Four albums in six years is an impressive strike rate in anyone's book. However when you consider that with every one of those releases UK veteran pomp rockers Magnum have bettered the last, then that feat becomes all the more notable. The sixteenth studio album in their catalogue, On The Thirteenth Day, is not only the best of Magnum's recent output, it is an album that ranks right up there with the pinnacle of their studio work. Not something that many bands can truthfully say over thirty years after releasing their debut. Sea of Tranquility's Steven Reid recently caught up with guitarist and songwriter Tony Clarkin to find out how he steers the good ship Magnum and all who sail in her!
Hi Tony, thanks for taking the time to speak to Sea of Tranquility.
No problem always a pleasure.
I have to start by saying that I have been very impressed by your new album On The Thirteenth Day. It feels like a logical step on from The Visitation, but it also finds you progressing the Magnum sound. How difficult is it to keep coming up with fresh ideas for each new album?
It`s always a pressure with every album to come up with something good. Every time I sit down to write a new album I ask myself how the hell do I do this? There is never any pre conceived plans as such or a narrative to follow. We just let things develop. It`s been like this for many years, so no, there's no real big game plan.
So, do you consciously try to avoid repeating yourself in musical style and approach?
There is always going to be that sort of situation arising, but Bob [Catley Magnum's singer] is pretty good at spotting things like that. He will say "Hang on I think that's a bit close to so and so a song", then we make a few changes and we're off and running again. There are only so many progressions you can play and sometimes you do find yourself doing the odd sequence that we've already come close to. It`s not something that comes up that often but from to time it can pop up.
From On The Thirteenth Day, I love the songs "Blood Red Laughter", "Shadow Train" and "So Let It Rain". What are your favourite moments from the new album?
It has to be said we really do think the latest is the best we have done to date. We believe we have done a pretty good job and to get to the stage where we can release an album we really have to believe that. We're very honest about what we think, as if you bullshit you will always get found out. It`s been very revealing seeing how many different combinations of favourites have been popping up and it`s a very mixed bag. Which is really good and rather than choose favourites, it makes me think there is something for everyone on this album. Not an easy thing to achieve these days. I could not really say what our favourite parts are but we have chosen a few that we will be playing live so I suppose in one way that makes us think some songs will transpose well to being played live, but that's about it.
How would you describe the overall atmosphere of On The Thirteenth Day?
I think that some people have said that the cover describes the album well. It has dark undercurrents but is also very colourful and positive. I like to think people will take from it what they want, if I tell someone how to feel about an album it will ruin it. I can say it`s an enjoyable album though. Great in the car!
A couple of the songs add a heavier, even more guitar based feel than normal for Magnum, with "Dance Of The Black Tattoo" and "Broken Promises" having a grittier edge. Was this a deliberate move to try and mix things up a little this time?
Again, no plan as such. I write at home in my studio for a few months coming up with ideas. Some days it`s a guitar riff day, sometimes it can be a drum pattern or a simple bass riff that will stick and a song will develop from there. So no real effort to say, "Today I will write a heavy guitar based song."
With your four most recent albums, Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow, Into The Valley Of The Moonking, The Visitation and On The Thirteenth Day, you really have hit an impressive purple-patch as a band. Is it a little surprising even to yourselves to still be creating some of the best material of your career after so many years together?
Thank you, we are always pleased and happy to still be able to do what we do. It`s true we are not the new kids on the block any more and it can be a nice feeling when a new album has a good charting or good reviews in the press. Not that that influences us in anyway, but I do think Magnum are doing the best material we can, I don't know how we top that but I'm sure we will give it a good go.
So where does the album title come from and how does it relate to the excellent cover artwork?
The original title for the song was actually the "twelfth day" but it was getting a bit of a Christmas vibe, and thirteenth day sounded and scanned better. Thirteen is a more ominous number, it has many connotations and stories. I spent a long time on the internet making sure there is nothing like this album title out there, so that no confusion happens with ours and another album. The front cover came about the same way a lot of the Magnum album covers happen. I sit down with Rodney Matthews and talk him through the ideas I have in my head. He sits with me and sketches as I speak. We get to a point of a rough sketch that looks good, then he goes away for a couple of months and returns with the artwork. The other parts of artwork are all done by Al Barrow [Magnum bassist] and that's the same situation, we have long conversations about ideas of how to make the packaging look good. We wanted a circus feel on the inside of the album so Al came up with these old bits of framework with bulbs in them like the old signs you would have seen in Moulin Rouge and Vegas many years ago, it fitted well so we decided to go with that.
