Paddy Milner & Marcus Bonfanti Interview

March 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

One of our favourite line-ups is Earl Thomas with Paddy Milner & the Big Sounds, comprising nine very talented musicians. Two of them, Paddy Milner and Marcus Bonfanti, came in to Blues In Britain to talk to Fran Leslie and made her day. Here is their unexpurgated conversation from Issue 97.

Fran: How did you two start to play together?

Marcus: It started when I moved back down to London. I was living in Liverpool for about six years and I moved into a house with Paddy. We’d met a couple of times at social events and gigs but we ended up living in the same house together for about six, seven months.
I depped a gig for Paddy’s guitarist in Paddy’s own band. From there, we got involved in the Earl Thomas project.
Paddy: I met Marcus initially through mutual friends. There were eight of us in the same house. It was after college and university, the first house that everyone lived in London; it was a great vibe, eight musicians.
Marcus: Brilliant! Not a lot of sleeping got done.
Paddy: Constant music and good times really.

Marcus Bonfanti & Paddy Milner

Fran: Was that Paddy Milner and The Big Sounds then?

Paddy: Yeah, it was put together after the first album was released, a while ago. In fact we lived with some of the other guys from The Big Sounds: Scott Wiber on bass and Randall Breneman on guitar, handy for rehearsals.
We had worked together on a few other non-blues projects as well.
Marcus: And we’ve done quite a few sessions together and stuff. We did a bit of work together with Sandi Thom. We were in a transition, as I was leaving Paddy was joining. So we had a few gigs together. Then we did some stuff with Tim Daniel, a support tour with Take That and stuff.
We spent a lot of time in splitter vans together. You can’t help but be good mates with people if you spend twelve hours in a splitter van with them.

Fran: Or you end up hating them!

Paddy: One thing we are both lucky to have (is) everyone we work with, especially in The Big Sounds, they are all amazing people. There’re never any big problems. If there are any problems, they get resolved. It’s never come to blows.
Marcus: Or even a raised voice.

Fran: They are a fun bunch of people. Do some of The Big Sounds play on Marcus’ album? Obviously you do, Paddy, and Scott (Wiber) the bass player.

Marcus: Yeah and Alex (Reeves) the drummer; basically it’s very incestuous. My stuff, as your stuff is now (on Paddy’s album in progress), is stripped down and kind of simple, instrumentation wise. You’ve got baritone sax as well.
Paddy: Both our new albums don’t have the big instrumentation like I’ve done before and the stuff we’ve done with Earl Thomas. Marcus’ band is a three piece with Alex Reeves and Scott Wiber, who also play with me and in The Big Sounds with Earl Thomas as well.
Marcus: When you find a group of musicians who are that competent at what they do in an incredible way, like the people we work with, sometimes you look at the stage and think, ‘Wow there’re some amazing players in this band!’. (They are) some of the best players I have ever met. Like Paddy says as well, such lovely people. You find this group of people and you constantly want to work with them because you know what you are going to get out of them. It is just fantastic playing and intuitive thinking towards your stuff. Alex Reeves is a real thinker, isn’t he?
Paddy: Yeah! Everyone in the band, they are very musical about what they do. Despite the fact that they have all got amazing chops and are great players, they work towards the whole and do what is best for the music.
Marcus: Yeah, no one sees it as a showcase or anything; it’s a band.
Paddy: They are all into lots of music as well as blues. I think that is something that our music reflects as well. Although we are rooted in the blues and have always loved it and played it, there’s a lot of other stuff as well and we always try to involve it all.

Fran: Jazz musicians think a blues is a twelve-bar format, whereas I think that blues is about the feeling. There is nothing that you play that is devoid of an emotional feel. Everything you do is a blues in that sense, whatever the rhythm.

Marcus: I feel the same way. As long as it is coming from the soul, with some sort of emotion behind it, you’re not playing with your head but with your heart, that’s the blues.
Paddy: It annoys me at a jazz gig when people say, ‘We’re going to do such and such a tune. It’s OK, nothing complicated, it’s just a blues!’ It’s not just a blues.
Marcus: A lot of the stuff you like best is the stuff that isn’t twelve-bar, like the old Muddy Waters stuff and Robert Johnson. There’s no twelve-bar about it!
Paddy: It’s just so free and everyone flies...

