‘I get paid to do something I love’
Accordion genius and former shinty player Gary Innes from Spean Bridge, Lochaber talks music, sport and career highlights…
Acclaimed box player Gary Innes is one of the undisputed stars of the Celtic music scene, regularly travelling the globe as a solo artist and with his group Mànran, whose vibrant take on traditional music got a Gaelic language single into the Top 40 in the UK for the very first time this century. It’s a long way away from throwing rotten fish away for the day job, the good-humoured Scotsman tells Shelley Marsden …
Hi, Gary! You’re an established musician now, but what are your earliest memories of music?
Hearing my dad play the accordion at house parties. I used to come down and sit on the stairs and listen to everyone having a wee hoolie. That was the start of it for me – my love of the accordion and traditional music began then. I started going to lessons at eight years old with my dad, but at one point the teacher said diplomatically, ‘Maybe we should just focus on the young lad?!’ And that was it, the oul man stopped going! And that was the end of his accordion career.
How long did it take to be able to ditch the 9 to 5 for music?
It wasn’t instant, for sure. I played in the Cach Mhor Ceilidh Band (which means the Big Shite Ceilidh Band!) from the age of 14 till 19. It was actually Aly Bain, the famous fiddler that told me to get myself to Glasgow if I wanted to become a full-time musician, as that’s where it was at. And I worked in a building firm there.
When did things start happening for you?
Well I went out to Glasgow Airport one day and got 500 business cards made up for £30, and ended up spending the next two weeks handing them out to every bar, pub and club in the city. Eventually the phone started ringing, and by 2003, aged 22, I was able to sack in the labouring. I’ve been a full-time musician ever since. Looking back it was great, but at the time it felt late to me. I had pals doing the same since they
Why did it take you longer then?
I had a heap of crappy jobs first that I didn’t apply myself to! There was many a day on the building site too, getting battered with wind and hail in your face. The worst though was working for a fish farm that has since closed down. As I was the youngest, I had the job of taking all the dead fish out of the nets each week. They were all slimy mush, so your hands would just slip through them. I’d be throwing up every single week doing that. It was just grim!
Who has influenced you most deeply on the music front?
Phil Cunningham - and Capercaille and Runrig, two incredible Scottish bands.
Ironically, I have a connection with both of those bands! I ended up becoming the front cover of the platinum Runrig album Everything You See (2007) playing shinty, which was quite mental. And Capercaille’s front-woman Karen Matheson, well, I’m actually engaged to her niece, Hannah! We met at Celtic Connections where she was press officer about five years ago.
How lovely! When and how did you propose?!
Last Christmas morning at her favourite place called Aird’s Bay as she sat on Duffy’s bench in her home village of Taynuilt, by the loch. She cried that much it wasn’t until about the 27th that I was sure if she had said ‘yes’ or not!
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been a part of?
I did a world peace concert in Jordan in 2008 in the Roman theatre of Marcus
Aurelius. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was playing, together with top session musicians from across the globe. I got a shout because an American accordion player couldn’t make it. I knew one of his good pals and he gave me the nod. I was in LA at the time, and a stretch limousine came to take me to the airport. I knew then this was something special! It was broadcast live on PBS and around the world. It was crazy. I remember a whole load of security around the hotel and they told us it was for the Dalai Lhama who was also staying there. Insane. Playing with Mànran as part of Runrig’s 40th anniversary concert was also pretty amazing.
Is there a lot of love in the world for Celtic music?
There is, and it’s getting bigger. In
Scotland, it’s become ‘cool’ to be into and play traditional music. It definitely was not cool when I was growing up. Kids are going to school with accordions and pipes on their backs. We used to hide them - you didn’t want people to see you. It’s fantastic that’s all gone full circle.
Were Mànran the first band this century to reach the Top 40 with a Gaelic song?
Yes, we got to number 29 midweek, with the song Latha Math, meaning A Good Day. And that was a pretty good day. We were only six months old, we had no agent, nobody knew us from Adam. It was just an idea we had to try, and thankfully, the gamble paid off.
What are the pros and cons of touring?
I love meeting new people, seeing new places and getting paid to do what I love. Seeing how you can influence people emotionally through a piece of music. When you hear that someone’s travelled across America to come and see you, because their dad died and he listened to your music a lot when he was sick… To be a part of that emotional attachment to music is a huge honour. I’m a very positive person, so the travelling, the early starts and late nights don’t bother me. I wanted to do this for so long that now I’m here, I really don’t see the bad bits.
You were also a star shinty player until retiring from sport…
I wasn’t too bad, shinty being the sister sport to hurling in Ireland, I was fortunate enough to represent and captain Scotland against Ireland for over a decade, which is one of the highest accolades you can achieve as a shinty player. I have also won the coveted Camanachd Cup 5 times with my club Fort William and won the Albert Smith man of the match award on two of those occasions.
When and why did you stop playing?
I’d been playing senior shinty since I was 17. But November 2014 was my last season. I broke two fingers during my last season, and I was away so much with the band that I was only there for three or four weeks. Something had to give. I spoke to the club and though they were sad to see me go, they were delighted to see the music flourishing.
Which had the upper hand growing up - shinty or music?
It’s a funny one, because they both complimented each other in so many ways in my life, but they were also polar opposites. Music would keep me away from the shinty, which used to upset me – and the shinty would keep me away from the music, which would annoy me too!
What did you love about the sport?
Being involved with such a great group of guys. It’s a full contact sport so we had to know we had each other’s backs and we did, we looked after each other. We won together and lost together. It’s a bit like being in a band. You’re a wee gang, you’re in it together and then you go and have a bit of craic and a few beers together when it’s all done!
What do you love about the Scottish Highlands?
Having been so lucky to travel to so many cool places far and wide, it never really dawned on me until a few years ago just how spectacular the Highlands are on a global scale. When you grow up in them, I suppose you just take the lochs, glens, and landscapes on your doorstep a little for granted. Last year I fulfilled another wee boy dream of owning a camper van and have since spent as much time as I possibly can touring around the wee nooks and crannies of the Highlands that I hadn’t been to before. I think the music and the landscape of Scotland are as one. Add a Speyside or Islay malt into the equation, and I’m not sure you could ask for much more.
Is there a big dream you have yet to realise, Gary?
That’s a hard one. I’d so many wee boy dreams that I chased for years that I’m not sure I’ve stopped to think of any big boy dreams yet! I have been extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful family. I suppose having my own children would definitely be in there at some point, of course with a Ferrari in the garage and a jet in the garden. That would be handy for the west coast village halls…
Very funny! And what’s next for you?
I’m not exactly sure. I’m still very happy touring, making and playing music with
Mànran and grabbing all the other unique, weird and wonderful opportunities that seem to pop up every now and then. I’ve always been a massive believer in “What’s for you won’t go by you”, so in holding to that, I’ll keep working hard, playing hard and looking forward to the next adventure…