MAGNUM – Al Barrow Interview

  British band Magnum has been going for over 40 years. The band generated a big following in their homeland and throughout Europe, but few tours or a big commercial breakthrough in North America has kept the band at a distance; so the band has remained a mystery to many rock fans here. For myself, Magnum was a band I’d heard of but never really heard until I received a copy of 2009’s Into The Valley Of The MoonKing – and I loved that album and have kept up with releases since then (still got plenty of back catalogue to fill in though!). The band consists of original members Bob Catley (vocals), Tony Clarkin (guitars/ songwriting), Harry James (drums) and Al Barrow (bass). The band is currently without a keyboard player as longtime member Mark Stanway recently left the band, and has reformed Grand Slam.

Al Barrow joined the band when Magnum reformed in the early 2000s, and has played on every album since then. Barrow is also a photographer and has played a key roll in the band’s album covers and / or lay outs since their return.  The band’s brand new release is a collection of ballads titled “The Valley Of Tears”, which features a fantastic cover shot and designed by Al as well.  In this interview Al Barrow gives us details on his joining the band way back, as well as how the band works, some insight into the songwriting of Tony Clarkin, his album designs, and his favorite albums from his youth and his current listening! 

Enjoy the read!

for more on Magnum, go to http://www.magnumonline.co.uk  and http://www.spv.de

What sort of stuff did you grow up on in the late 70s / early 80s? can you give me a few fave bands or players?

Well the early 70`s I was very young but I was surrounded by my elder siblings who were very much into music at that time. We have quite a musical family. My great-grandfather, I was told was quite well known for playing in the Old Musical Halls around the UK. I must research that more and find out about him. My mother had a fantastic voice and sang in local choirs and shows. So coming into the 80`s my sister and brother had jumped into the rock scene quite heavily and had been in bands and formed their own bands along the way. So you can imagine in our house there was a lot of music played and being listened to.

One thing that does stick out in my mind was one afternoon I asked my brother if I could listen to one of his albums, he was a little reluctant as younger brothers break things. lol

He did let me and that was the start of it. The album was 90125 by Yes released in ’83 I think. Even though this was not out and out rock it had some pop feel to it so it was quite accessible for a new music fan. With Trevor Rabin & Chris Squire I found the mix of technology and rock was interesting to me at that time. It was then a natural progression from there. I would sneak out with my brother record collection and listen to what the world had to offer. The next album I found was to change my life completely – Moving Pictures by Rush. That was it, I was sold. I wanted to be a bass player! This sparked my interest in the progressive side of rock and more so bass players. I spent the next few years locked away learning every album note of note that Rush had to offer. I also found Thin Lizzy, Asia and Genesis at this time.

As I grew older my choices took a bit of a curve. I fell into grunge for some reason. I think I was looking for lyrical content and as I was a young teenager with teenage issues like everyone else, I found it in bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Live. Saying this, whenever I would go to a rock venue I was always gravitating back towards the classic rock material I had grown up with.

Something you may move away from but deep down those classic bands stay with you for life, returning to them from time to time is fun & nostalgic in so many ways.

 

Can you give a Top 10 list of favorite albums from your youth?

  • Rush: Moving Pictures, 2112. Grace Under Pressure, Signals, Power Windows, Roll The Bones, Exit Stage Left, Show of Hands & Presto.
  • Yes: Big Generator, 90215
  • Journey: Escape, Raised on Radio.
  • Asia: Asia, Alpha, Aqua.
  • Genesis: Genesis, Invisible Touch.
  • Thin Lizzy: Live and Dangerous, Black Rose, Chinatown.
  • Pearl Jam: Ten, Vitalogy.
  • Winger: In the Heart Of The Young, Pull.
  • Mr Big: Lean into It, Mr Big.
  • Thunder: Back Street Symphony, Laughing On Judgement Day, Behind Closed Doors, The Thrill of It All.
  • Peter Gabriel: So, Up, Secret World.
  • Dream Theatre: Images & Words
  • Tyke: Don’t Come Easy, Strength in Numbers.

 

You joined Bob and Tony in Hard Rain – How familiar were you with them at that point?

I had never met them. I did however stand behind them on stage once at Greenbelt Festival. My brother was playing in a band called Getsemenane Rose. Magnum had come to line check and I stood behind Mickey and Wally to watch. That was it really.