Fran: Marcus, how did you become a permanent member of the Big Sounds?

Marcus: I just turned up and they never asked me to leave. (Laughter)
Paddy: That was when we first started working with Earl Thomas, or he first started working with us. It was 2007, when I first met Earl in America. Then he came across and did a one off gig with our friend Todd Sharpville. Scott Wiber the bass player was on that gig as well. Earl got talking to Scott and found that he played with me. Earl needed a band; he was booked for Burnley Blues Festival, as Earl Thomas, and for the Paul Jones’ (show on Radio 2) broadcast. He gave me and Scott a call to put the thing together and it just made sense to get the whole band together. We had a warm up thing together at Dover Street (Wine Bar). Originally Randall Breneman, who always plays with me in the big band, couldn’t do it. We asked Marcus to dep for him but, at the last minute, Randall could do the gig but rather than tell Marcus to have an early night, we said, ‘Why not? Just come and join in as well!’ and it worked really, really well. Randall and Marcus, they’ve known each other a long time.
Marcus: We went to university together. Usually, if he couldn’t do a gig, I would be the dep for it, so we never really got to work together on anything. So it was great that we had a project like this.

Fran: Did everything start happening after that?

Paddy: Yes, through the recording for Paul Jones, Earl loved our vibe, we loved what he brought to the band. When we did the recording for the BBC, we thought, ‘This sounds great! Why don’t we record a few more songs and put it out as an album?’ Then we thought, ‘No, keep the BBC things for another time and just let’s just do a new album.’
Marcus: Yeah; it was great fun recording that!
Paddy: It was awesome fun. We all brought songs to the table, so it rapidly became rather than Earl with a backing band, much more of a collaborative thing. Randall brought three songs, I’ve got a couple on there, Earl brought some, everyone brought their own arrangement ideas.
Marcus: It was very quick, within about four days, two days rehearsing, two days recording, we had an album.

Fran: Some of the songs are so emotional; your Right To Your Soul, Paddy and Earl’s It’s Better To Have Loved and Lost. It’s a dream band. In Earl Thomas, you’ve got this gorgeous bloke who can really sing and is an incredible front man and not just a backing band but an array of talents, all of you out there, not so much starring but the whole combination is incredibly good. Earl’s lucky to have you. Your band is a lot of individual characters, who are all creating the whole.

Paddy: A lot of people say similar things, that it is something very special, something they haven’t seen for a long time.
Marcus: We always say when we go on tour it’s just like going on holiday with your mates really. We all go together, have a great time, play some great music, then, at the end of it, you get paid! (Laughter) The money seems like a bonus at the end; brilliant!

Fran: So the Earl Thomas with Paddy Milner & The Big Sounds album came out in 2009.

Paddy: Yes, although it never actually had a proper release. Essentially it’s been something we have been selling at gigs; selling quite a few actually. That’s where the strength of it is.

Fran: This is a really good example of what you do live.

Marcus: I think we really replicate that quite well, with that extra excitement that you get from a live gig. When I listen to that, I still feel it’s an exciting record. It was done live, all nine of us in the studio together playing our arses off.
Paddy: There were quite a few literally spontaneous arrangements, quite a few first take of things we’d only talked through on the day in the studio.

Fran: That’s the way to make a blues album. You could just sit in a bar and make one.

Marcus: That’s how the old Alan Lomax recordings were made. They would record a guy wherever they could find somewhere quiet enough to do it. They’d just stick a mic in front of him and it’s some of the most beautiful music that’s ever been recorded.

Fran: Someone was telling me that Freddie King would walk into the studio and put his amp down next to the vocal mic; when the producer protested that they would get leakage, Freddie said, ‘Yeah!’ That’s what it sounds like live.

Paddy: We do a version of “Pack It Up”, a Freddie King song. We did a blues festival this summer, in Spain in Antequera (near Malaga) and we played it. At the end of the night, this guy came up and it turned out to be (record producer) Mike Vernon. He said, ‘It’s good to hear “Pack It Up”. I produced that track with Freddie King!’
Marcus: I’m glad I knew that afterwards, not before. (laughter)

Fran: Did you have an A&R Man or producer for your album, Marcus?

Marcus: My label was very good. They just seemed to leave me to get on with it. They seem to be supportive of what I do.

