Interview with Bob Catley from Magnum
Cardiff, 7th December, 2022
Interviewed by Simon Black
It’s a bitterly cold December night here in Cardiff and Bob Catley, Magnum frontman for fifty years has a nasty toothache which the weather is not helping with. I offer him some paracetamol but he’s not biting “I hate paracetamol! I’m going to start having my warmup drink soon. I don’t mind having that…!” he says with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. His warmup drink of choice for all these decades has long been a JD and coke and although I do try and tempt him with a miniature of locally distilled Penderyn Welsh whisky, he’s sticking to his guns. For five decades he knows what works and if it isn’t broken don’t fix it id the best strategy – which pretty well sums up what Magnum manages to still deliver so well after all this time. Their most recent album “The Monster Roars” landed at the start of the year and for me at least feels like it’s in their top three of all time, although touring both it and its predecessor has been somewhat of a challenge… So Bob, welcome to Cardiff! Finally!
Cheers! The good old Tramshed! Yes, we’ve been here a few times before…
This show seems to be have been rescheduled forever. Is it nice to finally close the tour?
Yes, we were supposed to do it in April this year and it was rescheduled because of Covid. But then that whole tour was rescheduled from 2020! So, it’s taken us two years to get here. The whole thing was put back three times, so it was actually re-re-re-scheduled! Then, when we were due to play Cardiff, Covid put it back again! It was crap for everybody…
How was the Pandemic for you guys, because that was a terrifying time for everybody?
Me and Tony were lucky, because Tony could bring forward the recording of the new album by a year, so we had twice as long as we normally have to finish the album. We did it in two halves, with half in 2020 and half in 2021 and it was released in 2022. At least we weren’t just doing nothing, so we had more time with less pressure to do it in, which was good in a way but rubbish because we couldn’t do the tours. Everybody had bought a ticket and was asking “What’s happening…?”
It was originally going to be “The Serpent Rings” Tour when I first put it into my diary…
Yes, it was going to be “The Serpent Rings” Tour in 2020 when that album came out – like you do: album, tour, festivals, Christmas – and then Covid got in the way, and just wouldn’t go away, which was crap for everybody. It just ruined everything for all the bands everywhere in this country.
There’s a lot of good venues that have gone too…
Yeah, venues have gone, promoters have gone, a lot of stuff’s gone too, even pubs! It was like a disaster movie, but for real. But we’re here now, and we were in Southampton last night which was another good show rescheduled because of Covid. I think the Bristol one, which we did on Monday was rescheduled out of respect for the Queen’s funeral though. We didn’t think it was the right thing to do to go and play loud music on the Queen’s funeral day! But we’ve done them all now, and we’re here tonight – great! Then we have one more show on Saturday in Wolverhampton at KK’s Steel Mill, and that’s the end of our year.
Congratulations on “The Monster Roars” – it looks like it did quite well around Europe.
Yes, it’s done marvellously in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Top 5 in Germany, Number 2 in Sweden and about Number 8 in Switzerland. That’s the normal album chart, not one of these “other” things where you’re number one there but it doesn’t mean anything! Proper album charts!
This feels like a much darker record – starting with that wonderful cover, which is not the usual Rodney Matthews painting style.
The artwork was by an artist who made up a model and that’s the image you got. Now Rodney Matthews wasn’t available, and so Tony went with this idea of the model. We’d got the song title “The Monster Roars” and we thought “We’ve got to call the album that – that’s a great title track” and we needed an image to go with it. We mentioned to Rodney what we would like, and he said “Well, I’m not very good at drawing people and I’m a bit busy at the moment doing other things…” So OK, fine, hopefully we can use you next time, but it was a great idea and it’s all make-up. There was a young lady who made up Martin, who is Tony’s son in law, he was the model and that’s what we ended up with photographing. It’s brilliant! It was really shocking when I first saw it, it was like “Wow!” and it took me some time to get used to it. I thought “Oh, well this is different; OK and Rodney’s not available so this is a great alternative to what we normally have anyway.”
We have done different things without Rodney over the years, as he hasn’t always been available and it hasn’t always been right to use him, if the record label got involved and dictated that we must do it a certain way, but given the choice we would use Rodney all the time… When he’s available…! I think it’s a great album cover and it’s perfect for the lyrics to the song, which is basically about a child’s nightmare. It’s fantasy; it’s not real – but it’s pretty real in your dreams. And it’s all in the lyrics – we haven’t turned into demon worshippers!
It kicks off a moodier and darker feeling album though – did Covid play a part in that in terms of the song-writing?
