Depending on which side of the Perthshire fence you sit on, this week’s Big Personality will be one of your all-time, live music favourites or just some unknown bloke with a grey beard. For over thirty years he has entertained the people of Perth, of Scotland and in some cases the world, with his singer-songwriter swagger and tales from his life on the road. At various points he has teetered along the cusp of becoming a household name, his undeniable talent eclipsed only by his love of the rock n roll lifestyle. As the front man and songwriter for Perth’s hugely successful and much-loved Americana band, The Red Pine Timber Co. many will think they know him. He belongs to us, to the live music revellers and all night party people. We know who he is. And that may be so. But as you will discover as the chat unfolds, Gavin Munro’s heart runs far deeper than whisky and his showman persona.
A Perth boy born and bred, Gav has had a love of music since his Grandad – Jock ‘The Box’ Lundie - taught him how to play harmonica when he was a wee boy. Surprisingly, it was his sister Fiona who went off to proper lessons leaving Gav feeling his way for a musical outlet that suited him better. At fourteen years old he picked up the guitar for the first time and has been playing ever since. His first band was with a bunch of guys as gallous as he was and they were soon playing at local youth clubs, earning a bit of cash. Named after a Jimi Hendrix song, The Laughing Dice were influenced by punk and rock, covering the sounds of the late seventies and introducing a young Gav into life as a member of a band.
He left school at eighteen and went straight into work as a clerk at the DHSS. At the same time, his Mum and Dad had decided to pack up and move to Crete but he was not for going; he had started a new band with his pal, Neil McNamara, called The Red Pines and, in his own words, ‘the rock and roll kicked in’.
“We were the original Red Pines, me and Neil and a couple of other guys. I had been offered a place at the Scottish School of Forestry but we had gigs coming off all over the place and I was convinced we were going to make it big. I was going to be a rock star. So I jacked in the place and chose the noble path of Rock and Roll instead.”
He’s smiling as he tells me this, eyebrows raised, low chuckle acknowledging that he is fully aware of the youthful arrogance that leads us all to make life-changing decisions based on nothing more than self-belief and a burning desire for it to be true. To be fair to him, and to give you an understanding of his path, he and Neil were moving in the right circles, with The Red Pines supporting well known 80s bands like The Wedding Present and Big Country. Talent and potential were never the issue.
“Oh we were good. But we probably subscribed to the lifestyle a bit more than our abilities allowed. It was more about being rock-n-roll than building a career in it. Booze, drugs and women, that’s what we wanted. We screwed it up because we couldn’t hold it together long enough to deal with the professional side of the business. We were just full of nonsense. So anyway, a couple of the other guys left to join the services and get proper jobs and I decided to head to Crete and stay with my Mum and Dad.”
Gav’s Mum and Dad ran a laundrette in Chania, a venetian port and he would help out a bit there during the day and then spent his nights working a bar and playing in a band. He was there for three years and the lifestyle suited his laid back, hedonistic twenties perfectly.
“It was a conveyer belt of girls. I was waving one off and meeting the next one arriving on the island. There’s no way to make that sound any better – it was what it was. And honestly, we were all having a great time. When I left Crete I had a book packed full of girls’ addresses and I travelled the world, meeting up with them all again. Canada, Germany, Spain, Holland… I spent two years bumming about bar jobs and playing music. That’s why responsibility came so hard for me when I had to face it; I just wasn’t used to having to think about anyone else. I’d led a selfish life.”
By his mid-twenties he was back in Perth, working part time as a barman in the newly opened Pacos Restaurant on St John Place, chasing away the boredom with late night drinks and fun-loving waitresses. It was at this point he started playing with Neil again and they were joined by Donnie to create The Raindogs, a band that would provide them with many a good story for years to come.
“We played all over Scotland; that’s when I first met Louisa. She was only seventeen and a bit of a Raindogs groupie. Her Dad was the local bobby and when the boys saw our van parked in the drive of the police station they thought I’d been lifted. Louisa and I kept in a touch a bit but you know how it is at that age, we drifted apart. We were like a band of raggle-taggle gypsies in Raindogs, playing all over the highlands for our supper and a bed. It was great fun. Good, good times.”
I remember Gav from this era. In fact, as is the way with old friends, if I was asked to describe him I would struggle to conjure up his present day face. Back then he was all rock-n-roll ponytail, dark stubble and a young man’s swagger. He was wild and carefree with an uncontrollable spirit and unrelenting thirst for a good time. And it is only now, as I sit over from him making notes, that I really notice how much older and softer he has become; short hair, grey beard and deepset wrinkles framing his eyes.
