November , 2011
By David Huff
Australian Pink Floyd Show
From 'Comfortably Numb' to 'Hey You'
A Conversation with Bassist Colin Wilson
It started all quite innocently. An ad placed in a newspaper in Adelaide, Australia looking for like-minded Pink Floyd musicians / fans to jam to the music of this iconic group. Guitarist Steve Mac and keyboardist Jason Swaford took notice and answered. Nearly a quarter of a century later, Mac and Stafford are still “answering the call.”
As Mac is fond of saying, Australian Pink Floyd sort of took off and dragged him, Swaford, bass player Colin Wilson and drummer Paul Swinney, along with them. An appearance at a Pink Floyd convention in London, as well as a private concert for none other than guitarist David Gilmour, solidified the APF reputation. Once they received his seal of approval, (along with Nick Mason and Richard Wright), they went from being ‘comfortably numb’ to “hey you”.
As any Pink Floyd fan will tell you, the music of this legendary band holds a special meaning that words just can’t describe. Recreating that experience isn’t required, it is mandatory. After all, when the original incarnation sells 50 million albums throughout the ‘70s in the U.S. alone, this is the kind of musical history you better take seriously. Indeed APF has. This year, the band is taking the Floyd experience up a notch. They have added a 3-D element to the show backed by a quadraphonic sound system. And let’s not forget the intricate laser light show. There won’t be any flying beds or exploding airplanes in this year’s stage production, but that’s not to say it isn’t in the works.
JAM: Tribute bands don’t get their own PBS special, especially during fundraising drives. That kind of respect is reserved for truly extraordinary entertainers, yet Australian Pink Floyd accomplished the feat. Exactly how do the band members themselves view this project?
Colin Wilson – We believe, coming from an audience perspective, the group on stage has taken Pink Floyd to the next level. We still consider ourselves a tribute band because we’re in the business of playing Pink Floyd music. We take what we do very serious, but don’t take ourselves that way. North America has Pink Floyd’s biggest fan base. The crowds are always very vocal. They let us know immediately what they think of our show.
JAM: The primary challenge the Aussie Pink Floyd operation faces is managing audience expectations. The music of the original Pink Floyd has always been a powerful, emotional experience for the listener. Is that aspect of this project explained to you, and everyone involved, the moment you sign on? Or do you all know it going in to the situation?
When I joined, I was pretty much aware of the emotional impact this band would be taking on performing this type of music. Over the years, we’ve always been surprised by the audience reaction, because we never know exactly how people are going to take us. All any of us can hope for is the audience to appreciate what we are doing. We’re very aware, even after twenty something years of doing this, that every night when the group takes the stage, we are playing to a room full of Pink Floyd fanatics. They have come to relive some kind of Pink Floyd experience, or at the very least, they want to hear the music played accurately, sensitively and with passion, as a true tribute to Pink Floyd.
JAM: There’s no doubt you all have gone to painstaking lengths to ensure the legacy of Pink Floyd is not tarnished in any way.
We are not just a bunch of musicians that have quickly learned a few songs and thrown them together thinking, “Oh yeah, we can bust these out. It doesn’t really matter if it sounds good or not.” That is absolutely NOT what this band is about. We know our audience is going to expect - to demand - more than that from us. We are our own biggest critics. We constantly critique our stage performance to improve on what we’re already doing. As the saying goes, you’re only as good as the last performance, and we are judged accordingly. In some cases, it has taken quite a bit of convincing for people to believe this band is serious about what we do. Over the years, individuals have come up to us and said they heard about Australian Pink Floyd ten years ago, but they never came to see us. They didn’t want to come and see a bunch of musicians ruin the music of Pink Floyd. Eventually, for one reason or another, they have decided to come out and see us. Afterwards we hear, “Oh my God, what have I missed out on all those years?” For the most part, that is the response we get, which is fantastic.