I don’t think so. You would have to ask Tony about that. I think that those would have been the songs on that album with or without Covid – there’s nothing about Covid in there, which is the obvious things to write about, I suppose, but I don’t think that that was in his head at all. I think he knew what he wanted, and then we get started and get going and the songs are the songs, you know?
The subject matter can be anything. He’s a great songwriter, Tony, and I’ve worked with him for fifty years now, which is amazing! I ask him what the song’s about, so I know what I am singing about, then through the recording process he will change the words when I’m singing, as what he’s got in his head doesn’t always come out as good when you actually sing it. He can tell that it doesn’t scan well, will go off and come back having changed it. One song wasn’t working that great this time, compared to all the others this time and he completely changed the whole song, so we ended up with a completely different tune. That can happen as well – you think you’ve got it all and then it’s “No, it’s not working” and they’re all brilliant apart from one. I mean it was still pretty good but compared to the rest of them it wasn’t coming up to the mark this time. You do have to do that sometimes – you have to pull it apart and start again, and he had the time to do it.
[I tell Bob how much I love that the sound on those last two records now feels like a true fusion of everything the band have done since reforming this century.] The album drips that classic early 70’s Hard Rock vibe but with a truly modern feel, especially the way that the keyboards sounds are working, the interplay between Tony and Rick Benton. Was that deliberate or did it just evolve naturally?
Rick Benton is a great keyboard player. We’ve had him for a few years now and he works with Tony just great, as he comes up with these great sounds that fit the songs and the mood of the music, or what I’m singing. So yeah, some older sounds that were around – he’s brought them in and we’re like “Oh yeah!”. You know like Oberheim stuff that people used to use – 80’s sounds that we would have used on “Chase The Dragon” or “On A Storyteller’s Night”. Tony’s all “Yeah, try that sound! Use that sound!” and Rick will go and come up with it. He’ll go away and programme it all and then come in and play it, so it’s all demoed before; then we’ll go into the studio and here’s the real thing… and everything changes!
The song key has to change half the time because of writing it on a guitar, as Tony will do the melody line on the guitar for me to familiar with, but then you find it’s in an ‘in-between’ key of up here or down there, so you have to change the key to get the best out of the vocals. That happens quite often. Changing the key on the keyboards is just a button, but poor Tony has to do all the guitars again! “Right let’s do all the guitars again” so, it’s my fault, because it’s different when you’re singing, as the voice is the most important thing at the time…
I love that your voice is like a lovely, aged whiskey and seems to get better every year…
Well, I know how to do it now… I’ve been doing it all my life. Singers get better with age, they really do. You have more control and emotion, and subtlety, and things that when you first start don’t exist really.
*At this point Bob mimics a more shouty performance of yesteryear which is a far cry from the measured and bluesy timbre of his voice today.*
I was just like that really, because I was young and excitable and I’ve calmed down a lot over the years, but I do think I’ve got better with maturity. I hope so, I think so, I know so! And that reflects in the songs, in the way I sing them and what Tony gives me. We’re both ‘maturing’, and that’s gonna happen, you know? Although he’s Rockier now than he ever was and he’s a way better Producer now than he ever was…
I have to agree. The Production on “The Monster Roars” is an absolute pinnacle of the band’s achievements of the years.
He’s great, and he just takes the time to get all these sounds right in the mix – I don’t know how he does it! He’s just a very clever man, and I’m very glad to be working with him for all this time. And he’s done wonders for me and my career. He’s made me better than I ever was, so it’s a growing relationship and it’s great! We just carry on – it is what we do. We’re not looking for anything else really. I mean I do Avantasia on occasion, and Rick will do stuff with people, and Lee will do some stuff with other people in between albums and tours. Meanwhile Tone is back in his studio writing while I’m off going round the world with Avantasia! But it’s good to come back, and he’s always ready to start working again having had a break.
[I ask Bob how working with Avantasia maestro Tobi Sammet compares to Tony Clarkin, given the man’s unique ability to distil the five greatest songs a singer has contributed to into one new track that completely encapsulates that sound perfectly.] It’s a trick he pulls live too, seemingly always able to push the utmost in a performance from everybody involved. What’s that like as a process in comparison?
