Karin Ingram interviewed the dynamic duo when they visited the Scottish Borders during their 2000 tour for the wonderful Box & Fiddle magazine. It’s good when it’s someone who really knows about the artists and the music can get so much out of them.
What are your earliest memories of Traditional Music?
Aly: When I was really, really young, I lived next door to Tom Anderson and I have, not so much memories of hearing the music, but certainly of seeing the fiddle. My dad played at Christmas, but mind you he didn’t practise much. He only played once a year! I took it up when I was about eleven or twelve and played for a year or so before I went to Tom Anderson. My other next door neighbour, who was a woman from the Island of Yell, she played a bit and I learned my first tunes from her. Tunes like The Rowan Tree – wee tunes like that – and then I got a record from my Uncle Andrew, who did play. He sent me a record of Sean McGuire and a record of Hector McAndrew’s one Christmas, so I started learning the tunes off them by ear. Then I went to Tom after that – so I had learned quite a few tunes by the time that I went to him. I bought my first fiddle from a neighbour – it was a three-quarter sized fiddle I bought for three quid. When you think about it, that was almost a week’s wages at that time, so it was quite a lot of money. I still have it – it is actually a nice wee fiddle – so I used that until I got big enough to use a full sized fiddle, which was a while at the speed I grew! I have only had two or three fiddles since then. The one I have now I’ve had for twenty years. Once I get used to a fiddle I can’t be bothered changing it. But basically I was young and I’ve heard fiddle music all my life since I was a kid, it was a musical environment. At school, I was in the school band, there were five of us called the “Rhythm Aces”, and we played mainly skiffle music. Lonnie Donegan music and some Blue Grass and of course Shetland music as well. Two of us out of that band went on to make a living – Ron Mathieson the bass player, he played the tea chest with the rope on it you know? But it was a good little band, which was why I was useless at algebra because I engineered it so as that every algebra period we had a band practice. And when I think about it, it’s music saved me doing all that stuff ever again. I was useless at it!
Phil: My grandmother used to put on Jimmy Shand records to help me go to sleep – apparently I would not lie down until the Jimmy Shand records went on when I was a kid. I also heard a lot of piping – my next door neighbour was in the Lothian and Borders Police Pipe Band – and I used to go to sleep at night time with him playing the pipes through the wall. I was given a toy accordion at the age of three. My mum said I just played it right out of the stocking – took it out the Christmas sock and I played Oh Suzannah on it or something. So they put me to lessons straight away. I had been having a go on the mouth organ – my grandfather gave me a “moothie” every Christmas from the age of three upwards – a double sider. This little toy accordion – it was like a button key accordion, in as much as you got a different note on the sook and the blaw but it was a piano key. The black notes were painted on in the appropriate places, but it was just a row of white keys and I knocked a tune out of it so my folks put me to lessons and I’ve never really forgiven them for that! My first tutor was Chrissie Letham and then on to her son Owen. Apparently I had a leaning towards classical music so I played classical accordion for the majority of my learning years and also violin at school. I was first violinist for a while in the Edinburgh Secondary Schools Orchestra. My brother Johnny was in the Orchestra too. I got kicked out though!
Aly: For smoking or something!
Phil: I used to make up my own bits. There would be orchestrations of classical stuff and I would just be playing my own thing, my own harmonies and everything and they reckoned that Mozart and Beethoven had it down, they didn’t need any help from me. The same as algebra and science for me, they always used to tell me that Newton had already worked the laws out and they didn’t need me to re-work them! Chrissie had an amazing sense of rhythm and her whole body moved when she played and taught. Even when she was singing something to you she had a really good way with her about feel. Owen was a real technician and I think that what I got from him was “fingers”. I developed a technique of my own as a result of being able to do what he showed me. The bagpipes next door also was a big influence on me because that always stuck in my head and to this day I still write a lot of pipe tunes – I am a fanatical listener to the bagpipes.
Aly: I went through a lot of bowings with Tom – because we were learning strathspeys and stuff and he was a fanatic, an absolute fanatic. He kept exchanging tapes with Irish players like Paddy Cannay and many Northern Irish players who were very much akin to Scots players. He had old cylinders of Scott Skinner and all kinds of different records and lots and lots of written music which he could read – but he was fanatical about bowing and trying to figure out how it was done. He always used to say that working the bow was just to use as little of it, and get as much out of it, when you were playing fast, as you could – it was a kind of economy thing so’s that you could play faster and also on the slow tunes to use big long bows…
Phil: It’s actually very like the bellows on the accordion – I’m so lazy now, I mean my bellows technique is a shambles. My fingering is a shambles now too and I think that if Owen Murray, my teacher, was to sit down and analyse what I’m doing he would be appalled! I’ve become very aware that my playing is getting sloppier as the years go by rather than getting tighter. It takes a great deal of discipline and concentration to do everything the way that it should be done.
