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Fireworks Magazine Online 56 - Interview with Rob Cottingham
18 February 2013
An Interview With Rob Cottingham by Steven Reid
Delve back into the history of the wonderfully melodic progressive UK outfit Touchstone and you’ll discover that the band evolved into a full time outfit on the back of a solo album from keyboard player and singer Rob Cottingham. Keen to tour his 2002 debut solo release ‘Behind The Orchard Tree’, Rob brought together a group of musicians who gelled so magnificently that it was too good an opportunity to miss. Touchstone was born. The only downside being that it almost resulted in Rob’s solo career never being heard from again. However here we are eleven years down the line and the simply amazing ‘Captain Blue’ has arrived to breathe new life into the Cottingham catalogue. Featuring not only Rob’s long-term Touchstoner Adam Hodgson, the conceptually multi-layered ‘Captain Blue’ also boasts the talents of Heather Findlay (Mostly Autumn) and Gary O’Toole (Steve Hackett), alongside guest appearances from Steve Hackett himself and the voice of Thunderbird Scott Tracy and star of Bond movies, Shane Rimmer…
Intrigued? You should be! Steven Reid dons his superhero cape to quiz Rob about all things ‘…Blue’…
I’ve got to start with the most obvious question Rob... Who is ‘Captain Blue’?
Exactly... Right now, I would like to leave that to the listener to interpret, and then once time has passed, I may just open up some more on that question. A little intrigue never hurt anyone...!
So how long has this idea for the album been in your mind?
Well, I mentioned it to the band before we even signed with SPV, and that was about Spring 2010. But, I have been writing since I founded Touchstone ten years ago, and I always knew I had songs stacking up which were not ‘right’ for the band, or maybe I was too close to, and knew ultimately that I would want to find time between Touchstone albums to do a solo project.
The visual imagery of the ‘Captain Blue’ and the project name give the suggestion of a super-hero tale. However the story seems to be as much about human frailty and the struggle to relate to others, society and day to day activities, as well as an inner battle with the mind. Am I correct in saying that the concept of the album can work on a variety of different levels?
100% correct. This is such a good question, and interpretation, especially the inner battle with the mind. If you look at the four images in the CD booklet, it is really about someone who expects disaster, but finds that the very thing they thought would “destroy” them, freed them to fly to greater things. The biggest challenges in your life can sometimes be the making of you and lead to “new beginnings”, although at the time you wish they were not happening...
While the album feels and sounds very “current”, the use of things such as snippets from ‘The Magic Roundabout’, gun fight noises and obvious links to the likes of ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Thunderbirds’ give off a clever retro vibe. Where did the inspiration for the storyline come from?
I am glad you said it sounds current. That’s cool. Simple – my childhood. These aspects you mention are somewhat self-indulgent, but if you can’t do that on your solo album, when can you? They are really echoes from the past, and for sure ‘Captain Scarlet’ was one of my favourite programmes when I was a tiny kid, and I use that in the title track, because that very much relates to my childhood in Bedford. As for the ‘Magic Roundabout’...this can be listened to literally as an echo from the past, but I have also used it in a symbolic way, to reflect that we all get on the “magic roundabout” of life, and who knows when it will be “time for bed”. I am not saying Zebedee is the grim reaper, but... And that sound of the spring which we all hold with such affection now...I hated when I was a kid, so I had to get that in there... Tim Turan, who mastered the album, especially loved that spring sound!
So, is there an element in the concept of going back to your childhood to face the rigours of dealing with very “grown-up” themes?
I do believe that we have to hold on to our “inner child” to enjoy life, as life throws some difficult curve balls at us sometimes, but really it is more about having the “open mind” of a child to help deal with such curve balls. As we grow older we do build walls of our own making around us, as well as the nurture and nature part, and I sometimes think the more adult we get, the more insecurities we carry around with us. From which we end up in a ‘problem room’...not realising that what holds us back is not what is around us, which we throw a lot of blame at, but inside ourselves. Sorry to get a bit deep, but hey, you did ask.
To continue being deep, the lyrics on the album feel very personal. If you don’t mind me asking, has there been a cathartic aspect to putting this whole project together?
