We've been lucky enough to get to talk with Ian Dunbar, guitar tech for British melodic rock band, FM. We talk to him about what it's like to work for the band, life on the road, and new album, 'Heroes and Villains'.
SC: So, how long have you been working for the band and how did you get the gig?
ID: Actually only just over a year. I now live in Holland (I moved from UK 5 years ago) and went to see them on the Foreigner Tour last year. The night after the gig in Antwerp, they had a headline gig in Uden (Holland). After that show I was talking to Steve ‘Churchy’ Church (FM Stage Manager since 2007) and he told me that they had parted company with their guitar tech a few nights earlier. I jokingly said that I would take some time off from my day job and finish the tour in place of their previous guitar tech. To my surprise, he said “It would be great if you could”. I stuttered and before I could answer, my wife said “he will do it”. Either she thought it would be a great opportunity or she wanted me out of the house!
SC: So Steve just offered the job to a complete stranger, a ligger after a show? Talk about being in the right place at the right moment!
ID: Ha yeah that’s how it was. I have been a fan of FM since the late 80’s and since they reformed in ’07, I think I have seen at least one show on every tour. As a result me and Churchy have become friends, well Facebook friends at least. Because of that, he knows I have played guitar for over 30 years and I am not a complete idiot (although he may disagree there), so I think he thought I could be trusted to do a job. Alternatively maybe he was just so f****** desperate!
SC: Did you go on to finished the rest of the tour?
ID: Yeah I finished the German leg of the tour, went home and honestly thought no more about it. I just put it down to experience, then a few days later I got a call from Steve and he said the guys liked what I did, how I worked and asked me if I was available for the rest of the year. So I picked myself up off the floor, checked my diary, moved some stuff around and I have done every gig since, including the 30th Anniversary Tour and quite a few festivals. We are just back from Milan where the guys played a brilliant acoustic set followed by a full electric show at Frontiers Rock Festival the following night.
SC: That sounds dreamy! But, what is it like to work for a band that you have been a fan of for over 25 years?
ID: Well here is the thing... the reason I hesitated is because I have never really been into ligging. My initial reaction to Steve’s kind offer was to say no. I didn’t think being a fan of the band and working for them would work, so my approach was that I am working for Steve, just sort of helping him run the stage. That works. The great thing is at this point, it is not like ‘Working for FM’ it is like being on the road with mates; albeit there is a job to be done.
SC: So the Heroes and Villains tour in May and the new album must mean you have a pretty packed schedule?
ID: Well from my point of view it is quite easy to prepare for a tour. The guys will have a few production rehearsals next week and during that time we will discuss any changes to the gear. As I look after guitars and stage right in general, that means my masters are Steve ‘Stiv’ Overland and Jim Kirkpatrick. There isn’t a great deal of change in set up for the boys between tours but a new album means new songs which for a live setting may mean some new effects for Jim. Generally Stiv’s set up is constant. Above that, I just have to take care of my own travel plans and then hook up with the rest of the guys the day before the tour starts. I think on this tour I am driving the band, so no precious cargo there then!
SC: Good luck with that Ian, i'd rather you than me! What are Steve Overland and Jim Kirkpatrick like to work for? I can imagine you have some great times.
ID: Is this being edited? No really the whole band is a pleasure to be around. I know that sounds like b******* and I am bound to say it, but considering they are the best at what they do, they do not possess an ego amongst them. They clearly love their job and they have impeccable standards. Every show must be right, and rightly so. In that sense working for the band can be very pressured. You have to keep in mind that the sole responsibility of the crew is to ensure the band have absolutely nothing to worry about and they can purely focus on the performance, so as a consequence, if there are any technical issues our job is to deal with it without bothering the guys. When I was a fan I cannot recall a bad gig from the band and finding a bad live review online is impossible; in short everything has to be perfect. Myself and Churchy have become expert at lying to the band when there is a technical issue. We just tell them ‘everything is fine lads’.
SC: What does a day on tour involve?
