“Saxes With Wolves And Other Tales Of Madness” TWR talks to Rob Townsend and Gary O’Toole about their careers and work with Steve Hackett. Interviews conducted by Alan Hewitt. Photos By Alan Hewitt , Stuart Barnes and Roger Salem.
TWR: At what age did you first become interested in music? Did you start at school or later in life…?
R T: My mum used to be a music teacher so music was always going on around the house. My sisters played instruments - Ali still plays the bassoon really well. One of my other sisters, Helen was a really great flute player - much better than me! I used to play the drum kit mostly but also orchestral percussion. I played drums in the school orchestra and also in a local (very good) brass band - Towcester Studio Band. They were great things to do - learning to make music with lots of other people as well as getting good at sight reading!
G O’T: I started playing music at the age of four singing with my parents, doing clubs and pubs around North London. Eventually my sisters joined as singers too, at which point I started thinking about instruments. I played bass for three years with them at age ten, then my dad suggested that as he was a real bass player in the band I should take up drums as they needed a drummer.
TWR: Were the instruments you now play your first choices or did you start off with another instrument before deciding on the one you now play…?
G O’T: I was not allowed to study drums at school, as apparently none of us (the students) had an ounce of musicality and we were so useless that we couldn’t whistle the National Anthem. I started paying for drum lessons when I was seventeen and working in the City.
R T: I started on drums but toyed around with sax a bit while at school. I didn’t really start playing it seriously until I was about twenty and got into Jazz/Funk - playing down in Cornwall with lots of bands.
TWR: Assuming that you go to gigs as a member of the audience as well as in a band, what was the first gig you went to see…?
R T: This is going to sound a bit like a contrived answer but I assure you it’s true! The first rock gig I saw was Steve in 1983 on the Highly Strung tour at the Derngate Centre in Northampton - I was about fourteen. My sister, Ali was (and still is) a big Genesis fan so she took me and my mate Jonny along. It blew us away - I went out and got loads of Steve’s albums and listened to them constantly (now who else seems to do that rather a lot here at TWR HQ I wonder….???). The other weird thing is that my wife was also at that gig - odd, eh? As a kid, mum used to take me to lots of classical gigs because my sisters played in the Northants County Youth Orchestra.
G O’T: I had an uncle who would come over on Saturday afternoons and we would play records and he took me to see a couple of gigs; Jazz gigs, but I can’t recall any other than going to see a British outfit called “Backdoor” who were great. I did go to see Emerson, Lake and Palmer at Wembley and that was on my own.
TWR: When did you decide to become a professional musician, and what was your first pro gig…?
G O’T: the first pro gig was a cruise around the Greek islands. It all went a bit strange after the MD had a fit and the captain sacked us all!
R T: I decided to become a pro musician around 1990 - I was living in Cornwall and playing at a pretty decent level but selling building materials by day! I distinctly remember having a conversation with my brother in law and he said; “life’s not a dress rehearsal” and this really struck home and it was then that I decided to go to university. I applied to study Jazz at Middlesex University which is where I teach now. It’s a great specialist Jazz course with fantastic tutors (modesty aside). It is one of the broadest courses of its kind in the country.
I must admit I can’t remember my first pro gig - I wish it was one of those “… and the audience ended up covered in blood” type stories but in truth it was probably someone’s wedding so blood may not have been wholly appropriate (oh I dunno… you’ve obviously not been to many Scouse weddings then, Rob? AH) One of my first major gigs was when I was still a student. I got chosen to play with Django Bates’ seminal Big Band “Delightful Precipice”. I remember walking into the rehearsal room packed with all of my favourite players! (Most of whom are in the list below). The gig was great - I went nuts “… and the audience ended up covered in blood”.
TWR: So who are your musical influences….?
G O’T: I am influenced by so many people from all styles. First I got into Yes, then Genesis, ELP, Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, The Hi-Lo’s (a close harmony group), Carpenters, The Jackson 5, The Osmonds, lots of different things.
R T: Well, now where do I start? Firstly a whole host of British players who are amazing. Many have become my mates over the years. They are really generous and encouraging and I owe them an awful lot: Iain Ballamy, Django Bates, Mark Lockheart; Julian Arguelles; Stan Sulzman; Steve Buckley (unsung alto sax hero who now lives in Devon). The list goes on… Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson; Wayne Shorter; Weather Report; Cannonball Adderley; Charlie Parker; Michael Brecker; Gil Evans; John Surman; Keith Jarrett; Igor Stravinsky; Ralph Vaughan Williams (something you share in common with me there, Rob - AH). Olivier Messaien; John Williams; Thomas Newman; Danny Elfman; Jeff Buckley; Bill Frisell; Hermeto Pascoal; Joe Lovano; Branford Marsalis; Paul Mc Candless…. The list could continue for a long, long time!
TWR: For the technically minded among our readers, tell us a bit about your kit and recording/stage set up….
R T: Seeing as you have asked…. I currently use a Selmer 1954 MK 6 tenor sax - one of the earliest made; you know the one - without the “revised r” stamped on the bell!! A Selmer 1962 MK6 alto sax; a Selmer super 80 series soprano sax. You don’t want to know about mouthpieces do you? Oh, you do…. Jody Jazz 8 on the tenor sax, Otto Link 7 on the alto sax; Selmer S80 H on the soprano sax; all with Rico Royal 3 reeds.
