The Big Über Rock Interview: Duncan Reid Print E-mail
Written by Dom Daley   
Sunday, 07 May 2017 04:00

Who would have thought that one of UR’s favourite power pop punk rock ‘n’ roll songsmiths used to struggle to produce a single word, never mind a tune? Yep, indeed he did folks, as I found out when I caught up with ex-The Boys bassist turned Big Head Duncan Reid following his recent triumphant Camden show to discuss his transition from sidekick to main man...


Duncan Reid Facebook photo


UR: I've just reviewed the new album, 'Bombs Away', where I pitched it as your finest most complete record to date. One you should be massively proud of.  Would I be right in assuming it's your most fluid record from your perspective? How are you fairing as a writer now compared to when you started this solo stuff? Does this indeed featuring your strongest set of songs to date?


DR: I've loved all of our albums, but I have to agree with you. This one is the best. Sounds big headed but that's our name! The songs are great, the playing is amazing, and the vocals are first rate. I'm honestly stunned at the songs I've come up with. It's a complete mystery to me where they come from.


When I was in The Boys, I couldn't write for love or money. I'd sit down at a table and pray that something would come out. It usually didn't, so thank heavens I was in a band with three genius writers. No one ever went to a better "music school" than me. Now, I just wait and they appear.


I really have to thank Steve Metcalfe, The Boys manager, for giving me this gift. He suggested to Honest John Plain when he was looking for songs for a solo album that I give it a go. Suddenly, I found I could write. That album became ‘The Mattless Boys’ and I'd never had so much fun. I haven't stopped since. It gave me something to fall back on when I couldn't carry on any longer in The Boys, and has led to the most satisfying times of my music career. Writing and performing are the joys of my life (along with my family of course). I could live without recording - but then I'd never hear the fruits of my writing and that would be a shame.


You've had different musicians on each album: what are the pros and cons of this? Have you kept the recording format the same or has it changed every time?


It’s pretty much the same. I've a tiny little demo studio at home where I'll put together 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the arrangements. On ‘Bombs Away’, all of the vocals and keyboards were recorded in my home as well.


It's this demo phase which is the most fun for me. It's here the songs gradually reveal themselves, as ideas pop out of my head - rom goodness knows where - and I develop the parts for guitars, backing vocals, keyboards etc. The Who used to do it this way: Pete Townsend would make demos at home, and send them to the band, who would learn the songs and make them better by adding their character.


On ‘Little Big Head’, I played nearly everything bar drums, so the only development from the demos was Tony Barbers' ideas and fantastic arrangements. I learned so much from Tony about how to build a song, adding interest as it goes through by changing sounds and adding parts. He got me away from The Boys/ Ramones approach of "let's start as we mean to finish" - although when that works, as it usually does with those two, it's great.


On all three albums the drums were played along to the demos, and then the tracks were built up again from there. With numbers two and three, the band musicians contributed enormously with new ideas, extra licks, etc., to improve the record. And the producers, Tony Barber and Sean Genockey, have been kings at coming up with great sounds. Tony, especially, with keyboards and Sean with his box of magic guitar pedals.


How different is it fronting a band that is Duncan Reid & the Big Heads to The Boys? People would think it's less democratic: what are your feelings on this?


Duncan Reid - Camden 1


It is a very, very different experience from being in The Boys, for a host of reasons. At first it was very lonely. I'd gone from an internationally renowned, iconic band for whom, I can see now with hindsight, life was very easy. Someone would offer a decent amount of money to fly us to the other side of the world, and, when we got there, hundreds of people were ecstatic to see us and would know all the songs.


Suddenly, I was on my own and relatively few people were that interested to hear what I had to say. Being the ex-bass player of The Boys helped a little, but it didn't knock that many doors down or bring that many people to gigs.


I needed to fight for every bit of attention, and I think it brought the best out of me and made me better.


Slowly, through hard work and perseverance, things have grown to the point where, for instance, festival promoters who wouldn't answer my emails before are now calling about whether we can play in 2018! Huge credit for that must go to the fantastic musicians I have played with, and who I play with currently. And now, instead of feeling alone, those musicians have such enthusiasm it feels like I'm back in a band and not on my own. It's so much fun being with them.


Is it less democratic? Well, yes, of course; at the end of the day the casting vote is with me, whereas in The Boys decisions were a fight. But I think the band would agree that they contribute ideas and opinions all the time, and that I welcome that and change tack whenever there's a consensus that it's the right thing to do.