He settled in Perth for a bit around 1995, when he did a year of an HND in Video Production at Perth College and joined a band with Kelly McCormack called Red Bus. I’m puzzled. I had always assumed his time at Perth College was spent in their rock school. Why else would he be there?
“No, I wasn’t in the rock school! Remember, I thought I was bloody brilliant. Did Chuck Berry go to rock school? Did John Lennon go to college? No, they didn’t, and therefore neither would I. I had nothing to learn. The arrogance of youth eh? It’s a wonderful and destructive thing."
Anyway, not that it mattered because by then Red Bus had taken off and I only did a year of the course before we headed to Spain to start touring. We were pretty big at the time and Kelly and I were certain that this was it. This was our big break. It was the first time I’d been properly involved in the music business rather than just being in a band. It was a crazy experience – we were all over Spain on this big red double decker bus; it was like Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday! Only we were playing gigs and drinking and chasing girls.
I know that sounds great but the truth is, it grew old pretty quickly. I thought we were going to be living the dream and instead we were just running about city to city, living on £10 a day. I wanted champagne and posh hotels and I had pork rolls on a bus. There was no money, none. I remember giving a poster to a girl at a gig, signing it and handing it over. The management went bananas at me giving it away for free and I lost it. Punched the windscreen of the bus so hard it smashed. It was then I knew I wanted to come home – I was so deflated. We’d been all hyped up, ready for the big time and sent out on this rollercoaster of belief. I needn’t have worried, the management made a loss and they dropped us like a stone.”
They were kicking about at the same time as Travis and the two Scottish bands would often support each other at gigs around the circuit.
“I’ll never forget when we got the phone call telling us that Travis was getting a spot on Jools Holland. We knew they’d make it, that they were good enough to go the distance. They just needed the break. I was happy for them, but I was gutted for us. In the music business, some of it’s about being in the right place at the right time but the truth is, they worked harder than we did. And if you put in the work there’s more chance that you’ll be in the right place at the right time. They did 240 gigs - we did about 30.”
We talk about this back and forth a bit. The ‘nearly made it’ stories that have haunted him over the past twenty five years are just simple facts of his life now. It is an older, much wiser man sitting here now and with all the beauty of retrospect, it’s easy to see the largest contributing factor to the ‘nearly misses’ was Gav himself.
“Of course I can look back now and see that I was too busy with the lifestyle to work at the career. I’m hedonistic and wild at heart and when you mix that up with even a modicum of success in a band, it’s a recipe for self-destruct. I believed my own hype - it’s taken a long time for me to realise that.”
And it wasn’t punching the windscreen of a double decker bus in Spain that taught him the lesson either! He arrived back in Perth, flattened and with his ego knocked about a bit. He may not have been ready to go work in a bank or anything else quite as radical, but he was ready to look at other ways of earning his keep in the business. The opportunity to rent a studio down on Shore Road presented itself and in his early thirties, Clearwater was born.
“We did it all. Video production, recording, rehearsals, tuition. We became the central hub for the Perth music scene for years, with loads of young musicians coming down to be taught guitar and to cut their teeth recording in our studio. We showed them the ropes, introduced them to how music worked and helped this new generation find the passion you need to succeed.
Fourteen years I ran it for and I have to tell you, I have no idea how any of us survived. I talk about it like a business, because of course, it was. But we were still wild. It should never have lasted fourteen days never mind fourteen years.
And then out of nowhere, you could record new music on your phone in your bedroom and we lost the next generation coming up to technology. My sister Fiona took it over a couple of years ago as a social enterprise and she still lets it out for recording space and I still teach.”
But before all this, in tandem with Clearwater, he continued to gig. He spent two years on the road with a blues band called Wolf Train, when in his late thirties, he was the baby of the band. “They were in their sixties and seventies but they needed a guitar player and to make things even more appealing, I had a van. I was still up to nonsense but I was a bit more discreet! I loved it – it was totally different to anything I’d done and they were great musicians.”
And then came South Paw. They toured all over Scotland and the UK, and as their success grew so too did the international dates. They played to great acclaim in Canada and Norway, consistently solid with original material written by Gav and Donny. And as if fate came down to hand out perfect lives, he and Louisa met up again after years apart and she soon became pregnant with their son, Jackson. Everything looked rosy in the Gav shaped garden.
“And then everything screwed up. Neil, my original Red Pines bandmate and one of my oldest and best friends, died suddenly. It hit me hard. He was thirty-eight, just a year older than me, and this loss affected me in ways I never knew were possible. It was just like… that’s it. Party’s over.
