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LEE BRILLEAUX - Interview December 1989

 

Lee - Mad Man Blues

(Photo fetched at the
Official THE HAMSTERS Website)

 

Source: BLUES BAG fanzine No. 3 - March 1990

COLNE. LANCASHIRE. ON A FRIDAY EVENING IN MID-DECEMBER (1989).
IT'S COLD, WET, WINDY, AND I'M FULL OF THE FLU. WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING IN SUCH A GOD-FORSAKEN PLACE I HEAR YOU CRY. THERE'S GOT TO BE A GOOD REASON. AND THERE IS. I'M HERE TO INTERVIEW DR FEELGOOD STALWART LEE BRILLEAUX, THE LAST REMAINING ORIGINAL MEMBER OF THE MOST DURABLE OF ALL HARD-DRIVING U.K. R&B BANDS. NOW READ ON..........

 
BLUES BAG: You're nearly at the end of your annual U.K. tour. How's it been going?

LEE: Very well. Good business. We've cracked some new territority, places we haven't been to for a long time like Exeter down in the West Country and also Plymouth which we hadn't played since the late '70s. We went down there and pulled in 500 people which pleased me and also we´ve really captured Glasgow which cheered me up. There's a fair sprinkling of youngsters and newcomers so it's not just old Feelgood fans who are turning out to see us. So yeah, it's going very well.

BLUES BAG: Do you find it surprising that you've still got such a strong following after so many years?

LEE: Frankly I'm surprised it's as big as it is nationwide and it also surprises me that it cuts across all sorts of barriers - I dare say some sort of sociologist could have a field day with it!! It's not just one type of person. For example, there's people who were punks, people who are R&B fans - there's all sorts, all ages, all social classes - working class, toffs, range rover birds, they're all there. So, it's quite an interesting audience really - it defies any real logic!! I do get the impression, though, that in the absence of any real commercial success, chart-wise, this is about as big as it gets.

BLUES BAG: Talking about the band's profile, apart from some hard-gigging, you've kept in the public eye by way of a few TV concert appearances over the past couple of years...

LEE: Yeah, we've done quite well as far as TV is concered. We did one a couple of years ago called "Meltdown" (ITV), which frankly, was really awful - partly because we turned in a pretty lack-lustre performance, (we'd just had a month off and were called in at pretty short notice to do the job and my voice was completely out of practice), and partly because I didn't think it was a very good programme due to the fact it wasn't done very well. I think we've now made up for that with the one we did at the Town And Country Club in London last July and which is doing the rounds of the ITV network at the moment. It's definately upped our profile a bit and I'm pleased with that one, the sound quality was good and the camera work imaginative. We're also having the Cheltenham gig from our current tour covered by Central Television who've also bought the rights to issue it on video some time during 1990.

BLUES BAG: You've also got your own info service run by John Butterfield (the newsletter service) up in the North East...

LEE: Well, without John we'd be in trouble really because we haven't got enough fan mail, for want of a better word, to employ a full-time secretary but we have got enough to make our lives misery if we had to keep answering it all ourselves!! John, who has been a very good mate over the years, has given his services absolutely for nothing and looks after that side of things and has actually helped to create something quite extraordinary, and we're very grateful to him for that.

BLUES BAG: You're now established as the most durable of all U.K. R&B outfits, despite numerous personnel changes over the years, but how did it all start?

LEE: We actually started out in the early '70s, (as Dr Feelgood), playing gigs in the Southend area. Heinz, (of Tornados fame), was also living in the area at that time doing one or two gigs a week and due to the rock'n'roll revival that occured round about the time was looking for bands to back him up, and we were just one of many he used. I think we were better than most because we did actually know something about the music and were, perhaps, a little bit more purist than even the Teds who used to come along to see Heinz. It was all very usefull experience working with him because he was actually working proper gigs at universities and clubs under contract, while in contrast we were still grubbing around the pubs - so it gave us a bit of an eye-opener on how to conduct ourselves in business at a later stage and therefore was very useful experience.

BLUES BAG: At this stage (early ´70s) were you still confined to the Canvey Island area or were you venturing further afield?

LEE: Canvey Island, Southend mostly. Wilko Johnson had studied at Newcastle University and managed to wangle us a gig up there but most of our gigs were in the South East Essex area.

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BLUES BAG: So how did the group's career develop after the Heinz episode? Were you then picked up by United Artists?

