Interview with Toby Jepson

[Originally published on UK Music Directory]

If, like me, you’re a rock fan, you’ve most probably heard of today’s guest, and may also have been to a few of his concerts or have one or two of his records in your collection. I first saw Toby Jepson on TV in the late ’80s, on the show Famous for 15 Minutes. His band, the Little Angels, became a household name not long after that.

I was lucky enough to be able to ask Toby some questions recently, and am thrilled to be able to share the interview with you all. Toby’s been in the music industry for many years, has toured with and helped produce records for many famous musicians; he has some great advice for anyone considering a career in the music business. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.

Interview with Toby Jepson

I first saw you on Famous for 15 Minutes back in the late ’80s with your band Little Angels. How much do you remember about how you and the band felt appearing on that show?

We were young boys, late teens/early twenties living in a small Yorkshire town with aspirations to be rock stars, so it felt like the biggest event to ever happen in the world! Ha! We were actually very lucky, the production team behind The Tube, Chris Phipps and Geoff Wonfor were involved and it was regarded as a very important Show by the Industry at the time as it was supposedly showcasing the best unsigned acts in the country at the time. We took it in our stride, had fun and had high hopes. It certainly became one of the main reasons behind us getting noticed and led to Polydor starting to circle us. I look back and remember it as the very first event that showed real promise… despite my terrible choice of stage clothing…

Ha, ha! 🙂

Not long after that appearance, Little Angels became one of the most popular rock bands in the early ’90s in the UK. You toured extensively. Do you have any favourite tour memories from the time that you can share with us?

So many it would become tedious for the reader! The thing about touring in a band with your friends as apposed to being a session player or solo artist, is that it’s a collective experience driven by friendship and you all add to the will to succeed so it’s a journey of self discovery in many ways. We were all school friends venturing out into the big world and experiencing it all, supporting each other and navigating it all as we went along, so it was mainly hugely exciting but also a tad bewildering if I’m being honest.

There are perhaps 3 main stories that stick in my mind that sum up what I’m talking about. The first was way back in the early years. We were, along with the Quireboys, the first band to play with Guns N’ Roses in the UK. We opened for them at the Marquee Club in Wardour Street in London. No one had any idea who they were really and we thought they were just another US band. Best gig I’ve ever witnessed! They changed our outlook completely.

They were everything we wanted to be and humbled us with their ‘real deal’ rock n roll and made us realise how good you had to be to make it. We went back to Yorkshire and started rehearsing… Go forward several years when the ‘Young Gods’ album came out, we were confident that the record was the best we could make at the time, the reaction at radio was great and so we decided to take a chance and tour into city halls.

There was collective scoffing from the industry, specifically from the magazines, things were said like ‘you’ll never sell tickets’… well, the tour sold out! The fans came in droves and it shut up the critics! It proved that when it comes to power in the music business, the fans have it all! If the public decides they like a band, like the music etc., no amount of media naysaying, negativity will affect it. Look after the fans and they will in turn, look after you… The final story that resonates is the final show at the Royal Albert Hall… there we were playing the biggest headlining show of our career, sold out, and it was all over! Believe me, there was no one more bewildered than me!

It was sad and triumphant at the same time! I hated it, but knew it meant something enormous… I can hardly remember the show, but I remember being sick to my stomach and just trying to get through it. I didn’t want the band to stop, I wanted to carry on until I keeled over. Looking back, it seems so crazy to have ended on top, but one thing positive that came out of it was that the fans remember how good it was, it was never reduced to a pale imitation of what we were, the glory was intact and getting back together last year proved that that memory was very potent.

You’ve toured with many well known bands. Are there any bands that you particularly enjoyed touring with and why?

I loved touring with them all! Van Halen were incredible to us, ZZ Top and Bryan Adams both astounding tours! Seriously, we didn’t have a bad experience. If I had to pick one tour that sticks in my mind I’d say the Bon Jovi tour of Europe for ‘Keep the Faith’. Jon was the coolest guy to me, he made time to hang out and chat, I spent a lot of time with him on that tour and we became friends. They watched every show from the side of the stage and were enormously generous to us in the press and privately. A fantastic experience and to this day, I recall Jon’s attitude towards his art, it helped me to develop myself watching his pure love of being a musician, and there is no better front man.
What major changes have you noticed in the music industry since the ’80s/’90s, and do you have any tips for bands that might be starting out now?

The major difference clearly is the Internet and how that has empowered artists by allowing access to music. The industry had a stranglehold on the distribution for so long that it could dictate the terms of how music was valued. The Internet has broken that down, probably mainly for the better, but also there are many problems, mainly file sharing and the relative ‘de-valuing’ of recorded music. Unfortunately, young bands these days have a tough job of getting noticed mainly due to the saturation of the airwaves. There are so many bands, acts trying to get your attention that it’s all most impossible without huge promotional budgets to get heard. The weird thing is that music production is so easy now and the quality of recorded music, in terms of sonics, has shot through the roof. However what hasn’t changed is that there still are very few bands that really have something relevant to say, who are focused enough and determined enough to push through. Unique talent is still something that is hard to find. There are lots of ‘good’ bands, but that’s not the point; you have to earn the right to be taken seriously and that’s all to do with the music and nothing else. I don’t care what the industry says, the only thing that matters is that unknown connective thing that happens between the music and the listener, it is impossible to figure it out, but we all know the ‘real thing’ when we hear it. The cream still rises to the top… my advice is always; concentrate every ounce of your effort on writing songs and creating recorded music that has something to say, be it specifically lyrical, or a dynamic sound that challenges the listener. There is no excuse for average, don’t pretend to have a story, tell your own in your own way, warts and all, with conviction… if you do that, you have a chance.

