Colin Towns - Stand well back and watch sparks fly
Colin Towns is enthusing about the musicians in his new band, Blue Touch Paper. His drummer, the indecently talented, German-born Benny Greb, though not a household name, is a musician whose YouTube clips attract views in the hundreds of thousands. Percussionist Stephan Maass flits effortlessly between stadium rock and African music and saxophonist Mark Lockheart, guitarist Chris Montague and bassist Edward Maclean are all players for whom adaptability is a way of life.
“They’re amazing. The only thing they haven’t got going for them is their keyboard player,” says Towns. “They have to put up with me.”
He’s being unduly hard on himself. Blue Touch Paper may be the first band Towns has actually played in for almost thirty years – his last regular gig as a working keyboard player was with former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan’s band Gillan – but he hasn’t lost his touch or failed to keep up with the technological advances in the interim. His ‘day job’ has seen to that.
As one of the most prolific composers of film and television soundtracks in Europe, Towns has amassed a vast library of sounds and samples and as Blue Touch Paper’s debut album, Stand Well Back, demonstrates, he has the chops to put them to use in music that keeps the band members on their toes.
“I’ve always seen my role as a writer to create situations where musicians are taken somewhere they wouldn’t normally go,” says Towns, whose work in jazz with his own Mask Orchestra and with the top class NDR and HR radio orchestras in Germany has produced some of the finest writing and arranging of the past twenty years. “Even in jazz I’ve found that, if you give musicians a set of chords to play over they’ll play what they know. It may be fantastic and they may have a huge vocabulary but it’ll still be what they know.”
With Blue Touch Paper he wanted to draw on the jazz tradition and introduce elements of rock music, classical and world music, and at the same time throw out the rule book that jazz has acquired but didn’t need in its early stages of development.
“I didn’t want it to be jazz-rock, because that has associations that are very 1970s,” he says. “But I wanted all of those elements and to use electronic advancements. I like to look back and look forward and I wanted to create something that reflects the fact that we are living in the twenty-first century. If you look at the old blues singers, they were singing about their lives. We’re not blues singers but our music can still tell people about the way we live. I don’t think what we’re doing is particularly radical but it’s not playing safe and I love the fact that we can use space because space can be as musical as something that’s full-on and busy.”
Since parting with Gillan in the mid 1980s after eight albums that he composed for as well as played on, Towns has, he says, been lucky. He’s never been one for networking but he has been in the right place at the right time. While working on the soundtrack to Bellman and True for George Harrison’s Handmade films he was approached by the then head of drama serials at the BBC, Michael Wearing, and commissioned to write the music for Blind Justice, a series that lifted the lid on many of the legal scandals of the time.
From there the work started pouring in. Our Friends in the North, Dalziel & Pascoe, Cold Blood and more recently the beautifully played tango that provides the theme tune for Doc Martin are just some of the themes and soundtracks that have allowed Towns to subsidise the music he creates on his own initiative. When he wants to put together something for his Mask Orchestra he actually saves up, as he did as a teenager buying new keyboards and copious books on arranging theory, to pay for the musicians and release the music on his own label, Provocateur.
Blue Touch Paper is an idea that he’s wanted to bring to fruition for ages, he says. Writing the music wasn’t a problem as he writes all the time, whether it’s for commission or his own use, and the pieces that survive his ‘come back to them after three months and see if they still stand up’ sifting process were starting to build up.
“Finding the right players and getting them to commit to the band, because I see it as a long-term project and have most of the next CD written, that took a while,” he says. “But once we settled on the personnel it became really exciting. I was down in Wales working on a Shakespeare play a few months ago and one of the actors said, Wow, you’ve got Benny Greb on drums, how did you manage that? And I thought, this isn’t some musician in the know’s response; if we can generate this kind of interest among the wider audience, that’ll be fantastic.”
Much of the music on Stand Well Back has a cinematic quality and Towns concedes that, even when not working specifically to moving images, he’s always looking for something visual that will trigger his imagination.
“Crazy Man on Platform 13 doesn’t have a story behind it – the crazy man is probably me; I’m crazy and I’m often on platform 13 in St Pancras because that’s where the Canterbury train leaves from – but other tracks could easily have sprung from something I’ve seen,” he says. “I like drama in music but I also like humour. Not necessarily musical jokes because it’s not everyone who appreciates those but something that makes people smile. We have a new piece that we’ll probably start the second half with on this tour and it starts off in one place and ends up somewhere completely different, and I like that. The last thing I want is for people to feel that we’re predictable.”
From The Herald, May 17, 2012.
Colin Towns - from Cookson to Zappa
Musicians’ CVs can make for strange bedfellows. It’s true that being a freelance, struggling to make a living and grabbing whatever work is available, can in itself breed diversity.
Even so, few people would see Catherine Cookson as a logical bridge between the former Deep Purple singer, Ian Gillan’s band and Frank Zappa.
