Mike Stobbie Talks Classical Training, Prog Rock and the Yamaha Avantgrand N3X

To fans of Prog Rock, Mike Stobbie is the ace keyboard wizard from Aberdeen who is one of the founding members of Pallas. Early videos and pictures show him with long hair, surrounded by racks of synths and modules and occasionally sporting a cape. However on chatting with him, it turns out that he’s had one of the most varied musical careers I’ve ever come across and seems to have loved every second of every experience. Even now he talks enthusiastically about a number of projects he has in the pipeline for this year and beyond.

The more I chat to Mike and see him play in his studio, the more it becomes apparent what a naturally gifted performer he is. He plays me excerpts of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman tracks from memory and admits that he didn’t practise his scales as much as he should have done in his youth since music came so easily to him. He has since used this gift to maximum effect and grasped every opportunity that has been presented to him throughout his career.

Mike has worked with a whole host of industry folk, including Alex James, Betty Boo, Natalie Imbruglia and more recently Tinie Tempah. He sat next to Annie Lennox in the school orchestra (she played flute, he played clarinet). He has programmed a number of West End Shows for Andrew Lloyd Webber. You may not realise it but you have probably heard Mike’s music playing in your home on multiple occasions on TV ads and the popular Aardman kids show Timmy Time, for which he composed the theme tune and all of the incidental music.

Pallas on stage with Mike Stobbie on keysQ. You’re known as a founding member of Prog Rock band Pallas, you’ve worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber and you’re composer of the music for Timmy Time. You’ve had a wide variety of musical jobs. What’s been your favourite so far?

A. My favourite is actually a gig we did at the Music Hall in Aberdeen. We were playing at the Scottish Fiddlers Rally which had a hundred fiddlers on stage playing. The stage of the venue is rather like the Royal Albert Hall’s stage, complete with huge pipe organ in the middle and we were the guest band – Fiona Kennedy, myself and Nial from Pallas. We played one of my songs called ‘This Land’, which is kind of a Celtic, Riverdance thing and at the very end of it the audience stood up from the back all the way to the front and looked like a wave, it didn’t look like humans any more, just looked like a wave – a standing ovation. Then Fiona introduced me as the composer and all the fiddlers on stage in their full Scottish regalia pointed their fiddles and bows at me, so that was the most amazing event ever.

Q. Sounds like a fantastic career highlight. Was it working with Pallas that originally bought you to London?

A. It was actually – when I was in Pallas we were a big thing in Scotland and Aberdeen but we didn’t have a record deal, so a friend of mine passed his driving test and he looked in all the telephone books to find out the names of record companies. We got seven interviews and we went down and four out of seven record companies, including Manticore which is ELP’s label, were blown away. I called Graeme up in Aberdeen and he was asking ‘How did we get on’ so I said, ‘Well, four of the companies are interested. He said ‘Great, when are they coming up to Aberdeen to see us?’ Sadly they weren’t ready to leave Aberdeen at that point and I was in a hurry, so I ended up joining another band.

Q. Did you have any formal training in music and if so, what styles were you trained in?

A. The answer is yes. It’s kind of funny, my parents went to see a play of Joan of Arc which I was in at school at the age of 10. My father said to my mother ‘Hear that guy playing the recorder, I wish Michael was musical like that’ and then, lo and behold, it was me who walked out on stage. So the next day he asked me if I fancied learning to play piano – I said yes and he got the butchers daughter to teach me piano. Within a year I was better than her, so she put me on to this really amazing teacher who had letters after her name and was very strict. So I had classical training and thought I’d take up a second instrument incase I was going to go to the Royal College or something like that. I was going to pick up the flute because Peter Gabriel played flute and then at my school I found that there was 23 openings for a flute player and only one for clarinet. I thought, I do like a challenge, so I tried to do the clarinet one and I won it. I ended up playing clarinet next to Annie Lennox in the Aberdeen Schools Orchestra, she played flute.

Q. Did You Do The Piano Grades?

A. Yep did the grades. My teacher was very strict, she put me in for all those things. In fact a funny story was – now here’s a little technique – when we were practising for the competitions and grades, she asked me to play this piece of music and then she shut the piano lid down on me. I’d lift it up and she’d wallop it down again and I said ‘How can I play it if the keys are not there?’ And she said ‘Play it as though the keys are there’. So I went (frantically taps fingers on desk), then she hit me and said ‘You’re playing the wrong notes’. I said ‘I can’t see the notes’. She said ‘Play them as though you can see them’ and I went (taps fingers again, slightly less frantically) so I played them as though I was playing the piano. Then she hit me again and I said ‘What’s wrong now?’ She said ‘You’re not playing the right levels, some of those notes are not loud enough, you should be hearing it’. So with all that stuff, I mean, she was amazing for training. When you put the piano back it’s so much easier.

