Of all the tribute bands that have walked the world’s stages, the Australian Pink Floyd are surely right up there with the best. Rik Flynn discovers how the band’s two guitarists have nailed the elusive Gilmour tone
Those amongst us who weren’t fortunate enough to catch Pink Floyd in their prime, or witness their brief but gratifying reemergence at Live 8 in 2005, will almost certainly never get the opportunity again. That’s where Steve Mac, David Domminney Fowler and their sizeable band of musical copycats – plus a talented and devoted crew – step in.
As we sit in a prime spot on the balcony of Brighton’s ornate and vaulted Dome to watch the Australian Pink Floyd, it all feels a bit surreal. The audience are silent, seated, and eyeballing the activity in front of them with thousand-yard-stares. They’re collectively transfixed; it’s cathartic to say the least… dreamlike, even. We’ve even been issued with 3D glasses. This isn’t a gig as you’ve come to know them – it’s a wholly different experience altogether.
While we’re sitting there wondering when it’s going to be time for the 3D glasses and trying to fathom where this whole thing fits in, the double-guitar team straddling the stage below us are hard at work unravelling the secrets that made David Gilmour such a powerhouse of prog-rock guitar experimentation.
They’re backed by an equally convincing all-singing, all-dancing, retina-scorching laser spectacular. No wonder no one’s blinking; they’re probably immersed in some kind of hallucinogenic Floyd-induced trance… and we’re sure they wouldn’t be the first.
The Australian Pink Floyd show offers a perfectly executed musical and visual experience on a par with the real thing – but it’s more than that. If Gilmour and co put their issues behind them to join each other on stage once again, the set would be different: there’d likely be no Barrett songs, perhaps only a smattering of older material. Here, we get a generous helping of everything. It’s a unique and hypnotic affair.
The two guitarists are true students of Gilmour; Mac, an original Aussie Floyd veteran who’s been imitating his hero since 1988, and the lavishly-named David Domminney Fowler, their (relatively) new recruit. A few minutes into our pre-gig chat, it’s clear that their love of the slender, tasteful licks that emanate from David Gilmour’s guitar goes way, way beyond a simple fascination.
These guys are living inside those albums, and that’s why they do them such justice. Indeed, this tribute band is so good that they’re endorsed by the subjects of their obsession. Gilmour requested they appear at his 50th back in 1996, which although some might say seems a little narcissistic on his part, it was a dream come true for Mac.
Roger Waters even asked him along for a world tour. The APF show is clearly the business and the live schedule proves it, with sold out dates welcoming them at venues all over the world.
So how do the Aussie Pink Floyd guitarists manage to mirror the great man so successfully? A steadfast love of the band is obviously essential.
‘I’d say Pink Floyd played a massive part for me from the age of about 14 onwards,’ says Fowler, ‘and later in life they’ve definitely become my favourite band.’ Mac concurs; ‘I’m goo goo gaga over Gilmour stuff,’ he says.
Having two guitarists certainly makes the job easier. ‘From about 1974 onwards Floyd always toured with two guitarists,’ Mac explains. ‘Snowy White used to tour with them back in those days.’ ‘A lot of the guitar parts on the albums were two guitars or more,’ agrees Fowler. ‘Even if you go back to something like Dark Side Of The Moon, Breathe has the rhythm track with the Univibe, and the lap steel slide parts too.’
In comparison, other tribute bands have it easy. When you survey the gargantuan task of breaking down Pink Floyd’s vast and complex soundscapes, it’s a wonder anyone took up the challenge… but this band has turned it into an art. How do they go about it?
‘It depends on the songs,’ Mac explains. ‘I have an enormous collection of bootlegs. We do a version of Careful With That Axe Eugene which is kind of our own version, made up of different parts of dozens of versions from the bootlegs.’
Fowler remains true to his quarry right down to the solos. ‘Gilmour has done so many different live takes of Sorrow that I could, in theory, sort of do what I want… but if I started straying, it wouldn’t be right. People haven’t turned up to hear me, they’ve turned up to hear Gilmour.
It’s the same with the second Brick In The Wall solo. It’s more about picking what bits of Gilmour I want to use.’
