Singer-songwriter Martin Harley is not your average musician. Here he tells TIM HUGHES all about his adventures.
IT’s not unusual to hear of a rock star getting high. But 18,000 metres up in the Himalayas? Well, that’s a different story.
But then Martin Harley is far from your typical artist – which is how he found himself perched on top of a Nepalese peak, playing the world’s highest gig.
It’s also why he ended up riding a motorcycle on the edge of the Sahara, touring the UK on a bicycle and, most bizarrely of all, becoming a British cultural ambassador for Albania.
There really are no dull moments for this singer-songwriter and virtuoso slide-guitarist who began playing slide guitar when his guitar neck warped while he was living in a car in Australia.
“There are always adventures to be had!” laughs the former landscape gardener. “I’ve been a bit of a rolling stone for a long time.”
I managed to collar Martin on one of those rare moments when he stays still long enough to talk. And it wasn’t easy.
I am lucky to catch him sipping peppermint tea between rides out on his motorbike. He has just returned to the UK after a fruitful trip to America, where he has sealed a management deal which will see him playing some of the country’s coolest venues and festivals.
It also saw him recording a new album out in the wilds of Texas. The long player, the follow-up to the acclaimed Drumrolls for Somersaults, is heralded by an EP, Barebones, out in June. And he is marking its release in the UK with a tour, which takes him from Cornwall to Cumbria, and which arrives at Oxford’s Jericho Tavern on Saturday.
While it seems like a grueling tour, it’s nothing for the man who is just as comfortable in a pub backroom as on a Himalayan peak.
How, I wonder, did that mountain-top gig come about?
“I was riding a motorbike across Nepal and spent some time helping out in orphanages,” he says. “Some were pretty shocking, so I decided to help set up a non-government-organised orphanage.
“I realised we needed a publicity stunt – which is where the idea came from.”
And with some financial backing from the team at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage, he set his sights on a summit called Kala Pattha, which he describes as being “to the left of Everest”.
“I went with a group of people who could play an instrument and were interested in getting involved,” he says. “And we ended up sitting on a peak with a mixing deck powered by batteries.”
And was there an audience?
“We had 60 people watching us,” he says. “Most were people from a medical research team and some sherpas. We also played in monasteries on the way, and found ourselves trudging through the thin air to find a steady stream of people following us.”
You’d be hard-pushed to find a more different place from the ‘roof of the world’ to the sands of West Africa, but that was the next spot on Harley’s bizarre world tour.
“I drove around Mali to see the relevance of Malian music to modern blues,” he says by way of explanation. “And I put myself into improvisational situations to meet people.”
They included Bassekou Kouyate and Vieux Farka Toure, son of the world-famous Ali Farka Toure.
“I was on a 1,000CC Yamaha, travelling through big sandy deserts, sleeping in a hammock, and drinking water from wells. I had a lot of fun and met some amazing people.”
Back in the UK, he took to the road, again on two-wheels – though this time under his own power. He pedalled 1,200 miles, carrying everything he needed on the back of his bicycle. He played 27 gigs in 30 days.
“I had a bike made that could carry three guitars and all my equipment,” he says. “I stuck to Sustrans routes along small roads and old railway lines, and played small rural venues.”
It also brought him to Oxford – where he played the Jericho Tavern for the first time.
With his reputation growing by the day, Martin’s time seems to have finally come.
“Some great things are going on,” he says. “I made 60 flights last year, and also recorded my album in the middle of nowhere, outside Dallas. It’s been hard work, but I am on the climb.”
He is playing alongside fellow landscape gardener, drummer Pete Swatton, and bassist (and guitar teacher) Jay Carter. And they are all hoping their return to Oxford is more successful than their brief stint in the Balkans, at the invitation of the British Music Council, as ambassadors for British music in Albania.
“Everyone else they asked probably said ‘no’,” Martin smiles. “But we had an interesting time. We got a brilliant local driver with Aviators and well-oiled hair to drive us around, and we were taken around towns and festivals.
“It’s safe to say, though, that we were pretty different to what they normally listen to in Albania – which is either pop or traditional.
“Our reception was ‘fair to middling’. There were a few people dancing around, but mostly they stared at us as if we were dogs doing a card trick.
“Not being able to speak the language probably helped though. They were chanting something at us in unison and making hand signals – but we took that as a good thing!”
* Martin Harley plays the Jericho Tavern, 56 Walton Street, Oxford, on Saturday. Call 01865 311775 for details. Tickets from wegottickets.com