Gary Boner has led Roadhouse for 20 years… this year at last they appeared at Glastonbury and slowly things are looking up, it’s a story of struggling against the odds, no big record company advances, no-one to pull the strings, and coping with severe illness and family struggles. …Gary’s answers are spiced with typically dry ‘Sarf London’ irony, and if you like this you may enjoy the website Podcast version
So we’re in the 20th year of Roadhouse; that’s a surprising statistic in this day and age of constant change…almost a major achievement. Maybe you could hazard a figure as to how many gigs Roadhouse have done?
I think it’s somewhere over 2,300
And the first ever Roadhouse gig was?
Would you believe it was a wedding; I met a slide guitarist/harp playing singer songwriter called Bob Roberts. He asked me to help him form a Band to play his mate’s wedding. They were a real bunch of rock and rollers, the groom had much longer hair than the bride.
And the line-up was?
Bill Hobley was on bass and Roger Hunt was the drummer; that was our legendary rhythm section; and they were there in that first line up. At that time we also had a Scottish sax player called Finn.
I saw you way back as support on a young Pete Feenstra gig at the Torrington. Obviously it’s come a long way since then. Did you have a vision for the band at that stage?
Roadhouse has gone through many phases. At the Torrington alone we went through a phase with Bob Roberts as the front man singing with Mandie G. Then there was the iconic line-up of Jules and Lorna Fothergill plus Annie Campbell. We then moved onto Canadian guitar whiz (and he was fast!) Drew Barron (ex Buddy Miles) and Irish Siren Fiona McElroy, who now leads her own Band; the vision was to survive as a Band when others were going under.
I reckon it was easier then there were loads more gigs – the Torrington was agreat venue and there’s been nothing remotely as good in North London. How do you think the gig situation has changed in that time?
There are fewer bands and even less venues, live music in the traditional blues rock format is losing ground. The fans are ageing as a demographic and younger people can outplay us all on ‘Guitar Hero’.
…and what about the attitudes of venue owners and promoters…
A few flick your head sideways and use your ear as an ash tray…no, I’m joking really, there are a lot of good people running venues. It’s often at a loss and driven purely by their love for real music and the connection it can bring. We are, however, treated better in Holland, Belgium and France, where accommodation, food and drink is provided and you are actually treated as artists and human beings. Pete Feenstra is doing a great deal to keep live music alive around London.
Well enough of the past; we’ll return to it later and draw on your experience as a band leader, this seems to have been a good year for you so far…
Yes, it started well with our appearance on Centre Stage at the Skegness festival. The band has reached a whole new level and the crowd saw that. In many ways we are unrecognisable from what we used to be. The reaction was unbelievable; we received over 100 emails from punters who loved that show. I suddenly started getting calls from venues around the Country asking us to come and play for them for the first time. The new songs have been well received and the lovely Rachel Clark joining has been a good thing. Our squad of stunning, young female vocalists is now up to 4 in total. It’s a shame that the Blues Matters stage at Colne was cancelled this year, as we’ve been the biggest crowd draw on the Sunday for about the last 6 years….you win some, and you lose some….hopefully we’ll all be back there next year…
…and then there was Glastonbury?
So how did Glastonbury come about?
We were asked to be on standby in case any bands dropped out on the new Bourbon Street Blues stage.
I recall you ringing me to say that you were very close to it –I’ll bet it was a bit of a cliff-hanger then before it was confirmed
I didn’t think it would happen, then with 5 days to go we were on And how did it go? It went very well; we probably had the best slot in the whole day. Stevie Wonder was just finishing up on the adjacent Pyramid Stage; we definitely had the biggest crowd on that stage. I thought everyone would be rocked out, but they loved it. It was a great experience…
It’s a been a good trip from the ice and snow of Skegness in January to high summer at Glastonbury,
It’s been a strange year
Well it’s a been pretty good launch pad for the new album that we are hearing about – so please tell us about that
Yes that’s right, we’ll be recording the new CD, Dark Angel, in September and it should be out by mid October. I’m delighted with the new songs. We’ve been playing 4 of them for some time and the feedback is excellent. This is also my favourite Roadhouse line up, there’s little in-band politics, and it’s more like a family then a Band. Also the music is stylistically heavier in many different ways.
I’ve heard some of the songs in live performance and I’m intrigued, some of the lyrics are quite dark; death, the devil, voodoo, illness, etc. Yet your show is very ‘up’ and cheerful. Can you tell us about that contrast?
