Kicking off a series of interviews with people and professionals influenced, engaged, and keen to carry the Roxy Music flame, we are delighted to present a transatlantic interview conducted in October with Oliver Whawell, saxophonist for the tribute band Roxy Musique. The interview is a fascinating look at the influence of Roxy Music on a professional musician; the role music plays in children’s education and those contemplating a career in music; and the experience of working in a contemporary tribute band, a trend that is growing and is providing a creative outlet for musicians and fans alike.
We encourage all Roxy fans to visit http://www.roxymusique.com for downloads and dates when the band is playing in your area.
roxymusicsongs (RMS): Oliver, one of the things that I noticed about you was that you’re pretty active online and that you were very kind, at the beginning of the year, to give me a plug on your blog, and I really do appreciate that. But just to confirm, how do you describe yourself? You are the saxophone player for cover band Roxy Musique, yes?
Oliver Whawell (Oliver): Yes, I am. In the UK, we call it a tribute band. Cover bands tend to play a whole variety of music, rather than be dedicated to one particular band. But yes, essentially it’s a cover band.
RMS: Tribute band. Got it. I think I’d like to talk to you just about your musicianship – what instruments do you currently play, and what is your musical background.
Oliver: Well, I started playing the piano when I was five, and I was pretty proficient by the time I was 16. In England, we have a grade system, and grade eight is the last exam that most children take before they go to music college. I had grade A on piano and saxophone, by the time I was 16. I took it pretty seriously, from quite an early age.
And then I went to music college. Then on top of that, I play clarinet. Then, when I first was asked to join a Roxy Music tribute band, I wanted to do the job properly, so I bought an oboe and I very hastily taught myself the oboe. That was a main challenge, but it was lovely because it had always been – I used to tell people it was my favorite instrument that I didn’t play, and then suddenly I played it. Yes, that was lovely, and it brings me a great deal of pleasure, playing oboe now.
RMS: Music college was the formal training?
Oliver: Yes. I went to music college in Leeds, which is in the north of England. I actually did a music degree, through a music college, and then in my final year, I specialized in performing in public.
RMS: What were your plans, Oliver, at that point? Did you see a career for yourself in music?
Oliver: Well, in actual fact, I was pretty burnt out for a while, and I took two years out completely and went to the Czech Republic and taught English.
RMS: Oh, really?
Oliver: But then, while I was in my second year out there, I suddenly felt very strongly that I wanted to come back to England and to be a musician again. I came back to England and, within a year or so, I got myself back to where I wanted to be and I was teaching saxophone and piano, and beginning to work as a musician again.
RMS: Would you say a music degree, obviously, is not always a promise of financial freedom. How have you made it work since then, Oliver, if you don’t mind me asking?
Oliver: Well, I teach a lot. I’m self-employed. Obviously, you’re only as good as your reputation, so it’s important to work hard. It’s important to motivate. You can’t have a bad day, and I think I must have a good reputation in teaching in Leeds. My teaching practice is very healthy.
Yes, that side of it’s lovely, and I do thoroughly enjoy teaching. I teach saxophone and piano three days a week, and I teach academic music in primary schools, up to the age of 11-year-old children. That’s lovely as well, because that exercises a completely different part of me, essentially.
Teaching saxophone or piano one on one is very, very different to teaching 32 children who may or may not actually even be enjoying the subject, you know? Yes, that’s fun, too.
RMS: Have you seen a change in the attitude towards learning not only the musical instruments but an attitude towards music as a discipline? Are children engaged more or less or are you seeing that it’s fairly consistent?
Oliver: There’s a fine question. There has been a change. But I think the change is not necessarily to do with children, but more to do with media. I think the ease with which children can watch music, say, on YouTube, and effectively not pay for it, there’s a change. I think more and more people can’t listen to music in isolation.
They might be on the phone and listening to music. They might be doing their homework and listening to music. But the actual idea of just putting a CD on and listening to it, I think – well, we don’t have any children that would do that, and that’s a shame. That’s a dreadful shame.
