Words From The Street:–Toby Burras

Given that it was seeing Toby busking in Petergate, back in February, which sparked the idea for this project, it only seems fair that he is the first to be featured. Marc and I had decided to let the interviewees choose a favourite location for the meetings and Toby chose The Nook, a relatively new and very cosy Cafe/Bar tucked away down Castlegate in York. Even better was the fact that the owner, Emily, had agreed to stay around well beyond the usual Monday closing time to give us sole use of the venue, for which we are very grateful.

What follows is a full transcript of the ensuing interview, edited only for verbal “tics”. The conversation was at times funny, at times perhaps slightly controversial, often eye-opening and always frank and honest. I started with an unplanned, but obvious question…

Why did you pick this place? The Nook? Because it’s awesome. (Laughs)

There you go, then. A bit of free advertising there. To start off, can you give a bit of background about yourself? Who you are, where you are from. When did you start playing and singing? What else have you done musically, and what music do you listen to when you’re not busking? I started playing about DSC_4041fifteen years ago. I started writing about twelve years ago and I’ve been in bands, well my stage name is Unfinished Drawings. That’s been going for nearly ten years now. It will be ten years old next January. I grew up in Leeds, so I spent a lot of time on the Leeds scene and I know a lot of people in Leeds. Then I moved up to York about three years ago now and started with busking, gigging as often as possible. I started in York with my original stuff and gradually I’ve gone into much heavier, sort of larger sets of covers and that sort of stuff. But, yeah, now I’m sort of indented in the scene, as you might say. I get around quite a lot. I play most nights and I’m busking more or less every day now. So, yeah, that’s where I am at the moment.

And what do you listen to? Errm, a really eclectic mix. I love songs rather than genres and I don’t necessarily love artists. It really is, you know… I could take three albums worth of one band and only like four songs from all three albums. But it is a really wide range, from the eighties onwards. I love a bit of Dubstep. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. are one of my favourite bands and Biffy Clyro is my favourite band of all time.

So, why busking? Why did you decide to start busking? Initially, for cash. Well, that’s honest. Yeah, initially it was. Yeah. I wanted to take the step into being a professional musician. So I cut my hours at work to half time, so I was only doing twenty hours and then I was busking for the other twenty hours and it worked really well. I could busk in the morning, work in the evening and gradually… well, I got made redundant from work, so I went on it full speed and I’ve sort of been there ever since. (Laughs)

So you are a full time busker? Pretty much. Well, full time musician. I busk probably three, maybe four hours every day, depending on the weather. But, yeah, it’s a cracking job. I really enjoy it. Really, really enjoy it.

You’ve just covered the next question, which was how often do you busk? Whereabouts? Is it just York? Anywhere else? Do you have a favourite spot? Yeah, I’ve got my favourite pitches. I really like Petergate, up near the Minster, and I DSC_4062really like the Squares, King’s Square and St. Helen’s Square. They’re really nice, really nice surroundings. You know, the streets are really lovely. It’s generally 80% tourist as well so, you know, it’s a fresh audience every day. I do travel out a little bit. Generally when I’m passing through. So, you know, if I’ve got a gig in Leeds I might go and do a few hours in Leeds that day or if I’m visiting a friend or whatever in a different city, I’ll pop out. But generally York. Most days in York.

What about routines? Do you always play the same spot on a Wednesday or is it just when you can find that spot? It’s quite ruthless in the fact that it’s a bit dog eat dog and early bird gets the worm. So, if you’re up early enough and you’re on your pitch early enough you’ve got your good pitch. But, yeah, if you get up any time past half past nine on a Saturday morning, you’re struggling. You’re going to struggle to get a spot.

So you don’t hang around, waiting for somebody to move on? Well, I mean, I know most of the buskers so… and we’ve all got a really good communication. You know, we all respect each other. So the general unspoken rules, which used to be enforced with a permit in York, are that you move every two hours. So generally, every two to three hours, you’ll find that buskers (most of them anyway) will move around and we’ll swap spots and stuff like that. So it usually works alright, but it can be a bit dog eat dog at times.

The songs you perform… I’ve seen you do Red Hot Chili Peppers and Daft Punk. Do you always do covers or do you sometimes throw in your own bits and pieces? When I started busking, I used to… I never played covers for the first fifteen years of my music live. It’s only been in the last year or two that I’ve really got down with covers. The reason is, if people recognise it and you’re doing a good version of a song, generally that will earn you that extra pound. It is selling out but there’s a good price behind selling out. (Laughs) So, yeah, I do enjoy… I think the trick with covers, and it’s something I try to pass on to musicians, is you have to enjoy what you are singing in order to sing it well. You have to like the song and you have to want to really sing it. So, yeah, generally the songs I sing I do really enjoy listening to anyway.

