Paul Armer is everywhere at the moment, in the last few weeks he’s had a number of gigs in Plymouth, not mentioning his excursions to Bristol, Penzance and Totnes to name but a few too. With pedal steel guitarist Jim MacGregor now in tow (for those who don’t know what a pedal steel guitar is, don’t worry, a quick Google will show you it’s one mad instrument), Paul Armer is really starting to come into his own with an ever expanding set list, a unique new live sound and set up and a passion for music that’s to be reckoned with. What better reason to catch up with the two lads and have a chat eh?
So, what is Paul Armer all about?
P: Well, I’m a singer songwriter, from Saltash originally. I’ve lived there for 21 years, but now I live out of my van in Plymouth, mainly parked outside my friend’s house haha. A bit of a nomad, I suppose, I go away when I feel like it. Music is my passion though, what I want to do with my life, but it’s a long old road.
So who’s Jim MacGregor?
P: I first met Jim about a year ago, we were both played the same show. Jim was actually playing some solo stuff, and afterwards he bought me a drink and we had a chat. He told me that he wanted to play pedal steel on some of my songs, and thought it would sound real good. I agreed with him, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what a pedal steel guitar was!
J: I’ve played in bands around Plymouth for 20 years or so. I was the singer and songwriter behind Head of Programmes, which was americana, downbeat music, as well as playing drums in The Man Who Loves You (NG: cover stars of issue nine!) and singing and playing guitar in a honky tonk and country covers band called Walnut Falcons.
That night we met was the first time I’d played a solo gig in three years, and I was so nervous. I was playing some slow sad songs, and felt kinda bad that everyone had come out for a nice time haha. I saw Paul play that night and I was actually blown away. I liked his songs, but I also thought that he had a really good voice. We had a chat, I thought he was a real nice guy. Then I got to know him right?! haha. I left him to it in the end, because some girl wanted to talk to him.
Paul, how long have you been singing and playing guitar?
P: I’ve probably been playing guitar around 12 years, and playing guitar and singing for about five or six years. I used to play in a melodic punk band called Lifetime Bribe, terrible band name, when I was about 18 or 19. It was just a bit of fun, but we took it as seriously as we could. We all went our separate ways when the bass player left for uni, but I found myself still wanting to play the songs, I still felt like I had something to say. So I picked up an acoustic guitar, since that was the only way I was going to be able to keep playing to people and sound alright haha.
I’ve been playing and singing on my own for about three years, I write all my own songs and I’ve been writing for about six years. Writing is my favourite thing to do really. It can be extremely frustrating, but then extremely rewarding when you find something, even if it’s just a chord progression or a melody which resonates with me. There’s no set formula as to how I create my music, it just kinda comes out, which is nice. I don’t really want to do it any other way. I like to me inspired by something or someone or an event, and then something musical tends to transpire from that.
How about you, Jim? How long have you been playing pedal steel?
J: I’ve only seriously been playing pedal steel since I’ve started playing with Paul, but I’ve been giving it my best a year or so. I played lap steel guitar for about seven years, playing on my own records, as well as with other people and on their records. I always wanted to play pedal steel guitar because I like the way it sounds, and I’m an absolute country music fanatic. I bought a pedal steel guitar online, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with it. I just started jamming with people and trying to teach myself, I’ve been banging my head against a wall with it basically haha. It’s a very complex instrument, and I’m someone who’s learning, but I want to dedicate my life to playing it and getting real good. When you put that instrument on anything, because it’s so synonymous with country music, immediately you’re either playing country and western, or americana, or country rock. I think because Paul’s music is heavily influenced by americana and country music, it really suits his songs.
Paul, what influences your songwriting?
P: Recently it’s been modern country guys such as Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. With Jim around, I’m listening to a lot more country music now, such as Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams for example, it’s very inspirational and I’m taking a lot from it. Before that though, as well as the obvious Bruce Springsteen, lots of punk rock music. Social Distortion, Rancid, The Gaslight Anthem, Against Me!, The Flatliners, Menzingers, lots of that had a massive impact on me.
