The art of a guitarist

David Milloy

Brian McFie has seen pretty much all that the world of rock music has to offer – the thrill of landing record deals with major labels, the joy of receiving critical acclaim, the excitement of touring the world, and the personal and professional lows that can follow the loss of a record deal and the dissolution of a band.

Brian will be the first to tell you that he went through a pretty rough time, but there’s truth in the old saying that you can’t keep a good man down. Brian McFie is a good man, and this is his story.

So, Brian, how old were you when you started to play guitar?
Twelve. My uncle Jim, a jazz musician from Greenock who was instrumental in putting Gallagher & Lyle together, gave me an acoustic guitar. It was a heavy, horrible thing but he told me if I could get a sound out of it then I’d be a guitar player!

He was right about that. Music isn’t your only passion, though.
I’ve always been interested in drawing and art, and when I left school I got a Youth Opportunities Scheme placement as a trainee graphic designer. Whilst doing that, I put together a portfolio to support my application for a place at Glasgow School of Art. My application was accepted on the same day I received a letter offering me a job with the Department of Social Security. My dad wasn’t pleased when I turned down the job in favour of going to art school.

Was it at art school that your musical career started to develop?
Yes. I was still interested in art but maybe wasn’t as dedicated to it as I ought to have been. I felt like art was a very solitary activity, and the social side of being in a band appealed to me. Also, I have to be honest and say that playing in a band was a great way to meet girls!

What bands were you in whilst at art school?
The first one was The Jive Turkeys, a rhythm & blues band that played cover versions. I was later in a band called Valerie and the Week of Wonders along with my brother Ewan, Greg Kane (later to become well-known as half of Hue & Cry) and Gerard Burns. We started out as a goth band, got a record deal and did a tour with The Icicle Works. It started to go wrong when we changed direction and became a pop band. That meant we had to turn down an offer to tour as support to Southern Death Cult, and things went further awry when our new material wasn’t well received by the record company. That was pretty much the end of us as a band.

Had you graduated from art school by this time?
Yes, but as it happened there was an art school link with my next band, The Big Dish. The band’s singer and songwriter, Steven Lindsay, had been at Glasgow School of Art when I was there, though I didn’t know him well. My memory of him from art school was that he was always well dressed whereas I was a bit of a scruff! Anyway, I ended up being invited to join just as the band’s first album was being recorded. Although I’d been brought into the band as the lead guitarist, I spent the first two weeks in the studio recording backing vocals. I didn’t have a bad voice when I was young but I’ve never liked singing.

That first album, Swimmer, was released on the Virgin Records label to rave reviews but didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. Why do you think that was?
I still can’t figure that one out! Steven is a great songwriter with a fantastic voice and the album was very strong. We also played a lot of gigs at universities and colleges to support the album, and they were all pretty well attended.

Is it true that you once played a gig to no-one?
That was at the Princess Charlotte in Leicester. It hadn’t been promoted or publicised at all, so in spite of the fact that it was a well-known music venue near the university, no-one turned up for our gig. There was a guy hanging around outside the entrance who I invited to come in, but he just walked off!

The Big Dish’s next album, Creeping Up on Jesus, was also on Virgin, wasn’t it?
Yes. It was probably our rawest album in terms of production, although I felt that the song arrangements were on more than nodding terms with stadium rock, which was huge at the time. Some really talented people were involved with that album but it wasn’t a commercial success and we were dropped by Virgin.

You persevered, though, and got a new new record deal.
Yes, we were picked up by East West Records, which is owned by Warner Brothers. We recorded one album for them, Satellites, which contained ‘Miss America’, our only single to make the Top-40 in the UK.

A song that you co-wrote.
I came up with the looped guitar sequence that runs right through the song.

But in spite of more strong reviews, the album again failed to sell as well as it should have.
It was very frustrating. I felt that Satellites was a bit wider in scope – drawn on a bigger canvas, if you like – than our earlier records. It was a record that I really enjoyed making. When it failed to sell well, we knew that it was the end for the band. We were all distraught, and for me it marked the start of a period where things just went wrong in my life. My marriage ended, all of my guitars were stolen, and, frankly, my drinking got out of control.