How stubborn are you when it comes to recording the songs? Do you have the finished song closed off before you enter the studio or is it left for others to offer another way of looking at the song?  When the record is finished, can you look back and say that the finished product is how you imagined it would sound?


As before, the majority is worked out beforehand and then it gets improved! Yes, I've been happy with the way every record has turned out sound wise.


With ‘Little Big Head’, I made a conscious effort to get away from the Les Paul/Marshall amp classic sound of punk, and so it turned out more power pop. The albums have been a slow journey back to the classic sound - but I also like the Chris Isaak ‘Wicked Games’ big reverb which turns up in songs like ‘Wasting Time’ and ‘The Man On The Desk’. The key is variety and experimentation, and I think every album shows that.


Looking at the new album, was it an easy one to write and record?


Dead easy. Although he didn't produce it (he'd moved full time to New York so it wasn't practical), Tony Barber had a big influence by telling me to buy a good microphone and record the vocals at home. That was a brilliant idea. There are a lot of vocals on all the albums, and my voice tends to break down quickly, which made recording the first two tricky at times. At home, I didn't need to book a studio and hammer it for hours to get the vocals done. I could just do a couple of hours here and there, when it felt good.


And it meant I could do more. There are backing vocals on this album which have 15 to 20 tracks of my voice!


It was also easier to get help. I love the combination in particular of my voice with Karen Jones, our drummer. She doesn't sing live but she has the voice of a little cherub. When we sing together it reminds me of the Pixies. Anyone popping round my house was liable to get roped in, which is how Mauro Venegas and Tommy Lorente made some great contributions.


You went with Mauro in the studio and Nick live: was it just a case of Nick joining the party too late to be on the record?  Has it panned out as you'd have hoped? In as much as each album is slightly different due to the personnel, yet it's still your voice and bass and you write the songs, but the sound has evolved: are you more confident now?


Yes. Purely timing as regards Mauro and Nick. The album was finished by the time Nick came along. Mauro has made some seriously great contributions to this record. Listen to the guitar licks on ‘Just Because You're Paranoid’, for instance. They are right up there with Mick Ronson and Johnny Thunders.


Being a great guitarist and looking so good, Mauro was bound to be in demand, especially as his first commitment is to The Godfathers. But how we have landed on our feet with Nick! Both are outstanding and I feel so lucky to have played with them both.


I don't know how I thought it would pan out. Not as good as this, though.


I've always been confident. That's why I called the first album ‘Little Big Head’. I'm little and I've got a big head!


Musicians always say they can't pick a favourite song on their own album because they're like their children and it wouldn't be fair to pick.  (We all deep down have a favourite child it's just nobody wants to admit it) Well c'mon: what's your favourite song on this record? What about what Andrew came back with on 'C'mon Josephine' or is there a particular type of song you love to play?  Something like 'Baby Doll' with the synth or the straight out rockers?


I love variety. It's one of the reasons our live set is so strong. Like you say, we have rockers, slow songs, synth songs... What other punk band has that right now (and looks so good at the same time)?


I named the album after the track ‘Bombs Away’ because it's one of the best things from my entire music career, not just on this album. It's fitting that the intro borrows an idea from ‘First Time’, with single chords of a slightly thin guitar being over taken by a bigger guitar with the band then crashing in. Probably the two biggest highlights of songs I've sung.


Lyrically I'm really chuffed with ‘That's Just The Way It Is’ and ‘The Man On The Desk’. I love the exercise of taking a real life situation and condensing the whole story into three minutes. Ray Davies was the master at that and I hope I sometimes get a little near.


You've got younger better looking Big Heads I think it's fair to say.  What is it they bring to the Duncan Reid sound? They all obviously have the talent, but tell us some things about them as individuals…  I presume you could have just called in favours with friends who have also been on the scene for decades but you didn't go down that path was there a specific reason for that?


DuncanReid OurBlackHeart 11042017 SS1


Yes. Younger and better looking than me! Ha ha. What can I tell you about them?


Sophie is so funny and she really fires me up with her enthusiasm. She was there all the way through the mixing of the album, because she didn't want to miss anything. She's a huge Joan Jett fan and I love it on those occasions when I look round on stage and see this thrashing blur of beaten up, white Les Paul junior, hair, legs and Doc Martens. She'll take on anything. I asked her to learn keyboards so we could have the important parts live. "No problem, I can do that" was the reply and now she's great at it. She has a wicked side though. I only drink on the last night of a tour. She'll try and get me on the tequila, and if I don't watch out I'll go from zero to passed out in ten minutes! Her playing can be very modern which adds a nice touch. Listen to "I Can Fly" with its funky little guitar hook. Class.


