Many years ago, I came across a band called The Whisky Priests, who were quite unlike any other group I had ever heard. Led by Gary Miller and his twin Glenn, the band epitomized the working life of the miner, and their passion and honesty was raw and vital. I was fortunate enough to catch them at one of their rare London gigs, and we soon became friends. Over the years I have kept in touch with Gary, who sends parcels all the way to Aotearoa, and I still love his music and attention to detail. All his music is easily available on Bandcamp, and for the first time since we first met some quarter of a century ago, here is an interview which in many ways is the definitive story of Gary, his music and his life. If you are already a fan then this is indispensable, and if not, you will be by the time you finish reading this.
Kevin Rowland: What inspired you and Glenn to pick up instruments in the first place, what was it like growing up?
Gary Miller: The first ‘instruments’ I remember us picking up were a toy trumpet and a toy drum at the age of about 2 or 3 years old and marching ’round the living room making a hell of a racket to the sound of my Dad’s military band albums.
We grew up in a small ex-mining village called Sherburn, three miles east of Durham City, which was like a great adventure playground to us, with moors and woods and a beck (little stream) which encircled the village in a horse-shoe shape and gives Sherburn its name (it means “bright stream”). Growing up, we were rarely indoors, there was just too much fun to be had outside. We were always getting into trouble. My Mother lived in Sherburn Village all her life and, along with her brother, my Uncle Tom, owned and ran the village grocer’s shop, which they had inherited from my maternal grandfather. Once Glenn and me were born, she gave that up to become a full-time mother and housewife, whilst my uncle continued the business on his own, but because of her time spent working in the grocer’s shop and having spent all her life in the village, literally everyone in the village knew her. To compound matters, my Dad taught Mathematics and Careers at the village Secondary Modern school, so everyone in the village knew him as well. Being part of a well-known family and being identical twins made Glenn and me anything but anonymous in the village, so we could never get away with anything!
My Dad was the youngest of three brothers. His two elder brothers, like their father, were coalminers. When my Dad was in his late teens, my Grandfather took what at the time must have been an unprecedented step as well as a huge sacrifice for the rest of the family. Witnessing how his two eldest sons had automatically followed him into the family tradition of working in the mines, which was a low-paid and awful job of work at that time, he determined that his youngest son would have the opportunity for a way out. Somehow, my Grandfather managed to save up and scrape together just enough money to pay for my Dad to go to college but only for a year, to complete a two-year teacher-training course in half the time. Because of what was at stake and the sacrifice involved, my Dad told me that he didn’t dare fail, so he succeeded and became a schoolteacher at the age of nineteen. This instilled in him a strong work ethic, which he passed on to Glenn and me.
Coming from a Durham mining family, through many generations, brass band music was a big thing. Every year, our parents would take Glenn and me to the Durham Miners’ Gala (also known by its nickname ‘The Big Meeting’). Mingling with the crowds and watching the magnificent colliery banners and listening to the glorious uplifting sounds of the colliery brass bands as they proudly marched past, heads held high, made a deep and indelible impression on my young imagination.
My two paternal Great-Uncles, Joseph (Joe) and George Mains were colliery bandsman. My Dad harboured a dream of Glenn and me following in his two uncles’ footsteps by becoming brass band musicians ourselves but we weren’t keen on the idea, as it didn’t interest us at the time. My Dad was disappointed, but he never pushed the matter.
At junior school, after learning to play recorder with the rest of the class, Glenn and me were taught viola but neither of us really took to it. Again, it simply didn’t interest us at the time, particularly as we both felt we had been pushed into it.
On reaching Comprehensive school at the age of 13, we finally discovered a deep interest in music for ourselves, without being pushed or influenced in any way. We put a band together at school, with Glenn on keyboards and me on electric guitar and, even though we couldn’t really play, I started writing songs. It was really a way to try to do something rebellious and to express a lot of deep frustration through creativity. With a set made up of my earliest, long-forgotten songwriting attempts, and one or two covers, we played what can probably best be described as a hybrid style of punk and ska.
We rehearsed regularly but never graduated to playing live. In the meantime, while I was in the middle of studying for my ‘A’-levels, the British Miners’ Strike happened, amidst the closure of all of Britain’s major industries and alongside other atrocities perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher, including the Hunger Strike in Ireland and the Falklands War. This all affected me deeply and my songwriting took on a more direct and socially-aware aspect. In order to reflect this, I felt that the sound of the band had to become simpler and more direct, so I swapped my electric guitar for an acoustic and a bit later, Glenn switched from keyboards to accordion. On leaving school in 1985, this band of schoolmates morphed into a fledgling version of The Whisky Priests.
Your singing style is incredibly distinctive, why did you adopt that approach?
I didn’t consciously adopt any particular approach. I was initially a reluctant lead singer; I was more or less forced into the role because there was no-one else either willing or able to do it. Then again, as it seemed I had taken on the mantle of principle songwriter, I suppose it was logical that I should be the one to sing the songs anyway. When we started, none of us could really play, we were making it up and learning as we went along but that was what made it exciting and unique. For example, I always considered myself a songwriter first and a musician second. In fact, I still don’t really class myself as a particularly skilled musician, technically speaking. With me it’s more of an instinctive gift rather than something honed through practice. Early on, the music was so loud and raucous due to nobody having a clue what they were doing, the only way I could make myself heard above the din was to sing as loudly as possible (I was basically shouting), so I suppose my style grew unintentionally out of that. Post-Whisky Priests, my voice has become richer through age and I have become gradually more accustomed to singing in a much more relaxed and natural way, away from the clutter and clatter of The Whisky Priests. I feel that my singing is improving all the time. Even since the Mad Martins recordings, some of which were made as far back as 2013, I feel that the quality of my voice has improved a great deal and mellowed with age, though I would never really describe myself as a singer on a technical level either.
