Back on home turf………..
On the last date of their current European tour Bob Catley (vocals) and Rick Benton (keyboards) kindly agreed to spend some time prior to the show with MR’s Andrew Manning to provide an update on all things Magnum.
MR: Many thanks for taking some timeout to talk to Midlands Rocks. It is really appreciated as I know today will be really hectic for you and you are at the end of a long tour which must be physically draining. So how are you?
Bob: Well we are really looking forward to tonight’s show which will be very special for us and for the occasion we have some guests joining us on stage for a couple of tracks and then the encore. There is Tobias Sammet (Avantasia/Edguy), Lee Small (Shy) and Rebecca Downes, who is our opening act tonight.
I didn’t get much sleep last night as we were travelling from Spain and it took the best part of two and a half days to come back on the bus to Birmingham. It was really hot in the bunk and so I haven’t had enough kip really which as you can hear is affecting my voice. But here we are at the Birmingham Symphony Hall and you have got to be the best you have ever been.
MR: That must be really frustrating for you as an artist to get to a situation where your instrument, which is your voice, is not feeling in great condition.
Bob: Oh absolutely. Today’s soundcheck probably hasn’t helped as it was a bit long for me. A couple of Jack Daniels later will do the trick and I will be fine for the show.
MR: A lot of vocalists go through the routine on the day of the show of not talking to anyone to preserve their voice. Is that something you have ever done?
Bob: No…. that’s quite ignorant really (laughing)
Rick: You are too busy doing interviews
MR: Congratulations on your latest album ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’ I think it is absolutely stunning and you must be extremely pleased with the way it has been received. It has gone down so well both across Europe and in the UK.
Bob: Yes, it got to number 15 in the main UK album charts, number 8 in the main German album charts, number 22 in the Swedish album charts. Also it was brilliant to see it at number 1 in the indie label charts.
MR: Do you still get a buzz out of chart placings because going back many years you have obviously had chart success and I was wondering if you are a little bit long in the tooth for such things now.
Bob: No it is great. I still get all excited. I can’t believe we are still at a popular level after all these years. In fact I think we are even more popular now than we have been in a long long time. The music is getting better as we get older and we have got a better line up now. Even though we have had some great line ups in the past. With the addition of Rick Benton and Lee Morris (drums) it is a really good feeling to be in Magnum at the moment. We all get on so well and Rick comes up with so many great ideas for the keyboards. Tony Clarkin (guitar) has had to handle all the songwriting in the past but now this guy comes in and really contributes as well as being a great player.
Rick: That will be another 20 quid I owe you.
MR: Rick, I remember back to the day that I heard you had joined the band thinking wow you must have learned the set pretty damned quickly. How much notice did you have before the first gig?
Rick: Well, I had a load of phone calls overnight which I had missed because I was fast asleep. So I woke up about 8 o’clock in the morning and Mark Stuart Magnum’s tour manager, who is an old friend of mine, had left a voicemail asking me to contact him as soon as possible. So I rang him and he said “how quickly could you learn the Magnum show?” I said “How long have I got?” to which he replied “What are you doing tonight?” I told him I was gigging but could make tomorrow night and asked him why and he just said “Great we will meet you in Wolverhampton”. It was as quick as that really. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know any of the material because I have been following the band since I was in sixth form. So in reality I had about 24 hours to get it all together.
MR: How did you feel after the first performance was over?
Rick: I had felt really happy all day but exceptionally ecstatic to have got through it and to be then told to get on the bus because we are going up to Scotland now. It has been a wonderful experience.
MR: Kind of a dream come true?
Rick: Oh absolutely.
MR: I really do feel that going back to what Bob said a moment ago about the new album that you and Lee have added a new dynamic to the sound.
Bob: Yes everybody is saying the same thing.
MR: It is such a strong release and there are many bands that have been around a long time who produce average soundings albums but this is quality music from start to finish. It must be very difficult to decide what to include in the set.
Bob: Well yes, you have done the album and lived with it and then setlist time comes up. You start off by thinking in your head we should do the whole album because it’s one of the best things we have ever done. But then you think hang on we had better put some old ones in because the fans will kill us if not. So you widdle it down and we went down to five new songs and then chopped it down to four. I guess that is about right because then you have got recent tracks to include from the past few years that were new on the last tour which are now crowd favourites and then you have got the old stuff which are everybody’s favourites because they are so well known. You can’t really win and keep everyone happy.
MR: Before the tour started many weeks ago there were two tracks that I particularly hoped you would play from the new record. You have included one of them on the tour but the one missing from the set, which is a great track, is ‘Welcome to the Cosmic Cabaret’. Maybe you will be able to play that on a future tour.
Bob: Well I think that is a future contender along with ‘Storm Baby’ which could also be in there. It will be a different show next time because it has to be. You need to keep things fresh because you don’t want to become too predictable and people thinking is it worth going to see them again because you always get the same. We are going on tour in November and that will be a little bit different as well. The plan is to do some shows at the end of the year in the UK and possibly Germany as well as one gig in Greece that we could be doing but that is as much as I can say at the moment.
