Sadie Fleming said she liked my blog because she found out all sorts of interesting things about her friends that she’d never known before. That rather sums up this encounter with Christian Walsh.
I’d seen him playing some mean bottleneck and lap-slide guitar, singing Blues classics – and a few self-penned ones as well – and thought I’d got him filed away under ‘cool acoustic’.
Wrong again. The coolness extends to him promoting big-venue gigs while still at university, playing electric guitar in a ‘get them dancing’ covers band, augmenting his income as a fully qualified ski instructor, and managing to get his first ever professional gig at a festival in Pilton, Somerset… Better known as Glastonbury.
Tell me the early stuff, where you were born and all that.
“I was born in Surrey but after a couple of years we moved to Gloucestershire, Stroud. I went to school in Gloucester until I was 12 and then got shoved off to boarding school when I was 13 for five years of incarceration…”
Was this because the family were moving around? Jobs abroad?
“No, they just wanted to get rid of me (he laughs), my mum had had enough. It’s a school called Downside, the other side of Bath in the Mendip Hills. It was the middle of nowhere, fairly inescapable.
Did you try to escape?
“Yes, everybody did. Then you’d end up in some ‘Lord of the Rings’ battle and have to come back.”
What did you study at school?
“The usual stuff… I liked music but I was actually going to do English at university, because I did really well at English at school. I liked the literature side of it, Gothic stuff like Bram Stoker. In A-levels I was doing English Literature and was set up to do English at university.
“But I was also in a rock band at the school, which didn’t go down too well because we were the only rock band there and everything at school was classical or jazz. We played a few gigs in local pubs and stuff but the paperwork to get out of school… You’d have to get your parents to call in and say you could do it and the people you were going to would have to too…”
You could get out of prison easier.
“Exactly. But we managed a couple of gigs, we were called Karma – the singer’s now a doctor! I was having guitar lessons in the school from a guy called Tim Jones (who will reappear later). He was a full-time musician and I thought, ‘that’s a good thing to do’. I didn’t know it was possible. But he’d done a music degree. So the week before the UCAS entries were due to be submitted, I changed everything over to music.”
So a spur-of-the-moment thing?
“I’d prefer to say I saw the light. There is a college in Brighton called Brighton Institution of Modern Music (Bimm) and I applied to do a guitar performance course and subsequently a degree, as well as applying to Goldsmiths and the University of Gloucestershire. They all accepted me but I decided to go to Gloucester, to do popular music, because of their course. It was the first year they ran it, we were the guinea-pig year.
“It’s based in Cheltenham, which was where I lived – although I did go home and get my laundry done in Stroud.
“I went there in 2006. But there was no guitar performing part to the course. So the whole idea of ‘let’s be a performing musician’ inadvertently went from being the main focus to something I did separate from the degree course while I was at university. But the course was about promotion, management, copyright… the whole business side of things. The guy running it, Joe Wilson, was the bassist and producer for a Nineties band called the Sneaker Pimps – they had a big song called 6 Underground.
“He was brilliant. He was very cynical because bad management and bad decisions had kind of ruined the band’s career. So it was from the horse’s mouth what not to do. Really cool.
“While I was there I started doing promotions, putting on gigs, which led to me forming my own promotions company, with a guy called Ryan Stromski, called Toerag Promotions.
“It was the beginning of our second year and Cheltenham didn’t really have a music scene, just occasional touring bands and a pub that put on music. So we started putting on affordable shows with music we liked. There was one other promotions company there and we all worked together putting on at least one show a week. It was proper promotion, not like, ‘let’s put up a Facebook page’ and that constitutes promotion – it doesn’t. For us it was basically a job.”
Did it help you get through uni?
“Well it was beer money. But that wasn’t why we did it. We wanted to put on music we liked that people could afford, so any money was a bonus.
“Then at the end of the second year I stood for election as events officer for the students’ union and got voted in. So in my third year, as well as running the promotions company I was working as second in charge of events for the union, from 600 people to 4,000 at the Cheltenham Race Course. Being part of a team booking people like Stavros Flatley, N-Dubs, Edith Bowman and Scott Mills.