JAM: I was reading an interview I did with Alan Parsons in 1980, and he told me this about producing Pink Floyd’s epic Dark Side of the Moon. The band had become famous, or infamous, for recording one instrument at a time. They would all show up at the studio, but record their parts at different intervals. Even the special effects used on the album were tedious and complicated. This laborious project took a year to record. This process, Alan said, really drove him over the edge at times. Now, if the original engineer on the project went crazy layering instrument tracks, and measuring out the special effects used, I can’t even imagine what it does to musicians attempting to recreate those epic moments in Pink Floyd’s history, especially a perfectionist like Steve Mac?
Actually, you are one of the few people that have picked up on that aspect of Pink Floyd. Much of our time in this band is spent listening, re-listening, to the original compositions over and over again. Despite the knowledge we’ve built up over the years playing Pink Floyd music, we’re still trying to find out how they did what they did, dissect it, and work out who is doing what on a particular songs. Then you have to figure what sound effects were applied to particular tracks, then work out how we are going to specifically recreate that tune given the people we have available on stage.
JAM: What your band does on stage is very intensive work?
Like you said, because of the layering of the instruments in Pink Floyd albums, you have to deal with multiple tracks that guitar wise, we have only two guitarists on stage to duplicate the sound. Keyboard wise, we have one keyboard player to handle the sequencers. Recreating the exact sound of Pink Floyd is difficult and part of the challenge we face playing the music. It’s also part of the joy when we manage to get it down, everything comes together while we’re playing on stage, and the audience knows we are sounding like the albums. When people come up to us to say our music sounds exactly like Pink Floyd that really means a lot to us. It says to us, that as a group, all the weeks and months we spent perfecting this music, and the hundreds of hours we rehearsed working out the sounds, has paid off.
JAM: Alan Parsons told me that after the Dark Side project was complete, the band wanted to make a Pink Floyd album with no conventional instruments. Their original intent was to create a record using the sound of tin cans, rubber bands, blowing in bottles and running fingers around the rims of wine glasses as the only instruments. They worked on it a month and only had two minutes worth of music. Then they went on to Wish You Were Here. Wouldn’t that experimental project been a fun thing to recreate?
I’m kind of guessing their intentions had something to do with the sound effects that came out of “Money”, the musical use of the cash registers and their toying with the clocks. Back then, Pink Floyd was experimenting a lot with the musical uses of every day sounds. What you told me would have been difficult to reproduce back then, today not so much. We could have sampled those sounds and replayed them on the keyboards. Now that you have mentioned it, I would have loved to have heard what they came up with. I don’t know if those two minutes Alan Parsons recorded has ever surfaced, but it would be really interesting to hear what direction they were heading in. Were they trying to make conventional sounding songs with unconventional sounds, or was it all totally out in left field? I would love to know.
JAM: Your group was formed around the time David Gilmour and Nick Mason won their lawsuit against Roger Waters in 1987 over the right to the Pink Floyd name. Did that suit have any affect on this band, its creation, or even the naming of it?
Not so much, but what that lawsuit did do for the band was it gave the members a fair opportunity to actually sing Pink Floyd music. The original group came to Australia in 1973 to do a festival. They didn’t come to the country again until the 1987 Momentary Lapse of Reason tour. It was our first chance to actually see and take in, to a large context, the special effects of their big show, big sound, and what all was involved. That’s where that lawsuit had an affect on our band. It allowed us to see Pink Floyd in all its glory. The name of this band just sort of happened for us. When we first traveled to the U.K. in 1993 to do our first shows, it coincided with a lot of other Australian things that were happening at the time. There were Aussie TV shows, beer commercials and the Crocodile Dundee thing. It just sort of worked to have Australian in the band name along with Pink Floyd. So that’s how that happened.
JAM: I interviewed Richard Wright in 1988 during the second leg of the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour. He wasn't a party to the lawsuit Gilmour and Mason fought against Roger Waters over who owned the rights to the Pink Floyd name. I asked him about that. During our conversation, he told something to me I will always remember. He said Pink Floyd was a collective experience between all the members of the band, not a one man show. That's why Roger lost the court battle; besides the fact he had quit the group to go solo. Do you understand where Richard Wright was coming from with that comment?
