During the recent HRH Prog X festival at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, TPA’s Rosamund Tomlins was able to catch up with Bram Stoker shortly after their set, speaking to the entire band (Tony Bronsdon [keys/vocals], Jo Marks [bass/vocals], Warren Marks [drums] and Neil Richardson [guitars/backing vocals]) about their history, line-ups, old and new songs, and intriguing tales of incidents from the past…
When the HRH Prog X line-up was announced, there was some discussion in the various TPA Facebook groups along the lines of “Is this THE Bram Stoker from the ’70s with the legendary album of cult status? If so, this’ll be most interesting…”, so please tell me all about you, and about this particular album – do I take it that you played some tracks from it today?
Tony: Yes, we did. We played several tracks from the album, one called Fast Decay which is an instrumental written in 1969, and we did a medley of two other tracks from that album, one written by Pete Ballam, who was the guitarist and who originally set up the band with me – he died two years ago, sadly. That was Extensive Corrosion, one of his songs, and we mixed it with an instrumental called Ants, also from the same album. That album was, unfortunately, called Heavy Rock Spectacular; it was an unfortunate name because people would say, you know, without being too critical, “Well, it isn’t exactly Heavy Rock, it’s Progressive Rock, and it isn’t really spectacular”, they said, “…that’s pushing it a bit far!”. We had it re-released and called it Rock Paranoia – I think I mentioned it on stage?
Yes, you did.
Tony: And another company, Comet Records I think in Italy, produced a CD of the album too, which they sold quite a few copies of, and our agent down in Cornwall, Panama Music, he had a legal fight with them to get them to cough up a bit of bread for it.
Did you get any?
Tony: We got a little bit, but not much. We don’t know how much he, our agent, got – well, you know, this is the way things go, but he kept the name of Bram Stoker going; at least he did that because after ’72 we sort of faded into oblivion, sadly.
We got back together again around the turn of the century with John Bavin, who was the original bassist with me – and who had originally taken over from Jet Harris of The Shadows – now there’s a thing, not many people know that! Well, we started the band and it wasn’t called Bram Stoker then, it was called Harris Tweed!
Jo: Sounds like a mod band!
Tony: We had our first rehearsal in a big gymnasium in Bournemouth, and Jet Harris suddenly burst through the doors on a HORSE and he clippety-clopped up to the stage where we were set up, and the people who owned the place weren’t at all happy about that!
He, Jet, found out very soon, from having a couple of rehearsals, well, WE found that he wasn’t capable of playing the music. He had been working – our manager found him in a bar in Bournemouth, but just carting beer barrels about and he was past his days with The Shadows, you know, but our manager thought we could use this guy’s name to kind of get somewhere. Our manager, well… he was a bit of an act, as he ended up in Portland Prison, but that’s another story! [Nervous laughter from Tony, and surprised reactions from the others encouraging him] Well, we found out – not sure whether this should go down in print or not – that he was blackmailing a school teacher who took his nephew out on a dinghy in Poole harbour and molested him!
[Great gasps all round!]
Oh my God!
Tony: I’m not sure that I’ve even told all the guys this!
Warren: No, and [jokingly] I’m not sure I want to to be part of this any more! [Laughter]
Jo: It’s news to me!
Tony: We didn’t know! But he was using the money he was getting, until he was nobbled, to pay for our rehearsal rooms! We didn’t know!
Jo: I didn’t know! Ooh that’s terrible!
Tony: He was such a rogue; he had an Italian background and, seriously, we weren’t sure whether or not he was involved in the Mafia, but anyway, enough said. He disappeared and we ended up with a much more wholesome manager after that, from London, who got us involved with Tony Calder, who was then involved with Windmill Records. We should have signed up with Harvest, with Martin Birch, who did some recordings for us in De Lane Lea Studios. He was excellent; he did Deep Purple and I think he recorded Santana, and really we made a big mistake by not signing with them, but they wouldn’t give us advance royalties. Tony Calder said, “you can have a thousand quid up front” and our guitarist thought, “Well, I’ve got holes in my shoes, they leak in water, let’s go for it”, and I was kind of out voted. I didn’t particularly want it as I thought Martin Birch was great and I think we should have gone with Harvest, AND Deep Purple’s manager, Derek Lawrence, wanted to sign us! But, anyway, it didn’t happen.