What was the original vision behind The Whisky Priests?
When I first got into music, I always wanted to be a songwriter, that was my main drive. I could never understand the concept of wanting to play in a covers band. I still can’t to this day. To me, it was always about the creativity and being unique as well as using music as a vehicle for my creativity and an outlet for all my emotions and personal frustrations.
The political and social climate of Britain in the mid-80’s helped to shape my early vision. It made me more deeply aware than I had ever been before of my regional heritage and I wanted to reflect that through creatively. I also had a passion for history and a fascination with people. I was a keen observer of life and that all fed into my creative approach.
It was important during this early stage that the songs were short and snappy with no unnecessary frills. The technical side of the music was less important than the energy and the passion. As a band of youthful mates, we were buzzing little balls of energy, all piss and vinegar, there was nothing gentle or delicate about our approach and what you saw was what you got. I also had the strong idea that a band should be like a gang on a mission, us against the world!
No-one had seen or heard anything like us before, we stuck out like sore thumbs. It confused a lot of people, they didn’t know what to make of us. In our native North East, we encountered a lot of resistance because we challenged people’s perceptions. In the long-run that worked in our favour as it pushed us beyond our local confines and stopped us falling into the trap of becoming a big fish in a small pond type of local band that never breaks out of its home region.
It was all very clear in my mind at the time, though, I had all these strong images in my head. It was a very visual thing. That’s how I write lyrics to this day, it plays out as scenes in my head, like a film.
Why did you set up your own record label from the beginning?
Well, our debut single, "The Collier”’, released in 1987, was financed by our first manager, a guy whose first name was Marek (I can’t remember his surname). How he came to manage us was through our appearance on ‘The Tube’ TV show. We met him and a guy called Jona Cox in the Tyne Tees bar afterwards. The two of them were aiming to set up a music industry management company together and were on the lookout for up and coming artists for their roster. Enter The Whisky Priests! Jona was the music specialist whilst Marek was the businessman with the money. It was all looking very promising until they quickly fell out and went their separate ways. As their management company was still in its early stages, they had only signed two acts to their roster; us and a duo (I can’t remember their name now). Marek and Jona agreed that they would each would take one act with them and would draw lots to see who ended up with who. Jona went off to become Head of A&R at the fledgling ‘Go Discs!’ taking the duo with him (I’m pretty sure they went on to have a couple of hits that just about scraped into the Top 40), whilst we got lumbered with Marek whose only further dabbling in the music industry was to open a record shop in Newcastle.
In the meantime, we recorded “The Colliery” at a studio in Middlesbrough called Teesbeat, owned by a guy called Dimmer Blackwell who produced and engineered it. I think we recorded it over two days and each morning he would arrive in a pair of fluffy slippers and a massive pair of baggy, multi-coloured pantaloons, he looked ridiculous! Well, after that, it was difficult to take the sessions seriously! Anyway, “The Colliery” was manufactured via Teesbeat and came out as part of their catalogue in a one-off pressing of about 1,000 copies, which we sold at gigs and on mail order. Shortly after that, we parted company with Marek, who, let’s face it, wasn’t much of a manager, but, to be fair, that single, which he financed, got us rolling.
In the meantime, Glenn and me had always been impressed by Jerry Dammers’ independent 2-Tone label and all the amazing things 2-Tone had achieved as an independent label throughout the early 80’s. It was all part of that D.I.Y. punk ethic of creating your own cottage industry, pioneered by the likes of the Buzzcocks with their “Spiral Scratch” EP, amongst others, which was very much in line with our own way of thinking. We always felt, if you want something doing right, do it yourself. So, it then seemed a no-brainer to set up a label of our own and to fully manufacture, release and promote the next release ourselves. We were young and highly self-motivated; we genuinely thought that we could achieve whatever we wanted and nothing and nobody could stop us. It was that naïve and youthful ideal of us against the world again.
Anyway, we realised we needed a name and a logo for the label. Growing up, I noticed that my Dad had loads of records on the legendary ‘His Master’s Voice’ (HMV) label and their iconic image of a terrier sat next to an old gramophone really stuck in my mind. I thought, tongue planted firmly in cheek, they’ve got a dog to promote their label, we should have a dog to promote ours too! So, I thought, what kind of dog might most be associated with Durham? Oh yeah, the whippet, why not call it Whippet Records? And the rest is history (laughs!).
WP have always had a very distinctive sound, with powerful lyrics, moving folk into the modern day. What were you trying to achieve?
I always had a very clear vision in my head of what I wanted to achieve as a songwriter and as I said earlier, it was all very visual. I just wanted to create something both musically and lyrically that was unique to my very clear vision at that time. I never really saw it in commercial terms, it wasn’t that calculated. Without wanting to sound self-indulgent or arrogant, I was doing it first and foremost for myself, my own personal artform, though I did hope to reach as many people as possible with it. There was a large amount of innocence and naivety about it but also a strong drive and determination. Overall, we took a very honest and deliberate approach, we weren’t trying to fit into any kind of style or genre, it just came out a certain way due to our passion and our instinctive way of playing. None of us were technical masters of our instruments but I think that worked in our favour as we had no preconceptions about how we should sound and our limitations gave us a unique style.
How did you first become involved with Keith Armstrong, and what led to recording an album of his lyrics?
