Americana UK is proud to present the online premiere of “Man Behind The Stage”. A documentary on one man’s passion for live music.
Behind the scenes of every gig, be it an open mic night or a sold out stadium extravaganza, someone, somewhere made it happen. It’s the nuts and bolts of live music. Here in the UK there’s a vital web of promoters and venues and other ancillary services which have shaped, sometimes against almost overwhelming odds, the Americana gig circuit. Away from the flashy and overpriced Nashville star turns, this grassroots movement thrives on enthusiasm, a love of music and a deaf ear to the bank manager.
One such grassroots champion is Winchester’s Oliver Gray, an occasional contributor to our pages. A lifelong adherent to the joys of live music since seeing The Hollies way back in the 60s, Oliver cut his teeth putting on bands such as Pink Floyd on the college circuit, went on to review and interview the likes of Joe Cocker and Marc Bolan and, over the past 20 years or so, has brought the cream of roots and Americana musicians to his hometown, and, quite often to his own home. Now, Shortcuts Video has released a short documentary film featuring Oliver along with Americana & Folk music acts The Delines, This Is The Kit and John Murry. MAN BEHIND THE STAGE ‘A tale of rock and roll obsession’ is directed by Laurent Metrich.
AUK spoke to Oliver about the film.
Can you tell us how the idea of making a film about you promoting grassroots Americana came about?
There are some very, very good promoters all across the UK, I just happen to have had the film made, by pure chance more than anything. Laurent is this really nice French guy who lives in Winchester and who is an architect by trade along with being a documentary film maker. It started off with him making a film about the difficulties facing grassroots music venues and as he filmed he kept on bumping into me and was accumulating all this footage of me toddling around venues, so he decided to change the focus to look more at how gigs happen. If you think about it, it’s an incredibly vital part of the whole music business but most folk, turning up at a gig don’t really think about the people who have made it happen. That’s why Laurent called it Man Behind The Stage as he wanted people to think about what goes on there. I was very lucky that such a talented filmmaker as Laurent was interested in the topic and approached it with such enthusiasm.
I know that you’ve had a long association with music in general but what led you to concentrate on Americana music?
I can trace my real interest in what some folk call Americana to one artist, Peter Bruntnell. We had a fine arts centre in Winchester called The Tower and my friend Richard had booked Neal Casal and the opening act was Peter with James Walbourne in the band and they just completely blew me away. That was in 2003 I think. Richard and I then started an annual festival, SXSC – South By South Central – and we did that for ten years but we then got a legal cease and desist letter from SXSW saying they owned the world copyright on the letters, SXS and we couldn’t use it! I tried to explain we weren’t really a rival but they just sent more stern letters so we changed it to SC4M – South Central For Music.
Aside from promoting shows in venues such as The Railway Inn, you also have what you call The Swiss Cottage Sessions, house concerts performed in your garden cabin. In the film, Willy Vlautin says that your house is like a home for orphan bands.
Yes, only Willy could come up with a notion like that but for a lot of bands, paying for a hotel, especially in a place like Winchester, costs a lot so we’ll put the band up and feed them and that allows them to keep more of the money from their gig. It’s allowed us to make some wonderful friends over the years as we have got to know them, especially when it degenerates, as it almost always does, into late night shenanigans involving tequila and whisky and lots of cheese.
John Murry is featured quite heavily in the film.
Yes. As you may know, John has a very chequered background and he has looked on me as a kind of surrogate dad. He’s a much misunderstood person but in my opinion he’s a genius and he’s a very lovely person. We get on very well even though chalk and cheese comes to mind, we’re totally different but we get on well together.
At one point in the film, there’s a quote from your book, Volume, which states, “I have not succeeded as a performer, a promoter or broadcaster.” That was some years ago and you’ve certainly made a go of it as a promoter but, looking back, would you do it all over again?
Yes, very much so. I wouldn’t do it professionally as I know from experience that it’s a money losing activity rather than a money making one but as I say in the film, the pleasure and fulfilment that you get from meeting with and getting to know such incredibly talented people and the experiences you share when they get to perform are incredibly rewarding. Other people might take up golf or something but this is my particular hobby if you will and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been able to do it.
AUK also contacted the film’s director, Laurent Metrich, who offered us this background story.
I made a short documentary called Lifeblood about The Railway Inn music venue in 2018 after hearing that they had financial difficulties. I was hoping to make a film to help their crowd funding. Digging for information about the history of the venue, people directed me to Oliver. I did an interview with him which ended up in the film and straight away I was struck by Oliver’s music knowledge, passion and maybe over all, the amiability that he uses in all enterprises. The film was released and it was quite successful in helping the venue. It was picked up by the Music Venue Trust, a charity which represents music venues across the country, and I had the honour to show the film at their fifth anniversary party in London hosted by Steve Lamacq. Steve mentioned the film in his show the next day and this really felt like I’d reached the top of the mountain! After that there was the melancholy of the film being over and at that time I was reading Oliver’s book Volume, which is an autobiography he published in 2000 retracing the steps of his involvement with the music business. I was amazed by the stories in the book and gradually started thinking that maybe there was a film in it. I approached Oliver tentatively as I wasn’t sure how he would feel about it but he was definitely interested.
I got very involved with these two films because it reconnected me with my own music obsession, which started as a teenager impersonating Robert Smith from The Cure, sitting on benches in a small sleepy French town. I am fascinated by music obsessives, by these music stories and the passion which drives everybody on these edges of the music industry, from the venue manager to the artist and the producer. I also realised that these music microcosms are quite fragile and that these films, in their own small way, might be able to help. I never managed to play an instrument so the films are a way of taking part and giving back I suppose!