I’ve got a very painful disease of my muscles, tendons and central nervous system. Two months ago the hospital said I was the only person with my type of disease and in my age group (ancient that is) on their books, who was not bed ridden. I asked the Doctor concerned if he’d ever considered a career as a motivational speaker. Some nights I have restricted movement in my wrists and fingers, so I have to approach the guitar differently. This stops me from getting bored. Also I’ve been divorced a few times and struggled to keep up quality contact with my daughter… We’ve all got our stories, but I think I’m blessed; there are so many people worse off than me. Every time I get up and play, it’s a result. The fact that we attract good crowds and sell decent quantities of CD’s is amazing to me. Playing live is the greatest feeling in the world… long may it continue. Two years ago on stage in Colne I publicly announced that I’d have to throw the towel in. The pain at that stage was relentless; I couldn’t see any light at all. But I’m still here and in less pain, so I would like to apologise to all who were there for my feeble sense of melodrama. I did mean it at the time, but somebody came up to me this year at Skegness and said “Aren’t you meant to be dead’ and that brought it home.
I note that voodoo comes into several songs, have you got a special interest in that subject?
A bit, I love the psychology of cursing someone and then they believe themselves to death. I visited the large Graveyards in New Orleans, the so called ‘Cities of the Dead’. The swampy ground literally vomits up corpses, so people have to be buried above ground in large marble tombs that often resemble gothic wedding cakes. Whole generations of families are stored in sculptured filing cabinets. I visited the Grave of Marie LeVaux the so called Witch Queen of New Orleans. Every morning her grave is found to be covered in blood and the corpses of dead animals. These offerings are meant to grant power to the giver. I bought loads of voodoo dolls when I was there…results have been mixed.
Oh dear, shudder, shudder, and tell us about a successful voodoo result… (Readers, you’ll have to go the web-site to hear the sensational unexpurgated truth about Gary’s voodoo skills!)
The title track of the album ‘Dark Angel’ paints a dark picture of hopelessness and vulnerability to outside forces-tell us about the genesis of that song?
Well you are born, you live and then you die. I think it’s the middle bit that’s important, but one thing is certain, it won’t end well.
What makes you so sure of that? I mean, say, Roadhouse breaks big, GB makes a few million, has ten years of success and dies peacefully surrounded by friends, family and assorted ex-Roadhouse musicians?
(Hear Gary’s startling response on the web-site)
The other song that caught my attention is ‘Too Tired to Pray’ what’s the story behind that?
It’s about loss of hope, death of dreams, inertia, exhaustion of the soul, meltdown.
Oh yeah, like trying to get a gig out of…oops, best not say that, maybe it sounds more like the aftermath of a bad pub gig?
(laughs) yes but Danny’s slide playing gives it a great blues feel
Is there a song of yours that expresses your lighter side?
‘Don’t You Point that Thing at Me’, on the album ‘No Place to Hide’ is a black comedy, double entendre and all. ‘Mexican Nights’ on our album ‘Broken Land’ is a piss [satirical] take on all those great Robert Rodriguez movies. Some reviewers called that song ‘Bizarre’, but I found it hysterical. Drew Barron’s flamenco guitar playing on that song is a revelation.
Looking back through your albums – there is a theme that emerges – religion or anti-religion, and the supernatural themes that run alongside. Is there a growing anger and sense of loss expressed in the songs – it seems to be there in the songs.
Not really, I just don’t think many Blues Rock fans relate to ‘I woke up this morning and I feel great’
It seems to be there in the artwork for ‘Sea of Souls’, the cover picture is like a burning diary – like a life being burned away and there is a religious symbolism in the sleeve artwork – taken with the lyrics of the song ‘Sea of Souls’ ‘Don’t know how I turned into a poor relation, just slipped into a world of desperation, Oh Lord I’m drowning’. Not exactly cheerful is it?
More people have died in the name of religion than any other cause. To me it’s a form of social control, an opiate for the masses, right up there with public execution, gladiatorial combat and football. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.
There’s a whole other debate and interview there, so what about the cover art?
Well Vaughan Oliver is a legend in the field of graphic design and is one of the UK’s most acclaimed rock sleeve artists. His work with The Pixies, The Cocteau Twins among others is legendary. It’s been a dream that he has designed our last 2 covers and he’s on for the new one. I wonder what he’ll do with ‘Dark Angel’.
What sort of song you might sing on ice-cold morning on the beach at Skeggy?
‘Donald where’s my trousers’
You must let me have the chords for that; Ok so anything that you’d like to add about your songs?
They are mood pieces, stores, vignettes, often cinematic in nature. Modern film noir is a big influence, alongside a decent splash of Southern Gothic. A taxi driver in Amsterdam had 2 of my CD’s and he said that ‘I must have the most miserable existence on the planet’. Well mate, they are only songs!!