Q. It’s always good to have that classical background for technique.

A. It is, I mean, I could sight read Bartok at the age of 15. I thought everyone could sight read, didn’t realise you had to learn it. It’s obviously a bit of a gift there.

Q. It certainly is! Those that know you know that you’re a very accomplished player who also plays Jazz. What got you into that style?

A. No idea! (laughs). Through generally writing, I used to do a few hundred TV commercials. I ended up doing all sorts of styles so you kind of pick up things as you go along. I mean, if you look at Peter Gabriel again, he didn’t just do Prog, he got into the Real World stuff and started mixing and matching all this music and it helps you immensely across all the genres.

Q. For our readers, who are working towards being full-time musicians but may be struggling, what’s the best piece of advice you can give?

A. Don’t give up! You’ll get a hundred no’s before you get a yes. They’ll knock you down, just pick yourself up and keep going. I’ve got some friends who are absolutely amazing and they gave up. Just don’t give up, it’s a hard knocks business.

Q. You have the Cambridge Rock Festival coming up with The Jeff Green Project and Alan Reed. Do you miss being a performer now that you’re mostly studio based?

A. That’s a tricky question. It’s great to be at home to just write the music and get all that stuff out there and it is fun doing all the gigs. The gigs you never really get paid for, or get paid that much for so you just do it for the fun. I will enjoy the Festival. We did it a few years back and it was an immense amount of fun. And having Alan join us for the couple of numbers that he’s on on Jeff’s album – we’ll probably stick in a Pallas number as we will have two fifths of ex-Pallas members on stage, so it’ll be a bit nostalgic too. And he can bring along his Taurus bass pedals if I talk to him nicely enough.

Q. Any plans to release any Prog Rock albums under your own name?

A. Yes! The tentative title is Exordium. It started back in the 80s and I was reminded by Jerry Ewing of Prog Magazine ‘You said you were going to do your own solo album’. I said ‘Well, I’ve sort of finished it. When I do you’ll be the first to know’. But obviously lots and lots of other things have got in the way. My plan is actually to add some of the earlier Pallas tracks that I wrote which have not been released. So you can get to hear proper, full Pallas as well. So fingers crossed, once I get rid of all the impending things that have to be done then that’s one of my bucket list things.

Q. Near future?

A. (Draws a deep breath) This year… we’re already at March, it’s amazing how quick it’s going. We’ll have to see, because I have to take time off to do the album, that’s the problem.

Q. Well we all hope so! OK, it’s time to talk kit. What’s your keyboard of choice at the minute and what’s been your favourite over the years?

A. Favourite over the years is that one (points over his shoulder) the Minimoog. Model D, bought in 1979 brand new. I’ll be using it at the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Q. Really? Is it stable enough to take out on the road?

A. Yeah. Well having said that I won’t be playing the keyboard part of it because thanks to my Roadie, I said any chance you could clean the bus bars? They’re gold plated and he managed to clean them so well that he managed to wipe a lot of the gold off of it. As a result I have to use a midi keyboard for that bit (he chuckles at this anecdote so it would seem that all is forgiven).

Q. Is that your favourite of the minute too?

A. The Yamaha Avantgrand (N3X) is my favourite, it’s unbelievable and you record on it as well. You know they’ve got like 20 grand pianos in that room and they’ve got the (Yamaha) Model C which is what the Avantgrand is sampled from and based on. And so I played the Model C, then I played the Avantgrand and I went ‘Hold on, there’s no difference’ and it was no difference in the feel as well and the size is smaller and you can turn it down and you don’t need to tune it.

Q. Do you still get to spend time on personal practise and if so, how much?

A. No! (laughs)

Q. I suppose you’re playing all the time anyway?

A. I’m not really to be honest, no. Here’s the funny thing, even though I was classically trained, I never used to practise. Just before my piano lesson I’d quickly do an hours practise. My teacher said ‘How long are you practising per day?’ and I told her an hour a day. She said ‘That’s not long enough! You’ve got to do more than one hour a day.’ I did one hour a week! Just something natural I suppose. I hate scales but there you go. They do come in handy but I like to go further.

At this point we stop the official interview and he plays me some amazing arpeggios and runs that he likes to work through as an alternative to scales. He also plays me one of the tracks from ‘Exordium’ which was a real treat to listen to. We hope to be bringing you news of it’s release later this year, right after Prog announce it of course!