The 'Sacred' works of Magnum

Bassist Al Barrow talks about the making of prog-metal legends' new album
By Peter Lindblad
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Magnum is Tony Clarkin, Bob Catley,
Mark Stanway, Al Barrow and
Harry James
Tony Clarkin never rests it seems.
The mastermind behind the long-running U.K. progressive-metal powerhouse Magnum is always working on new material, and bassist Al Barrow marvels at his bandmate's industrious nature, as well as his creative ingenuity.
"I admire each and every time I read Magnum lyrics," said Barrow, the band's bassist since 2001. "He seems to be able to pull the most imaginative images to put them to the music. I have for years been writing my own material but yet to have anything that even comes close to what he does."
Magnum's latest record Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies (Read a review of it here: http://backstageauctions.blogspot.com/2016/02/short-cuts-dream-theater-magnum-steven.html ) arrived in late February via the Steamhammer/SPV label with a batch of strong, soaring melodies, rugged riffs that never fail to satisfy and theatrical vocals that treat Clarkin's words with the sincere reverence they're due. Balancing forceful, driving rockers like the churning title track and the stirring anthem "Crazy Old Mothers" with the occasional ballad, Sacred Blood "Divine" Lies displays Magnum's might and awesome majesty with aplomb.
Barrow talked to All Access about the new album, as well as his indoctrination into Magnum – also singer Bob Catley, drummer Harry James and keyboardist Mark Stanway – after his stint in Hard Rain, a melodic hard-rock spinoff formed after Magnum split in 1996, in this in-depth interview.
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Magnum - Sacred Blood "Divine"
Lies 2016
When Tony Clarkin presented the band with the songs he’d written for this record, what was your impression of them? Did the material seem different or special in any way? Al Barrow: It`s a bit of weird process. Not that it`s bad in anyway, but when we hear the first rough ideas of the songs they are very disjointed, no vocals as such, just rough drum patterns off a drum machine and guid guitars and a few keys … maybe a chorus if we are lucky. You can get a vibe from it, but it really is too early to say wether it`s gonna be a huge album or not. We have worked this way for many years and we trust in the evolution of the process. There will always be a song that will hit you straight away, but this changes as the writing process continues and develops. There are so many massive changes to be done from the initial renderings of the early song ideas. I know that Tony was excited about the ideas for this new album right from the start and that always lights a fire amongst the band. We are always excited about creating new music that we enjoy and we hope others will enjoy also.
Are you privy to the process of selecting songs for a particular album or is that completely in Tony’s hands? And if so, how are the songs for recording sessions introduced to the rest of the band? Does a meeting take place where all of you go over everything? AB: Tony will collect maybe 30 ideas he has worked on. He will then bring them to the main studio to transfer into Pro Tools. He will work on them a bit more and replace guide guitars with more guitars that have been run through his cabs and amps. This way he gets a better feel for what will work or not as the case may be. There is not meeting as such. It`s generally Bob, Tony, myself and Sheena Sear, the engineer, in the studio most days. Only when the songs have got to a reasonable stage will Tony say, okay, lets shelve those, keep those or put them in the "maybe" folder. Then he will concentrate on about 15 songs or so.
Describe what it was like recording this album. In what ways has the process gotten easier for what you do in the band since when you first joined in 2001? AB: Lot`s of tea making by Bob (laughs). Tony is in the studio with Sheena getting the tracks up and ready for about 10 a.m. I arrive about 11 and chat to Tony about ideas, what we have seen on TV or the web and then may discuss artwork and plans for mercy and tours. Bob will arrive around midday. Tony will go over with Bob what we have discussed or done in the studio that morning. As we now use Pro Tools instead of tape the process is much more streamlined and easier to work with. Some things Tony and Bob will have taken home to listen to the night before will be looked at again for any changes they feel might be needed. Tony will continue to put down guide melody lines either with guitar or keyboards. Occasionally if Bob is unavailable Tony may get me to sing a few guide vocal tracks just so we can move along and to see if a melody he has in mind will work. Then Bob will replace it later. When it comes to recording the bass parts we spend a while getting the bass rig set just right and fine-tuning the sound to get close to what we want. To be honest, with the gear I use now it's pretty much plug and play. I use Warwick amps and on this album I also used TC Electronic amps and cabs. So we like to mix it up a little.
