Because of Mike Varty winning a fantastic CRS Award recently and him touring around Europe with Landmarq again, I had a really nice conversation with this cheerful world class keyboardist the other day. Because of the length of the interview and the way Mike keeps on talking forever, which was very nice by the way, I had to do some serious cutting and editing for you to turn it into a nice read. Like he told me himself: “I’m hoping you cut it down or something, get rid of the rubbish!”. Still, you will have to sit down for quite some time to do the reading!
Interview with Mike Varty
DPRP’s André De Boer
Mike Well, thank you very much, it is nice to talk to you this morning actually.
André You know I have a set of heavy questions for you! And expecting only long, long, long answers!
Mike Haha, it’s bit early in the morning actually! We will see…
André Mike, where are you right now, what city, what place?
Mike I’m in a place called Farnborough, which is about 50 miles west of London. They call it the ‘Silicon Valley of Great Britain’! It’s full of technological people around here and in fact that’s how I came to be here originally because they offered me a job here. But that was quite a few years back. Right here is my studio where I am talking to you at the moment. And to be honest the whole place is a mess [laughs out loud] !
André Because you’re very, very busy?
Mike Well, that’s it really. I’m probably a bit untidy. I’ve been in and out, this has been the most busy year for me so far. If you count Landmarq next week there are four bands that I’ve been gigging with this year. So basically I’m hardly ever in the studio. So it’s full of CD’s, merchandise and keyboards stuck up in the corners and stuff! The studio is mine and my partner’s, Sam Collins the singer from Janison Edge, that’s one of our bands from ages back
André Okay, and how did this studio come about?
Mike Well probably how most people come about, really. Being musical anyway, you want to kind of like do things yourself perhaps. Also I’ve got a technical background. And to be honest, being so skint that we can’t afford studio time so we bought equipment instead. So that was kind of learning on the job really. I ran the studio for recording and have pretty much albums done. But in your own time and cheaper. It works like that. I think a lot of bands do, you know, out of necessity usually. Although these days it’s a lot easier because you really buy and use a laptop! Which is really nice.
I generally have so little time to do stuff for others, I only do occasionally. I do a little bit of mastering for various bands and sometimes like live overdubs, all that kind of stuff. I did some production work for Tinyfish as well when they released their The Big Red Spark album. But generally most people find out that I am unavailable. Too busy and not even in!
André You are trying to be the most busy man in Progressive Rock these days?
Mike No, I’m probably slowing down a bit these days I think [laughs out loud]. But maybe it doesn’t look like that! I need to sleep or watch TV but that doesn’t happen often.
André You mentioned it’s been quite a busy year for you. I think the winning of the Classic Rock Society Award for Best Keyboardist is a special thing. Can you tell me a little bit how you have experienced that?
Mike Yep. I wasn’t expecting it! It’s a bit strange. I always wondered how these things happened fifteen years ago or something; that was the last time I went to a CRS Awards night. And now I was kind of roped in for collecting the award on behalf of Clive Nolan, because he was away. So I got an e-mail fro Steve Gee in Landmarq and he said Stephen Lambe (he is the main man at the CRS) suggest that you are going to the awards night’. So I thought, does that mean that I’ve won? Or just invited? I didn’t know. So Clive, Tracey, Damian and many other people were out of the country in Poland recording their DVD for Alchemy and that kind of things. So I thought ‘Okay, here we go, to go and pick up an award on behalf of somebody else!’. And that’s pretty much how it happened. It was a strong hint to go. So here I am standing there, they read out the nominations, and it’s me! Haha! I hadn’t really thought about that. I kind of bumbled my way on the stage and thanked a few people and that was it really. But it was good. It was good to meet Bob Harris, he’s an icon in the UK for a lot of proggy music, so it was good to meet him in the flesh this way.
André And a big after party of course?
Mike No, not really actually. The funny thing was I had a couple drinks with a few friends and wandered back to the hotel. Not a big part funnily enough. Playing festivals and going to awards nights or something like that; when there’s nobody of the bands I was with; it’s an entirely different crowd of people that I normally talk to. You don’t always know them very well. So that’s good to have a couple of beers and talk about some of the business, but to be honest I don’t know them very well because I hardly ever meet them! It’s a different thing. So no big party, I’m afraid I failed on the Rock ‘n Roll score on that one! To be honest if DeeExpus had been there it would have been a big party! Reputation, haha!
André You are a busy man, what bands are you currently member of?