Aly: I think that certain kinds of music as you get older get more difficult and other kinds get easier.
Phil: Kinds with notes in it is what gets difficult for me now!
Aly: When I was young I could play as fast as I wanted to play or was humanly listenable to but once you get older a) you lose interest in that, and b) your slow playing gets a lot better. But I think all these things we learned when we were kids, you don’t forget them and the fact is that we never practise. I have been on the road with Phil for years and very rarely has either of us seen the other practise their instrument at all.
Phil: Aye, if I go to Aly’s house for three or four days we never have a tune or anything like that – it just doesn’t happen.
Aly: Never – once I am finished playing a concert the fiddle goes in its case until the next concert.
Can you remember your first public performance?
Aly: It must have been in the Garrison Theatre in Lerwick. There was this guy, an Englishman, who lived in Lerwick and he ran variety concerts which were hilarious. He was the local dustman, but he was a Cockney and a bit of a comedian and so he had shows and I played at a few of them. I played a lot with the Forty Fiddlers when they started, and I would do a solo every night with them, but I never liked it – I tried to get out of it and I avoided it as much as possible. I was about fifteen then. I was also playing with Ronnie Cooper in a dance band when I was about fourteen, I didn’t mind that as much because we had a good laugh and we were actually making some money out of it which I needed. But the solo performing I didn’t like and I still don’t like it. I think we kind of fell into a life that really we weren’t supposed to have.
Phil: Well I wanted to be a zoo-ologist or a vet because I wanted to work with animals. I can remember my first concert – I was four and it was at the Wire Mills Club in Edinburgh. There was a guy called Fergie heard me playing the mouth organ on the top deck of a bus – I was coming back from my Granny’s and I was sitting on my own and I was playing the “moothie”. He heard me and he got in touch with my Mum and he had a wee concert party. In fact Wendy Wetherby, the cellist (with Ceol Beg), was in the concert party as well, she used to sing Old Time Music Hall and we had a Jolsen singer and an impersonator and all kinds of stuff like that. From the age of four I played at Old Folks’ Homes and Working Men’s Clubs on Sunday afternoons and I did that regularly all through my life.
Were you ever nervous as a child?
Phil: I have always been a bag of nerves – I live on my nerves. You know, I am more nervous now than I ever was when I was a kid. I get terribly bothered with stage fright, anxiety, before I play nowadays. It used to be nae bother at all! In actual fact I’m nervous before I go on – but see the minute I get on there I feel safer on stage than I do the rest of the day. It can get very relaxing once you’re up there but for the two hours leading up to it… he’s bad as well – he paces up and down and nearly drives me mad. Round and round the dressing room!
Aly: I always had it – ever since I was at school I had nerves. When I was at school I had a terrible stammer. The teacher used to make me get up in front of the class and read something out of a book and of course it made me worse. I went through three years of that so I really became nervous at getting up in front of people and when I got up to play I never said anything, I just played. I remember going to Edinburgh for the school camp and I had the fiddle with me because my school pals wanted me to take it because we always had a concert at the end. I remember that it was in a big cafeteria and there was this big sort of Boy Scout type concert arranger shouting my name out and I hid under the table for half an hour! I got the guys to put their feet around me and I could see his feet going up and down and rather than get up and play I hid! For years I hated it and I still don’t like it. I would have probably been a lot healthier and a lot safer as a joiner!
Who have you most enjoyed working with?
Phil: For me, Bonnie Rait and James Taylor were the two high points. I had been such a fan of Bonnie Rait’s for years and to have her phone and say, “Will you come and play on the record?” – I didn’t actually think it was her – I thought it was somebody winding me up, and I swore! You know, “Go Away, Bonnie! (or words to that effect)” I thought it was a woman called Nancy that was winding me up, but it turned out that it was real and I went and I played whistle on her album. We became really good mates, and I put a band together for her on TV. When she comes over and tours here, I go play the box in her band as a guest at different gigs. Playing with James Taylor, that was part of doing all that MD stuff on television. As part of the job, I get to play with folk. Myself and John Smith the director, we just badgered and badgered and badgered until we eventually got James Taylor. I called Bonnie and got a number, a contact number. I’d just had a heart attack and I was sitting in the house when the phone rang. It was James Taylor on the phone and I was thinking, “Oh God, I’m going to have another one!” But James Taylor phoned the house and said he would love to do the Hogmanay Show. What I really liked about them and what makes them stick out in my mind is that they are so good at what they do, but they are incredibly human, human beings. There is no pretence with them at all. They’re very, very down to earth and ordinary, nice people. There is none of this kind of star-struck stuff that you get. David Essex, he was another one. I went to his house to teach him to sing Ae Fond Kiss. He had his big dog there, and we had a cup of tea and started singing it and he was just an absolute gem. So from the rock/pop world these three for me were the high points.
