If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that Leicester’s Gaz Birtles has left his mark on the local music scene over the years.
“I first got in to music in 1977, when punk rock started. I was 22 at that point. If punk rock hadn’t happened, me and millions of other people from that period wouldn’t have gotten in to the music scene, really.”
With his first band Wendy Tunes, Gaz got signed up to a label early on: “We were one of the few Leicester bands to get signed up to a label. We went through the process of making an album at The Who’s studio in Battersea and felt like we’d made it. The album was never released, but at least we got that far.”
Gaz has been in different bands since then and has done various music-related things over the years. He was signed to Warner Bros. in the 80s with his electro-pop band The Swinging Laurels.
“The three of us did a lot of brass-work at the time and we decided to do so for a Leicester band called Crazy Head. We went on tour with them around Europe supporting Iggy Pop.” When the band came back from that tour, it just so happened to be that The Beautiful South were looking for a brass section; “Because we had been on tour with Iggy Pop, we auditioned and got the job. Just from being in the right place at the right time, really.”
The Beautiful South split up in 2006, but for some of the band members, it turned out to be more of a hiatus. “About 2 years later the drummer phoned everyone up to see if we wanted to get back together. Half the band did, and half didn’t. We decided to call it The South. Over time various people have left, and after the main singer Dave left in December 2016, we thought that that would be the end of it.” That is not what the promotors thought.
“They said it didn’t matter, because people still want to hear the songs. We were playing to 500 to 1000 cap theatres, and it always went down well.” The band decided to start looking for another singer, until someone suggested Gaz would pick up the microphone again. “In the past, I’ve always been singing and writing the songs for my own bands. I just happened to play a bit of saxophone, so it has always felt like I’ve been doing the wrong job and haven’t really been doing what I wanted to, up until now.” With their first show with Gaz as a singer booked for the Donkey on June 16th, there’s a fair amount of practice to be done, “Over the years, I’ve played all those songs on saxophone, and then when I had to start singing them, I realized that I didn’t even know all the words to the songs. So I’ve had to learn the 30 main songs.”
From discovering his musical talents in the 70s and singing and playing saxophone in numerous bands, to putting on shows at the Donkey and organising Simon Says; Gaz eats, sleeps & breathes music. “It’s a selfish thing. I want to see music that I want to see, and I get to do that by putting bands on that I want to see.”
However, that doesn’t mean that his job is always the easiest. “Nowadays, when there’s a show down the road, you don’t just go on the off chance that it might be good. You look the music up at home and then decide if you want to go. Back in the day, you just trusted the written press. There were certain journalists who related to you, so whatever they said, you went with. As great as the internet is, as many things as it has made, it has actually killed lots of other things as well. Other than that, people generally have their favourite venues they go to, and I think in Leicester, there are too many venues for the amount of audience. It’s great that there is choice, but it would be better if everyone used that choice.” Making money in the music industry clearly isn’t the easiest thing and takes a lot of passion, but that’s not why Gaz puts on shows, “If I was in it for the money, I would’ve packed it years ago.”
As both a musician and a promotor, Gaz has seen the music industry change first hand. “Over the years I feel like we’ve lost all the youthful rebellion. Those youth movements, where’s all that gone? The last youth movement was probably acid house or something in the 80s and 90s. But now I’m dressed like my kids, and my kids are dressed like me. That shouldn’t happen, they should be absolutely against what I do. It’s a changed world, and I’ve seen it change, there’s no buzz anymore.”
When asked about his future; it’s obvious that Gaz has no plans to stop doing what he’s good at. “The 5th edition of Simon Says… will be taking place at the end of July, and we have been working on that since November. It started as a one off thing 5 years ago, as a celebration for De Montfort Hall’s 100th birthday, but it has snowballed from there and we decided to do it again the next year, and the next. By now, everyone knows what they’re doing.”
“Other than that, The South is my new big thing. I never thought I’d be working for The Donkey for 10 years. If I would ever think about what I would be doing next year, or what money I’d be earning, I would’ve been a nervous wreck years ago. For 40-odd years, I’ve actually made a living out of being in the music industry, and when I look back at that, I realize that that’s an achievement in itself.”
All photography by Scott Choucino