Fran: I really like your voice or voices. On the first track, you sound like a tuneful Tom Waits and on a couple of songs, Don’t Wanna Come Home and What Good Am I To You, you sound like Eric Bibb.

Marcus: I love Tom Waits, thank you! Someone once said to me (that) I was Tom Waits and Van Morrison’s love child! (Laughing!) I think he meant I have a gravely voice.
I do like Eric Bibb. I have been to see him live a couple of times. Eric Bibb sounds really folky to me, lot of the time. That version of “Angel” the Jimi Hendrix song he does on Painting Signs album, I saw him do it live. It was just him and a piano, no guitar on it and it was just one of those things that moves you to tears, just beautiful.

Fran: Your harmonica playing on God Only Knows makes it like Stone Fox Chase.

Marcus: Yeah, I am a very functional harmonica player. I’m not very good but I get a good rhythm out of it.

Fran: It has that raw quality to it that is spot on.

Paddy: Yeah! It’s all about the vibe. I think that track has a great vibe, great lyrics!
Marcus: …and a good groove to it.

Fran: There is a great variety of material on the album, an eclectic mix. Why did you choose these songs?

Marcus: I wrote them all after finishing the first record. It just reflects where I was going. I was doing a lot of travelling, playing around the place and a lot of solo gigs. When I look down the list, I can pinpoint one and say ‘That’s what that was about. I must have written that song about such and such an event,’ but only after the fact; I never know while I am writing them. Like Paddy said, we both listen to a hell of a lot of music. Obviously, we always listen to blues but other stuff that we are into stretches right out. We want to put those influences into the music we play, to make it something that is ours.

Fran: So it’s an anthology of your songs rather than a concept album.

Marcus: I suppose the concept is I just want it to sound like me.

Fran: Well, your singing with three different voices is unique to you. Did you do singing when you were at LIPA? (Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts)

Marcus: Singing was one of the reasons I left LIPA. I didn’t have any money and I had a band but we didn’t have any vocal tunes so we couldn’t get any gigs; we just played instrumental stuff. It was all well and good but no one really wanted to hear it. I decided to sing out of necessity so we could get some gigs and earn some money and eat food.

Fran: Did your family sing?

Marcus: My dad was a singer in church. He does like great singers. He would play me John Lennon, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Geno Washington and people like that. He would tell me that these are good singers. This is what you want to do if you want to do music.

Fran: Lots of people, who have had guitar lessons, never have singing lessons. They imagine that you only have lessons if there is something wrong with your voice. Singing in the wrong way can damage your vocal cords.

Marcus: A lot of people don’t realise that singing lessons are not to try and change your voice; it’s to make sure you can carry on singing like you do, forever.
When I got to LIPA, it was great for my personal development because I had only been playing guitar for a couple of years. To see the talent that was there, and there are some really talented people, at our college, when you go there you’re surrounded by all these people who are incredible in so many different ways, it really does make you up your game. You look around and go, ‘OK, these guys are my contemporaries and are way better than me. I’ve got to work hard here!
It’s the way you approach it; you could go ‘Right, make me a star!’ or you could go to any college really and go, ‘OK what can I learn from the people who are around me?’ That’s something we have always taken to musical situations any way. Working with The Big Sounds, the amount I’ve learnt, in the two years I have been with them, far outweighs anything I have learnt there, in Liverpool.

Fran: Paddy, when you were at uni, was there any emphasis on performance?

Paddy: I went to Kings College, in London. It was very different from LIPA, much more academic course, based on western classical music. I was into loads of different music, very contemporary as well, so looking at lots of concepts in music, philosophy and theory and politics and how it fits into musical life. There was performance, which was taught at the Royal Academy of Music, so you had lessons there. I chose to take jazz lessons there, develop that side of my playing. More than anything, it made me listen to all sorts of weird and wonderful music, some really odd things and open my ears to loads of stuff that I would never have come across before. I can’t say that a lot of that has gone into the albums I make, or the songs that I write, but it has made me aware of this other world of music.
I have been giging since the age of thirteen. It’s something I have always done and something I was always going to continue to do. It was a bit difficult sometimes, like when I was on tour with Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges or Eddie Martin, Todd Sharpville and played with Big Joe Turner for a bit. I’d often go away for a couple of weeks and have to come up with excuses for the tutors. Being the classical professors that they were, they just did not approve of me missing college to play blues. Had I been on tour with an orchestra, it may have been different.