ID: Well, when we wake up we are usually no more than an hour or two from the gig. Essentially we drive through the night after a performance. This gets us as close as possible to the next show. Churchy and I will have a production breakfast meeting. This will be to discuss the previous night and talk through the next gig later that day. We will confirm departure time from the hotel, check current traffic/weather and check the load in time at the venue. Once we arrive, the four crew load in. As well as myself and Steve we have Richard Lloyd or James Ridley who does front of house sound. On this tour we have both. Richard will look after FM and No Hot Ashes, and James will do Romeos Daughter. Merchandise is taken care of by Sue Birbeck. In addition to the band and crew, Adrian Bell, the band’s manager travels with us too.
Once the gear is loaded in and the back line is set up the guys will sound check. For a band like FM it takes no more than 2 or 3 songs to EQ everything. Richard and James are f****** wizards and that is another reason the sound check is so brief. Occasionally it can run longer to iron out any issues with the venue PA, but generally it is a 30-45 minute affair. Following that, we cover all of FM’s backline and hand the stage over to the support band or in the case of this tour, support bands!
In between sound check and doors, (opening of the venue to the punters) we generally get a bit of down time. Get some food or chill for an hour. It is also time to do any repairs, string changes or anything else that needs sorting. Occasionally it might mean a shopping trip if we need anything, but if everything is ok we can just relax.
Once the support bands hit the stage we just have to assist with any gear going on or off the stage. The changeover (time between the support and FM’s stage time) can be a frenetic affair, but myself and Churchy have it nailed down and we are always well within the 30 minutes we generally allow. Once the band hit the stage it is just a case of ensuring a smooth show. Keeping spare guitars tuned, doing any guitar changes (which depend on the set list) and just reacting to what you see. The band goes off, we immediately pack away the guitars and backline (1 hour or so) have a quick drink and generally leave the venue around 1 am. That’s a typical day!
SC: Thats a heap of responsibility! After this process, do you actually enjoy the show?
ID: Strangely yes, but not in the way someone at the front will. A good show for me is one where I stay at the side of the stage except for predetermined guitar changes. If I have to move it is to put something right that shouldn’t be happening. Mr Overland, or ‘The Voice’ as he is known, is not only one of the greatest singers on the planet but he also holds a world record for speed knitting. He can take a mic lead, a guitar lead and Merv’s (Goldsworthy – bass guitar) bass lead and knit them together around his own legs before you can say “f***”. He really is an extraordinary talent in that respect. So I have learned how to untie his knots in my sleep. In all seriousness though, Stiv and Merv have recently gone ‘wireless’ on stage (wireless battery packs) so that reduces my stage appearances to a minimum; exactly how it should be.
There are times in the set where you can relax for a minute or two and actually have a listen. That is always a great moment. You have been on your feet for 18 hours, smelling like a postman’s sock and just on the point of developing scurvy because of all the junk food... then you hear the band play a song like ‘Story of My Life’. In that split second you realise why you love the job. It’s all about the performance. Churchy and myself liken this job to childbirth. We come off tour, broken, overweight, bearded and generally f***** and we say, never again. Then you get home, have a wash, read the online reviews and think, ah yeah it was a f*****' blast.
SC: One for the gear heads, what about the guitars, amps and effects?
ID: Well Stiv has a couple of Strats. His #1 is a sea foam green strat that is a hybrid he built himself. The only real ‘mod’ is a Seymour Duncan at the bridge. It is routed within an inch of its life and it is lighter than a nun’s conscience. It is a lovely guitar to play though. His effects again are simple, just trusty old Boss pedals; chorus, delay and compression with an inline tuner. His gain and overdrive come from the Peavey VK100. His sound is, in my view, beautifully simple. Many people comment on his sound and a lot of it is in his touch. Stiv as we all know is known for his pipes but his guitar playing is incredible.
