Graeme Hamilton: song writer-musician-vocalist-et al in a interview with Mark Ulyseas.
The following interview gives the reader a ringside view into the world of well known artist, Graeme Hamilton who is the son of the legendary Andy Hamilton.
I met Graeme in a small restaurant at a popular Asian tourist destination. We talked the talk about everything from human rights to pasta to his life and times in the music world – writing, composing, producing and performing with some of the world’s leading bands – UB40, Au Pairs, FYC (Fine Young Cannibals), Al Green, The English Beat, Lee Perry, Special Beat, Carmel among others – on international tours.
Read on and enjoy the music…
How would you define your work as an ‘artist’ – song writer, musician, producer or vocalist?
Today, it is rare to find a musical artist who would only involve themselves with a single aspect of the creative process, for instance, when making a recording. Performers may be considered a musician or vocalist but more than likely, they will, to varying degrees, co-write, co-produce and so on.
Performing on stage or in the studio are worlds apart when it comes to the role you may play. Live performance can be spontaneous, where raw energy plays a large part in the spectacle, that raw energy allows you to throw caution to the wind and maybe do something you have never done before. While the studio, being the laboratory, is where you meddle with a range of ideas, technical equipment, (compressors, phasers, flangers) and a multitude of other devices: Example microphones, which are designed to work best with the particular voice or instrument. Here you can take the time to layer the tracks and build up the sound and feel, as close to how you can imagine it.
Things are changing quickly with the advent of the digital age and within the “music industry” more, than meets the eye. Today most musical artists play multiple roles in their attempts to get the music heard. Making music, can sadly become the least central aspect of that process, certainly, for a while. Social media plays an increasing role in the marketing.
This is because the record companies have themselves changed how they do business. Much, much more is expected from the artist, it’s no longer enough to just play your songs, you have to involve yourself in many aspects which before were considered too technical for the artist to do. Saying that, the mega stars have teams of people dedicated to promotion and exposure, it’s pretty much based on how much revenue you have at your disposal. Most aspiring artists have very limited budgets and therefore take on various roles to forward the cause.
Technology has always played an important role in making music and today that has never been more evident today . Hit albums can now be recorded in modest studios, with computers at the heart. Those computers are packed with software that can emulate expensive hardware, making it possible to achieve a high quality sound at a fraction of the price it was ten years ago. There are unexpected happenings that may blur exactly what your role as an artist is, they may not be so obvious but they are many and very real.
I’m content with being called a musician or calling myself a musician but that title today may be misleading.
Does your work fit into any specific genre?
I’m sure there are artists who would not dream of playing other styles of music, they might be purists or just uncomfortable engaging themes they are not familiar with or they cannot relate to other styles and I respect them for that. I suppose for me, because I did study European classical music, working my way through the grading system. Performing exercises and concertos to a high enough standard to get the grade. Playing Jazz, Reggae and Calypso with my father from a young age. Moving on to play with Punk and Rock bands and blending my sound into Pop music.
I can work within various genres as I hear the music as language and after all when you see pretty much all music, when written down in musical script, then you see the connection most music has. Reading music scores makes you realise there is a melody and a chord progression a rhythm and emotions.
It’s not realistic to place all what I do into a specific genre, though it’s wonderful to play and sing. Reggae for example, for an audience who want to hear only reggae, that’s fine. Playing Jazz and improvising with other musicians, pushing the boundaries and creating alternative melodies spontaneously.
I’m more than willing to work within a specific genre, sticking to its rules and following a certain pattern. For me the most meaningful aspect whilst performing within any genre, singing or playing, is to sound like me, not to try to emulate anybody but to have a unique sound that could only be me.
I would have to say no…… My work won’t fit into a specific genre but I try to create a feel, a sound, a pulse that can be recognised as individual.
Which musicians have you played with and were there ‘special’ experiences’?
I suppose I have been lucky to spend all of my life playing music and not much else, a good portion of that time, playing music alone. That might sound strange to some but it’s probably the most crucial time you have to be introspective and study, improve and be your own critic, get angry with yourself and push that little bit harder. That time alone gives you the patience and discipline you might need someday and can be extremely enjoyable or painful, as you have only your own boundaries. It doesn’t beat playing with other musicians though, at least most of the time.
When I hear music that allows me to dream whilst awake, that can bring to the surface emotions, then my heart smiles and smiles for ages and that feeling is never lost.