Fran: You turned out all right; I am sure you are a credit to them.

Marcus: Damn right, you can play the arse off any classical piece as well! (Laughter!)
There is nothing that says you have to stay the full three years. If you go there and think, ‘I’ve learnt a lot from this place. I’ve got what I need,’ and I’ve met Scott Wiber and Randall Breneman, who I still work with to this day. So it was always important but I didn’t need a degree. My mum needed the degree. My parents came to my graduation. I played at it but I didn’t graduate. They hired my band.
I reckon we both knew what we wanted to do, pretty early on. As soon as I touched the guitar, I was like, ‘That’s it now!’

Fran: How’s your next album coming on, Paddy? Is it still a work in progress?

Paddy: Well, it’s being mixed at the moment. It’s all recorded. The core idea is built round piano, percussion and voice. A lot of the piano parts that I write have a very busy right hand, coming from the old boogie tradition. I have often found electric bass conflicts a bit with the left hand, so I wanted to do something that has the punchiness of the drum kit but has bottom end. It was really fun, it was Alex Reeves, again, part of the family, who played not so much a drum kit but percussive drums. He had a really old a 1920s bass drum, which was tuned really low down so it’s got this bottom end that sits nicely under the left hand of the piano. It’s just a slightly different sound, rather quirky, not the traditional sound. There are a few tracks where perhaps it needed to bit more bottom end, so I added some tuba to it. A good friend of mine, Reuben Crowther, who I was at school with, he’s a great tuba player and he’s played in lots of New Orleans funk bands with tuba and bass.
Marcus: It’s brilliant with the tuba; a lovely, lovely little touch.
Paddy: I guess it’s a bit of a nod to the old New Orleans sound. There is definitely a New Orleans influence on quite a lot of tracks, a rolling piano sound. It’s quite an eclectic mix; a few covers, Muddy Waters’ “Louisiana Blues”, I just love the song. Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”, which I have taken apart and put back together in what I hope is a complimentary way but has its own sound. Doing covers, you either have to be bringing something new to it or be as faithful as possible; I hope I’ve brought something new that works. There’re horns on a few tracks and a cello. That will be out sometime in 2010.
Marcus: I have heard the rough mixes and it’s a real treat.

Fran: What else are you doing?

Paddy: I’m a regular member of the Ronnie Scott’s Blues Experience, with Tony Remy, which started a monthly Monday residency at the club in 2009. We’ve had some great nights, always sold out, with special guests including Jack Bruce, Earl Thomas, Matt Schofield, Earl Green, Eddie Martin, Todd Sharpville. Marcus will be guesting with us in 2010 and there’s talk of some blues legends sitting in with the band over the next few months, so it should be an exciting year for the blues at Ronnie’s.
Also Marcus and I are looking to doing some more work together, just the two of us.
Marcus: We tried it out at The Ramsbottom Festival. That was good fun.
Paddy: A lot of fun! We come from the same direction but, I guess, express it in slightly different ways.
Marcus: It works well with piano and guitar and we both do a bit of percussion and vocals. It was a really good sound that we got.

Fran: It always is, every which way!

Marcus Bonfanti: What Good Am I To You? (P3MCD025 2009)
Marcus Bonfanti: Hard Times (Guitar Label 2009)

Earl Thomas with Paddy Milner & The Big Sounds: Earl Thomas with Paddy Milner & The Big Sounds (IX) (ETPMBS01)
Paddy Milner: Old, New, Borrowed, Blue (a working title) will be out in 2010

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Comments (4)


  1. John Taylor says:

    We need to do more to support guys like these, they are young, talented and fresh. Lets get behind them, offer advice and opportunities.

  2. Michael says:

    Their concert at Bronte Blues Club was great fun…excellent musicianship and communication …thanks, Fran, for this article which alerted us to them.

  3. Roger Allen says:

    Marcus & Paddy are the real deal, these musicians need to be more recognised in UK, by the way they are both booked to play this years Hebden Bridge Blues festival 27-30 May 2011

  4. Thurman Woods says:

    Just ran into these guys in Lugano, Switzerland. I have officially renamed the band, “The Real Deal”. They are a great group of musicians. After spending a week with them, they are truly genuine and nice guys. As a musician myself, I could really really appreciate their gift.

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