The veteran British hard rock band Magnum are back with their 20th studio album Lost On The Road To Eternity. We caught up with bassist Al Barrow, who fills us in on some new members, the new record, touring, moving to the U.S. and other topics.
Chad Bowar: You’ve had a couple of recent lineup changes. How did keyboardist Rick Benton and drummer Lee Morris come to join the band?
Al Barrow: Magnum has had a few changes, but considering the length of time the band has been around I think thats understandable. People are sometime unavailable as they have other projects on the go. Sometimes people just choose that it’s time to move on. Magnum has a great way of finding great players I feel and that is high on the agenda when anyone steps into a role within the band.
Harry James was unfortunately unavailable when the album was set to be recorded. His band Thunder have an ever increasing gig diary so it was a sad point that Harry was not going to be drumming. I have known Lee many years but we never actually played in the same bands. We know all the same people and see each other from time to time. Just before he got the gig with Magnum he was teaching and playing as a session drummer so I knew he was available. Annie Minion, Bob`s manager, also put Lee`s name forward as a candidate at the very same time I put his name in the pot. So Tony and Bob had a listen to some of his work and were suitably impressed with what he had done. He came down and was soon welcomed in. It`s hard not to like this guy. He has the most infectious enthusiasm for everything he does. Especially music! He is a very humble guy who just loves to get behind the kit and make some noise.
He is also a big Magnum fan, so he knew some of the songs already, which was a great help when we had a quick conversation a day before some shows we recently did. Lee expressed that he really loved “Just Like An Arrow” and before he dies wanted to play it with the band. So Tony and Bob said, “OK, let’s do it on the show in two days.” I had not played it for a long time and poor Rick had to learn it on the fly. That really is one of Rick`s strong points, which we’ll speak of later. So Lee got his wish.
So Lee was placed on the stool and he recorded his first album with the band. He bought a different style again to the band. Magnum has had some excellent drummers in their time. All bring something fresh to the proceedings. All leave their mark. Lee did some fantastic takes on the album and was very quick and professional on his sessions and that helps. Studio time is not cheap so you need a guy that can nail it quickly but bring his A game on every track. He had a lot of cool ideas that he brought with him and Tony and Bob loved what he did. He also plays the older classic songs perfectly but brings just a smattering of new Lee to the mix.
Rick was a musician that was well known at the studios where Magnum record. So when Mark chose to leave us mid tour in 2016, we had 24 hours to find a solution so that we could continue to play at the next show in Ireland. We didn’t want to let fans down and there were few options. We made the decision to play the Irish show using a laptop. We have a fantastic crew and knowledgeable studio engineers that really pulled this off for us. They programmed an entire show on as far as keys went so that we could play the gig in Ireland. It was a little nerve racking but it went down well and the show went on, as they say.
While we were doing this we had made contact with Rick and asked if he was free to learn the entire show for when we got back to the UK mainland. He agreed and got busy. Rick turned up and just blasted through a lot of the songs right off the bat. So it was a baptism by fire when he had to play at his hometown gig in front of a sell out room after such a short time. He did an amazing job and we all knew he was the guy we needed in the band. Not only does he have the pedigree to be able to take anything that is thrown at him, he has the musical ability to play what is required and bring a lot more to the game.
Again, he is such a nice guy to be around. He has, let`s say been around, (laughs), so he has some fantastic stories. Rick was 17 when he first became a band and musical director. He has toured extensively worldwide so he has walked the boards, so to speak. He has a very calming demeanor. Again great to be around and again came into the studio with so many great ideas for the new album. He really has put the icing on the cake with this album. The songs were good to start and now Rick got to put his grubby little hands all over them they really do sound amazing. Both new guys have fit in so well and we feel the band goes from strength to strength. I think the album will show that this is a very happy camp to be in.
Tony does the songwriting. When it comes to your bass parts, how much do they generally change from initial demo to finished song?
