It was the morning after the night before when I spoke to Stephen Bowman, one of the three mighty voices behind close-harmony group Blake.
But this is a tale of a rare night when this top-selling trio didn’t have to sing for their supper rather than one of rock-n-roll excess, and it’s one that fits in nicely with this boy band with a difference’s current Songs of Stage and Screen show.
Stephen, who sing bass-baritone in Blake, said: “Last night we had an interesting evening at a celebration to mark composer the 88th birthday of Monty Norman, who wrote the James Bond theme, and were very lucky to have another 88-year-old, Roger Moore, turn up and give us a few anecdotes. I got to hear the most wonderful thing – Roger Moore doing an impression of Sean Connery. And actually he does a bloody good impression of him!”
So did 35-year-old Stephen and his fellow bandmates have to do their bit too?
“Actually, last night was one of those lovely occasions where we just got to it down and watch.”
When I spoke to Stephen he was between engagements in Horsham and the Isle of Wight with fellow original Ollie Baines, 33, and more recent addition Humphrey Berney, another 35-year-old.
“It’s always nice to go on a holiday, taking that 30 or 40-minute ferry ride across the Solent. And once you’re there it does feel like you’re in a different country altogether!”
Blake’s current tour reaches Lancashire next week – my reason for calling – with a date at Preston’s Charter Theatre (01772 80 44 44) on Tuesday, May 3rd then Southport’s Atkinson Theatre (01704 533 333) the day after, the boys promising tracks from musicals, plus the usual collision of pop and classical songs in what is billed as their ‘most eclectic stage spectacular yet’, ‘accompanied by great musicians and impressive video projections’.
You can also factor in a little rat-pack banter with the audience and plenty of good stories. And if you can’t make it along then , there’s also Lancaster’s Grand Theatre (01524 64695) on September 23, their penultimate tour date.
It’s not a bad way to get around the country, is it?
“It’s a fantastic way of getting around the UK, and the lovely thing about touring is that you get to see so many towns you wouldn’t otherwise visit. All of us live in London, so when it comes to touring we tend to do a show then come back when we can, but very often we have three or four together and stay over in hotels, getting to immerse ourselves in the world of the North, which is great. There are a lot of gems among them, and I’m sure Preston is one of those. It’s our first time.”
They weren’t so far off last August, appearing with Lucy Kay at the Symphony at the Tower fundraiser for St Catherine’s Hospice, at nearby Hoghton.
“Yes, we were close by, and hopefully a lot of people who saw us at Hoghton Tower will remember us. That was fantastic fun, with around 4,500 people there, and a great crowd. If we get a crowd that fun in Preston we’ll be delighted.”
That got us on to the subject of friend of this blog Lucy, who I interviewed at the time (with a link here if your missed it), and proved a big hit with Blake too.
“Lucy was a real delight, a sweet girl, and the audience really enjoyed her.”
Anyway, back to Stephen, and I believe one of his favourite leisure pursuits between dates and recording commitments involves his motorbike. So what does he ride?
“I’ve had all sorts, including a Honda Fireblade for four to five year before moving over to a Suzuki GSX-R1000, which tends to get me around quickly.”
Ever get a chance to roll the bike on board the tour truck so you can get away before sound-checks?
“Yes, we have our support trucks carrying our equipment – lighting, projection and so on, and this show especially is very visual. There’s the music, live vocals and instrumentals, but with large projections for the back of the stage, showing clips of movies and imagery during songs. But they’ve never let me put the bike in the back! If I want to take it with me, I’ve got to ride it. The last time was the previous occasion we went to the Isle of Wight. I did a little tour of the island, which was absolutely fantastic.”
You’re well respected for performing a huge mix of genres. What do you tend to listen to between shows? Does your love of motorbiking mark you mout as a secret Steppenwolf or Bruce Springsteen fan?
“My joy outside of the music we sing is EDM – electronic dance music. I listen to Chvrches quite a lot and an American group called Lucius. I tend to listen to music with a beat. And when I’m motorcycling longer distances I tend to have headphones under the helmet so I have a soundtrack for those longer motorway stints – normally quite fun and upbeat.”
I gather you only really started singing in your teens, but you clearly made a quick impression. Was there a moment where you suddenly realised this could be your future?
“Well, the other guys in the group are both core classical, school choristers from the age of six and studying classical music intensely through their school years. I came to it all later, so my first experience of singing in front of people were as part of bands. And that different approach is great for the show, which varies between classical and contemporary music – from songs people know from the pop charts from the last 20 years or so.
“In that respect it’s quite useful for them to have someone who sings those songs in the style they were intended. There’s a mixture of vocal styles within the group and we take advantage of that.
“When I was 16 I entered the Bath Young Musician of the Year competition, which was my first opportunity to sing classical after years of giving it a go, and it was an amazing moment at a venue holding around 400 people, and the buzz I got from singing in front of those people and putting a smile on their faces was an absolute lightbulb moment. I knew I was really lucky and felt this was something I could do for the rest of my life. And I got there in the end.”
