3 March 2019
Photograph: Tom McGuire and the Brassholes
Glasgow’s hottest funk band discuss Ric Flair, Cool Runnings, and what it takes to make it in the modern music industry
It’s been a remarkable few months for Glasgow funk band Tom McGuire and the Brassholes. The eclectic eight-piece originally met and came together by busking during the 2014 Commonwealth Games, united by talent, dedication and a desire to perform. The group quickly established themselves as one of the country’s foremost wedding bands, but it was last autumn where things really started to take off for them. Their first tour finished up in style with a sell-out show at Glasgow Art School in November. A debut album soon followed, released in January.
Last September, the group went viral after the music video for debut single Ric Flair, based on the eponymous wrestling legend, became popular with audiences across the globe. It’s easy to see why. Featuring simulated wrestling matches, pink limousines, and the Ultimate Warrior marching down Sauchiehall Street, the innovative video bedazzled new and old fans alike. And it gave the emerging band more traction than they could have ever hoped for.
But what’s perhaps most remarkable is the spontaneous origin of the song itself, and the fact that it was almost never recorded.
“There’s a very specific story as to how the song came about,” says lead singer Tom McGuire. “I was playing a lot of jam sessions, and became quite good at just making songs up on the spot. I was told to come up with a song about Ric Flair, so I did. The chorus worked, and it stuck.”
“I was initially reluctant to make it into a real song that we would record, because the rest of our work is quite serious, whereas this one was frivolous and just fun,” he adds. “I’m glad we did though, because it’s our entry-level drug, and it’s been a great jumping off point for us.”
The band attracted attention worldwide for their creative effort.
McGuire was largely responsible for coming up with the aforementioned weird and wonderful music video, which now sits at over five hundred thousand videos on Facebook.
“I had this vision for the video, but had no idea of it was going to be good or not,” he says. “I’d never done anything like this before. Paul Campbell, the guy who filmed it for us, was essentially able to manifest all the things I visualised. The way the video is, that’s exactly how I imagined it in my head.”
The video came to the attention of the Nature Boy himself, with the group also being asked to play Flair’s daughter’s wedding across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, while the prospect appealed to the band, obtaining visas in time would have been incredibly difficult, and they had already committed to playing another wedding.
There’s an immense sense of creativity and energy to the Brassholes. From their DIY videos to secret subway gigs, the band understand the appeal of sheer, unadulterated fun, and of the benefits that can come from fan engagement and using social media to great effect.
The power of social media is something that has been a revelation to McGuire as the band goes from strength to strength. “It’s something that’s new to me,” he says. “I’ve often been a reluctant user of social media, but it’s necessary if you want to promote yourself, and make something out of your music. I’ve treated it like a job, and I’m happy to do that job because it’s spreading the music so well.”
“We were told that making the actual music’s the easy part, it’s getting the momentum to keep people interested that’s difficult,” he adds. “When it came to making a record back in the day, it was very much luck of the draw. A lot of amazing artists would have been missed out because they weren’t in the right place at the right time. Now the onus has shifted. You have to be putting out media content daily. You don’t have to rely on luck, but you have to reliable on individualist, hard work that isn’t connected to actually playing or creating music.”
Like plenty of emerging musical acts, the Brassholes were able to make their debut album without any substantial financial backing through extensive crowdfunding efforts online. And McGuire is incredibly thankful to all those who helped.
“You find that people are often willing to pay in advance if they know they’re going to get something they’ll like down the line,” he says. “There’s a lot of goodwill there. The grassroots approach can work really well – you’re now hearing plenty of success stories that have come from this model.”
“It allows people to do things they wouldn’t have been able to before the concept came about,” he adds. “We probably couldn’t have made our album had it not existed, and we’ve made a really good album because of the allowances we’ve had.”
The group’s album launched at the QMU back in February. Photograph: Tom McGuire and the Brassholes
Despite the immense time and effort that’s gone into promotional work behind the scenes, it’s perhaps impossible to comprehend the band’s success without delving deeper into McGuire as an individual. While this is his first serious project, the self-described lumberjack has an incredibly varied musical background.
“My previous project was a heavy metal band,” he says. “The music we made was very aggressive, but our subject matter was always hilarious and good fun. We made a 20 minute rock opera about Cool Runnings called ‘The Blade in the Ice’. I’m still really proud of that piece of work.”
“My musical tastes are wide-ranging,” he adds. “I still listen to a lot of metal, as well as country and jazz, but I had an idea I’d always come full circle and settle on funk. And if you’re talking about funk and soul, I’d say Stevie Wonder is my main influence. He’s the reference point. He’s the dude.”
