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Friday, 5 August 2011

Billy Gilbert interview

I was speaking to someone recently who was bemoaning the state of interviews in the mainstream music press.
The sort where a bands spokesperson rattles off a bunch of preprepared answers to preprepared questions with the intent to promote their latest offerings.
Nothing much of interest arises he said, and I had to agree.
Yet at the same time I also had to say that he was probably looking for what he wanted from an interview in the wrong places.
As usual the fanzines, webzines and even blogs are where bands and artists seem to be pulled from their beaten track to answer everything from the random to the insightful.
It is also where you can find interviews with the members of the bands who rarely get any input when it comes to mainstream interviews.
While the music press have the photogenic front-man thrust towards them to provide soundbites, everyone else gets what the music business obviously consider the crumbs from the table.
The guitarist, bassist, drummer or keyboardist is drafted in to be the face of the band.
It's hugely disrespectful to the band member in my opinion, but it's also a great opportunity to get a different slant on the dynamics at play.
So it is with great pleasure that I have Billy Gilbert here to answer some questions.
Billy who?
Billy Gilbert who has played with Chelsea, Penetration, The Lurkers, Hang Ups and is currently working on a solo studio project (The Tonighters) and a band project (The Surrenders) that's who.
He's the sort of fella who has been weaving his own little thread through the broad tapestry that is punk rock and now here's his story.

You've been playing in bands for much of your life now, but when did your love affair with music begin?
Billy - I suppose my first memory of finding any interest in music was that familiar old tale of obsessing over a pile of 45's & 78's that belonged to my parents.
There wasn't a great deal of them, maybe a dozen or so, but I'd come home from school and play them over and over.
The Platters, Roy Orbison, Small Faces, The Who, Supremes, The Stones spring to mind.
I remember being rather partial to a single by a guy called 'Christian St. Peters' called 'You Were On My Mind.
Recently I checked it out on youtube and found it to be a rather depressing tune considering that I must have only been about 8 or 9 years old at the time I'm not sure what the attraction was.
Later on I got massively into Slade.
That would be the beginning of forming my own tastes. Finding music for myself.
My older brother took me to see them at Newcastle City Hall. 'Slade's Crazee Nite', May 10th 1974. My first ever gig. It was probably then that the thought of being in a group initially entered my head. Everyone was just screaming & going nuts .. me included!
I didn't do anything about it though, and went off the idea for a while when Slade scarpered to America, but in hindsight that would have been when the idea first started to form.
Then punk happened and the bomb dropped! .. I was 14!

What was it that pushed you towards joining a band? When most people have that musical awakening they may dream/fantasize about performing, but it's the massed ranks of fans they join rather than doing it for themselves.
B - Well I was watching an interview lately in which the commentator stated of the artist being discussed “you don’t get to where he got, from where he started out, unless you have something to prove to somebody who‘s not listening to you“.
There's, undoubtedly, a truth in that with which I can identify.
Like most kids I wanted a voice, and I think it'd be reasonable to say that life at home, more often than not, could be pretty grim, and playing music certainly looked like a possible escape for me.
Saying that, music was always around.
So it's an easy reach to see why I would consider that as my escape route, and a vehicle for me to express myself.
My old man played guitar and he'd regularly bring people to the house for a bit of a strum and sing song, usually a drunk strum and sing song!
There'd be old amp's and guitars lying around and us kids would stick pencils in the speakers, inputs and snap bit's off 'em, but no one seemed to mind?
My older bro played too and we lived next door to a couple of lads who were in local R& B band 'The Junco Partners'.
Everyone seemed to be at it!
So I then started tinkering 'round with a few mates from school.
I actually wanted a drum kit but my parents wouldn't have it, so they got me a guitar for chrimbo. They later bought a set of drums for my younger brother Jim, and we started a punk duo, which we christened The Possessed.
We'd practice in his bedroom and local punk kids would congregate in the garden and shout out tunes for us to play, which we'd hammer through a-la-White Stripes!
I started taking it all a little more seriously when my mates began dropping off into pub's .. that didn't particularly interest me.
I couldn't have gotten in anyhow, I looked about 12!
Around then I took the proverbial bull's horns and started to look further afield for my kicks.
I was pointed in the direction of a club called 'The Garage' (I say club, but it was in fact an old garage) in Newcastle town centre that put gigs on most Sunday nights.
So I tracked that down and started hanging out there.
(There's a chapter in Ian Glasper's book 'Burning Britain' detailing the Garage, Total Chaos etc.)
In terms of actively creating and encouraging a credible, local, lasting, alternative, musical environment, Total Chaos were invaluable.
Without them we'd have most likely have been overrun with Heavy Metal bands.
That whole Garage scene later evolved into the Gateshead Music Collective.
Then things started falling into place .. meeting other musicians, fanzines, putting on gigs.
That whole DIY punk ethic, one to which I still try to adhere.

