Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson checks in with former Magnum bassist Al Barrow to talk about his Magnum years, his new life in the USA and much more.
Al Barrow played bass with English hard rock band Magnum for almost two decades. He also worked with Magnum founders Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin in the band Hard Rain as well as playing on some of Bob’s solo work. Additionally, Al has designed several of Magnum’s album covers. He left Magnum in 2019 but has stayed involved with the band in several ways. Originally from England, he is nowadays based in Tennessee, USA. He has continued to work as a session musician in the US, working and recording with artists worldwide. He also continues to design album covers for many major record labels.
You first became known to a wider audience when you played in the band Hard Rain with Magnum co-founders Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin. You have also been involved in Bob Catley’s solo work. When Bob and Tony decided to reform Magnum and invited you to become a member, was it an immediate “Yes!” or did you have to think about it? “Before I joined Hard Rain, I had been working as a session player in the West Midlands in the UK for years, working at local studios doing bass and vocals for various artists and projects. When Hard Rain came to an end there were a few months’ lull, so to speak. I went back to doing sessions. During this time, I did some tours for Bob Catley’s solo albums. Again, I had played bass and did the artwork for some of his projects. I think at this time Tony was writing new material with a Magnum reformation in mind. There were whispers of Magnum happening but there was nothing concrete for a short while. Then Tony said to me ‘We have got a label interested and it looks like we have a deal.’ There was not really a discussion of whether I was to be part of it or not, it just seemed to all fall into place. Tony said ‘We’ll start recording soon, so this is the plan: Now we are Magnum again.’ It was just a natural progression from Hard Rain to Magnum for me. I don’t think they looked for anyone else. Of course, people asked about Wally Lowe the previous bass player, but he had left the music industry many years earlier. So, I think I was the obvious choice at the time. It turned out to be a long-established place for me to play and record. It worked out really well, I guess. If there had been a question of whether I wanted to do it or not I would think it would have been an instant yes as I knew it would be fun and some great music would come from it. I feel very honoured and proud to be a part of something over so many years that means so much to many fans. Tony and Bob taught me a lot as you can guess. They have been there, done it all and knew many of the pitfalls of being in a touring band. I think Tony had become hardened to how to deal with management, labels and executives and had a strong mind of how it was going to be done this time around.”
How different was it to play in Hard Rain compared to Magnum? In Hard Rain, you were part of something new, whereas in Magnum you had to fill someone else’s shoes and play both old classics and new songs. “I didn’t feel any different. We already played a few Magnum songs in the Hard Rain set, so it was again a very natural progression to follow. Of course, I have a big admiration for what Wally did in the band and I was very pleased to be able to step into his shoes and play his bass lines. I knew I was under scrutiny from long-time Magnum fans so I put the homework in and played exactly what Wally played either from the albums or live recordings, but put myself into the bass lines. Not changing them as such, but just adding in some of my own character and flavour so to speak. Magnum songs are not very complex so it was easy enough to learn. What was harder for me was to learn all the harmonies and play live. I had some history of doing it, but not on such a big scale. Magnum harmonies are a big part of their sound, so I knew I would have to step up my game to make this work. In Hard Rain rehearsals were very…let’s say free and easy. We spent more time in the bars than we did rehearsing. It was like a baptism by fire as Bob and Tony like to play up a lot and being rock’n’roll was what they did at that time. Many Hard Rain gigs were done wrong. I think the band were a bit more ‘party time’ and although we played well there was maybe too much off stage fun being had. I have to say we had so much fun and thought we played great but in truth, we could have been more professional about it all. So, yes, I guess this move to Magnum was a different vibe altogether in many ways come to think of it. Almost everyone stopped drinking and rehearsals were very long and intense. We would spend ages on arrangements and working on vocals. Nothing was left to chance. Part of the joy was getting to play with some amazing musicians. Of course, Bob and Tony and also Harry James on drums and in the interim while Harry was not available, Jimmy Copley, who did one album with the band. In later years, having Lee Morris and Rick Benton in the band was also fantastic for me to be able to play with these guys. Rick is the most talented guy I ever got a chance to work with. Oh, by the way, Rick is doing a little something with me on a piece I recently recorded, which is really cool. It was still a lot of fun and ‘getting into trouble’ was still on the cards but when it came to the music it was very, very serious stuff. It was a shift in gears and for the best, I thought. I don’t think my body could keep going at the rate we did in Hard Rain. How rock’n’roll does that sound, ah? With each new Magnum album, I found the time I spent doing vocals became more and more intense. I loved it. It was great that the songs were simple bass wise, and it gave me a chance to really concentrate on backing Bob’s vocal lines. We did a lot of three-part stuff. I really enjoyed that. Bob sings pretty high so I had to get the old clamps out to reach some of the higher harmonies. Doing that for two months on tour each night can be hard on the voice. I have no idea how Bob keeps going like he does. He is and was always a powerhouse live.”