Your songs are always intricate and well crafted. Which part is more challenging, the music, or the lyrics?
Always the lyrics. It`s a hard thing to do. Write something that I understand but at the same time which is not too cryptic that they are not accessible to anyone else. It`s always the hardest part finding new ways to say things. Magnum have never been a band to just put in the easy lyrical content, we just can't do that, it has to mean something.
Do the songs change much once all the guys come together in the studio to record them, or are the original ideas pretty much set in stone once they are formed?
I come in with a basic track idea. It may be just a simple progression and then I make sure the idea is in the right key for Bob to sing before we move on. This can change at any point though! [laughs] Once we have a basic song with verse and chorus then we start getting people in. Harry [James, drummer] will come down after a few weeks and put his thoughts in about drums. Everyone has an input, it`s not a closed story here. Everyone has their allotted time as studios are expensive so we have to stick to a time frame. Usually each member has a week or so to do what they want. Then we kinda strip it all back and keep what we think is the best parts of all the takes, which is a bit quicker and easier these days with technology. Thank goodness.
I also have to mention how impressive Bob Catley's voice is after all these years. It is in much better shape than many other long standing front-men. How much work does he put in to keep it in such good shape?
Bob does absolutely nothing to keep his voice in shape! He just opens his mouth and that big voice comes out, it`s what he has done since the beginning. We do talk a lot about keys of songs and what the lyrics mean to us. And then Bob does his thing!
Obviously making music is a huge part of your life, but has there ever been a time when the thought of another tour, or writing session, has started to feel like a bit of a chore?
Only at one point just before Magnum split back in the old days. I was just a bit bored. But now I don't even think about doing anything else. It all works fine now. There was pressure from labels back then and I was not happy doing some of the things they wanted. These days with SPV letting me do everything we want to do it`s very easy. We have a good relationship with our label and it makes writing and performing real good fun. So no it`s not a chore.
During those five or six years that Magnum was sidelined in favour of Hard Rain, you made a musical departure. However has there ever been a time when you've had a desire to come up with a side-project where you could exercise another part of your musical psyche?
Hard Rain was while Magnum was not happening for us. But I really do believe Magnum is the best now that it`s ever been so I have no need or desire to have side projects at all. All my time is taken up writing for Magnum so I would not even have the chance if I wanted to.
In terms of the Magnum story, how do you view the Hard Rain years now? Do they feel like a lost opportunity where you lost momentum, or was it something the band had to go through to get to where you are now?
It was different and happened at a time when Magnum were not working. I don't see it as a mistake as such, but maybe it was a progression in some form to getting back with Bob and the boys in Magnum to get back to where we are now. Again it wasn't a plan, just a natural progression of circumstance I suppose.
When Magnum reformed, there was an intention of not heading out on the road as often as you had previously, how hard has it been to strike a balance between - album, tour, album, tour - and not staying away from your fans for too long?
To be honest we wished we could play more live shows. We would love to play in the USA and Japan and places like that. We do have extensive EU tours and do well. We need promoters to take note that there are still a lot of Magnum fans out there and we are willing to play all over the world. We all agree that we would love to be on the road for about six months of the year. That would be great. Just give us the opportunities and we will step up.
In recent times, you've very much focused on your post reformation material when playing live. Did you initially worry that might be a bit of a risk?
No. We understand the fans want to hear some certain songs, and that fine. However we have to play what we enjoy live as well or it will show in our performance. We are not on stage just to go through the motions. We believe we have good strong new material and it deserves to be played with the other songs. If we didn't think that, we would only play old songs and what's the point of recording new material if you are not going to play it live?
I completely agree Tony, I wish more bands saw it like that! Have you been pleasantly surprised by how well the long term fans accepted that many of the Magnum classics have been shelved in favour of newer songs?
It`s always good to know what we do live is being received positively. But consider this, the On A Storyteller's Night album and songs like "How Far Jerusalem" were all new at some point. What if we thought "We better not play them live in case people don't like them." You have to play new material live to make new classic old songs for the future.
So, how many songs from On The Thirteenth Day are you planning on including in the set for your upcoming tour?
It`s still in debate. We do look on the net and listen to feedback from fans on what they would like to hear but we have a list of new songs we're going to rehearse today and see how they turn out. We only want to do the very best versions of the songs live, anything short of perfect will not go in the show.
Well, that's all my questions Tony. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Just a big thanks to you for taking the time to interview us. And thanks to all the fans for buying the new album. We hope to see you all on tour in the next few weeks.
(Click here to read our reviews of On the Thirteenth Day)