Was it all you thought it would be?
B - I've never really had any expectations.
The plan has always been, get a few decent musicians together, play some tunes, do a gig or two, releases some stuff and have a bit of fun.
The high points would be travelling and the meeting of lovely people.
Although I'm not actually that big on playing live!
If I could do the travelling and the meeting bit, then I’d quite happily miss out the gig part!
The low points has always been having to deal with band politics and egos.
I've seen folk submit to the dark side overnight!

You've bounced about a bit, Hang Ups, Penetration, Chelsea and the Lurkers to name but a few.
How was the dynamics in each of them?

Chelsea - Being in Chelsea was great as up until that point I’d pretty much just been gigging locally, maybe a dozen times outside the North East.
So almost overnight I was playing venues like The Marquee, Astoria, Brixton Academy and the national circuit, Leeds Duchess etc.
A couple of Geordie mates had put the line-up together in London then moved back home. We'd rehearse up here then meet Gene at whichever venue we happened to be booked.
A lot of the gigs would end in complete chaos! No sooner had we walked on and Gene would go into his “you're all a bunch of c***s” routine and the beer would rain down.
Then time went on and members started to drop off and eventually three of the band were down south and two up north, which was never gonna work.
The whole thing lasted roughly 2 years I guess.
My swansong was at the London Astoria.
We (myself & other guitarist, Neil Banks) turned up and the group were sound checking with another guitar player.
There'd been a bit of a scuffle at the previous gig and they most likely thought we weren't going to show. So we played the gig then got in the van and drove back home.
That was it!
Went out with a whimper rather than a bang
I loved every second of it though, had a marvellous time.
I was always a huge Chelsea fan and still am.
To get up on stage with Gene out front and play those songs was a real buzz!
The Hang-Ups - Funny you should mention The Hang-Ups. I recently read an article describing us as 'legendary' but at the time no one took much notice! We released a few bits and pieces, gigged around and took a couple of trips over to Germany.
There seems to be a bit of revisionism going on about the band.
I was writing the songs and fronting the group but not particularly enamoured with that particular role as it isn't one that suits my personality.
I suppose we'd have lasted longer if I could have found a someone to take on that front role.
I'm constantly asked to reform The Hang-Ups but it's probably best left to marinade in it's new found legendary status.
The Lurkers - I got offered the Lurkers gig at a Penetration show.
I previously knew Art from doing a few 999 support slots with the Hang-Ups.
He'd just moved up North and was looking to put a line up together.
I think they'd tried out a few guitar players before I was asked, but I was pleased to be considered as it's no secret that as a 15 year old I was a fully paid up initiate of the Lurkers Fan Club... Membership No. 256.
In fact Arthur was recently given a box of letters, over 30 years old, and in amongst them was one I’d sent to their management at Beggars Banquet trying to blag badges & posters.
Being a member of the band was great. Touring with Art & Nelly is about as big a laugh as you could possibly conceive! .. like being in a Viz comic or episode of ‘Bottom’ .. with no possible hope for escape.
I had immeasurable amounts of fun.
We're still great mates.
It all ended when work got in the way. Simple as that.
Dandy as rock and roll can sound, it rarely pays the rent.
Penetration - Every band has an alternative set-up and way of working.
Penetration was no different. Musically, there was more of an emphasis on pushing things, approaching everything from a different angle.
It's pretty evident in their songs.
The knock-on effect of that, in terms of playing, is you're pressed into being more inventive, to explore different sounds and ideas.
Showing up, armed with little more than a barre chord, was never an option.
I'd have fully expected a kick up the arse .. and rightly so!
Again, I had a fantastic time. The band members are great individuals and it was a laugh.
Things just didn’t move at the rate I was accustomed to, and it was always gonna be difficult to adjust to that slower pace, but as I‘ve already mentioned, each bands set-up differs and you have to be prepared to adapt.
It's not what their style of working is wrong, or even that my style is wrong. Just different.