The Aussie Pink Floyd show is a triumph of logistics. ‘The structure is all tied in with the production – the lights and the video and stuff,’ Mac explains. ‘We begin by working in the studio, and when we get the piece together then we take it on the road.
A song may change a little bit here and there if you feel a little bit different on the night, or we might get good feedback so we might sustain it a bit longer. We’re trying to put on a very authentic show.’
‘We have full rehearsals at the LH2 in London, a massive pre-production studio,’ says Fowler. ‘First we go through it on our own, and then we record one of those rehearsals and that gets sent to the lighting guys and the video guys so that they can use it to cue things and sync things up.
They can almost start plotting the lighting plans and the designs before we get there.’
For both the APF guitarists the secret to Gilmour’s sound is more about technique than anything else. ‘He’s very, very precise. He’s very powerful, yet graceful,’ enthuses Mac. ‘The most important thing is his finger control and his strength… he’s got a beautiful vibrato. He’s always very emotional, and he really plays for the song.
He doesn’t really try any classical type things, fingertapping or anything – it’s a combination of blues pentatonics and more melodic things.’
‘Most of it comes from the fingers,’ agrees Fowler. ‘Gilmour can plug into a Twin with his Strat and still sound like him. Someone who doesn’t play like him could grab my guitar and go through Steve’s rig and it’s not going to work, because they’ll produce harmonics with their fingers that Gilmour wouldn’t do.’
What about his choice of keys and chords? ‘David Gilmour really likes E minor. A lot of the songs that he has had a lot to do with are in E minor or D minor, but most of his big solos are in E minor… though G minor is a good key for Shine On You Crazy Diamond. E minor is a great key because you can always fall down back near the nut.
You can really go for it down there and work all the way up, and once you’re playing around the 12th fret in the neck pickup position it really “ooohs”. I don’t think I’ve heard a better “oooh” sound than David Gilmour’s.’
‘When it comes to chords,’ Mac continues, ‘he loves doing three-note chords on the G, B and E strings all the way up and down the neck. Run Like Hell is a good example of that, and so is Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2).
The thing with Pink Floyd is this: David Gilmour might not be the most technical guitarist in the world, not compared to someone like Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai, but it’s the way you have to play it and the sound – that’s what takes the effort and the time.
To me, he’s got some of the best guitar sounds I’ve ever heard in my life. That’s the job that you’re really trying to achieve – to get the sound right. It’s such a big part of the music.’
‘I think that some of his playing seems a lot faster than it is,’ Fowler continues. ‘There’s points in solos where it sounds like he’s doing a widdly guitar part, but actually it’s not. It’s a lot more thought-out and a lot more careful than you’d think on first listen.
That’s one of the most amazing things about him. Some guitar solos where people are just shredding leave you cold, and you don’t remember a thing afterwards. With Gilmour solos, you can sing every note. It’s his own vocal piece.’
The pair’s appreciation of Gilmour even extends into the Barrett-era Floyd material. ‘A lot of the time we’re imitating a later Pink Floyd version of a Barrett tune,’ points out Fowler. ‘For example, on this tour we’ve been doing Arnold Layne, and the reference point for that was Gilmour live at the Albert Hall when David Bowie was singing with him.
We do that purely because – for me, anyway – the old recordings of Barrett doing it are quite messy. You’re not going to try and recreate that guitar sound because it just wouldn’t sound right coming through this kind of modern technology and modern rig.’ ‘You draw from all of it,’ Mac agrees. ‘If it’s too modern-sounding, you miss the mark as well.’ ‘Something like Arnold Layne, though, is pretty simple,’ adds Fowler. ‘It’s a Telecaster and a Vox AC30 and a Hammond organ sort of sound.’
From tonight’s stellar performance we know the Aussie Pink Floyd have nailed the technique, but the gear looks pretty tasty too… and there’s a heck of a lot of it. ‘My rig’s had 20 years of development,’ Mac explains. ‘We built Dave’s rig only six months ago, so that’s still a work in progress. We could only get so much done in the time we had so it was very much about looking at all the different songs, looking at Dave’s parts and trying to get the right pedals and combinations of stuff.