Yes, Tony does all the songwriting and musical arrangements. This is the way that it works for Magnum. We all get the same kind of run at the material.
Tony gets the song to a point where Bob can lay a guide vocal down to check that the key is good for him to sing it in. Then Tony will create a very basic track and put down guide guitars and maybe some quick solos, etc. He will then get Lee in to replace all the basic programmed drums. Lee puts down a basic track of which is used as a guide. then Tony says ok, just go for it, do what you want. Lee will pull out all the stops and just do anything and everything he can from a very basic pattern right up to crazy ass drummer on a mission type drumming. With everything thrown in but the kitchen sink.
Then there are a few tracks to listen back to and see what works best. Sometimes Tony will say lets keep the basic track as the vocals or keys etc. need to be the focus here. The other times he will say oh wow, i would not of thought of that and it sound amazing, let’s go with that for that section. From this Lee will build a final track with everything Tony needs and what the song needs, adding all the bits that Lee wants to bring in also.
This, as I said earlier, really is the way we all work. I get the track a few days after Lee puts the drums down to go home and put down some ideas and learn the track in its basic form. Then Tony will do the same with me as he did with Lee. I give him the basic roots and then he gives me the rest of the day to do what I want. To be very honest with you, Magnum is not the kind of band that has complex bass lines. They are the solid form of which a lot of the music works around. It does its job. It`s my job to nail the bottom end. I may get times to do the odd flourish here and there, up the dusty end. (laughs) But Magnum is not about being a virtuoso bass player, it`s about doing what is right for the song. With Magnum, melodic, solid and creative works better than flash.I also do a lot of singing live, so I am grateful sometimes that the bass parts are not complex. So Tony gives me as much freedom to do what I want. But most times the basic lines work well for Magnum songs.
Rick has a little more time in the studio as Magnum features a lot of keys. This album to me personally is everything Magnum is. Just more of everything that makes Magnum, Magnum. Rick did bring his A game and made this album sound fabulous. His dedication to getting it right and his years of experience came to the forefront. Watching him work in the studio with the guys was brilliant and I learned a lot. So in answer to you question, the bass lines I get are just root notes. I can change as much as I wish as long as it fits the song. Magnum is not a flashy bass band so a lot of the simple lines are the right bass lines.
What will be your strongest memory of the recording of Lost On The Road To Eternity?
Working with new guys, I think. It really was quite refreshing. They bought not just their musical abilities, but their enthusiasm and crazy senses of humor. It was very entertaining to be around them. The band has to be able to get along. We spend a lot of time together so you have to be able to understand each others’ moods and highs and lows. It`s a little like getting along with your siblings. There are always going to be points of view but we all have one goal and that’s to make great music.
One of the standout moments for me was the first time we heard the orchestra arrangements on the title track. Wolf Kerschek and his orchestra really did an amazing job. It lent itself to what that Magnum song is so perfectly. I actually took a photo of the hairs on my arm standing up on end and posted it on social media and saying I cannot wait for fans to hear this track, it`s gonna blow them away. It was definitely a moment I will remember for a long time. I am very proud to be part of all of this.
There are a few different songs on the record that would make good album titles. How did you decide on Lost On The Road To Eternity?
That would be down to Tony, really. He does run past the ideas with Bob and myself and asks what we think. This was months ahead of the album being recorded. You have to remember, Tony is always writing and works constantly on Magnum material. So by the time me and Bob get involved it has been on Tony`s mind for quite a while.
I think there are many tracks on this album that could have given their title to the album. Just goes to show how much thought goes into Tony`s lyrics. Nothing is just given away.
What makes this album unique in the Magnum canon?
I think every Magnum album has its moods and colors. Each album seems to me like a progression onward and upwards. Each album goes that little bit further to make that Magnum sound, whatever that sound is. The music has as much to say now as it did back in the beginning. Tony has a way of taking a subject and turning it on its head. He works hard a taking a subject and talking or singing about it in a new way. It must be terribly hard not to repeat yourself after writing so many songs, but he seems to be able to come up with new, exciting and fresh ideas.
