Born-again guitar heroes Big Country foresee even greater success for their latest album, The Seer. Overseeing their ambitions, our very own Ricky Gordon
With the release of their latest album, The Seer, Big Country look set to consolidate a growing international reputation. But their hearts — and music — are still located in the small-club Rock scene from which they sprang
Let's face it, by 1982 the guitar was all but dead, gone, buried, RIP... no more: poleaxed by its old sparring partner the bass. Thousands of would be axe-heroes up and down the country suddenly realised that they had been learning the wrong sodding instrument, and rushed out to buy a bass guitar. Ah! cruel fate. Little did they know that Stuart Adamson and his cohorts in Big Country were planning a new guitar-based Pop with which to seduce a nation or two. However, these were unlikely heroes, more your average Gavin than anything else. I mean, firstly there was the small matter of their stage presence, what with the synchronised skipping and the insect pirouetting of Bruce Watson. And then, to cap it all, their leader Adamson openly admits that he is still excited by Rock music.
"I think it's a shame that it's become unhip to say that you're in music because you love playing and you like being in a band and being inspired by Rock music, but I genuinely am. I get excited by it. There's a lot of crap, but when you're out there actually playing and sharing your songs with people, I find that it can be very spiritual, more than just four people providing an evening's entertainment for some punters who are out on the town."
Admirable sentiments indeed, so how did it all begin?
"It happened almost by accident. We had the idea for the band and knew what it should sound like, but it took a long time to find the right people and then when it did happen, it happened immediately."
The right people, as we know, were Tony Butler on bass and Mark Brzezicki on drums.
"Right from the start, I sat down and explained to Mark and Tony what I felt we should be about and gave them pointers as to what it was, and they've taken it from there, and built on it and made it their own style, which has made them more identifiable in their own right as bass player and drummer. Mark was an absolutely brilliant drummer when he first joined the group, but he would rarely use his tom-toms at all, and I said 'Stop what you're playing on the hi-hat and play it on the toms instead... there's only four of us and we can afford to make a bit of a racket!'"
However, since Spring '85 remarkably little has been heard of Big Country, apart from the soundtrack to Restless Natives that is. This soundtrack gave Big Country the chance to experiment with new ideas and bring out new elements. Bruce was playing mandolin and slide guitar and Stuart was loaned a Roland Guitar synth ("That 'Darth Vader' Guitar") but reverted to straight guitars for the new album. In many ways The Seer marks a new beginning for Big Country. The playing is perhaps bolder and the tone more optimistic than Steeltown.
"I think that any underlying feel that there is to any body of work that we do comes from the atmosphere surrounding the group at that time. I tend to just sit down and write songs rather than think about what the concept behind them is going to be. In the same way that we didn't want to do a Crossing Volume 2 with Steeltown, I didn't feel it would be right to do a Steeltown Volume 2 with The Seer. Steeltown marked the climax of phase one of Big Country and was really the album that we had got together to make. We knew that we wanted to make the album a lot harder than The Crossing and we wanted to do current things much more in black and white, whereas with this album we've opened up a little bit."
The Seer also marks Big Country's first excursion with a new producer. Steve Lillywhite was still working on the Stones' new album when Big Country read in a magazine that Robin Millar was fed up with being tagged with doing Jazz stuff all the time and would like to work with Big Country or U2. One phone call later and the deal was cemented. Whereas Lillywhite would try and capture spontaneity at the recording session it seems that Millar would say "Let's do that in five minutes when I've got the sound right." Millar also had an "amazing ear for arranging music," something that Adamson was looking for.
"It's something that I wanted since I started the group. I always wanted to have the parts much more orchestrated than, say, this song goes F, D, G, A and I based everything around the melody lines, on the bass as well as on the two guitars, so there are identifiable harmonies and choral effects going on. Bruce and I try and make sure that there isn't anytime when we are bashing away at the same chords together. It's something that we've tried to achieve and we hope that it works. Our styles are too similar for us to play the same parts at the same time. It would just sound like one guitar with an ADT on it". It is perhaps this inventiveness with simple guitar lines and attention to detail that makes Big Country that little bit more original:
"Something that Bill Nelson said to us a long time ago when he was producing The Skids Days in Europa which I have always held in high esteem, was 'to make every note count'. So I think that we try to do things with a measure of economy and lack of self indulgence. Every note has a chance to state its case rather than being lost in a welter of sound.
"Things like In a Big Country were initially only two rhythm parts and the lead part came as an afterthought while we were recording it, like the lead line on Look Away, whereas Fields of Fire was always two lead lines. I think Bruce is a bit more off-the-wall than I am. I'm quite traditional whereas Bruce is much more into his echo effects and reverbs and things.