I first met Keith in November 1989 when he turned up at the launch night for The Whisky Priests debut album ‘Nee Gud Luck’, at the Rose Tree in Durham. He had been looking for a locally-based band with a raw edge and an attitude that could collaborate with him and turn some of his poetry into songs. He approached Ross Forbes, who was chairman of the Durham Miners’ Association (still is, for that matter), for recommendations and Ross told him he needed to contact The Whisky Priests. I can’t for the life of me remember now if someone introduced us or if he introduced himself to me after the show but, anyway, we got to chatting at the end of the evening. He presented me with a signed and dedicated copy of his latest book of poetry and I reciprocated with a signed and dedicated vinyl copy of ‘Nee Gud Luck’. As we parted company that evening, we promised to keep in regular contact, with a view to collaborating on some kind of project in the future.
Up until ‘Nee Gud Luck’, the progress of The Whisky Priests had been relatively steady but once we’d done the debut album, everything picked up a-pace. We undertook our first tour outside the UK, consisting of 7 gigs in Germany, which snowballed into regular European tours and regular album releases. In the meantime, whenever I was back home in Durham, I would endeavour to meet up with Keith on a regular basis to discuss ideas for our collaboration. Meetings with Keith only ever take place in pubs. Our regular meeting place would fluctuate between The Half Moon, The Dun Cow or one or two other pubs in Durham City, depending on which one Keith wasn’t barred from at the time (laughs!). Over the course of an afternoon and numerous alcoholic drinks of various kinds, Keith would present me with a seemingly endless cornucopia of poems, lyrics, and ideas, which I would take home and attempt to digest and imagine tunes for.
Through the course of several years of these meetings, Keith’s catchphrase had become, “So, when is this collaboration going to happen, Miller?” The difficulty was finding the time to fit it into the band’s, and particularly mine and Glenn’s, hectic schedule. Not only were we playing 100-150 gigs a year during this period but we were putting out an album a year, while Glenn and me were self-managing the entirety of the band’s business affairs in any spare moment we could find. It was beginning to feel that the collaboration with Keith was destined to remain unfulfilled.
Then, towards the end of 1994, while we were rehearsing new material for what was intended to be the next Whisky Priests album, and with studio time booked for early 1995, our then mandolin and harmonica player, Paul Carless, was suddenly forced to leave the band for personal reasons beyond his or anyone else’s control. This seemed to put the album we had been working on in jeopardy and the band was at a loss as to how to proceed. I nervously suggested to the others that I had a whole separate batch of material in development but that all the lyrics had been written by Keith Armstrong, and maybe we should abandon the material we had previously been working on and record these other songs of Keith’s instead as the new Whisky Priests album. To say I was met with looks of bewilderment and disbelief is putting it mildly! But, with little else in place, it was decided by everyone that maybe we should at least give it a go and see what happens.
Suddenly, it all started to come together, and we were away. The sessions were looming, and it all had to be put together very quickly but somehow, we managed to make it work at the eleventh hour and we maybe just about got away with it. By the time we got into the studio, we barely had enough material prepared for a full album and so a lot of it had to be created in the studio almost from scratch. We had never worked that way before, but it was a great learning experience and it allowed us to be more experimental than we’d previously been. I would regularly come into the studio each morning with another song that I’d been working on at home the previous night, present it to the band there and then and away we’d go. It was incredibly spontaneous and “on the hoof”, which made it stressful, yet exciting and exhilarating at the same time. Also, as we were a man down with Paul having just departed, in order to plug the gaps, Keith and me went through a list of mutual contacts and managed to rope in various locally-based mates, all highly-respected musicians in their own right, at short notice, such as Jez Lowe, Chuck Fleming, and Marie Little to pop in and gave the whole thing some extra colour.
I remember seeing WP play more than 20 years ago, and in many ways, it felt more like a punk gig than a folk one. How did the mainstream folk and folk-rock bands view WP?
At the time, the mainstream folk scene really didn’t know what to make of us, we just didn’t fit in at all. To be fair though, we weren’t going out of our way to try to fit in, we were too heavily focused on doing our own thing. We were very much in our own bubble and ploughing our own furrow. I think that’s important for any artist, to be concentrating on doing what you want to do and not worrying about what anyone else is doing or trying to conform to other people’s expectations. You have to find your own voice, your own sound, your own style, by doing what you do naturally, and I think, if nothing else, we did at least achieve that.
Yet, although we had a very raw approach, we had an enormous respect for the tradition, we felt we were simply doing our own thing within that tradition. We also felt we were moving it forward and bringing it up to date, plus at least we were putting something back by writing our own songs and putting our own stamp on it. In addition, through our audiences, we opened many people up to folk music in general, who had previously no knowledge or experience of it, as well as to the heritage and culture of North East England, particularly abroad.
We never felt ourselves to be part of, or indeed tied to, any scene though. There was clearly a London scene at the time for raw folk/roots music but being based in North East England, we seemed as far away from that as it was possible to be.
We had a small handful of supporters in the folk media; Sean McGhee, the editor of ‘Rock ‘N’ Reel’ magazine was a big fan and hugely supportive; likewise Simon Jones, who wrote many great reviews of us for Folk Roots (now fRoots) magazine; as well as yourself, of course! Other than that, the folk media and armchair folk purists were generally wary or scornful of us, they just didn’t get us at all.
Conversely, many of the major performers on the folk scene tended to understand where we were coming from and what we were trying to achieve. Folk legends like Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick, for example, each referred to us in very complimentary terms.
When The Whisky Priests played Cambridge Folk Festival in 1990, I asked the lovely Ken Woolard (sadly he died a couple of years later) who had established the festival and was responsible for booking all the acts, what had prompted him to consider taking a chance in not only booking such a relatively unknown, young and up-and-coming band in the first place but also giving us such prestigious time slots and billing. He replied that it was because he considered us the real deal, that he respected us for our authenticity, as he perceived it, and that he therefore wanted to give us a great opportunity. I thought that was a wonderful compliment.