How do you pick the versions that you do, though? Because your version of Californication is the most laid back I’ve ever come across. (Laughs) Generally they all are. I try to put my own spin on everything because I really don’t like… It’s not that I don’t like playing covers. I would much rather be getting the same amount of money for playing my own songs. And I do slip my own songs in there but… It’s just about putting my own spin on it and having that person walk past and go, “Oh, that’s a really nice version of that” and, yeah, if you can make it your own I think it sounds a bit better than just trying to do the standard strumming away on your guitar and belting out the right notes sort of thing. So, yeah, I mean it’s just my own take on the songs really.

Do you have a regular set-list or do you just randomly pick the songs you’re going to do based on how you feel at the time? I work on a basis where one goes on the top and one goes off the bottom. So I’ve got about an hour’s worth… I’ve got three hours’ worth of music in my repertoire but there’s an hour’s worth of good, decent songs that are worth playing and when a new one comes in, the one that earns the least money goes off the bottom. Obviously I’m there every day watching what goes in for what song, so I’ve really learned how to hone in on what a good tune is now and what people will really enjoy. And not even that. It’s just the way you sort of play it and if you can do something different, you know? Like I use a loop pedal and I do the percussion sort of thing with the guitar, try to make it a bit more theatrical because people like to look. Listening is all good but looking as well, looking at something different as well. If you can catch somebody’s eye, that’s always a good move in my eyes.

So you would prefer people to stand and watch rather than just walk past and drop a few coins in the case? Yeah. That’s one of my favourite things about playing in the Squares. Because you’ve got the benches there and you generally find, and it DSC_4071does happen where people will come purposefully to sit and eat their lunch there and they’ll sit for half an hour. And often you’ll find people sat there for a couple of hours. Even though I’m singing the same songs over again, they are still sat there enjoying it, which baffles me. But, yeah, it’s one of those things. I’d much rather be playing… I suppose it’s a conscious thing, or a self-conscious thing… I’d much rather be playing to people who were or, at least who I thought were listening, rather than just a bunch of people passing.

The questions are flowing really well here. The next one was do you have any regular fans? I guess you must spot the same faces. Yeah. There’s a lot of people and more than you’d think, actually, more than I would think as well, that come and they can’t pass me without stopping and at least saying, “Hello” or usually its a drop of a pound or whatever. And even if they haven’t got any money they’ll be like, “I haven’t got any money today, but it sounds awesome as usual.” And one of the things that really got me this year… Obviously January is a lull for every business. Let me assure you the busking business is atrocious in January. (Laughs) Not only is it the coldest month of the year but it’s dark and grim. But one of things that really shocked me this year was the shops that I busk outside. More or less every spot that I play in, I got a Christmas card with a fairly large donation in it, you know, signed from all the girls in the shops, “Thanks for brightening up our days.” And it was… in my eyes, I’m really annoying these people every day. You know, I’m coming by and I’m playing the same songs as I did yesterday. It drains on me so I don’t know how it doesn’t drain on them. But it was absolutely lovely. And there was a woman that came out of one of the offices in one of the squares and, again, I can only imagine that when you’re trying to work in a solicitor’s office or something somebody barking away in the background, however lovely it is, it’s got to annoy you at some point. But she came out and gave me twenty quid and it really brightened up my January, let’s put it that way. It kept me going for a good couple of weeks. (Laughs)

That might have just covered one of the other questions, but I’ll come to that one in a minute. You said… well, the question was going to be “do you see buskers as being part of a community or do you see yourself as a lone troubadour?” There is a community. Yeah, there is. It’s… I don’t know if you know much about the rift in busking in the last year or so. I can probably guess at it. Yeah, yeah. Good. There was a particular person, who’s not even from York’’. He just comesDSC_4103 twice a month to busk here. There was a badge system which I believe was a brilliant system. It didn’t cost anything. It was a tenner a year to be on the badge system and those unspoken rules were actual rules and there was people enforcing it. So, when you’ve got these badgers that come out and stand on the best spot in town from nine in the morning until six at night, they wouldn’t have got away with that and everybody gets a fair shot at that spot. And that’s how it should work and, like I say, eighty per cent are still working together, we’re still… you know, we all have each other’s phone numbers, we all text each other on a morning, “Where are you at?” and, “Can we swap later on?” kind of thing. And I think it’s a really good thing to keep it moving, as well, because like I said about annoying the shops. It’s a really conscious thing on my mind. I’m probably one of the most considerate buskers. If I stay for four hours in one spot, I actually go round and apologise to all the shops. (Laughs) “Sorry for taking the piss today,” you know. But, yeah, there’s one or two that are dog eat dog and unfortunately there’s more of those cropping up. So the community, at the moment we are… there are a few of us that are getting together and starting a busking… not a union as such, but a collective, in the hope that we can, not really enforce the rules but really keep them and just make sure that, when a new busker does appear in town somebody tells him, you know, this is how it runs and everybody’s nice as long as you’re nice. And it’s true, you get what you give in the busking scene. If you annoy another busker, he’s going to annoy you back. (Laughs) I’m lucky in the fact that I’m quite a friendly chap and I’ll share any pitch with anyone as long as I’ve had my fair shot at it, I don’t see why everybody can’t. So, yeah, there is a really good community, but it’s on a hinge at the moment. It can go one of two ways at the moment and I think most of us are keen to keep it friendly, which would be nice. It’s always best to like the people you work with. It’s nice to be nice, yeah.