I won’t bore you with how we broke up. Poor old Pete [Ballam], he had a nervous breakdown, over a girl, and we had to get another guitar player in and I wish we could have found someone like Neil then, but we got this guy in and he seemed really good at the audition and then he buckled when we went on stage! He was a gibbering wreck and he couldn’t play and so we had to dispense with him, and then we ended up with the guitarist from the Geno Washington Ram Jam band! And his drummer joined us too! I don’t know what was going on with Geno – he’s around now of course, he’s still touring. Anyway, he was a great guitarist, of the calibre of this man [indicating Neil], he was good.
Yes, I love your guitar lines, Neil!
Tony: Yes, he’s good; it’s great!
So, how long has this particular line up been together?
Jo: Four years?
Neil: About four years now?
Tony: It’s more than that.
Warren: It must be about five or six, I think.
I’m surprised not to have seen your name on other festival circuits, because this is only one prog festival and you are very, very prog! You went down great today!
Warren: Well, to be honest, we did, a couple of years ago…
Tony: We went down great today, do you think?
Tony: We went down pretty well we thought. The London audiences can be more difficult to please.
Jo: It was good fun!
I think the big problem with COVID is that there are far fewer people here than might have been otherwise.
Warren: A couple of years ago, before COVID, I emailed The Bram Stoker Festival in Ireland; it’s a huge festival and they have loads of acts on, but I didn’t hear a thing from them!
Jo: He was Irish, the author Bram Stoker.
Warren: Yes, so that’s why they have it in Ireland. You know, I wrote and emailed and I never heard a dickey bird, you know, which is a shame.
Tony: We don’t have any fixed agencies that we’re involved with, so the work, we’ve managed to get it by contacting people ourselves.
That’s the way of it isn’t it now?
Warren: I mean, we don’t have an agent and we aren’t signed to anybody.
Ah yes, I’ve got that here. [producing just purchased CD]
Jo: He did all the recording and producing, and we released it ourselves.
Tony: Yes, we did all that ourselves in Neil’s studio.
The thing is you couldn’t do all that years ago, could you? It’s great!
Warren: No, you couldn’t; the equipment was all analogue, great big massive tape machines and these days you can do it all on a laptop – it’s amazing, the software, you know!
Jo: Well I can’t, I don’t understand it all! He does. [indicating Neil]
So when did you join, Jo?
Jo: Well, me and Warren, we’re like a team, and we started in the band about five years ago, didn’t we?
Jo: The guitarist had sort of drifted off, Neil joined, and he found us.
It’s great to have a woman on stage, I have to say, as it has been a bit of a – as it has been called by some of my male friends here – a bit of a sausage-fest!
[Laughter from the band]
It’s great to see you up front too, doing some of the vocals – most haunting vocals too!
Tony: Yes, she’s absolutely great!
Jo: Thank you!
So, can you describe the music? Do you think there’s a specific prog genre you think you fit in?
Jo: Melodic prog.
Tony: It’s funny, there are different influences, as with one of the more recent songs, I get an idea – certainly with instrumentals – I get an idea from some classical piece that I probably first heard when I was five years old, like a Brahms symphony, and there was a riff that I heard and we only use a little bit of it, and then we end up with a song that grooves from that for about five minutes long. So there’s the classical influence from me; Neil – your influence is jazz…
Neil: Yes, sort of a jazz rocky fusion type of sound.
Jo: We’re sort of rock.
Warren: Yeah, well I started off playing live in blues bands…
Warren: …Yes, before I joined Bram Stoker I did some reggae, ska, just anything really, but the thing with this stuff that we term as progressive is that it’s interesting as it doesn’t just stay on one thing all the time, you have to keep your wits about you. I mean, you can’t busk it.
No, you clearly have to know what you’re doing but you make it all look so EASY!