Little Angels reformed last year for Download. What was that like?

Amazing, in a word! I felt 20 again! It’s very hard to describe the feeling. For so long the shadow of what had happened at the end had hung over us all, we needed to reclaim our music and each other and above all say thanks to the fans. We were not the biggest band on the planet, not by a long way, but we had the greatest fans who had never given up hope, had always kept the music alive and so to perform for them again at the biggest rock festival on the planet was a dream come true. It’s something I will never forget! On a purely practical level, the rain was unbelievable, the event was suffering under the conditions and a couple of bands had not shown and were unable to play, so when we went on I think the crowd was ready for a band, and it was such a stunning reaction! We had a ball!

You now have a solo career, and understand you’re going to tour in November and December this year. What can fans expect from the upcoming tour?

I’m trying to rediscover myself a little, I’ve grown up, I’m no longer the same person I was and my attitude has changed towards making music. I now make music to talk about things that concern me personally and to entertain, in that order. I think when I was a kid, I was driven by an intense need to be part of something, to become recognised, to have hit records and to be a in a successful band etc., now I’m more concerned with making music that matters to me. I don’t have anyone to answer to apart from the fans, but it has to be driven by my personal view point. My songs are intensely personal and I believe that’s the only way to truly hold a conversation and create a connection with the audience, especially when it’s one man and a guitar! It’s a pretty ‘naked’ feeling and so the stories are what become important. With that in mind I’m going to play a lot of my favourite solo work, some tunes from the bands I’ve been in post Angels and a smattering of Angels songs, although in amongst the obvious choices, there will be some more unusual choices as it does become a touch tedious playing the same old usual suspects! I also have a mini album coming out, so I’m looking forward to debuting those tunes… it’s about progression really…

As well as producing your own EPs/albums, I saw on your website that you’ve also produced CDs for other bands, including The Answer. How long have you been a producer and how does it compare to being a musician?

I love being a producer. It suits me. There is something incredible about collaborating with other talented people who have a clear plan and solid ideas. Every band I have worked with have been driven, hard working dedicated people. It’s almost the perfect job as far as I’m concerned, because it combines all the things I love about the creative process. It is, all at once, passionate, physical, emotional and cerebral. If you get it right and all those things combine, then it becomes a window into the human condition and I believe genuinely is important. It’s very hard to self-produce, I struggle when it’s my own work because you simple get too close, but when I work with others, I can be the separated one who can help to make decisions that the artists cannot themselves for the same reason. It’s actually a real privilege to be allowed to comment and practically change the outcome of someone else’s very personal work. It can be a very delicate operation though, I find myself becoming a diplomat, counsellor, brother, father, best mate and bad guy all at once sometimes.

Are you working on any new songs of your own at the moment?

Yes, I’m just finishing the recording of my new mini album which will contain six brand new songs. It will perhaps challenge the perception of who I am, as sonically I’m trying something new, I haven’t turned on the electric guitars this time around, instead opting for acoustic instruments and a Hammond organ! It’s a slight departure, but one I’ve needed to make to progress a little. It’s all about doing what you love, and I have a love of the 70′s rock albums made by Deep Purple and Rainbow as well as Neil Young and my big hero Joe Jackson, so I’m indulging that a little…

What inspires your songwriting?

I’m a very political person, and I mean that in the broadest sense, of recognising the politics in life and human existence on every level; the way we conduct ourselves in general society and with each other. It’s a clear thing for me, we make good and bad decisions depending on what outcome we’re trying to achieve and so I observe myself doing that and write about how I’m feeling at the time by trying to create stories through subject matter as close to that feeling as possible. Sometimes it’s just for pure entertainment, but 99% of the time I have a desire and need to talk about something or a point of view I believe to be important. It may not be important to others, but I cannot concern myself with that, it’s more important to be completely honest. Sometimes I just fall in love with the sounds of certain words or phrases that can be very ambiguous, but I sense that there is always some sense to be made out of the random. I love Bowie for that and he’s another big influence on me.

What was the last album you bought?

Kyuss – ‘Blues for the Red Sun’ I’m a huge fan of Josh Homme specifically. An enormously important voice. Unique talent.

Was there any musician/band in particular that inspired you to want to be a musician?

It was Freddie Mercury as a kid and then once I’d heard Sabbath, it was guitar players mainly. I am a massive Hendrix fan, Richie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi. I was more inspired by the sound guitars could make than anything else and wanted to play guitar like them all but just couldn’t attach myself enough to the instrument. I started singing because it was instant and quickly started to write music. I love Ronnie Dio, everything he ever did, and his voice is still the voice I hear in my head when I think about rock music and my early years. My tastes have changed massively over the years, but I’m still in love with the sound of the guitar…

Do you have any other news for your fans?

As ever, it’s a simple ‘ Thank you’ I’m able to talk to you today because of their continued support and love. Nuff said!

Thanks, Toby!

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