What was your absolute highlight during your years with Magnum? “Sounds a bit cliche but there are many. I was very happy when we got to play live at the BBC again. This was cool to be part of. Also, playing a venue near my hometown in Birmingham. I had seen many of my favourite bands and performers there and to be on that stage at the Symphony Hall was a great delight. We played so many fantastic festivals over the years. All of them were great fun. I have met so many great people over the years. One thing does stick in my head. We played Sweden Rock Festival and we were on the main stage before KISS. We just went on to do the show. It sounded great. It was a nice warm sunny day and the fans were really up for it. Now, no one told me I was not allowed to stand on Gene Simmons’ personal riser. Or maybe they did but I chose to ignore it. So, when I climbed onto that bit of the stage that I later found out was kinda out of bounds, the crowd loved it anyway, so that was a really fun moment. I have a picture of me being rather naughty on my studio wall. The crowd looks amazing. Great memory. Another one was sadly my last show with Magnum. It was in Spain on the coast. Fantastic stage and festival and another terrifically sunny day. It was hot and again the fans were lapping up the atmosphere. Of course, only the band and crew knew I was leaving after this show. So, it was emotional yet a lot of fun. There were a few emotional moments for me and the band knowing this was my last outing in Magnum. I have a wonderful photo of me and Bob in a big embrace with tears in our eyes. It was hard to leave after so many wonderful years, so many great albums and to leave my buddies was tough.”
You left Magnum a few years ago, not long after you relocated from the UK to the US. Why did you decide to move to the US? “My wife and I spent every moment we could travelling to the USA. We fell in love with it back then. My wife had been asked by her company to come to Tennessee and work in a new branch in Chattanooga. It was a fantastic opportunity for her and for us to take life by the horns, so to speak and take a big leap of faith. It was scary but so exciting. I had been in the USA and travelling back for the recording of the albums and rehearsing and of course European tours. It was all worked out to the finest detail. It was not really an issue. The finances were hard, with flight prices increasing and hotels, etc. It became more of an issue as time went on. But it was manageable. Then Magnum were getting more and more in demand each year and with this, each tour got longer and longer. So, with recording albums, rehearsals for pre-tour, then going on tour, I was finding myself being away from home for months on end. Also, Magnum were getting asked to do one-off shows, mainly festivals and for me to travel from the US for one show was financially and logistically more of an issue. I started to feel I was holding the band back from playing some of these one-off shows. I’m not sure what changes but I guess as we get older maybe something does. Priorities change, I guess. I felt being away for a third of the year was too much for me. I struggled being away from home. As much as I enjoyed the shows and actually touring, it became an emotional battle each time in my head when I left to go back to the UK. Rachael, my wife, seemed to handle it better than me. She has always supported me and said she did not mind as long as I was happy and that she knew it was my passion to do what I do. So, it was my choice to say I would not be available to tour. I broke the news to the guys in the airport after coming back from a festival, that the next set of dates would be my last. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Sounds dramatic but it was heartbreaking for me to do. Of course, there were discussions with Bob and Tony and they said ‘Surely, we can figure something out to make it work.’ This was so sweet of them to even hear me out and try to find a solution. But they could see how I was struggling being away from home for so long. It was emotional, to say the least. It was hard to walk away from something that I held so close to my heart for so long. There was also a little voice in my head saying ‘You should concentrate on doing your own stuff before it’s too late.’ Magnum took up so much of my life. When not on tours I would be looking after the social media and websites, doing artwork, designing merchandise, coming up with new artwork ideas for touring, etc. So, it was a full-time job to me back then. There is only a small team that helps run Magnum and that did help a lot but it did take up a lot of my time. I think in every artist there is a small little ego that wants to do their own material. So, these were all contributing factors. When I left the band, I posted a little video on the social pages explaining why I was leaving and thanking the fans for accepting me so graciously for all these years. I also had to say a big thanks to the band who have given me so much opportunity to follow my dreams. I also miss the crew very much. It does become your second family and when you leave that circle, it can be a little hard some days. It is rare that people leave bands on such good terms these days. I loved all the guys and crew so much. But sometimes we have to do the things that scare us most.”