Aly: When I went to America in the early seventies I met some of the heroes that I’d listened to on records, like Jean Carrignon. He was my hero – he and Sean McGuire were the players that I really thought were the greatest. And getting to work with them was great – especially Carrignon because he was kind of an inspiration. Not an easy guy, but it was an education to be around him when he was playing. And people like Johnny Gimbo who I listened to on countless Bob Will’s records, I loved all that Texas Swing. The sailors would bring these records home to Shetland from America, that’s how we had them. These people I’m really glad I met because they’re all dead now and it was really nice to know them. And on the home front, people like Ronnie Copper who I worked with for years – me and him were great pals, we played a lot together and I learned a lot from him. Of course I also did programmes in the States and I met a lot of people there. And in the Transatlantic Sessions here there was Mark O’Connor, and Emmylou (Harris) who was great person and a really good singer.
Phil: When I got to meet Jimmy Shand that was another highlight. A television director said to me one day, “Have you ever played with Jimmy Shand?” I said, “I’ve never even met him!” Then he phoned back and said, “Right, we are making a programme about him and we are going to introduce you to him.” I think he had just turned eighty three – it was a few years ago now – but I went up to the house and honest to God, I sat outside the house, my hands were sweating and I couldn’t go in until I got my hands dried because I knew I was going to shake hands with him! I was thinking about Fergie MacDonald and his talcum powder – he always uses talc to keep his hands dry. (I used to laugh at Fergie, but I was wishing that I’d had talcum powder that day!) But meeting him was great and he was so nice. We went outside and we had a tune on camera – but he wouldn’t meet me on camera. He asked the television cameras to wait outside and I went into the house and he met me on his own terms. He knew what I did and just before we started playing, he leaned across to me and he said, “Mind Phil, I’m eighty-three year auld – watch yer tempo!”. I was discussing that, (tempo), with him and it was quite an interesting thing. Aly and I have been accused by some people over the years of playing too fast, but you know it is just a different way of playing. We don’t play for dancing. We are sitting in front of an audience sometimes of up to two thousand people sitting in a hall staring at you, so you’ve got to do something that interests them. You’re being a showman rather than a vessel for dancing. I remember Finbar Furey when asked, “Why do you play so fast?” answered, “Because I can.”
How do you think Traditional Music has changed over the years?
Aly: I think the Scottish Dance Music, Jimmy Shand rhythm thing, really changed music away from what it was. I don’t think anybody ever played like that. It was a sort of a group thing, so you had to have organisation in it with a piano and bass and so on. But I think if you listen to music that hasn’t been touched by that, like the Donegal music – like Johnny Docherty and Simy Docherty who were working in Scotland as well – they played at an incredible speed. And if you listen to the old wax cylinders of Skinner he played very fast, very fast Strathspeys even though he was a dancer – when he was on stage he played them fast, and he danced them fast.
Phil: But that’s the same thing though. Skinner was playing as a performer, as a showman, rather than as someone playing for set dances.
Aly: I think that the whole dance music culture – you know, Jimmy Shand and them – they were so popular that traditional music became like that. But of course Scottish Dance Bands can’t really play Strathspeys, because they’re really fiddle music or pipe music.
Phil: Well there’s just a different way of doing it now. There are about four or five different ways to play a Strathspey, and each has its own place.
Aly: That’s right, but that strict rhythm thing takes away the freedom out the music to do with it what you will and so I was never that interested in it. I mean, I liked it for fun and I liked playing with Ronnie Cooper ’cos it was enjoyable, it was a different kind of thing – there was a whole set up there…
Phil: See, I love it, I love listening to it and I love the discipline that’s in it and I like when you get somebody like Fergie McDonald that mixes the two – he has a bit of discipline, but there’s still a bit of a wild edge to him. The other day I bought the Bill Black CD and we were listening to Bill Black on the way down from Oban and it was great, you know just a great hour’s listening.
Aly: He’s a great player, he’s a solid player and it’s all there, but very much in that style, obviously – but Phil’s style of playing the accordion is completely different and it’s outside of all that.