What do your friends and family think about you busking? Do they even know? Yeah, they do, yeah. My Gran really worries. She thinks it’s not a proper job. Which, in essence, it isn’t. There’s no real security. I don’t get sick pay, I don’t get holiday pay, I’m not really keen on self-assessments. It doesn’t suit me. (Laughs) Doing the books is not one of my favourite things. And it is just that non-security, especially over the Winter. I mean, I’m lucky in the fact that, because I busk every day, it’s led to some really, really good opportunities. You know, I now run several nights a week, which brings in an income and that is my job now, really. Busking is more a couple of hours a day for pocket money and to save up or whatever. But, yeah, it’s enjoyable and I think they are happy for me because I’m doing what I really enjoy, but I think they’d rather I didn’t. (Laughs) They’d rather you were a doctor or something. Yeah. I think it’s mainly with my Gran, because I’m so slender (Laughs) and it’s so cold out and, you know, you never see me without three hoodies and a hat on. It’s one of those things. She’s just concerned that, you know, I will go out and busk in the snow. I am a weathered busker. I’m as hard core as they go. I literally will busk for three hundred and sixty four days this year. (Laughs) So, what’s the day off? Christmas Day. But, it’s one of those things, if I’m enjoying it, they’re happy for me, I think. So, yeah, they’ll get over it. Do they ever come and see you? My Gran does. She likes to pretend to be that lady that doesn’t know me that drops a tenner in and look really cool. (Laughs) It’s nice. But most of my family is from Leeds, so… I’m only out here for a couple of hours anyway, so they come see me at gigs and stuff but not for the busking.

Fairly obvious question. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you while busking and what’s the worst? Oooo, that’s a really good question. Errm, I’d say the best thing is when we stopped Petergate, just before Christmas last year. Not the one that’s just gone, last year. It started with twelve or so drunk blokes that crowded really DSC_4096tightly round the bag and they were like, “right, sing us a song lads.” So, I was busking with another guy and we started singing and these twelve blokes started bellowing the song and before you… you know, we look down and look up again and there was fifty people. By the end of the second song there was a hundred. And then we got to Teenage Dirtbag and there was about three, maybe four hundred people singing Teenage Dirtbag in Petergate. All the shops emptied. All the shop owners were out at the front, like, “What’s going on?” That was a highlight and, as far as money goes, I’m fairly sure two hundred of those four hundred put something in the bag and it was a good take that day. (Laughs) It was a really good take. It was brilliant, you know, that was the highlight for me. Can you remember what the first song was? Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, followed by Wonderwall, which is not my favourite, and then Dirtbag, which is one of my favourites. (Laughs) And I’m not sure of the low point. There’s not been a huge amount of really horrible moments. Generally the only people that speak to you have been pleasant. There’s been the odd fool and it’s been one of the crazies that walk around York, just shouting random craziness at you. It happened the other day, actually. There was just this clapping and, like, shouting. I don’t even know what. She was just shouting rubbish. And the whole square… I stopped mid-song to look and the whole square sort of stopped and then she was, like, bemused that everybody had stopped to look at her, and it’s like, well, you’re stood in the middle of the square… But that is rare. You get the occasional… Saturday night busking, I’ve been robbed once and he stole a pound and I wasn’t that fussed, for a quid. It was just some drunk idiot, you know. Saturday night, walked past and thought he was being brilliant. And all his mates… I had a microphone, so the whole street could hear what I was bellowing at him and I literally shouted abuse at him until he left my sight. (Laughs) All his mates were also like, “you scruffy get”. That’s about as bad as it gets. Generally it’s a really pleasurable experience. It’s fairly nerve-wracking at times. I’d say that the first half an hour of your busking career is a real test on your braveness. I did my first half an hour ever in Bradford. Bradford’s scary. In fact that’s probably my lowest point was in Bradford. There was a tramp that just… he wanted the whole bag, he didn’t want a quid, and he went for it four or five times. He got right to it and I was like, “What are you doing? I’m here…” (Laughs) But no, it’s a nice place to work and you see the same faces every day and, you know, I walk through town and I literally can’t walk thirty metres without saying hello to four or five people. And in essence it’s all from busking because most of my regular gigs are all from busking. Like yourself, people walk past and maybe say, “Hi” and then they’ll come back a day or two later and go, “Actually, Saturday night, do you want to play in this bar?” And one of the best things that happened to me last year was a bloke called Ian Donaghy, who’s the frontman of Huge, he put me on at a “little gig”, in Ian’s world, (Laughs) at the end of last year. It wasn’t. It was three hundred people, sold out venue twice in a row. Which, to me, isn’t that much of a small gig as an alright gig. And off the back of that he’s offered me a slot at the Theatre Royal in a week’s time, which is going to be incredible and I think that’s pretty much sold out now as well. But well plugged. (This is/was the A Night To Remember, a gig to raise money for the York Alzheimers Society on 17/4/14.) And it’s stuff like that… I mean Ian is again one of those blokes and there’s another bloke I’m working with at the moment who’s giving me free run of his studio at the moment and doesn’t want any money for it, which is a massive bonus as far as I’m concerned. And again, one of those, walked past with his wife. A week later, there he is again, “Can I have your number? I really want to work with you.” And again, like recording, I’ve not paid for recording in two years, just because there’s a ton of students walking past every day that want to record me and Chris was just like, “I’ve got this studio, you should come and record with us.” He’s put me in touch with the Ont’ Sofa guys, got me in there for nothing as well, which is, again, pretty much unheard of. Which is all bonus. It’s all brilliant. (Laughs)