We dedicated the first South Paw album to him. We were out touring and playing a lot and I’ll tell you the madness that followed was all the pressure of the road; but the truth is my drinking was out of control. It’s difficult, because when you tell people that they imagine you up in the morning swigging from a bottle, or sitting every night blotto in your living room, noising up your wife and kids. And that’s not how it is for me; I’m a binge drinker with an unpredictable wild streak and more and more I was playing a game of Jekyll and Hyde.
I know I keep talking about the lifestyle and it’s not meant to be an excuse or a reason; it’s just the best explanation I have of how it was. The booze and drugs are all part of the fun and if you profess to have even a wee bit of taste for either then people will queue up to give it to you. I loved it.
And then not long after Jackson was born I got into a serious fight and I was looking at jail time. The old Gav would have sucked it up and worn it like a badge of honour, a true country and western tale to add to the persona. The real deal as it were. But there I was, a Dad, with someone else to look after and care for. I was bulletproof right up to the day my wee boy was born. He changed it all. It just took a while for my brain to catch up with that.”
South Paw split on the back of Gav’s trouble and he decided enough was enough. Forced to look at yourself in the mirror and know that the mess is all your own doing is a personal deal-breaker. He worked with an alcohol counsellor to help him manage his drinking and it worked. He’d wake up in the morning, and there might even be a half finished bottle of beer sitting from the night before; a significant, never-before-heard-of phenomenon in his life.
“It was completely alien to me. I was used to drinking until I fell over or the bottle was empty. People would pass me booze onto stage and I’d drink it straight from the neck; it was all part of this persona I’d built. And you know the more you drink the more you can drink. I was immune to it. Knocking back a whole bottle of Jack Daniels on stage became part of the act. So when I slowed it down and took the new, responsible approach to it all, things became instantly better. Well, they did while I was going to the counselling.”
Drinking in moderation, court case approaching, Gav got back into music and formed The Red Pine Timber Co. He and Louisa had settled, Jackson was a toddler and as his date in court came and went with a fine and community service, his chance to make things work was sitting there right in front of him. “The Red Pine Timber Co. is the band I’ve been waiting on. I’m at home with this band, I believe in them and they believe in me. The talent is phenomenal, the writing works, the people love it. It’s as though the stars aligned for this band and we can do no wrong. Everywhere we go there is genuine warmth and so when we released Different Lonesome, the debut album, last March, the response was immediate and overwhelming. It just works.”
Gav writes all the original music performed by the band; the idea of it ‘just works’ shines through in his songwriting. Different Lonesome has received much in the way of critical acclaim, and it's little wonder. Their mix of Americana Celtic comes from a line-up that includes sax and trombone alongside the more expected guitar, lap steel, harmonica and mandolin. If this sounds a bit maverick, a bit too much of a hotch-potch for any purists out there, then prepare to be suprised. The sound of them effortlessly breathing full-on, country life into the cleverly penned lyrics that are sung out from the dynamite vocal combination of Gav and Katie will leave you mesmerised.
So, front man of a great band, and after years of endless women and relationships that were never enough to calm him, he was settled with Louisa and Jackson. Gav was forty one years old when his son was born and he tells me that he knows exactly how close he came to losing it all. He knows by rights she should have left after he was arrested, taking the baby with her. But Louisa stayed, and three years after Jackson along came Joni, lighting up his life in a way that he had never known possible.
That would be a great ending wouldn’t it? A top band, amazing woman and two beautiful kids. Not quite rock-and-roll enough for Gav though.
“Drink as a problem kind of crept in slow and gradual again. No-one really noticed because all my pals are drinkers and my music revolves around it. We tour all over Scotland with Red Pine and that old stage persona was creeping in more and more. I woke up in the back of the van one morning to discover we’d lost Felix and Dave. We thought it was hilarious; somewhere wandering about Skye was a sax player and a fiddler. And it is funny, it was funnier when Felix arrived back playing Careless Whisper on his sax after a night in the company of some lovely locals.
But he’s a young, single man. And I’m a dad in a committed relationship. That’s the difference I needed to understand. Just because I wasn’t bouncing around in front of my kids pissed, it didn’t make it okay.”
It all came to a head again, with a drunken argument losing them a family friend and putting the band in a hellish situation. He wasn’t twenty-five anymore. He was forty eight, leading a young band of musicians, raising a family. He has put down the bottle for good this time, accepting that he is never going to be the guy who can ‘manage’ his drinking.
“For me, one whisky is never enough and two is one too many. We were up in Rothes recently playing at a bikers’ gig we do every year. We were driving into it, through the Speyside Whisky Trail which is a place I love. It is a notoriously messy gig, with bottles of 40 year old malt being passed up onto stage. It was my first big gig sober and I was dreading it; I didn’t know if I could do it. But you know, I sung and I played stronger than I ever have and I led this phenomenal team of musicians, my band, into one of the best gigs we’ve ever played.