Mike Let’s go historically. I started off in Shadowland. I believe Shadowland may be gigging next year! So it’s not exactly a working band, but it is still a live band actually. It’s not likely there will be another album because they are all that busy, but yes I believe they will be out. It was actually random chance that I joint them because I phoned a number for a UK band that was looking for a keyboard player for their European tour and there was Clive Nolan at the other end! After a while Clive was taking off with Arena at that time so I thought, well I’d better move on. And I think I answered an ad in NME Magazine and that turned out to be Credo. I knew the whole band anyway because of rehearsals and knew some of their music. Pretty quick after Credo’s album Rhetoric I got a phone call from Dave Wagstaffe and again I kind of knew them. Because Clive had a side project called The Thin Ice Orchestra and this involved playing some Shadowland songs and some Peter Gee songs and some Tracey Hitchings songs and some Strangers on a Train songs. I was the keyboard player there while Clive was singing and occasionally playing the piano. And of course Tracey was singing. So that introduced me to Landmarq because Tracey eventually became the singer of Landmarq when Damian moved on. So Dave Wagstaffe phoned me up asking me how about coming along playing Landmarq. But actually at that moment they were looking to form another band called Siren. Which actually formed the line-up that Shadowland is today. At that time, about 10 years ago, I kind of dipped out of music quite a bit. I didn’t play so much. Mark Colton from Credo was ill and Shadowland wasn’t doing anything. And later I started with the Landmarq Poland DVD, so that was Turbulence, and that all started ramping it up again. And Credo came back with Against Reason. Just to finish off your question; about three or four years ago Mick Pointer, who of course I knew from Arena, came along and said: “Are you up for playing the keyboards?”. And I said “Yes, of course that’s an interesting thing to do!”. I did some touring on the Script for a Jester’s Tour and it could be said that that one is finished. The officially last gig being in ‘de Boerderij’, Zoetermeer, a couple of weeks ago. Officially the last one, although you know, one can never write this off I hope. I certainly enjoyed it. Then through Ralph, from the management of Credo, he put my name forward to DeeExpus. So within 5 seconds they sold that to me! That also had to do with the fact that I got to get to play Rosfest again! Haha! So I joined DeeExpus. DeeExpus also had a CRS Award as Best Newcomer back then, but I wasn’t there at the moment. Andy Ditchfield and Henry Rogers moved on with people that changed the pace with a blinding second album I guess, waiting for the third.
André Is it difficult for you to switch at a live setting? Because of other musical approach or because of the compositions?
Mike No, I don’t find it a problem. It made me appreciate how different each band is. Perhaps being one of my skills is being different in a different place. I have to fit in. The setting of DeeExpus is pretty fixed. We do have a good time but we are very much sticking to the script. With a band like Credo on the other hand, we approach it in a more organic sense. We don’t worry so much about perfection, more of the performance. That’s how Mark Colton, front man, also with his talking in between the songs does it. Creating the right atmosphere, he is a ‘fan’ so he can talk on the level of the audience. That’s not of what I do. I rarely listen to music so I don’t know much about ‘most’ music. If I listen to the radio then I listen to classical music on BBC3! Landmarq is very different again, a very full and fat sound. Very powerful vocals. It demands a very precise kind of playing. And I enjoy these differences between bands. I don’t think I could stay in one band! [laughing out loud].
André Was the Landmarq Zoetermeer gig a special one to you?
Mike It was actually. Basically because it was such a good atmosphere there. You know, I have played Zoetermeer many times with all the bands I’ve been playing in and I am very comfortable there. But the Landmarq people hadn’t played there for years and we were not really sure how we were being received. Tracey had been ill for many years and then coming out with an album (Entertaining Angels) after so long. To be honest it turned out to be a fantastic party! It was the best thing we’ve done! And Zoetermeer has the best venue with all their facilities and top notch equipment. A place like ‘de Boerderij’ puts you in the right frame of mind for your performance. And that’s what it’s all about.
André And what about the upcoming Ittervoort gig, April 19, again with Silhouette like in Zoetermeer. Are you up to it?
Mike Hahaha! Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know the venue or the organisation. So I go there with interest, find out what’s going on. I’ve seen some e-mails and they do seem like great people. I think there is quite some excitement about the festival. At least from what I’m seeing. Landmarq is rehearsing for it and looking forward to it. Tracey has been in Australia for a month so she is nicely rested and had a nice holiday. In the sun! Let’s see, who have we got in Ittervoort? We have Knight Area, we have Silhouette and we have Martigan as well. I haven’t seen Knight Area since the iO Pages festival with DeeExpus. So that will be very interesting to see them again. We will have a good time at the festival, I’m looking forward to that actually.
André What’s up for you in the near and distant future?
Mike Apart from the Ittervoort gig I’m looking forward to a couple of months off until September really. Except from a couple of festivals most bands don’t gig in the summer. So I shall be taking the summer off, tidying up a bit, clearing out my studio and get rid of all my old studio equipment to get more space! Credo is busy writing the new album so we will be beavering away every weekend. And Landmarq is pretty much doing the same. Every time we have a rehearsal we spend 15 minutes or so jamming some new ideas in the beginning. And we always record it so we have loads of little clips with odd lyrics and little riffs and stuff. We take all those things and eventually a new album will come out. Credo to release next spring!
André Please come and tour Holland too!
Mike Yes, that’s what we are trying to put together at the moment. And perhaps DeeExpus will be out there as well.
André Mike, I want to thank you for your time on behalf of DPRP. For telling us all those wonderful details and insights. Enjoy everything you are going to do!
Mike Okay. It has been good talking to you, André. I should thank you for your time as well. And thanks to everyone coming to our gigs and voted for me in the Awards. Prog is a funny world because the musicians weren’t there unless the fans are there. It is all on a kind of family basis. So thanks to everybody really!