Phil: I am working on a dance band album just now called “It’s Aboot Time” and I’m going to put together a band. So I am planning to do that and I’ve been researching the tunes and Duncan Chisholm’s been getting me some good old West Highland Marches and Reels and stuff like that.
Aly: That’s the kind of music that we grew up with – with Scottish Dance Music at Christmas and at New Year – that was what everybody played and everybody in Shetland was playing it – Ronnie Cooper and Willie Hunter and all these guys were all into dance music in a big way. But you see I left when I was twenty and I got out of that scene and into a scene where you were just standing up basically playing on your own, and you cannae play Scottish dance music on your own – it just disnae work. So you played something else and just developed a different way of playing.
Do you ever play for dancing?
Aly: Yes, one “Up Helli A” I played for the Papa Stour Swords for about fourteen hours! It’s very unusual, it’s a sword dance but you do a bit of the back step in it as well. It’s in 9/8 time and there is a trip when you come on and there are different parts of the tune used for different parts of the dance. The tune’s just called the Sword Dance but it’s very ancient – pre any influence from outside really. In fact you find that with Shetland music – that the music from, not the last century but the century before, is very different from the music now. It was also dance music because they were playing for dances, but the dances were much wilder and less organised, so fiddlers in Shetland all had their own way of playing for dances in their own community – it wasn’t a standardised thing like it is now. In fact a fiddler couldn’t go ten miles away and play for the Shetland Reel, because they would have a different way of it and his music wouldn’t fit it. So that was much more open and there was many more styles of playing music. Every country area had its own particular style and that’s something that I guess is beginning to disappear now out of music, through CDs and the radio and all that.
Phil: I find that, not just with accordion music but with Scottish music in general – there is no one Scottish music, there’s so many different wee corners that people do different things. Accordion playing on the East Coast and accordion playing on the West Coast are two completely different things.
Aly: But the East and West have always been different. Like Bobbie McLeod and Jimmy Shand, you know they were two completely different kinds of players.
Phil: When I joined Silly Wizard, I was playing mainly Irish music, so I was very influenced by Irish players. Then when I went to live on the Isle of Skye all my influences became very west coast and my style changed radically. But then when I met Aly I had to come a wee bit East because Aly plays a lot from that area. So it’s interesting, and I’m sure it’s very different even down here in the Borders but you know there are so many different styles within Scottish music – it would be nice if they just all pooled together and we all kindae mixed and matched a bit so that we did have a Scottish music to sell. You see Irish music is just very much Irish music – but I like the difference. I don’t mean that we should change the styles at all. I just wish that we could call it Scottish music instead of calling it all the different names.
Aly: Well I think it is Scottish music but in the old days it was different every three or four miles…
Phil: Like accents.
Aly: Because people didn’t travel anywhere – they didn’t have cars. My grandparents never went anywhere – they lived on the croft and they might have been to Lerwick half a dozen times. So they were very much rooted in their own little area. Tom Anderson began teaching Shetland music – well how can you teach Shetland music? I mean, he had to do what Phil was saying; he had to take what he thought was the best out of it all and make up a Shetland music that he could teach kids.
Phil: And in doing so, he created yet another style.
Aly: Yes – almost another style – but, I mean, you couldn’t teach Shetland music – you would have needed a hundred teachers to teach it, because people used to learn where they grew up, so that’s what they learned. But if you take them into Lerwick into the school, well what are you going to teach them? So in a way, teaching music kind of standardises it and it was better when people learned their own music and their own roots. It was more interesting anyway, because it was great to go to Whalsay for instance and to hear the old guys fiddling up there and the guys in Skerries – they were completely different and it was interesting because they all had little things you wanted – but that choice has gone now. I’ve heard a lot of the old tapes and I met a lot of them, but by the time I was in my teens, it was dying out. It died out very very quickly in my grandfather’s generation, and in Tom’s generation it died out like lightening. And then once the Scott Skinner music came, they all changed to that, because they thought Scottish music was more of a challenge or more civilised or whatever, when in actual fact it wasn’t.
Phil: But do you think you would be able to tell – would it be more by the tune or would it be the style that would dictate what, where it was from?
Aly: Oh, Yell players I could tell, and the music from Yell. And the old music from Walls and Vidlen, yes. And Lerwick too, because they had their own style which was mixed up with everything. But the thing is that the young players that are coming from these places now aren’t playing that music. They’re playing music they hear in Lerwick or they hear it off CDs or they hear it from other players from different places. So that’s the problem with the revival, a lot of the old players have gone, so it is a revival in a sense – but you can never revive what’s been because a lot of it’s dead. But Tom Anderson has all that stuff in the archive and you can still hear it. If you want to go and hear it it’s all there. So that’s what I’ll have to do maybe in the future is go up and get stuck into the archive there because there is lots of interesting stuff in it.