After leaving college I began to branch out into different styles, playing with local rock, punk, alternative and experimenting as well as having my own band playing some of my own compositions. I was approached by band members of a punk band the Au Pairs, they were fairly well known across Europe and it was the first time I was able to tour, travel around to festivals in the UK and the rest of Europe, it was a pretty crazy setup as we were anti -establishment, which reflected the feelings of the youth discontent with the political and social landscape under a conservative government.
The music was full of rage at times and it felt pretty rebellious. It was a lot of fun! Times were changing and we wanted to make new sounds so the guitarist the drummer and I began to play instrumentals, composing and jamming. We lived together and collaborated with any musician that was interested, a good time in my life to take on new influences. African, Asian and South American music was enlightening for us and we tried to incorporate those influences into our sound.
We had a great local following and so the shows were always atmospheric, we played around the UK and some alternative festivals in Europe, a great learning period.
Carmel were a Manchester based band that fused some “Jazziness” into their catchy pop songs, I’m unsure how they got my phone number but they asked me to play with them and do solo’s and riffs to embellish the music. The band had a couple of hit songs in the British charts and so we would play on television and even performed on Top of the Pops, this show was the number one TV show in the country. It’s amazing by going on popular TV programs how quickly you make a name and a reputation. Also it gave me income so I could continue to experiment with less commercial outfits.
In this period UB40 a band with a global name asked if I would be interested in joining forces. They used to come and see us rehearse and play around town and liked our alternative approach. We grew up in the same city and many times I would meet different members at local shows, parties around town and on the road at different shows and festivals. It was quite a natural process that we might work together as it was a pretty tight circle of musicians in the city. Brian Travers, the sax player a good friend, was eager that I record with the band. We recorded the album Geffery Morgan; we had a great time, the band still play shows and are recording, that’s pretty amazing after thirty, plus years.
The English Beat were a well known Ska band who were around at that time, they had reached the end of their time as one band and split into several outfits. Andy Cox and David Steele joined forces with Roland Gift and asked if I would play with them. We soon went to the studio to make a demo tape for the record companies to hear and not much later were signed to London Records. The first single Johnny Come Home was an immediate hit; it featured me quite heavily with a trumpet solo on the intro and another solo, later in the song. Roland had a great voice which was soulful and grating, the audience felt they were hearing something very different to the bands that were around at the time. I pretty much played with the FYC (Fine young Cannibals) for the life time of the band which was quite short, about six years or so. We had global success, Gold and Platinum albums as well as a Grammy Nomination. We shared a tour US tour with UB40 once, which was great fun. During a period of uncertainty, when the band was taking a break for various reasons, we recorded “Tired of Getting Pushed Around” on the same Label London. Roland didn’t sing on that track and it was released under the name, Two Men a Drum Machine and a Trumpet. It was a drastically different sound to FYC as it was house music and more electronic, we actually had some chart success in the UK and Europe but it was more of a temporary project.
We did attempt to record a third album with FYC but it was obvious things were over and so a compilation was pieced together featuring some previously unreleased materials, remixes and previous hits. Later I got to record with a very special singer Al Green, it was a great honour to play on his album and still to this day I wonder how special it was. The album titled Your Heart is in Good Hands was sweet, his vocal style is so unique and recognisable. I consider him to be one of the true great legends of our times, he is amazing.
My father, Andy Hamilton, landed his first record contract at the age of 72, a sax player, playing a rare form of Jamaica Calypso, Mento. Though he had quite a name in jazz he had been neglected by the British Jazz scene, partially because he was black and because people were over protective of the British take on jazz. Nick Gold, who ran an independent label saw the potential in Andy’s music. He realised that it was dance music which had all but died out in British Jazz. His first album Silvershine, we recorded partially in Birmingham at UB40’s studio and the rest at the old Decca studios in London. I did a lot of arranging for that album and many musicians were invited to perform, including Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, David Murray, considered by some to be one of the world’s best Tenor players, Jean Toussaint, Jason Robello and many others.
Silvershine became jazz album of the year and was in Sony’s 50 top most played. I was so happy that Andy, so many years into his life, eventually got the recognition he deserved. We followed up with a second album Jamaica by Night. Andy later went on to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Birmingham University and a Member of the British Empire (MBE)
What is the message in your music?