LEE: Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that. It all sounds as if it happened overnight but it actually happened over a period of 12-18 months. Will Birch (ex-Kursaal Flyer turned record producer), another native of Southend, who was very keen on reading about the next big thing in the music business, the latest buzz etc..., saw us in a little Southend club we used to play every Sunday night and said to us "You guys should get up to London. There's a scene up there called the pub-rock circuit that you'd fit into perfectly". Our reaction was that Will was being over-enthusiastic but we still went up to London, checked it out, and thought "Well yeah, these other bands, like Ducks Deluxe and that, are not million miles away from what we're doing and so there's no reason why we can't muscle in here." - which is exactly what we did. After about six months of doing the circuit we found we'd built up a very strong following in London and it wasn't long before the old press starting sniffing around. This was at time when the press were looking for something new to happen, they were bored with the way the market was looking and picked up on this pub-rock thing, seeing it as a revival of live music again. They also invented the term "pub-rock" which didn't actually mean anything, didn't mean a type of music, it just meant more of an attitude really. The press then picked up on us due to the fact we were one of the movement's forerunners, but even when we got all this press activity it was still difficult to actually get the record companies interested because they were (at that time) very conservative about the acts they signed - and all of the big companies passed on us - they all expressed an interest but none of them actually made a concrete offer and in the end it was a relatively minor company, United Artists, thanks largely to a man called Andrew Lauder, who had the foresight to sign us up.

BLUES BAG: The "Naughty Rhythms Tour", featuring Chilli Willi, Kokomo and yourselves, also proved to be a major break for you as well early in '75...

LEE: Yeah, that was about a year after we signed for U.A. The record company did a very good job in the way they promoted us, the way they got the press interested and the wonderful thing was that there was already a street-buzz going so all they had to do was to point us in the right direction to maximize our effect - so it wasn't pure hype, which does happen with some unknown acts, in our case it was at least 50 percent genuine, something I was quite proud of really.

BLUES BAG: Your first album release "Down By The Jetty" saw the light of day as a mono recording. Any particular reason?

LEE: We didn't actually put it into mono until we mixed it. When we recorded it, I suppose nowadays you'd call it minimalist, we did it very very simple with hardly any overdubs at all - much to the consternation of U.A. and the producer Vic Maile. Vic was in two minds about the idea - he quite liked the mono idea in one way but on the other hand I think he was frightened that he might be overstepping his brief as far as U.A. were concerned. Anyway, when we came to mix it originally into stereo, frankly, it sounded pretty terrible so we remixed it into mono and the result was it sounded 50 percent better, then some of the record company's people started scratching their heads and saying we were out of order. Then some U.A. bright spark said "Well hold on a minute, perhaps we can make this a marketing ploy and play this mono angle up", which, looking back, was quite smart really. The second album (Malpractice) was released in stereo but it was still fairly simply recorded, we didn't do anything clever on it. The sad thing is that Vic Maile, who produced those first two albums, died of cancer last year (1988). He was an important man - and a good bloke as well.

BLUES BAG: Were you surprised at the meteoric success of the live "Stupidity" album which shot the top of the album charts on release in mid-'76 ?

LEE: Well, by the time of it's release there was a real buzz going round - we were quite famous people, but bearing in mind that whereas nowadays so called "stars" get into the pages of the tabloid press and become household names, the exposure we got back then wasn't quite the same. However, we couldn't walk down the street without being recognized and that sort of thing allied to the buzz that was going round us quite excited, and I suppose a little bit big-headed and so when the "Stupidity" album did chart we weren't all that surprised - but when it hit number one that was another thing - a magnificent moment for us.

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BLUES BAG: It was also roughly about this time that there were different opinions within the band about your future development...

LEE: Yeah, this was about the time the trouble with Wilko Johnson set in and a rift started within the band. As a result of our success in Europe and the U.K. we went to America and that's when we definately split into two camps - on the one hand there was Wilko and then Sparko, The Big Figure and myself on the other. What it boiled down to was that Wilko didn't fit in with the rest of us. This situation carried on for about another year or so and became very unpleasant and looking back on it poor old Wilko must have been very miserable and depressed. That episode sort of marred what should have been a wonderful period of our career really...

BLUES BAG: You mentioned a tour of America, how did you go down over there?

