I’ve recorded various compilations of Northumbrian music but my first big break if you like was when I got a phone call one night in 1990…
Hello it’s Peter Gabriel here. There is a rumour going round that I told him to f*** off because I never believed it was him (laughs). But it was and he was after some piping on his next recording.
So I agreed to go down to his studio in Bath. He wasn’t really sure what he wanted and just said bring every pipe you’ve got. We worked in the studio until he found the sound he liked, which was Highland Pipes not Northumbrian.
What’s the difference ? Highland Scottish pipes are mouth blown and mainly played outdoors. Northumbria Pipes are small, indoor instrument, blown by bellows. Not wanting to get too detailed here but you’ve got a drone going on which is a constant note playing behind so you’ve got your basic harmony going on behind the melody.
The best pipe music is actually quite simple in it’s structure so it’s always chording and dischording against the drones.
How did the recording session go with Gabriel ? The pipes were mixed down and recorded onto the first song on the album Come Talk to Me. Sinead O’Connor sang on the track although I never saw her. He had brought in various musicians and sounds to add to what he had already recorded. That’s the way he worked.
I got a credit and a flat fee for the work and really enjoyed the experience. Gabriel I found was very thoughtful and reserved unlike his stage performances, as a lot of musicians are don’t you think ?
(Us was Gabriel’s sixth studio album, recorded in Real World Studios and released in 1992)
What is your background ? I live in Ovingham, Northumberland although I was born in Jarrow. I’ve played the pipes since I was 15 but before that I played the recorder at school which I picked up quickly and got good at, all learnt by ear.
Teachers were always trying to teach me to read music but I was making good progress by ear. They sent me to the grammar school to have lessons on the clarinet. But in those days music was all about learning exercises and rehearsing not very interesting pieces so I didn’t have much commitment to it.
What first got you interested in music ? My dad was a music teacher and his brother made a name for himself as a semi-professional operatic singer. So music was always around when I was growing up. My dad died when I was 13 and I didn’t pick up the Pipes until I was 15. Later I found that my dad and my uncle wanted to learn how to play the pipes.
He was originally a joiner and my uncle was a butcher but they were both saving up money to go to music college. They ended up in the Royal Manchester College of Music and trained as music teachers. My dad played and taught piano, so there was classical music in the house and it was interesting because he never pushed me into playing anything.
Sure he gave me a few lessons but never said Sit down and you must practice this. He made it sound more interesting if I would just try it out you know.
Where you listening to any other music ? There was the operatic stuff from my family but I didn’t take to it and I started listening to Glam Rock (laughs). Slade were my thing then Prog Rock with Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and a band called Gryphon. Occasionly still listen to that.
You look back with affection for it, as it was part of your formative years. It’s hard to look back objectively because some of it might have been rubbish but it meant something to you then.
We talk about the moment at a concert when the lights go down, then the ‘roar’ of the crowd and the band launch into their first song. Yeah my mother used to say at Newcastle City Hall there was an excellent organ at the back of the stage that was totally spoilt when all these beat groups stated to play there (laughs).
Funnily the first rock concert I went to was around 1979 when I was studying Geography at Liverpool University and I saw Lindisfarne (laughs). It worked out really well in Liverpool because there was a good traditional music scene with lot’s of informal sessions most night’s of the week plus the folk club’s. I sort of learned the trade there.
It was a big challenge because I’d been playing the Pipes for around three years and in order to play I had to join in with the Irish music sessions. That was a steep learning curve to adapt to suit the Northumbrian Pipes.
I remember the first Garden Festival was held in Liverpool and I was playing with a Highland Pipe band at the time. We got a gig there, played our set and walked off. The first person I see is the actor John Pertwee dressed as Worzel Gummidge he said ‘Ooh arr Pipes, I love the pipes especially Northumbrian’.
I ended up having a long conversation about Northumbrian Pipes with Jon Pertwee staying in his role as Worzel Gummidge (laughs).
What was the last gig you played ? The last gig I played was at the Morpeth Gathering with Katrina Porteous. (Featured interview Some Kind of Magic, April 27th 2019). There is a folk crowd who you reguarly see at the gigs, within that there are people who like different traditions of music and dance such as Scots or Irish folk as well as Northumbrian.
The Morpeth Gathering is one place where all that comes together. People travel from all over the North East and come down from Scotland for these events. The performance with Katrina went really well. We’ve worked together on-and-off for 20 years.
Originally we were both commissioned to do something for Northumbrian Language Society and we worked on that separately first then found out when we came together it all worked in a live setting. We’ve worked a lot like that.
What have you got planned this year ? I do a bit of teaching on the Pipes so there will be more of that. I’m off to Germany in July and Ireland in October with Newcastle Poet Keith Armstrong, that’s part of a Cultural Exchange trip. (Interview with Keith on More Than Words, April 15th 2019).
In August I’m playing on a festival down in Sidmouth, Devon. Not a part of the country that I play very often so really nice to get down there.
I’m going to Devon by train rather than plane. One time I flew over to Amsterdam and security there knew what the Pipes were and said Ahh Doedelzak – that’s the Dutch word for Bagpipe. (laughs). Surprisingly, it’s usually the staff at Newcastle airport that don’t know what the Northumbrian pipes are!
Interview by Gary Alikivi April 2019.