When I set out on this project, immediately after Touchstone launched ‘The City Sleeps’, it was supposed to be a little side project with a few musos; but, actually, the strange thing is that a certain set of unexpected events echoed the theme of the album, such that my life started to imitate my art. It really was quite bizarre, as, for sure, I wanted there to be a concept, but I did not expect to potentially live it! But again, ironically, it served my purpose in a great way. The other thing is, the project grew arms and legs...but in a good way, with the talent who bought in to my vision and demos of the album. Finally, there are for sure some songs in there which are very personal to me and others which may sound very personal to me, but aren’t. I like songs to sometimes tell a clear story, like ‘Stray Dog’, or be immersed in imagery and interpret-ability, like ‘Soaring To The Sun’ and sometimes lie somewhere in-between. ‘Final Kiss’ for example, relates to the death of my grandfather, but sounds like a love song, which of course it is, but not between a guy and a girl, but a grandson and his grandfather. The key is what it means to the listener though, not the writer. If someone interprets it in a totally different way which means something meaningful, or moving to them, then that is great.
The main band for the album includes some extremely impressive names. Can you please tell us a bit about them all?
Sure. You are not kidding...a ‘super group’ no less! I met Heather Findlay [vocals] when she and Chris Johnson supported Touchstone’s ‘The City Sleeps’ launch tour last year. I obviously knew she had a heck of a voice, but what really clinched it for me was a sound check she did in Newcastle. I was with the sound engineer, and off she went. Absolutely pitch perfect; tonally engaging, and just simply beautiful. We hit it off on that tour, and when I approached her, she was well up for it. The plan was initially to feature Heather in the duet on ‘Spinning The Wheel’, but I realised as time went on that I wanted Heather all over the album. I have always enjoyed writing for the male/female dynamic. As for working with Heather? Total pro. She was a total joy to work with and happy to be directed by me to hit my “vision”. We really had a heck of a lot of fun, too. Adam Hodgson of course, I couldn’t not ask first, as he and I have been working together nearly ten years, and in my view he is one of the best rock guitarists in the world. His playing has a unique style which is distinctively ‘Hodgson’ so I was really chuffed when Ad agreed. Of course, for the first time, it meant me ‘directing’ Ad, but frankly we know each other so well it was easy, and of course he came up with some cracking motifs which fitted perfectly in with my compositions. Gary O’Toole was the first project band member to hop on board when I met him at his drum studio in January 2012, after I had sent him a demo. I had seen Gary playing with Steve Hackett for years and I have always loved the way he handles the extraordinary variety of Steve’s work, plus of course some of the Genesis epics. We had met briefly at High Voltage in Summer 2010. Gary has been absolutely brilliant; so supportive, and he “read” me so well. Again, thoroughly professional; absolute trooper – and we had a great laugh. Dr Goat Foot was my “wildcard”. Gary recommended him to play bass on the album, and before I hooked up with him, I saw some YouTube footage which showed he was a great technician, as well as a slap and tap guy which was something a bit different, and would certainly add a different flavour to the album. He has played with some of the greats, and it was interesting to find that, whilst he had twenty-five years playing experience, he had never been recorded before in a pro studio. So, in many ways, for him, this was new territory too, and I am pleased to have been the first musician to record his great bass playing.
Obviously, as you’ve alluded to, you and Adam work together all the time in Touchstone. With guitar and keyboards being such an integral part of that band’s sound and ‘Captain Blue’, how would you say that the two differentiate from each other sound wise?
In terms of style, the music is more varied – ranging from prog to rock to pop to dance to ballads – and, of course, more keyboard-orientated. Some of it in hindsight sounds a little 80s China Crisis... I used a different studio, too, called Sinewave in Tamworth, part-run by Touchstone’s sound engineer Chris Lynch. This is mainly run by Al Caves, the man behind UB40’s success during the ‘Red Red Wine’ era. That interested me...yes he had dealt with lots of live engineering for the brummy rock bands, but 80s reggae vibe...? That would be different...! I absolutely love the Touchstone sound we get through Outhouse, but I wanted to take a few risks, and am really pleased with the result. It is not better or worse, just a different flavour, and one which I think suits the nature of the album. Finally, the sounds... In Touchstone, I use a Kurzweil PC3 and Access Virus Ti in the main. I had acquired a Korg Kronos workstation, and wanted to play with my new toy, so used this in the main for ‘Captain Blue’ keys parts. Superb keyboard...
