INTERVIEW: BIG COUNTRY FINALLY MAKES IT TO OUR COUNTRY

Ah, it was just like the old days! The overseas phone connection dropping out repeatedly, the delay in transmission causing us to talk over the top of each other, the call suddenly shutting down altogether just as we were getting somewhere…it could have been the 1980’s all over again. 

I am trying to speak to one of the great rock drummers, Mark Brzezicki, who, these days, is once again providing the rhythmic backbone for Big Country, in their latest incarnation, as they proudly perform their anthemic back catalogue around the globe. He is somewhere in the U.S. and we are trying to connect through his U.K. number on relay. Three attempts in, and we get a decent line, and he is very keen to chat…

The Upside News: So…Big Country finally coming to Australia 35 years after forming, how come it took you guys so long?
Press Shot ColourMark Brzezicki: Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? (Laughs) I can’t really answer that. It’s many, many things even beyond knowing why, y’know? It’s ridiculous that a band that is heard globally haven’t even come over there. There were circumstances back in the day, different issues at the time and we were so busy in the early days. You know my life was different, and each member of the band would have different stories to tell but generally I remember there was a tour cancelled in the early eighties…

TUN: Yeah, I had tickets for that!

MB: Yeah – and I never really found out the reason why. The record company, management, and individual circumstances probably caused some reason for that. Obviously after Stuart [Adamson, founder member and frontman] passed, we weren’t a band for ten years or more until we got back together. It was a good time for us to come back again because things had moved on, the band has got a story to tell now. But we should have come earlier. We did come to Australia in 1999, no sorry, 1989 – my timeline’s all skew-whiff – just to do a video for our album, ‘Peace In Our Time’. It was along way to go just to do a video out in mid-Western Australia. We went to a beautiful place called Wittenoom, which also has a sort of deathly side as well because it was an old blue asbestos mine…

TUN: That’s right.

MB: It was a ghost town and we used some of that ghost town imagery – the old cinema, and outside, some of the cricket pitches. We stayed at the last surviving hotel there before it was bulldozed. It was quite an amazing place to go to, but we didn’t actually play – we went all that way to do a video for ’13 Valleys’ and ‘King Of Emotion’, which were two tracks off that ‘Peace In Our Time’ album.

So, we’re well overdue to come and play in Australia, but for some reason it has never appeared on the radar. Not that we had any control over that other than [some band members] saying, ‘We should be going to Australia! We should be going to America! There were all these places we don’t go to, so it’s about time we go’ and I feel the same.

TUN: I am really pleased that you are coming. Stuart’s songs are long overdue to be heard played live here.

MB: True.

TUN: Do you still get a charge playing Stuart’s old songs?

MB: Yeah, well Stuart did write most of the songs, although there were collaborations and then there are band compositions as well. It was the sum of the parts in Big Country, and we were always well aware of that.

Since Stuart’s passing we have maintained our guitar sound through Bruce Watson and having his son, Jamie, playing and we have a great vocalist.

We had Mike Peters up until a couple of years ago. He was fantastic, but he was always going to be going back to his own band, The Alarm. He came in – he was very gracious with us in what he felt about the band and what he felt about Stuart.

And Simon Hough [current Big Country vocalist] is also great – very straightforward, a really great vocalist and a really nice guy. He’s unpretentious.

He’s not trying to be Stuart Adamson, although we still maintain the drums and the overall guitar sound when we are playing the songs from that period.

So it’s going to be a great show, done the best you’ll ever hear it.

We are doing well, still, over here. It’s never going to be the same though. Whoever we use on vocals, to be honest, as long as it is done with respect and done in a certain way that’s true to the songs getting represented right –  it can never be more – they can never be Stuart.

But as Bruce Watson says, ‘Whoever sings for Big Country now will be the new Doctor Who! Doesn’t matter who it is. You can never replace Stuart, so whoever the singer is, when the show goes on, people will want to hear the songs.’

We play our hits, and generally that’s what the people want to hear, along with the songs from the bigger albums.

You know we still write songs but, to be honest, it comes down to a heritage thing and the reason we got back together was that there was a big swell on people wanting to hear the music still, and there’s nothing like getting out there and playing it live.

We tried it as a three piece eight or nine years ago – probably longer than that now – when we went out with an EP under the name BBW [Brzezicki, Butler, Watson].

But we didn’t feel like it had the right lead vocals and we felt that the twin guitar attack that had been Big Country, that kind of Thin Lizzy Celtic sound that we had, was missing so we re-grouped.

Jamie came into the band, Bruce’s son, and he had kind of grown up on the music and had got his parts learned from his father, and so the music was handed down to another generation. We’re in good shape!