Warren: It takes a lot of practice, and a lot of screwing up – in rehearsals I should say!
Well, we wouldn’t know even if you had screwed up, audiences generally don’t. We’d just think it was meant to be like that.
So was there an element of flying by the seat of your pants, as it were?
Tony: It went a lot better today.
Warren: Well, we played yesterday [in Sheffield] and we had a lot of technical problems, so we only played for something like half an hour!
Tony Half an hour!
Oh no! What’s that then, two songs?
Tony: The keyboards went wrong.
Warren: Yeah, it sort of screwed us up a little bit, so when we came today and everyone was on the ball, our problems were fixed…
Jo: The sound was great, wasn’t it?
The sound was very good!
Jo: They knew what they were doing.
Warren: The sound guy and the stage staff were all really helpful and friendly, you know, and it was great, and we felt more relaxed because of it, and when you’re more relaxed you’re more productive.
Yes absolutely, and clearly there’s an element of improv, particularly with your guitars, Neil, you can see that’s happening, your jazz influence perhaps coming through. And sometimes your guitar really delighted me when I thought “Ooh, I didn’t expect that to go with THAT keyboard riff” and so on! And then you two [indicating Jo and Warren], your pounding driving rhythm lines underneath encouraged some of us – did you notice some of us were dancing down the front? You were all inspiring us to do a bit of spontaneous reeling and jigging!
Tony: Oh wow!
Jo: We do a lot of jigs!
Warren: The stuff we do, it’s sort of powerful but at times it’s very subtle, melodic, and then it goes [low voice] “brrrrrm brrrrrrm brrrrrm”, and then, [high voice] “dee de dee de dee”, and so there’s a lot to it…
Jo: It’s fun!
Warren: …and that’s why we enjoy it as we’re not stuck into one groove, you know? I mean there’s nothing wrong with that, but it spices things up, and you have to be on the ball because it only goes for a certain amount of bars and then goes to this section, and then if you’re not on the ball you can mess it up!
Yes, absolutely, and we can all see you communicating with each other; and I know it isn’t, but you still make it look really easy, that’s the good thing ‘cos it all works!
Tony: That’s nice of you!
That song Joust, the one that you [indicating Warren] introduced, that was my favourite earlier.
Warren: Ah, yes!
Jo: That’s the one that got you dancing?
Warren: And did it evoke an atmosphere of Medievalism?
It did! Absolutely!
Warren: There you go, it worked then! That’s great!
Well it’s an archetypal traditional prog thing, prime example being Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, but there is so much in history that should be told and I think this is a great way to do it.
Warren: Well, yeah!
Jo: I write some of the songs as well, my own songs, and a lot of those are about historic figures, people from the past, and things like that, like Joan of Arc, some of my tunes come from that.
Warren: Yes, there’s a song Joan of Arc on the album we’ve got here.
[To Jo] And you wrote that?
Jo: Yes but we didn’t play that one today. I’ve written about quirky little events from local history, that sort of thing. I’ve got my own stuff, and then we put ideas together.
This is the element of storytelling in music; it’s the stories told handed down that become history, so you’re continuing that.
Warren: Oh yes, indeed.
One of the things I wrote down for the review I’m also doing was “A clear story-telling band!”. From the first few notes, I felt I could tell because there is a sense of depth and context in the music, so you know something is behind it and I want to listen to the words and find out more.
Jo: Ah, that’s good!
Warren: I’m glad you enjoyed the gig, that’s great, that’s the main thing, that you enjoyed it.
Absolutely! Now I’ve got to go and find out more about the original epic, classic, “cult” album, see if I can get hold of a copy. I guess you haven’t been able to re-release it?
Tony: It’s a question of demand, I suppose. Panama Music sort of hold the licence to it – the Heavy Rock Spectacular album. I’ve got one or two copies around at home, but, I don’t know, if people would be still interested in that, I suppose we’d refer them to Panama Music, but I’m not sure we’re allowed to release it ourselves. I could ask Rod Jones at Panama and say “Look, we think there are going to be people who want to buy the original album”, but obviously I’m the only person left who plays on that album, but I suppose that doesn’t matter.
