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Please Visit: Barclay James Harvest

An interview with Les Holroyd of Barclay James Harvest

 by Andy Long

One of the best things about writing for a magazine like GlobalBass is that you get the opportunity to meet bass players whose work you have admired all your life. Just last month I spoke with John Paul Jones and now I'm having a bit of a chat with Les Holroyd from Barclay James Harvest. BJH and Led Zep have always been in my top five. What's next - could it be that I'll get to interview my all time hero, Warren Murchie?  (Warning! Warning!  Major suck-up in effect!)   

First a little background, for those who may not be in the know. 

Barclay James Harvest were formed in 1967 and, alongside Les, were featured guitarist John Lees, drummer Mel Pritchard and Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme on keyboards. 

Initially with EMI's Harvest label and later moving to Polydor, they cut a string of albums and toured extensively until 1979 when Woolly announced his decision to quit the band and pursue a solo career. 

The remaining three members continued as Barclay James Harvest, utilising session musicians for albums and tours. They cut another wheelbarrow full of albums and kept on rockin' right up until 1998 when circumstances conspired to persuade them to take a rest. 

However, rather than splitting up, they announced a 'sabbatical period‘ , during which John and Les would choose to explore solo projects.

It wasn't long before John announced that he was working with Woolly again and they soon released an album by the title of 'Nexus'. This was done under thevname 'Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees'. This was eventually followed by the live album 'Revival'. 

Meanwhile rumours were circulating that Les was working on his own album, together with drummer Mel. Fans began to anticipate the release of an album for the other half of BJH. Last month that album finally saw its release under the name 'Revolution Days'. 

When I spoke with Les I commented on how long the fans had been waiting for this release and I asked if he was happy with the end result. 

'Oh Yes! From Day One it all seemed to come together in the studio. But I was happy even before that, I knew I had some good songs. I'd arranged the majority of them on tape anyway and the others were arranged in my head. 

So I knew roughly how they were going to sound.

I played about four or five tracks to Andy at Revolution and he said "Great, this is going to be good!". So from Day One there was this really optimistic feel to the album- When we got everyone else there involved we got a really nice vibe.` 

Whereas John's album was a mixture of new songs and re-visited favourites, Les's is primarily new material. I asked him for a few favourites. 

'They're a bit diverse actually, as is the album. I quite like things like "Sleepy Sunday", and I like the groove on "January Morning", "That Was Then, This Is Now", "It's My Life", I quite like all of them actually!  I particularly like the feel of "Sleepy Sunday".'

One of BJH's classic cuts does make an appearance on 'Revolution Days'. Their long-time concert favourite 'Life Is For Living' is included in a new version with an entirely acoustic feel to the first verse. 

'On the last tour we did of Germany in '97 we decided to do some unplugged versions of a couple of tracks. Really it was because we did a fairly long stage set and it gave us a breather in the middle. John did an acoustic version of "Mr. E" and then I followed it up with an acoustic version of "Life Is For Living" which went down incredibly well.

In Germany and people were asking, through the fan club, where they could get a copy of this record. At that time we had no plans to release it, but people kept asking Keith Domone at the fan club, so we decided to try it.

'When we got to the studio we more or less put both version stogether, when the full band enters we put a bit more balls into it, like the original version. To be honest, I know it's a strange thing to say, but I was never totally happy with the studio version.

The first time we played the song was at the Berlin concert and we recorded the live version before the studio version. The live version was actually better, which is nearly always the case. It really is a live track, more of a singer-songwriter type track, which is what we've got back to on this album.'

Les has always kept in contact with Mel, during the band's break and was really pleased to be working with him again. They are both looking forward to getting back on the road. Les plays a lot of the instruments on the album himself but has also called in a few old friends for some session work. 

'I'd come across all of these people before. When we were working on "Welcome To The Show", Steve Butler and Ian Wilson did some vocal work on that and Steve Pigott did some keyboard programming. Mike Byron-Hehir was in the background, giving me ideas for guitar work, I think he was working on something at that time. 

I'd heard a lot of his stuff, when he was with Sad Café and I like his style so I asked Andy if he was available. Mike did most of the lead guitar work.

There was only one lead guitar that I did on there and that was "Sleepy Sunday", but Mike did the second lead guitar on that too. I did the actual solo guitar on that because I had that definite idea in my head.

The Producer is Andy MacPherson, it was a joint effort.  Andy is obviously more technically minded than I am. It worked out really great. I got on really well with Andy when we did "WelcomeTo The Show" and it was partly his instigation that we recorded this new album'.

Of course many of the band's fans would love to see the whole band working together again. I asked Les whether he thought this was likely to happen. 

'Not really, no. At that point in time we decided to break away from each other and do our own thing. Although it didn't quite work out the way we planned, for whatever reason, at this point in time I don't think there's any chance of the band getting back together again because there's such a difference musically.

Not just solo, I can hear it in the last couple of albums, there are two definite styles, almost fighting each other.' 

So have these new projects succeeded in giving both Les and John the opportunity to explore their own musical directions? 

'Yeah I think so, because we have a different view on things. I never liked going back too far. Obviously your roots are always there and that's where your songwriting comes from, but John always wanted to go back to the early days.

This is the whole thing that came up with the fans, who wanted Woolly to get back in the band. I suppose for some people that would be an ideal situation, but it wasn't for me. I don't like going that far back, I want to move forward and express new ideas.'

