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Scottish band Big Country have never toured Australia in a performing capacity. The band had major radio play internationally, toured with huge names during their heyday and produced a solid batch of albums before their fortunes changed leading the band to persevere until an inevitable break up followed by the death of a core band member in 2001 led fans and the remaining members to believe things had run their course. Never say never seems an apt phrase given a series of events led to the band reconvening and then evolving to the current touring line up that Australian audiences will be able to see and hear in a live setting. Loud Online spoke to core founding member, guitarist Bruce Watson recently about all things Big Country related not long before they headed to Australia.
It is the first time that Big Country have toured Australia so the obvious question is what took you so long to get down here?
I don’t really know but we have been to Australia before because we actually came down there in 1988 to do a couple of video shoots for a couple of songs off our fourth album [Peace in Our Time]. We never actually performed in Australia. We did have a tour booked but to be honest with you I don’t really know why we didn’t go.
How things have changed from making videos in the 80’s at international locations.
Yeah, it was a weird one. We’re based in the UK and yet we went out to Hollywood for three months to do the album, we then launched it in Moscow and then went to Australia to do the two videos. Figure that one out because all I could see was UK pound signs just going down the drain.
It was a different era with MTV driving so much of the sales of albums at the time.
Oh, the MTV era was just insane. Some of those video shoot budgets cost more than the actual album costs. I just thought it was absolutely crazy but that was the way it was back then.
At the time there was also the push for expensive, big name producers. I am guessing nowadays you simply produce your music yourselves?
Yeah, just like with everybody today, technology has made it such that you could record and album and a movie in your bedroom with a smart phone. We tend to produce everything ourselves when we’d done some new recordings. Although, we did a recording with Steve Lillywhite about three or four years ago [2011’s single ‘Another Country’] when the band got back together. It was great working with Steve again, just doing one song.
At this point in your career you must just know exactly what you want to achieve.
Yeah, we’ve always been like that. We actually co-produced the last three albums with it anyway. Stuart [Adamson – vocals; died 2001], Tony [Butler – bass], Mark [Brzezicki – drums] and myself were kind of a working unit who produced the last batch of records [before the break-up].
How about songwriting – is that a couple of core members task?
No, everyone kind of chips in. Stuart wrote all of the lyrics but everyone chipped in with the music such as melodies. We don’t record as much new stuff as we did in the past. Usually it is more of a co-op.
How do you keep yourself from being jaded in writing songs over the years?
Well, I’m not exactly the most prolific song writer so it is not something that you do all the time. I don’t think that you could do it all the time. Speaking for myself, I think you’ve got to leave a bit of space there. How many albums has Paul McCartney done? They were the most prolific songwriters but they’re not writing an album a year. We’re kind of that as well in that you don’t set out to write an album but your write songs and once you’ve got enough, you can put them out on an album and then you go out and tour on them. You might not write again for a couple of years.
How would you say your music writing differs now from when you wrote songs in the 80’s during your most high profile era?
The procedure for me hasn’t changed but some of the technicalities have changed. I can only play guitar, I cannot play piano or anything else. So I tend to record my ideas played on guitar roughly into a little digital Porta studio and in the old days it was a cassette player. So I just store up all the ideas until I get together with my son Jamie who also plays guitar in the band. He might have some ideas stored up as well so generally we try to marry up ideas and better them then store them and get together with everyone else and just see what happens. I just play into an amp because I am an old guy and with technology, I am also very lazy and I don’t like to have too many options. Ha-ha.
In the 80’s, the amount of rack mounted equipment available for guitarists ventured into overkill. Were your rigs comparatively restrained?
Back in those days, Stuart and I used rack systems with Korg digital delay units, MXR pitch transposers and noise gates. I used a Marshall 50 watt head with 4×12 cabinets and a MusicMan combo. In the early days, Stuart used an HH VS Musician combo and then he moved onto the Fender Showman transistor styled amps.
Nowadays you could effectively patch in all your sounds into profiling gear to make it much easier to travel without too much gear yet still get your signature sound for various songs.
Yeah, these days I just take out a pedal board that I had custom made. At the moment I am just using a Supro Thunderbolt amplifier which just has a volume and a tone control on it. To me that is like heaven because I don’t have to mess about with parametric or graphic EQs or any of that kind of stuff so I can control all of my effects from one multi effects unit. Before that, I used to make sure that my lead hit the first power end of the amp to then go through the send and return. Technology has just made it all smaller.
You mentioned the MXR pitch transposer [MXR M-129]. Was that piece of gear the key to the guitar sound for the hit song ‘In a Big Country’?
It wasn’t really the key to it because we used it to thicken the guitars up a little bit. We had four presets on it so we would make one an octave down, one an octave above and one a fifth [musical interval] above [the original source signal]. So then when you’d play the two guitars together with the effects, you kind of got that extra harmony in there which was different. It wasn’t just with a harmony because depending on if you were playing with a clean sound, you could make it sound something like tubular bells or steel drums. Then when you distorted it up and added a bit of delay and reverb you could make it sound like violins playing.
In the live setting, does Jamie [Watson – guitars] have a different guitar sound to yourself?