You have two bands on the go just now. One with Steve Wallace (Penetration) that's the revived from the ashes of the Hang Ups called Automatic and your own project/band The Tonighters.
When did you decide to go it alone with the Tonighters?
B - I'm no longer involved with Automatic. I just couldn't spare the time, to be honest!
As for the Tonighters. It kind of fell together at the tail end of my time in Penetration.
Things were pretty quiet so I started writing and recording songs in my home studio just to keep busy.
Then when I uploaded a few of them onto the net they took on a life of their own.
Interest and gig offers started to come in so I just thought ok .. time to concentrate on this'.
There was no plan to 'go it alone' as such. It was just time to move onto something new.

The band don't sound like what I think most people would expect. On first listen I was thinking sixties influenced britpop, but I'll take that back and say that it actually sounds more like the missing link between the two.
Mod influenced even. How would you describe it yourself?
B - If I was pushed to tag a label on it, then I’d probably plum for Powerpop. Although, ask me next week and I’ll most likely tell you something different. I think each of the 3 promo EP's released so far contrast from their predecessors.
There's nothing contrived about the songs, some of them I’ve had hanging about for years.
It all feels very natural. The current batch I’m working on differ again.
Any apparent Mod influence probably comes from a healthy Who obsession. I must have. Subconsciously I've probably had it away with a chord or three!

Musicians appear to be stuck in a sort of no mans land, Shafted by the major labels who will always only offer the smallest slice of the pie, fans who would rather download than actually part with cash for the music, and venues that seem to think that you guys should pay them to entertain people.
So as you have put everything the Tonighters have recorded up for free download what's your angle on the current music business?
B - Recently, I received a mailing list message, from a small, independent band, stating that due to their forthcoming CD having been leaked onto the net the loss of revenue means they were unable to go on the road to promote it.
Fair enough, but I've mates, themselves musicians, who download stuff illegally then blow a gasket when no-one pays for their music?
For me I think you can't have it both ways. You can't have a pop at something you freely do yourself.
Personally my reason for putting the Tonighters recordings up for free download was simply to get the material out there.
The hard copy EP's (which are also free) are released in very limited runs and are gone overnight. If the downloads weren't there then I would be limiting the audience.
I will say that I do fuckin' hate itunes and downloads in general.
I avoid them as much as possible .. but if that's one of the ways music is going to be distributed and the artist wants paid, then people are gonna have to put their hands in their pockets.
So the download issue is a no-brainer really!
That saying it seems obvious that the major labels appear to have bailed when it comes to seriously investing in new music.
There seems to be no life beyond the repackage.
I'm hoping that if it is back in the hands of the artists and independent labels, then, fingers crossed, we may see an upturn in quality and some level of solidarity.

Are you going to cave in and take the Tonighters out on the road instead of just seeing it all as a studio project?
B - It did get a live spin at David Bash’s I.P.O. Festival in Liverpool a while back, which was fun but I’ve resided myself to the fact that it's only ever destined to be a studio project.
That's were it's most comfortable.
Contrary to that, there's always the possibility the tunes may get a run out in some form or other, although I doubt within the context of a full band.
I'm actually in the process of putting a thing together with a couple of mates, The Surrenders, which is more of a pop/punk affair. There's a fair chance of that making an appearance before anything else.
You are just going to have to keep an eye on what is coming up.
The Tonighters have the usual myspace page although no one bothers hanging about there now, and a facebook presence.
As things happen the news will go on there.
So if anyone wants to pop along and clickety click on he like button then all I can say is pleased to meet you and I hope you like what you find.



  1. Boss, Bill's a mate of mine, nice guy & classy player, about time he had a bit of promo.
    Great blog too, diverse & informative.
    I shall be checking in regularly.

  2. Met Billy online many moons ago as part of a punk forum. Didn't hit it of initially, but he is one of the good guys.
    Love the Tonighters tunes. I really hope they get the exposure they deserve.


  4. Billy is a cool kid, class song writer and deserves to b heard ! He shud have let me in the hang ups, he's cool !

  5. What! No mention of the mighty 16 Forever? Surely Mr G's other contender for that coveted 'legendary status' award.