Al Barrow plays bass with the British melodic rock legends Magnum. Joe Daly meets him on a storyteller’s night…
One day you’re comfortably ensconced in a studio, recording bass-lines for TV, and the next, you’re staring out into a stadium full of screaming rock fans. Life’s a wild ride.
For decades, Midlands hard rock denizens Magnum have forged the type of career that aspiring musicians envision when they first pick up an instrument. The melodic hard rockers have released new music in five consecutive decades, beginning with their 1978 debut, King Of Madness, continuing through 2011’s The Visitation. That album horse-whipped all expectations, ultimately scoring the number one spot in the UK’s rock charts. With last year’s album, Escape From The Shadow Garden, and this year’s live album, the band are hell-bent on extending their success and converting a new wave of rock fans to their ranks.
Bassist Al Barrow’s involvement with Magnum began when the band did not technically exist – during their break-up in the late 90s. Then a popular Midlands session man working on various television programmes with the BBC, Al fielded a call from a producer friend, who explained that a local band needed a bassist for an upcoming tour. “I didn’t even know which group it was,” Al tells us, “but I went down to the studio and it turned out to be vocalist Bob Catley and guitarist Tony Clarkin, who were doing a band called Hard Rain at the time, while on a bit of a hiatus with Magnum.”
The one-off touring gig unfurled into a nearly four-year commitment with Hard Rain, who released two albums before Bob and Tony decided to reform Magnum, and brought Al on board.
Stylistically, Magnum’s occasional forays into more experimental waters have earned them a sizable following in the prog community – a style that dovetails nicely with Al’s early influences like Geddy Lee, the late Chris Squire of Yes, and King Crimson’s Tony Levin. Yet while prog informed his technique, Al credits grunge with inspiring his feel for the instrument, explaining, “The playing in grunge was more stripped-down, but I felt like it really pushed the band’s feel. With the progressive side, it was more about technical ability, almost playing by numbers, whereas the grunge guys played with more emotion and aggression. It was a more basic playing style, but I also felt it was in some ways a more romantic style.”
In this sense, Al’s musicianship focuses more on exploring the subtleties of his tone rather than increasing the speed of his playing. “I think I’m more influenced by the production of bass sounds these days than with the playing. I might say ‘Oh, I particularly like that bass sound’, and I’ll go and try to find out what kind of gear they use.”
For a band that tours as extensively as Magnum, keeping his finger strength up is of prime importance for Al. “After we actually get on tour, I probably play for maybe a half hour to an hour before a show. I just play around the set, work on certain passages and sometimes, just to keep away the stiffness, I get a tennis ball to get a little strength in the hands.”
Endorsed by Warwick, Al added an extra string to his rig when he officially joined Magnum. “I started up with four-strings, but for the last six or seven years now I’ve been playing five-strings. I mainly use Warwick Corvettes, but I’ve also used Streamers and Thumbs.”