Scotland’s Big Country catapulted to fame with the hit song ‘Big Country’ from the 1983 album The Crossing. Their career continued to be a success during much of the 80’s although their popularity in the States suffered due to circumstances common to most bands that have reached amazing peaks. Their time in the nineties saw the band endure a variety of factors that created a more tumultuous decade for them and then the tragic alcoholism related suicide of their front man, Stuart Adamson, understandably put the band on hiatus. A brief reunion in 2007, tentative steps with line-ups, small tours and new material led to the new album The Journey in 2013 such that now the band is back in fine form, touring internationally when possible. Back here again following their first tour to Australia in 2016, Loud Online spoke to founding member plus in-demand session and touring drummer Mark Brzezicki.
This is the second time Big Country is here within only a couple of years. How was the last tour?
It was fantastic as we had never been to Australia or New Zealand, for that matter. It was unfinished business for the band, albeit a lot later in our career. It was also very emotionally charged. I’ll always remember not just what a beautiful country you’ve got there but that the tour was different to what we are used to in the UK because I think that Stuart Adamson lyrics still mean a lot to many people and they always have. I think that some of the lyrics really effected people, in fact, I saw some people almost tearing up which I didn’t expect to see. Whether it was because they were hearing that sound or whether they were being moved by the fact that the lyrics were being sung for them live, in a way, it was celebrating Stuart’s words and that is what we do when we are still playing without Stuart. So yeah, it was quite an amazing experience for us and we can’t wait to get back.
In the situation of playing Stuart’s lyrics and music, is it kind of bittersweet for you?
Ah, good question. No, no for me, personally. I see it as a celebration and that we’ve got eyes to look forward so we move forward and you don’t look back and harp on about things. Losing Stuart was like losing a brother and it is always with you but time heals and you’ve got to try to move on with your life. When we did stop with Big Country and then we got back together again as a three piece, it didn’t kind of work. We needed the twin guitars and Jamie Watson [guitar] supplies that with his Dad [Bruce Watson – guitar and vocals] on the guitar, who is original guitarist and we’ve got the drums there. It still feels like we are doing the right thing. We know Stuart would have been proud of us to carry on and we do it respectfully. We’re doing the back catalogue; we’ve recreated the sounds as close as it will ever be and the songs are fantastic. The back catalogue is amazing and the older the band gets, the more that seems to be appreciated, in a funny way. I don’t mean that it wasn’t appreciated the first time around but the fact is that it has kind of gotten into a new status of either being a cult band or being something that is unique with a rare chance to see us. We’re like a rare visitor now and that makes everything more special, not only for the audience but for the band itself.
Plus the fact that you’ve released an album such as The Journey means that you’re not simply flogging the nostalgia trip.
Yeah, that is true. We did do The Journey but I am a little bit indifferent about these things. I think that The Journey was a great thing to do but it didn’t really do much for the band like doing a new album would generally do because business has changed so much and because of that, it is not the same. The new album was received; they liked it but it really only appealed to a certain group of people that like to think that we’re doing new music, which is good that we do that. But, at the same time, it is more of a labour of love for the band without any result because when we played The Journey live, as much as it went down well, people were really longing to hear the old stuff and not particularly the new stuff which is what happens with a band that has a vast catalogue with success at the back. I know that when we supported David Bowie on the Glass Spiders tour, he didn’t really play his old stuff at all and he hated that tour. He really didn’t like that tour and we could see why because that audience were kind of perplexed by the fact that he didn’t play his big hits. As nice as it is as a musician to have that, ‘ooh, we’ve done a new album’ and you want to think that is the best thing that you’ve done, we’ll all believe in your new birth thing, you know, it doesn’t always stand up for the band. It only pacifies a few people in the great scheme of things.
I suppose that same thing applies for a band like The Cult which you were involved with for their Love album. Everybody wants to hear material from that album live.
Yeah, well that is a great album. The Cult were not any friends of mine [before that] and I didn’t know that The Cult were ever going to be that big just like I didn’t expect Big Country to take off. But when I did that Cult album it was a very short notice because their drummer [Nigel Preston] was having health issues with drug abuse and things of which he later died, sadly. It was a joy to do that record and I did that Love album very quickly. For me, it is a very special album. Musically it is a special album when they were at that kind of period between Southern Death Cult and turning out to be this beautiful kind of rock-goth band before they kind of went to the big stadium rock thing in America with the big hair brigade, which they still do fantastically, by the way. Not only because I was involved in that record being the drummer, I loved that place they had musically that nobody else was doing. It was unique and I am very proud to have done that.
As a drummer, how do you feel about that hard rock style of double bass kick drums, smacking the life of the snare drum and lots of cymbal abuse compared with your style in Big Country?