LEE: Amongst the small minority of people who had studied the English rock scene or read the magazine "Trouser Press", we went down really well - but trying to break through to a bigger market was a different matter. We never really got a fair crack of the wip because Wilko didn't enjoy being in the States. For example, we were supposed to do some dates in the South supporting Kiss, opening in Mobile, then on to Memphis, Nashville and Atlanta but Wilko decided he didn't want to do it. The record company, who'd had to pull big strings to get us on this bill, therefore started to get the hump because they'd spent a lot of money on promoting us and then found that the band didn't seem to be co-operating. So really we had a good chance to give it a go in the States but it was a chance we let slip. We did go back again once Wilko had left the band, and the record company did put up some kind of promotion for us, but it was only a tenth of the budget that we'd been allowed first time around.

BLUES BAG: Once Wilko had left, Gypie Mayo, of course, arrived on the scene...

LEE: Gypie fitted in like a dream, he was a bit like us, just wanted to have a good time. So Gypie was fine and we went on to make the album we'd all been wanting to make (Be Seeing You), which was the first time we'd made an album without the restrictions Wilko had imposed upon the band. Then, of course, followed the success of the single "Milk And Alcohol" which led to success on the Continent as well. We then undertook two world tours with Gypie, worked very hard and really, I think, burned ourselves out. The Big Figure (John Martin), who'd been a family man from the word "go" - he'd had enough of that sort of extensive touring and both Sparko and Gypie got married around about this time as well (early '80s). Plus it was also a time when the music scene was changing, there was another generation of kids coming along who were more interested in electronic music and all that nonsense, and therefore a drop in interest resulted which led to the band more or less splitting up - in fact it was actually officially disbanded for a period of about three months until I thought "Well, sod this!!" and reformed it in a new way. Our fortunes had also taken a dive partly through our own faults - we'd gone on "Top Of The Pops", for example, and told somebody to "fuck off" and that sort of thing - they don't like it on that programme, you don't get asked back!! We'd been quite uncompromising about quite a few people, but that's fine, providing you're prepared to take the consequences. Once I'd reformed the band we just worked in Europe whilst times were dodgy in this country - we'd do seven nights a week in clubs out in Germany and Sweden. It wasn't my favourite sort of work but it kept us ticking over. We did quite a lot of work in Spain as well, especially in the Northern industrialised areas where the money is.

BLUES BAG: What are Sparko and The Big Figure doing nowadays?

LEE: Sparko is in the building trade. The Big Figure, when he left the band, bought a partnership in a gearbox renovation company and the last I heard he'd sold his interest in that and was thinking about going to live in France. None of us made a lot of money in the '70s, the only good thing was that our manager Chris Fenwick had the brains to pay the taxman, so although we didn't actually make a lot of money, we didn't come out of it as bankrupts either.

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BLUES BAG: Going back to the early '80s and your appearance on ITV's "South Bank Show". You stated on that programme that if Dr Feelgood were a generation after the Rollong Stones, then Nine Below Zero were therefore a generation on from Dr Feelgood. Having said that events proved that Nine Below Zero disappeared as quickly as they had appeared whereas you soldiered on as reliably as ever...

LEE: I always thought Nine Below Zero were a great band and if they were around now I think they'd be cleaning up. However, Dennis Greaves (the singer and guitarist) got it into his head that he wanted to conquer America, form a mod group and all that, which he's done and has been a moderate success, but I think it would have been a smarter move if he'd stuck with Nine Below Zero.

BLUES BAG: What's the secret about Dr Feelgood's durability?

LEE: It's been very difficult to be in a band and keep it operational for a long time because of the physical and mental things you have to face every day. It's extremely hard coping with the psychological strain - much more stressful than being married because, basically, you're "married" to the rest of the band and it's quite easy to see why a lot of other bands disintegrate under that sort of pressure. Dr Feelgood have got to the stage now where we've got ourselves into a quite unique position - nobody else really does what we do, we're specialists, but I don't think we're going to get very much bigger unless there's some sort of serious accident like a major record company putting an album out for us!! So, I think it's our niche, this is where we've found ourselves in the marketplace, which is quite a nice position to be in really.

BLUES BAG: You've been fairly quiet on the album release front over the past few years...