“I was really lucky to get a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at the age of 17, becoming a very young entrant to that college.”
Are you still the youngest baritone to win a place there?
“I think I am! I took the audition when I was still 16.”
“I had something of a hiatus beyond all that, taking five or six years concentrating mostly on songwriting, working with other artists and for myself.
“I kind of switched off the vocal idea of what I was and got on with the songwriting. Then by chance Blake came along, and I may never have sung again if not for Blake.”
I believe it was a Facebook reunion involving your fellow Blake co-founder Ollie, a multi-instrumentalist and former teacher, that was the catalyst.
“Yes, Ollie had also been at the Guildhall, after me, and a lot of us tend to join an alumni group to keep in touch and help find others in the music industry to work with. Myself and Ollie got chatting on Facebook about the idea of this harmony group that would sing classical and pop, then started looking around for others.
“We had a good rehearsal at the Guildhall, and very shortly after I managed to get us in front of Universal Records via our manager. It was all gratuitous timing.”
I’m not doubting the talent involved, but there was an element of luck in getting that big break, wasn’t there? You did after all strike a record deal within days and make your first album within six months, then see it top the UK classical charts.
“Absolutely, the music industry is 99 per cent really hard work and one per cent chance, and the latter is essential – but you still have to make that opportunity.
“We felt that getting that initial opportunity to get in front of a label and get them to say ‘yes’ was all you had to do to stay in the industry, but in actual fact you find out quite quickly that all of your life you can end up jumping through hoops for people and doing auditions, proving yourself, in this country and in our case also overseas, having to reprove ourselves a lot from Asia and America to Australia and Russia. So you can never take it for granted – there’s always another level you have to push for.”
Humphrey, with his operatic background, has been part of the story for some time now. Are you all good company on the road?
“Yes, and the nice thing for us is that we started as four, coming up for 10 years now, and have been three now for almost three years, and the current three are all core musicians, not wannabe actors, and we’re very dedicated to what we do.
“Blake is our life and we are very proud of that. We have a shared dream, which is to continue to get Blake to more of the world, and in terms of what keeps us going it’s a very similar sense of humour.
“Between the three of us we can very easily quote the whole of The Life of Brian and The Holy Grail, and a lot of The Meaning of Life too. So it’s Monty Python that keeps us together really.”
I’ve just been reading a biography about the Faces. I can’t see the three of you trashing hotel rooms though. Or am I wrong?
“I wish I could admit to throwing a television out of a window at some point, but they tend to fix flat-panel TVs to the walls these days.”
You can probably blame Rod Stewart and his old bandmates for that.
“Yeah – they ruined it for everyone!”
From The Beach Boys to Snow Patrol and from Paul Simon to U2 and Gustav Holst to Vangelis, do you all pitch in with ideas for covers?
“The best time for us to find and discuss potential covers is when we’re driving between gigs. You’ve got a sound system and you can voice ideas to each other. So we play a song and try and work out potential harmonies, and if we feel that song has legs we’ll take it into the studio and start picking it apart with a pianist, so all three members get a lot of opportunities to put forward songs they like.
“You can sense that across our albums. You’ve got the heavier classical options through Ollie, the classical and musical selections from Humphrey (Barney), and more pop and rock selections tend to come from me. And that mixture makes it a lot of fun to work together.”
A proper road test, you could say. A bit about yourself now – you were brought up in Bath, and we’ve mentioned your time with the Guildhall School at the Barbican. I also understand your Mum was opera-trained.
“She was. She loved opera, and by osmosis I was exposed to a fair amount of it, mainly light operettas such as those by Gilbert and Sullivan, which to this day I enjoy, massively.”
Meanwhile, your Dad played guitar in a band in Germany, didn’t he?
“Yes, he was a blues guitarist who moved over here, far more schooled in rock and blues. There was definitely competition between them in terms of what I’d end up enjoying. Mum would be in the kitchen playing something loudly and Dad would be in the living room upping the level on his stereo. I was this confused four-year-old walking between two rooms trying to understand all that!
“But it was a good thing, that mixture of genres early on in life. It’s a healthy thing for everybody. You can appreciate a lot more music. I love classical music, I love songs from musicals and I love pop, but also love the more esoteric electronica as well, enjoying that wide range. I haven’t managed to get a taste for rap yet, but I’ll never say never!”
So how did your parents meet?
“It’s a wonderful story involving England versus West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final. Dad was based in Dusseldorf and Mum was there briefly to do a short course in dress design. They were in a bar together on the day of the final, on different sides, a few cheering for England in one corner, and my Dad nursing his beer after the defeat, getting chatting with my Mum. In that moment he fell very much in love and decided she would be the woman he would marry. They were very much an unlikely coupling, but it worked, and he moved to the UK.”