“That was unpaid but still the equivalent of a full-time job. And I was working in pubs at the same time to fund university… Oh, and in my third year I qualified as a ski instructor at the Gloucester Ski Centre.”
How on earth did you get a degree?
“I dunno, but I got a 2:1 in the end. Joe Wilson was as shocked as I was. One of the course projects was, in a group of six, write, record, produce – release to the real world – a three-track EP. And we did that through Toerag and created our own record label.
“While I was at university was the first time I played on my own. I wasn’t in a band so I decided to do open mics and things… and I was crap. Couldn’t play acoustic guitar. But I kept it up. Someone would say, ‘you need to work on that’ and I’d say, ‘OK’. And at the next one they’d say, ‘you still need to work on it’. But I did it just for fun.
“While I was there I joined a band called Deflate The Ego, kind of funk-pop, and a BBC review compared us to an edgier, heavier, Brand New Heavies. We put out an EP and did a couple of gigs… that was university, basically.”
How long ago was this?
“I graduated in 2009. After that Toerag kind of carried on on a smaller scale. Ryan moved to Bristol but it didn’t work out for him, but I’m thinking, ‘I should move to Bristol’. Because, apart from the promotions, by this time Bimm had opened a smaller college in Bristol doing that one-year course in Performance Guitar. So by doing that I’m back bringing playing guitar to the forefront, which is what I meant to do in the first place!
“There’s a guy there called Cliff Jones, who was in a band called Gay Dad in the Nineties, and all the guitar tutors there are brilliant. Local jazz legends like Jerry Crosier-Cole… and Phil Dawson. They’re people who’ve been there, done it for real. It’s a very intensive course.
“And the people teaching things like how to perform! We had Keiron Pepper, the live drummer for The Prodigy and Damon Minchela, who was the bassist for Ocean Colour Scene.
“I learned a hell of a lot. We were taught in places like the Thekla and the Metropolis. We’d have to learn a song on a Monday night. Then, on a the Tuesday morning, they’d pick us out: ‘Guitar, guitar, singer, bass, drums’ and we’d get up and perform it, as on the record, without playing together first. Which was great. You’d have to, not just worry about playing it, but performing it as well – engage 30 of your classmates at 9am on a Tuesday morning.
“And of course, the first week, day-one of lectures, I jumped in and said, ‘I’ll do it’, for a function band that Bimm students were forming. We had a business plan, to do funk, soul and pop, and make money from it, basically. And it’s still going. It’s called Dysfunktional – and I’m playing with them tonight, in Weston-super-Mare! The line-up is me on guitar, Dominic Thatcher on saxophone, and we’ve got a great singer, Freya Goble.
“So once again, as well as all the studying, I was learning a lot of covers and playing in the band.
“We started last summer, because I was at Bimm from September 2010 to June/July 2011. So by March we were starting to gig. I managed to leave Bimm with a distinction and became self-employed, as I am now, which is good.”
Did any of the Bimm courses have anything to do with the acoustic stuff I’ve heard you do?
“No, Bimm was strictly electric guitar, although I did have some singing lessons and how to use a microphone. But the acoustic solo-cum-duo, with the saxophone player, Dominic Thatcher, is all down to just practice – along with help from people like Gaz Brookfield and Jim Blair and Alfie Kingston and hosts of other people who helped me out.
“So now I’m doing that, the ski teaching a couple of days a week… and I teach guitar as well, although I could do with a few more students!”
Are you a workaholic?
“I’m keen on working hard. You see musicians who have ‘made it’. They do an album, do a tour, come back two years later and do another one. That’s not work! I respect people like Jimmy Carr and Ricky Gervaise – they’re always doing something.
“My main thing is being an electric guitarist, doing sessions work, depping work, which means standing in for someone else, or just doing solo gigs – the acoustic singing is a real challenge, but my main thing is being a guitarist. A lot of people here in The Stars probably don’t know that I’m an electric guitarist.