"Whenever either of us are doing a lead line, all there is on it usually is a loop echo, something with a few repeats and a little bit of chorusing or high octaves on the harmoniser."
If any of you caught the live shows recently, then you were probably impressed by the vast banks of effects racks behind both Bruce and Stuart. They were, however, not quite as impressive as they seem...
"Why there's so much of it is because I've got back-ups for each one. They're not really pieces of equipment built to be trucked half-way round the world so it's always handy to have a back-up and it's come in useful on one or two occasions. I use a Korg digital delay and all the effects that I've programmed into that go onto the back-up and the same with the MXR pitch-shifter. That and a noise gate are the only effects that I use. They are racked up so I can shift between them if any one goes down."
"Bruce and I try and make sure that there isn't any time when we are bashing away at the same chords together"
Live, Stuart now uses two Fender Showman amps. These replaced his HH gear when that went 'wonky' and he couldn't find any new valve sound amps.
"They are really versatile amplifiers and they sparkle a lot more than the Boogies do. I used two amps, one which is set up for a good clean Fender Twin Reverb sound and one which I set up really overdriven with the gain really high up. I can interchange between them with the footboard that I have."
Another new acquisition is a couple of Jimmy Moon custom built Telecasters:
"I always liked the Telecaster shape, but I always felt the guitar itself sounded a little bit restricted and I got Jimmy Moon, a guy from Glasgow, to build me a couple of Telecaster-shaped ones with some bollocks about them, so they have a humbucker pickup at the bridge, which are both EMG active pickups, and then there's an out-of-phase style Stratocaster pickup at the neck and I can get this really wide range of sound out of it. Then there's a small whammy bar, not a full hand bar, which is good because I can just slide my hand back on it and it becomes a far more integral part of my style rather than having to lift my hands away from the strings and wobble a big bloody iron about.
I am really pleased with the Jimmy Moon guitar.... guitars with no action at all!"
Stuart has temporarily retired his favourite Strat, mainly because he is trying to keep it in good condition, but feels that it may have to make a welcome return on the forthcoming tour due to its unique sound. Another prized possession is a white Hoyer Les Paul, which was once owned by Bill Nelson and appeared on the back cover of Be Bop Deluxe's Axe Victim. The very much underrated Fender El Rio acoustic guitar also makes an appearance on The Seer.
"It's got a good sound. It's not as fat as an Ovation or something like that, but it cuts through. It works really well with a hi hat on record and I like that because I really only use it for rhythmic parts to back up certain sections and I find that if Mark is doing a lot of hi hat work then it goes really well with it."
And what of the Adamson vocal chords? Did he find it difficult adapting to the role of the front man after being not quite so prominent in the Skids?
"Before I was in the Skids, I was in a sort of club group and I used to do all the lead vocals in that, but then I thought it was a better idea to have a singer, so Richard (Jobson) performed admirably for a few years and then I decided to do something else and left. It was a bit nerve-racking at first, getting back into it, and I must admit that I wasn't very confident about it but I didn't want anyone else singing the songs. I've worked on it for the past couple of years and I think it's much better now and probably much more forceful. I find I can improvise without worrying about it. I just get in there and give it some stick!"
"Robin said that that was one of the things that made him want to work with us. He says that he gets fed up with singers that say 'I'm not very good at this bit' and having to say, 'look don't worry about it, get in there and do it'. That was pleasing for him to have said that, because you get so used to being in your own situation that it's sometimes hard to believe that you're in a real band."
Despite their worldwide success, Big Country refuse to wear the mantle of the superstar. At a recent gig, Adamson had to stop playing midsong in order to take control of a potentially dangerous situation, a responsibility that so many so called 'stars' would perhaps have shied away from:
"That was terrible. I thought that because it was a stand up place it would have been an absolutely brilliant gig, but the way it happened was that every time we played a faster number people were just coming forward and really getting hurt. It was really off-putting because usually you see people smiling or whatever at the front, but it was all like looks of agony, with people fainting and everything and I just wasn't willing to be responsible for someone getting severely hurt at a gig."
It was a tribute to the band that they managed to pick up the song again and re-establish the atmosphere that had been there earlier in the night.
The next year sees Big Country step out into the Big World once again, but Adamson assures us that we won't be seeing any career moves ("We won't be getting on the lurex strides or start using smoke bombs!") He aims for music that comes from the heart and not from the purse... long may this continue.
Interview by Ricky Gordon
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