Les Gillon

Les Gillon

Interviewed on 16.11.2009

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INTERVIEWER:

Hello, I’m Eva and today I’m interviewing Les Gillon. So, how did Piece Hall Music start? 

LES GILLON:

Right, Piece Hall Music started in 1985 when myself and another musician, Steve Edmonson, [sp] decided that we wanted to make a living without having to get a proper job. We both played in a band called ‘Fez,’ a band that’s still going, all these years later, we both played guitar. There wasn’t a music shop in the area that was very rock and roll. There were lots of music shops that sold organs and school violins and had a few electric guitars, mainly kind of cheap foreign imports, and there wasn’t anything for the kind of, the more serious musician, or the more rock and roll musician. It has to be said we opened the shop on a shoestring in the Piece Hall and the kind of instruments we had in there were I think for the more discerning musician, but we were cheap because we specialised in second hand instruments, some of the instruments we had would be probably collector’s items now, but we weren’t interested in selling as collector’s items and frankly there wasn’t a market for collector’s items in guitars in those days. They were working guitars, they were guitars that people were going to pick up and play on stage and make their livings out of, so that was how it started and it kind of rapidly became something else, it rapidly became a place where people would hang out and talk and exchange ideas and form bands and get gigs and…talk.

So what would you say was your most amusing incident in the shop then?

Oh that is….I might have to take a moment to think about that. Most amusing….there were a lot…I’ll tell you what there were, there were a lot of funny people who hung around the shop, and I say hung around the shop because people…you know, the very minority of people who came into the shop actually came in to buy anything, most of them came in to drink coffee and hang about and talk and maybe have a jam, so we had hilariously funny people. There was of course the famous Creedy who was our man of wit and humour, and people like the folk singer Tim Moon] who is also somebody who can make a good quip. I’m struggling to think of a humorous incident – I can remember a fairly disastrous visit from our bank manager, who soon after we’d opened, about a year after we’d opened, and our shop looked like a kind of well-equipped hippy commune, it wasn’t that kind of….a business that you’d expect a major financial institution to invest in, but we had persuaded the bank to give us some money to get us, to get us open and he came out to see us in the shop because we were trying to squeeze a little bit more credit out of him. He was a very proper, old-fashioned bank manager back in the days when banks actually had managers who made lending decisions, you know the days of Captain Mainwaring from ‘Dad’s Army’ possibly, that kind of bank manager, and he came out in his suit with his briefcase and…there were three of us in the shop as permanent fixtures; there was myself, there was Steve and there was Steve’s dog Bilko. Bilko was a kind of mad mongrel and he was generally very very well behaved; he came in and laid out at the back, and didn’t bother the customers at all, but for some reason, you know, I think it was this bank manager’s charisma, Bilko started to take a real interest in him, to the point where when we were showing the bank manager the books, Bilko jumped up and landed on the shop counter and sat on the books. It was probably one of the least well-managed applications for business credit that has ever existed, but we got the money, we did get the money. I’ve no idea why, I’ve no idea why at all.

Would you say Piece Hall Music impacted or influenced local musicians?

I hope so, I sort of think so. I know that there’s quite a lot of local musicians who..I think probably played their first three chords at Piece Hall Music. There was another side to the business which was teaching and….this was myself rather than Steve. I used to do guitar lessons, I did some of them actually in the shop itself on quiet days. I think there was a lot of meeting up of different musicians, people who perhaps wouldn’t have met up, wouldn’t have got to know each other, just as a kind of social space and you know, exchange of information. Yeah, I hope it did have an impact on people; certainly it had an impact on me because one of the things I valued most about those years was actually spending time with some really really interesting, often quite…I won’t use the term eccentric, but people with different viewpoints, people who weren’t….weren’t completely at one with mainstream culture, people who were just slightly out on the edge, or in some cases a long way out beyond the edge, and through exchanging ideas and talking and….you know…being quite playful with language and being quite playful with their ides, you know I thought that was something that I got a lot out of, I hope other people got something out of it as well. Also musically, quite often used to happen during the quiet days of the week which were kind of Monday through Friday quite often, people would come in, they’d pick up and instrument and they’d start to jam and gradually other people would come in and join the jam, I would join the jam, it was again a kind of….swapping good musical ideas, also…if somebody had heard some music, they’d come in and say you know ‘I’ve heard of this amazing new band called REM you know, have you heard of them?’ and those ideas would – those names would start to be coming so people would listen to different stuff, or someone would give you a cassette – big thing at that time was audio cassettes, people would record a compilation of their favourite tracks, it’s pretty easy to do now on a, on a – you know an iPod or a computer, but then it took a little bit of effort – people would have their favourite records and they’d put a track on off each of their favourite records and you’d make a…because it wasn’t duplicated in that same way, you’d make a CD particularly for someone, you’d think ‘I know what they would like but they don’t know they would like’ I guess, or ‘I know something that will challenge their taste’ so people used to pass around CDs and in that way I’d listen to kinds of music I probably wouldn’t have heard before, that was a valuable thing.