It took a long time for me to get my life back together, but things started to improve in the noughties. Somewhat out of the blue, I was invited to join Marianne Faithfull’s band for a world tour in 2002/2003. It was a fantastic tour – we played Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand – and Marianne Faithfull was lovely to work with.

What was the highlight of that tour for you?
I’m an aircraft enthusiast – I wanted to be a pilot but my dreams were dashed when it was discovered that I’m colour-blind – so I really enjoyed a flight over western Australia in a rickety eight-seat aircraft. None of the rest of the band did, so I suppose it’s as well that they were sleeping when we landed back at Perth.

What happened there?
There was a heavy crosswind which meant that the pilot had to approach the runway almost side-on. He later told me that it would’ve been a very risky landing even in a Jumbo jet. I loved it!

And that tour was the start of your recovery?
It certainly helped but things really got much better when I stopped drinking; I’ve not had a drink since August 2006. After that, I went back to college – I did a post graduate Diploma in Community Education at Jordanhill College – and I started to draw and paint again.

What prompted you to start drawing again?
I wanted to see if I could still draw intricate shapes. After a lot of practice, I was happy with my drawing skills, and that led me back into painting. I’ve always loved landscapes, so that’s what I started with.

Your landscapes are painted in darker hues. Is there a particular reason for that?
That’s how I see the Scottish landscape. My landscapes are based on my personal observation and feel for what I see rather than a desire to paint photorealistic images. I love to paint outside but the Scottish weather isn’t always too cooperative!

You’ve recently created some works that are rather different to your landscapes.
During lockdown, I was stuck in the flat where my studio was at the time. My mother had passed away a few months earlier and I felt quite isolated, particularly since a large part of my life involves interaction with other people. Having started watching YouTube videos about quantum physics, I became interested in the theory that particles behave differently when they’re being observed. That inspired me to create a series of paintings showing my interpretation of how particles behave when they’re not being observed, the paradox is of course that they’re being observed in my mind’s eye. These paintings have now been compiled into a small, full-colour book, called The Serious Uddlium.

Okay, you’ve got me there – what’s an Uddlium?
It’s a word invented by me. I just thought it’d be fun to refer to something as ‘serious’ when no-one, me included, has an idea what it is or is meant to be. I’ve now taken that concept a stage further through a series of drawings and and paintings called Drawings of this. The images look abstract but they aren’t meant to represent anything; each painting is simply a portrait of a particular thing.

In other words, the subject of each painting is what it is.
Exactly. There’s a possibility that Drawings of this might be rendered into physical objects that, for example, can be hung on a wall. I’ve had some initial discussions about this with Andy Scott, the sculptor who designed the Kelpies at Falkirk, and Sandra Brown, a well-known ceramicist.

Something to look out for. In the meantime, though, I believe you’re currently playing with two bands.
I’m the guitarist with the Greig Taylor Band. We’re a blues-rock band with more of an emphasis on rock rather than blues. We released an album, The Light, last year and are currently writing for our next album.

I’ve also recently started working with Fay Fife, lead singer of The Rezillos, on her new project, an alt-country band called Countess of Fife. My own band, Lola in Slacks, is currently on hiatus after playing together for a decade but we’ll hopefully return some day.

And perhaps The Big Dish might even ride again?
I’m still good friends with both Steven Lindsay and Raymond Docherty, who played bass on the first two albums. We did reform for a couple of concerts in 2012 and a support slot in 2014, so you never know. In the meantime, Valerie and the Week of Wonders are reuniting to play a gig at the Lanternhouse in Cumbernauld on 13th April, the proceeds from which will go to the Beatson Cancer Charity.

That’s fantastic. What about your other bands – any upcoming gigs with them?
Absolutely. The Greig Taylor Band is playing in Perth on 6th April, Falkirk on April 25th, Oran Mor in Glasgow on April 28th, and the Arran Rock and Blues Festival on May 5th. Countess of Fife will hopefully be playing in Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe. We also have a gig lined up in Irvine but we’ll have been and gone by the time this issue goes on sale!