I was working with a guy name Paul Hodson in a studio in Walsall and he gave me a phone call and asked if I was free to do a short tour with some guys. I said I will meet them and see how it goes. No idea it was Bob and Tony. I walked in the studio met Bob and chatted for five. Then Tony came in and said “Hello lets go to the pub!”. That was it really. We chatted for a bit and had a few drinks and Tony said see you at rehearsals next week. I had to go out and buy all new gear as I had not got anything tour worthy at that time. So I took a gamble and spent a couple of grand on a new bass and amps. I turned up to rehearse and played a few Hard Rain songs. Then we all went to the pub…again. At the end of the day Tony said you can come back if you like tomorrow. I think that was my audition and I am glad it worked out ok. lol

We did a short tour and another album as Hard Rain and then a bit of a break. I went on tour with Bob as he had me do a few solo ideas with him, then I got the call to say we are putting Magnum back together are you up for it, I said “erm ok i suppose”. 

Tony writes all the songs in Magnum…. How does he present a song to the band and how does it develop in to what’s on the finished album?

He spends months and months working at home on his basic ideas. He then gets them to a point where he transfers all his files over to the main hard drives at Mad Hat Studios in Wolverhampton. At this point he will get Bob to sing may be a few lines form a chorus just to get the key right. I might do a few guides if Bob is away just so Tony can carry on building the ideas. It then gets to a point that he has basic song structure. Very basic drums and guitars and keys which he has put down. He puts it all down on a CD to give to the rest of us. It is mainly me Bob and Tony along with Sheena the engineer in the studio for the first few months while these ideas come together. Then once the song has a set structure Harry will come down after learning the rough idea of the song to do his drum takes. Tony will ask him to do one pass as he has shown him on the demos so he has real drums but a basic structure. Then he says to Harry do what ever you want to do now. Harry will pretty much nail the entire album in less than a week. Most times doing one pass and nailing it on the first go. But he always does more so we have some variations to work on. The songs will constantly change as they progress. Then I will put the bass down. Same idea, Tony will ask for what he needs which as very basic simple line. Then I get a week or so to do what I want, but to be very honest with you, the simple lines work well with Magnum, it`s the song and the melody that is important in this band not playing all over the shop on the bass just to make me look fancy. Then guitars go down along with keyboards. Same kind of way.

The structure of the songs and feel of the song change so much when the vocals and backing vocals are put down. Here we will spend probably the majority of the time recording. Me and Bob doing vocals together over the next few months as Tony writes the lyrics.  It`s not the usual way I am sure and many bands record in a different way but it works for Magnum and us as musicians so long may that continue.

What do you know of Tony’s writing – as in what he writes about or draws ideas from? Is there ever discussion on what particular tracks are about in the studio ? [i.e.: does he present a song and explain any meaning or vision?]

Before any day at the studio starts we spend a good while talking about what we have seen on TV, movies, books and conversations we have had or heard. Tony will talk about what is happening in the world and how he feels and these conversations often lead to discussions and ideas for songs. Tony watches a lot of TV and reads a Hell of a lot. The world around him influences him in so many ways, but the idea of a song can come from the most simple conversation or a very boring situation but something sparks him to write about it. He is very history based in a lot of his ideas. I think he watches a lot of history channel stuff, lol

But he may start one idea and it grows very rapidly into to something else. He usually starts with a hook line or a chorus and then the song develops from there.

You are also in to photography and have done a few album covers. Aside from the Magnum covers, have you done many other band’s album covers?

I have done a few Magnum covers and if not the cover I design the booklets and all the inside of the album also. T-shirts, web site you name it if it has Magnum on it since 2002 it was probably me that designed it I would think. lol.

I usually do a lot of the photography for the band but lately it has been better to bring in some help and we have used a few guys over the past few years that have taken the pressure off me a little.

I also work for other record labels. I have designed many album covers for a lot of bands. I also do designs for their merchandise and branding. Working for big labels is fun as they give you the budget upfront and a good brief. But getting paid by them is another matter. I much prefer to work directly with a band and a smaller label and this give me a little more creative freedom to work with the band members and get closer to the ideas that they want. I love working with unsigned bands as they have very little budget and are very passionate about what they want to achieve. They have strong ideas and this floats my boat more than bigger labels and artists that have little or no say in what the design will be.

I have provided photos for many other bands as well, I like shooting live concerts and have had the pleasure of shooting some of my favorite artists over the past few years.