And the best bit was still to come. I drove home, sitting behind the wheel, coming down through the Cairngorms watching a blanket of clouds hang over the mountains, instead of curled up in the back of the van with my head banging inside a speaker. It was amazing. I’ve gigged all over Scotland – sung in every last nook and cranny at least once, and I’ve put in some hard road miles over the years. And on that drive back that day it struck me that I could do this – if I could stand up here, in the heart of whisky country and hold it together then I could do it anywhere.”
His colourful description of his journey home and the hard road miles he talks about all go some way to explaining Gav’s love of his bonny Scotland. He tells me there is nowhere else in the world he’d rather play ‘except maybe Route 66’ and with a new, calmer life he has set his mind to discovering it all in his own inimitable style.
“I’m doing a degree course in Scottish Cultural Studies at Perth UHI. It explores creative Scotland so its music, poetry, culture, literature. I love it. We talked about Louisa going back to do her Mba but she didn’t want it and so I jumped at the chance to get back and finish off my education, maybe even get a real grown up job (He stops and grins at me, I know he still thinks he has a bit to go until he’s fully grown-up). Every book for the course was already sitting on my shelf; this is what I do, what I love. I’m writing a dissertation on Scottish Music crossing the Atlantic and giving Americana its roots. Suddenly everything makes sense for me.
I think all of this, sobriety, fatherhood, realising that it’s ok to be happy with one woman, it’s made me better at being me. Doing the degree is something I’ve probably always wanted. I still tutor at Clearwater, and I think I’m better at it. I’m more focused. I started teaching in prisons and through the charity Six Circle a few years ago and its something I'm passionate about. Ali from DIY Rock School has me in doing masterclasses with the kids she teaches. To be in a position where you see people who couldn’t play, playing, because of what you’ve taught them is an amazing feeling. Passing on the gift of music is humbling."
Uni, kids, Louisa, band, teaching... Where would you even find the time for a drink!? Anything else?
"Aye! You can't forget Greyfriars Open Mic Night! I’ve been hosting Wednesdays there for about five years now; its easily the longest established open mic in Perth. I love it, everybody who comes loves it. It’s always a great night. Perth is packed full of talented musicians.”
Gav is seeing a counsellor to keep him ‘aff it. He says he finds it liberating to sit in a pub and pour a glass of non-alcoholic Hee Haw beer knowing that nothing bad will happen. Personally and professionally, his life is better without the booze in it.
“They say every cloud has a silver lining and Louisa and I are more solid than ever; I think like a married man now. I think like a man with a family and kids and responsibilities. I don’t miss the crazy games of Russian Roulette that I play with my life when I’m on it. I’ve finally realised that all the years I spent in the pursuit of pleasure were going in the wrong direction.
The ups and downs of crazy expectations have all given way to just enjoying what I have and living in the here and now. I was sitting in a meeting with the concert hall recently, and they were talking about the fact that they’d never had a local band play a headline gig on their main stage. Understandably, they were unsure whether we’d sell enough tickets and whether we’d be able to pull it off. The old me would have taken offence. But I let it slide, knowing fine well that we’d do it. We sold out. They’ve put another 150 tickets on sale. And when we play that gig, I know that we’ll blow them all away; because we’re a better band when I’m control of myself. Why the hell did it take me this long to realise that?”
We talk a bit about regrets; for things he has done and is sorry for, for opportunities he missed, for not quite getting it together before Joni came along. I can see the weight of it there at the back of his eyes. Because what his story doesn’t explain is that under that wild exterior has always been a thoughtful, deep soul. I sent my own son brandishing his guitar to Clearwater, because among the stale smell of smoke and beer, I knew he would be safe and nurtured by my old pal. None of us are defined in our entirety by one single random act, be it good or bad. Rather we are defined by who we are.
And so he is philosophical about it all, you can’t change the past. You can only make the future yours. Recently, Jackson was asked what his Dad did - his answer was simple. "He plays guitar and laughs".
Gavin Munro may have put down the bottle, but he has picked up every other last detail of his life and this time he intends to make the party run and run for a very long time.
The Red Pine Timber Company played to a packed out Perth Concert Hall on Friday 20th February and as per Gav's predictions, they blew everyone away. It might be a bit of a cliche to say this, but they lifted the god damn roof off the place! Outstanding talent with a crowd of fans that were ready, waiting and willing to be impressed. If you had a ticket, kudos to you!
He may be ‘aff it but the party continues. You can catch Gav every Wednesday at Greyfriars for Perth’s longest established (and best!) Open Mic Night. Check it out on our events section.