Regarding other bands who were being labelled with the ‘folk-rock’ or ‘folk-punk’ tag back in those days, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, in particular, were extremely supportive and regularly mentioned us in their interviews as a band they admired and respected. We owe them a lot for their genuine and unconditional support. We performed with them at the Cluny in Newcastle in December 2018, just after we’d completed our ‘Bloody Well Back!’ Reunion Tour, which was a lovely way to round things off with an extra gig at the end. That now stands as the last ever Whisky Priests performance.
Although there were more than a few line-up changes over the years, I personally felt that the band kept getting stronger, and the “Here Comes The Ranting Lads – Live” is an awesome set. The band seemed at the height of their powers, but after the tours to promote it the band folded quite quickly. What happened?
In 1995, Glenn and me found ourselves putting together a whole new line-up from scratch by drafting in three other people all at the same time. That line-up recorded our ‘Life’s Tapestry’ album and did some significant touring but it proved to be a complete disaster for a variety of reasons and sent us right back to the drawing board again.
After taking a year out to lick our wounds, during which time Glenn and me toured as an acoustic duo and I wrote a musical (which got shelved when circumstances changed again and never saw the light of day - there simply wasn’t the time available to give it the focus it needed), we put together another new line-up with three other people coming in. It was this line-up that recorded ‘Think Positive!’ and ‘“Here Come The Ranting Lads” – Live!’. This particular line-up came across well both live and in the studio and it helped repair some of the damage caused by the previous line-up and gave us a kind of ‘Indian Summer’ for a while. Unfortunately, there were massive issues behind the scenes. By this time, we’d moved away from our roots and the essence of what the band was originally about, which is good in many ways as it felt for a while that we were moving forward creatively. But then it all seemed to stagnate due to the fact that the other band members were constantly at odds with each other, with Glenn and me playing ‘piggies in the middle’, trying to hold it all together. It made things very difficult and uncomfortable. Added to that, the tours were becoming more intensive and grueling again.
In the end, something had to give, and some fell by the wayside due to burn-out while others simply had to be let go due to problems behind the scenes. Suddenly it was just Glenn and me again. We found ourselves having to begin yet again, totally from scratch. When the next line-up that we put together after that fizzled out, it seemed that we limped on for a while but by then, after so many setbacks, we’d had all the life and joy of being in a band sucked out of us. Glenn and me also both had young families by this time, and it seemed clear that it was time to move on and do something else.
You and Glenn formed an acoustic trio with Joseph Porter of Blyth Power, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and released one great CD and toured. Why was there never a follow-up?
The easy answer to that is that we fell out, due to a conflict of interests, which was a great shame, as the three of us had all been friends and comrades in arms for a long time, but these things can happen in life.
What led to the recording of an album with Ralf Weihrauch which is a combination of traditional numbers and WP classics such as “Dol-Li-A”?
Ralf had been The Whisky Priests booking agent for Germany throughout the mid-90’s, when the band was at its peak of popularity in that country. It also happened that he played accordion and had a deep interest in the folk song and musical hall tradition of North East England, so his association with The Whisky Priests at that time seemed like providence anyway. A few years after The Whisky Priests had ended, Ralf got in touch with me again and asked if I fancied collaborating on a recording project with him. I was going through a tough time at that point on a personal level, and had lost all confidence in myself as a creative artist.
It felt good at the time to reconnect with Ralf. I thought it might be a good form of therapy plus it seemed like an opportunity to put myself ‘back out there’. I therefore sent Ralf a selection of home demos I’d been working on, about an album’s worth, thinking that these would make up the basis of the material that would constitute the recording sessions. Ralf, however, had other plans; he wanted to include some Whisky Priests ‘greatest hits’, as he called them (basically his own personal favourites), alongside a number of North East traditional songs and tunes that he liked, with just a handful of my new songs slotted in-between. I was naturally dubious about this as it felt like it would be covering a lot of old ground and as a creative artist my whole ethos has always been about moving forward with new ideas. It also felt like it would be an unconnected mishmash of different odds and ends, whereas it’s always been important to me that an album of songs should be closely connected in some way, at least thematically and have a feel and a flow that made some kind of sense.
Anyway, Ralf arranged the studio time near where he was living, in Dorsten. I organised flights and we began a few days of furious rehearsals in Ralf’s kitchen to try to get the songs up to speed for the recordings.
Ralf selected maybe 2 or 3 songs from my demos that he particularly liked, and was happy to include, but discarded the rest and gave me a list of The Whisky Priests and Traditional songs and tunes he had in mind. He pretty much put the track listing together himself. As I was in a vulnerable position and at a low-ebb in my life at that time, I allowed Ralf to exert control and went along with all his decisions, against my better judgement. As a result, I felt very detached from the whole process and was simply going through the motions. It’s undoubtedly the weakest album I’ve made and I have no fondness for it at all but it was simply a case of the wrong thing at the wrong time. My heart wasn’t really in it and if I’m brutally honest, it’s an album I feel absolutely no connection to at all. There was maybe one good track on it - the last song “Bookend”, but apart from that I consider it a failure.
After that you personally dropped out of the music scene until 2010. Why was that, and what prompted you to return?
It was all down to personal circumstances. I was living in the Scottish Borders, having moved there for personal reasons during what had become a long period of depression. Being in a rurally isolated area just exacerbated things, whilst at the same time I was caring for my elderly parents who were still living in the house I grew up in, near Durham City. So, I was spending half my time there, making regular 2-hour journeys between my home and theirs. My own life was more or less on hold, it was very much a wilderness period.