Regarding the Magnum covers you’ve done, can you tell us a details about each one – Breathe of Life, Brand New Morning [a fantastic shot], and the latest Valley Of Tears – such a stunning pic and atmosphere around it.

Ahhh…Breath of Life. LOL. I can’t even look at that. I was new to photoshop and that album was put together by Tony and me sitting in the pub trying to learn the application and trying ideas. Tony would say, I want this floating eye and some hands painting a picture etc… I would say OK and then have to figure a way of doing it. It was very rough and I said we can make this better in many ways but Tony said he liked how it looked and that was what he wanted to use. I asked, are you sure,? We can do better than this but he liked the mosaic feel to it all. So he is the boss. (lol) But I look at it with a touch of fondness & regret as I recall sitting in the pub for many hours on a borrowed laptop putting ideas together, it was learning curve for both of us.

Brand New Morning… Again Tony gives me a brief. He asked for a weird landscape with junk everywhere. Some scarecrows included and the moon. Ok i thought I can do that.

The photo was taken at a scrap yard in Walsall, not far from where I lived. The silhouette of the scarecrows were actually Bob. We spent a day in the studio making Bob up and dressing him as a scarecrow. It was a lot of fun for us but i don’t think Bob was so amused, lol. 

We came away with some very interesting shots of Bob that day. We wanted it to be less obvious that the scarecrows was Bob so we ended up only using his back and the silhouettes of him in the end. The image of him as a robot scarecrow is available on the web somewhere. The crosses and birds were hand drawn in photoshop and added later along with the moon.

The Visitation… as with many album ideas there is weeks and weeks of discussions about ideas that never see the light of day. I work on all the ideas we have but eventually end up going down the road of one final idea. It’s a long process and it can be hard work and a tad frustrating at times but we always come up with a good idea we think works well in the end. This idea of the time piece was completely had drawn in Photoshop to start with. It was a broach that Tony used to wear on his jacket and can be seen in old photos and footage if you look closely. Photoshop had progressed quite a lot by this time and I was getting to grips with filters and layers more so these days. This was a lot of fun to work on as I had complete freedom on this cover. Although the front cover of the jewel case version has Rodney`s artwork Tony really wanted the box set to carry the timepiece design. We both wanted the Magnum logo to be black and only visible as you twist and turn the album but the record label said this would be hard to market and so we returned to the Wings Of Heaven logo for this album. The inside of the box set had some interesting photography work. I had this idea of multiple band members spending time together in a bar, again. I had no real idea how to do this before hand as we wanted to do the shot with an ultra wide panoramic photograph. I learnt a lot around this time from a lot of good people. There are also photographs taken by my wife Rachael on this album. She took the band shot for this album which is still one of my favorites.

I have also worked on a few compilations Magnum had on release – The River Sessions & Evolution. Tony said he wanted something very different for the DVD cover of “Living The Dream” ; One day on tour I had written in the dirt on the side of our tour bus the words “Livin The Dream”. He like the idea and said we should use that for the new cover. That was that really. We were lucky when reproducing the idea later we had a cobweb in the wheel arch which Tony loved and gave it an even more ironic slant on things. It was fairly easy to put the rest of that design together. Escape from The Shadow Garden Live was really quite easy to do. Tony just said show me some ideas. I had some fantastic live photos sent to me by many photographers and this gave me great scope and color range to work with.

The band usually has Rodney Matthews do covers, but the ones you’ve done are quite fitting. I’m curious how its been decided to pick your option or Rodney’s? as well you always have a hand in the design with additional photos, etc…

We all go through a lot of discussions with Bob and Tony. We meet up with Rodney and discuss ideas. There has been times when we have swapped over who does the front and who does the booklet covers , etc. More times than none it will be Rodney’s work on the cover as this is what the fans love to see. Magnum and Rodney do seem to have symbiotic relationship and have done for many years. I am happy to work on the inside and other areas of design. It can be a bit more free and open to change which I like.  I love working with Rodney and he is a real nice guy to spend time with.

I notice Jim Lea has a part in most Magnum albums. I presume this is the same Jim Lea from Slade? What’s the story behind his appearances?

