After five years of touring the country with his ‘Orchestra’ Ian McMillan and his cohorts are hanging up their boots. Here he tells us why.
Tonight will be the last time I’ll run onto a stage and say ‘In the beginning was the word…’ just before Gareth Huw Davies bursts into a groove of funky bass, and the Ian McMillan Orchestra slide into action.
Tonight at the Arts Centre in Selby will be our last gig before we all go our separate ways, to Barnsley, to Sheffield, to London, to Wales and to a small town that’s more or less in Wales and more or less in England.
We’ve been on the go since 2007. For a few years before that, I’d been working on words and music projects with the composer and accordion player Luke Carver Goss and we’d done a couple of things together on stage and I’d improvised a few stories in his house in Sheffield and we liked that combination of music and words. Somehow the two complemented each other, bringing out hidden flavours and mysterious angles that weren’t obvious before.
Over a cup of tea in his kitchen we discussed the idea of starting a band, like you might discuss going on a world cruise or buying a yurt off eBay. I mentioned it to my agent and he said “Go on then: start a band!” And we did. And the rest is history.
Well, five years of history; our first gig was at the Garforth Arts Festival in July 2007, at the Garforth Working Mens’ Club and about halfway through the second number, Luke and I glanced at each other and grinned. It worked, it really worked! I then forgot where I was for a minute or so but it still worked, it still really worked.
We didn’t want the band to be simply backing noodling for my words; we wanted to create pieces that were genuinely more than the sum of the parts. Luke assembled a gang of musicians that he’d worked with many times before in various combinations: Dylan Fowler, a wizard on the guitar and inveterate beret-wearer (this caused a stir in Garforth) Oli Wilson-Dickson on fiddle and vocals and occasional human beat-boxing and rapping; Nathan Thomson on acoustic bass and Clare Salaman on an amazing range of exotic instruments including the hurdy gurdy and nyckelharpe.
We recorded an album at Dylan’s studio in Wales and we launched ourselves on an unsuspecting world. Well, Garforth. And Hebden Bridge. And Darlington, three days of consecutive gigs that we called a tour.
Being in a band has taught me many things – I’m used to being on stage on my own or with one other person and it’s fantastic to be a part of a collective experience. Mind you, being on my own I’ve never had to do a sound check that lasted longer than five minutes. I have to report that bands love sound checks; the longer the better. “Can you just tweak that a little bit in the right monitor” became the soundtrack of my evenings.
Bands also like to eat: before a show I nibble fitfully on a chunky KitKat as the rest of the Orchestra wolf down three-course meals with puddings. Bands like to work on Saturdays: I don’t. Bands like to learn things and the poet in me likes to read things from a bit of paper or a book, which is why they all laugh at my little folder. Bands like to discuss and argue about anything: where to stop for a cup of tea, the order of the set, the things you should wear on stage, the name of the band. It’s an interesting experiment in the possibilities of communal living. Or something like that. In the end we had five years and two albums and lots of gigs (and three bass players) and a lot of fun. All of us are busy with other things, and the dreadful, divisive, philistine, mean-spirited and short-sighted cuts mean that lots of places can no longer put big outfits like us on so it feels like the right time to call a halt. We’ll still be around, though, in different combinations.
I’ll miss the sound checks, though. Just a bit.
The Ian McMillan Orchestra Selby Arts Centre, tonight.
Adventures in words and music
The biggest audience the Ian McMillan Orchestra played to was at the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham where we had to compete with a Christian Heavy Metal Guitar workshop.
At a gig in a school in South Yorkshire the deputy head joined us unexpectedly on clarinet. He was very good.
Our albums are called Sharp Stories and Homing In; they’re available from the Taith Label.
The nyckelharpe is a traditional Scandinavian instrument and Clare Salaman is one of the country’s leading players.
Our first bass player went to live in Finland.