Well, he will send you an early mix of the song – just enough for you to know what your part is, and we will go and do it over in Wolverhampton and then send it back to Germany, so we don’t have to be in the same place anymore. That’s not possible… I’ve got the lyrics and I will go to the studio with Sheena, the engineer from Magnum and start putting something down, doing a few takes. Then she will put it together afterwards and send it off to him and he can do what he likes with that. He’s got what he wants off of the artist, which goes for all the singers. He will write a song for that singer, for what that singer’s known for, so it’s not alien – there’s no experimentation here. Give ‘em what they want, right? Bang, bang, bang! This is Bob, singing a Magnum-type song; this is Eric Martin singing a Mr Big type song – in that direction, Michael Kiske a bit like Helloween. It’s good that he does that, so it’s familiarity with the singer that you’re talking about, so you feel comfy with it already because it’s what you are used to…
It seems like Tobi has rebooted a few careers with that technique, but in comparison Magnum may never have really stopped> Is it an unbreakable partnership with Tony and you?
Well, we’ve had several line-up changes over the years – people come and go, but me and Tony are still there. I think it’s great. We work really well together and he’s fine and happy with me going off and doing Avantasia. He gets on well with Tobi too. We actually got Tobi over to the Birmingham Symphony Hall to sing the title track of “Lost On The Road To Eternity” on stage – which he had done on the album. I had been on several Avantasia albums by then so Tony said “Get your mate over to do a duo with you and do it the other way around”. Everything I do with Tobi is a duet, not like Magnum where the singer is just me as in Avantasia you are one of two or three singers on stage at the same time. It’s like a Heavy Metal Rock Opera and it’s brilliant. So, we got him up to the Symphony Hall to sing, and he went down fantasticly well. It seems Avantasia are massive everywhere except the UK…
I concur. The only show we ever seem to be able to get this spectacle for is the London Kentish Town forum for one night, with the exception of a support slot at Bloodstock one year…
Yeah, that Bloodstock festival show was some years ago now. It was just down the road from me at Catton Hall, as I live in Tamworth, just round the corner. It’s a pity that Avantasia only play one show in London once every three years, because everywhere else they’re just enormous and playing arenas, which is brilliant. They’re regulars at Wacken too…
Well, when your first ever live show as a band is headlining Wacken in 2008…
Wacken is always great – we did it again just recently. I love Wacken. The backstage area is really nice and posh for a rock and roll festival, the furniture is comfy, the careering is brilliant, and the dressing rooms are really clean and warm. Tony is happy for me to go off and do Avantasia when it’s suitable, but it can’t get in the way of what’s happening in the Magnum camp – that has to come first of course. Magnum is more of a priority, and Tobias knows that. It works great, and I’m looking forward to the next time – whenever that may be. We’ve just done loads of festivals to promote that last album (“A Paranormal Evening With The Moonflower Society”). On the later festivals we had started to do two songs from the new album. Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear) did a track from it, a very heavy track, and I did the (almost) title track ‘The Moonflower Society’ along with the one he wrote for me years ago ‘The Story Ain’t Over’.
That song came out originally on the “Lost In Space” EP and was very much a part of “The Scarecrow” album cycle – the point where Avantasia stopped being a studio project and evolved into a touring circus with regular album cycles from then on – something that Bob has contributed to since that point…
Yes well, Tobi is a big Magnum fan. He’s probably also a big Helloween fan, and a big Mr Big fan as well, so he tries to get all of his heroes onto the album then onto the stage and the tour with him – which is a great compliment, you know? He’s said to me personally, and on stage as well quite often when he’s introducing me and talking to the audience (which can be a bit embarrassing) saying “Without the next singer’s band and music there probably wouldn’t have been a Tobias Sammet or an Avantasia, so please welcome on stage Bob Catley from Magnum..”… and you can’t get better than that. It’s quite emotional!
We’re all a bunch of idiots backstage; there’s no egos. But there could be and there is quite a lot in Rock ‘n’ Roll as you know, but it doesn’t exist backstage with Avantasia – everyone’s all on the same level. Some artists sell more records than others, but we’re all in Avantasia and it’s a great camaraderie. As in Magnum! As in our line-up now – we have a great camaraderie and that’s really important for longevity. You’ve got to get on; you’ve got to like each other for goodness’ sake and respect each other. It’s a mutual respect thing, because you are in each other’s shoes for the whole six weeks tour, so you have just got to get on with each individual and be nice people – with each other and the fans, and everybody else. Be a good bloke and behave yourself! We haven’t got room for anything that isn’t that cool, which is how a band should be.
Is touring still fun after all this time?
Oh yeah! Sure, I love it! Fantastic! I even like the tour bus! There’s tour buses and there’s tour buses, but this one is nice!
It’s nearly 35 years since Wings of Heaven when I first saw you live, and 25 years since I first interviewed you. So how does it feel to be still going strong after 50 years?
