We managed to catch hold of Billy during his sound check at King Tut’s for his new band Coloursound. The new band where on the closing dates of their Mini Tour of the UK. Interview by James Edmond.
James SMN: Who or what first influenced you to pick up the guitar? What age where you?
Billy: I think I was around thirteen or fourteen and I had compulsory music lessons at my Comprehensive school in South Manchester. I remember they had this semi acoustic electric Bass a kind of purple weird colour and it really fascinated me that it was in the cupboard. I used to kind of mess around with it in class I remember jumping up one time and mimicking someone playing guitar, within a few months two guys at school one you could play drums and one who had bass lessons on that very guitar asked if we could form a band. I said that I would play guitar, so I went to my dad and he bought me a really cheap £35 quid guitar. It was a black Columbus Les Paul copy from a shop in Deansgate Manchester and I bought a little 15watt practice amp. I still remember the first thing I ever did was play with a bottle neck which made a hell of a racket but I couldn’t do anything else.
James SMN: The noise from someone learning to play any musical instrument is not always pleasing to the ears, how did it go down with family and neighbours?
Billy: We used to rehearse in my mates house they sat in the lounge and we were in the hallway of this semi detached house in the South of Manchester I don’t know how they put up with it.
James SMN: Can you play any other instruments? Did you have any formal training?
Billy: I had piano lessons when I was around eleven but it didn’t last very long I never really got my head round the co-ordination and stuff. I didn’t really have any formal training, I never learned to read music, to be honest I didn’t pay much attention at school.
James SMN: What was your first guitar of note?
Billy: Was probably, well what I wanted was a Gibson Les Paul TV junior and it was played by Johnny Thunder of Johnny Thunder and the Heart Breakers and New York Dolls, I used to go and look at it in this little shop in Cheshire which had no decent guitars except that one, it was £450 which was about £350 more than I had managed to save up so I could never buy it, so I bought a Gordon Smith which was a similar format i.e.. One pick up and I remember trying to beat the guitar up to make it look old. He still makes guitars up in Manchester so that was the first decent guitar I had. I eventually got a Les Paul Custom because I wanted to be like Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and also Mike Ronsan they where sort of the influences and as well as both guys from Thin Lizzy.
James SMN: What are you presently using in terms of guitar and amps?
Billy: I am using the White Falcon Guitar which is the one I used back in the early Cult days, I had it whilst in Theatre of Hate however I never used it live, and I bought it in London a week before I got fired. I am using Matchless amps which are an American make of amplifier which I used on the last Cult tour as well as the Marshalls I had the two sounds mixed together.
James SMN: During your time with The Cult and now Colousound you have developed a very distinctive sound is this to do with your equipment as well as your playing style?
Billy: It is a bit of both the guitar has been modified it has what looks like a Gretch pick-up in this White Falcon that a guy called Seymour Duncan made for me who is an American pick-up maker whose son happened to be into the Cult he custom makes them for lots of people as well as selling them in the shops. It was made for me around 1986 at the time we were doing Electric the one that did not get made. At the Manor Sessions I remember calling him and sending him a cassette of a guitar I liked the sound of and he tried to make a pick-up to emulate that, basically I wanted a Gretch that sounded more like a Les Paul. The Matchless amps are good too, kind of handmade, Class A amplifiers which is really good quality.
James SMN: What tips do you have for anyone wanting to be a lead guitarist?
Billy: It depends on what era, I mean my old style of lead guitar playing wasn’t fast I am very kinda clumsy. In the Sonic Temple into Ceremony with the Cult I did get pretty competent on the sort of wiggling of the guitar. Ultimately I prefer guitar player whose stuff you can either whistle or who are kind of emotive and take some chances with their solo. I like to convey a feeling and I think guitars can do that, I feel that has been a big part of my sound and style it isn’t just soulless guitar playing for its own sake. I think it has to convey a certain emotion as with Sell Sells Sanctuary, I don’t know what that emotion is it means a lot of things to a lot of people, and Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music used to be like that too.
James SMN: Who are your favourite guitarists currently?
