Bruce Watson is in a “Big Country”
By Dave Schwartz
Photos courtesy of the Bruce Watson web site
It was a long drive to this interview. I know that statement may serve to confuse more than enlighten, but it is factual. Some will point to the Internet and suggest I use the tools at my disposal. That’s fair enough, but I have been on the road a bit longer than one might expect. It’s hardly a confession for me to say that I am a fan of this band. And, like every fan, I have a story.
It began in November 1983 as my wife and I pulled our car out of the Eagles Ballroom parking lot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We had just witnessed what I believed was the next important band from Europe. I say next because some months earlier I had already witnessed a band that shared the same kindred spirit and I knew of a third that was bred from the same loins of the other two. Big Country, The Alarm and U2. These three bands, I believed, were the future of music. These bands formed in us an addiction of sorts. Sharing a purposefulness and sense of optimism, their songs cried of protest and yet offered solution. There was so much promise, but every road has many turns. Over the last eighteen years so much was expected and now so much is known. It would be easy to ask, “What’s left?” when the real question is “What’s next?” Eighteen years and many miles after first hearing those “bagpipe guitars” I am lucky enough to be a part of a true rarity. An American writer interviewing Bruce Watson, guitarist and resident practical joker of the band Big Country.
So then, let me get this straight. “In a big country dreams stay with you”?
“Dreams are great especially when you are young,” Watson begins, “But the older and more cynical I get, the only thing I believe in is reality. I always remember after we recorded the demo for “In a Big Country,” and letting Bono and Lilywhite hear it and they both went ape-shit for it. It was around this time that we were starting to get early success and media attention. It was a wild, crazy, exciting time but that was 20 years ago and I am no longer a young boy with the same dreams and ambition. Although to say I don’t have dreams and ambitions would be untrue they are just not the same ones.”
Big Country has long held a solid fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s funny how different a fan perspective is on each side of the pond. You can ask any American about Big Country and typically their reply includes a refrain from the chorus of the “ONLY” song on the “ONLY” album that BC ever released. Yes, we lead sheltered lives here in the colonies and for that I must apologize. The cliché term has long been “one hit wonder,” but given our changing world it may be more accurate to borrow the corporate term “golden handcuffs.” Does this American misconception ever bother you?
Driving home an often forgotten point, Watson comments, “The ‘one hit wonder’ tag doesn’t bother me now, as it is better to have one hit rather than none!”
Big Country scored 17 Top 30 singles and seven Top 30 albums in the United Kingdom. The band broke massively worldwide with their debut album “The Crossing” (1983), which sold over 3 million copies and earned Big Country two Grammy nominations. Their subsequent four albums, “Steeltown” (1984), “The Seer” (1985), “Peace In Our Time” (1986) and “No Place Like Home” (1988), were all certified gold on release and took the band’s total record sales tally to over 10 million.
The BC sound was so indelibly branded onto America with that first U.S. single. Was that good or bad?
“I can’t answer that objectively,” he admits. “As it was the sound of four people playing their own music in a room. We didn’t know it was going to be a hit record in America. We had only released it in the U.K. and it was starting to take off. It was also our third release in the U.K. so we had done a lot of work previous to that. The American company wanted to put it out as our first U.S.A. single, as they thought it stood a better chance at radio and as we knew nothing about U.S.A. radio. We agreed and thank ‘Clapton’ we did.”
Between the first and second albums BC released an EP, “Wonderland,” it was an amazing piece of work. Where did those songs come from? Were they written on the road or was this part of a writing backlog?
“‘Wonderland’ started off as a jam between Mark and myself, which we demo’d in London,” Watson explains. “I gave the
tape to Stuart who worked on the chorus, and then we recorded it again as a band until Stuart got the lyrics ready. The rest of the songs from that EP had either been work in progress or surplus ideas that we reworked until we got them into shape. We have never written on the road.”
The next time I pulled my car over for Big Country, I was living in Biloxi, Mississippi. I had just joined the U.S. Air Force and barely had two nickels to rub together, but MTV was nice enough to announce to my lovely wife that BC was playing on a riverboat in New Orleans. Those bastards! How dare MTV invade the peaceful confines of my house and get my now eight months pregnant wife all riled up? What were they thinking? Given the aforementioned two nickels and my wife’s diminished mobility, I was able to escape with only a few scratches when I gave her the bad news. We could not afford to attend the show. And for the record– yeah, I still hear about it.
“Well that New Orleans gig was certainly one of the most memorable, as Mark, our drummer, got himself arrested after the show.” Laughing, Watson continues, “I can’t go into great detail here you understand, but I’d like to point out that the two chicks and myself were in the same room at the same time and it had nothing to do with me.”
The Internet has proven to be a true blessing for fans of music. It has become a destination for like-minded people to come and celebrate a favorite band. It has also offered an opportunity for closeness between the artist and their supporters while affording an amount of security.
“Being in a band it is hard to speak to someone in the flesh that follows the band,” Watson says. “Usually there are too many people to talk to at one time and A., they are usually drunk because they have been at the show for the past four hours and B., I am sober because I have just come off of stage and am gagging for a beer or six to wind down. The Internet is great for communicating with the fans of the band, as we don’t have to breathe beer over each other.”
The Internet is also a place where you can find a mountain of unsubstantiated rumors and urban legends. I guess this would lead us directly to your multiple Internet personalities. Have you sought out the care of a good head doctor or maybe computer technician?
