Marilyn Michaels & Tony Butler - Manchester 9.4.11
Marilyn Michaels in conversation with Big Country's Tony Butler (March 17 2011) about his thoughts on the past, present and future of Big Country. This interview ran as part of a Big Country feature during April on Classic Rock Radio and can be heard here with some great tracks from Big Country: http://classicrockradio.eu/listenagain/
Marilyn Michaels : Hi Tony! How's the world treating you?
Tony Butler: Hey Marilyn, the world's treating me very well at the moment. The sun's shining which always brings joy to my life, and my band's working again which as you can imagine I'm absolutely ecstatic about
MM: I bet you are so excited about it! I mean I'm excited about it! ( both laugh) And I know lots of people who are excited about it! Big Country have had such a loyal fan following through all these years
TB: Yeah we've been very lucky really. We've been an honest band and we've been very transparent and everything we've done may not have been the right thing sort of politically, commercially, whatever, but we've always been kind of open and honest with who we are, and our fans
MM : I see that on the Big Country forum boards quite often
TB: Yes well again that's something that’s been kind of kept alive over the years where we haven't been active, purely and simply through the enthusiasm of people who have worked with the band and the fans themselves. Again we've been very lucky there. I have to admit I tended to sort of veer away from that during the intervening years purely and simply it was just something I had to do.
MM: Yeah I can imagine so because you'd probably find yourself being asked the same questions day in day out, day in day out for like ten years (laughs)
TB: (laughs) Yeah and it tends to get a little bit dull, as well-meaning as it all is
MM: Yeah I can imagine it would
TB: You know, it's a strange position to be in, I mean we are, we were, a brilliant band, you know, a great live band. We made a load of good records, we never really got the recognition that I think we deserved for various reasons, and then we had tragedy bestowed on us and you've got to think 'well what do we do from here, and we - well specifically myself, didn’t want to perpetrate it just to make it something that was going to earn us a living and sort of keep me in the music business. I mean I did quite hazardly kind of gave it up, I sort of turned my back on it. I was happy with what we'd done, it was going to be a chapter in my life to make me look back with great fondness and pride but move on. A lot of people supposedly thought that we'd just carry on because it's the thing to do, some bands carry on because they don't know what else to do but it was too good a band just to carry on in a half hearted manner.
MM : Mmmhmm yes absolutely, but I think there are many people, myself included, who never actually got the chance to see Big Country live, and are absolutely thrilled that now we can
TB: Mmmhmm. One of the things that sorts of makes it work now, pure and simply, is having Mike Peters with us, he's somebody who we've all known and respected for a long time . He was part of the band's environment during those years, simply because himself with The Alarm, and he did a tour with us as a solo artist and we're all friends, mates, and you know, to have him come in now to sing with the band, it's just a natural thing to have happened, because number one we know he will come in and be himself, he'll pay absolute respect to Stuart, his memory and the songs - and he would really do justice to what we've always done as a band and put on a great live show.
MM: Yeah! Thanks to YouTube I've had some previews of what those live shows look like and it looks fantastic
TB: (Laughs) What, for a bunch of old men starting to rock out a bit?! It's not too bad! I'm not too embarrassed about it. (laughs)
MM: (laughs) oh come on less of the 'old' here, less of the 'old'! After all, music is about sound isn't it, at the end of the day music should be about sound, and we all know about Mike Peters revenge on the BBC with ''Poppyfields'' ......
MM: ...which I thought was fantastic...but we know Stuart Adamson can never be replaced, never be forgotten, but I think Mike Peters does real credit as the new vocalist, I've seen him a few times over the years performing BC songs both with The Alarm and solo, and I was really impressed , I think he has been a great choice and it seems the fans agree as well
TB: Well I think one of the reasons why I certainly wasn't happy about doing anything with a kind of reformed Big Country over the past ten years is because I didn't think there was anybody out there who would do the band justice and for a long long time I didn't want to do it, full-stop, regardless of whether we got anybody because in my mind, you know, the band were the band and Stuart was an integral part of that, and we were a 'boys club' and we had a great time together, we had ups and downs but it was a life that we all lived together, and without one of those components it's certainly not going to work for us in any genuine way.
But pressure mounts (laughs) on an individual such as myself, you know, once or twice a year someone's seriously suggesting a reunion or do something or 25th anniversary or blah-blah-blah and I started capitulating over the last 2 or 3 years doing fan conventions and stuff like that and not particularly enjoying them but I didn’t want to feel like a 'stick in the mud ' depriving people of something they obviously really wanted.
MM: So what changed?
TB: When myself and Bruce (Watson) started talking seriously about it , I said ‘ if we are going to do this , we'll do it properly, but we need to get somebody in that will do it justice and I'm not interested in doing it until we've found that person. When he said that Mike would be interested then I said ‘well let’s go, let’s do it.’ Somebody posted me a YouTube video of Mike performing with us at a convention we did in 2007 I think, I’d completely forgot about it and I watched it and I thought ''wow there you go, it works let’s do it''
MM: It works, it does work, I watched one particular clip on YouTube where Mike has gone out into the crowd to sing, the atmosphere just looked electric, how does it feel for you stepping back onto a stage in front of those crowds again?