So when did you first get into music?

From childhood….I grew up in a house in which music was around. It was mainly my father; my dad was a great amateur musician, so he wasn’t a virtuoso player, he wasn’t a very good player on any instrument but he played the guitar and he played the mandolin and the penny whistle and the fiddle, bit of piano, mouth organ, just about anything that he could get a noise out of he would attempt and he’d get a tune out of it, and so hearing music being played in the house meant that it didn’t seem as though it was some special activity, it was something that people did, people play instruments….the kind of playing my dad did wasn’t the kind of playing that came from getting lessons, it was self-taught so being self-taught was something quite….quite normal as well. My father played a mix of songs from kind of Irish songs to….cowboy songs and ballads and…..he did a lot of depression hobo songs, you know in the kind of….riding the railroads kind of Americano type of thing, and then he would play Gilbert and Sullivan, and play bits of light classical music as well, so all of that music all seemed part of the same thing, there wasn’t a sense that – that’s opera, that’s separate and different from what might be a hobo song, they were equal, so we grew up in our household and my brother Pete became a musician also, we formed our band together in the early 1970’s and he lives round here as well and is a prominent musician on the local music scene, he plays in band called Fevertrees and has played in dozens of bands over the past thirty years, and my sister Hazel was also…you know an active musician, she doesn’t play live any more, just only for pleasure but the three of us were together in a band in Liverpool before we all three of us moved to Hebden Bridge.

Would you say there was any rivalry between family members?

Yeah undoubtedly, just because I think sibling rivalry is….in a sense, you know, sewn into the genes. I don’t think it was a serious rivalry, I think…..I’ve always wanted Pete to do well and he’s always wanted me to do well, and when we first, you know when we lived in Liverpool we played together in bands. He was the older brother, you know so there’s a bit of a dynamic going on there as well isn’t there, particularly when you know I’m fifteen and he’s eighteen, that’s a big age gap. Now that we’re both in our fifties, a few years’ age difference doesn’t seem that important, but at the time when you’re teenagers that’s massively important, so I suppose I wanted my kind of own independent vision of music. We played together in Liverpool, we sort of fell out a bit over playing…..you know and stupid teenage stuff, and we didn’t play together. Pete moved to Hebden Bridge and then when I moved here I joined a band that he was playing with which was actually ‘Fez’ in 1980 and we played I think, we played one gig together, maybe we played two, well actually my memory’s….we played one gig together - me, Pete, Gerry Barker] and our drummer at the time, Paul Gash and I think after one or possibly two gigs it was clear that the band was pulling in two directions and one of those directions was Pete’s and one was mine, so I stayed with ‘Fez’, he went off and formed another band and….and we haven’t really worked together in any consistent way since then, in some ways…we don’t kind of compliment each other because we’re both lead guitarists, so it isn’t – you know, if I was a bass player and he was a lead guitarist then it would be likely that we would work together, but very few bands need two lead guitarists.

Was lead guitar the first thing you learnt to play?

No, I mean the very first thing I learnt to play was…I suppose I played…I think it was probably mandolin, you know I didn’t really learn to play it, it was that I started trying to play the mandolin and my father trying to you know teach me a few notes and I tried with the harmonica and then I saw a string quartet play at my school which was a really incongruous place to see it, a string quartet and I became obsessed with the idea of playing the violin, and me dad….got me a half size violin and started trying to teach me, and because I had an enthusiasm for it, he wanted to teach me properly, he didn’t want to teach me fiddle style so he got a tutor book which had duets in, one for a more experienced player and one for a beginner, and we used to play those but being a kid I didn’t always want to practice, but I did like playing, I liked playing with my father, I liked playing these duets, and it probably went on for…perhaps three of four months and then at a certain point my father realised that I wasn’t reading the music, I was just memorising the tunes and at that point I think some of the fight went out of him and he gave up a little bit, and I gave up the violin. I’d played the guitar, I used to play basic chords, but it wasn’t until maybe I was about ten or eleven when I got into…I got into rock music, and it was…we’d listen to ‘The Beatles’ and things like that but I was starting to get into I suppose…that kind of late sixties early seventies rock music. My elder brother was into it and I got into it and….blues, those kinds of things, and the sound of the electric guitar which just seemed to me to be the most excited sound that there could possibly be, and at that point me dad had a really beat up old guitar with a very high action and we managed to buy for a tenner another beat up old guitar with very high action, so the two of us, myself and my brother, would jam away on basic pentatonic scales, playing I suppose stuff by ‘The Cream’ and Jimi Hendrix, or attempting to you know, and we started playing that and when we actually got together with a bass player and another guitarist because everyone played guitar, I think because I was the youngest I was put on to bass…and I got a three-quarter length Jedson bass which was a Telecaster shaped body. It was I think one of the most unpleasant sounding basses I can ever remember. I have seen one of these guitars recently and I had a play on it, it only had two strings on but even with two strings on I could tell that it was not only horrible to play but would have a really bad sound, but…..I probably played my first ten gigs with that instrument and I actually got into playing bass in a really big way and I still think it’s the most satisfying instrument to play in any band. It just does everything – it’s a melodic instrument, you’re playing tunes on it, and it’s a rhythmic instrument cos you’re driving and changing the beat, and it’s a harmonic instrument because you’re making chord changes and you can do all of those three things at the same time, and yet very few people in an audience would know what was happening – they’d know the music was changing, but they perhaps wouldn’t identify that it was the bass guitar that was doing it, I just think it’s an incredibly powerful instrument, especially in improvisation.

