Interview By Ville Krannila & K.K. Downing / April 2007
The long standing British mainstays Magnum have just released a brand new masterpiece “Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow.” Their singer Bob Catley has during the last 10 years also issued several excellent solo albums, latest being 2006’s “ Spirit Of Man” out on Frontiers Records. Steel Mill prepared some questions for the legendary vocalist and he was happy to answer.
Ville: First off, I have to ask, where did the name “Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow”originally came from?
Well, “Princess Alice” – idea came from an orphanage in Birmigham many years ago, in the 19 th century. It was called Princess Alice Orphanage. And Tony Clarkin was doing some research on this because he had a connection to it through a distant relative. He kept talking about “Princess Alice” – this and “Princess Alice” – that, and eventually it encouraged him to write a song, that kicked off more songs and that’s how the album got started. It turned Princess Alice into a fictional character, a little girl who’s on the album cover. All the artwork is built around her.
So is “Princess Alice” a concept-record?
The artwork is conceptual but I don’t know about the album itself. Most of the songs aren’t connected at all, really. They have stories going on within the framework of the songs. The only connection is between one of the tracks and the artwork, actually. It is called “Like Brothers We Stand,” which is about the Native American Indians who all those years ago had to do deals with the white man, to retain their lands. There were lot of broken promises and double-dealings and all that. They had to make peace with them as in “breaking the arrow” – which was a peace symbol. And Princess Alice is breaking an arrow over her head in the artwork. So that’s the concept there, really. But there’s also a little story on the album cover. Princess Alice’s there and she’s doing a deal with the evil, sly fox on the table. He’s stolen these children, kidnapped them and put them in the cages in the back of the hall.
Yeah, I think it will be compared to “Storyteller’s Night,” definitely. It’s certainly got that same feeling again, same artist Rodney Matthews has done the artwork, the title…it’s a classic Magnum title and a classic Magnum album, I believe. I think and hope it’s going to do well, everybody seems to like it so far. We’ll go on tour later in the year and we’ll do Europe in May. The main body of the tour is in UK and Germany. We’ve got couple of other countries,The new album has been viewed being in the same vein as legendary “On A Storyteller’s Night..”
Belgium, France, Switzerland and we’ll do festivals in the summer. Plus more shows in the autumn in other countries, places we didn’t get to the first time around.
So obviously You will play some new songs as part of the set?
We’re probably going to do about five new songs. That’s a lot for people to take in, but we are very proud of the new material and want to play as many as we can within the show. We’ll do a lot of older songs as well, of course.
Back to “ On A Storyteller’s Night” did you know when you were making it that it was going to be something special or was it just another album for You?
Oh, It was just another album. It was a set of songs where Tony was trying to reach a wider audience. We’d done okay before, but it was a bit limited in its sales figures around the world. So we needed an album full of songs that would catch people’s attention. Catchier, more commercial you know – less heavy, more in style of normal rock. But having said that, there’s also couple of heavy songs on that album, “How Far Jerusalem” of course, “ Les Mort Dansant” and “All England’s Eyes…” We still retained our heavier elements but wanted to open up to a lot more people so that’s why I think the songs are catchier on that album.
Also production on earlier albums like “The Eleventh Hour” lacked somewhat, although the songs were for the most part, really good. Do You agree?
Yeah, it wasn’t quite there. I thought “Chase The Dragon” was okay, Jeff Clixman did a fine job at the time. But then we did “The Eleventh Hour” which Tony produced himself and it had limitations in the studio…although the songs were good. On “Storyteller’s Night” we had a much better studio, and we got a guy in called Kit Woolven who had more to play with and was a slightly better producer anyway. I think nowadays we have moved to even better production techniques and Tony takes all the credit for producing the albums now. He learned a lot over the years watching what Keith Elson, Roger Taylor from Queen and Dave Richards were doing. Tony was Richards’ sidekick and came up with a lot of things on the “ Vigilante” album. I think Tony has got really good as a sound guy and record producer. So we haven’t really needed an outsider for it, Tony’s doing a great job.
There are certain songs like “Kingdom Of Madness” you always have to do live, how do You keep it interesting after 30 years of playing it?
Well, Tony gets a bit bored playing it, but I keep saying “come on, we got to do it! I’ve written it down, it’s in the show, and we’re going to do it, goddamit!” And he goes: “aw..alright then.” So he started doing it a bit grudgingly but he kind of accepts now that’s what everyone wants. I mean people expect it; it’s what they want to hear. There are certain songs that every time we tour, we must do; as in “Kingdom Of Madness,” as in “Vigilante…” There are certain cornerstones for a Magnum show and “ Kingdom Of Madness” is one of them, “How Far Jerusalem” is another one, “Les Mort Dansant” is a cornerstone, so is “Vigilante.” And I think a lot of the new songs will turn into cornerstones for the show in the future.
It seems the band is on a roll as the second come back album “Brand New Morning” was an exceptional effort and improved greatly from previous “Breath Of Life?”
Yes, the last album was a nice one. It took “Breath Of Life” to get back into it, really. And then we had“Brand New Morning,” which was Tony at his best. And now “ Princess Alice” has just exceeded everybody’s expectations and I’ve never heard him write so many good songs, ever. I’m really pleased with it.
As a vocalist You are singing Tony Clarkin’s lyrics? Do You ever want to change anything? Do You have to “get” the songs before You can sing them?
Yeah, I do have to get the point first, before anybody else. We talk about it and we make sure there is a point to the song and it makes sense. You see lyrics don’t come all at once, they come slowly over the recording of the album and they are changing all the time. So we’ll look into words and change them if required. I have to understand exactly what I’m singing and what the songs are saying. If I can’t make sense of it myself, how can I expect anyone else to make sense of it either? So we always agree on lyrics and it becomes easy to sing them once I know what I’m saying, I can really put my heart and soul into it. If I’m not quite sure what it means, it’s a bit feeble really.
