My Inspiration: Gary Miller | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Mad Martins is the slightly deranged musical offspring of internationally-acclaimed Durham songwriter Gary Miller and renowned Tyneside poet Keith Armstrong. This ambitious production depicts the extraordinary lives and times of the notorious Martin Brothers who were born in the late Eighteenth Century in the South Tyne area of Northumberland. 

Originally developed and produced as a triple cd and illustrated book, Gary Miller has taken a further ambitious step in telling the story of the Martins in his own imaginative and innovative way and will premiere the show at the City Theatre on Saturday 5th October as part of Durham Book Festival. Here, Gary tells us more about the inspiration behind the project.

The inspiration behind my Mad Martins project was the incredible story of the notorious Martin Brothers of early 18th Century Tynedale. Eldest brother William, who was known as “The Lion of Wallsend” and described himself as the “Natural Philosophical Conqueror of All Nations”, was a philosopher, poet, pamphleteer, engraver and inventor. Middle brother Jonathan had a very diverse life but was a religious fundamentalist who was incarcerated in various lunatic asylums (managing to somehow escape each time) for his acts of violence against the clergy before becoming notorious as “the Incendiary of York Minster” for which he was confined to Bethlem Hospital (“Bedlam”) where he died. Youngest brother John was called “the most popular painter of his day” but was also a notable inventor. He was active and well-known within the London High Society of the time and hosted lavish parties for the social elite.

Being a totally self-funded project with no specific deadline, Mad Martins allowed me the advantage of complete freedom to be experimental and do whatever I wanted from my own creative perspective to bring to life the stories of these three fascinating and unique individuals in a way that reflected my own personal vision. 

I had never tackled anything on such an epic scale before and knowing it was going to be something unique from the very start, the process became very liberating and exciting. I have always been deeply interested in local grassroots history and North East cultural heritage, and this is something that has always been a huge inspiration and influence on my creativity, so I was able to throw myself into the Mad Martins project with a desire to explore it in as much detail as possible.

As I learned more and more about the Mad Martin Brothers and their amazing life stories, through hours and hours of research, I couldn’t help but be hugely inspired to want to write about them and get their stories “out there”. During the creation of the project, I found that I connected with each of the brothers at a very personal level, sympathising and empathising with their respective motives and characters. I could see myself reflected in each of them and was easily able to stand in their shoes and see things from their perspective. My great friend and fellow songwriter Paul Simmonds (who is best known as the main songwriter in ‘The Man They Couldn’t Hang’) said to me “Gary, Mad Martins is really all about you, isn’t it?”, and I couldn’t really deny it! 

Mad Martins was recorded during a series of recording sessions spread, on and off, over several years and was a project that grew and expanded as it developed over a long period of time. In the end, I had amassed 50 tracks which were released as a triple CD (with one CD dedicated to each brother respectively) packaged with a 104-page hardback book which contained all the lyrics, additional text and around 100 illustrations.

Award-winning producer Iain Petrie has been my regular producer of the last ten years. His studio ‘Awake Music’ is based in Spittal, Berwick-upon-Tweed. He was the obvious person to help bring my musical vision for the project to reality. He has always embraced my non-conventional vision, eagerness to experiment and willingness to share in the creative process. I have, in turn, always had confidence in him to take my ideas, run with them and expand them into something much greater than I could have imagined on my own. We’re therefore the perfect in-studio-collaborative team.

The main brief I gave to Iain was basically “anything goes”. We focussed on one song at a time and treated it solely on its own merits. This led us to explore and experiment with all manner of musical styles, genres, instrumentation and arrangements. As an example, for ‘In My Hands’, one of the John Martin songs, I told Iain that it ought to sound arrogant and pompous with a full orchestration like ‘Last Night of the Proms’, so that’s exactly what we did with it and it worked out incredibly well. On other songs, we used all manner of items to create unique percussion parts, including shaking metal chains, thumping doors and banging bits of wood together. 

I had previously written for musical theatre and my approach for Mad Martins was very much with the theatre in mind. All of the songs were deliberately written in the first person, from the direct point of view of each character, with the intention that they could then be performed live ‘in character’. Another deliberate approach was for the lyrics to be a mixture of archaic and modern English, which blurred the lines in a way that was very satisfying to me.

Each of the brothers published autobiographies which I was able to access and there are a lot of secondary contemporaneous accounts and descriptions of them from various sources, so I wanted to bring all of this into the project as a way to enhance their overall story arcs and the whole Mad Martins experience in general. So, I included numerous spoken word pieces, many using the brothers’ own words or the words of their contemporaries, including Charles Dickens and Edward-Buller Lytton amongst others. I was inspired to use North East tunes that would have been known during the era of the Martins as musical backing to the spoken word pieces to add a bit of period flavour with Northumbrian pipes, dulcimer, mandolin and accordion.

The whole recording process was very organic and despite all the different musical styles and a wide range of instrumentation used, I think it maintains a very strong and singular identity with a strong flow and connection throughout its 2½ hour running time.

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