Keep on Rolling
Alastair McIver speaks with Wet Wet Wet legend Graeme Duffin about his longevity and survival
in the music industry
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Sat in a sold-out theatre, dotted purple and red speaker lights ahead of us on stage, the conversational hum before the band arrives on stage, followed by an expectant hush as the house lights dim. And then it happens. Shadowy figures from our past emerge from the wings, legends before our very eyes. The hair may be a bit greyer, the denims a little more faded, but from the moment the first chord arrives, we are reminded that the music has stood the test of time.
There are only a handful of bands these days – with originals in tow – that can claim longevity. The Glasgow-based band Wet Wet Wet is one of them. From the moment they launch into their first song, the audience are on up and on their feet, rising as one to sing and dance to the band’s tried and tested back catalogue, including such hits as ‘Somewhere somehow’, ‘Julia says’, ‘Goodnight girl’, ‘Behind the smile’, and the iconic ‘Love is all around’, the soundtrack song for Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Just two hours before they took to the stage on one of the stops on their recent nationwide tour, I was able to sit down with Graeme Duffin, a fixture on lead guitar and vocals for more than three decades. Duffin joined the band back in 1984, and has his own distinctive answers to the age-old question, “How could four lads, who began life strumming their guitars and drinking coffee in a Glasgow kitchen in the 1980s, still be rocking their way around the world?”
To the casual Wets’ observer, it’s a question that overnight took on extra significance and became harder to answer the moment its charismatic front man, Marti Pellow, announced his departure in July 2017. For some bands, that departure might have marked the beginning of the end. For Duffin, though, the band’s enduring appeal is greater than just one man. There is more to survival in the music business than just personalities. Friendship and faith play their part too, as Duffin explained.
“It was immediately after the band’s gig in Edinburgh Castle, celebrating the 30th year since their first hit single, that Marti’s management announced that he had left the band. I didn’t know it was going to happen, none of us did, so it was a bit of a shock. The band had always kept going even after a bit of a hiatus in the early 2000s, but we never wound up. After Marti’s announcement, the guys were left with the option of calling it a day or continuing, trying to find a new singer.”
Pellow’s departure could have consigned the band to its place in the archives of modern rock history. But the arrival of former Liberty X singer Kevin Simm in 2018 brought new energy and life to an impressive song catalogue and meant that the band was able to regroup and continue its journey. “Our keyboard player, Neil suggested Kevin [Simm] and so they put the call in, and he was interested… and here he is,” recalls Duffin. “He’s a remarkably level-headed guy and he’s enjoying it and handling it very well with the Wets and we’re obviously delighted. Losing Marti in the way we did was disappointing, but he has wished us all well and he seems OK now. I thank God for him and I’ve told him that.”
The Pellow departure was obviously an unwelcome development for the band, but Duffin’s warm and generous words – not least towards his oft-troubled former colleague – is one of the reasons perhaps why he is a survivor in what is often perceived to be one of life’s more challenging industries. Life on the road can either make or break you. In rock and roll, it’s often the latter. But Duffin cites genuine friendship and professional respect for each of his fellow band members, as they do for him, something which has kept them on the road for so long.
Sometimes tagged as the unofficial fifth member of the band, he remains one of its stalwarts; sound, solid and seriously talented.“I have never been an official member of the band,” he says, “but I’ve always been in it. Before the band got signed, I was asked to audition as a session guitarist, and I’ve stayed on ever since. Part of the reason is that it’s a perfectly sensible and reasonable job, but I have never, and won’t ever make the mistake that I’m irreplaceable.”
Humility and modesty are deep-rooted in the Duffin ethos, a grounding earthed in his upbringing as a child, not in music, but in faith. His family weren’t musical and his parents didn’t share their son’s aspirations. “I was brought up in a loving and strict Christian environment,” Duffin says. “It was all fairly normal and ordinary. My dad was a motor mechanic who went into management and my mother was a nurse to sick children, although she was also artistic and painted as a hobby, so maybe that is where my creative side comes from. They wanted me to get a ‘normal’ job, I think, but I wanted to play the guitar. I remember I had to be quite persistent.”
It’s no wonder Duffin was drawn to the guitar. He grew up in an era of legendary guitar heroes. “I used to love listening to the likes of Steve Howe, from Yes, Jan Akkerman from a Dutch band, Focus. He’s still going and probably playing better than he’s ever played. Also Hank Marvin [the Shadows] had an influence on me. The other influence at that point was the incredible jazz guitarist, John McLaughlin who fronted the hugely successful and pioneering band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Some of my favourite John McLaughlin work was from his time when he was in a trio and playing guitar with nylon strings.”