That, though, is the story of Colin Towns. Or rather, it’s a small part of his story. Towns’ output is so vast that any quick resume is bound to oversimplify matters. He’s written for Disney films and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He’s scored commercials for Dulux, Milk Tray and Branston Pickle.
TV dramas including Ghostboat and Cold Blood unfold to Towns’ music. He played keyboards for Gillan and he has just had conspicuous success with two projects with the NDR Big Band which he’s bringing to Scotland this weekend. One features jazz singer Norma Winstone singing the works of singer-songwriters including Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman and the other pays homage to Frank Zappa.
Towns is firmly of the music is music persuasion. "A lot of people can’t cope unless they can put you in a handy little box that tells them who you are," he says. "I’ve never got that. If I want to listen to Ligeti or a rock album or a blues album and it inspires me or I just enjoy it, then why not? And when it comes to work. I don’t fit into the film composer thing or the TV composer thing. An idea either does something to my heart, and I take it on, or it doesn’t and I pass."
Towns had his heart set on being a composer from his early teens. As a fifteen year old jazz fan – he’s since gone on to found his own jazz label, Provocateur, and release CDs of his favourite musicians - he had two bands. He wrote all the music for both. "I was just desperate to get my music out there," he says.
On leaving school, he spent ten years in a shipping office, gigging by night and at weekends in pop groups and funk bands. With a young family to feed from the age of twenty, he couldn’t go off and starve in a garret while waiting for the big break. So he took every musical opportunity that came his way.
Just before joining Gillan, he was asked to compose the music for a film, Full Circle. Released on Virgin, the album sounds very 1970s now, he says, and it wasn’t exactly a gold mine.
"The funny thing, though, apart from the fact that it now changes hands on eBay for £100, is that I probably got more mentions in the press for that than I’ve had since. And people still come up to me and talk about it. It was very exciting to do and I probably should have tried for more film stuff then, but I had a family and I suppose I thought that something big would be just around the corner."
Something big was. He was invited to audition for Ian Gillan’s new band and two weeks later, he was told he had the job. It involved a bit more than playing keyboards, though.
"Ian phoned me one day and said, I have this holiday booked, so could you write the next album and hire a band? So I did. Actually, I gave the other guys some of the songwriting credits so they wouldn’t feel left out, and that album, Mr Universe, was the one that really broke the band. It sold really well, although I can’t say too much about the money it brought in – let’s just that I was still living in my council flat at the end of my time with the band."
Accountancy mysteries aside, he really enjoyed his time with Gillan. He also learned a lot – about the music business, of course, and about writing and arranging music.
"I remember we toured the UK with Randy California, who was a lovely guy, if a bit messed up, and I’d be sitting at the back of the van with my music theory books, studying orchestration, because if something came up I wanted to be ready."
One of his next jobs was scoring the music for Catherine Cookson’s TV dramas, although he later made a cassette on which the doyenne of romantic tragedy recalled her life and Towns superimposed background music.
Work started to flood in. Towns is, he says, a great believer in the theory that creative people sow seeds. Some grow, others don’t. Some, including his work for Birmingham Royal Ballet which was performed eighteen years after the first discussions, take their time about growing.
"It’s amazing, though, you just never know who’s out there thinking about you," he says. "I was in France not long ago and this French film maker came up to me and rattled off everything I’d ever done and asked me to work on his next film."
Much of his work does take him to the continent and he’s particularly pleased with his association with the German radio orchestra, NDR, which has produced a highly successful and much travelled Kurt Weill project as well as the Norma Winstone and Frank Zappa albums.
"I don’t see myself as an arranger particularly. You know, Gil Evans was the master at working wonders with other people’s stuff and much as I love him, I’d rather be me," he says. "But when I was asked to do the Weill thing, I thought, well, it’s interesting music and very theatrical, let’s see what happens. And it took off – they toured it to China and everything. So they then asked me to do Zappa and I thought, wow, I’m gonna have to tread carefully because there’s millions of Zappa fans out there and they all know his stuff intimately."
He fears proved pessimistic. At the Moers Jazz Festival in Germany last year, the orchestra started off playing to one thousand people in a marquee that held three thousand. Within ten minutes, the tent was jammed with people grooving to the NDR powering through Peaches en Regalia, G-Spot Tornado et al.
The Norma Winstone album held no fears as the singer is someone Towns has wanted to work with since he was "a spotty teenager" going to jazz gigs.
"Norma’s not one of your Michael Parkinson singer types, so she doesn’t get the credit she deserves," he says. "But for me, she’s one of the most original voices in the world. I had a great time making that CD and the engineer, whose wife is a singer and represented Germany in the Eurovision Song Contest, was going nuts. Norma does everything in one take, there are very, very few edits, and this guy’s sitting there saying, ‘She’s giving me goosepimples.’ So I figure that, if this guy who’s pretty hard to impress reacts to Norma’s singing like that, let’s take her out with the orchestra and give her the stage and settings she deserves."
From The Herald, November 16, 2006