J: See, that sort of stuff I have no idea about, which is kinda cool. I know a lot people may disagree with me on this next point, but I think there’s few differences between country and punk rock. It’s real music, when played properly, in its truest, purest form. It’s real music, played by real people, about trying to escape their situation maybe, or let go of things?
P: Was it Willie Nelson who said that country music is three chords and the truth? That’s exactly what punk music has been for me for however many years. It means the exact same thing.
So who are your favourite bands to cover?
P: I don’t cover a massive amount of songs, I love listening to music and other people’s songs, and I really value them. A lot of people seem to want play this guy or that guy’s songs, but I want to write my own. Saying that though, I’ve always played some Gaslight Anthem tracks, Social Distortion songs, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Jason Isbell and Turnpike Troubadours, and I’ve learnt some Ramones and Flatliners songs in the past. I started learning London’s Calling by The Clash but I’ve haven’t quite finished that. Maybe at some point.
How do you find Plymouth and its music scene?
P: I’ve only played in a few other places around the South West and as far as Bristol, not as many as I’d like though. I want to play in as many places as I can, so I’m working on finding the contacts and working on a set I’m happy to play to almost anyone, especially with Jim involved now too. I’ve always been fairly well received in Plymouth, I always have a good time when I play at the B-Bar. There’s tons of us singer songwriters out there, so there’s also thousands of open mic nights as well as the opportunity for busking. Me and Jim have done some of that together and I’d like to do more. You do need to go to other places, but at the same time, this is where I started my journey. It’s very easy to talk shit about where you’re from, I’m from Saltash and people I know are forever talking about wanting to leave but it’s not that bad. It’s the same with Plymouth. The place where you’re from is just the place where you’re from and where you start, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Come back, bigger and better.
J: There’s some really great bands from Plymouth, playing some really great music. I think being out on a peninsula, or wherever we are, can be a bit tough. It can feel a bit isolated.
P: It’s tricky to get out to other places, and if you want to be more active you have to get out of Plymouth. In just a couple of days, we made a good three or four potential contacts in Bristol. I’m always going round to venues and speaking to promoters and giving them my EP. In Plymouth though, the few venues that are around are great. The Underground and the Junction are doing the right things and the B Bar on the Barbican is a good place to play.
J: There is a scene, but it’s very underground. The country scene’s even more underground, especially compared to the punk rock or metal scene we have here. You’re a true outlaw if you play country in Plymouth.
Now to both of you, what’s the worst gig you’ve ever played?
P: One that sticks in my mind is when I was back in Lifetime Bribe. We got invited to play a small festival, in Plymouth. We didn’t have very high expectations, and thought maybe we’d be playing to twenty people, but we ended up playing to literally, my Mum and Dad, the sound guy and our drummer’s Dad. That was dire. It’s character building though, right?
J: There’s one that sticks in my mind too. I was touring with Head of Programmes, and it was a really great tour but we did play a couple of weird places. We played in a bar in Billericay in Essex, on this main strip of the town. It was a no horse town, not even a one horse town, that horse had died long ago! No offence, but it was a typical Essex town, where no-one’s out of the ordinary or off the grid. So we’re playing downbeat, sad, alternative music and it’s really not the place to be. It was a Friday or Saturday night and it was full of lads, out for a good time. We must have played three or four songs before I heard a voice come from the back of the packed room, simply saying “When’s this going to fucking end? I want to kill myself.” And to which I replied “Well, who’s stopping you?” The atmosphere soured completely and I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. We finished the show but no-one clapped or cared at all. I got off stage and the sound guy said to me, “I thought that was brilliant, but I would keep your head down.” After that I stayed in the van for the remainder of the evening, the rest of the band sorted out the gear while I was hiding in the van afraid of being beaten up for being a cocky dickhead. That was probably the gig where I felt the worst, like maybe I shouldn’t play music anymore? haha
What does the future hold for Paul Armer and Jim MacGregor?
P: We’re working hard on new songs, with some that Jim hasn’t even worked on yet, so that’s all to come. People ask why I don’t gig sometimes, but it’s all because I’m practicing to make sure I can do gigs haha. There’ll be some live videos and a new release by the end of the year, but the focus is on playing, getting better and working hard, on my own, as a duo or maybe with a band. Who knows? Follow me on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with my upcoming shows!