Well, I like all styles of drumming and I think that every drummer has a value. I am always keen to learn things from a drummer who is very experienced or even from somebody who is just starting to play. I play double bass drums sometimes but I consider myself like a goldfish in a tank. If the tank gets bigger, my kit gets bigger. Being a 1970’s drummer, when I was growing up in the seventies I was looking at the drummers around me and the fashions, the trends and the music at the time from prog rock to jazz fusion; which is what I grew up with before punk broke. They all had these big, monstrous kits which I adored. I am a huge fan of Phil Collins and he had a beautiful, large drum kit. I have always played quite a large kit. I need a lot of tom-toms and I find it is like painting in that they are like my colours or my palette so I can paint with more drums. But there is obviously a limit and when we do smaller shows, the kit gets a little bit smaller so it gets like a hybrid version of my bigger kit. For me, the greatest drummers were in the 1970’s and I feel that it has all been done so I tend to rather look back than to look forward. I don’t know whether that is right or wrong but it seems to ground me. I always look to my favourite drummers each and every time when I need inspiration. I normally go back to the 1960’s and 1970’s.
So would that be drummers such as Keith Moon of The Who and Roger Taylor of Queen?
Yeah, I do love those two guys, they are fabulous drummers. I love drummers that have their own unique sound and their own style. To extend on that, I adore Phil Collins’ playing. He had a band called Brand X as well as Genesis and there is just unbelievable drumming in that. It is his most inspirational drumming to me. But, you know, influences range from Billy Cobham [Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra] to Steve Gadd’s [Eric Clapton] jazz stuff and then to Ginger Baker and Stewart Copeland, of course. The list goes on. It is drummers that have an identity such as John Bonham, ones you can tell immediately who they are when you hear them play. That is kind of missing in today’s music a little bit for me, whether it is the production or whether it is computers, or sampling or just the technique where it is done digitally. We were all recording onto tape before and tape gave you wonderful drum sounds, it gave you great compression and character in the playing. Unfortunately, a lot of that is missing with new technology.
When Big Country gained success in the States, how did you cope with it being the MTV era?
Well there was nothing really to cope with, to be honest. It was part of the deal to do a video. To get on MTV was an important thing for you to get promoted. So we had the obligatory need to do a video which we always felt was a little bit difficult because videos of the eighties are rather strange looking back but it was the norm then. We had to act in our videos and it was always something that me, Stuart [Adamson – ex vocals and guitar], Tony [Butler – ex bass] and Bruce [Watson – guitar] were a little bit awkward in. It was almost like, ‘oh no, we’ve got to do acting’. Not only have we got to play music but we’ve got to sort of be walking around with some story line. We always found that to be a little bit alien to us but looking back, it is rather odd to see. I almost wince sometimes when I see some of those videos. But they are charming and it was a different era. There was a need to get on MTV. It was a really innovative station to get your music powered through video. It was new entity and a new medium so it was important. I don’t think so much these days as with the Internet, everything is so instant to put it out. You can just film yourself on your iPhone and put it out on YouTube. It is so different.
The funny thing is that, given you’ve played with Ultravox, Nik Kershaw and others, a lot of the audience probably associate the visuals with the song more than their own listening experience.
Oh that’s true. I mean, I always thought that Aha’s ‘Take on Me’ video was a great video. There are certain standout videos that sit with the song and people do remember the videos with a lot of respect. ‘Sledgehammer’ [Peter Gabriel] was one as well and ‘Let’s Dance’ [David Bowie]. There were some great videos accompanying great music and that was something that every band tried to achieve. But that was definitely an eighties thing for me. It was also one of those things where if you were on tour and you couldn’t do Top of the Pops then you had to provide them with a video and that then meant that you were really successful. We have done that quite a few times as that was always something to do as well.
As you’ve played with artists such as Bruce Foxton, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey , does any of it infuse itself into Big Country’s new music?
Ah, I take everything as and when I hear it and I take everything on an ongoing basis. I mean, when I work with Roger, I am hearing a completely different genre of music. It is still rock based but I ritually put my head into the music and try to be as inventive with Roger as I would be with Big Country. I always try to be musical with my drumming. It is very important to interpret the songs and bring something to the table on the drum front be it sound, complexity or simplicity. That keeps me fresh because for each and every project and it is still me bringing in what I do. I use the same process to bring the songs alive in the way that I hear music. So it is the same process that I go through whether it is Pete or Roger or Frida from Abba or Joan Armatrading or Sting; it doesn’t matter. I just be myself, play sympathetically to the music and try to make it exciting. I think that the great thing about the people that ask me to play with them is that they obviously have an idea in their head what they want and I think I am pretty in tune to that because I have a vast variety of styles that I listen to that I genuinely like but I also try to make it exciting and special. I like to bring new ideas and try to make it mine so that the drumming is good quality and has got something original and inventive with it.