When ‘Reflections on War’ came out in 2010, I wasn’t really ready at that time to return to the music scene ‘all guns blazing’, as I was still very much in the middle of my wilderness period, so the album never really got followed up. It was, however, the first time I worked with producer Iain Petrie, who became a very close friend and has been involved in everything I’ve done since. So, it paved the way for the long-term development of the ‘Mad Martins’ project and all that came after. All the time, energy, and commitment I put into ‘Mad Martins’ and the freedom I gave myself to do precisely what I wanted without any responsibility towards anyone else was the initial major turning point. Later, getting together with my partner Helen after that, and the pair of us inspiring each other through our joint creativity gave me my greatest leap forward. We now collaborate on everything and there has been nobody more supportive or encouraging. Whenever I stumble or become discouraged for whatever reason, she’s always there, pushing me on to greater endeavours. We’re the ultimate team and I feel anything is possible with Helen by my side.
Your first solo work since returning from the sabbatical was about the Great War. What was the inspiration and motivation behind this?
In early 2003, just after The Whisky Priests had come to a full-stop, I had the opportunity to become involved in community arts for the first time. I was approached by a wonderful and highly respected theatre producer and drama tutor called Clare Prenton who offered me the role of Musical Director on a musical theatre project with the National Youth Music Theatre. Through a series of workshops over five successive days, I worked with an incredible group of talented 11-18-year-olds in putting together a musical which featured ten original songs. It was an amazing experience and one of the most rewarding things I had ever done. I felt as though, for the very first time, I was giving something back and I was definitely bitten by the Community Arts bug. After both The Whisky Priests and my marriage ended, I lost a lot of self-confidence and felt directionless for a while, but this seemed like a way for me to keep a focus by encouraging and inspiring other people’s creativity. Since then, I’ve worked on numerous songwriting and creative community projects throughout the UK and abroad, as well as having been a member of various creative arts organisations.
The ‘Reflections on War’ album therefore grew out of a community arts project for York Museums Trust in 2009. I was commissioned to work with a small group of around 6-8 participants, mostly of retired age, in creating poems, stories and songs based on the theme of war for part of a 6-month exhibition called ‘Reflections on War’ at York Art Gallery. The exhibition was centred around part of York Museum Trust’s enormous collection of war-themed art and memorabilia. Two books containing the poetry, stories and artwork created by the group were produced. There was a small budget available for recording my own songs that I had written alongside the group’s work, for inclusion in the exhibition. I felt, however, that the songs were of a high enough standard to release commercially, so by topping up the budget out of my own pocket I was able to produce a professional quality CD, which became my debut solo album.
What was it like recording with the Ferryhill Town Band, and why did you do that?
Recording with the Ferryhill Town Band was a wonderful experience, they’re a fantastic bunch of people. Not only was it great fun but is was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition of mine to record a song with a full-scale colliery band as my backing band.
In October 2017, I was approached by the DLI (Durham Light Infantry) Research and Study Centre for permission to use my song "The Durham Light Infantry” in a travelling exhibition throughout Durham called ‘When the Bugle Calls’ on the specific theme of music of the DLI.
I was thrilled and honoured but also conscious of the fact that the song was over 30 years old and there were parts of the lyric that I now felt were quite clumsy and naive. It had in fact been written as far back as 1985, when I was only 18, and was only the second song I ever wrote for The Whisky Priests, though it wasn’t until 1989 that it got released, when it appeared as the closing track on the band’s debut album ‘Nee Gud Luck’. This therefore seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit and reimagine the song in a way that I would now feel satisfied with.
Brass band music and military band music have always been in my blood and are part of my family and cultural heritage. A lot of the early tunes that I wrote owe a lot to this kind of music, in fact, it was all there subliminally and it is only in hindsight that I have come to the realisation of how major an influence it has been on my work. For as long as I can remember, I had longed to be in a position to be able to get a brass band to record maybe an album’s worth of my tunes, particularly tracks like “The Rising of the North” and “The Durham Light Infantry”, which I thought would lend themselves perfectly to a full brass arrangement.
In the meantime, anyone who is familiar with The Whisky Priests’ back catalogue will know that we used colliery brass band musicians on a number of our recordings but never pushed it as far as having a full band perform the whole arrangement. Well, now it seemed I might have the chance to do this for one song at least. I explained to the people at the DLI Research & Study Centre what I wanted to do, and they were equally as excited and supportive of the idea.
As I was now living in Ferryhill, it seemed obvious to approach the local town band. I was put in touch with band leader Andrew Potts through previous mayor Peter Atkinson, a lovely guy, who had once been a member of the band himself. Everyone was well up for it, we just needed an arrangement, a couple of band rehearsals and a recording session to make it happen. I got in touch with my regular producer and compadre Iain Petrie, who is an incredible arranger. With myself inputting various ideas, Iain came up with a fantastic arrangement which he recorded using digital brass sounds as a demo. He passed this on to Sam Lord, who is a professional scorer of brass that he knows, and she came up with a complete score for the whole band.
After running through the score with the band a couple of times during one of their weekly rehearsals, we booked an evening at a local venue, Mainsforth Institute, an amazing old theatre building directly across the road from my house. Iain brought in his portable recording studio and the band got the backing track down first take, after a couple of warm-up play throughs. A couple of days later, Iain and me repaired to his home studio in Spittal, Berwick-upon-Tweed, and I dubbed on my vocal track, and that was it, ‘in the can’.
How did you first come across the story of the Mad Martins?