Jim on the other hand, a typical lead guitarist, has a more complex set up which he likes to change quite often. This is a game he plays to keep me on my toes; it f****** works. I get to the point where I can set up his rig in my sleep and then he changes it. Thanks Jim! Seriously though, Jim is a fabulous player; yes he is a mate and I am hardly impartial but I have seen him in his various bands play acoustic and electric blues. He is one annoyingly talented b****** and he is younger than I am. Anyway, his gear. The last year or so Jim has really taken to EVH Wolfgang guitars and very nice they are too; very playable. His current #1 is the black one with a nice ‘burst’ model as his stage spare. He also travels with a nice Strat with a modded pick up configuration, an amber topped Les Paul and now and again he will bring his Burns Brian May out to play. This is in homage to his hero, Mr Burns from the Simpsons, no really Brian May from Queen.
His pedal board goes through the effects loop which is foot switchable. This means he can instantly add multiple effects from single pedals. He prefers this to using multi FX units which just drain the signal. When the loop is off he used the 3 channels from the Peavey 3120 head; clean, crunch and lead. On his board he has a boss tuner, a Jim Dunlop Wah, a compressor, a digital delay and a harmonist, a reverb pedal and that is it.
You may think that Jim is always pleased to see you but in fact (and this is a JK fact) he ALWAYS carries a slide with him. Whether he is on tour or on the beach in the Canaries, he has one of his trusty Rock Slides with him. Strange I know!
The only other gear thing to mention is they are both endorsed by Elixir Strings, both use 0.10 gauge (tuned down a semi tone). Stiv uses .88 Dunlop picks. That is about it, I am sending myself asleep now! Shall we move on?
SC: Interesting facts about Jim there, any other gossip you can reveal about the FM guys?
ID: Well the incident with the goat is behind them now… ha! Jem Davis (Keys) puts an enormous amount of pepper on EVERYTHING he eats. That is no exaggeration. The looks he gets from restaurant staff when he completely covers their signature dish in Sainsbury’s Coarse Pepper (yes he has his own favoured brand) is priceless. Pete Jupp has shares in Costa Coffee I believe, he can always be found there, any time of the day. Merv is great on long journeys. His (and Pete’s for that matter) stories from his early career are brilliant and he MUST write a book at some point, priceless. Stiv is a technophobe and only had his iphone forced upon him at the end of last year and every morning on tour he goes for a run. He and Jim are like a married couple… great fun. Apart from that, and if I want to keep on working for the band... that is all I can say for now! When I get fired, ask me again.
SC: The new album Heroes and Villains has had a fantastic response, and rightly so. The guys must be really happy, right?
ID: I think once again they are blown away by the reaction. They know that nothing in their business is certain. They were all happy with the album when it was finished but I think they are still pleasantly surprised by the comments. The internet and social media is going crazy for it. One thing is for sure, they don’t take anything for granted and they know that it could all end tomorrow. That’s why they remain so accessible; doing the meet and greets etc.
SC: They've always seemed to really care about their fan base. For a lot of bands, that's sort of lacking in priority. Being their tech guy, I suppose you heard the new album ages ago?
ID: Not at all. I specifically dodged it. I knew the title before Christmas despite me pleading with Merv not to tell me. Part of me is still that fan and I love the day a new album comes out so I wanted to hear it along with everyone else. However on the drive to Hard Rock Hell in Pwelleli I had Jim, Stiv and Pete in my car and I got my first listen. Imagine being in a car with those 3 and them playing you their new album! I mean what can you do?? Thankfully it is f****** brilliant and I do mean brilliant. Every track, without fail is a potential single. The production is immense and to hear all those anthemic choruses while we were driving through the Welsh mountains was something of an experience. I have to add however, the return trip was just as memorable. 2am, same roads but stopping every 10 miles so one of the band could take a p***! Rock and Roll.
SC: So after this tour what is next?
ID: Well I get to go on holiday! We have some festivals in the summer. Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and UK. I think there are a few other things potentially in the pipeline but I don’t get involved in all of that, I just get send info when it is confirmed and make sure I am there, but it is fair to say that it will be a busy year. Made busier by the fact they have a hit album on their hands!
SC: To finish, if someone who is reading this has not caught an FM show before, what can they expect?
ID: Immaculately cleaned and well-tuned guitars... The band is epic live. It is a great show, the guys are great musicians and Stiv could sing a take away menu and move you. For me though, aside from the talent of the guys, it’s all about the songs; FM songs are ALL anthems. That makes for a great gig.