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"We sat with this record, which we made in two days, for eighteen months" says Gary Stringer | Photo: band's archive
"We sat with this record, which we made in two days, for eighteen months" says Gary Stringer | Photo: band's archive
Petr Adamík -

Gary Stringer (Reef): I Want to Make the Best Music Possible and I Don't Care How I Get There

They were at their peak in the 90s, especially when their second album Glow which opens with the well-known song "Place Your Hands" came out. Reef, originally from Glastonbury, England, may no longer top the charts, but their music hasn't lost its sparkle. Not only are original members Gary Stringer and Jack Bessant joined in the line-up by great musicians Jesse Wood (son of Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones) and drummer Luke Bullen (ex-Bryan Ferry, KT Tunstall, Joe Strummer), but for their current album Shoot Me Your Ace, Andy Taylor of Duran Duran fame has joined them as producer, co-writer and guitarist. We spoke to the very friendly and positive frontman Gary Stringer.

You've said that the new album is the best record you've ever made. But that's what most musicians say about their new stuff. So what do you think makes it the best album?

We spent about nine months writing this record. I did a song with a band called Skindread called "Machine." Andy Taylor heard the song and invited me to sing on a few tracks he was working on for his solo record. One of them was "Love Of Liberation." It went well, so he invited me again. We listened to the track in the morning and sang it in the afternoon. It worked well together. Then when he came to England, I invited him to play three or four songs with us at the Glastonbury Festival, and then he visited us in our rehearsal room in Bruton, Somerset. He would come at eleven in the morning, we had coffee and then played. It was obvious that something exciting was starting to happen. 

He used to come over and we'd just play together until we realised we'd finished about sixteen songs. Our guitarist Jesse Wood then organized drummer Luke Bullen to come down to our headquarters and try a few songs with us. Luke Bullen is world-class, he's played with Bryan Ferry, Joe Strummer. He came down on Wednesday when we recorded demos for six songs, and then on Thursday we cut another six more. We had a weekend booked in a studio in London just to try out a song or two. We arrived on Friday and started work on Saturday, where we again managed six songs and then we did another six songs on Sunday, which was excellent. So we did the whole record twice in about five days, once in Somerset, once in London. Who does that these days? There was something magical about it. Every single part of the drums and the bass was recorded live, no overdubs. We came back and we put a couple of solos and some guitar overdubs, but the guts of the whole record was made during that magical weekend in London. Man, I know this is a really long answer, but... (laughs) 

Go on.

When we left the studio, the whole world went into lockdown. We thought that we have a great record but we sat with this record, which we made in two days, for eighteen months. Of course, we mixed and mastered it when we could. But finally to your question about why I think it's the best record. Well, because when you listen to your record after two years, you usually find a few songs that you wish you had done a little differently or recorded differently. We sat on it over a year but every time I play it makes me wanna dance, makes me wanna smile, makes me wanna headbang. It sounds fucking great! It's a two year old thing for me and I can't wait to share it with everyone in the Czech Republic, Europe and all over the world.

Jack Bessant said that he feels like he is at the beginning of a new chapter. Do you see it the same way? Have you turned the page and are you starting something new?

Every album is a new chapter. When we started, Nirvana came along and got guitars into the mainstream, onto TV and radio. It was fabulous, then Brit-pop followed and guitars continued to be on the radio. It was a really exciting time. We did Replenish with Clive Martin, then worked with George Drakoulias, working at Abbey Road first, then Ocean Way, we had Benmont Tench playing on piano. These are all great memories. We did R&B, Rock, Rock 'n' Roll, soul. Two of the twelve songs we did for the new record, two that we cut—one was an acoustic ballad, a quiet mellow gypsy song that we wrote before we met Andy—and the other is a soul ballad, about five minutes long. Absolutely a great song, and I'm looking forward to share it at some point. But now we only wanted to release ten rock 'n' roll songs, we felt like it. I hope people will like it. 

You self-release your album, but in the 90s you were with the major label, Sony. What do you see as the biggest difference? For example, do you have more artistic freedom now?

Of course we do. There's no one to tell us what to do, obviously with that, there is no huge pile of money. I don't know if you've seen the music video for "Shoot Me Your Ace." It cost tens of thousands. It was Jack's idea. Jack had an artistic vision that worked. We met the Demon Drome people on tours in previous years. For the video, they built a wall of death and we suggested setting up in the middle of it. So we were inside and all these riders were going around us. Just to give you an example, the video for "Place Your Hands," which we did with Sony, cost a quarter of a million pounds. It's an obscene budget. But I was glad to be there. It's been fun to go to all these amazing studios and work with great people. But we managed to pump into Andy Taylor for this record. He's got great songwriting and loves his rock 'n' roll music. Of course, he's mostly known for his time in a pop band, but he was also in Power Station, he likes AC/DC and so on. We didn't have a massive budget, but we made it work. We didn't even intend to do a whole album. Yes, not having that budget can make a big difference, but by using your creativity you can fill in those gaps. Andy Mold is the artist who created every aspect of the front cover, the back cover and the inside cover. What a find—we're lucky to be able to work with him.