Yes, I think so. Pink Floyd was a band that definitely had three very strong songwriters, and in some cases four. It wasn’t like one of those physical pop bands where you have one main person, maybe the lead singer, or someone like that, who was doing all the writing. It wasn’t a Mick Jagger / Keith Richards set up or even a Lennon / McCartney thing. Pink Floyd was very much a sum of its individual parts. The greatness of the group revolved very much around the individual talent those four individuals possessed and their ability to bring it all together in a song. We actually incorporate five individuals of Pink Floyd because we go back to the Syd Barrett beginnings with our show.
JAM: If anyone is a scholar of Pink Floyd music, your group most certainly is.
That’s why I completely understand Pink Floyd being the sum of all its parts, not just one. Rick Wright was responsible for some of the most iconic Pink Floyd pieces of music they ever came out with. It was wrong of Roger Waters to assume that it was a mistake for them to continue to call themselves Pink Floyd. As he found out, the band didn’t die because he had left the band, or turn itself into some sort of shallow pieces. A Momentary Lapse of Reason and the Division Bell proved that. I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall in its entirety about a year ago. The visual aspect of the performance was truly amazing.
JAM: I was also lucky enough to witness Roger Waters perform The Wall last year. During the show, it really hit home with me that Pink Floyd is more of a visual experience enhanced by the music. Since you are also a graphic artist, I probably don't have to tell you what kind of sensory overload a performance like that can have on a person. Is your group aware of that when it comes to your own shows?
Yes we are. My opinion of The Wall show was this. I found myself wanting to see more of his band honestly. I wanted the concert to be more of a live band with individuals, not an overwhelming slide show. Now, as amazing and incredible as the visual aspect of the show actually was, I sort of found myself peering into the blackness wondering who were the band members and what parts did they play. From our point of view, we are very much about the music first even though it is wrapped in a massive production. It's absolutely huge, and on par with any other big touring band at the moment.
JAM: Then you’re fully aware that an audience is going to expect a larger than life experience when they see you perform the music.
Oh, absolutely. Again, as a band, we are still very much about the music first. We’re all about getting the songs to sound and feel right so as to enhance the whole live music experience. I don’t think we would ever want the visual side to totally take over. From our perspective, it is very hard to tell what audience members who attend our performances are actually there for. Some of them are attracted to us purely because of the visuals. Hopefully we somehow are able to educate them about the music at the same time. Then there is a big majority of the audience that absolutely love Pink Floyd and they like hearing the music created the way they are used to hearing it performed on albums. For this band, it’s still the music and the sound of Pink Floyd that’s the key components we’re concerned with playing live.
JAM: I saw Roger Waters on television talking about how he had extended The Wall tour for the fourth time. Since your band saw his show, did the visual extravaganza he presented force any changes in the Aussie Pink Floyd stage production to compliment, or even exceed what Waters is currently doing on his tour?
Good question. That would have been the case if we were also trying to tour The Wall exclusively and had built our entire production around that album. But we don’t. With our current show, we haven’t had to reexamine that aspect of it because we are performing a greatest hits show covering several Pink Floyd eras from Syd Barrett’s days on through to the Division Bell album. We approach our production on a song by song basis. Our main concern is getting the correct look and the feel of the individual songs down first rather than perform an entire album. Then we enhance the music with visual effects. With that said, if we had been doing a Wall tour, then we definitely would have taken into account what Roger had done on his tour, because visually it was absolutely stunning. We would have taken aspects of his show and incorporated into our 21st century production. Besides, we are always reevaluating our show all the time and looking at ways to improve it to keep our end of the game up.
JAM: So you are sitting down having a meeting with Paul Bonney, Jason Swaford and Steve Mac and all the sudden someone says, "Hey, let's do a 3-D show?" Now I would have started laughing, but obviously you took the comment very seriously and decided to explore the idea.
There was this fan of the band named John Iskandar, out of Hollywood, who planted the idea in our heads. He did all the 3-D special effects on blockbusters like Shrek 3 and Harry Potter. John is from Manchester, England and happened to be home when our tour came through his town in 2010. We met him after the show, and told us that in the future, if there was any way he could help us out with anything, he'd love to get involved with the band in some way. With his special effects background, it got us thinking. We started looking at what John was doing in Hollywood, what he was good at, and started thinking, "Well, could we actually tour with this 3-D technology and pull it off live?" That was the question we posed to him. Well, lots of phone calls were made, and a lot of research was done on how we could pull it off.