Karen's the organised one - although Sophie gives me a look and says I don't know the truth. Apparently she's really, really naughty in secret! What do I know? She's as light as a feather but, boy, does she whack those drums, especially when a male drummer assumes she can't! Listen to the drumming on ‘Bombs Away’. Is that not some of the best drumming you have ever heard?


And Nick, our tattooed tall guy who brings the hard rock edge. Vocally, he's very strong - as anyone who's seen him karaoke knows! He seems to be a bit of a babe magnet as well. Being tall, handsome and having the wild man looks obviously works!


How did the current line up come to your attention, and what did you say to Nick to get him in the band? Because he comes from a quite different background musically - his influences. Etc: as well as being a great player he’s also a great guy.  How important is it that the band just seem to be having a ball all the time and without ego. Nick worked really well live with Sophie: you must have been delighted how tight the band are after such a short time together?


Isn't Nick great? I don't know what she said but Nick couldn't say no to Sophie when she asked him to join! The whole line up has come together through friends of friends and you are right: we really do have a laugh. To say I'm delighted is an understatement!


DuncanReid OurBlackHeart 11042017 SS


The recent show in Camden was fantastic, and the live band really sounded like they had the bit between their teeth and got the songs, and the energy was fantastic - is this the best line up so far?


There have been some great ones but a lot of people say we are better than ever. I think one of the reasons we hit the nail is we have a three man attack. I loved and was always very jealous of The Clash for that. Three front men (or ladies in our case) plus a great drummer. There aren't many bands who have three show offs up front. It's really powerful and is another way the set has variety because different combinations of visual interactions are going on throughout the show.


The new songs fitted in perfectly at the show and even hearing some for the first time they seemed like they'd been around for ages - is it difficult picking a set list?


Yes it is, but we like to let the set evolve over time, bringing in songs bit by bit and then rotating them. That way we stay really tightly drilled which is a large part of what we are about. Sometimes it's fun to throw a spanner in the works. In Spain recently we played ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ even though only one of us had played it before. It worked. Last night we made Nick play ‘Box No.’, even though he didn't know it. He coped. A little bit of danger makes you concentrate and stop the cobwebs growing.


Going back to the new album… How do you approach a new record?  Are you writing constantly and how do you tackle that? Is it easier to collaborate or bounce ideas off certain people?  Or do you prefer to work alone?


Yes. I'm constantly writing. It seems to take about two years to write 17 songs which is what it also seems to take to whittle them down to 13 songs for a good album. So far I've mainly written alone. Even co writes like ‘I Can Fly’, on the new album, or ‘Gotta Call Simone’ have been me taking someone else's idea and finishing it off on my own.


‘C'mon Josephine’, the song you mentioned earlier which was written with Andrew Matheson, was my tune and Andrews words and improvements to the structure. Andrew is a great wordsmith and someone should give him a producing job. The changes he made to that song were spot on.


Going forward I'm really keen to discover how I can co write more with people. It's the logical next step.


How far can this record go? Would you like to play more shows and reach a wider audience?


Of course. We want the maximum number of people to hear it. Is there a place for a classic heavy melody, power pop punk record in the modern X Factor pop/EDM world? Who knows? We'll give it a good go.


Having been in this business for a number of years what are the most noticeable changes?  What would Duncan Reid of 2017 tell a young Duncan back in the mid ‘70s?  (apart from Elvis not dying and subsequently clogging up the pressing plant or The Jam nicking The Boys’ thunder)  Is this what 'Wouldn't Change A Single Thing’ is about'?


That is a tough question. I'm a very driven person who strives to make things happen. When I was in The Boys I think I could have afforded to worry less and enjoy myself more. That's because in those days record companies would sign unknown bands, bank roll them and give them a chance. Now you have to make it happen for yourself. Somehow make your own records and videos and get them out there so that a record company might then take notice. That's the major change.


‘Wouldn't Change A Single Thing’ is about that inner drive and the optimism of youth. There's a great line in a Mott song: "You look like a star but you're still on the dole". Well, the dole would hardly give me any money so I had to walk from one side of London to the other every day, without even the bus fare, to rehearse with The Boys. I did it because I was completely certain we were destined for greatness.


What next for Duncan Reid & The Big Heads? After world domination obviously :)


World domination will do.


With the new album due out this month, when can fans expect the vinyl edition and more tour dates?


We are in the queue at the vinyl pressing plants. Hopefully June. We are on constant tour. Check out the dates HERE.


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