A/N This weeks interviewee is a guy whose carved out a different kind of career for himself. Read on to learn how he’s managed to make his boyhood dream a reality, and the lessons learnt along the way.
Tell us a little about your career and how you ended up where you are today.
I actually have two careers – in my day job, I am a Sales & Marketing Manager for a professional audio solutions provider called Audiologic which I’ve been doing for just under three years following a number of years as a Business Development Manager for major audio manufacturers like Bose and Sennheiser. My other career (or night job, if you like) which I’ll be talking about is that of a musician.
I had a fairly traditional formal introduction to music at Rishworth School – 10 years of piano, flute and theory lessons along with studies in ‘A’ and ‘O’ Levels (including an ‘O’ Level in History and Appreciation of Music which I took a year earlier.) This was only part of the story though as there were many opportunities to further your musical experience at school including the annual Music Competition and various other activities into which I always threw myself wholeheartedly!
When I left school, I went to live in South Africa with my parents and, owing to my ‘A’ Level grades not quite being what I needed for my chosen University, I decided to start work in a local music shop in Johannesburg called Soundhouse. It was there that I began to meet many of the local musicians and found that keyboard players like me who could read music and understood synthesisers were a relative rarity – everyone wanted to be a guitarist or drummer! So – I joined my first function band called ‘Atlantic’ in 1989 – and was promptly fired from the band three months later for not wanting to rehearse!
Over the next year or so, I ‘paid my dues’ (and in doing so learned some much-needed humility and desire to rehearse) in all sorts of different environments including a production company who used to put bands together for specific events. I would receive a phone call in the morning and, if I was available would have to meet the band of musicians (usually different from the last ‘band’ that was put together) that afternoon – have a brief rehearsal then play for a corporate function that night! The pressure was immense, but the experience of playing different music with different musicians on every occasion certainly did wonders for my versatility as a player.
I spent 1991 to the end of 1993 playing hundreds of gigs for various South African bands including Toys for Girls, Communique, Skippy & Savannah and Dessi B – from tiny little pubs where no-one came to listen, to large clubs with a few thousand people. Throughout all this, I also maintained a day job – first with Soundhouse until 1992 then I went to work for the local distributor of the keyboards that I used as a Technical Product Specialist. The day job was a concession to my parents’ old-school concern for the transitory nature of the music industry, but that also honed my work ethic so there were no complaints!
At the end of 1993, I joined a rock theatre show called Stage Fright as Assistant Musical Director which happened after the producer of the show saw me play at a Benefit Concert for one of the local musicians who had been in a road accident – he liked my rather ‘energetic’ playing style (I was not really one for just sitting behind the keyboards – I had been known to break keys and send keyboards flying off their stands in my enthusiasm:)) so a year of playing in theatres began. During this year, the Miss World pageant was held at Sun City in Bophutatswana and the band from Stage Fright had the honour of playing for the Coronation Ball – certainly the largest gig of my career to-date, seen by quite a few people on TV.
I returned to England at the end of 1995 and didn’t play for a while following falling down some stairs in April 1996 and breaking my right wrist in three places. I spent some 18 months getting my hand and wrist put back together and the operation (a Brunnelli Procedure) actually featured in a book by the surgeon as it was a relatively complex rehabilitation.
In 2004, whilst working for Harman Pro, I discovered that many of my colleagues were musicians – including a singer who I knew from my time in South Africa. We had a brief discussion about playing music, went to a random band name generator on the internet and ‘5 Consultants And Their Fish’ was born… We were all mid-30’s professionals by this time with no desire to go back to playing in the pubs and clubs for next to no money, so targetted the high-end wedding industry as a ‘music solution’.
We attended our first Wedding Fair in October 2004 with (I’m slightly ashamed to admit:) pictures on the walls of the exhibition stand (which were actually stock photos off the internet) ‘signed’ by famous people thanking us for our services at their weddings!! Despite the little exaggeration (we hadn’t actually played a gig together by this stage) we left that fair with £11,000’s worth of deposit cheques!
In 2008, 5CATFish (as we became to be known) were voted ‘Entertainment Supplier of the Year to the Wedding Industry’ in the Wrapit Awards held at Claridges. The band continued through to 2011 when I took a break to study my MBA at Warwick Business School.
Coming right up to date, in March of this year I was approached to stand-in with ‘The Meatloaf Story’ for the last 9 nights of a national theatre tour after they had lost two other keys players to accidents… I had one night to learn the full two hour show and, after the first night, which was – well – a little unprepared, shall we say, the remainder of the tour went well, culminating in me being asked to join the other show which this company produces – ‘Vampires Rock’. We are currently in rehearsals and the 40-night national theatre tour starts on October 2nd.
What makes someone good in your chosen field?
A mixture of reliability, flexibility and ensuring that, in amongst doing something that you love in return for money (which is not the case with every career) you treat playing music as just another career and deal with it as professionally as any other job. Also, it’s important to be able to get-on with people…
What mediums/areas do you mostly operate in?
In terms of musical style, most of my experience has been in rock, soul and pop.
What can be challenging about your profession?
Owing to my preference of maintaining two careers, the main challenge is logistics, especially with the looming tour with Vampires Rock. Learning time for new material can be a real drain on what would normally be my spare time too, so I am lucky to have an understanding and supportive wife!
What do you most like about your profession?
I get to do what I dreamed of as a child every time I go on stage! I’m lucky to be in a position where I am able to be a little more choosy about the musical jobs I do these days and so have the honour of playing with some incredible musicians which just drives me to improve. Also, music is something that you never stop learning – I’ve been playing for almost 40 years and I’ve just started seeing someone for lessons in composition.
What has been your most embarrassing professional moment?
The first night of the recent Meatloaf Story gigs is right up there! Meatloaf tends to be all about the piano in some of the tunes and there are some especially prominent piano-based introductions to songs in the show. With only one day to learn the set, I was hopelessly unprepared and when the follow-spot light shone on me for the intro to ‘For Crying Out Loud’ I basically froze and the ensuing 30 seconds or so were akin to the great Les Dawson! Traumatizing in front of 600-700 ardent Meatloaf fans, but I think they forgave me…
What has been your most nerve-wracking professional moment?
There have been a few, but playing the fanfare for the entry of Miss World to the Coronation Ball in 1994 was certainly one of them. Also, my favourite band is an American rock band called Toto and I played in a tribute band to them a few years ago. We rehearsed for about 7 months as some of their music is really quite challenging to play as they have two keyboard players and I was trying to cover both keys parts on my own. We booked a venue called ‘The Robin 2’ in Wolverhampton for our first gig and I had to go on stage to play an instrumental to open the show in front of a few hundred hardened Toto fans – for some reason, one of my most terrifying musical moments.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting out their careers; especially in your field?
Be on time, be professional, be flexible, be friendly… (OK – that’s four pieces, but they’re all so important!)
Is there anything else you would like to share?
There are a few professional musicians who I am delighted to call my friends and they all share my views (or I share theirs, whichever way you view it) of working just as hard at music as you do at any other job in order to succeed.
You might not get to be in the Charts with a Number 1 album, but you can still make a good living from having more than one string to your musical bow – one of my favourite drummers plays, tours, teaches, writes, plays clinics for equipment manufacturers and makes sure he brings his best to everything he does.
Andy Lewis is a professional keyboard Player/Musician.
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