Billy: That is funny because one of my favourites Ally from Texas is coming down tonight, I think he is good I saw him do an amazing gig in LA a few years ago. Now however he doesn’t play the same way due to the band being much more pop orientated and as a result isn’t called to do as much however he can really play. The guy that used to be in The Verve is pretty exciting Mike McCabe is sonic-ally very interesting; I also like the bass player as well in that band. There are loads I just can’t name them off the top of my head.
James SMN: Way back in 1977 at the time you where in The Nosebleeds what genre of music where you into has this changed over the years?
Billy: I was into New York Dolls that is how I met Stephen Morrissey. I was listening to Dolls, Johnny Thunder a bit of Iggy Pop, Patti Smith anything from America to be honest I only like Generation X and the Sex Pistols from the UK however I do like The Dammed, The Adverts the original punk bands. I wasn’t big on The Clash a bit too British and political for my taste. I suppose I was more into escapism and the fantasy of Rock and Roll in America rather than council estates and the like I mean I lived in one so I didn’t want to think about it all the time.
James SMN: Can you remember your first ever live gig? Were you nervous?
Billy: My first real live gig was at my school playing to a bunch of OAP’s with my first band which was called Four Way Street, I can’t remember how nervous I was, and I remember drinking VP sherry heavily around the back. That was my first real gig after that there were odds and sods of little gigs I did with different bands, a couple with The Nosebleeds, supporting Magazine and Slaughter and the Dogs in Manchester. Then there was another band called Lonesome No More and we supported the Only Ones on a tour around the country. To be honest I was so out of it I don’t remember getting very nervous.
James SMN: I read that you approached Kirk Brandon with regards to playing with Theatre of Hate back in ‘82 did you? Did you enjoy your time with them all be it short?
Billy: The truth of the story is I knew Boy George because he worked in a clothes shop on the Kings Road in London and I worked about three doors away and I knew him from the club scene being a DJ, everyone knew him he was nice, a laugh and he said to me in a club I think it may have been the Wag club back in ‘81, “That guy over there is looking for a guitarist and you look kind of similar in the way you dress stylistically.” I went over and spoke to Kirk and he said that they were looking and invited me to go and audition. Whilst we were chatting and realised we both loved Gretch guitars and English Bull Terrier dogs and we sort of just got on well. I got the gig after two songs at the audition the guys went out of the room for a little meeting then came back in and said, “ we like you , you are in. ”That is when I went out and bought the White Falcon funnily enough I had money in the bank because I had been working so as soon as they said I was in I went and bought a Gretch White Falcon from the shop and that was the first one I owed was in the summer of ‘81, but it is not my present one.
James SMN: I think I heard you popped into see Spear of Destiny in London during their last tour what did you think of the gig? What do you think of their new material?
Billy: I saw them at The Borderline gig, I did like it however I think it has lost a little bit of its magic when Kirk just tries to do straight rock he hasn’t quite got the magic he had when he was doing the Theatre of Hate stuff. I think the stuff pre Westworld was amazing I enjoyed some of the Spear stuff although I thought they were a little over instrumented too much going on too many keyboards and saxophones it was a bit like a show band. I thought Theatre was a good stripped down band. I still really like the early stuff, The Pack, King of Kings all that stuff I even thought of covering something from that when I was with Vent I tried to get Miles Hunt to do one of those songs for a laugh.
James SMN: The time you spent with The Cult what was your most memorable gig? Favourite album? Track?
Billy: That is really hard. My favourite album I would have to say Love, Sonic Temple and The Cult I just think they are the best songs. The best gig there have been so many one that springs to mind is one that we did at Brixton Academy one summer I think it was a one off gig. We played for 2 1/2 hours and I remember we had Zodiac Mind Warp supporting. I remember that gig as being really special. Even the gigs at Barrowland were pretty amazing, a gig we did in Argentina at River Stadium to 45000 people. A lot of great gigs some in Night moves in Glasgow, Whitley Bay Ice Rink. The best one on the last Cult tour was Manchester Academy it was great.