It is great to be a part of the process and then hear the final outcome. All we can do after that is hope others like it as much as we do. A lot of effort from each band member went into this album. I think it will show that this album was not a band just going through the motions. Each band member wanted to be in the studio at every moment possible to be part of the creation, to watch the each other put down their parts and still have creative input in each others’ ideas. It was a lot of fun and almost addictive. I love being there as much as I can. I love the entire process of watching something develop from just a few beats of a bar in to a full 64 piece orchestra playing like the clapper. It`s a great job to have and I feel very lucky to be able to do it.
How did Tobias Sammet’s guest appearance come about?
Bob and Tobi have been working together within the realms of Avantasia for many years. We all know Tobi and Bob and he are very close friends. There was a discussion with Bob, Tony and myself about the title track and having someone duet with Bob. Something again which is new for Magnum. Pushing us out of the comfort zone again. We talked about a few people we thought would be good, but it was a simple decision to make and Tobi was perfect for the job. No one else really got a look in after that quick conversation, it was a forgone conclusion really. A perfect fit.
What are your goals and expectations for the album?
World domination, then world peace. (laughs) We just hope that enough people like it to go out an buy it. So this can give us the option to get and tour and then get back in the studio again and continue to do what we love to do. We can work our butts off, but if the fans don’t like what we do it will soon be very difficult to continue. So as we are still going after 40 years i think we have some of the best fans and they really do support the band. We thank them for that. We hope we can get a good high chart placement as this gives the band a better profile. Promoters will take notice and book us at more venues which means in turn more fans get to see us live.
You have a lot of European touring coming up in 2018. Is North America a focus for the band?
Yes, we have a 41 date tour planned for 2018. It`s going to be a lot of fun getting out to see so many people. It will also mean about 15 of us on a tour bus for 10 weeks or so, just imagine the smells. (laughs) We would love to play at every venue possible around the world. It has been a hard slog getting into some venues as some promoters just will not take the chance on the band. What makes me mad is a promoter will book the band, then not advertise that the band are appearing, as this costs them money. Then they wonder why no one buys tickets? So when no tickets are sold they think the band has no following. Wrong! I get hundreds of emails from fans asking why we are not playing this town and that town, and my answer is the same each time. We would love to come to your town but it really is down to the promoters. They need to ask us and the only way that will happen is if we sell enough albums to get good chart placement showing that the fans are still out there.
With so much material, how do you go about constructing a setlist, and does it change from show to show?
Bob is the one who generally puts the show together. He has good idea of the flow of the songs, the time each track takes to perform and how he will perform them. He is the one that has to stand up there and sing each night and there are a lot of big songs in a live show, so it`s important to him to get the pace of the show right. Not many bands will perform such big songs one after the other as it can take its toll on anyone`s voice. You have to think more than just of what we want to play, and what the fans want to hear. If we played everything that the fans email me about we would be onstage for 5 hours.
We have a massive back catalog to pick from. Bob or I might make a suggestion of a particular song, this may be a really old song, and Tony will give it some thought. Sometimes he says is this song you want to try, is it really what Magnum are right now? We have progressed so much from early albums. He knows the fans do love some older tracks, but live they just won’t fit into the new show.
Magnum never want to be seen as a tribute to themselves, doing anniversary of this album or that album just because it`s been 20 years. We are musicians that love to perform new music. We will not forgot the music that got us to this point, but at the same time playing what we are about now. Magnum always try to evolve and move forward and I think this is part of the reason we are still around. But, saying all this, the new tour does have a couple of older songs that really do fit very well along with the newer material. We are looking over some massive epic songs and letting the new guys play a part in making them better than ever.
What’s the most unusual venue you’ve ever played?