TB: It's been fantastic I can't deny that, it's what we do, it's in my blood, I'm a performer, I was a performer who was willing to give it up because I didn't think it would feel good but it feels absolutely brilliant
TB: One thing that Mike brings to the 'new' band as such is the fact that he's got the freedom to be that kind of performer that we've never had before. Stuart was a guitarist who sang and that was very much the makeup of the band but now we've got a singer who sorts of strums the guitar when he wants to but he can concentrate on all that sort of 'showy' stuff that he does.
MM : Absolutely..
TB: ....for him to go into the audience like he does, that's a Mike thing, it's certainly not a Stuart Adamson thing, not to that extent, but at the same time the guitars are looked after by Bruce and Bruce's son Jamie and that combination works brilliantly well
MM : It must be amazing for Jamie up there on stage with his dad
TB: Absolutely, sometimes you've got to take a chance on things and Bruce has had 100% confidence that his son could do the job and Jamie's proved himself over the last tour that he’s well worthy of being on the boards with the rest of us old farts .The whole things just worked and to go back to your original question I think it’s fantastic, it’s whetted my appetite for this. I’m really looking forward to the next tour, I’m even thinking about what we may do next, a year ago there was no plan about anything.
MM: April sees you back on the road again, 12 dates..
TB: 14 now, it’s gone up (laughs)
MM : Ooh ok I sit corrected (laughs)
TB: And we’ve got the Isle Of White Festival coming up, we’re opening for that on the Friday, and we’re doing a double-header in Inverness with Simple Minds in the summer so there’s some nice things coming up
MM: Oh that will be fantastic, that will get the adrenaline pumping
TB: Well certainly us anyway (laughs)
MM: Any chance of Glastonbury?
TB: I don’t know, again that’s with the powers that be, you know, we’ve got a faithful manager who’s always been fighting for the cause of the band and so on and so forth, the tour promoters have been fantastic, they’ve supported what we’re doing as a band and they’re really into what we are doing, they’re falling over themselves to put the band in the right place you know, rather than just doing anything, any old thing, so yeah there’s a lot of respect , there’s a lot of good stuff going round, there’s a lot of great feeling about what we are doing just now let alone what we may do in the near future
MM: Mmm, so is there a possibility we’re going to get some new material?
TB: Well I think the plan is to maybe sort of jam some stuff out on this tour during sound-checks and stuff. Sound-checks tend to get a bit dull on a tour so we can keep our interest up by trying new things
MM: and lots of willing audiences to test them out on too
TB: Yeah (laughs) I don’t know if it will get to that stage but we’ll certainly have a go and see what’s coming out ‘cause you know as a band, in terms of myself, Bruce and Mark, you know, we know what we’re capable of in terms of song writing, we just need to see what Mike can bring to the table, to see if that works and gels, you know if we come up with something that we think is worthy then we’ll do something with it but we’re not going to just put out any old rubbish.
MM: Why do I get a sneaky suspicion that Mike’s going to have you all at Everest at some point?
TB: (laughs) Well Mike’s like that! He’s a real kind of..... he doesn’t stop, he gets up and he’s doing things all the time, you know, I think he must be having a ball just now, you know, being in Big Country, also having The Alarm, because as soon as we finish in April he’s out with The Alarm for a month, so his life is full, and he loves it, he doesn’t want to stop. He’s got all the enthusiasm we need and because of all the stuff that he’s into as well, on a personal level, the charities and stuff, I’m sure we’ll end up doing lots of stuff for him as well, so yeah it’s great, just rolling with it and enjoying it.
MM: Yeah, whatever’s in that man’s water I want some
TB: (laughs) Well whatever’s in his water I want some too!
MM: (laughs) Yeah, he really is to be admired, I mean I know about his own health issues and what have you and I’m gobsmacked when I watch him, he’s an inspiration. Talking of inspiration I’m sure you’ve been inspiring quite a few people because you went into teaching music business studies didn’t you?
TB: Yeah well after Stuart passed away I kind of decided to leave mainstream music, I didn’t want Big Country turned into Queen, you know, get somebody else to sing just because somebody wanted to make a bit of cash and I decided to turn my back on it all and I wanted to do something which meant something . You know, my life up until that time, I was really privileged to be in a band that was respected and sold records and toured all over the world , but I wanted to put something back. I retrained as a teacher, teaching music production and technology and industry at FE colleges and I’ve been doing that for eight years now and really enjoy it. I now find myself in a situation where I’m teaching but I’m still in the band. I’m having to juggle but the juggling may have to cease soon (laughs) you know what I mean (laughs)
MM: I bet you’re very popular with the students
TB: Well put it this way, they believe me, you know, to have somebody who’s teaching them, who’s done it and there’s stuff available on the internet to see as well, they feel as though they’re getting it from the horse’s mouth so to speak but yeah, but I enjoy doing it as well, I absolutely love it. I know I’m not ready to give up the music business which is, you know, having the band active again is really working for me, I kind of like the balance of stuff between giving something back and doing it myself. So if I’m inspiring people, brilliant.