How did you come to play together?
Phil: Well we had known each other obviously for a long, long time and I think the first time we ever played together was down in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, you remember? We did a thing on stage together and we played a set of tunes, in fact I played the piano and you played the fiddle. In the Queen Elizabeth Hall and then you took me for an Italian meal and I was right chuffed, ye ken. I was still pretty young. And then Aly did a pilot programme for what became Aly Bain and Friends.
Aly: Yeah, for Scottish Television that one.
Phil: There was Aly and Violet and Willie Johnstone and Aly asked me to come on that and there was a great public response to what we did. So when the next series came up Aly got me to do that with him as well, and again public response was such that they said why don’t the two of you go and do a tour? So we just did one – just a handful of gigs.
Aly: Up in the Highlands.
Phil: And it was very successful and then the next thing we knew I got MIDI for the accordion and so we had like, box, fiddle and piano and we just started doing it as an annual thing and it really has grown – it sometimes astounds us.
Why do you think it works so well?
Phil: Well, it’s an evening’s entertainment, we try to do the best we can every night. We do have a style that’s developed now. I think we’re playing tunes that people like to hear – we’re doing quite a variety of different things. People have said that they like to come and see us because it’s a complete night out – it’s not just coming and listening to tunes. We talk to them – we talk to the people – we have a laugh. It’s all about communications – we’re communicating on a lot of different levels. Our audience is growing actually, because there was a while where, I would say our audience were all over 50 – well 80% of the audience were over 50 – and now we’re getting younger and younger people coming. But I think that’s largely to do with the fact that the Scottish music scene is growing – you know it’s very kinda healthy at the minute.
Aly: We basically started doing it because nobody else was doing it, just fiddle and accordion. There were dance bands and all that but nobody doing what we were doing.
Have you been involved in the Box and Fiddle Club scene or Folk Club scene?
Phil: I’ve done a couple of Box and Fiddle Clubs. I once played in Wick – Charlie McKerron had heard that they thought I was a heroin addict, and I think they wanted to see what a heroin addict would do! In fact I played up the whole thing, I turned up with a baseball cap on, and was a’ unshaven with holes in the knees of my trousers! I got the Bank Manager in the Alliance and Leicester in Dingwall to come and play the piano for me. He was spotless, he had a wee cardigan and a tie, it was just Jekyll and Hyde the two of us! Half way through the concert I said, “Now, I just want you all to know that I’m not a heroin addict!” and they were kinda looking away all embarrassed!
Aly: I’ve played in a few of them. Obviously I’ve played in Shetland, I’ve played in Wick as well and I’ve played in one in Hexham. They are usually very small, and if I can’t find an accompaniment I need to get Violet Tulloch down cos she knows what I am playing, and it’s too expensive.
Phil: You would imagine you might get people phoning – there’s been a few requests, but really not many.
Aly: Well, I think a lot of them are very small and think, “We can’nae afford them”.
Phil: I often wondered if what I did was just so far removed from what everybody else was doing and that it just didnae fit.
Aly: It’s a whole scene on its own; it’s kinda like Folk Clubs in a way except it’s narrower.
Phil: The Folk Clubs we’ve been very heavily involved in, because that’s where you start. We may still do Folk Clubs if there was anyone that wanted us to go. Some Folk Clubs really grew into quite big things. Stirling Folk Club was huge, and the Triangle Folk Club in Edinburgh where I started with Silly Wizard …
Aly: And Aberdeen was a huge Club but that was a phase, and it wore off. Nowadays I think they tend to be quite small.
Phil: There was a time when the only place you could hear folk music was in a Folk Club, but now folk music is very successful on the main stage.
Aly: Fiddle and Accordion Clubs were really a more recent thing than Folk Clubs. There weren’t really many Clubs when I first started that you could play at, in fact there weren’t even many players. Nowadays it’s very different, there’s lots and lots o’ young players and they need a platform. That’s why Fiddle and Accordion Clubs and Folk Clubs are so important.
Phil: Something that I’ve just noticed this year is the fact that there are younger people turning up at the halls. There’s a great rash of young players now. It seems to be OK to be involved. I was a real outcast when I was young. Playing Folk Music – you were a bit of a weirdo!
Aly: You used to hide the fiddle in case you’d get laughed at in school.