James SMN: Ian Grant said that at the time of Electric,”you were well into AC/DC as was Rick Ruben who re-recorded the entire album.” Were you pleased with the final version?
Billy: Yes I was massively into AC/DC, Led Zeppelin general rock. Ian was into The Doors, Hendrix and stuff. At that time we wanted to break away from the indie and Goth thing because we didn’t feel it suited us, and people tried to say we were one of those bands which we weren’t so we just pushed more and more to get away from that.
James SMN: Out of interest what are you………well into now …………so to speak?
Billy: At the moment I am into a little bit of a lot of different things, no-one is really knocking my socks off at the moment. I am not even into retro I am not listening to a lot of old stuff. I get loads of free CD compilations with the likes of Sparkle Horse and Ultrasound but I wouldn’t buy a CD album of anyone in particular. I like a lot of bits of what bands are doing e.g. Gomez. I still like AC/DC, Mott the Hoople and Kate Bush and all that stuff generally rock music.
James SMN: What is your feeling regarding music scene as a whole in the UK just now?
Billy: It has been great the last three or four years since I moved back from America. There has been a lot of healthy stuff but I think that a lot of the bands are running out of steam, they don’t look like they will last the course. They bring out one album the second one comes out and unless a miracle happens people get tired of it. There is a lot of talk about a vacuum people in the music business are saying that there isn’t any stars which is why Robbie Williams is doing so well over here, he is a bit of something to everyone he is Gary Glitter if you want him to be, he can be Johnny Rotten if you want him to be, he is showbiz and there are not enough stars like him. People warm to celebrates and stars they like them to be a little bit larger than life I think a lot of the bands are a little bit ordinary at the moment.
James SMN: After you and Ian decided to Part Company did you have any plans e.g..? Another band, producing, or simply some time out of the lime light?
Billy: After the band split I fell into Vent with Miles Hunt, it was an accident you know two mates, I am still friends with him I might even play on his new stuff.
James SMN: I have to ask did that peroxide do any damage even temporarily to your hair?
Billy: I don’t think so I have still got it so I am pleased I still have a good lot of hair. I thank good genetics and god for that.
James SMN: Was there one particular attribute or strength of Mike Peters that made you want to work with him?
Billy: We have a lot of common interests that you know about and stuff. He is incredibly positive and very much a can-do type of bloke; I tend to be a bit negative so we tend to balance each other. He keeps me on the right track.
James SMN: What did you think of The Alarm?
Billy: I wasn’t a massive Alarm fan. I once was quoted in the press as saying, “if it wasn’t for the Alarm I probably would have killed myself over the bad reviews The Cult got,” because every time I felt bad The Alarm had got worse reviews . I thought they were good and I liked their rockier periods. I did know them as friends
James SMN: Do you enjoy playing the likes of Strength?
Billy: Yes I do it is fun it is not as if we do a lot.
James SMN: You have worked with many people however Craig Adams name keeps popping up was he a natural choice as bassist for Coloursound?
Billy: We became very good friends in the Sisters of Mercy’ days and The Mission, we stayed pals. However when we were looking for a bass player for The Cult when Jamie left we didn’t get Craig because he was still in The Mission, which is funny cause he said that if we had rung him up, he would have left and joined The Cult then. He plays very well with me and Bob Rock said, “He has the best feel in terms of any bass player he has ever recorded.” Socially we also get on really well.
James SMN: Do you think he plays maracas as well as he plays bass?
Billy: That is becoming legionary, he is very shy he is a good singer though. He is a bit embarrassed about it perhaps I should play as well and that would give everyone two people to laugh at.
James SMN: The band have used various drummers Scott Garrett, Johnny Donnelly and Steve Grantley who are all excellent however there is a marked distinction in their styles how do you feel this effects not so much the music but the overall presentation of the band?
Billy: Yes they all have very different styles; Johnny is a very musical drummer not a very hard hitter. Steve is a herd hitter he has a lot of energy and power which is I think what we needed. Scott is much the same however it isn’t very practical having a drummer who lives in LA. Steve does have another gig so we don’t know how that will resolve itself, but I am sure it will.