Andy Taylor produced the album, but he was also involved as a guitarist. What do you think is his biggest contribution to your album. 

When Andy joined us, we already had about three songs, and we finished another ten or twelve with him. Most of the songs we wrote together in the room. With "Right On," Jack wrote the music and lyrics himself. Andy is living his life, doing his own thing, and it seems like our collaboration came at the right time, both for him and for us. I've always worked with new people. I'm much more flexible about that now, as I'm growin' up and getting older. Just working with someone you don't normally work with brings with it a great spark, whether it's a guitarist or a pianist. You don't know their moves, you don't know where they're going and new things happen. The collaborations are great. On the previous record, we had a song called "My Sweet Love" and George (Drakoulias) heard a second voice on it, so he reached out to Sheryl Crow. It was amazing to have such a talented singer join us. Yeah, I love working with great musicians. I want to make the best music possible and I don't care how I get there. (laughs)

Andy and Jesse Wood seem to complement each other as guitarists. Did you want to achieve a more powerful sound by adding a second guitar?

That wasn't planned that way. It was literally just us jamming. It was all natural. After the first few days, Andy's fingers were hurt, he hadn't played that much in years and he was slowly getting back into this playing with a band. I didn't want Jesse or Andy to step on each other's toes in their guitar world. They just seem to have a symbiotic relationship. Andy plays a different style than Jesse. Jesse is an amazing guitar player, he plays a bit like Steve Cropper. We didn't plan on having two guitar players, but for this record, it just seemed to fit and the result is really cool.

You've already played Duran Duran's "Hungry Like The Wolf" and "Wild Boys" at a few gigs. Will these songs be a regular part of your live shows now?

I don't think so. I don't think Andy will come out with us forever. We played about thirteen shows together last year. Our last club show was in November 2019, which is a long time ago. Last summer we did a couple of open-air festivals in the UK only. Before that we played in Prague, Germany, Japan, we were goin' all over. We should be back in the Czech Republic soon, which I can't wait for. I love the Czech Republic, beautiful country, beautiful people and scenery, where we've always been well looked after. Anna K, Roman Helcl and his brother Miroslav, we had friends there for decades and I look forward to going back. We also have some concerts in Spain, Ibiza, it's good to be out again.

Is it more complicated for you as a band now after Brexit?

It's not complicated, but it's not better for us. We're old enough, so I remember crossing between England and France, I can remember what it was like in 1993. The thought of having to go through that again doesn't exactly fill me with joy. I wish we were still part of the European Union. 

Reef became really big in 1997 with the album Glow, which included the highly successful song "Place Your Hands," but the first success came after your debut album, for example when you had the opportunity to support the Rolling Stones or your tour with Paul Weller. How do you remember these gigs? Was it a good school for you?

Yes, it was a dream. I travelled a lot when I was young and spent about three months in Morocco surfing. I came back with a good feeling and I met Jack. We played in a band together before. We met in Somerset and we both moved to London, wrote a song together called "Mellow" and formed Reef. Within six months we lived together in the same house in London, we made a demo record which we then sent to Lincoln Elias, who was A&R for Sony. He liked it, so he came over to my house where we rehearsed in my room. We did a show at the Marquee in London. Muff Winwood—who used to play bass in the Spencer Davis Group and was the head of the label—came to see us. He offered us a contract, which we signed the next day. The first thing he did was throw us some money for a van and send us out on the road. We did shows in Dundee, Scotland, Manchester, Wales, all over the UK for about six months. Then we started recording the songs we'd written. We were selling a seven-inch with "Good Feeling" on one side and "Choose To Live" on the B-side. Paul Weller heard the single and loved it. We played to fifty people and it was fun, we were young, we travelled in a van. But it wasn't long before we went to the Royal Albert Hall. Then playin' Aston Villa Leiser Centre or the G-mex in Manchester for eight thousand people. Paul Weller is an absolute legend and he helped us beyond measure, he watched every soundcheck, every show, he was always on the side of the stage. He was a gentleman, he looked after us and I'll never forget that. Of course, the Stones were exciting as well. Mick Jagger picked up the phone to Muff Winwood and asked us to support them. It was a small show for them at the Brixton Academy. I remember people in the crowd shouting "Who are you?" We rocked out and everything was great. I'd love to play with those guys again because they're amazing. They're fabulous to be around and to learn how hard they work, how much they play. They're doin' it for love—they might have all the money in the world, but they're doin' it for love.

Ronnie Wood is Jesse's dad and he even did "Stay With Me" by the Faces on stage with you a few years ago.

Yeah, we had a show at Nell's, which is a club in London for maybe five hundred people, it's not big. We knew there was a chance he'd come and play with us. The crowd was in love. You know, being a metre away from Ronnie Wood rockin' out. He played "Stay With Me" with us and also "How I Got Over," which we released as a single. It was a wonderful night filled with really good vibes.

Tagy Reef Gary Stringer

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Petr Adamík
In 1999, I co-founded the punk'n'roll band Degradace, with whom I'm still going strong. I've been working at the musical instrument store Hudební Svět for a few years now, and a while ago I decided that I'd like to write about…