UK heavyweight musicians talk…about music! What else?
[Gaya Island, Kota Kinabalu] – I met Calum MacColl and Keith Duffy, and later on Steve Barney, when they visited Sabah as band members for Ronan Keating, who was here for a campaign to raise awareness about the giant clam, an endangered species.
To be a musician is a combination of stupidity and obsessiveness. I started playing from about seven. From about 11 to 18 or 19 I did nothing else but play. [Calum MacColl]
One of the things I usually want to know when I meet musicians is whether they had musical parents. Calum said simply, “My parents were folk musicians, they went out and performed and wrote songs.” Later I realised he’s actually the son of British folk singer Ewan MacColl and American folk singer Peggy Seeger. Apart from being a guitarist, singer and songwriter, Calum also co-owns Red Grape Records.
I refer to them here as Ronan’s band, but Calum explained that it’s not quite like that.
“Given what everyone does, in a sense there’s no such thing as full time bands anymore, in pop music,” he said. “This is probably the closest thing to it, in that the core of the band has essentially been together for ten years. So it is more of a ‘band’ than you usually find in pop music now. Especially with a solo singer; that’s usually a singer and whoever you can find.”
“But Ronan’s very loyal to his musicians, like there’s a respect back and forth,” continued Keith. “Some people are not to bothered who they play with but Ronan likes to have the same people around.”
“Funnily enough, we don’t play with each other as a band except in this situation,” said Calum. “Various members of the band have played with each other in different projects, but we all do a hugely wide number of things. If you take the whole band it can go from The Corrs to George Michael, to Van Morrison to Rufus Wainwright to everyone in between.
“We all wear different hats: various ones of us write and make records in our own right, various of us produce records. So yeah, it’s quite a lot of chiefs on the stage! You have to be flexible, and the most successful people in this industry — as players, as musicians — have to be flexible, have to wear different hats.”
Keith said, “It’s about diversifying, because the industry is changing. Calum’s a songwriter in his own right.”
“I’ve written a few songs with Ronan, some for The Back Street Boys, that’s kind of pure pop writing,” said Calum. “Lots of different stuff, lots of different styles from crass bubble gum pop to…er, really great ones! [Laughs]
I asked them what did they prefer to play.
Keith said, “I really enjoy playing these gigs, because the musicians that you play with are all top notch, and that makes it a lot of fun, you know? So you get right into the music then and you enjoy it.”
“There’s a lot of snobbery in music,” said Calum, and Keith concurred.
“All my favourite musicians, ones I consider the best ones, all have the same attitude which is that ‘It’s hard to do anything well‘ “, continued Calum. “Take Ronan’s ‘When You Say Nothing At All’, it’s only really got four chords in it. It really comes down to three chords. But that doesn’t make it easy. In a sense it’s harder to play something simple, and a lot of musicians naively think if it’s only got three chords, it’s dead easy. It just isn’t.
“You’ve got to explore what you have in quite a finite shape, and it’s all about how you play it, the sensitivity with which you play it, the dynamic with which you play it, and how much you listen to the other people on the stage.”
We got down to the stuff I always want to know: how did they become musicians in the first place, and decide to make a career from that, over anything else?
They both laughed. That’s a HUGE question! Calum forged ahead first.
“Alright, when I was 18 I left school. I had a good education, I had a place at university. All I wanted to do was play music. I wasn’t really interested in anything else.
“Actually, in hindsight I wish I’d gone to university, because I could have gone to university and played music as well. My parents are musicians, and so I was working part time, teaching a bit of guitar, not making much money. I’m from South East London. My dad was Scottish and my mum’s American, but I’m from London.
“When I was 18 I was doing a variety of temp jobs, then I got put up for a job at Lloyds as an underwriter. I got the job out of around 250 people. I found out on the Friday, and I got more and more depressed over the weekend. On the Monday morning I called them up and said: I really don’t think I can do this. Because the idea of sitting in an office and doing something that I didn’t want to do every day just didn’t turn me on.
“You can do that when you are 18. But it’s tough. I didn’t make a proper living until I was getting on for 30, doing this. And all the best musicians I know have a similar story. It’s a real grind. But we’re not heroes. You [SabahSongs] said you took the easy way out by doing office work, but in a sense I think I took the easy way out! It’s much easier doing what you love. You don’t have to think, you just follow your heart.”
Keith cleared his throat! “Well, it’s a different route for me totally. My childhood was quite unusual, because I was born into a circus! Which is kind of silly [smiles].
“My family in Ireland are one of the oldest circus families in Ireland. So, till I was 16 I was performing in the circus. My dad was a trombone player, apart from being a circus performer; he used to do trapeze and stuff like that when he was a kid. We had six kids in my family, and we all did something and also played an instrument, mostly a brass instrument.