JAM: I have to tell you, the idea seems fascinating, yet inconceivable, when you actually start thinking about it.
You're right, everything seemed simple at first. Then we found out that in order to pull it off, we'd have to get special equipment and projectors. On top of that, we had to acquire a unique screen with a particular kind fabric to project the images on, and it doesn't travel well. So yes, it was a big thing to do. Like I said, we are always looking at ways of improving things. We are always thinking that if the actual Pink Floyd were putting together a world tour in 2011, what kind of stuff would they incorporate? This whole 3-D cinema thing has been big with movie-goers the last few years. Since it's been in the consciousness of the public, we thought let's try and get it into our show.
JAM: So you perform before an entire audience of thousands who are wearing 3-D glasses. That has to be kind of an interesting sight to behold from the stage.
It was kind of funny at first to look out into the audience and see all the people wearing the 3-D glasses. They receive them when they first enter the venues we are performing in. We use the technology in the second half of our show. Whether we continue on with it in the future is debatable, because it does have its own set of problems. It’s very fragile and not the easiest system in the world to tour with. But so far on this tour, it is working out nicely and the people are enjoying it.
JAM: When I think of a Pink Floyd show, three things come to mind. There’s the flying bed, the plane exploding and the pig floating. If you’re doing 3-D work, those three items would almost be mandatory, wouldn’t they?
That’s something we are very aware of. We have an inflatable Pink Kangaroo that comes up showing our sense of Australian humor on the pig idea. But we do have a pig and an inflatable teacher during our tribute to The Wall. I feel you have touched upon an area we will progress in. When you’re talking about 3-D, it’s actually an option for us now. Do we do the things you mentioned in 3-D and present them during the show? Or, do you actually have the physical things. I think at the end of the day the physical item is still more impressive than a 3-D projection, so that’s another area we can move further into. It would be great to have the plane crashing in the front of the stage. We’d absolutely love that.
JAM: Colin, your bio mentions that you play two different styles of bass. You mimic Roger Waters and session ace, Guy Pratt. In all seriousness, who cares about Guy Pratt? Yes he toured with Pink Floyd on the Momentary Lapse and Division Bell tours, but he's a hired gun. Why pay any attention to his style of playing?
Those two musicians represent two eras of Pink Floyd that we touch on during our show. Roger obviously didn't play on the Division Bell and Momentary Lapse of Reason albums. Guy Pratt was the bassist on both of those tours. His playing style is quite different, especially on the Roger Waters era Pink Floyd songs. In order to keep things accurate, I need to adopt those playing styles. When we are playing a Roger era Pink Floyd song, obviously I am playing as close to Roger's style as I can. Believe it or not, there really are big differences in the sound of these two musicians when you pick up the instruments. These playing styles may come across as a minor difference to the audience. But those little differences can add up, and before you know it, the song doesn't sound right. That's why the attention to detail on our part is paramount. As soon as one of us starts playing something that isn't true to the record, then the whole thing won't sound right.
JAM: After all these years of playing the Pink Floyd catalog, does it ever take your breath away thinking just how brilliant Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright truly were as musicians?
It absolutely does. I get those moments of realization at the strangest times. It can be any song, on any night, that all the sudden while we are playing a particular piece of music, for some reason you wonder "Wow, why did he pick these particular notes for this song. What was his reasoning for playing his instrument that way?" For us, it really is incredible to think about the musicians we are copying and the choices they made when they were recording their albums. As you noted in your interview with Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd music is elaborately constructed. You know a different bass player would have done something totally opposite of what Roger did. I absolutely have become a massive fan of Roger Waters since I've had to learn everything he did. Some of the simplest things he did are set in stone with the music, and that's how we come to recognize the music. I know that a lot of music people dismiss Roger Waters as a bass player. I absolutely do not. What he created on his instrument musically was brilliant. He didn't try to be a show pony with his bass playing. He let the songs breathe and do the talking for him. Everyone in the band had the same attitude when it came to the parts they were creating for the songs. That's why, to this day, the music of Pink Floyd stands the test of time.