TUN: I have watched a few recent clips on YouTube with Simon out the front and his vocals seem very true to the band’s sound. What is his pedigree? I hadn’t heard of Simon before.

MB: Simon was a local guy. Our management is based in Preston in the middle of the U.K., near Manchester, and he was a friend of the management who manage a few other bands, from The Blockheads to From The Jam. Our manager knows a host of musicians who he can call upon and he said, ‘Why don’t you try this guy out? I’ve been in a band with him. You know he was in a band called Lieutenant Pigeon back in the day…’

TUN: Really ???  [memories of ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ suddenly come to mind…] 

MB: Yeah. [Simon] also did some stuff with Thin Lizzy, and with Paul McCartney’s guitar player…um…

TUN: Denny Laine?

MB: Denny Laine! Yeah, he sang and played with Denny Laine for awhile, amongst other stuff. So once you’ve scratched the surface with Simon you find out a lot of things he’s done, but he’s an unassuming guy in the sense that when he’s on stage he’s not, you know, screaming and being a big front man, he just sings the songs in a fabulous way without trying to take the limelight or anything like that. He hasn’t got that type of personality.

It is working great with Simon, and coincidentally – although it was nothing we were making a rule about – people have said he has a certain timbre in his voice that has the same characteristic that Stuart had. Not the same – but there is a type of timbre that carries the songs in a really great way.

So we are very, very pleased with Simon, and it keeps being proved in the way the gigs are going down. So we’re happy to come to Australia and give a great show.

TUN: You mentioned earlier that you had the trio for a short while with Tony Butler. I always used to think that Tony and yourself were one of the greatest rhythm sections going around, so when – and why – did Tony leave the band?

MB: Well, it’s hard to say in a short interview, but to cut a long story short I would sum up and say that Tony is very spirited [sic] with the band, and it was a big shock when Stuart passed, and Tony was very reticent about coming back at all.

But when we got back together as a three piece it kind of reinvigorated him – because his bass lines are amazing.

I think the rhythm section is very strong in the band, as it has been with Tony, and I have been very proud to have been working with him over the years prior to Big Country and on sessions as well outside of the band with, you know, Pete Townshend and a few others.

When Stuart passed, I was able to keep to my plan, in a professional way. I was doing many other things. Some people know, some people don’t – so for those people who don’t know, I was in Procol Harum for 17 years…

TUN: Yes, I was going to ask you about that…

MB: It was a great band for me. I was doing that alongside Big Country. I was able to spin those plates and keep them in the air although it was crazy and I was doing other things as well. So I was able to survive. But Tony didn’t perceive doing that as a career outside of Big Country.

I always kept my session work up, I was very picky about always doing that so when the need came I was fortunate enough to always still get the calls, but Tony didn’t really want to do that. He wanted to get into something new. He became a school teacher teaching Music Technology at College, which he got really into.

He’s still playing music and he still feels proud of his past.

We did get back together, obviously when we reformed not to long ago, in the last five years or so, with Mike Peters, Bruce Watson and Jamie Watson. But Bruce had to give up going back to his day job, he had to give that all up and commit again, full-time, to the band which was a very tricky thing to do when everyone had got used to doing separate things.

Tony was still doing his day job, so we were only working the weekend, and it meant more of a full time commitment would be needed if we were to do anything of value as Big Country.

Obviously, I was able to do that. Bruce made a commitment to do it – and it was big decision process to do that when the band had stopped and you realise that it was never going to be the same.

It was still a great band and the songs are very strong, and they came across great and we still maintained most of the [original] sound, but Tony was happy to keep where he was.

He is very happy. He is writing songs for a solo project which I am playing on. I was with Tony only about a month ago down in Cornwall and I played on three or four of his new songs, and I am going to continue to do that.

He is still playing bass very powerfully for his own projects, but who knows the future? He may come up and guest with us one day, but Tony is happy doing what he’s doing and we have respect for that.

Bruce Is giving it another shot. He now has his son playing guitar, and I am playing the drums, so you’ll still get a great gig. I am proud to be still playing those fantastic songs this long after the event. I never thought I’d even have a story to tell. When you’re growing up you don’t realise what your story will be. In hindsight, I never thought we’d have a tragic story to tell with Stuart, and to be even still doing it this long after that. So, you know, I’m grateful for every day, and I’m grateful that people still want to hear us play. We’ve always been a humble band and we’re grateful for things. I know the people who come along to see us will either be curious, or will be people who have waited a long, long time to see us, which will be very special as well

TUN: I am looking forward to coming along and singing along with those songs from your heyday. I was a big fan back in the day, as I was of The Skids…

MB: Yeah, Stuart made some great music. He was a great loss.