So how many bands would you say you’ve been in?

How many bands have I been in….I don’t really know, I mean I’ve been…..before I moved to Hebden I was in bands with my brother Pete which was basically one band, i.e. it was me and Pete, with a series of changing other members you know, drummers, singers and we had perhaps half a dozen names over that period but it was always essentially the same band in a way, it was myself and Pete, and then I joined…when I split up with Pete I joined a band called ‘Flood’ who were based I think in St Helen’s and that was a big step up for me cos they had a minor record contract and they were…they were gigging kind of four or five nights a week and you know we had a van and we had a big PA system and we had a lighting rig and we played quite biggish gigs, and that was really good experience for me; I’d moved to guitar by that point and I was…I’d kind of always sung with my early bands but when I joined ‘Flood’ they had a really excellent singer and they used to do four part harmonies. They’d so stuff by bands like ‘Queen’ – they were very very complex harmonies so they were a very disciplined band and I had to step up in my musicianship, and then since then, since I’ve moved to Hebden Bridge, I’ve basically been in one band that I’ve loved, one band which is ‘Fez’ and then I’ve done lots of side projects as well but I consider myself actually first and foremost a member of ‘Fez’ even though I’ve probably made less money from ‘Fez’ than I’ve made from any of the other projects I’ve been involved in.

How long have you been in ‘Fez’?

Thirty years – well no, I tell a lie, I’ve been in ‘Fez’ for twenty-nine years; next year will be the band’s thirtieth anniversary. We still have two of the founding members of the band – myself and Gerry Barker the bass player, and….for me the band is something that….is..it’s very special, it’s something that we’ve never done in order to make money, we’ve always done purely out of the love for the music and if I’ve been you know gigging with…you know playing in a country and western duo to pay the bills, one of the things that’s sustained me is that ‘Fez’ has been my creative outlet and that’s been the thing that I do that I completely believe in musically.

How would you describe the sound of ‘Fez’?

…the sound changes over the years. I’m not really very objective about this because…at the moment we have…an absolute star of a keyboard player, I say at the moment like he was a new boy and he is the new boy of the band because he’s only been with us for eight years but…he’s changed the sound of the band quite considerably. We’ve gone through different phases – probably the song writing has been the consistent thing….and again it’s very hard to pin down…I’ve got a lot of influences from a lot of different kinds of music, the kind of early experiences I mentioned about hearing my father’s music without any sense of different categories of music is something that has never left me, so I do listen to classical – you know I teach experimental music, I…I play at the moment in as well as ‘Fez’ I’m playing in a country rock band, I…I’ve been doing…traditional English folk music with Andy Greaves from ‘Tragics’, we’ve been getting together every so often to play traditional English and Irish folk music, I’m also playing in a kind of improvised free…very free improvisation band which is doing stuff that is kind of transient, is also reminiscent of kraut rock so a really really wide range of influences. The sound of the band people have said it sounds like a cross between Elvis Costello and ‘Pink Floyd’ so whatever that means – I don’t get, I mean I can guess that some of our stuff might sound Floydy and I guess that’s our keyboards Ron’s influence – Ron’s a big progger really and….but lots of influences in the band; Gerry’s got a kind of jazz-rock jazz-funk influence, our drummer Damon Wase, who also plays in other bands, he’s a fairly prominent local musician, he’s got quite a strong pop sensibility and if….my approach tends to take the band out into fairly abstract areas and maybe you know I’m interested in different strange modes and different scales and unusual time signatures, Damon’s into all of that, especially different time signatures, but he also likes a good chorus so he likes to put a hook on it so there’s a sense that he drags us back from being too far out there and back to kind of straightforward popular music sensibility.

What inspires your lyrics?