“Those virtual characters are people I have known for years,” he confesses. “Like good sketch show characters, they are
usually based on real people who are exaggerated greatly. The Camp Smedley character is actually based on Mark speaking like John Inman from ‘Are you being served?’ (a popular comedy on BBC television). And a great angling chum of mine who loves to fly fish whilst dressed as a woman. I cannot tell you his real name, as he swears he isn’t a transvestite!”
Your Internet fan base has long supported the whole U2 / BC debate. Some want to believe that BC was overshadowed by the popularity of U2. In a sense, their argument is that with less U2, there would’ve been more BC in America. Others argue that each band is it’s own entity, responsible for itself. It is undoubtedly an unfair debate, yet one that has repeatedly left Internet fans asking “What if?”.
“I love U2, but there is no way we can ever be similarized– is that a word? It should be and if not, I want the credit for inventing it!” Watson laughs. “It’s the same when Runrig get compared to Big Country. Every band is unique, apart from A Flock of Seagulls– they are just crap!”
The next time we pulled the car over, we were in Hollywood, California. It was 1993 and Richard Blade on KROQ had just made some obscure reference to a BC concert at the Roxy in a few nights. We weren’t going to miss that one. It was ten years almost to the day since that first show. It was sold out and an utter celebration. It was one of the most incredible shows that we have ever witnessed.
In 1993, the band released “The Buffalo Skinners,” I think this may have been your best album ever. It was your first tour of America in seven years; the single was beginning to get airplay on U.S. stations, a Tonight Show appearance and then silence. What happened?
“Again, our failure was out of our hands,” Watson concedes. “Something happened at the record company and we were dropped. We had minor success at radio, a coast-to-coast tour and were getting TV publicity. Maybe it was our dance routines!”
What bands are you listening to today?
“I don’t listen to music these days, as I am too busy either working on my own music or working on my computer, although I have Limp Bizkit and Eminem coming out of my youngest son Jamie’s room constantly”, he says.
All these years I have been driving, but I was never really sure where we were going. Now I know– Damascus! “Driving to Damascus” is the latest and, perhaps last, Big Country studio album. When the disc was released last year, it was long-awaited and inescapably surrounded by controversy, and as any good PR man will tell you, controversy equals media attention and sales.
In August 1999, “Fragile Thing,” the first single off the new album, was released. Radio 2 gave it maximum support in U.K., while CIN (the BPI chart watchdog) banned the single for “too many folds in the packaging.” Hence the single does not chart.
In November 1999, the band received more international media coverage than they had seen in a decade or more. Stuart
Adamson did not arrive in the U.K. for British TV appearances and some shows with Bryan Adams. Speculation was such that not only the tabloids, but the broadsheets, radio and television gave massive coverage to Adamson being missing. The London Times even went so far as to call his publicist to request an up-to-date biography so that they could prepare an obituary. Now residing in America and with many changes in his personal life, Adamson decided he had had enough. In December, the band commenced on a British tour. One date was a headline appearance at Aberdeen’s Millennium Street party with over 50,000 in attendance. Adamson also agreed to tour one final time in Europe and the band performed 18 dates in Germany and Holland.
I really enjoyed your last studio album “Driving to Damascus,” it’s amazing to view how Big Country has changed since the first album. Was this slow evolution something that the band was conscience of or just a natural progression?
“We never plan anything musically,” Watson says. “We just get in a room and jam until something clicks.”
Eddi Reader sang some backing vocals for you. How did that come about?
Watson explains, “Our producer, Rafe McKenna, worked with her and suggested we should do something together. A phone call later and she was in.”
Have you had a chance to jam with any of your guitar heroes?
“I jammed with Keef ‘n’ Ronnie a few months ago at a friend’s memorial,” Bruce says.
In April 2000, a dear work colleague and friend of the band and management, Joe Seabrook, passed away. On May third, his birthday, Bruce and Mark jammed with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones at his memorial.
So what is the status of Big Country? I know that Stuart has expressed no interest in touring. Is “Damascus” the final destination? Will there be another album?
“I will never tour or record with Big Country in the sense of two months recording; six months touring. It is financially, emotionally and spiritually unrewarding, but I am quite willing to do one of those Vibe/Charity shows or fan club conventions,” Watson states.
Are you working on any solo projects?
“I have three solo projects out at the moment,” Watson answers. “‘Demology,’ ‘Fun Time at the Poconos’ and ‘Hi Yo Tonto. Away!’. ‘Demology’ is a collection of demos, soundtrack ideas and various pieces of music that was either used by Big Country or other projects I had in mind, but never made it to the drawing board. ‘Poconos’ is the second album and is more of a band thing; first half is quite rocky, while second half is a bit more jangly and nice. If you can get hold of the ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ album, the credits and story are on there. ‘Poconos’ is basically the same album, but with 13 tracks instead of seven and also remastered in stereo. ‘Hi Yo Tonto…Away!,’ which is the third album, is basically the companion CD to ‘Demology.’ I sing on one track and the guys play on one track as well.”
When you’re a fan of music it’s easy to understand how a person can attach moments in their lives with moments in music. When you’re in a band those moments can somehow evade you. It’s not fair, but then that’s life, and it’s been my experience that you can’t plan life, only live it. Big Country has lived each and every day of their musical lives and it appears now that the band has come to a creative end, but nothing is ever final in music and no story has ever been completely told. The road in front of me shows an off ramp, but it also continues on straight, in time I’ll know which one I took, but until then it’s just another day in a Big Country.