I know you are a big Genesis fan, how did it feel when you managed to get the legendary Steve Hackett involved with the album?
Fantastic! It was just so apt. Last solo on the last song of the album...what a way to finish... I had actually prepared a keytar solo believe it or not, but it was after I bought Steve’s ‘Beyond The Shrouded Horizon’ album, and I was listening to it in the car that the thought occurred to me, so I ran it by Gary. I met Steve in London over a pizza – long story – and he and Jo could not have been more helpful and accommodating. I described the type of solo I was after, and Steve absolutely nailed it.
Did you actually meet up with Steve when he recorded his part for the album?
I would love to say I did, but I didn’t. I knew Steve was busy with ‘Genesis Revisited II’, and frankly these days, it is so easy to record in your own studio and send via the web... Dropbox and the like, and this suited both of us. I made sure I sent his engineer the music all lined up, and Steve sent it back with a couple of options as to treatment, which he left to me. I love the tender outro part of his solo as the music gets quieter, where he floats the feedback. So simple, yet so apt. Brilliant. I wanted this epic to gently fade away, as so often epics have big rock endings and out, rather than ending with a feeling of thoughtfulness and reflection...and Steve absolutely got it.
Even after such a long and successful time in the music business, does it feel a little surreal to have someone of that stature so keen to be involved with your music?
Does it feel a bit surreal? Yes, for sure. One of my all time favourite Genesis tracks is ‘Blood On The Rooftops’, penned by Steve and Phil Collins, and there he is playing on my album. I remember being gutted when Steve left Genesis, but loved his solo stuff back then...as indeed I do now. ‘Beyond The Shrouded Horizon’ and Squackett are so accessible, as far as I am concerned, and to hear ‘Genesis Revisited 2’ – it makes you realise what brilliant craftsmen they were back then and Steve is now. I mean, I had met Steve at High Voltage 2010 a few times, but I was very honoured that he agreed as he had, and has, such a lot going on at the moment, but he liked what he heard and was very keen to support, which was awesome. He and Jo have been extremely generous, and they both know it meant a lot to me, not just at a professional level, but a personal one too. That, I will never forget.
Now, people may not immediately recognise the name of your other star guest on the album, Shane Rimmer, but they will recognise his voice. Can you tell us a bit about the man who provides such a fantastic introduction to the album please?
Shane is, of course, the man behind the voice of Scott Tracy in the original ‘Thunderbirds’ series from the Sixties. He also wrote some of the ‘Captain Scarlet’ episodes by the way, and has had a sparkling acting career, the highlight of which was probably taking a main part alongside Roger Moore in the Bond movie, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. He is a highly respected actor, and knows Spielberg – he was in Star Wars – and Barbara Broccoli, who is behind the Bond franchise. Shane was also in ‘Batman Begins’ because the director is a big fan of his.
How did you manage to get him onboard with the project?
I asked very politely! Seriously though, he was known indirectly by a contact of Andrew Wildman’s from the comics world, who kindly hooked us up. I initially called Shane to explain about my project; the concept and so on, and it just panned out wonderfully from there, being so appropriate to the retro motifs in the album. More importantly though, was his stunning performance. He is such a perfectionist. I used initially my hand-held recorder – also used to record Jeremy Irons for the Touchstone album ‘Wintercoast’ and sent through some “best of” takes, but he was not happy, so we agreed to do it properly up at Sinewave using their awesome soundfield mic. It was a beautiful summer’s day in July, and his wife and agent Sheila, joined him. It was just a day I will never forget, not just because of the awesome end-result – which at the time made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – but because we effectively made a day of it and sat outside in a pub garden afterwards whiling the day away in the sunshine, eating, drinking and laughing a lot. I am sure Shane would not mind me saying this, but Sheila is a real driving force. She kept pushing for a better and better take. I was in the Director’s chair, so to speak, but Sheila was in the driving seat! Such a wonderful couple, and that is why they are a winning team. Again, such wonderful and generous people, who “got” where I was coming from with this album.
And I believe it was renowned artist Andrew Wildman who provided the stunning comic book artwork for the album. You must be delighted with how it all comes together?