You also have a strong, personal style of performing live on stage..
Yes, my left hand is my microphone- hand and my right hand is for drinking beer and also expressing the words, hehe! So my right hand has two uses: standing on the bar, slurping and also – I suppose you could call it sign language that I’ve made up myself over the years. I kind of sign the words as I’m singing. I don’t even know I’m doing it sometimes, it just comes naturally.
And everybody takes the piss out of me and does all that crap crossing myself thing…I’m not blessing the audience but it looks as though I am! I’m not a very religious person; I’m just trying to express the lyrics in a hand movement. That’s what I do. And I like to really make sure that everybody in the audience knows what I’m singing about. I tend to sing into people’s faces as well, I’ll pick up somebody and sing to their eyes. And I won’t move from them for probably half the song. I think it embarrasses them; it’s usually women I think I pick on. “Right, I’m going to sing to you now!” And they tend to look away: “is he really singing to me?” So I can get pretty personal when I’m on stage. I can’t stand there and look at my watch.
The music of Magnum does require it as well, I can’t imagine You standing still and performing those songs..
Well, that’s what I’ve been used to all my life. I feel that with Tony’s songs in Magnum and I also feel that with my solo albums, when I work with other song writers I expect the same from them. I can’t do their songs unless they mean a lot to me and I can express them on record and on stage as well. So they know what I expect from them and I’ve been very lucky so far.
On to Your solo albums, You started off with brilliant “The Tower” in 1998, that was the album that sort of surprised everyone. Most people knew You and the quality of Your work from Magnum, but I remember being amazed at the greatness of that record when first hearing it..
Well, you never can tell what to expect until you hear it. I think Gary Hughes came up with some really good songs for my solo albums, not just one album but three. The third one was written with “Lord Of The Rings” in mind, called “Middle Earth” which I thought was the best out of the three lyrically and content wise. It was a shame we had to finish working together but I think he’d had enough, he had gone as far as he could with me.
Well, he’s obviously a busy guy, and You did work with him again on his “Once And Future King” -project?
Yeah, he is busy. And I did sing on his King Arthur album, I did a song there called “In Flames” which I thought was a great song. I’d like to work with the guy again in the future but that’s up to him, really.
How was the idea of recording “The Tower” originally born?
We had a meeting, actually in the pub I’m sitting in right now with K.K. This was 10 years ago and I haven’t been here since then. It was my manager, Annie Minion and the record label at the time, Now & Then Records which was Mark Ashton and Bruce Mee. Gary’s band Ten were on that label, they were doing very good and were the best selling artist on Now & Then. So my manager asked me, would I fancy working with this guy called Gary Hughes. I was in a band called Hard Rain with Tony Clarkin at the time. I had never done a solo record and I had never worked with other people than Tony before. So it was a new experience for me. And it worked great, Gary came up with a lot of great songs for “The Tower” album and it all sounded really good. On my solo tours I still do many songs off it, like “Scream”and “Dreams…”
There were many excellent songs on it. “Deep Winter” is another great track…
Oh, I never did “Deep Winter” actually. It’s a good song, I might have done it once but that’s about it. I do a mixture of my solo stuff; I’ve got five albums to choose from so it’s not hard to put a show together. They are all great songs, you know.
Next two of Your albums were written by Paul Hodson and Vince O’Regan, two different composers but yet somehow both of them still sound like Bob Catley..
Yes, that’s because I choose the songs and put my voice on them. I have to be totally committed to singing the song; it can’t be like “Oh, this is not a very good song but I’ll sing it anyway,” because you are going to get a rubbish performance. I have to feel the song and I have to love it instantly, otherwise I don’t want it on the album.
So You want to record more solo albums?
Yeah, I plan to. If that’s wanted by a record company, if I can get a deal for it. I’m at Frontiers Records at the moment and they want me to work with this chap from Sweden called Magnus Karlsson. He’s started to send me some demos to listen to and we are talking about them now. So that’s going to be going on for most of this year, should be finished by the end of the year and should be out some time in the next.
When doing a solo tour, do You play your own songs exclusively live or do have Magnum stuff in the set as well?
Well yes, I tend to play a couple of Magnum songs. People do expect it. It’s very hard to keep it separate because I am the singer of Magnum and a lot people are there because of that reason. I do the songs willingly, but one or two at the most. Otherwise it ends up being a Magnum show and I’m not there to compete with that. It is supposed to be a solo show, but it does get a bit confusing some times.
What is your favourite song to sing live from all your recorded material?
“Les Mort Dansant.” If I had to pick one and one only, that would be the one. It’s a very emotional song.
The song tells a touching war story…
Well, it’s about any war really. Where you’ve had enough of the guns and can’t take it anymore, you are trying to run away but then you get caught and shot as a deserter. That’s what the song’s about.
Also everyone can relate to it, as war is something almost every country has gone through at some time or another.
Yeah, it happens all the time. It doesn’t matter what century you are talking about. War is war and people have enough of it. They don’t want it anymore. But that’s called desertion and you get put up against a post and shot.
Ok, that about wraps it up! Any last greetings to the viewers of K.K. Downing’s Steel Mill?
Hello everybody, hope you enjoy the new album “Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow” – come and see us on tour if you can. We are coming around to a town near you in May. Thanks for sticking by Magnum all these years and speak to you later!
Thanks a lot Bob, best of luck in the future!
Bye bye, thanks!