I know! Ha ha! I don’t think about it that much – we just kept going! We had a short break when I did some solo records when Hard Rain wasn’t working out for me. That was a low point, but 50 years has gone like that, you know? The 80’s is like last year to me! I’m still in the 80’s! I hate change – I don’t move on very well, you know? The music may move on, but I don’t fundamentally, I am still an 80’s bloke! I’ve still got the hair, although I’m not wearing ripped jeans anymore – I’m a bit too old for that! They were more rips than jeans, but they would look ridiculous on me now! But I am quite juvenile in my approach to everything – I still think I’m about 35 or something instead of twice that age. But it’s done me good, it’s kept me young and it’s brilliant! So yes, I love touring and so does Tony. It’s what we’re there for – record an album, put it out, start rehearsing and off you go on tour, and you just keep that going.
As long as people still want to see that and hear the music and still find us relevant to what’s going on in the world. There’s a lot of subject matter out there – Tony’s a very great observer. He’s not a preacher or a political, but he’s a great observer and he will wrap it up in poetry and fantasy. Quite down to earth things, but he will make it sound ambiguous by adding a double meaning. It’s all in his head – he’s a great reader of books and he absorbs a lot of stuff. He’s very intelligent – more intelligent than I think many people realise. He’s great and it’s a treasure to savour, and look after, to behold and to keep in your pocket. That’s Magnum – it’s a little treasure! Our fans do tell us that…
Magnum were always the band boosting sales in the nearest pub to the venue after soundcheck, does that still happen?
No, we’re over that now – we haven’t done that for a long time! Tony stopped drinking some years ago, so it’s all his fault! We used to follow him to the pub “Come on, we’re going to the pub”, “Oh, alright then…” not that we needed much arm twisting believe me! That’s how it was in the 70’s and 80’s – everybody was like that: alcohol fuelled. Cigarettes and alcohol! We hadn’t got any money – we were broke, so we ended up poncing drinks the whole time “Cheers, thanks!”. Good days! When we started out you couldn’t get us out of the boozer, but that hasn’t happened for a very long time. We’re far more responsible now, thank God, otherwise we wouldn’t have reached this time in our lives. If we had carried on like that, that’s just going down the wrong way… I mean I like a drink – we all do, especially with Christmas coming up, but in moderation. I like getting a bit merry, but nothing more than that. You can’t mix work with pleasure – it’s one or the other.
Our time is almost over and with an insistent tour manager keen to get Bob ready for the show, I ask him looking back over all these decades, what moments in his career stand out the most after all this time?
Monsters of Rock, Castle Donnington 1985. That was great, even though we were on first.
I guess that going on first meant you were less likely to get pelted by bottles filled with unsavoury contents, given that the crowd had probably not finished drinking their original contents…?
Oh yes, people would throw things at the stage if they don’t like you. I had mud slung at me, and a bottle of something smash and explode against the drum riser – I hate to think what it was! But that was a long time ago, though Monsters of Rock was a high.
Ozzy Osbourne’s USA tour in 1982 as well, just after Randy Rhoads had died in that awful plane crash. We came onto the tour then and Sharon and Ozzy looked after us very well nicely as we were on the same label – Jet Records (Run by Sharon’s father Don Arden). Yeah, we were on the same label, and we were all from Birmingham Ozzy’s hometown, so they took us under their wing. We had just had “Chase The Dragon” in the charts and went off on tour with Ozzy – that’s definitely another stand out moment. He and Sharon were lovely to us. They didn’t know us very well, but we went down really good over there, so we made a lot of converts and we started selling albums after we played in the States. We went back twice as well, because Ozzy had lost his voice and we all had to all come home and then go back again some weeks later to complete it all down the Eastern seaboard and the Southern States. It was great!
Stand out moments though – being at Hammersmith Odeon on the stage and Tommy Vance coming on the radio and saying “You are now joining 3 million people listening on the Tommy Vance Friday Rock Show”. That’s another moment…
But it’s all highlights for me, what we do. Just playing in front of the audience of Magnum fans on a nightly basis is a standout moment on its own, without all those other things. Just being on tour in front of your audience, and with the band – it can’t get better than that! It’s fantastic – there is nothing better than that. It’s what keeps you going. That’s your life blood…
Disclaimer: This interview is solely the property of Simon Black and Ever Metal. It is strictly forbidden to copy any part of this review, unless you have the strict permission of both parties. Failure to adhere to this will be treated as plagiarism and will be reported to the relevant authorities.