Ok, so as a bandleader of twenty years and more experience what’s the main thing that you’ve learned?
I’m a lot more laid back. If it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong. You can’t control everybody all the time and it’s wrong to try to do so. We are a Band, if there’s a compelling belief in the music, that’s all you need to get people working together in the right way.
What advice would you pass to a band just starting out, they can be any age, or let’s sharpen that a bit – what’s the first piece of advice that you’d offer?
Don’t bother, it’s a dying planet! (That’s helped get rid of any future competition)
And the second…
More seriously, it’s the kids and the new musicians that will dictate whether the genre continues to exist. Their development is essential. Wherever we play on the circuit we let young Bands support us or actively feature them in jam/open mic nights that we run. We’ve met some fantastic young musicians. I hate people going on about Joe Bonamassa selling out; if he takes us to a whole new audience, then God bless him. I’ve had the privilege of opening for him and we’ve exchanged CD’s, he’s a great player.
I’d like to turn to the band now –how did the concept of having three girl singers develop and does that cause financial problems?
Well if anybody had any intention of trying to make money out of playing live music, I’m sure the last thing they would do is form a Band with 6 or 7 people in it and the play largely original material. For me, it’s all about managing the size of he debt in order to keep the musical vision alive. We only use 3 girls at festivals and big stage shows, mostly we just use two. They are all great singers and could easily front their own bands. It’s a bonus that they are all drop dead sexy and get no shortage of admirers. Big thanks to Mandie G, Kelly Marie Hobbs, Suzie D and Rachel Clark. In my view it’s another conduit to turning people onto the music, though some may say it’s just a conduit for turning people on. The girls all move well, it’s not cheesy and co-ordinated; they connect with the music and rock out on stage.
Do you run it as a democracy or are you the boss?
I’ll ask the Band if I’m allowed to say that I’m the Boss
With 7 or 8 members do you get any dissent, how do you deal with it?
In many different ways, it happens all the time. No group of people will ever see everything the same way
So how about some specific advice for bandleaders
Don’t ever expect to be thanked, especially with sincerity
Let’s turn to your own song writing, we’ve touched on it a bit when we talked about the albums. First of all, out of all your songs, have you got a favourite?
No, faves come and go. A song that embarrasses me one month, I start to re-consider the next (sometimes, mostly I stay embarrassed).
Any particular way of working when you write?
Write the music first, if that doesn’t give you the chills then it’s not a decent platform for a narrative and melody.
Got a philosophy of life?
If I had an ‘osophy’ I’d be a scientist
Any regrets band-wise?
Too many to mention
If it all ended tomorrow how would you like to be remembered?
As a good songwriter, someone who did a lot for live music, someone who was there for his friends and family
OK, well congratulations on a really good year and here’s to it being onward and upward.
Review from Maverick Magazine Roadhouse DARK ANGELRoadhouse CB2
**** Root-rockers roar back with a classic Roadhouse’s music has always been different, country-rock, heading into roots and blues, with a dark, cinematic world view, the still back routes of America laced with the dirtier back streets of London. This is the band’s 11th album and is the pinnacle of their achievements, rumbling, roaring and screaming in pain while never losing track of the country undertones. Under the leadership of guitarist/singer/songwriter Gary Boner, the band have been constantly pushing back the boundaries, and from the opening ringing tones of Too Tired To Pray you’re in the Roadhouse world. There are few such bands who can get away with expansive pieces, but such is Roadhouse’s mastery that the eight minutes of the majestic title track seem normal. The album’s success is in part due to Boner’s growing maturity as a writer, part of it is the band’s latest in a long line of lead guitarists, Danny Gwilym, whose playing takes things to a new level. There’s an inventive, rich, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll warmth, but there’s also the air of an early Clapton; imagine Cream playing in a roadhouse. Boner’s chugging, jangling rhythm is incessant and the solid rhythm section of Roger Hunt (drums) and Bill Hobley (bass) is still there from the very beginning is still there. The band’s unusual vocal approach is still there, too, a trio of female singers (Mandie G, Kellie Marie Hobbs, Suzi D) who at one moment appear to be adding backing to Boner, then switch to a lead harmony, then solo lead. The constant changes create an ensemble feel, rather like the Band where the boundaries of lead vocals were forever blurred. Of the tracks, Boner’s Working Class Gospel Drinking Blues is a favourite (with Gwilym’s gut-wrenching lead guitar), but there are lighter numbers such as So Over You, co-written with Gwilym and Hobbs. A classic. Nick Dalton www.roadhousegb.co.uk