Phil: But now they’ve got the course in Glasgow for Traditional Music and other courses all over the place. So people are just not as embarrassed about Scottish Music as they were.
Aly: There’s even been fiddlers that have had hit records. So a fiddle is acceptable and we’ve both played on lots of pop albums.
Phil: I just think that it’s come to a point where people are willing to accept what they have is their own. The Dance circuit and the Ceilidh thing that has started up are largely for kids in the cities I think. They go out and have a great time, they grow to learn that it’s good fun and good music. I remember doing a talk at my daughter’s school in Inverness, and I asked the kids what they thought Scottish Music was, but I actually played them a whole bunch of stuff with a bagpipe track and a Jimmy Shand track, they only identified the Jimmy Shand track and the bagpipes as being Scottish Music, the rest of it was all cloaked and hidden, like Runrig or an American playing an old Scottish tune. When I asked them, “Do you know anything about Scottish Music?” they would all go red in the face and they would’nae admit it in front of their pals. Nowadays, for example, the Fochabers High School Band, the fiddlers were just amazing.
Aly: When they were up on the stage they were just having a great time.
Phil: It means that when we are older we’re going to hae’ somebody to listen to!
Aly: I went to Rudolph Steiner Schools to give a talk and they were a’ sitting there, and the first question I was asked was, “How does your life interfere with your family?” (I’d just got divorced at the time!). I thought, “Wow, it’s time I went home!”
Phil: We recently just popped in to Mid Yell School on the way south from Fetler to Lerwick and played some stuff for them. I teach regularly for Féis Rois but that was actually for the adult Féis (I teach group work for that). I’ve just been trying to get an orchestra under way up in the Highlands, a Youth Orchestra that plays basically traditional music. The Highland Festival – I managed to access funding from the Scottish Arts Council to let me get that up and running, so that’s my current Youth thing. I’m going to be doing auditions across the Highlands and I would ultimately like to expand it not just in the Highlands. But I live there and I’ve got to be sensible about who I control and how you get people from A to B. I want to have a band of probably twenty-five to thirty musicians aged between thirteen and seventeen and I’m planning on doing some stuff with them, but I would bring in some classical musicians to show them how to do exercises for tuning because sometimes that gets left out. If you listen to a big band of fiddle players, every time they hit a high B, it’s touch and go whether they are going to get basic things like intonation and tone. So we’ll run regular workshops every week and run weekends with them to specifically train them up in some of the finer points. It’s all very well learning to play tune after tune, but I think they would get more out of it if they realised that there was a completely different side to things – how to arrange music and how to actually relate to another musician, one on one. I always start with kids by saying, “If you can’nae hear the guy sitting next to you, you’re playing too loud.” I always say that to the box players actually, cos it’s normally us that’s causing all the trouble! If you catch them young enough, by the time they get to their twenties they are going to have a much broader field.
Aly: I’ve taught more in Sweden than here. The set up of teaching here is so fragmented and I’ve got so little time that a regular thing for me is almost impossible. But what I would really like to see is a School of Excellence. People could take time out from school and go and learn. It’s important to have the best teachers in Scotland working there. That’s what they are doing in Scandinavia and it’s paying off dividends for them. We need real commitment from the Government if we’re going to do that. In Norway, the kids take two years between leaving school and going to University. If they are talented they can go and learn exactly what Phil was talking about. Have the best classical musicians come there – they have improvisers, they have arrangers, so that these kids after two years know how to work in a studio, how to deal with contracts, how to organise their lives. If Phil and I had known all that stuff when we first started it would have made life a lot easier for us.
Phil: My ambition for Scotland and Scottish music is that we are able to sell ourselves in the way that the Irish have done. The Irish have a very, very forward thinking approach about their own music and they just get out there and they sell it and everybody knows what it is. I would really like it if Scotland was to take music that seriously. The Artists don’t pay tax in Ireland, which I think is actually quite strange, I don’t see why if my joiner has to pay tax why I should’nae, I don’t think I would be able to get my head round that one at all!
Aly: Ireland is a Nation, and that make a big difference, because they get direct involvement from the Government. They have their own airline, they get sponsorship, their music’s used a lot more, it’s used in adverts, it’s used in everything, it’s much more a part of Irish life than Scottish music is of Scottish life. If we’re going to change that, then we really need to be producing excellent players, and the way you do that is to teach them well and pick up talent when it’s young and not when it’s too late. Once you have done this they must have some place to go, because all these kids you see learning the fiddle, where are they going to play it? You must provide a platform for them. This initiative of putting kids to play in pubs and hotels round the Highlands where the tourists are is a good idea, because they can earn a few quid and actually get a bit of experience. Kids need a reason to play and an audience to play for, but we’ve got to teach them right and there has to be a real solid way of doing that. At the moment it’s fragmented into little things all over the country and it’s not good enough really. I mean, if you’re in Edinburgh and you want to learn where do you go?