I’m not entirely sure, that’s a very good question, it’s a very good question for just at this moment because I’m actually suffering from writer’s block with lyrics; I haven’t been able to completely finish a set of lyrics for several months, probably six months, and I suppose my problem is that I don’t seem to connect with something to write about. My lyrics tend to be about something – I’m not always sure what they’re about until after I’ve written and sometimes until after they’ve been recorded. Very often they start off from a word or phrase that seems to have a particular resonance for me and then it extends out, and I guess I have a kind of story going on in my head which is not always made explicit in the song, perhaps it’s a kind of back-story to the song and maybe it has a certain amount of ambiguity attached to it. I very seldom write straightforward lyrics and I don’t know why. I know one thing which is that I’m always consciously trying to avoid cliché and convention in my writing…some of my favourite songs are really let’s say direct love songs, or songs about how it’s great to dance, you know – ‘Dancing In The Street’ – isn’t that a great song? I can’t write songs like that, I kind of wish I could but I feel as though as soon as I try to write something that was like that, it would descend into cliché so instead I might talk about people living their lives or fantasy lives or I might….I might you know develop a………scenario that might be more at home in a science fiction story than it might be in real life, but even then I’m trying to I suppose create comments about real life. I suppose some of my lyrics could be called poetical in inverted commas or in the broadest sense of the word but perhaps not to sloganeering or campaigning, more observational. I don’t know – have I answered that question? I guess that’s the best answer I can give.

What CD is in your CD player at the moment then?

Oh I’ve got….I have three CD players. One in my car and one in my living room and one in my bedroom. The one in the bedroom has a compilation CD made of compilation tapes. It’s a compilation CD that an old friend gave me in Christmas, at Christmas 1997 and which I’ve only just got round to listening to now for various reasons, and it’s got some fabulous stuff on it, it’s a really nice eclectic selection from ‘Art Pepper’ and…various sort of jazz pieces through to some artists that I wasn’t really aware of, American mainly – ‘Lamb Chop’, ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ [sp] ‘The American Music Club’ – there’s some absolutely fabulous stuff on there and that’s an example of someone making a compilation that extends someone else’s tastes, so I’ve been listening to that, I’ve been really into that. In my main room in my house I have been playing obsessively over and over again an album called Tago Mago by ‘Can’ which is from the early 19070’s again – they’re Kraut rock – Kraut rock’s such a terrible term but it’s kind of what’s used to describe those kind of experimental German art rockers and Tago Mago I had on for probably about four months and every time I tried to play something else, I found myself pressing play on the album because I just can’t get enough of this record, and in my car I’ve been listening to an album of traditional blue grass music by Greg Graffin who is the lead singer with hardcore punk rock, west coast punk rock band called ‘Bad Religion’ so again that eclecticism – here’s someone who’s the front man of a really hardcore fast punk skater band but he’s also doing stuff from classic American traditional song book with acoustic guitar and banjo.

I’ve heard that Steve is to return to the band. What’s that all about?

Well okay – Steve Edmonson who now lives up in Cumbria, he’s not quite a gentleman farmer but he’s certainly – he’s gone a bit rural – he’s someone…he’s somebody who’s been a really close friend in the past and who I played in the band with for years and years and I was partner in the shop with for ten years, and he’s someone I don’t see often enough. We recently got together on the occasion of my brother Pete’s wedding and my brother Pete got married for the first time at the age of fifty-three, and we had a fantastic celebration. The wedding reception started just as soon as they could the blasted wedding out of the way, at a local public music venue in Sowerby Bridge called ‘The Puzzle’. We had a big party outdoors, it was in the middle of the summer, it was a gorgeous day and lots of bands played including ‘Fez’ or three-quarters of ‘Fez’ – our keyboard player couldn’t make it and we invited other people up to fill the sound out. My sister Hazel got up and played a few numbers acoustically and with myself and Pete, my brother played, my brother Pete got up, Andy Greaves from the ‘Tragics’ got up and Steve Edmonson got up. When I first asked him to come up and play with us he disappeared, I think he was quite nervous about it, but then he got up on stage with us, slung on a guitar and we played ‘Cortez the Killer’ by Neil Young which was a song, a cover version that we used to play back in the days when Steve was in the band. What I’m hoping is that next year…I’m intending to put on a ‘Fez’ birthday party and…invite other bands to play, but also to invite people who’ve been the band before – people like Pete, Steve Edmonson, Robbo, our old keyboard player who now fronts a band called ‘Black Dog’ in Nottingham….and other people whose names I probably can’t remember, to get up and do a few numbers with us so I think it would be great if Steve could come across and be there for that gig which should a pretty special sort of celebration.

Excellent. Well thank you very much.

And thank you – I’ve enjoyed it.

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