Yes, that was all my idea. I wanted something I had not seen in an album, and luckily for me one of my lifelong chums Andrew, is up there in this field having worked for Marvel at one point, and presently working on storyboards for ‘Doctor Who’ as well as ‘Transformers’ magazines. Initially, to be honest, he struggled with the concept and how to get across visually what I was after with my vision over the phone and email, but when he came round to my place, and I literally drew a stick man version of what you see now, he did then get it, ensuring it was in safe hands. He sent me some pencil sketches, which were stunning and the basis of what you see today. [if you want to sample Andrew’s fantastic artwork visit www.andrewwildmanart.com].
How much harder – or more enjoyable – has it been to be the sole decision maker on this album?
The easy bit has been making the decisions, as I wrote all the music and lyrics and effectively produced the lot, with the support of an ace project team. The hard bit has been the fact that the result of those decisions is all on your own shoulders. But hey, no risk, no fun! As a musician, you never really know if you have produced a work of genius...or a total lemon! You obviously throw yourself into it all 110% and produce something you are very personally proud of, but whether it is embraced by the general public is, of course, a total unknown. Of course, everyone dreams of fame and fortune since they were a kid, but actually I have always held onto one thing...one personal aim, which is to be recognised for my song-writing. Recognition is the key, in my view. One hopes that reward follows recognition, assuming it is positive – big assumption, but it is not the be all and end all.
As you’ve mentioned ‘Captain Blue’ isn’t your first solo effort, with ‘Behind The Orchard Tree’ coming out back in 2002. I haven’t had the opportunity to hear that album, but I believe it is about to receive another lease of life as well?
Your sources serve you well! Yes, all the CDs that I had left were eBayed last year, but I have received a few requests to buy the music, so this will be released digitally just as soon as possible, and will be available via the usual suspects, like iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, play.com...
How do you feel your music has evolved over the ten years between your two solo efforts?
What a great question... Well apart from album one being seven days in an analogue studio and album two about thirty days in a digital studio, and how much I have learnt in-between, I think I am braver now and more prepared to be experimental – dare I say “progressive”! – And to hell with the consequences! As an example, ‘The Drowning Man’ is a very different track for me, but I love it. Ten years ago, I might not have had the cajones to do that one... Also, I think my music is more eclectic; more varied, and more prepared to cross genres. ‘Captain Blue’ was never meant to be a “prog” album, or a “rock” album or a “pop” album...but just an album where each song has a life of its own, is threaded by a concept of sorts, and can be from any genre.
But the reason that it has taken ten years between solo albums is down to how well things have been going with Touchstone. You must be delighted with the progress the band has made in recent times?
Absolutely. Touchstone for me started in 2002 in a little village hall in Abbots Langley with totally different musos! We had a sax player, Mims, and I was doing all lead vocals at the time. How things have evolved... I am proud of what we have all achieved, and especially how the line up has remained more or less the same now for six years. Adam and I have kept pushing to up our game since he joined in 2003, and I really think when Kim and Moo joined in 2006, that clinched it, and of course with Hen now on drums, we have again raised our game. Not to say it has been easy...quite the opposite...we have all had to work really hard to keep this thing moving forward, but I am pleased that we have. We are all very different, but put us together and the chemistry is, I believe, magic. As for playing live, we love it. We climb into the Touchstone family bubble and after you have been in there a while, it’s quite difficult to climb out. Of course, we have our moments...which band doesn’t...but we honestly support each other and get on famously. We are also open to any ideas from any band member, so whilst traditionally Ad and I have been at the heart of the song-writing, this is evolving more to the band writing the tunes, and I see that as a good thing, as we are also all very honest and self-critical.
Well that’s all my questions Rob, is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to say that this solo project has been a brilliant experience – meeting some heroes along the way – and we made a great team. I am very proud of what we all achieved and cannot thank everyone involved enough, including Al Caves, and his sons, Jon and Rich, and Chris at Sinewave for their hard work and dedication. I also want to thank all those fantastic people who pre-ordered the album. Such faith in a future production is rare these days... And finally, to my long-suffering family – thanks for being there...when mostly I am not! If anyone reading this thinks it is easy being hitched to a muso, think again...
As for a final comment... “life is full of new beginnings...”!
Rob’s album can be ordered from anywhere around the world through his solo project website www.robcottingham.co.uk, where you can hear a demo, or it can be found for digital download on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon. For a demo of ‘Behind The Orchard Tree’, please see here..