Fast forward a few years, and there was a spell for you playing with indie and jazz bands in Bath, I believe.
“Yeah, like a lot of young kids I found music through groups I idolised at the time, like Pulp, Oasis and Blur. A lot of stuff I was singing when I was 12, 13, 14, was very much in that BritPop and indie style. I was a massive fan of Damon Albarn – and still am – and did a lot of covers of Blur songs.
There was also a link with near-neighbours Tears for Fears in your hometown. How did that come about?
“That was the most bizarre link. My parents moved house in Bath, into a house that belonged to Curt Smith. I was around 10 then. And in the house he left an entire recording studio, so I grew up looking at this room thinking, ‘One day, I’d love this for myself’.
“During my teens I built up my own keyboards, and a computer recording system. That’s what got me into songwriting. And then I got to know Roland Orzabal in Bath quite well, got to play his music, and he gave me input. Tears for Fears were definitely the most famous group from Bath and had worldwide fame. I’ve met Curt and Roland since and they still tour the world, and their songs endure. So it was great to have had advice from them early in life.”
Stephen’s also managed to release a solo album in a busy career so far, 2004’s Bamboo Haze. Did the fact that he went off and got a ‘proper job’ – in sales and marketing – help him decide this was really what he wanted to do in life?
“It was a bit of both. Having a nine-to-five job and having to concentrate on that gives you some real life experience. If you live in the bubble of music from teenage years onwards a lot of your songwriting does tend to be quite idealistic – based on ideals of life and love. That’s wonderful, but I’d say having that five or six years on the road as a salesman, getting on with life and doing what everybody else does, gives you a nice, useful perspective, with a tinge of reality.
“It also helped fund all the equipment I bought for my own studio and gave me my evenings and weekends to dedicate to music. So it was quite a good thing for me.”
Time to sum up now, and Blake have toured the world (everywhere from the Philippines and South Korea to Barbados and Russia), had No.1 hits in many countries, sold more than a million albums, won a Brit Award for Album of the Year, and performed on nearly 150 TV shows. They’ve playing Wembley, the Olympic Stadium, Buckingham Palace, the White House, Melbourne racetrack, and entertained royalty in Monaco and at home (and I don’t just mean performing for Dame Shirley Bassey at her 70th birthday – an alliance that led to recording with the legend herself).
Meanwhile, their version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot was adopted by the England RL team, and then there’s the celebrity fans – such as Keira Knightley, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Will Smith – and high-profile charity work, performing for HM The Queen and Prince Harry at the Festival of Remembrance, launching a Walking with the Wounded South Pole Challenge, working with the Sing to Beat Breast Cancer Choir, and other engagements with Help for Heroes, the British Legion, MIND, among others.
So does Stephen ever have to pinch himself to get over the fact that his band are out there doing all this, when the TV cameras are on them for The Graham Norton Show, The One Show or Strictly Come Dancing for example, or they’re working on a film soundtrack with Hans Zimmer?
“You do have to pinch yourself, but as with anything you do in life, if there is a degree of regularity to it, it becomes slightly normalised. What I tend to find is that when I talk about the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life with friends and family or people like yourself, it’s in those moments that I have brief seconds where I realise I really did do all this. So I tend to look back on those moments only when I’m telling anecdotes and stories.
“And in 10 years together there’s this massive wash of things we’ve done and achieved. We’ve been very lucky. Very few artists get to experience what we’ve experienced.”
Finally, past members Jules and Dominic went off to act (Jules since releasing his own solo LP). So what of the three of you who remain – is there a five or 10-year plan?
“Well, I would hope that in 10 years I would have some kiddies. That would be nice. I haven’t managed to pop any of those out yet!
“With musicians, especially pop musicians, you’ll go for so long and then everything stops and they go on to normal life. The nice thing about the style of what we do is quite relaxed, and almost gentlemanly, albeit with a very dry sense of humour. And that affords us a kind of rat-pack style environment to have fun.
“There’s really no reason for us ever to stop what we’re doing, as long as people keep coming to our concerts. And luckily for us they seem to be coming in greater numbers year on year, which is wonderful.
“So from our point of view it would be something we’d love to continue doing, and that’s the feeling for all of us. None of us are waiting for a chance of a solo career. We had those members previously, and they left to do their own thing. Now we’ve got this lovely little tight-knit group. So I see us doing this until we’re potentially quite old and a lot more grey than I already am.”
And is the first step of all that another album?
“We’re looking at heading towards something quite big and more classical – big anthemic stuff. But this year is so packed with touring that we’re not likely to record anything. We might make a concert DVD, but in terms of a new album we’re going to peg that for 2017. It’s a big undertaking when you do it the way we do it, with orchestras and so on. We work always with our amazing fan-base around the world, and they help us fund those albums through crowd-sourcing methods, while we spend a lot of time planning it.”