James SMN: What would you say was Coloursounds’ most prominent track excluding any covers?
Billy: Well I like “Alive” it is fun and has a good vibe. Under the Sun and Independence are also very good. This Perfection is pretty up however I don’t want it to sound to too happy it needs to keep an edge
James SMN: Which is your favourite in terms of guitar part?
Billy : I quiet like playing “Heavy Rain” as it has a great guitar part, I also like,” Where Do You Want To Go.”
James SMN: How would you describe the music the band plays?
Billy : I would say it is kind of groove rock, no I take that back it is emotive powerful rock music which definitely has a vibe to it, it is not just plain rock and roll. Very simplistically it is a rock band but its lineage isn’t really in the likes of Deep Purple or AC/DC. It has got an eye to the contemporary.
James SMN: It has been said that you and Mike are a very prolific song writing partnership How many songs have you penned? Do you have any pattern e.g..? Melody and lyrics or to do you both chip in with all aspects?
Billy : We have around 20 but we are currently playing the best ones although some others may come through when we work on them whilst doing the album. In terms of writing we get together every few months, so we have a lot of influences. Mike and I bring our stuff in on tape recorders and we sort of sit about with acoustics and hammer it out then we take it to the band. We are a bit over due one but Mike has been so busy that it has been impossible to get a couple of clear days, because basically we just need sort of three or four days of relative calm. The first time we did it we wrote a load of songs on a Saturday night the girls, wives, women and friends all went out we stayed in and wrote three songs, ”Under the Sun” was one of them. We are pretty strict when it comes to Coloursound songs that we both contribute to them. I write quite melodic guitar parts that sometimes do get used as top line melodies, however I don’t lyrics.
James SMN: When will you be recording the album? Do you have a producer in mind?
Billy : We are hoping to record it in January we don’t have anyone in mind for production we would like to co-produce it. Bob Rock is a great producer however I don’t know if that would work out with regards to money, time and logistics.
James SMN: The band have been pretty busy since your debut at The Gathering 6 in Wales with shows as diverse as Greenbelt and A Harley Davidson Festival ( Can you ride a motorbike?) and also three dates in the US all preceding this mini tour. Which ones stand out and why?
Billy : Yes I have a motorbike license and have a bike. I just got my British license I had an American one for 10 years. Greenbelt was funny because it was like a big style gig that was more like a Cult sized stage which is weird when you have been used to rehearsing in a small room. They are all good I am sure tonight ( 2/10/98@Glasgow King Tut’s) is going to be incredible.
James SMN: Harley gig seemed strange to start off with?
Billy : Yes that was always going to be a weird gig but we needed it to gauge reaction.
James SMN: How does it feel to be back on the road?
Billy : it is interesting to be back on the road it feels good. I used to do it so much it was a big part of my life, nothing else seemed real. Then I had a lot of time off the road so it is a bit weird.
James SMN: Is it any different now? Have you ever toured with anyone who gets travel sick?
Billy : No not really it is just the same, the food is shit. I get travel sick, I am allergic to diesel it makes me feel sick and motion I get bad sea sickness if I am not careful.
James SMN: I have been lucky enough to see a few of the shows and have noticed a definite increase in new faces at the venues and on speaking with people afterwards many have said they were originally Cult fans who although knew The Alarm hadn’t really followed them, however they have all remarked on the vocal capabilities of Mike and how well the covers work. What sort of feedback have you had from them?
Billy : A lot of the Cult fans that I have spoken to were amazed they never thought of Mike as a capable rock singer, they thought of him more as a folk/rock. The nature of the combination of my guitar style pushes him into a different area. When Mike plays with his band the guys from Cartoon or James Stevenson it has a completely different feeling to it.
James SMN: When Coloursound came on stage on the Saturday at the gathering you could almost feel the difference.
Billy : Yeah the vibe, maybe there is a little more authority and urgency perhaps it is my guitar style I would like think it has that effect. The stuff I write tends to be quite in-your-face and demands attention, whether or not you like it, it gets the attention.
