GENTLEMANS PISTOLS – Interview With James Atkinson

Spread the metal:

gents-logo (540x342)
Interview With Guitarist/Vocalist James Atkinson

By Peter Atkinson

Photos from
and Nuclear Blast Records

England’s Gentlemans Pistols have maintained a steady, if somewhat low-key – and apostrophe-free – presence over much of their dozen years together. Led by frontman/guitarist/founder/lone original member James Atkinson, they have released three albums – the latest of which, Hustler’s Row, arrived in mid-October – and toured mostly around their home country and mainland Europe, with a few gigs in Japan.

With Hustler’s Row, however, the band stand to make something of a bigger splash. For one thing, after two albums on the modestly underground Rise Above Records, the Pistols have signed with Nuclear Blast for the new record. For another, since 2009 the band’s ranks have included guitarist Bill Steer, whose other band – and fellow Nuclear Blasters – Carcass have experienced a remarkable resurgence in the wake of their 2012 comeback album Surgical Steel, raising the Pistols profile – even if slightly – by osmosis.

And Hustler’s is just an all-around more likable album than the previous releases, full of bouncy rhythms from drummer Stuart Dobbins and new bassist Robert Threapleton, fetching harmonies and hooks, and fantastic guitar teamwork from Steer and Atkinson. Its retro vibe channels everyone from Thin Lizzy and Deep Purple to The Sweet and Traffic, with just a hint of old Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, without ever sounding like mere idol worship.

Via Skype from the band’s home base of Leeds, Atkinson offered the following about the new album and the label situation, the evolution of Steer’s involvement with the band and its impact on their sound, and his hopes for the road ahead as the Pistols look to strike while the iron is comparatively hot.

I’ve done I don’t know how many hundreds of interviews, this is the first time I’ve ever spoken to someone with the same last name?

JAMES ATKINSON: (Laughs) Yeah? I’ll take that as an honor.

I’m certain there is no chance of us being in any way related, since my grandfather had the name Atkinson given to him by a school teacher after he came to America from Norway because his given last name was too difficult to pronounce.

ATKINSON: (Laughs) Well probably not then, our family name goes a bit farther back.

Are you doing primarily American press today?

ATKINSON: I did some British stuff earlier, but this evening it’s American, yeah.

It doesn’t seem like the band has established much of an identity in the states to this point, which is I guess what you’re trying to do now?

ATKINSON: It’s definitely unconquered territory to be sure. I know the albums have been released there, and I’ve spoken to a few people over there who’ve said they like the records but we’ve never toured there. So we’ve got no idea what the response is, really.

Gentlemans Pistols from the left, guitarist/vocalist James Atkinson, drummer Stuart Dobbins, guitarist Bill Steer and bassist Robert Threapleton.
Gentlemans Pistols from the left, guitarist/vocalist James Atkinson, drummer Stuart Dobbins, guitarist Bill Steer and bassist Robert Threapleton.

I think most people here know of the band because of your association with Bill, since the Pistols name comes up in articles about Carcass.

ATKINSON: It definitely helps to have a star in the band (laughs). It will help now that we have big label like Nuclear Blast pushing us, so I’m excited to see what can happen and if we can get our name out there to the far corners.

Did Bill help bring the Pistols to Nuclear Blast’s attention, or was your signing with them just coincidence or serendipity?

ATKINSON: I think when Carcass signed with them they knew that Bill was doing another band, and they were interested to hear it. So we sent them some of the earlier recordings and got to talking, and Bill kept on talking to them and I think even Jeff [Walker] from Carcass was talking to Nuclear for a bit and it all came together. The connection with Carcass is part of the reason that it happened, but ultimately they wouldn’t have signed us if they didn’t like the band. It wasn’t a package deal or anything like that.

Nuclear has quite a few bands on their roster who are of your ilk, if you will, like Kadaver, Orchid and Graveyard, so you won’t stick out like a sore thumb and they should know what buttons to push on your behalf?

ATKINSON: I would think so. They do a whole range of stuff, so they definitely have the right idea of how to push things the right way, no matter type of band their dealing with, whether it’s brutal death metal, metalcore or even someone like Nightwish. So that’s what we’re counting on.

Gentlemans Pistols on Huster's Row
Gentlemans Pistols on Huster’s Row

Is the intent at some point to actually tour over here, or do you need to wait and see how things go with the album?

ATKINSON: If the right thing came up, we would love to come over and play it’s just a case of whether it’s viable. We’re definitely willing to do it if it could be worked out, we’d love to do it. For the time being, for the rest of this year, we play a record release gig in London and we’re doing a tour of the U.K., I think it’s like 13 dates in December.

Have you toured all that extensively even in Europe. Or does it tend to be more sporadic to work around Bill’s schedule with Carcass?

ATKINSON: It’s been more sporadic because everyone has commitments and that sort of stuff, not just Bill. It’s usually we’ll do a tour here and have a couple months off and do a tour there. That’s how it’s worked out, which can be good or bad. But lately it’s been other things.

Because we’ve been getting the album right and then going through stuff with Nuclear, once we were making the album we didn’t want to gig too much, especially over here in the U.K. because we wanted the gigs to have some impact and reason. We wanted to wait until the album was out or at least there was talk of it coming out.