Were there any unexpected obstacles that cropped up in the making of this record?
AB: No, not really. We have been doing this a while. If anything the obstacles we seem to get [have to do with] running order and the final mixes. Sometimes it's hard to separate yourself. I have a few days away and then come back and with fresh ears I can sometimes point out things that may pass the rest of the guys by. Sometimes you have to step back.
How do approach adding your bass parts to a Magnum record? Has that changed in any way over the years?  AB: Not at all really. As I say, we have been doing this for a while so it's a situation we feel comfortable in. We have a good idea of our parts before going in the studio to record our parts. Tony wants to hear the basics first. What he gave us as guide. That way we can spend a few days putting down what we have rehearsed in our own studios. So it all comes together. So we get a good mix of what Tony wants and what we want to add. He gives us a lot of scope and time to do what we want. But to be honest with you Tony has a good idea from the start, so I don't tend to deviate too much from the roots. Magnum is not a band that has complex bass lines. It's the song that is important here, not being all freaky with bass lines, etc. 
What qualities do you admire most about your colleagues in Magnum? AB: They have been there, done it all. They have the T-shirt and pretty much written the book on how to tour and write albums that stand up over the years. These guy have stories that would make Lemmy look like a virgin nun, but as they say, "What happens on tour stays on tour!" Those days have since gone, and these days it`s more professional and relaxed. It`s all about giving the fans the best show possible.
I also like that they are all talented in their own way, but as a band [they] show [their] strengths. I have always been told there is no bigger band member than the band itself. Some of us have bigger members though!
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Tour artwork for Magnum's
upcoming 2016 trek
Do you think this is the most dynamic record Magnum has recorded since you’ve been in the band? What previous Magnum records does it remind you of? AB: Absolutely! I have said it with every album I have been involved in. I believe that completely. We have stepped up to the bar and surpassed it each time. This has a lot to do with what the members bring to the band. But ultimately it's down to Tony writing another stunning album. It is its own entity. Obviously as the band [members] and the songwriter and production team are the same there will be some similarities. But I find with each album there is a progression to another level. Another story to write, a new sonic avenue to explore. With each album for me personally this has to be the best bass sound I have recorded … grittier and more upfront than any other album. This pleases me a lot, but it sits in the track well. It`s down to great production.  
The chart performances in some European countries of recent Magnum releases have been pretty eye-opening. Why do you think Magnum’s newer material is resonating with fans? AB: Thats something you would have to ask them, but we have a great social media page and the interaction between the band and fans is great. We see them say what they think; they get the chance to ask the band questions, etc. I think this helps build a very personal feel between the band and fans. After all the music is very close to their hearts. It deserves a good interaction from us.
So from reading the pages it seems we are hitting the nail on the head most of the time. The new album has been so well-received. Of course, there will always be the few that will constantly harp on about Storytellers No. 2 or Wings of Heaven No. 2. But why as musicians would you want to repeat something that you have done already? We are in a band to create new and exciting music –something that floats our boat first, then we just hope it floats others.