“Then, when I was 16, we settled down and moved into a house. My brother was playing sax in a band, and I just turned on to the bass. I picked it up and within six months I was playing in a band. I was just on the road, basically doing that. That was it, and just anything! It’s funny how things just snowballed.
I never really went out and actively searched for certain things, they just sort of came, by happenstance or something.”
“Exactly,” said Calum. “You become a musician by accident!”
“That’s it. I’m here by accident!” agreed Keith.
“A lot of musicians will say: I’m a musician because I can’t do anything else,” Calum continued. “But a lot of other people think like that too: that they can’t do anything else. They think it takes something special to be a musician. It doesn’t. It’s a combination of stupidity and laziness.”
But learning an instrument does take work. It might not feel like work if you really love it and you don’t want to do anything else. But it does take effort.
“Alright, stupidity and obsessiveness,” Calum conceded. “I started playing from about seven. From about 11 to 18 or 19 I did nothing else but play. It’s obsessive, learning how to do stuff. Then I spent the rest of my life learning what NOT to play.”
Keith continued, “I suppose when you get into certain gigs, and you work with other people, and I’ve been lucky to work with really good musicians, I always feel like I’m working with people who are better than me. I always try to listen to what they’re doing, and learn from it.
“When I was young I obviously wanted to play everything, and play as much as I could. Then you realise that that’s the worst thing ever. No one wants to be on stage playing with someone who plays all the time! Especially with bass. You want to support people and make it feel good. You can change the feel of everything by just where you land on the beat, where you feel the time, and by the root notes or the choice of notes you play over those root notes.”
In a lot of music, the best bass players are typified by their invisibility,” said Calum. “It’s one thing to be Charles Mingus, it’s another thing to be a Will Lee, who is so on it you don’t notice it’s there – it’s just big and fat, and underpinning the thing.
“Oscar Wilde’s definition of a gentleman is ‘Someone who can play the bagpipes, but declines to’. Which is really a way of saying ‘Play less’.
Most musicians play way too much, all the time. In music, it’s about the gaps.”
Calum mused. “You want the massive hit, you want something incredibly successful. If you write something, you always want to write an evergreen: something that is so deeply in the canon of music that people almost don’t know who’s written it. That’s what I try and do. But if you try too hard… the greatest songs ever are written by mistake.
You look at all the great writers, say in 20th century history, and maybe only 1 or 2 or 3 of their songs will be remembered, and the other 500 will not be remembered. But it doesn’t make them not good, it’s just that something’s sparked somebody’s imagination, and … I keep getting better, I think!”
Keith liked that idea, that the best outcomes are by mistake.
“Like the fame or success is just a by-product of what they do, if they do it well. For me, it’s just about getting better at what you’re doing. Just doing diverse things. That’s what I like to do.
“For some reason, I was always long-term in bands. A lot of guys I work with go through bands really fast, or they just work with somebody for a really short period of time. I’ve been really lucky, over the years I was with The Corrs for ten years, basically. It’s a long run. Before that, do you know the movie ‘The Commitments’? Well I was working with Andrew Strong for four years. There have been little things in between, little sessions here and there, but I always seem to be a long-termer. I’m like a limpet – I get into a gig and I just hang on to it!”
“It’s the same with me, in that I’ve been long-term,” said Calum. “The thing is, you never stop learning. Again, all of us musicians never stop learning. As soon as you think you’ve learnt something, you stop progressing, and you go backwards.
“As far as being selective about playing with people, it’s a truism that a band is only as good as the weakest person in it. Like a chain is as strong as it’s weakest link, it does work like that. So you never stop learning, there’s no such thing as cruising.
“If you’ve got a cruising mindset, it sounds like you possibly should be playing on a cruise. If you haven’t got the heart anymore, then you should stop.”
On that note I thought maybe I should stop and let Calum get to his sound check with Ronan.
Luck was with me though, and soon Steve Barney came and said Hello. This guy’s drummed for Jeff Beck and Annie Lennox. How awesome is that? Actually, the list is longer: Will Young, Sugababes, McFly, James Morrison, Corinne Bailey Rae, Atomic Kitten… Here’s Steve Barney’s website.
All these guys were so down-to-earth and modest! Steve’s first words to me were almost apologetic! “First off I have to say that Ronan’s main drummer for 10-15 years is a guy called Liam Bradley, but he’s unavailable for this particular gig. So I’ve come in as what they call a ‘dep’ although I played about a dozen shows in the band about six years ago. So this is part of what I do as a freelance musician.
“I’m from a place called Norwich in Norfolk originally, but I now live in Liverpool, and I’ve been in Liverpool for 20 years.
“I’m not from a musical family, although my father loves music and he took me to see lots of concerts when I was young. He took me to see Genesis when I was nine. Phil Collins was amazing, and a big influence. I got myself a little drum kit, and I’ve been fortunate enough to play for people and make a career from drumming.