James SMN: It has been said that although the there are similarities between The Cult and Coloursound and The Alarm and Coloursound the new material is definitely different from both. How do you feel about this?
Billy : I am happy about it I think that it is early days and the more stuff we write it will evolve.
James SMN: The words energy and presence spring to mind regarding the bands stage performance so you feel a band must be visually good as well as audibly good?
Billy : Yes I think The Cult was always that, we used to say we didn’t need that much of a light show, well not until you get to like arenas and stuff when it gets very small and impersonal. I feel some performers have it, it is certain chemistry.
James SMN: Many of us (me being one of the prime culprits) go to gig after gig how do you feel about the re-occurrence of the same faces at the front of the stage?
Billy : I think it is great personally however there can be problems when a band gets bigger and those that were originally around feel they own certain rights. There is a natural point when the band takes off and venues don’t suit it anymore, but at club level I think it is really important who know the songs, because a lot of the audience are looking around thinking I like this but don’t know what to do, they can get the crowd going.
James SMN: Why the London Residence?
Billy : It was for a PR factor London can be very blazza and a lot is going on so we thought we would do a smaller venue over three Mondays to help build. It gives it time for people in the media to hear about the band.
James SMN: Do you like playing in such close proximity to the crowd or do you prefer larger venues?
Billy : I don’t really mind I sort of prefer something in-between. Some of these places are really Shitty and not comfortable, you end up getting ill and stuff like that. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with closeness with the audience however at times it is important to keep a certain distance from the crowd. If you are too visible then it is not special and if on a regular basis you are too accessible it sort of becomes a bit ordinary. I think venues that are a bit bigger than this are nicer personally; I used to love when The Cult played to around 1200 people on a larger stage. Barrowland or Manchester Academy only smaller around 1000 to 1500.
James SMN: If it was all to end tomorrow what would you do?
Billy : That is a bit scary I spoke to a few Different guys about what they would do if their band split up they all sort of said just adapt to the new situation. I mean with the Cult I had been with them for 12 years they were my family and my life everything came second to The Cult so after they split it gave me an opportunity to get more intuit with my family and stuff. You make a big sacrifice to make it as a band a lot of your friends get left behind. So I think I learned from the end of The Cult that you just have to refocus and get back to your family which I think is ultimately more important anyway.
James SMN: Do you have any ambitions left to fulfil?
Billy : Just to be happy I don’t have any ambitions in terms of material things. The Cult never got as big as Guns and Metallica but I think we did make it into the Premiership however we didn’t go on to win it or play in Europe type of thing. We were a Premiership side and that coming from a punk background is a pretty amazing achievement I have always thought we were a bit of a Wimbledon middle of the Premiership. Sorry for the horrible football analogy.
James SMN: Any regrets about the last twenty years?
Billy : Yeah I suppose I could have been a nicer bloke during the period of The Cult a lot of the pressure got to me and Ian was difficult to be around sometimes and I am sure he felt I was difficult I guess that was just part of the deal you have to compromise and give each other space which we did with The Cult we cut each other a lot of slack and therefore avoided the flash points.
James SMN: Any parting thoughts?
Billy : I used to part in the centre now I part to the right. (Well I guess I asked for that one!)
James SMN: Who do you feel is going to win the Premiership in England and Scotland?
Billy : I think Rangers will win it in Scotland it is nice to see Ally McCoist at Kilmarnock and my old friend Alan Curran at St Johnstone doing well, after leaving the Apocalypse that is Manchester City it is nice to see players go on and have a career they usually go and do better when they leave City. The Premiership in England is an interesting one I think it has got to be Arsenal maybe Chelsea I don’t think United this year, but you can never rule then out I mean WHEN they go out of Europe which they are going to, I mean they could then put all their energy in to that and buck up a bit. They are becoming so obsessed with that European trophy it is becoming quite meaningless it is so Hollywood and Showbiz. It doesn’t have the same meaning as twenty years ago and it is not special. I would say Aston Villa could come second or third they are a good side but I am going with Arsenal.
Taken from our sister fanzine Coloursound January 1999 Scotland Calling Fanzine Scottish Music Network