I have known Jim for a very long time and even did some guide vocals for him back in the day when he was writing some new material. he is a very interesting guy, lots of stories, he literally is the guy who has been there and done that and has the t-shirt to show for it. He is the most amazing musician. Let alone being known for his bass playing and song writing in Slade he is a fantastic string player. He is quite simply a very inspiring man. I worked on some artwork for him as well… that reminds me he still owes me for that, lol.

We use the same studio for many years and often spend time chatting in the kitchen of all manor of subjects. Usually with Jim it always comes back the Beatles lol, he is obsessed with them. He is still writing and producing music at the studio. Tony often asks him to do some strings on the album when he feels real strings are needed. 

 Jim also appears stood in front of the moon on one of the Magnum booklets. 

Of the band’s older catalogue [pre reformation] – what are your favorites to perform and do you have any favorite songs you’d like to perform some day?

I have said how lucky I feel to be able to play some great music from a great back catalogue. I would love to play a lot of older songs but Tony and Bob are for ever wanting to move forward. You have to think they have been there and done that already. To me it would be like a new song to play live but they have played them on tour already. Tony says he still has a lot more to say and the music we record now & perform live and record reflect that. Moving forward all the time.

Not to say they don’t reflect on what they have done in the past, but really don’t want to be seen as a nostalgic band resting on their laurels and just playing the shows doing older hits. I would love to play “Back in Your Arms” live and may be the full album version of “The Spirit”. You never know what may come in the future.

In my little knowledge of the band’s history, I was under the assumption On A Storytellers Night was one of the band’s best known tracks, but I don’t see it in the live set [or on latter-day live albums]!? As a fan of that song and album – when was it last included and why isn’t it a mandatory standard?

I really can’t answer that for sure. I would say the last time I remember playing it was in 2005 as it was the anniversary tour of that album. Those shows were recorded and released as “Living the Dream” So I think 2005. May be it might make a comeback soon, who knows.

There have been so many great songs since the band reformed. Wondering if you could share any insight to some of your favorites?  [a few of mine would be Cry To Yourself, When We Were Younger, Brand New Morning, The Moon King, All The Dreamers, Live Til You Die, unwritten Sacrifice, The Art of Compromise, Sacred Blood, Gypsy Queen, Afraid of the Night, Forgotten conversation…. Geez…I should just do a list for another article]…

I have to say I love playing Black Tattoo live. It has a great riff and is heavy as hell and really gives me opportunity to just sit in the groove and supply the big rumble.

The past tours we have played a lot of new songs on the tours along with some of the classics. I love to play the classics, Vigilante, All England`s , etc. A couple of songs I really enjoy right now are “Unwritten Sacrifice” “Twelve Men” & “Your Dreams”.  All great songs. They are all simple songs to play live so this really allows me to get my harmonies on point and then just sit back and sit in the groove again and almost watch the rest of the band enjoy the song as well. “Sacred Blood” & “Crazy Old Mothers” go down so well, I enjoy seeing the crowd loving hearing those songs played live.

“Gypsy Queen” was one of my favorite Magnum songs and really wanted to play it live, but it just didn’t work as well live, so it never got to be played on stage to an audience. It’s great song though.

When a Magnum album is recorded , is there much in the way of any leftover tracks or alternate takes that aren’t too bad?

Anything that does not make it to the final album literally does go right in the trash, never to see the light of day again. There is a reason it did not make it that far and if it was not good enough then it was probably not good enough later on. That’s the general rule but the odd idea of the song may remain and get reworked to point it is very different but as far as complete songs being kept and used later is very unlikely. Out takes are only sent out to other band members to take the piss and that’s as far as they go. Thank goodness.

Where did the idea for Valley Of Tears come from? And how did you guys go about selecting tracks?  

The idea of the album was from a conversation Tony and his daughter had. She was saying to Tony – Magnum have so many great ballads you should do an album of them all. This was told to SPV as they had been asking for a book. Tony said he did not really like the idea of a book so would this ‘ballads’ release be ok instead. Everyone thought it was a great idea and it turned out to be well received. 

It was going to be a simple idea to execute but it turned out to be a monster all of it’s own. It took a lot of back and forth, long hours and blood sweat and tears. With everything Magnum try to do, average will never be good enough, we have to go to to the extreme in everything we do to give the fans the best we can offer. It has sold very well and charted high on suppliers sites such as Amazon, etc

Have all the tracks been remixed or any new studio recordings?

All the tracks got a lot of treatment. Some being recorded again some having total remastering and all of them got remixed. Some had new guitar parts and new vocals , etc. 