“I’m playing a lot of Blues now and writing original ones as well, but the electric thing… a dream job for me would be The Voice. They’ve got a live band back in the shadows. Being in a band like that, a background musician. I’d love that.”
So you like the idea, the challenge of having to learn new stuff in a hurry?
“Yeah. In the last year of my degree my old guitar teacher at school, Tim Jones, found me on Myspace and said, ‘I’m in a funk band that plays at Glastonbury every year. I can’t make it this year. Are you free?’ So I learned their stuff… and that was my first professional gig! Glastonbury 2010.
“Admittedly it was a small stage but, hey, a free ticket! We were called Jump Mama and we had to do two shows on the Thursday plus a show on the Saturday. But that fell through, so we had the whole weekend to ourselves.
“But that kind of gig only falls into your lap because someone is ill or can’t make it for some reason. And I’d like to get back into promotions – the way we did it in Cheltenham, but maybe with the musician getting paid!”
As well as electric guitar I’ve seen you play bottleneck and even a lap slide guitar when you’re doing your Blues stuff. Where does that fit in?
“That kind of came from the promotions, mixed with Glastonbury. One of the bands we used to put on were called Hip Route and Willie and the Bandits and they played this lap guitar stuff and I thought, ‘that’s pretty cool’. A few years on, Glastonbury 2010, I’m milling around and I see Willie. ‘Willie, how’s it going?’ He takes me to see this guy called Martin Harley and he was incredible. I thought he was just a mate of Willie’s but it turned out he was the UK’s leading lap-slide guitarist.
“So it transpires that myself, Willi and Martin Harley are drinking cider, watching Corinne Bailey-Rae and Norah Jones in the sunshine, and Martin and Willie said, just do it, just get one and do it! So I did.”
Are they specially built?
“Yes, mine’s a Weissenborn guitar. I’ve totally fallen in love with it and play it more and more in my sets. They’re not all that expensive. I got mine from Anderwood Guitars, down in Dorset a small, friendly company and they’ve been very suportive.
(Apparently Weissenborn guitars start at less than £200, although the top-of-the-range version, the AW Series, pushes £450 – see www.anderwoodguitars.com).
Any musicians you rate on the Bristol scene I haven’t heard of? – We’ll take all the usual suspects as read (see previous interviews if you haven’t been paying attention).
“The guitarist from Hip Route, he’s from Swindon but he gigs all over the country, he’s called Jim Blair – he’s absolutely brilliant.
“And there’s a young lady in Bristol called Ruth Royall, she’s a jazz singer, or maybe a jazzy singer is better. I remember when I was younger in Stroud seeing her first ever gig playing piano in a front room, she’s now doing very well.”
Good gigs, bad gigs?
“Some gigs you play and you’re doing covers and that’s fine because that’s what people want to hear. Then there’re places where you’re just background music, like a CD player. People hardly acknowledge you until, at the end, you go up to the bar because you really need a drink! And people come up to you and say, ‘you’re not playing any more?’. But hey, at the end of the day it’s work and you have to put that performance in.
“Then again I played with Dominic at Seamus O’Donnell’s a few days ago, it was absolutely rammed, people singing along, clapping, stamping their feet – absolutely brilliant. And they’re the gigs that pay half as much as the ones where you’re ignored!
“As a function band our best gig, which wasn’t actually a function, was when we got booked, the week before, to play at a beer festival at Cirencester, in a place called The Tunnel House. It was relatively small money each, so we thought it would be er… small beer? Anyway, we turn up and there’s more than 800 people, a stage, proper sound system – and we were headlining on the Saturday night! It was like having 800 people in the pub gardens! As far as crowd reaction goes it was the most satisfying yet.
“I’d say, as a band, we’re pretty good at getting people dancing. Whatever it is, from military balls to weddings, and pub gigs to corporate things – we generally get people dancing.”
Christian has a website in the making but, in the meantime, the band can be contacted through www.dysfunktionalband.co.uk who are also on Facebook. You can see them on Youtube – (Dysfunktionalbristol) – or contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.