I was introduced to the story of the Martin Brothers by Keith Armstrong. He contacted me around 2002, just after The Whisky Priests had ended, and asked me if I would be up for writing a few songs for a project about the Martin Brothers of Tynedale, to be performed at Hexham Arts Centre as part of the Northumberland Folk Festival. I hadn’t heard of the Martins before then, but I was intrigued. Keith sent me some bits and pieces of research material along with a few poems he had written, but at first I couldn’t find a way into it and I procrastinated for a while. Then it all seemed to click, and I wrote about ten to a dozen songs in the space of a fortnight because I’d left myself with a tight deadline.
We did a 90-minute show, with my twin brother Glenn roped at the eleventh hour in to back me on accordion, plus renowned Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston. The set alternated between my songs and Keith’s poems, interspersed here and there with a selection of Northumbrian pipe tunes from Chris. It went down well with the audience and there was talk at the time of developing it further. Shortly afterwards, however, my marriage ended, and I lost my focus, so the project was indefinitely shelved.
That would probably have been the end of it but Keith got me back into the project again when he approached me in 2011 about reviving it for a performance at the Anchor Hotel in Haydon Bridge as part of the John Martin Festival. That was like a big kick up the arse for me and I realised there was real value in the material, and I got excited about the idea of recording what we had and releasing it commercially.
That led to the first recording sessions in 2013, which we did with producer Iain Petrie, who I had worked with on my ‘Reflections on War’ album in 2009. We recorded all the songs I had written up to that point, together with Keith’s selection of poems, each with a Northumbrian pipe-tune backing, this time performed by Ann Sessoms. It occurred to me, however, that there was a massive imbalance in the material we had and that it only scratched the surface of the story of the Martins. It was painfully obvious to me that the project was incomplete, and I felt unable to put it out as it then stood. So, I sat on it for a year or two.
In the meantime, Keith and Iain were regularly pushing me about releasing what would have ended up being a single CD until I finally decided I would have to find a load more songs. I surrounded myself with a wealth of research material this time, having hunted out every book and document on the Martins that I could lay my hands on (Amazon was my friend!), and came up with a second batch of songs to add to the ones already ‘in the can’, plus a selection of texts by the Martins themselves, as well as contemporaries of theirs who knew them, including Charles Dickens and Edward-Bulwer Lytton.
The project was now beginning to make sense to me. Armed with all this new material, sessions resumed at Iain’s studio around 2014. We also started getting other singers and musicians involved, including my former Whisky Priests colleagues Mick Tyas and my twin brother Glenn.
It then became clear that there needed to be 3 CDs, one for each brother respectively, and by the time we closed the sessions we had a track listing of 50 songs, poems and spoken word pieces, which told the story of the Mad Martins in the kind of depth that to me had finally managed to do the project justice. By 2015, we had the running order finalised and the CDs mastered and ready to print. The next step was putting the book together which became a huge task in and of itself!
That album contains so much information that it almost feels like Ph.D. research as opposed to a music album. Why did you feel the need to provide as much information and detail as you did?
‘Mad Martins’ was such a huge undertaking that I felt it was important to present it in as broad a scope as possible. We had a wealth of recorded material, containing a huge amount of text, telling the stories of the brothers but additional text was required to pull it all together.
There was also an incredible amount of visual material to draw upon to further enhance the story. The only way to present this effectively was in a book format that went way beyond the standard CD insert. Furthermore, I wanted to blur the lines between whether the project could best be described first and foremost as a deluxe CD box set within an accompanying book or as a book with accompanying CDs included.
As we had used images where the originals were in museum collections, it was necessary by the Fair Use Law to acknowledge these in the book anyway, so, in legal terms, a comprehensive list of illustrations was a given, regardless. In addition, I regard the book as a true historical document and all historical books contain a bibliography, so it seemed only natural to include this as well.
Also, to my mind, the project can also be classed as educational and I figured other people might be drawn into the world of the Martins as deeply and passionately as I have been, so I wanted to give all of those people an opportunity, through a comprehensive bibliography, to explore the Martins further should they feel so inclined.
There was so much research required and so many books on my shelf now about the Martins, that by the end of it all, I felt as though I’d completed a bloody Ph.D! Finally, I’m the sort of anal, OCD-type person who never does things by halves and if I’d felt later that I hadn’t covered every piece of ground, I would never have forgiven myself and would have suffered sleepless nights about it ever after (laughs!).
To those who haven’t heard the album, can you provide a brief background for each of the brothers, and what you were attempting to achieve with this monumental piece of work?
The first CD focusses on eldest brother William, “The Lion of Wallsend”. He once described himself as “the philosophical conqueror of all nations”. He was a self-styled inventor, philosopher, poet, pamphleteer, engraver, and renaissance man. Despite his eccentricities, his self-belief against the odds is truly inspiring.
The second CD presents the story of middle brother Jonathan, “The Incendiary of York Minster”. He was undoubtedly the maddest of the Mad Martins and his violent actions against the clergy saw him confined to several lunatic asylums from which he kept escaping until he finally ended his days in Bethlem Hospital (‘Bedlam’) in London after being tried, found guilty, declared insane and confined there for setting fire to York Minster.
The third and final CD in the set is given over to the story of youngest brother John, the best known of the brothers and “The Most Popular Painter of His Day”. He was a famous New Romantic painter best-known for his epic and melodramatic biblical scenes. He socialised in London society with all the famous people of his day and was also an engraver and inventor, whose pioneering designs later influenced the establishment of the London sewage system.