We only did a few things whilst the album was being made, we did Fuji Rock in Japan and Desert Fest in Berlin and then a couple of other gigs. So I don’t think Bill’s commitments had much bearing during that time because we were preparing for this sort of time.

I guess the tricky part might come later if or when Carcass gets busier or starts working in a new album?

ATKINSON: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I’m obviously a huge fan of Carcass and happy to see them doing so well. But for now we know we have Bill on board for the foreseeable future, so we’ll take advantage of it whilst we can.

James Atkinson and Bill Steer
James Atkinson and Bill Steer

Were there any reservations about taking Bill on initially, since at the time he joined up with you guys just where Carcass were headed was still a bit of a question mark?

ATKINSON: You just have to take things as they go. Nobody really knew what was going on, and at the time it was a matter of our guitar player had left and we needed a guitar player, so we asked Bill. We had toured with Bill’s band, Firebird, and we got on well and it seemed to work. So there was never really any thought of how things would pan out. We’ve always been massively supportive of Carcass. And we’re happy how things have gone for them, because they deserve to get their due.

He’s toured with Angel Witch too, so he seems fairly comfortable with coming in and just being the “other guitar player?”

ATKINSON: He’s just a fantastic player and he brings so much to the sound. You can’t fault anything about Bill’s playing, it’s always a pleasure to play alongside him. I’m sure he has a great time because he’s got less of a commitment to the sort of mental, day-to-day side of the Pistols as he does with Carcass. It’s cool for him to come in and just plug in and play and let me worry about the day-to-day stuff (laughs).

Does he contribute anything to the writing, or is that all you?

ATKINSON: When it comes to the harmonies, definitely. I’ll come in with the bones of the song and we’ll play through it and work on the harmonies together. Everything he does with the solos is his doing, and sometimes when I’ve got the bones of a song he’ll play even maybe one extra note in the riff or something like that and I’ll be happy to add it in because he’s brought his thought about how to play it.

I’ve seen you described as retro rock, blues rock, stoner rock and even “grebo rock,” whatever the hell that is. How would you describe the Pistols sound?

ATKINSON: What we’re doing is very much down the road of hard rock, it’s got to be based about the riffs and melody, really. The Sweet have always really been the main influence for the band, even though it probably doesn’t come across that much in the music, but stuff like The Sweet and Deep Purple, Captain Beyond, things that like, those are the sort of bands that were there at the very beginning of the idea of the band, and stuff like some soul music and funk and stuff like that. There’s a lot of different influences that are coming into it.

As a left-handed guitar player who plays a Gibson SG, do you ever get the temptation to go full-on Tony Iommi, or are Sabbath not someone who’s really an influence?

ATKINSON: (laughs) Sabbath are one of the first bands you ever get into when you get into ’70s hard rock. Sabbath have always been at the back burner, but for me I’m more into the groovier sort of stuff, Deep Purple Mach III, than the heavy doom sound. You can’t fault Sabbath’s output, all through the years, but for me there were other bands from that era who were more of an influence.

gents-album (585x585)

The new album seems a bit livelier than the earlier releases, is that a fair characterization?

ATKINSON: When we started writing and working on it, the main thing we wanted to focus on was making it more melodic than the previous two albums and using more harmonies, be it with the guitar or with the vocals. I guess it feels more lively because the guitars are mixed more higher on the record.

There’s some songs where we did little bits of extra guitar on certain parts of it to build up certain choruses. So when we were working on the album we employed some techniques that wouldn’t necessarily be done live to bolster the sound and give it a bit more punch.

You produce the albums as well, although from what I was reading, it sounded like you were reluctant to do that again this time?

ATKINSON: It’s always good to have other people come in and listen to it and tell you what they’re thinking because especially when you’re trying to mix it and put it all together you’re listening to the most microscopic parts of it. In some ways, it’s pretty difficult to do it, so after the second album I said I didn’t want to do it again, but it’s just a case of it was the easiest thing to do.

We’d already demoed it [the new album], we were quite happy with how they were sounding. So we just decided to set up and do it. And it gave me the opportunity to sit down with Bill and we could figure out these solos that he wanted put in there and work on the harmonies. So it did have its plus points, because we did it in my studio, we had the luxury of more time to work on it, but then again it becomes quite difficult without other people to tell you their opinion or to perhaps move you along. I was still messing around with it up until the day the deal was signed [with Nuclear Blast].

You guys seems to be on an album every for four years schedule, going forward would you prefer to get more material out in less time?

ATKINSON: There’s been absolutely no method to it between each record, there’s no pattern, it was all for different reasons. There’s been a few lineup changes over the years, so each time it’s happened either just before and just after we’ve recorded and that sets you back a bit.

And we never want to rush the writing and recording either, even though it was never a thought to leave it as long as it was between each one, we always want to be as happy as we can with the songs with the songs when we release them. Because obviously you’ve got to live with them, haven’t you?

That record will always been there and it’s nice to be as happy as you can at that moment when you’re putting it out. I’ve already started writing stuff for the next record and I’m hopeful that it won’t take as long as four years.

Are you happy with the way things turned out with the new album?

ATKINSON: I’m as happy as I can be I guess. I don’t think you can ever be 100 percent fully happy on everything that you do. I’m proud of the songs and happy with the performances, but there’s always something you think you could have done better, even after all the time spent with it. That’s just the way it is (laughs).

gents-band (585x217)