RMS: I would tend to agree with you. I don’t teach children but I remember my own experience – I’m a music fanatic, and we used to put on the headphones and you’d listen to an album as an important component. It wasn’t about individual tracks. You’d listen to it from end to end. However, these are exciting times for music. Do you think that the kids – I don’t quite know how to phrase this, but do they have the application and dedication to becoming good musicians?
Oliver: Some do. Certainly, of course they do. I can see it. I’ve been teaching in a school in Leeds for nearly 20 years now, and there are children that come through that achieve what I achieved when I was young. There are. But there aren’t that many that do it, and I’ve had people who wouldn’t even be bothered to go onto YouTube or to actually listen to someone else play something that they’re learning.
When I was young, I would think nothing about walking to the library to borrow a record and take the record home, and then record it onto cassette, and then be very proud of the fact that I had the cassette, and then I would listen to the cassette and absorb it. Now, when I think, “Oh my word, this is so easy. All you’ve got to do is type the name of someone into YouTube and there it is.” It was a few years ago, but I remember one child actually saying, “Oh no, that’s massive effort.”
RMS: The conceitedness of youth, right? Wish I was young enough to still have it!
Oliver: I couldn’t believe it. I still get excited on seeing a previously unseen clip of Roxy Music. Only a few weeks back, I found a clip of them playing Eight Miles High on a German program. Obviously, living in the UK, we’ve never seen this clip ever. Therefore, no one had ever searched for it.
When I just stumbled on it, I immediately posted it on Facebook, and people were absolutely thrilled. People were sending me private messages saying, “Thanks for finding that and sharing it.” There are people – we might call them geeks or whatever, but there are people who are still absolutely delighted to discover hidden clips.
RMS: Yes, I think that the band members that we’re talking about, if we can shift over to Roxy themselves, the boys were probably from a milieu that really depended upon receiving import gems and underground snippets of information.
I mean, Bryan Ferry was an obsessive music collector, same with David Bowie and many others, and Velvet Underground is probably the greatest, most famous example of this rarity of a group for the Brits – well, what is it Brian Eno said? “Everybody that listened to Velvet Underground in the late 60s formed a band.”
Oliver: They all formed bands.
RMS: There’s that sense of a thrill in collection. I appreciate the background, your own background, Oliver. I think that you’re drawing an interesting conclusion, which is the access to music instruction and music history and archive information has never been greater, and how the young people today utilize it will be an interesting thing. We’ll see how that goes.
I’d like to turn, if you don’t mind, Oliver, to Roxy Music as a band. I’m not going to make an assumption that they’re your favorite band. You may have only gotten involved with the tribute band as a result of a necessity or an opportunity to gig. But at a high level, why Roxy Music, where do they sit in your spectrum?
Oliver: Well, for me, you can assume they’re my favorite band. Now, in the context of Roxy Music, I’m the obsessive. There are the members of the band who enjoyed them at the time, or it passed them by at the time. But because they’re musicians and because, if you like, they’re dedicated, they’ve become deep admirers of their respective musician.
For me, I was very lucky. My dad had all the Roxy Music albums, and he used to play them in the car. I can very clearly remember there was one particular cassette that had For Your Pleasure on one side, and Avalon on the other.
Oliver: Woah, tell me about it. I can still remember not enjoying it, but I can remember not enjoying the side that had For Your Pleasure on it, and I can remember thinking that Take a Chance With Me was a very attractive song, and was probably the first Roxy Song that I liked.
Then, it just grew, and I suddenly realized that I liked the oboe, bizarrely. Strictly Confidential was actually the next Roxy track that I very clearly remember liking. From then, I started to listen to the cassette on my own, and then digging out the records and putting the records on and just essentially getting into it.
Then, of course, the saxophone hit me, or Andy Mackay’s saxophone suddenly made an impact, and that would have been the Pyjamarama solo and the solo in Song For Europe. I just passed my grade eight, or I was very close to passing my grade eight, and my parents said, “What do you want to do next?” sort of thing. I said, “I want to play the saxophone.” They got me a saxophone, and I practiced and I practiced and I practiced, and pretty much as soon as I’d acquired the facility to get around the instrument, I was trying to play the Song For Europe solo. Incredible stuff.