With ‘Mad Martins’, I felt such a strong connection to the three brothers that I really wanted to get their stories out into the public domain. I felt they deserved more recognition, so it became a kind of mission, if you like. More importantly, on a creative level, I suppose what I was ultimately attempting to achieve was three in-depth character studies. I went into it all very deeply and passionately and put a lot of myself into the songs, as I imagined myself inhabiting each character. I really connected with each of the brothers because I could see a lot of parallels between myself and them. That’s what I do, I cannot help myself. I guess it’s a bit like an actor researching and getting into a role. My friend and fellow-songwriter Paul Simmonds actually said to me “Gary, Mad Martins is really all about you.” I couldn’t deny it!
20 years after the last studio album ‘Think Positive’, The Whisky Priests were back. What led to this, and what can we expect to hear and see from the band in the future?
As I mentioned earlier, we never made any official announcement to say the band had ended, nor did we undertake a ‘Farewell Tour’, we just kind of stopped quietly without any fanfare. Since then, I always felt that there was unfinished business and that we still had something to prove. There were, in fact, tentative plans for a reunion back in 2013, featuring the line-up that recorded ‘The Power and The Glory’ in 1994, and we undertook a few rehearsals with that actual line-up but it ultimately led nowhere and everyone went their separate ways again. In hindsight, it was at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances.
Fast forward to 2016 when Glenn and me decided we wanted to celebrate our 50th Birthday with a party for invited guests. This was an unprecedented event for us. For myself, I tend to be very private about birthdays and such-like. The last birthday I officially celebrated; I was probably still at primary school! But this time I thought, if ever I’m going to mark a personal occasion other than something like marriage, it should be my 50th Birthday and I therefore want to do something unique. What then could be more unique than reuniting the band to play at the party? So, I got in touch with various ex-members of The Whisky Priests that I still had some kind of contact with and asked them if they fancied doing it. Surprisingly, they were all up for it!
We managed to squeeze in just one rehearsal beforehand and, lo and behold, we seemed to get away with it and had a good time into the bargain. That night the seed was planted and the following year (2017), we did the same thing again for Mick Tyas’ 60th Birthday. After that, we just thought, this has gone really well, let’s try and do some ‘proper’ gigs.
Initially, it felt like a gang of mates doing it for the crack again. We took it right back to the County Durham roots of the band, focusing principally on material from the first 2 or 3 albums. We’d all been through the mill as individuals over the decades, each feeling we’d gone through our own level of personal growth as a result, and that brings a whole new perspective.
There was never any intention to introduce new songs at this stage, that wasn’t what this was about. The idea behind the reunion tour was, first and foremost, to celebrate the band’s legacy. Afterwards, we would then be in a position to reflect and decide where to go from there. My own feeling was that any subsequent activity would need to be based around the concept of new material and moving forward.
During preparations and rehearsals, however, it became clear that if the tour was to go ahead it was going to be unfeasible for Glenn to be involved and for a period of about two months everything came to a standstill. Feeling that Glenn was integral, I was on the verge of pulling the plug on the whole thing. In the end, the others persuaded me to continue plus we had come too far, and a lot of people would be affected if the tour was cancelled and there were commitments to fulfil. We had lost a lot of momentum in our preparations though, and a replacement had to be found for Glenn. We pulled in Ralf Weihrauch at pretty much the eleventh hour to play accordion. So, the tour went ahead, unfortunately without Glenn, and the gigs seemed to be really well-received by each respective audience. Many people declared that the band sounded better than ever.
There were a lot of difficulties behind the scenes, however, and, whilst the rest of the band went their separate ways once the tour ended, Helen and me were left to pick up the pieces. There’s been a lot to consider since, the end result being that there will be no further Whisky Priests activity. I’m extremely proud of all I have achieved with The Whisky Priests throughout its 35-year history but it’s time to let it go now and move on to newer, fresher fields. I’ll always treasure the amazing memories, whilst the songs I wrote will still be with me as part of my ongoing body of work.
What’s next for Gary Miller?
At my 50th Birthday Party in 2016, I had the incredible good fortune of reconnecting with Helen, a dear friend from my past. We had knocked around together as a part of a group of friends in our late teens and early twenties. Helen was married then; she had married young. Anyway, as often happens, we lost touch as our lives went off in different directions but in the years in between we would occasionally bump into each other, usually through strange coincidence. So, chatting at my 50th, we arranged to go for a drink together the following week. The next thing we knew, we were a couple, and it seemed the most obvious and natural thing in the world. We had each found our respective soul mate and the love of our lives. Helen is a talented and successful artist, illustrator and designer and we are now business partners.
Our first collaboration was ‘Mad Martins’, which I had just finished mastering when we got together. In 2017, Helen spent nine months designing the ‘Mad Martins’ book. She took the whole package to a level that I could never have achieved without her input.
Towards the end of 2017, with the ‘Mad Martin’s CD’s and book finally completed, we had loads of exciting plans to move forward together in partnership on a wide range of projects, as well as pushing the ‘Mad Martins’ project itself.
In October 2017, we collaborated on various projects with the DLI Research and Study Centre, including the ‘When the Bugle Calls’ exhibition, as well as a series of community arts workshops. This developed into ‘From Coalfield to Battlefield’, a project that tells the history of the Durham Light Infantry through the personal stories of individuals over a 200-year period. Helen created some wonderful artwork for the project, and I wrote a selection of songs. A CD single was initially released (“The Durham Light Infantry” with Ferryhill Town Band) and this was followed by the ‘DLI EP’, a 4-track CD EP featuring all the songs I had recorded to date. There were plans to expand this further, with a full-length album and book, performances and exhibitions.
