laughs)


Mostly the band play ‘rock’ venues to audiences that aren’t particularly folk music fans, but still enjoy the band, but after two members left the band last year, you gigged as a three-piece, consisting of guitar, accordion and mandolin, producing a sound that was more recognisably ‘folky’. Do you think it would be good to occasionally do non-electric gigs in folk clubs to people who tend not to frequent the rock venues?


Gary:
It’s possible it might work, but I don’t think we’d ever want to go on the road again as a three-piece, it just took it right out of us. It was something we weren’t used to and we usually struggled to try and get any life out of it. We’re happier now as a six-piece doing the ‘rock-circuit’. I think that’s where our future lies.


Glenn:
That’s where we’d always gigged anyway, and when we lost the other two, we did about a dozen gigs as a three-piece and it was awful.


Gary:
I mean, people thought it was good and really enjoyed it, but we sort of felt it really took it out of us. As far as the ‘Folk Club’ circuit is concerned, I don’t know if that’s being realistic, really. Not that we wouldn’t appeal, it’s just not the right venue for us, we need like a big hall with a big stage.


Sean: What I was meaning basically was the fact that you toured as a three-piece, and whether you’d like the idea occasionally of doing what a lot of folk bands do, with each member touring on his own, or as part of a duo, for the occasional fortnight, say as a promotion for the band. I just wondered if it was something you’d thought about?


Glenn:
I’ve nothing against it, if anyone wanted to do it, it’s up to them, that’s fine, but as far as the band’s concerned, with six people in a folk club going hell for leather…


Mick:
I think people who spend most of their time in folk clubs at sing-a-rounds and things would find us a refreshing change.


Glenn:
These people who are interested in the folk venues, they come to see us anyway in the rock venues, so I don’t think there’s any real need to play them. I mean, I’ve got friends who play in the folk clubs but who come to see us in the bigger venues and really like us for what we do.


Gary:
One interesting point, which is pretty strange, it’s been surprising how the Folk Music fraternity, if you want to call it that, has taken to us as much as it has, if not more than the Rock Music fraternity, we’ve been really picked up on by the ‘Folkies’.


Glenn:
They haven’t got any hang-ups about image and about music. They like you for what you are; it’s an honest sort of view of you. It’s like magazines like ‘Rock ‘N’ Reel’ and ‘Folk Roots’ that have taken to us more than the rock-based magazines, and it’s the same with the radio.


Sean: Do you think that with your music and material having a distinct North-Eastern slant, you could be alienating a larger potential audience, who may find, through lack of knowledge, your material is hard to relate to?

Gary:

No, not at all, because we’ve found that when we’ve been going round the country, what we’re about, what we do at the moment with the North-East, all around the country everybody loves that sort of thing and picks up on that, and if there is any hassle over it, it’s in our own area because they misunderstand what we’re doing and take it too seriously. Maybe elsewhere they don’t understand all the words we sing, from being in the dialect, but they really understand what we’re about.


Glenn:
But that’s the people who are coming to see us, and as for attracting more people, it could possibly cause a problem.


Gary:
I mean, we’re happy doing what we’re doing at the moment, that’s what we’ve been doing for a while now, and we’ll probably get more away from that in the future. I don’t know; it’s not one of these things you plan, a conscious thing.


Glenn:
A lot of the new songs that Gary’s been writing, they’re veering away from the subject of the pits and all that anyway.


Mick:
I think we’re the first band to come out of the North-East since ‘Lindisfarne’ who have made a big thing about where they’re from, who haven’t tried to play it down.


Glenn:
You get bands from the North-East coming out and trying to sing in American accents.


Mick:
Take ‘Prefab Sprout’, for instance. They were from just a few miles up the road from where we are, but you wouldn’t believe it to hear the pair of us play, would you?


Gary:
I mean, we do what we do and just get on with it, and if people make a big fuss about it, that’s their problem.

Is the present six-piece line-up now settled and what do you feel the introduction of northumbrian smallpipes and fiddle has added to the overall sound? Are there any other sounds or instruments you would like to bring into your music, as there was talk of you recording with a colliery band backing on your album?


Glenn:
Well, certainly as far as Pete’s concerned, now that he’s joined the band, he is going to be in full-time, I mean, he’s been the missing element we’ve been after for a while.


Gary:
Glenn and me always wanted the band to be a six-piece; we thought that was the sound we needed. We’ve got three rhythm instruments and I always felt we needed three melody instruments to fire off against that, and with just the accordion and mandolin/harmonica it wasn’t enough. Glenn was struggling and Bill (Bulmer) was struggling. I think the pipes and fiddle are what we’ve always wanted, they’ve fitted in so perfectly, it’s unbelievable. It’s like it should have always been there, it’s the right sort of ingredients now. He’s such a good musician, Pete, he can adapt really well. But as far as getting anyone else is concerned, I don’t think that’s really necessary. We were talking about getting in a seventh person, but other than that, there’s nothing really much we need. Live on stage it’s all there, there’s enough there. But about the colliery band, I like the idea, personally, I don’t know about the others, I’d like to get somebody in full-time on stage playing euphonium or something, as I think that would add a hell of a depth to the band onstage.


Mick:

We’ve got a colliery band at our disposal if we want them.


Glenn:
The thing is, when we do the album, there’s one of the songs, ‘The Colliery’, which was our first single, which we’re going to rerecord for the album, and the way it’s looking, we’re wanting to use a colliery band to play on that. Again, that’s going to enhance the song; it’s what the song’s about. But without sounding contrived or anything, that would sort of fit the song perfectly. We’ve got one or two other songs in the set we haven’t recorded yet that would sound good like that as well.


Sean: Future plans? What’s in store for the band?

Mick:
A lot of touring, a lot of festivals, going over to Europe.


Gary:

We’re hoping to get the album out as soon as possible, that’s the ‘Nee Gud Luck’ album.


Mick:

The track ‘Shut Doon the Waggon Works’ is going to be on a TV programme shortly on Tyne Tees TV.


Gary:
We’ve also been approached by a Bristol television company, they’re doing a documentary about the working class coalmining industry in the North-East and they’ve asked us to write and perform music for that.


Mick:

That’s not finalised yet.


Glenn:
Later on in the year we’ve got the ‘Rising of the North’ Tour, which is a full UK tour, then in winter ’89/’90, we’re going abroad to Germany, Holland, Switzerland, France. As far as the future, we’ve been writing about 10-12 songs that we haven’t included in the set. Altogether, we’ve got enough material for 2½ albums, so the second album’s practically planned now. Next year, the plan is to do as many festivals as possible. It’s basically: get the album out, UK tour, European tour.