I loved playing the Circus Krone in Munich. it was unusual and after sound check you get time to go look around at this wonderful building. You are essentially playing inside a big top. It’s like something from a movie. It`s was a great sound and i loved what our lighting guy with the lights during the show and got the circus tent to light up in real cool ways.
There are so may great venues. I always enjoy playing the home gig in the Wulfrun Hall, but they are renovating the building so we cant play there this time so we are doing the Midlands show in Birmingham. It will be interesting to see what they do with the Wulfrun, I hope they do a good job. Many venues look the same as you walk in the back door and on to stage. I find I can only remember in many venues the dressing rooms or catering areas. Some very obscure dressing rooms, to be honest.
How active is your design and photography career outside of Magnum these days?
I am still very active indeed in all that side of Magnum. I get to put all the booklets together once we have great front covers from Rodney Matthews. I have had the honor a few times of the front cover myself, just a departure from time to time from Rodney’s work. But we know how fans love a front cover from Rodney. It`s a symbiotic relationship there.
I usually do all the photos, but we had my friend Andrew Farrier do the shots for this album. It made my life a little simpler. I had actually been working for about 6 months on artwork for the album which I showed to Tony and he liked it. He said we will use this for the front of the booklet. But once we saw what Rodney had delivered to us, we knew it had to Rodney`s work all over this release. My work was too far apart in ideas and feel. So once I got Rodney`s art sent to me I had only a few days to re-design the entire package. I have a more modern industrial feel, but I think the fans love Rodney’s style and it does suit the band and this album very much. It is an amazing front cover Rodney has given us again.
What brought you from the UK to Tennessee, how has the adjustment been?
I have been visiting Tennessee for many years on vacation with my wife. We loved the people, the music, the lifestyle, horse riding in the Blue Ridge Mountains, fishing and the general outdoor life that people have here. We had driven through Chattanooga a few times on the way to Nashville, which is a very fun town. I recommend a visit. My wife works for a large company in the UK and she was head hunted by her own company for a new role in Chattanooga. She was asked to come over for some meetings and they offered her a job. We could not believe that we could live and work in a wonderful town like this. We have no kids and nothing to lose really. So off we went. It`s always a bit of a risk and it took me a while to adjust. But now I feel very much at home here. We have made a lot of new friends and done things we only dream of in the past.
For me it really didn’t make much a change on where I was based. It`s only a short flight back to the UK and with the right planning and arrangements we can continue to play shows and record with nothing really much changing. I might sit in an airport a little more than I would like, but it`s all part of the journey. I will continue to work and play in Magnum as I don’t see any issues there. But what I will be doing is setting up a home recording studio and start to write some of my own material again, something I have not done for many years.
There is an abundance of musicians in this area to work with and I hope to tap into that. It will be just for fun and no record deals etc, just another musical outlet. I have been speaking to Nigel Glockler from Saxon who also lives in the USA in Texas and we have been speaking of doing something very prog rock together some time in the future. That will be a lot of fun. But for now I am happy sitting here on the balcony rehearsing the new set for 2018 and eating some biscuits with all the fixins y’all. (laughs)
Seen any good movies or DVDs lately?
I am a Netflix freak and binge watch: Boardwalk Empire, This Is Us, Hell On Wheels, Suits, Last Man Standing. I could go on. I actually don’t watch much TV these days as the outdoor life and music takes up a lot of my time. But when I do I’m in for the long haul. (laughs)
What’s currently in your heavy musical rotation?
I am going to annoy everyone now with what I listening to right now, besides the new Magnum tracks I have to learn: Zak Brown Band, Blake Shelton, Keith Urban, Eric Church, Tim McGraw, Josh Groban, Hans Zimmer.
Anything else you’d like to mention or promote?
All I can really say is that I hope you all like the new album and that you get many years of listening pleasure out of it. I hope to see you all on tour in 2018.
Thanks to all those who read this and thank you for all the support with Magnum, we appreciate it a lot.
(interview published January 19, 2018)