All of these things were then put on hold for a year throughout 2018, as we focussed all of our time and energy on The Whisky Priests Reunion. For Helen’s part, she completely rebranded The Whisky Priests with her amazing design work. The two of us literally did everything ourselves behind the scenes, including designing and building several new websites from scratch, a range of new merchandise and other promotional material, stage visuals, a “walk on” music video, and all kinds of stuff that tends to go unnoticed. The work was all-consuming for that whole year.
Amidst all of this, we underwent some major shared personal tragedies, found ourselves embroiled in some horrendous legal battles, which caused terrible financial difficulties and found ourselves abandoned and betrayed by people from various quarters that we had allowed into our inner circle. It’s caused us to rethink our lives, close ranks and bin off all of those people that were a negative influence on our lives. We’ve spent the last year or so clawing our way back from the brink. It’s made us stronger and tougher and we feel we can take on anything life throws at us now. Moving forward, Helen and me now feel we’ve reached a turning point within the last few weeks and all the plans we’ve developed over the last couple of years are finally starting to take shape at last.
‘Northern Grit (The Good, The Bad and The Greedy)’ is a project Helen initially conceived as a travelling exhibition. She created a series of illustrations based on real life characters from North East England who, by fair means or foul and for motives honourable or dubious, had, through their own determination and perseverance, ultimately succeeded in achieving their goals and ambitions against high odds. Each illustration would have an accompanying song. In a few cases, the song came first, with Helen being inspired to create illustrations based on songs I had recently written. In other cases, it was Helen’s illustration that came first, thus inspiring me to write a new song. This is a great example of how we collaborate, inspire and bounce off each other. Helen launched the project with a month-long exhibition at the People’s Bookshop in Durham City. For the launch night, I performed all of the songs I had written. It was a great way to put the project “out there”.
I’ve also been developing a Folk-Rock Opera. ‘The Butcher Baronet’ is based on the legend of elusive historical figure John Duck, who has been referred to as “Durham’s Dick Wittington”. It developed from an arts workshop of Helen’s for which I initially wrote a couple of songs, but which then grew into an epic 2-3 hour-long narrative of around 30 songs and pieces of music that I wrote during a six-week period.
Coincidentally, around the same time, Paul Stanthorpe from multi-award-winning Durham-based film company Lone Pine Pictures invited me to meet him at a pub in Durham City actually named the John Duck (?!). He informed me that his latest documentary was called ‘The Butcher Baronet’ about said John Duck and would I be able to come up with a song or two for the soundtrack! I said, I’ve already got the songs written, I’ve been working on my own project of the same name! You really cannot make these things up, it was all very weird! Somehow, it felt like it all had to be and was happening for some kind of deep and meaningful reason, at least on a spiritual level (laughs!). Anyway, the documentary came out using one of my songs as the theme (which has also been released as a single). It’s got both Helen and me in it - Helen’s talking about the artwork she produced, which has been used on all the promotional material for the documentary. It’s gone on to win several awards at various film festivals internationally, which is great. In the meantime, I’ve got long terms plans for my Folk Rock Opera, which is ‘waiting in the wings’ to be recorded and performed, once I’ve cleared the way with a few other projects first.
Earlier this year, Helen was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Although not malignant, it has caused her severe symptoms that affect her on a daily basis and have forced her to give up two part-time jobs. It has had a major and ongoing effect on both our lives. To Helen’s credit, she’s turned it all around. She has faced up to her condition and developed a new outlet for her creativity, as a songwriter. Throughout the Lockdown she has written around 30 songs and I’ve been totally blown away by her amazing efforts. One Helen’s songs, along with one of my own recent songs, is being recorded for a various artists compilation album called ‘Releasing From Lockdown’. After that, we’re aiming to get an album’s worth of Helen’s material released as ‘The Nellie Temple Project’. Helen will be singing at least some of the songs, I’ll maybe sing one, and we’re inviting other singers and musicians to get involved and record their own interpretations.
I recently made an official announcement to the effect that there would be no more from The Whisky Priests as a band, it was over for good. In the meantime, I announced that I would be returning with a new band, ‘Gary Miller’s Big Picture’, with plans for a debut album, containing songs of a more directly personal nature, and hopefully some gigs, in 2021. I’m very excited about moving forward with this new project and working with some wonderful musicians.
I’ve also begun work on my Autobiography, which is proving to be a great form of therapy in laying to rest a lot of demons and in setting the record straight about a lot of misconceptions. It will confront and lay bare such issues as growing up as a twin, going through and recovering from a long period of clinical depression, and all the trials and tribulations I have faced during a long and varied career in the music industry. It feels like a process I need to put myself through and I am looking forward to finishing it and hopefully publishing it next year, if I can.
On top of that, I’m aiming to get a solo album out next year, which will probably be based around the Northern Grit project.
I’m also collaborating with my great friend Johnny Campbell. We’re currently scheduling a joint European tour for October 2021. The plan is for each of us to play an individual solo set, rounded off with a couple of songs together. We’re going to be including some private house concerts as well as standard venues, so it should be interesting!
Outside of music and art directly, Helen and me recently launched Whippet Lodge, a holiday retreat for creative artists and musicians, as well as general holiday-makers, based in the Scottish Borders, which has been hugely successful. It’s allowed us to be creative in other ways and has been an exciting labour of love project.
Finally, Lone Pine Pictures is planning a documentary film about me, entitled ‘One Gary Miller’, which will explore my life and my musical career. I am very excited about this and looking forward to seeing it come together, again, hopefully next year.
As well as all of this, Helen and me are literally brimming with further ideas and plans and have a number of other projects in various stages of development and I am excited to see how it all progresses in the future.
Apart from that, I just keep chipping away and ploughing on!