Rick: There is one show that has already been announced that is in Troon in Scotland.
Bob: However the next full on tour will probably be in a couple of years time which will be quite different again.
MR: From a fan’s perspective we like to see something a little bit different each time with a smattering of classics in the set. I think the title track of the recent album is already one that deserves to be added to the list of favourites.
Bob: I think it will be in the set for a long time. It is so good and so catchy. It already goes down so well that I can’t see us leaving it out for ages.
MR: I hope not. In terms of the orchestra on the track how did you find them?
Bob: The conductor Wolf Kerschek is from Germany and he uses Czech Republic players. Tony and I did something called Rock Meets Classic last year which was billed as Magnum but was only the two of us because that was all there was room for. So we played with Wolf and this orchestra of about 50 young people. We really loved doing it even though we could only do about four songs. When that tour was over Tony mentioned to Wolf that we had a track called ‘Lost On The Road To Eternity’ which currently had keyboard strings on it but we would love to replace them with the real thing. We felt it was good as it was but would become even better with a real orchestra on it. So he said send me the track and he scored it all out. A core of the string section then recorded their section and it now sounds great. It creates another lift to the record. Also we have got Tobias Sammet who I know very well having performed with his band in the past. So we have now reversed the polarity with him now singing for us. He is a massive Magnum fan and when asked about contributing he said yes please I would love to do it.
MR: Is he the first guest vocalist on a Magnum song?
Bob: I think he is on record. We have had people sing with us on stage before.
MR: I am so pleased you have been able to return to Birmingham in the sunshine because we have such a contrast in the weather today compared to 2nd March when snow resulted in the cancellation of the gig scheduled to take place at the Town Hall. On that particular day what was your journey like from Belfast where you had played the previous evening?
Rick: It was pretty bad but we did make it in good time. By 7pm the stage had been set up and we had sound checked and we were ready to go. We were looking forward to the show because there were family members coming along to see us play as it was a home town gig. I think the decision that was made was based on the fact that the railway station had been closed and the buses stopped. So there was a real public safety concern about how people would get home after the gig. The whole of Birmingham was just closing down.
MR: It put you in a very difficult situation. A real no-win situation.
Bob: I am sure some people were not very pleased but it was out of our hands.
Rick: Although it was no real compensation for the fans who had arrived at the venue and not seen a show we did go down and meet everyone at the bar to say hello and apologise. It was lovely that we got to meet a lot of fans to try and explain the situation to them. They were very understanding.
MR: Reading social media sites at the time there was some real positive feedback about the band talking to the fans on the night. This is something you have always been renowned for and it really helps create a strong bond between the group and the fans.
Bob: If you can’t talk to somebody over a pint in the pub or in the street or wherever then you don’t deserve their loyalty and love if you just brush them off. It would be so sad because you would effectively be throwing the music back in their face and that would be a terrible day if that happened.
MR: And there is a lot of loyalty shown by the Magnum fans.
Bob: They are brilliant. We are so lucky. It just keeps getting better and better.
MR: How has the European tour gone? Has it gone according to plan?
Rick: Better I would say. It has been absolutely crazy. Audience reactions have been phenomenal and they have shown real genuine support. Most of the venues have been sold out and it has been lovely meeting fans from all over the place. So many times you walk out on stage and there are 20-30 people you instantly recognise who have travelled to see you in the Czech Republic, Poland, the UK etc. It just makes it feel like a big family.
Bob: Everybody has been so nice on this tour. We have definitely attracted some new fans which is fantastic. In fact our audiences have been increasing this year which is a good feeling for ongoing Magnum plans. We are in a very good place now.
MR: I was thinking back to my younger days and the first time I became aware of Magnum was from listening to the Friday Night Rock Show on Radio 1. A recording of your set from the 1980 Reading Festival was being played and you introduced ‘Sacred Hour’ as being a track from your new album. Month after month went by and still the new album didn’t come out. That must have been a frustrating time for the band. Do you recall what actually happened?
Bob: It was down to record company issues. We would record something and it would take two years to come out. I will mention no names here. It was just so slow and contrasts completely with Steamhammer/SPV our great record label now. Looking back it was difficult. We might do a ten date tour and when it was over that was literally it for the year. It was like nothing is happening here and it got to the point where we were just losing interest. Of course after ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ it all changed. We had finally signed with labels who wanted us to be successful. They put everything behind the band and the videos started. Proper tours and decent venues started to come along. So pre 1985 it was not so good.
MR: Well thank you on behalf of all Magnum fans for persevering back in the old days. Tonight is going to be wonderful seeing you at the Symphony Hall and I wish you all the very best. I am sure the show will be a great climax to the European tour and I really appreciate you taking some time out to have a chat to me.
Bob: Thank you and yes we are really looking forward to tonight.