Phil: I think the revolution at the minute is in the hands of a lot of individuals, and if it was’nae for them putting in their own precious time, hard work and fund raising, you know, it would’nae be happening.
Aly: But that’s always been the Scottish way.
Are there any young players that you have heard recently that you think are going to be the stars of the future ?
Phil: In terms of fiddle music for me, there’s the likes of Alan Henderson and Ian MacFarlane and all these guys, they are really immersed in what they are doing.
Aly: And the Da Fustra Group from Shetland, Bryan Gear, they are excellent players but they need to take it a stage further. They need to be able to take time and go and study it, but they are working at something else, or they’re at University, and music is very much a secondary thing. When you get good talent like that you want to put it to much better effect and give them a better opportunity to learn without being broke.
Phil: There’s a whole lot of good young players and it would be hard to single out any of them, but I am really looking forward to the next five years just to see what exactly comes of it.
Aly: If somebody from the BBC phones me up tomorrow and says, “Here’s a six week series of a half-an-hour a week, fill it with Scottish players,” you’d be struggling after the first three weeks to get the kind of quality that you wanted, whereas in Ireland you could probably get twelve weeks and that’s what we’ve got to put right.
Phil: I’m no sure, there’s a lot of good players but a lot of them don’t have the experience. Well, where do you get that experience if you can’nae get on the telly? There are very few television producers or directors who would be willing to take that risk with their programme, it’s not there as an educational tool. Somehow you have to gain the experience to get on the telly and hold your own.
Aly: These young kids, a lot of them are doing creative things and inventive things but if they knew what they were doing they would get much better. They are having to find out as they go along, nobody is teaching them and nobody taught me anything about harmonies or anything about arrangements and Phil learnt it all for himself. But if young kids had that kind of teaching it’s a different ball game.
Phil: We were both involved in the degree course at the Academy. I was in the validation committee and Aly was a judge for the end of the year exams. It’s heartening having seen it from the beginning, having seen them two years down the line, to see exactly – not so much what the Academy had done for them – but what they had done for themselves.
Aly: We kind of adopted them and on the day when they were getting their wee hats on and their degrees that was a really lovely thing to see, it was wonderful.
Phil: We’ve known them since, well, Alan Henderson we’ve known him since he was…
Aly: He used to follow us round since he was five years old, but they really need a different kind of thing, they need a place where a lot of young players can get together with a lot of good teachers around them. If Phil was in a situation like that where he had fifteen or twenty really talented players he could teach them so much, but they’ve got to be talented, you can’t teach if they are not capable. It should be compulsory in all schools, the kids need to learn their own music.
Phil: When Aly and I rightly become joint Prime Ministers of this country we’ll sort it all!
Aly: After our next album, we are making a bid for politics!
Phil: The Ceilidh Party, we’re going to run for government – there’s going to be compulsory Ceilidhs on Thursday and Friday nights!
Aly: The whole nation has to attend a Ceilidh every week!
Phil: And you won’t get any DHSS unless you can do at least a Gay Gordons! Free box and fiddle lessons for all!
What have been your best and worst gigs?
Phil: The worst gig was in Holland. The audience were so disinterested in the whole thing that when it came time for my solo, Andy M. Stewart (the singer) went onto the mic and said, “Now, my friend’s going to play a solo, while he is doing that, myself and this rather large bass player here are going to be wandering amongst you making sure you keep your mouths shut,” and they wandered through the audience menacing people that were making a noise! At the end of the gig we got off the stage, and all of a sudden – because they thought they were going to get flung out and no more beer – they started shouting for more! The entire band lined along a balcony above the stage and gave the audience the two fingers and that was it, we would’nae go back on – gig over! For us probably the Edinburgh Festival Theatre was one of the high points wasn’t it?
Aly: Yeah, that was sold out and it was nice that we had two thousand people. The worst for me was with the Boys of the Lough in Norway. Because alcohol was so expensive in the hall, they were completely drunk when they arrived, and we tried to play music but they weren’t in the least bit interested, it was so bad that I got up and played “Roll out the Barrel” on the keyboard and they all started to sing and clap… in time! That was the best thing of the whole night! The best gig was at Carnegie Hall. It was great to play there in New York, you knew so many famous people had been on before you and you were standing on hallowed ground. Juneau, Alaska was one of the strangest places I’ve ever been to, where they were shooting guns off in the back of the audience. The barman pointed a gun at one of the guys in the band and told him to wear one of the T-shirts from the bar. We never knew whether the barman was serious or not, he was so out of his head! We were frightened – thought he was actually going to shoot us! We also taught the Eskimos how to dance that night, which was hilarious.