I really think there would be, I don’t know what response you got at Sheffield yesterday after the shenanigans…
Tony: Erm… they liked us.
Warren: It was OK, considering a lot of the sounds were a bit… well, askew…
Jo: The people were really nice there…
Warren: Ooh yes, the people were nice.
The only thing here was that your keyboards had to be bumped up, and luckily they were doing it as people in the audience were saying “why isn’t the keyboard loud enough?”, but they did it, they did react quickly to it, definitely.
Jo: Oh that’s a shame.
Warren: We can’t hear what sounds are going out to the front, we can only hear what’s coming through the monitors, so if the monitors are OK, you know, well that’s it.
Yes, of course you can’t. [To Tony] I went to the side where you were, as that was best for taking photos of the whole band, although I got your back view, because if I took photos from the other direction, I couldn’t see you at all because part of the keyboard obscured your face, but on your side I felt I could hear the keys there, but then I could clearly see you playing so maybe I could just imagine hearing you play, but when I returned to my place down the front, a friend said “Ooh I wish they’d turned up the keyboard sooner!”, as he knew your work already – bit of a fan.
There were loads of people who went out to the foyer afterwards to buy the CD and were hoping to see you, to sign the CDs and so on.
Jo: Ooh, how nice!
Warren: Well, we’re going to hang around a little bit.
I think you’ll still get people coming up to you, if you want to go out there, although most people will be watching Arthur Brown in a minute.
Jo: Arthur Brown is absolutely brilliant!
Tony: He’s nearly eighty! His voice is fantastic.
Yes, I saw him a couple of weeks ago at A New Day festival, and last night we had Chris Farlowe, he’s eighty and still singing, and he’ll be on tonight on in Sheffield…
Warren: Oh yes!
Tony: With Colosseum!
Yes! Anyway, I know it can feel awkward, but loads of people have already bought your CD, and would definitely love to meet you.
Warren: Really? OK, we’ll pop out.
Oh do, definitely; don’t underestimate people here liking a good classic prog band with a bit of twiddlyness and historic themes in it!
Jo: It’s the nice keyboards in it. You can’t go wrong with a bit of keyboard!
And you can hear the classical influences, going on.
Warren: Yes, yes, it’s all there.
It’s great to know that something that started… in 1969 you said…?
Tony: Yes, yes, Fast Decay was written then…
… is still around, it’s fantastic! And I loved the newer songs too – the ‘Getting In the Corn’ song, in particular.
Jo: Cut Down the Corn?
Yes! That’s it. [To Jo] Is that one of yours too? We all loved that one too, down the front.
Jo & Warren: [Together] Yes!
Tony: That one went down well then! That one’s in 5/4 time of course, you know.
Yes, I noticed, I made a point of writing that down for the review.
Jo: We re-recorded that one from the old days; we’ve done lots of songs.
Warren: That song was written in, what, ’98? No no, ’94, and so we’ve brought it into this band, and it’s been expanded and it sounds great!
Jo: The guitar bit in the middle, the keyboards too. It started on an acoustic guitar in a folk club, but it’s the same song, but now longer and nicer now!
I noted your five-string bass. How big are your hands?
Jo: They’re arthritic, and I do my best! [Laughter all round].
You have got small hands, but quite long fingers.
Jo: Well, I played the guitar from six and it was practice, practice… but today, it’s lovely ‘cos it’s nice and warm here, so they don’t hurt.
Tony: Yes, we get the Voltarol out; years of playing squash hasn’t helped me!
There are some bass players who play in gloves.
Jo: The fingers slide about better when in gloves. I use a string cleaner and very very light strings.
Warren: Low action and light gauge strings.
Jo: I am sliding around a lot! The five-string has a nice lower level though.
You’re an inspiration!
Well, thank you very very much, it’s been an absolute delight to talk to you! I really appreciate your time.
All: Thank you!
One more thing; have you got a Facebook page?
Warren: No we haven’t, but we have got a website.
I shall check it out. Thanks once again!