JAM: In today's music world, I don't know if a Pink Floyd could have ever existed.
Well, that's a million dollar question isn't it. When you look at the music scene today, and the kinds of things that are available to young people to listen to on the radio, you wonder if any of that music is going to last longer than six months. In some cases, you wonder whether in ten years time, we'll remember any of the songs that are being released at the moment. That said, one thing I do know is this. There's a massive amount of young people who are discovering Pink Floyd for the first time. The music of Pink Floyd is speaking to them in the same way it spoke to us when we were there age. Their body of work still seems to have the same kind of draw, the same kind of appeal, it always had to people who love music. Personally, I don't think the remaining members of Pink Floyd will ever tour again. However, there certainly won't be a lack of people discovering the music and becoming fans of the band.
JAM: Are you keenly aware the audience is often reliving moments of their own past when they discovered Pink Floyd, and why they have remained fans of the music to this day?
There definitely is a nostalgia element to our show, I will grant you that. We always have people coming up to us telling stories about their experiences with Pink Floyd. They may have actually seen the band in concert 20 or more years ago, or they are remembering the times they heard Dark Side of the Moon played at a party. There is also a hell of a lot of people attending our performances because they have only now just discovered Pink Floyd. They are attracted to our particular show because they’ve heard it is a quality production.
JAM: It’s a tremendous tribute to your group that what you have recreated is very important to the people who pay to see you perform the music.
If you love Pink Floyd, our show is worth coming to. There are all sorts of reasons why people come, and again, the nostalgia element is definitely a big part of it. We are the generation that is very nostalgic on how the world was in the 1970s. A lot of people say Pink Floyd was the soundtrack to their lives growing up. That is why they are deeply passionate about the band. Of all the groups that were available from years gone by, Pink Floyd definitely struck a chord that went very deep to the core with people. Because of that, Pink Floyd fans are absolutely passionate about the band.
JAM: When you agreed to join the band, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?
When I signed on, this was a simple kind of idea. I knew I was going to be playing Pink Floyd. I knew I was going to be trying to get as many gigs, and play as many tours as we possibly could. I had no idea it would last as long as it has, it would get as big as it has now become, or that it has become as renowned world wide as it is today. Those are things all musicians dream about, but we had no guarantee in any shape or form that it was going to happen. My approach to this band was very naïve in a lot of ways. I do what every body does when they join a band. You try to play as well as you can, learn the songs to the best of your ability, and do the best concerts hoping it leads on to bigger things.
JAM: Did you know Steve Mac beforehand?
I had known Steve for years, and we had been in a band before he started Aussie Pink Floyd. The band was in Sydney at the time and I was back in Adelaide when Steve called. He rang me up and said their bass player was going to be leaving. They had an opportunity to go to the U.K. and perform a big show He wanted to know if I was free, or interested, in hooking up with the band. I had seen there show, so I knew the kind of quality they were searching for. It suited me that they were being very ambitious about the music and agreed to join them. When they came back to Adelaide, we started rehearsing five days a week for a few months getting ready for the U.K. show. It was a Pink Floyd convention at Wembley Arena in London, so obviously this was very serious business. In a sense, it was a make or break moment for the band.
JAM: Have you noticed that your own playing on bass has grown tremendously simply because you've had to mimic the style of two of the world's great bass players.
Well, we are told that we're very good musicians by others, but for us, even after 20 odd years, we feel like we're the same people we always were. When we see DVD's of our shows, that's when it sort of shocks us that our music is as good as it is. We are all very humble people. No one is egotistical. We're very down to earth with what we have accomplished. None of us get caught up in any of the hype. It's very much about putting on a good show for the audience. If that makes us great musicians then that is fantastic. We take this music very seriously, but we don't take ourselves that way. We've been very successful with this show in Europe. However, like I said earlier, we all know the biggest fan base for Pink Floyd is in North America. and they are extremely vocal. Our goal is to ensure the audience has a great night when they see us in concert, and obviously for them to keep coming back. That is why it's very important that we don't undermine the legacy of Pink Floyd.