Another genre admired by Duffin in his pre-Wet years was, perhaps surprisingly, Flamenco. “I really love Paco de Lucia, from Spain. Innovative Flamenco at its best. He is the most outrageous guitar player I’ve ever heard.” Those influencers – and a lot of hard work – are the reasons that Duffin, 30 years on, is one of the music industry’s most respected lead guitarists. As we spoke on completion of this feature, he was heading to the Olympic stadium in Munich with the Wets in support of Phil Collins, no less. The legends live on.
So after a lifetime of rocking the nation, how does it feel to be still touring? “In the and 80s and 90s,” he recalls, “there was much more touring, but the tours weren’t so long that it became a problem. They were well-spaced apart and we had good breaks. Actually, the longest stretches away from home were, by and large, studio recording sessions because in those days, the writing process happened in the studio. But with international tours, if there was any opportunity for my wife and kids to come, I took them, especially in the UK but also when we went to the USA. They all came over in ’89 when we were supporting Elton John. It was so brave of my wife, Pamela, to book flights from Prestwick to New York and travel with our two young kids, Esther and 18-month-old Jamie, especially as I recall the plane was full and Jamie didn’t have a seat!”
Family is important to Duffin and he delights in supporting his daughter, Esther, together with her husband, Tim, who a few years back formed a New Country/Americana band, Ashton Lane, which achieved a No One album in the UK Country music chart last year, after what Duffin called “a lot of hard work for a small, independent operation.” The band tours and has a large online, social media following at ashtonlaneofficial.com and her success is something of which dad, Graeme, is rightly proud, not least because he recognises how hard it is for today’s aspiring musicians to make it in their chosen profession. Huge changes have taken place in the industry, and that is why in 2009, he opened up his own studio, the Foundry, in Motherwell, a place where he can support and advise musicians entering the industry today. Having experienced both the then and the now of the music business, Duffin knows the challenges facing the today’s generation.
“It’s so difficult nowadays for up and coming musicians,” he says. “You not only have to be good musically and creatively, you also have to be your own agent and promoter, and everything else. But equally, the same technology that has contributed to the demise of the record industry has also allowed the creation of very affordable home studio environments. Even the whole streaming of music has decimated sales of hard copy. I started the Foundry because the industry isn’t really there to the same extent as it used to be. It’s much smaller, the infrastructure for selling and promoting new music has completely changed and continues to change. So the income from record sales is a fraction of what it would have been in the 80s and 90s. Very few major record companies remain and they don’t invest. Aspirational singers seem to end up having to resort to reality TV programmes. The talent is certainly there in reality shows but sadly the most entertaining are those who are terrible, and they get abused. Even good singers and musicians – regardless of how talented they are – can be forgotten about at the end of the series. People aren’t interested any more. Kevin Simm is a remarkable exception. He’s been through it twice and survived, firstly for Liberty X, who were runners-up on Pop Idol, and then winning The Voice in 2016. But he’ll tell you himself, no one returns your phone calls. They build you up and there’s all this hype, only to let you down.”
Perhaps, given that Duffin was growing up with and listening to such a varied and accomplished list of top-class guitarists, it should be no surprise that he has become one himself. And his legacy is still being built in his guitar-playing and fronting for Wet Wet Wet. Today, however, it’s not guitar heroes who he cites when asked about current influences; it’s Christian preachers.
“Two of my main influences just now would be American pastor Greg Boyd from Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, and Richard Rohr,” says Duffin. “Greg has an enquiring intellect, and it seems to me that when we are on the road, with all of its stresses and isolation, we have a responsibility to engage with the best knowledge and research that we can on any subject. The other one is a Franciscan, Richard Rohr, who runs a retreat in Alberquerque in New Mexico. There are others but my desire is to engage with God and these guys help me to do so when I am on the road. I’m also reading a book by another influential American, Bob Ekblad, who is an extraordinary teacher… he has an incredibly powerful ministry in the States, running Bible classes in the prisons. The stories he tells are just incredible. There are some fantastic people of faith in America. At home, certainly when we’re all at home as a family and extended family, we do household prayers in the morning. I tend to deviate slightly when on tour. I have my Bible on my phone.”
Such devotion and routine have kept Duffin away from the potential excesses of his industry. They have allowed him to endure and thrive and he has never once considered quitting the business he loves.
“I have always really appreciated every opportunity that’s come my way,” he says. “So many people these days seem to be trying to live in the moment, not appreciating the fact that music is a very privileged profession to be in. I would say that we should all be living in the moment and not be preoccupied with all of the stuff that goes on around us all of the time. I appreciate my industry because I tend not to think of my faith as something separate to my work. My relationship with the Creator is so fundamental to who I am that I hardly even think in terms of myself being sustained by my faith. It’s God who sustains everything I do, so things happen as they happen and evolve as they evolve, if my focus is in the right place. I think faith is only disrespected if it’s not authentic, or something that people can see through. That’s why I don’t promote myself. I just try to be a good follower of Jesus.”