Lead singer Tom McGuire. Photograph: Tom McGuire and the Brassholes
McGuire’s background extends beyond the world of music. For a time he was studying therapeutic radiotherapy at university, before quitting in his final year to focus solely on the band.
“I picked radiotherapy because I was looking for some sort of meaning, and that seemed like a virtuous and altruistic path to take,” he says. “The environment of working in the NHS was tricky for me. In any institution there’s a hierarchy, and if you’re the low guy, you get stamped on a bit. It’s unavoidable, but you just have to lump it, and I struggled with that. I enjoyed working with patients, but the institution was really damaging for me.”
“In the meantime I’d built a bit of a career as musician, but I was doing both things half-power,” he adds. “I didn’t really realise it till afterwards, but I was pretty miserable. Sometimes you don’t realise you’re in a miserable situation until you get yourself out of it.”
Michael Butcher, the Brassholes’ saxophonist, is full of praise for his bandmate and friend. “Tom’s absolutely phenomenal in the sense that he can just exude energy,” he says. “I’ve done gigs with Tom to maybe 10 people, and he’s still putting out that energy and putting on a good show.”
“It doesn’t really matter to him how many people are there and what kind of response he’s getting from the audience,” he adds. “In terms of being a vocalist, Tom’s got power and soul in his voice unlike anyone else I know. And he’s a fantastic songwriter as well.”
Originally coming to Glasgow from south of the border, Butcher is one of the band’s esteemed former Conservatoire students, and has an extensive knowledge of the city’s thriving music scene from which the Brassholes have emerged.
“I think it’s a very nurturing scene. There’s a lot of scope for creativity,” he says. “In Glasgow, if you want to try out something different, then people will accept that.”
“The jazz scene in particular is really undergoing a renaissance at the moment,” he adds. “When I first graduated there weren’t a huge amount of gigs to be had. There were a few pubs and clubs that would put on a jazz night once a week, but it was very difficult to earn money playing music.”
McGuire agrees with his bandmate. “The quality of musician coming out of Glasgow is fantastic,” he says. “The Conservatoire is hitting out with fantastic musicians every year, and there’s a strong jam session scene as well.”
“Glasgow’s exactly the right size,” he adds. “There are enough people in the city to be able to contribute plenty of strong musicians, but it’s small enough that almost everyone knows each other.”
It would be quite easy to misconstrue the Brassholes’ intentions as a band. Beneath the fun public personas are a group of serious musicians who want to create challenging, socially relevant music. Beneath the upbeat melodies lie well-crafted songs with bleak undertones. Again, McGuire is keen to emphasise that the light-hearted nature of Ric Flair is the exception – not the rule.
“Through the album there’s this existential thread, but it’s something we’ve largely hidden behind lots of cool funk melodies and humour,” he says. “There’s a dark side that only becomes apparent when you listen to the whole album.”
“It’s really apparent in one of our songs called The Old Man on the Subway,” he adds. “It’s a song that tries to understand alcoholics, or people with any addiction, as having found a complete and imperfect coping mechanism to help them deal with existential grief. It’s a compassionate song that tries to understand people who are in that sort of situation.”
For the Brassholes, it’s perhaps difficult to anticipate what will come next in an industry that can often be tumultuous and unpredictable. The band have established a growing and devoted following in Glasgow, and will look to expand that as they make more music. Certainly they have no plans to slow down anytime soon, following the announcement of their second UK tour which will start in May.
The band will be touring again in May. Photograph: Tom McGuire and the Brassholes
“My ideal situation in a few years would be that we’re still writing tunes we all enjoy, and still playing to appreciative audiences,” says Michael Butcher. “If we could be doing that in outside the UK as well, then that would be incredible – I’d love to be able to see the world, and I hope being in this band provides me with that opportunity.”
“I feel very lucky to be part of it all,” he adds. “I’d always known the band was talented, but you never think something like this is going to happen, perhaps because it so rarely does. But it’s letting me do what I love for a living – travelling with my mates while playing music.”
“To be honest, we’ve already exceeded my expectations,” McGuire says. “My goal is being able to sustain ourselves solely by making our own music. For that to be our main focus and sustenance would be great.”
“Ric Flair is the least meaningful of all our songs, but if even a small proportion of people who watch the video crack a smile or have a laugh, then that’s a lot of net benefit for the world, in a utilitarian way, right?” he adds. “I look at things in that sort of super analytical way. If a significant number of people have become happier because they’ve seen the video, then that’s very powerful for me. I want us to continue in that tack and produce music and art that’s pleasant for people, that enriches their life, that they can wade through and experience.”