LEE: Well, we've made just a couple of albums over the last three or four years. The first one called "Brilleaux", produced by Will Birch, and the second one "Classic" with Pip Williams in the production seat. Both albums were attempts to bring us strongly into the '80s by trying to update our sound - something I wasn't 100 percent happy about but I thought that Stiff Records and other people were showing faith in me and therefore I should go along with the producers wishes, which I did, to the best of my ability. However, I've got to say, that at the end of the day, although they're well-made records, they don't sound like Dr Feelgood should.

BLUES BAG: Talking about your last album release, "Classic", what's your honest opinion of the record?

LEE: I think it's a very good album. There's some brilliant songs on it, it's beautifully made, the playing on it is great, the producer got me to sing like I've never sung before, but it's NOT really a Dr Feelgood album. Good fun doing it and very interesting to work with a producer who spent FORTY-EIGHT hours on one track!! It's an experiment I've no need to repeat again and if we get the chance to make another studio album I'm determined it's going to be a raw Dr Feelgood LP.

BLUES BAG: One '80s album that worked very well was the "Mad Man Blues" set...

LEE: Well I produced that!! To me, that's how Dr Feelgood should sound. When we recorded it I horrified the engineer - he'd just opened this new 24-track studio in Southend and wanted us to use all his new toys!! I walked in and said "Nah, nah, nah. Take all these mikes away", and on one track I sang through a little blown-up amplifier so that the voice sounded like it was cracking up which resulted in him asking me not to mention his studio on the usual album credits - he was almost in tears!!

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BLUES BAG: How did the re-recorded version of "Milk And Alcohol" fare when it was issued last year (1989)?

LEE: It didn't chart - but it was only an off-the-wall idea, a bit of a gamble that was fun to do with Dave Edmunds. However, it did get us some airplay and helped our profile in so much as it made people aware that we were still around and back on the scene again. It didn't cost us anything, apart from our time, so it was a worthwhile exercise. We actually recorded it in late '87 but it took over a year for it to come out because we had to talk EMI into issuing it.

BLUES BAG: Let's talk about your influences now...

LEE: Blues, generally, but also Rock'n'Roll and the first wave of the U.K. R&B like the Stones, and even Beatles' covers of American R&B material. Also, my dad was a big Jazz fan, especially the small Jazz combos of the '30s and '40s, he was into all that, so I grew up in a house where records like that were available and some of those guys had obviously been influenced by Blues chords, sequences and all the rest of it. I lived in a household where an interest in music was encouraged, in contrast to living in one of those homes where it was a case of "Turn that bloody row off". I was fortunate to have parents who were quite tolerant really. I was never one of those kids, though, that got into the Blues to such an extent that they wanted to reproduce it, note for note - I was very much aware I was a white kid living in England and not a black man living in Chicago.

BLUES BAG: What types of music do you listen to when you're not on the road?

LEE: To be quite honest I don't really get much time to listen to music due to family commitments, but if I do I usually listen to some light classical music when I'm in the house and if I'm out driving I normally listen to my old Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley tapes. I listen to classical music because when you're on the road doing two hundred plus gigs each year you find that sometimes you just want something a little quieter - even silence is nice!!

BLUES BAG: Moving slap bang up to date, what about the band's present line-up?

LEE: Kevin Morris (drums) and Phil Mitchell (bass) have been with me for seven years now. The bloke we've got on lead guitar, Steve Walwyn, has only been with us for six months having previously been with an excellent R&B band from the Midlands called The DT's. Basically, we knicked him from them, being the rats that we are!! Apart of being a good musician, he's also a steady reliable bloke with a good sense of humour. When we sent him a tape of one of our gigs to learn our set he turned up at Canvey two days later and played, more or less, note perfect.

BLUES BAG: What are your plans for 1990?

LEE: The year is more or less already mapped out for us, gig-wise, with numerous dates in Europe and we're also going to Russia!! - Two dates in Moscow, one in Kiev and another in Leningrad. We've also got a live album due to come out on Grand Records which is basically the tapes from the gig last June at the Town & Country. It's going to be a 14-tracker which we're going to remix ourselves without doing anything horrible to them, just tidy them up a little bit, put a bit of echo here and there. My vocal performance, very unusually, is almost word perfect!! - It's going to be called "Dr Feelgood - Live In London", not a very imaginative title I know, but we're convinced it's going to do fairly well. At the moment we're looking at a March/April release and we'll probably be doing about half a dozen U.K. gigs to launch it.

(Many Thanks to MARK ETHERTON from England for sending photocopies.)
 

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