Both sounds are identical because both Jamie and I use the same pedalboards and amplifiers, just different guitars, obviously. But, even though we use the same kind of set up, the effects used are very, very different.
What can audiences here expect from the set list?
We’re going to play quite a bit from the first three albums because that was the three albums that came out down in Australia and New Zealand. I think that the first three albums came out there but I don’t know if anything came out there after that so we’ll probably concentrate on them. Plus, we’ll add a couple of hits from albums that came out much later as well.
Other than yourself and your son, can you tell us about the rest of the current touring line up?
The current lineup is great. We’ve still got Mark Brzezicki on drums who played on all of the early stuff [and on The Cult’s Love album]. We’ve got Scott Whitley on bass and Simon Hough on lead vocals.
Given your back catalogue, is there a particular album that stands out for you as a great achievement?
I think definitely the first album, The Crossing was because it was the first album I had ever done. But there was also another album which came out much later called The Buffalo Skinners which we co-produced with Chris Sheldon and I would say that that is definitely up there as a favourite Big Country album.
When U2 covered a song by Skids, did that take you by surprise?
I always knew that one of the Edge’s favourite Skids songs was ‘The Saints are Coming’, so I thought that was great. I think that U2 and Green Day did a fantastic version of it.
You’ve toured with Queen, Roger Daltrey and played the Grammies and so on. What would be the career highlight?
I think that doing to two tours with the Rolling Stones was definitely one of the big highlights for us. We didn’t even have an album out when we got asked to do it. So, we did the Bridges to Babylon tour and the Voodoo Lounge tour. We just knew a lot of the guys who worked for the Rolling Stones and I think they just got us on because we’re kind of easy going, you know, a small lime up that just went on and did it and then came off again. It went down well so that warmed the crowd up for them. For me that was just amazing. I think the Rolling Stones are the only band that we’ll sit at the side of the stage and watch them every night. I don’t think I have ever done that with another band. It was just great.
Did you pick up a lot in performance notes by watching them nightly?
No, I was just blown away. It wasn’t doing it as a learning curve. It was just such a spectacle. One thing I did notice about the Stones is how quiet they are on stage. They sound even quieter than your average band that plays in a pub. Charlie Watts doesn’t hit the drums hard and Keith and Ronnie’s amplifiers were just little beaten up Fender Tweed things with ten inch speakers so obviously the PA is doing all the work. It was just amazing how quiet they were because I have been backstage at heavy rock concerts with people playing through huge walls of Marshall stacks and that just kills me. But with the Stones, you could actually have a conversation over the top if you wanted to so it just goes to show you how great these guys are and how well they can project on the big stage.
Big Country have lasted a reasonable time period too although there’s been break-ups and the death of lead singer so things have sometimes gone pear shaped. How did you overcome these issues?
Yes well, basically the band was always breaking up like most bands. In fact, you break up every couple of years. You’re better off just saying, ‘we should just take a rest’, you know. But the band did break up and we did do a final tour. Stuart then passed away about a year later or however long it was from then so everybody just thought, well, we knew the band had broken up and obviously Stuart is not here anymore. That didn’t happen at the time that Stuart passed away, I’m just talking about later on. Everybody just went and did different things. Tony and I went back from this industry into normal jobs whilst Mark continued to do session work. We were just not thinking anything was going to happen. Then I got a call from Richard Jobson from the Skids and that was around the same time that U2 and Green Day had done the cover of ‘The Saints are Coming’ and he wanted to put the Skids back together and do a 30th anniversary. So, he recruited Jamie and myself to help put it together. So then people online were saying, ‘If Bruce can do a 30th anniversary for a band that he wasn’t even in he surely can do it for band that he was in’. It kind of went on from there with fans starting conventions even if the band wasn’t there. Sometimes Tony would show up, sometime I would show up and sometimes the three of us. So we ended up playing one convention in Holland with Mike Peters [The Alarm] doing the vocals for us and it was just good fun so we thought maybe we should do this on an annual basis. It ended up doing more than that with a batch of weekend shows as a three piece. It has just kept going ever since.
What would you say is the future of the band given the resurgence and growing interest?
At the moment we’re doing the same 30th anniversary thing. Last year was the 30th anniversary of the second album, Steel Town and towards the end of this year it will be the 30th anniversary of the third album, The Seer. So we will probably be doing that into next year. After that, I am not very good at planning and not quite sure.
You must get a good laugh out of the resurgence of vinyl given it went out the door and has now come back to be huge again, albeit in smaller, more dedicated circles.
I think it is brilliant because my son and other people’s children will say, ‘you mean, you pay for this big 12 inch thing with a plastic sleeve? Why are you paying for it when you can get it off the Internet?’ and its like, ‘ah, you kids’. It is that generation gap thing saying you vinyl when you get that gatefold sleeve and you open it up. Saying that, I don’t have a turntable anymore and I have very few pieces of vinyl left but I do think it is great that it is making a comeback. Some of the more recent albums we did came out on vinyl but I don’t have a deck. I am just hoping they don’t bring back the cassette because I can do without the cassette and the eight track format. Even up until a few years ago I was still using reel to reel machines because I love those machines, they are just fantastic.