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Member interview: There's no business like the music business

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“While catering is what I do for a living, music is what I live for – it’s my life!” So says FSB member - and musician - Gary McDonnell, who runs a catering business called Empty Plates from his home near Wigan, in Greater Manchester. 

He makes this profound statement at the end of a 90-minute interview chronicling his intriguing life in the UK music scene, dating all the way back to the 70s, and which continues to present day. During the interview, I discover his love of music and his business are, perhaps not surprisingly, closely connected. 

But let’s start with Gary’s story right at the beginning, so rewind back to 1978, when Gary is a typical lad growing up in Liverpool. His parents own a small hotel, and both are musicians of sorts – his dad is a jazz musician, and his mum plays the piano. Even his grandad makes violins for a living. There’s music in the families’ DNA. 

“At that point, and apart from the trombone that I played at a good level, the only instrument I excelled at was air guitar,” quips Gary. “I was big in to the Bay City Rollers, Lennon and McCartney – naturally - Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy. But then my dad bought me my first drum kit, and that’s when it all changed.”

Like all talented musicians, Gary tells me, he self-taught himself drums, and before long, at just 15 years old and still at school, he managed to land a role with a local band called the Malchix, whose drummer had suddenly upped and left the band. Like many musicians before - and since - he didn‘t let the opportunity escape. 

And the band’s good. They find themselves gigging across the Merseyside music circuit, which takes him to all the old haunts such as the Cavern Club of Beatles notoriety, and the equally influential Eric’s. And it’s not long before they’ve made quite the name for themselves, and pretty much out of the blue they land a £50k recording deal with Warner Brothers, and it kick starts Gary’s lifelong connections in the music business.

“It was out of this world,” he recalls. “A total lucky break for me as a drummer, just at the right time. One minute I was in school, the next I was in a band. 

“Then one minute we were a nothing band from Liverpool, and the next thing we thought we had made it. At the time there was only really Warner Bothers and EMI so we couldn’t believe our luck to be fair. 

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“I remember going to the Warner Brother’s studio in London and being totally blown away by the whole experience. I was 15 at the time, fresh from school, while the others in the band were all much older than me, so it was quite something else, especially for me I think. 

Gary has one standout memory from that visit to London. “One of the band members had hooked up with one of the secretaries, and she let us in to the studio after hours. I will never forget wandering around the empty studio at night and going in to Robert Plant’s office. On the back of the chair in there was a ‘Robert Plant on Tour 1975’ jacket – I have to admit I very nearly helped myself and ran, but I didn’t.”

The group returned to Liverpool and used the Warner Brother’s cash to pay for some studio time. They recorded a number of demos, and were advised to try and sound a bit more like a ‘British versions’ of Van Halen who was massive at time in the US, and across Europe. They produced the song, Street to Street, but it failed to ignite any serious interest.

“We thought we were going to be the next Beatles, today Liverpool, tomorrow the World – something like that anyway. We thought we’d made it,” said Gary. “But we hadn’t.” 
Unfortunately band and manager parted ways shortly after, and Malchix were confined to history. The nine strong band all went their separate ways. 

By 1980, Gary was in his second band, Cair Paravel. There were gigs all over, with the standout one being at London’s Hippodrome where Gary’s eternal memory is of the stage rising out of the dressing room. “It was so surreal,” he says. “Above us there was the dance floor, and the noise of people dancing, the vibrations, it was like something out the Lord of The Rings. 

“Then they cleared the dance floor and it came down in the dressing room for us to step on, and it went back up, now a stage for us. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before – or since. I’ve been back since to the venue and it’s all changed, which is a shame because it was absolutely brilliant and something I’ve never forgotten, or ever will.”

But the days of Cair Paravel were short-lived, and the band once again disintegrated in to nothing. It was at this point that the seeds of Gary’s current business were sown, though. Gary began working as a kitchen hand to supplement any musical income he could get his hands on. He spent much time down south working the summer concert circuits, and at the same time taught himself to play the guitar.

“All the best musicians self-teach,” he reminds me again. “But it was a strange life, a case of back to nature for much of it, living in a tent, with not much food and a camp fire to keep me warm and cook on. It was me getting in touch with my musical side. I would sit in the dark by myself and just play.

“I was also earning a bit of money doing the mobile catering tents at the music concerts on the south coast, starting with a bit of kitchen portering and then kitchen hand and some cheffing. My mum and dad had used to own a hotel when I was young so I knew what I was doing. It was this that really gave me the inspiration years later for the business I have today.” 

It was the 90s music scene that really saw Gary blast off his music career. Firmly embedded in the North West music scene – which at the time was very much driving the Brit pop sound – he was playing gigs with some big names, and counted bands such as

The La’s, Sole Mantra, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Shack as among his peer group. He even played percussion on Mansun’s famous Wide Open Space record, which went to number 1 in the UK charts, and enjoyed the company of Oasis on a number of occasions, most memorably at Blackpool Ballroom, where he enjoyed some back stage fun with Liam, and even Alex Higgins.

But the wild times and wild life of the 90s couldn’t last forever, and Gary, now married and with a young son by the year 2004, says he needed some stability, which is where his catering business came in. “I suppose I started off small, like everybody does, which was when I formed Empty Plates. I was doing buffets for parties and christenings, that kind of thing really, and it paid the bills. I still had good contacts in the music scene, I’ve never really got too out of it, so the business really took off when I landed the catering contract for the UK leg of the 2003 Dionne Warwick 40th Anniversary tour.” 

Success there saw him land a string of other concert tour gigs, including with the band Queens of The Stoneage. ‘Who are they’, I ask? “They were a wild bunch, and it was a wild tour – let me tell you,” he says, smiling.

And so then, to present day. Where does Gary fit in to the music scene in 2019? Gary has set up a new band, that he’s really excited about. The album is being produced by American producer Danny Saber, who’s worked with the likes of U2, Rolling Stones, and Black Grape - to name a few. The band is called Moea, which means Sleeping Girl in French Polynesian, and was chosen for no particular reason. 

He has set up a record label, Mr B Music, to manage the band, and they are already down to play a number of UK concert gigs this summer, and have even had tentative discussions about doing the newcomer stage at Glastonbury.

“We’ll have to see how it goes,” adds Gary. “But the important thing is that I am really enjoying myself.”

That’s clear to see. Once a rocker, always a rocker.