Tell us about your new life in the US. I understand that you are quite busy playing session bass as well as working as a graphic designer and photographer. “Well, life was looking amazing until Covid. I was travelling and doing lots of photography. Working for local projects. I still continued to do graphic design for many bands worldwide. I still work for a few labels internationally doing artwork, etc. I was also picking up bass session work. I was driving to some amazing studios in Muscle Shoals in Alabama. It’s amazing to work in some studios that have such an amazing history and stories to tell. I was just about to get some session work in other parts of the country which looked like it was going to possibly lead to some other great work….then Covid. Everything went on hold. This is the common story I think you will hear. Studios shut, venues shut, bands just went into lockdown and it seemed like everything just completely stopped. So, while I had this time, like many others, I converted one of my rooms into a studio. I started to learn how to record myself. Over the years I have always been blessed to walk into a studio, plug in and play. Now I had to work it all out for myself. A bit daunting but I had the time.”
While you are no longer a member of Magnum, you remain quite involved with the band. You are handling their social media and you are involved in the creation of some of their visuals such as album covers. “I continued to work with Magnum and the two albums they released since I left, I found myself working long hours putting their packages together ready for the release. I was also still part of the team looking after social media for them. Although Rodney Matthews tends to do the front covers, I would be tasked with putting all the photos, and booklets together. Designing the rest of the album I think takes almost as long as it does to paint a front cover. My brother actually took the front cover photo for the latest album so that was very helpful. It was just supposed to be just a photo for Rodney to work to at one point. Then Tony liked the image he asked me to develop the idea more. As Rodney was not available to continue on the project. I spent a few weeks doing a more extensive version of what you see now. Tony liked my ideas but after some time he decided he preferred the sparse feel and felt the monster on its own was a more powerful image. There is a lot of back and forth and discussion. Every detail is scrutinised. I still talk to the guys literally every week. I continue to design their merchandise, logos and social media adverts for the band.”
Let’s talk about inspiration. Which musicians have been the biggest influences on you? “I come from a musical family. I found my great-great-grandfather worked in the musical halls back at the turn of the century. My mom was a great singer. All my brothers and sisters are musicians. My sister sings and has a killer voice. My two brothers opted to not be musicians and instead became drummers. I’m joking! They both are in incredibly technical drummers. I think I took the easy route and played bass. But I still got the girl! I have worked with some of my biggest inspirations. Danny Vaughn of Tyketto was a favourite singer of mine. I worked with him on several projects over the years. We became good friends. Also, Kip Winger. I had the pleasure of touring with him many years ago. We live not too far away from each other now in Tennessee. He lives in Nashville and I saw him not so long back. I think my biggest influence has to be Geddy Lee and the band Rush. For so many obvious reasons. Great players and performers. They are another level of excellence. I also tend to go for singers more than bass players so I do really admire John Farnham and John Payne of Asia. These days, you only have to flick through YouTube or TikTok to see some amazing musicians and they either inspire you or you just say ‘Wow…I give up!’”
And as a graphic designer and photographer, what and who has inspired you? “Looking at the progressive rock bands was always on my mind. Hugh Syme has to be the one name I would mention. His style has very much influenced me and I strive to follow his examples when I can. Roger Dean also but he has a different slant on things. I love to photograph bands live and as I got to know a lot of bands and performers I would get invited to all sorts of shows. I would really enjoy getting ‘access all areas’ to some great performances over the years. There are many great live photographers. Some of the nicest people you can meet. Always ready to share stories and tips. Unfortunately, there seems to be an increasing amount of horrible rude people finding their way into the press pits these days. What used to be fun became a battle of survival of the fittest. It could be hostile at times.”
What’s next for you? “Right now, today… Well, I sit waiting for Covid to get its act together and get the hell out of here. Then I hope to resume a more normal life again. Now that I have the studio set up, I have some material ready for other musicians to come on in and put some parts down. I have a few design jobs on the go right now. Graphically I am working on some festival posters for promoters. I am working on a couple of album covers for some bands in the US and also doing a few album covers for bands back in the UK. I am also putting bass down for a couple of really heavy bands in the UK. This is amazingly fun. Playing hard and heavy. Very different and it’s pushing my technical ability a little. Hopefully, the fruits of my labour will be released sometime soon for people to hear and see.OK, I will be very honest with you. I got a new car yesterday. I spent all morning sat in the car reading the instruction manuals. Who doesn’t love a good instruction manual for a new car, ah? New car smell is the best. I just got off the phone with another client requesting some artwork, so I have to say, it’s not going that bad at all.”