Next tour there’ll be more and more kit and eventually it’ll probably be as elaborate as mine. You can only do so much in stages, if you threw it all in it would just be too complex.’
To add to their collective smorgasbord of effects including MXR, Colorsound, Line 6, Boss, RJM, Ibanez, Orange, Analogman, Electro-Harmonix and Blackstar, no true Pink Floyd tribute would be complete without some kind of input from master-effects maestro Pete Cornish – the man behind Gilmour’s famous set-up.
‘I’ve bought several pedals from him,’ says Mac. ‘And so has Dave, and he’s made some custom things for us too.’ Fowler makes sure that G&B takes a photo of his effects rack with the drawer pulled put to reveal his custom-built Cornish P-2 overdrive – the most impressive pedal in his rig.
‘That’s the money shot!’ laughs Mac. ‘I went down and stayed down at Pete’s place for a couple of days some years ago and he had some of David Gilmour’s gear down there and he let me play through it. I was like, “Right, that’s the one I need!”’
Details of the real Gilmour effects rig are hardly classified information, but some of the exact specs are always going to remain a mystery. ‘I think on some bits they might have changed a resistor or a capacitor,’ says Mac, ‘but the fact that he uses a P-2 in his rig is no secret, and I don’t think his is specially customised.’
Gilmour has played many different guitars in his time, and his famous Black Strat went through a myriad of alterations. Interestingly, though, the Aussie Pink Floyd take care not to chop and change their instruments too much.
‘After much experimentation I’ve ended up sticking with one pickup,’ Mac explains. ‘It’s the Seymour Duncan Classic Stack… we both use them. They’re noise-cancelling single coils. They’ve got the staggered poles so you get that Black Strat-style vintage sound, and they give us the stability and consistency when we’re working on our sounds. If you change to a different guitar, everything’s going to sound different.’
Perhaps surprisingly, Mac’s guitars aren’t anything spectacular – but he’s managed to make them sound amazing. ‘I’ve got one, a Squier, that’s been built up, and the other one’s just a really old early ’70s Strat which my father-in-law bought for me at a car boot sale for £1.50. It’s all been modified.’ Fowler is no vintage obsessive, either. ‘The funny thing is, people say “Well, he used a 335 in 1967 so you need to go and get one of those,” but when that record was made, that would have been a brand new guitar!
‘My guitar was totally custom-made before this tour by a friend of mine… all hand-carved. It plays brilliantly. It’s needed a couple of weeks of settling down as far as tuning tweaks and stuff like that goes, but I’ve no problem with using a new instrument as opposed to period originals. I think they’re great.’
‘There’s a benefit in new technology as well as old,’ says Mac. ‘Ultimately, it’s a hybrid. Our system is about combining old with new to get old and new sounds. There’s some great modelling technology out there, but as we said earlier, a lot of it is in the fingers!’
Certainly this duo makes it sound as if they’ve had Gilmour’s fingers transplanted onto their hands, but equipment still plays an important part. Owing to the sheer scale of the job in hand, it’s all designed to cover a lot of ground. ‘We’re always trying to recreate the album – or a particular live version – as closely as possible,’ admits Fowler, ‘so our kit has to be a hell of a lot more elaborate than Gilmour’s rig does.
Where he might use the same sound for four or five different solos, we wouldn’t do that, so we can’t necessarily develop our rigs in exactly the same way that he has.’
The Aussie Pink Floyd crew is a vital part of the team, and the band have been working with the same people for many years. Sound engineer Colin Norfield operated front of house for Pink Floyd’s final world tour for the Division Bell album, and looked after Gilmour’s sound after the band split up.
‘Colin’s great. He’s fantastic. He brings so much Pink Floyd experience with him. He’s seen different aspects; the drums department, the lighting, and he knows exactly what they’ve done.’
Perhaps the band’s appeal can be summed up by one particular fan’s dedication. ‘There’s a lady that’s been following us for about 15 years who’s covered in not just Pink Floyd tattoos, but Aussie Pink Floyd tattoos! It’s a very odd feeling. We’re just a tribute band.’ On the strength of tonight’s epic, we might disagree.