RMS: That is exciting! Oliver, I was wondering, at a high level, where do you see Roxy Music in the continuum, as I’m feeling a bit of an upturn in the interest of early 70s art rock bands and Roxy Music – is there anything special about these bands at all, that we’re not seeing today, or is there anything that you think will have longevity?
Oliver: That’s a very hard question, because I’m 43. I wasn’t around to enjoy Roxy when they were in the charts. I don’t have those particular memories, and I can’t imagine the impact that they made. Now, I can watch old clips, I can watch old programs and see how relatively tame the other bands were at the time, so I can see that they’re exciting. But of course, I’m still biased because I’m already a fan.
Now, I think the quality of the words – say, the first five albums. Bryan’s lyrics are phenomenal. I think anyone that discovers them, if they’re 14 or 15 years old, will think these are lyrics worth listening to. I think the production values on all of the albums are also timeless.
All the respective solo albums sound of their age. So, quite what happened in the studio that made the Roxy albums be as they are – and they don’t seem to belong to an era. You can play Ladytron now, and people would still think it was weird.
RMS: I was wondering, what do you think the Roxy legacy is going to be?. You play the band’s music often. You practice it, you’re inside it better than most of us. Do you feel legacy or do you feel it’s of its time?
Oliver: Oh, no. It’s timeless.
Oliver: Yes, and it’s perfect, in the real sense of the word. It absolutely is perfect music to inhabit. The sheer variety of music that we get to perform, we play normally about 13 songs in set one, and that’ll be a spread from the first four or five albums, depending on what mood we’re in.
Even within those 13 songs, we can take the audience on an unbelievable journey. Then in set two, a similar set length, but we’re essentially playing singles from the last three albums. Even then, it’s still a journey, because there’s very little common ground between a song like Trash and Oh Yeah, when you’re playing it live.
Or, the sheer impact that a song like Same Old Scene has, when it’s played live, it blows the album away. We’re not doing anything which isn’t on the record. We’re playing it correctly. But the second that you hear it at gig volume, it never fails to get people dancing. And that’s lovely. In one particular run of songs that we do in set one, we normally open with some fairly up songs, maybe Prairie Rose, Serenade, that sort of thing. Then, we play Song For Europe fairly early on in the show, and I get an opportunity to flex my muscles, and it’s good. It’s a lovely moment for me. I get to play a good, strong solo, and then the next song is nearly always In Every Dream Home A Heartache, so it’s straight after the big saxophone workout.
RMS: Enter Phil Manzanera…!
Oliver: Of course, that then finishes with an immense guitar solo, and with the band being as heavy as they possibly can be, we play Just Like You. We go from the most brash, loud thing that they did really to the most gentle, quiet piano introduction, and a beautiful ballad.
Even for people that might be in the audience and they only know Love is the Drug and Dance Away and Oh Yeah, because of that little – it’s just three songs, but they’re so musically strong, and the way it’s sequenced, even if you’ve got someone there thinking, “This is horrible. What am I listening to?” and then they hear Just Like You.
It’s lovely, and the number of times – obviously, people come up and they praise us and it’s great and we always deflect it and say, “It’s the music that we’re playing. It’s the music that’s brilliant, but thank you for praising us.” The praise that we get is, “It’s awesome. I wanted to dance, but I was mesmerized by the band,” and that’s lovely. What more lovely thing could a musician hear? Of course, it compliments on the quality of the music.
RMS: It’s a compliment to you guys also, as musicians! Well Oliver, thank you for you time. I’ve only got one final question for you. What is your dog’s name? (a kind but persistent dog bark accompanied the interview)
Oliver: I’ve got two dogs. The one that you can hear is Billy, and the well-behaved one is called Benji. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
RMS: It’s been a real pleasure talking to you, Oliver. I just want to say, from one music fan to another, thank you for your time.
Billy and Benji enjoy some music chat before dinner.