MM: Plus you had your own solo stuff as well didn’t you
TB: Yeah well that’s kind of something I was developing during that latter days of the band, the band were kind of hiccupping towards the end of the 90’s and I was just intent on doing something that I’d always wanted to do on my own which was just to produce some stuff and I started a record label, not only for my own stuff but to help younger bands in the area that I lived in , I lived in Cornwall and I was the token popular musician and I was always being hounded by people to help in one way or another, so starting up a record label was a way of doing that. So I kind of got into that for a couple of years, but it sort of kind of died a death as it would have done but I did a couple of solo albums which I’ve just released on the internet, but you know I enjoyed doing those, they were an outlet, you know, as a writing unit, the band, you know, you had 3 of us who predominately wrote stuff for the band and there’s always going to be a lot of stuff left over, so I kind of decided to do my own thing as well. Again that was only because the band weren’t doing an incredible amount at the time and it was all coming to a horrible end by then anyway so.... You know it wasn’t up until we did Damascus when we really tried to put an energy back into the group, we made that album which we were all absolutely kind of so up on , you know, it was during that recording we really kind of rediscovered the spirit of Big Country, but it was at that time that we were realising how really bad Stuart was becoming and when we released Fragile Thing we were really hoping that that was going to be the single to reintroduce the band to the charts and then we had that bloody disaster with that as well and that really kind of caps the whole thing
MM: Yeah , not nice memories to dwell on
TB: Not really but it’s part of the history and I think we all have to sort of acknowledge that was part of the history and it’s something that we’ve got to take on board. I mean it’s not until this stuff with the band started just now that any of us have really publically addressed Stuart’s passing, in any detail, and it’s been difficult you know , it’s been ten years but it’s been difficult to swallow even now to be honest but you know every time we go on stage we deliberately have our stage set up so that there is a space in the middle, to me that’s just a nice way to say ‘well he’s still here with us in spirit’ and quite rightly Mike pays homage to Stuart in the middle of the set and he kind of devised that himself and it works well. I think our audiences will still get a feeling that the band is still the band although one of us is not here in a physical presence
MM: No but I’m sure he is very much felt
TB: Yeah definitely and I think it’s there for us all to celebrate now rather than to lament. It’s still difficult at times.
MM: Of course, understandable
TB: I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do an interview like this 4 or 5 years ago, I just wouldn’t be able to talk.
MM: No, no, it would have been too painful wouldn’t it
TB: Sometimes you don’t want to accept things. I mean it wasn’t so much the band, it was just, you know, we were mates, friends,
MM: Absolutely, I’m always very aware of that so when I’m doing an interview I don’t want to intrude, open wounds,
TB: We know that people will want to know the story and want to know what happened and why things happened, we recently did an article with The Guardian which is about bands with dead members so to speak, you know, to put it really rawly, and yeah it’s a fact of life , some bands lose their guitar player, some bands lose their drummer or both or whatever, but when you’ve lost your main singer, main protagonist, you know people expect you not to be able to do what you did before, and to some extent I know I did, I didn’t think we’d be able to do it myself but I’ve been since proved wrong and quite gladly
MM: Yep and it’s opening a whole new chapter for Big Country now
TB: Well basically it’s giving us an opportunity to play the music we’ve always had a great pride in and deliver it to the people who have loved it over the years but also some new people because we’re getting younger kids coming to the gigs as well and they sound just as potent and as vibrant as they did back in 1983 because, it’s weird, it doesn’t sound like we’re playing an old fashioned kind of music, it sounds very ‘now’ and it sounds very potent
MM: Absolutely, and that’s why it’s ‘classic’ (laughs)
TB: ( laughs) I’ve heard the word ‘heritage’ knocked around recently
MM: (laughs) Yeah?
TB: (laughs) Yeah
MM: Well they are more than just songs really, I mean, they get into the blood, absolutely get in the blood, they’re anthems
TB: Well they were written from the blood you see, they were written about you know, the real things, there was nothing bubblegum about them, nothing contrived,
MM: Well I think we’re all interested in seeing the guys, up on the stage in April,
TB: We’re definitely enjoying it and it’s definitely really lovely to get up there and watching people react favourably to what we’re doing and long may that last, as I say, Mike’s been brilliant, Jamie’s been brilliant and the rest of us, myself Mark and Bruce we’re just having a ball now, it’s like a real relief I think in a way
MM: I’m glad you’re having a great time with it and I hope to catch some of the shows myself
TB: Good, well if you do come and make yourself known to us
MM: I will do. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you Tony, I wish you all the best for the tour and keep writing those new chapters in Big Country
TB: We’re writing them now! Thank you very much, great to speak with you
Copyright: Marilyn Michaels/Classic Rock Radio 2011
Big Country website: http://www.bigcountry.co.uk/