I wouldn’t say my music always has a message except to try and be uplifting. It may be a sad song or have no strong theme but you would still want to project a complete balanced picture, the clarity is very important , Instruments add the mood and texture, so to interpret the emotion through instrumentation alone is something I do concentrate on. For me, it all comes from the melody and to build sympathetic responses, supporting the vision you are trying to create. The rhythms, the dynamics, tempo all crafted together to build a complete image. The idea of placing a message within each piece is not really for me as music is more like storytelling, painting sound it may be abstract , free of timing or key.
What were the influences and events that led to you becoming a musician?
Throughout my life there have been many occasions where I was fortunate, by chance ,by design or by the laws of chaos to share some time together, either performing, collaborating or just being in the same room as artists who somehow at that time were on the same path as myself and sometimes I was inspired, that inspiration doesn’t stop happening later. My parents, initially encouraged me to play music, though my mother was not musical but she was married to a man who lived his music. Together they made it possible for me to study and encouraged me in my early years to get involved with many musical events and projects.
I was hearing and playing music from a very young age. Music is therapy, language, philosophy, culture, healing, education and love. That’s what my father clearly guided me towards understanding. Maybe even that collection of words fails to go far enough to really portray how wonderful music can be. He was passionate in his devotion to the power of music and I could feel his emotion when he played. Once you get to a point when you can you can put your own mark upon a piece through your own phrasing and interpretation then it becomes more personalised and you become more recognisable.
He taught me the songs he composed and we would play together, sometimes I would harmonise or play counter riffs to his melodies. It was very special for me as I knew what he was about to play even if he didn’t tell me, he would sometimes count the band in without informing us which song he intended, most of the time we got it right but not always, to my father’s surprise. We would laugh and try again.
He was tireless and had a wonderful energy and realised through his experiences, that music could break down barriers that divided people. For young people, it could keep them focused on more diverse aspects in life, help them stay out of trouble and form close friendships and teams that you trusted and relied upon. Most of the pupils he would teach never intended to become full time musicians and that wasn’t the objective. The point was to enrich your life!
Though my father was always there to coach me I also had private tuition, John Saunders would arrive on a Saturday, midday at our house, and the place was pretty quiet until we started to play. He was really into the technical aspects of mastering the instrument. Posture, tone, range and reading. They were lengthy sessions, sometimes five hours. We would enjoy the lesson as he always kept a sense of humour even through the difficult patches were I wasn’t performing to the standard he expected. Getting through the grading system and performing concertos during exams was how you climbed the ladder step by step.
I was aware that it was very useful study, to absorb that knowledge but I also recognised that I had no real future in classical music. When playing jazz you may have to un-learn that clinical delivery and adjust to the subtle difference each style demands.
I never met him, the great Miles Davis; he had a massive influence on me. When I was being lazy and not doing anything in particular, I would listen to Miles. He played, it was as if he was speaking a pure language, his phrasing and use of space was captivating to me. He was very progressive and constantly moved on into new and challenging ideas, that eventually became a cause of concern for more traditional jazz performers and critics they accused him of selling out, to me it was fascinating. Many of the great jazz musicians came up through his bands, when they were young. I feel he has been one of the most influential artists we have had the joy to hear and opened many people’s minds and hearts to new experiences.
Looking back today what do you think you have achieved through your creative pursuit?
It’s not something I have thought about before as I can’t really say that I consider achievement in terms of success. It is a wonderful feeling when you can reach so many people with simple things and that they feel it’s something they want to be a part of, to see others being delighted and kind to each other because they have come together to join a big celebration. The effort people are prepared to make and no doubt sacrifices.
I play regular weekly shows at some venues now and it still surprises me that every week the regulars arrive, even though they have seen the show many times before, they come. That makes me feel comfortable onstage, knowing that they are here and I’m a catalyst for that togetherness.
Also, it’s fine to work with young performers who need a confidence boost and help guide them through the self doubt and encourage them by sharing the stage or taking time in the studio, to give them as many chances as they want to get the take right. To see their faces, sometimes relief, sometimes a sense of pride is worth a million bucks.