“I have had office jobs in the past, but touch wood [but he couldn’t find any wood, so it was either my head or his knees] not recently! I’ve been fortunate enough to be a professional drummer for 15 years. It’s not always in beautiful surroundings like this, but I’m surviving. It can be tough sometimes, because there’s lots of musicians around. I’m very grateful.”
So did Steve have parents who went “Oh no!” when Steve took up drums?
“Do you know what? They were the opposite. My dad would be smacking on the bedroom door shouting: Turn it UP! My mum and dad were so supportive. They never said, ‘Listen, you need to get a proper job or further your education.’ My dad didn’t want me to do that! He wanted me to be a rock drummer! I’m not doing it for him, but I am doing it because he was supportive, and I was very lucky like that. My mum and dad are still alive and they come to see me now.
“One neighbour did actually move away from us! I felt really bad when she left. The drums are not a very nice instrument when you’re learning. Mind you, now you can get these electronic drum kits which sound like that [taps the chair].
“I’ve always been totally obsessed with drums. I never learned to play another instrument. Just love drums and wanna get better at playing the drums.
“I did have a drum teacher. He was very helpful, but I found it difficult to read music. For some reason I couldn’t understand it. Yet I’ve got really good ears, and I could pick stuff up, I could hear what he was playing and understand what to do. So in once respect I was cheating, but in another way I was teaching my ears to read, so to speak. But I’ve got good ears – and coming into something like this [the Keating gig in Sabah] where we’ve only had one day rehearsal, and I’m trying to fill in for a drummer that’s been with them for ten years – I have to make sure I’m professional.
“But I’ve played with these guys before. They’re really cool. Calum is the Musical Director, he holds the fort. It’s a small community of musicians, I guess it’s the same anywhere. If people know you and you’ve got a good reputation, and someone’s worked with you before, you get a referral.
“I have been to Malaysia before, if you’re interested. I was in Kuala Lumpur in 2004 with a pop singer called Gareth Gates, have you heard of him before?”
[Ah yeah… but my son and I voted for Rhydian.]
“I’m more of a pop rock drummer, although I can hopefully play a few different styles. But my career and the type of people I work with are more singer-songwriter-based stuff, as opposed to technical kind of cleverness. But I’m more suited to play solid heavy kinda songs. But Ronan’s thing has some nice ballads in there, you have to be aware of stuff like that. He’s got a couple of rocky things, but it’s not like a heavy rock gig. I’ve done some heavier stuff.
“I’ve been very lucky, I played four tours with Annie Lennox, and that encompassed loads of styles of drumming. I’ve played with Jeff Beck, he’s a blues rock guitarist, and that was definitely the hardest musical gig I’ve done, because it’s very instrumental.
I had to ask him! “Did you do ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ with Jeff Beck?”
“Yes I did! That was amazing! I played with him in 2002, and I was on an album that he made called ‘Jeff‘. [The album won the award for ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’ at the 2004 Grammy Awards.] It was more of a heavy techno dance stuff but with a great blues rock guitarist. So that was a fundamental thing. Then when I made the album with him, he had a call come in from the Royal Festival Hall in London, and this concert promoter asked him if he would like to do three shows, like a career retrospective. Jeff’s played on many other people’s albums.
“He asked me if I would like to be the drummer. So I was like, ‘Er, yes!’ But it was a real challenge because it was very difficult music, different styles and time signatures, it was very challenging. I had said ‘Yes’, so I went home to Liverpool with all the CDs, then rang up the manager and said, ‘No! I can’t do it!’
“But then I finally agreed, and I was really, really glad I did it. It was beautiful! Jeff was lovely, it was a great thing. He changes his musicians every tour, so I was very lucky that I was able to play for him.
“I think that definitely got me Annie Lennox’s gig, because Jeff’s held in such high esteem as a musician. But I’ve done lots of pop stuff. I play with a British boy band at the moment called The Wanted. They’re really big at the moment. And Anastacia, is she big over here? She’s an American singer but she’s bigger in Europe. I don’t know if she’s big here.
“But I’m not always busy. The one thing I always tell people is that freelance is, well, I’m not always on a beautiful island like here. I’m sometimes looking for work, you know? It’s extreme, but I love it!”
We ended the interview and exchanged name cards. Steve said, “Is that really your name, ‘Joanna Funk’? I love Funk! George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic!”
“Yes, it’s real,” I said. “Hey, so who played my Nord at the sound check?”
“Oh, you should meet him! His name’s Tim Bradshaw [multi-instrumentalist, plays with UK singer-songwriter David Gray], he’d love to talk with you! I’ll go get him!”
Alas, we missed each other. But Life is funny like that, and the world’s a small place. Catch you another time, Tim.