We never want to rest on our laurels and not be tribute to ourselves. It's well documented Tony and Bob wish to always move forward and try something new. I bet if they did a new album that sounded like Storytellers we would get slagged for not pushing boundaries and playing safe to a formula we felt would sell … selling out almost – becoming a tribute to ourselves.

I am not saying that Magnum wish to forget their past. They are very aware of why fans got into the band to start. But we are a bunch of guys who want to create. We hope that fans understand that.
Are there specific bass parts on this album that really pushed you or challenged as a musician? AB: No, not really. I mentioned that the bass lines in Magnum are very simplistic and just support and enhance the song. This is the most important part. If I want to go play all up the dusty end and give Frank Zappa a run for his money then I will find another project to work on. Now when it comes to backing vocals … that's another story. Tony pushes me and Bob to the max. He gets me singing notes I did not think I could ever hit. It`s always fun as they sit there laughing at me trying to hit some of the notes. Ye ye Im just here for entertainment's value (laughs).
You were in Hard Rain, and that led to you becoming a member of Magnum. At the time, what were your hopes for Hard Rain and then Magnum? Was the transition difficult? AB: Hard Rain was fun, but it just didn't have the backing or the prestige of what Magnum had. It was a lot of fun to record and tour, but I think it was a stepping stone back to where we are now. There were no issues with the transition at all. It was just a follow-on for me. Of course I was happy to get the call, but it all felt very natural.
Did you expect that Magnum would reform during those days? If so, when did it become apparent to you that things were headed in that direction? AB: I was alway hoping in someway. Just in the fact that having the Magnum name would allow us to play more shows in bigger venues. Hard Rain had some stunning songs and we approached it in a very different manner. As I mentioned it's all a lot more of a professional approach these days. Less time in the pub and more time in the studio and rehearsals. I think we had the balance wrong on that. Now Magnum are on the ball, tighter and more polished than ever before.
Talk about designing the artwork for Breath of Life and Brand New Morning. Did you feel any pressure when working on them to articulate exactly what Magnum wanted? AB: I had no idea. Me and Tony would just sit down and try to come up with ideas. It was very early days for me with design. Computers were all new to me, so I was learning as Tony was telling me what he wanted. I have to say I learned a lot, but I prefer to leave those covers well in the past. I can't look at them.
We work very closely with Rodney Matthews these days. We have swapped from time to time who gets the front covers. I think he has excelled this time on Sacred Blood.
You come from a family of musicians. What was your upbringing like and how did it influence you to do it for a career? AB: My older brother was actually the drummer in Hard Rain. Rob had played for many years and was asked to step in when Kex Gorin was unable to continue. He recorded the second Hard Rain album When The Good Times Come with us. My younger brother is also a drummer and lives in Canada playing sessions for local bands. He has probably the quickest feet of any drummer I have ever seen play. He is crazy talented. He does not play so much these days but still keeps his hand in from time to time. My older sister is a singer and has also sang on Magnum albums and also sings in a Journey/Toto band.
Again extremely talented and has been very inspiring to me over the years. They had been doing it for years before I got to the point I wanted to be a pro musician.

Tony’s talked about how hard it is to write hard rock songs, as opposed to ballads. Can you feel how difficult a song’s creation was when you hear it for the first time? AB: I can only speak from a personal point of view when it come to writing songs ... I have learned from (Tony), though. He has some formulas in some areas, but even he says himself he has no idea how you write a song. Each album for him is a massive uphill struggle. To find something new and fresh after all the albums he has produced, just not to repeat your own ideas must be so hard. He still says he has something to say, but it's how you say it and make the connection from something that is personal to him and others.
One thing I know he hates is when people ask him to explain his lyrics. He's been better in the last few years. But he likes the music to speak for itself.
Magnum have some stunning ballads. Tony has said writing ballads is easier, but the hard part is trying to talk about love, loss and heartbreak in a new way. That's the trick!

What excites you most about being in Magnum these days? AB: Pretty much everything. At this point I have just gotten back from a trip out into the mountains in Tennessee. I got an email on my phone telling me the mid-week chart placements in the UK. It was probably the most bizarre feeling. Feeling so far away from everything I am used to, out in the middle of the mountains trying not to get eaten by bears – yes, there are bears here – and seeing how well Magnum's new album had sold. We only hope that this gives us a lift and gets the promoters to sit up and take notice and start booking us into more cities around the world. The fans are there. We will be there to play for them if the promoters will take the chance and book us.

It`s a very exciting time tight now. I am looking forward to getting on the road with the boys and playing some of the new album live. What's not to like?
Thanks for taking the time to ask some questions today and we hope to see lots of you on the next tour. Cheers for now. Al Barrow. Play it live , play it loud. Live your dreams!

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