Looking back I would never have believed how diverse the whole platform is, how it is interlinked, that I would be involved in so many layers of creativity. All of the arts are essential for humanity to express, it is a chance to escape rational. I realise that you don’t have to be an artist to be an artist, those who can appreciate are very much, part of the process, if they can relate to the idea then they are part of that idea.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on an album, it’s mostly complete but i think i might need another song to get there. I’m singing and it’s mostly reggae, with a little Ska. I love the simplicity of Reggae and how the groove should sit in a certain way. Reggae grew in Jamaica so it’s never been far from me and it seems natural to continue to try new things through Reggae music. I have another album already finished; it’s an instrumental and is based upon my time in Asia. It’s very much influenced by Asian melody and rhythm, more of a chill out session and dreamy.
I am always writing and have much I would like to release but I am taking time as I want to start a modest online record company. Having worked with both major and independent record companies I see that it is now time to move with the times as having the internet allows people to set up without too much problem and expense. Marketing is always challenging and so coming up with new ideas is important. It’s important to maintain some kind of contact to the people who support and like the music. With the internet this is much easier now but i think it can also be too easy just to bombard people with post after post and overload them with information.
I am always performing when I can and have places I can do regular shows. It’s important to me as I feel performing is the most integral aspect. Just recording and writing would drive me crazy. Onstage is a great place to learn new things, as many times a new musician will turn up, can learn from them. I incorporate modern sequences as it works well within a dance oriented setting and allows me to be flexible when it comes to the availability of musicians. It’s great when you have a complete band who have a similar vision as it is organic but things are moving quickly, as we see in music today DJ’s are very popular and you won’t see an instrument in sight so sometimes I like to try and meet that half way.
As long as things are progressing then it’s fun to do and as long as the audience are coming to check things out and enjoying then so am I.
What makes a musician and can one anyone with a guitar become one?
I heard a statistic years ago and it informed me that there were eighteen million guitarists in America alone. If that figure was accurate then it shows that pretty much anybody with the will can play music. I’ve heard people play really well and they just play music for a hobby. Playing music full time is not something most people would want to do; it’s more recreation than career for most. It is important to keep learning and discovering that I believe what makes a musician.
Being in the right place at the right time is probably the most significant factor as I’m sure there are more giants of music, who never received recognition simply because it was not their time and place.
It’s a myriad of chances and possibilities, a lottery. Your chances are improved if you network as much as possible, then others who have projects underway could possibly invite you along for the ride.
It’s not always necessary but having a unique identity is helpful, it doesn’t matter if you sing or play any instrument, being recognised for the sound you produce is important. If you think of any greats in music they couldn’t be confused with other artists as they stand out. There are many bands out there who have a following though they are not that distinctive in their sound, they might have really great songs that people can connect with or their appearance may really be the selling point.
Graeme Hamilton – Vocalist, Musician, Composer and Producer. Born in the UK and studied music, he performed from a young age and didn’t consciously decide to make a career through music, it just worked out that way. Andy Hamilton, Graeme’s father was a tenor saxophone player and first introduced him to music, encouraging him to play from an early age.
Graeme was recognised for his unique style and was soon being approached by various bands. They included, Carmel a Manchester band with a ‘jazzy pop’ sound. The Au Pairs a ‘post punk feminist band’, he spent a year or so touring and recording before moving on with some other members to form his own, initially instrumental group, EOC. During that period he performed with the legendary Lee ‘scratch’ Perry. Always willing to take on new ideas and constantly collaborating with new artists he went on to record Geffery Morgan with the internationally established band UB40. Growing up in the same city, Birmingham, UK, it was not surprising that they would join forces due to the tight circle of musicians a buzzing music scene and a willingness to try things out.
Birmingham was on the map for turning out bands that received recognition internationally and FYC were such an group. Graeme was with FYC from the first days through till their end, about six years, Three albums, tours and television the band went on to receive a Grammy nomination. Playing horn on Al Green’s, ‘Your Heart is in Good Hands was a great honour’. Special beat were a band that was made up of members from the Specials and the English beat, they toured Europe and supported Sting and Steel Pulse on a lengthy US tour.
The album Silvershine was a special album for Graeme to be involved with as it became jazz album of the year in the UK but more importantly it was the first time his father would receive any genuine recognition, many well known artists wanted to be on the album including Mick Hucknall, Simply Red and David Murray tenor sax. Andy at the age of 72 was finally able to tour and perform to a wider audience.
Composing soundtracks for short movies and producing many albums, as well as, writing. Graeme signed a publishing deal with Sony and a record deal with A&M. He continues to write and is currently recording a new album, which will be released on a new internet based label.