TUN: Can I just go back to you talking about how you have done a lot of session work. Mark Brzezicki is not a household name in Australia but I would very much doubt that there’s a house that doesn’t have some of the music that you have played on. Is it true that you played on ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ by The Cult?

MB: (Laughs) That’s another story. I had been in the video and I played on the album. The album is called ‘Love’, and on that album is ‘She Sells Sanctuary’. Now, again, I get calls under different circumstances, with ‘She Sells Sanctuary’, they had already recorded that song, and their drummer – who was Nigel Preston, who has now sadly passed away through drug problems, and there’s a story to tell there… Well, they were desperate to continue their progress with their album and I got a call to go and do the video for that as [Nigel] was being very unreliable at that time.

So, I ended up doing the video for ‘She Sells Sanctuary’. I have since played live with them on the song. They had to go into the studio very shortly after that and finish doing the album which I then played on. So yeah, people see me playing it [in the video] but it was actually Nigel before he died [on the recording]. I sort of turned the album around, from the record company’s point of view, because they had to keep their schedule the same and they had to get a drummer in who was ready to go with the songs that they didn’t have a drummer for. So I did that and I’m very proud of it – it’s a good album.

TUN: Yes. It is.

MB: And I’m very proud to have been in the video as well.

TUN: You’ve also played with, as you mentioned, Pete Townshend, Frida from ABBA, and Procol Harum. Do you enjoy the challenge of adapting your style to all of these different genres and tempos?

MB: Fortunately, I often get calls because people want someone who can obviously play to a certain standard, which is what I do, but also it must be because of my style.

I’ve thought about this. Certain artists ask me to be myself. I’m very lucky to be called and to have them say, ‘Don’t be like those other guys. Bring what you bring to the table, and bring it to the record.’ They still want creativity and inventiveness, and to do that you have to be yourself.

I can obviously play within the framework of a hit, like when we play ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’.

The great B.J. Wilson, who was a fabulous drummer, well, I can play within his style. I can actually do that, but when I actually play on the hits I play it kind of like his way but with a little turn my way. I can keep the key moments right but I can still make it my own without people really noticing.

But come the records – because I ended up playing on the new records with Procol Harum – there you know you can reinvent yourself, and bring your style into the band which reinvents the band to a small degree because you have a new thing to work against.

So on the new record with Procol Harum, and on the last three or four studio albums that I did with them, it is a slightly different drum style but its also not too dissimilar from putting my thinking cap on and playing in a certain way that suits the music. So you end up hitting that balance, you know.

Likewise, when I work with Pete I am not trying to be Keith Moon, although I love Keith Moon’s playing, I know the sort of energy that Pete requires when we play. I also notice the creativity that Pete looks for that, perhaps, Keith may not have done. He asks me to play a certain way in areas that are very different from when Keith was alive, so I am aware of that as well.

It’s just having a good overview of peoples’ music and having a good understanding, a good empathy, with what they bring and, hopefully, I’ve been doing a good job with that.

I’ve been lucky to be getting these calls, and I’m on a lot of records…

(The ominous beeps go, telling me we only have seconds remaining…)

…from Joan Armatrading, like you said, to Fish from Marillion… all kinds of people.

I nearly came to Australia with From The Jam because I played with Bruce Foxton on his solo albums as well. He’s just done a new album as Bruce Foxton, and I played on his last one and I was supposed to be coming to Australia with him, but my Big Country schedule stopped that.

I did a spell with Sting as well but I couldn’t do the whole tour for the ‘The Soul Cages’ album, so I ended up doing some TV shows with him.

Tears For Fears, the same, I did some TV shows with them, and some shows in Europe. Midge Ure, I’ve done most of his solo albums and I’ve been doing lots of touring with him over the years.

But with Big Country commitments, I find I can do the recordings but the tours eat more into my schedule, so I end up playing on lots of records and…

(Beep beep beep…)

Damn, we were disconnected! There were so many follow up questions to that last list of achievements. And I also wanted to ask him about the super-group he formed, The Casbah Club, that also had Bruce Foxton and Simon Townshend in it; about Bruce Watson’s new customised Subbuteo table; about his views on the 80’s revival shows that seem to be constantly doing the rounds with ever-changing line-ups of acts; and of course ask him what the band’s set list will include when they hit the stage at The Gov on Thursday 16 June.

Hopefully we’ll get to finish the interview at a later date. But in the meantime, make sure you all buy your tickets. Big Country’s hits were made to be heard live!

GRAB YOUR TICKETS HERE.

Interviewed by Ken Grady
Photograph by Paul M Green