Another interesting album release in recent times has been the tribute album 'Everyone By Everybody Else'. A collection of cover versions of songs from all BJH periods, released on the Fan Club's own label. 

As my own band, 3rd Day Rising, contributed a track to the album I thought I'd ask Les what he thought of the finished product. 

'I thought it was really good! Keith and Monika at the fanclub put it together really well. It flows really well. I've had some horrendous stuff covered and sampled for rap. I don't mean the stuff that's been released, I mean the stuff that hasn't been released: Absolutely horrendous. People getting all the timings wrong and the drum machine going out: Oh it was awful!

So for people like this to actually put together an album, not just demos, it was really good.

That led me on quite neatly to talk about the way in which some of the band's songs have been used as samples on rap songs. I knew that Les had been sampled by a German rapper. 

'I got sampled by Samy Deluxe. Actually it was quite good. I have to say that it's not my type of music, but it was done in a really good way and really well produced. The lyrical content was really good, it wasn't just living in a ghetto it was about waking up to the problems of the young kids in Germany, the glue sniffing and all that, and trying to do something about it.

The video was quite arty too. I was quite pleased with that. I've also been sampled in America by Mobb Deep, quite a big band whose album is now in the Billboard charts.

Where they got that from I do not know! They sampled "Taking Me Higher" from "Gone To Earth" which is like 1977. Where on earth did they hear that?'

When asked what he thought were some of the highlights of BJH's career, Les unsurprisingly chose the two huge concerts in Germany that resulted in the 'Berlin' and 'Glasnost' albums. 

'That can't help but make a huge impression on you, playing to that amount of people in such a political atmosphere. We didn't do it for that, but obviously you couldn't get away from it.

We were aware that people around us were involved in the politics of the thing, rather than the music. We were aware as well that we were making history, because no band would ever play that gig again.'

The 'Glasnost' gig was played in Treptower Park, East Berlin and I commented that BJH must have been the first Western rock band to play such an event. 

'Yeah we were. That was even better actually, in terms of people coming to the gig. They had to change the venue about three times, it just grew and grew and grew. The first lot of tickets were sold to party members and then it started to grow and it got really out of control. They had no way of stopping it, so they just had to call it a free concert after about 50,000 people. The atmosphere on that day was incredible.'

The size and success of these concerts emphasises the great levels of success that BJH have achieved in Europe, compared to at home in the UK or even in the USA. I asked Les why he thought things had turned out that way. 

'D'you know, I really don't know. I think things just happen to you. There are certain times in your life when you're in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it's also to do with the type of band that we were in the early days in England.

We picked up a lot of negative press. People thought that we were just doing it for the hell of it. They actually thought that we were millionaires at one point, because we toured with an orchestra and people thought we had money to burn.

That wasn't the case, we lost an awful lot of money. We became known as a University band, we were in so much demand that we played the country top to toe. When we finished at the bottom we started again at the top, playing all the Universities and colleges.

It was great, but it didn't go down well with the press, for some strange reason: Like the NME (New Musical Express) ,which is a real surprise!

But when we went to Germany we were just fortunate enough to be around at the right time, with the right product and the right live show. It just escalated. The same happened in France and Switzerland.'

In the UK, Barclay James Harvest only ever appeared on the chart show 'Top Of The Pops' once. Recently the show was repeated and I managed to catch it on video. Les was playing a Gibson twin-neck for the show. I knew that he had played Alembics so I moved onto the gear question. 

'I've got a couple of Alembics. In actual fact I've got the prototype short-scale Alembic. That came about when we used to record in San Francisco. The studio was called His Master's Wheels,and above this studio was the Alembic workshop.

Most people know that the Alembic guys were the guitar techs from the Grateful Dead. They started doctoring Guild and Gretsch guitars, customising them, adding active pickups and stuff like that.

Then they moved on to designing their own bodies. They had two in the workshop, a long-scale one and a short-scale one. Elliot Mazer got the long one and I got the short one. I've still got it and it's an incredible piece of furniture, if nothing else!

It's a beautiful guitar, it really is. But like everything else that's getting old, you don't want to use it that often. It's really precious. I've been in touch with them several times and they told me that they can't really put a price on it.

So a few years ago I bought a replacement for it, to go on the road. I still take the other one in case anything goes wrong. I got a short-scale Stanley Clarke one, which is absolutely amazing. That's progress, you find out everything that was slightly wrong with the first one.

'Apart from that one. We used to be sponsored by Washburn, Switzerland. They used to give us all sorts of weird and wonderful guitars to try and I actually got a Steinberger copy: It wasreally good.

I asked them if they did a fretless and they said, "No we don't, but we'll make you one". They also gave me an eight-string.' 

Although Les is a multi-instrumentalist, as evidenced on the album, live he still prefers to play bass and finds that for singing and playing together, bass is his best choice. 

Now that 'Revolution Days' has been released hopefully it won'tbe too long before we see some tour dates to support it. Les told me that he was hoping to take a seven or eight piece band on the road, possibly including two kits. So watch this space for dates, my friends.

'Revolution Days',  'Everyone By Everybody Else' and all of the BJH albums are available from their official website at:  


Andy Long is our correspondent in the U.K. and the author of numerous articles in Global Bass for a number of issues. Andy will be continuing over 2002 with a series of interesting and provocative interviews with some of the UK's best and brightest bass players. 

Check out his official website at Third Bass






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