I use an Altus flute but can’t remember which model, Chieftain whistles, high D, low D and alto G, various other wooden flutes that I have picked up on my travels.
Are you still reading this? OK, AMT LC saxophone microphone, TC G major fx unit for delays, pitch effects etc all controlled by a Behringer FCB1010 foot controller and all going through a Mackie 1202 desk.
G O’T: My kit is a Saturn Pro with 8”, 10” 12”, 14” and 16” toms, 22” bass drum and Black Panther hand hammered brass snare all from Mapex and a mounted 22” flats bass. The cymbals are a mixture of HH and AAX crash and ride from Sabian with all Janus pedals. I am awaiting delivery of a sexy new kit from Mapex which has six toms, two bass drums and a gong drum.
TWR: How and when did you become involved with Steve…?
G O’T: I did a gig with a mate of mine called Steve Sydelnyk who was doing a drum and bass thing at a club in London called The End. We did the gig and the support act called Manuca, were great. The singer and guitarist asked me if I wanted to join them so I agreed and a month later Steve calls and says “We have this gig at The End on Wednesday 19th are you free?” I said “Yeah” and then Manuca called saying exactly the same thing and I realised I had a gig with both bands at the club that night. I remember Steve bringing a mate who was not so impressed with my playing, which was a shame but Jeanne had a mate who really liked what I did, so I met Steve at his house where he asked me to join and then to go to Italy. I was, and remain very flattered by his opinion that I was good enough.
R T: I got the call in May 2001 just before the South American tour - Ben Castle was playing with Steve at the time but was unable to do that tour. Ben is a wonderful ( and very busy) musician, and friend. We had been to a few of each other’s gigs because we shared the bass player; Tim Harries at the time. We had talked about influences in the past and had both mentioned being into Prog Rock in our youths. It was great meeting Steve as I hadn’t seen him since that gig at the Derngate! He looks pretty much the same though (amazing what Grecian 2000 can do eh? That’s what Tony Banks thinks anyway - AH)
TWR: How much creative input do you have when working with Steve in the studio…?
R T: Steve is very open to ideas in the studio - it is always a blast! Sometimes there are specific melodies and parts to play but a lot of what I do is improvised so I do a few takes to offer a bit of choice. Steve is always very enthusiastic - I think he really likes the spontaneity of improvisation.
G O’T: It’s nice to work with Steve as he asks for ideas but is clear if there are things he likes or doesn’t. So yes, I get the chance to float some ideas around.
TWR: When you are not either recording or touring with Steve, which other artists do you work with or what other activities are you involved with…?
G O’T: I am currently developing my Music School which is a passion of mine. (www.gotomusicschool.co.uk) I am a good player but in school that doesn’t matter as it is not about me, but about making people , or at least giving people the opportunity to be far better than I am. I am also working with a great blues rock guitarist called Stephen Dale-Petit. We toured earlier in the year with Mick Taylor of Rolling Stones fame and that was great. We did have a lot of fun. Stephen is a great artist and mate who has a history steeped in the blues tradition. We go to record and the sounds for the kit, the writing of songs; the total involvement with the music is something I love to be a part of. I am a very lucky boy, I know!
|R T: I play with lots of different people, mostly in the Jazz vein. Currently I am working with James Taylor Quartet (JTQ - funk organist rather than cowboy-tinged songster!). I also play with a band called Ambulance run by my good mate and double bass supremo; Arnie Somogyi - it’s a great band playing very fresh sounding Jazz. I sometimes play laptop as well as sax in that band. Now and again I do gigs with the hKippers, which is a madcap punk-folk band run by Oscar winning composer; Stephen Warbeck. It’s fronted by Paul Bradley who used to be in Eastenders* (well, we won’t hold that against him, will we folks?!) and is now a consultant surgeon in Holby City*, I believe.|
Other stuff I do; as I previously mentioned - I teach Jazz and improvisation at Middlesex University. With my mate Arnie I run a company called Voodoo kazoo - we produce music for computer games, animation; television - stuff like that. Check out the web site www.voodookazoo.com it’s good fun.
TWR: Are there any artists you haven’t worked with, that given the chance, you would like to work with…?
R T: Well, I managed to tick Rick Wakeman off the list a couple of weeks ago - he’s a brilliant guy. There are countless people I would like to work with but currently topping the list would be Peter Gabriel (if you ever do get to work with him Rob, mention TWR and the long overdue interview will ya!).
G O’T: Again, there are so many. I love guitarists, I even own guitars and sometimes practice myself which come sin handy for writing etc. Yes, I would love to work with Jeff Beck or Clapton or further afield; Stevie Wonder. I love Big Band things too, and I believe there are so many artists who would benefit from expanding out of synth world and work with real horn players, saxes, trombones etc. Some of my best music is yet to be played and whoever I am lucky enough to be asked to work with, I hope the light of inspiration comes on and they say “Not like that; can you try a few things… let’s play with it?”
Well there you have it folks, a brief insight into two of Steve’s current mainstays. My thanks to both Rob and Gary for taking the time to answer these questions and I hope you find the answers interesting.
* Trivia Moment: “Eastenders” and “Holby City” are
UK TV soap operas, for our overseas readers who may not be aware of such things
- and some of our UK readers who, like me, wish they weren’t aware of