Who have been the greatest characters you’ve worked with?
Phil: Fergie MacDonald is by far the funniest man. He’s just a lovely guy and his whole way about him is so comical, he’s my hero. Chick Murray was a delight to be around.
Aly: We did two TV shows with Chick Murray; he was an extraordinary guy, naturally funny. I’ve played at a few working clubs with Billy Connolly in the old days. One night we were on stage doing something but the audience were singing a different song completely, and watching the way that Billy sorted them out was quite an education for me, when I had just come from Shetland.
Phil: We got really badly heckled once in Arran at the Festival, so I paid Danny Kyle a tenner and Danny sat at the side of the stage, in his own chair, with his own mic, so if the hecklers started Danny dealt with it, and we got on with the gig. It was great; we had our own sort of stage bouncer! He would say, “Lend us your face, I want tae haunt a hoose,” and all that kind o’ stuff.
What are the makes of your instruments?
Phil: I’m sponsored by Borsini and Ralston Accordions. I play a Borsini 96 bass and I have a MIDI system called King Major. Ralston supply all the back up for it and whenever it gets broken on the plane it goes straight back to Rob at Ralston’s and he fixes it. They must be sick of me by now, the accordion does get a real rattling on a plane, we do so much flying, and baggage handlers don’t pay any attention. I have a little Roland keyboard module as my expander and I’ve used the same one for years. I don’t really use much, just piano and strings and I have a little foot pedal that I use as a volume pedal just to bring them in and out as I need. I’ve only got the one accordion. I wish I had more than one because there have been occasions like in Stornoway, when the box broke, and the word went out that Cunningham was looking for an accordion and we had about a half dozen turned up, different ones!
Aly: I don’t know what I am playing except it’s a fiddle. It’s a hand-made German fiddle probably made around 1890, made in a French style. Somebody once told me what it was and said it was a good fiddle, but it’s not written inside so I always forget. And I have a Somny bow, he was a French bow maker who used to work for Hill’s in London and it’s quite a valuable bow, but it’s getting really old. I’ve worn the wood on the top through twice. Every time I do that it has to be renewed, which isn’t much good but I like it, it’s almost like a viola bow. I bought the fiddle in London from a chap called Tom Paley. He had seventy and I just chose one and I paid him five hundred quid for it twenty-five years ago.
Phil: I’m trying to scale down my accordion, I’m looking for a 72 bass but I need to see if Borsini will make me a second accordion but structure the reeds so that I’ve got a C# on the top of my bass because a 72 bass stops at an F#. Because of the way I like to chord things it’s an important one for me. So I am trying to get someone to rebuild or redesign the left hand for me, I just find the weight of these things now, the older I’m getting…
Aly: Your fiddle is a very personal thing because I’ve played on a lot of great fiddles, like Cleo of the BT Ensemble has got a Strad, but I like my own fiddle. I think everybody likes their own instrument, you know its weaknesses and its strengths.
Phil: Aly’s fiddle is interesting, it’s a difficult instrument to record, very hard to record. It’s a lot of hard edge on the upper end but quite soft on the lower end. You can’t set it up in any one particular way, so you’ve got to spend a lot of time on mic positioning.
Aly: I should probably get another fiddle for recording and keep that one for live gigs.
Phil: So far we’ve been ok with it. Duncan Chisholm’s got a beautiful fiddle for recording. It’s quite a quiet fiddle though when you’re playing it acoustically or playing at a concert.
Where to from here?
Aly: We’re in America from April and then Spain in May and then this tour will be round again.
Phil: I’m going to be in Spain for the majority of February producing an album. When we’re not touring Aly just does his own thing with the Boys of the Lough and I’ve got an awful lot of writing projects on just now. I’m writing for Evelyn Glennie, a kind of Concerto basically for a Percussion Orchestra and Celtic Instruments. I’ve got to have that finished by January and also a ten-part documentary to write the music for. That’s what I spend my time on, producing and writing when I’m not on the road with Aly.
Aly: We’ve got a couple of plans but whether we’ll ever get round to it…
Phil: Aye, we will, we’ve got a couple of good plans for Aly!
Aly: Let’s go…
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