Is there any discussion on perhaps promoting the new CD in a mini-tour or something?

Right now we will be going back in to the studio to start to record the next studio album. Tony and Bob will be going on tour with Rock Meets Classic and then back to the studio for more recording. We have a few live shows planned for later in the year but it will be mostly time spent recording. There are no plans to do a ballads tour to support this album.

Mark Stanway recently left the band. Without getting into too much – was Mark’s departure a surprise and moving forward [as there is plans for a new album] – will the band be seeking a permanent replacement or carry on with guest players?  [any names or suggestions put forward?]

It was quite out the blue indeed. It was mid tour. We had just played a show and Mark chose to follow another path. It was a surprise to the rest of us. We respect his decision and wish him all the very best in whatever he does in the future. It was his choice and he posted this on his social pages. We had a to put the remaining shows of that tour together pretty much over night. Due to us having some amazing crew and studio engineers we were able to play the shows we had remaining on the short tour. We also had Rick Benton, a keyboard player learn the show in two days and sit in with us at Wolverhampton and Edinburgh and he did a fantastic job. Even though we used a computer to play the Irelands show I was happy with the results and the fans seemed to have a great night.     

Now we look forward to a new year and new songs. We don’t have plans set in stone just yet for what we will do as far as keys on the album and future live shows. Watch this space as they say.

The band has quite a following in the UK and Europe. Where are some of your strongest followings?

We always do very well in Germany and Scandinavia. UK does well and slowly but surely the ticket sales increase with each tour. We have noticed now that we almost have three generations of fans coming to the shows. Even the youngest fans know all the words of the songs and it is quite fantastic to look out some nights and see the entire family rocking out to Magnum tunes. Not many bands can say that. 

I don’t think Magnum has toured in North America since the mid 80s [!?]. Is Canada and the US still on the band’s radar, and what would it take [logistics, etc…] for the band to play over here?

I now live in USA and I will be receiving some CDs so I can try and get in touch with local radio stations and promoters over hear to see if we can get any interest in Magnum going. I live in Tennessee so it`s quite “country” but we can educate them I am sure. I have met a lot of Americans that have not heard of us of course but I have spread the word and I think we are gaining a small but passionate fan base. It`s early days but Rome was not built in a day.

What are some of your current favorite releases? Listen to a lot of music outside of the band?

Now if I told you what I have on my iTunes right now it would have many rock fans of the band running for them there hills, quite literally.

My wife and I spent a lot of time over the past years spending a lot of money travelling to this part of USA. We really like the new country rock music scene that this part of the country live and breath. I could list all of the bands and artists I follow now but it would not be recognised by many of the people reading this interview.

Then again, last tour we did had my iShuffle playing before the show and I got a few messages from fans saying how much they like how I had sneaked in some country rock and they were fans also, so may be I am not alone in this. I always go for a good production, a good singer and great lyrics and I find a lot of this in country rock. I do listen to some of the great Country names but I lean more towards the more modern, which I know is growing in popularity over in the UK also. So here are just a few then…

Tim McGraw, Hunter Hayes, Blake Shelton, Zac Brown Band, Justin Moore, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley…the list goes on.

What other projects [musically or photography] have you got on the go outside of Magnum?

I have been keeping myself busy with looking after the social media side of things with the Ballads launch. I have a few photographic things going on in USA but now I am looking forward to getting back in the studio with Bob, Tony and Harry soon. I am slowly trying to get a small recording set up here at home to start putting some ideas down. I have no idea what I am going to do or how that will pan out. Nothing written in stone or any rules to follow, so it really is an open book. After emigrating this time last year has opened my life up in so many ways. I have to be honest – it has taken some adjustments. This makes for some great ideas for some songs. You never really know what life will throw at you so you really have to grab it by the horns and go with it at times. it can be scary and exciting but never boring (LOL)

I would like to thank you for taking the time today to ask me some questions and I hope I have not bored you and the readers too much. Also a big thank you goes out to my wife Rachael for putting up with me. I hope it gives an insight in to Magnum and the people in the band. Also the plans we have & the passion we still feel for making new music. 

We thank you all for continued support. Last but not least, we are looking forward to seeing y’all on tour some time really soon I hope. 

A massive thank you to my Magnum, family-band & crew.

Cheers Al Barrow.

 

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