Basically, it’s all highs and very few lows? Pretty much. I mean, there are lows. Some days you’re a pigeon, some days you’re a statue. You know, you can go out and earn nothing. Well, I’ve never earned nothing, but there’s been days when I’ve gone out and it’sDSC_4100 been pointless, it’s been a struggle to make ten quid out of five hours work. Which, in any man’s case is a bad wage. And then there’s days, coming up to Christmas where it’s incredible. I can pay my rent for January in a week around Christmas, which is brilliant. Well you can do it in a couple of days at Christmas. And again, it’s one of those… There are low points but it depends how you look at it. I’ve got quite a good mental attitude, so I always try to, you know, tomorrow’s a new day and if it rains tomorrow then stuff it, (laughs) there’s a day after tomorrow. That’s my biggest downfall, the weather. But, look, this Winter especially has been incredibly mild. There was barely any days that I had to fully take off, I’ve managed to get out for at least a couple of hours every day, which is good. So, it’s generally good. Mostly.

Well, I was going to ask what keeps you going, but it’s just the sheer enjoyment I think. Yeah. I’ve got a pure passion. I’m a musician and I believe I was born to do what I do. Maybe not in this sense, maybe there’s more for me in the future, but right now, doing what I do, I have a mix of busking, gigging, running open mics, running gigs and one of my favourite things is I’ve started working with kids. So I mentor children now as well. And the pride that comes from that is something special. And that, again, I do that for free just because that’s for love. I’ve got a twelve year old that just outshines everything. (Laughs) Everything and everybody and she’s absolutely spectacular and to be a part of that is… yeah, that’s really rewarding. That’s my aim within the next year or two, is to get at that an maybe get some funding and, ideally, I want to work with kids at risk of offending and maybe get them busking. I’ve got the twelve year old busking and she really enjoys it. Is she out on her own, or partnering you?  No, she stands there all on her tod and goes for gold. She goes for a couple of hours and makes three times what I make. (Laughs) And again, that’s passing it on and she follows me around some of the nights that I do and it’s great to get her gigging and stuff as well. She’ll be busking forever, I reckon. She knows how to do it now. (Laughs)

If you could change one thing about the scene, the lifestyle, York, whatever… what would it be? In reference to busking? I’d definitely bring back the permit. That would be the first thing that I did, would be bring that back into force. It’s highly unlikely because it’s been thrown out of court and everything, but if we can actually get this committee set up and running and have a core of two or three guys from each sector, so DSC_4117circus acts, the jugglers and the performers and the bands, if we can get somebody from every angle to come and meet once a month and go, “Right, there’s a problem on this street, from this guy,” or, “this guy’s been stood outside this shop and the shop’s been complaining.” We’d love to work with the Council as well, because it’s got to work in two hands and work with the shops and stuff as well. If we can all find a happy medium, then it’ll be a lot easier. That would be the only thing. York’s really vibrant. Really, really vibrant for buskers and I think it’s one of the things that brings a lot of people to the centre as well. Tourists especially, they love… especially from other parts of the world which maybe don’t have buskers. We run a B&B sort of thing from our house, so we have backpackers coming through all the time and they’re fascinated by it. “What you just go and play out on the street and people pay you for that?” It baffles me sometimes. Five, ten years ago, I probably would have looked at busking and thought, “That’s totally pointless. What are you doing? You’re just making a fool of yourself.” But then, after giving it a go, it’s… like I say, eighty per cent of the time it’s… ninety nine per cent of the time, in fact, it’s a joy. (Laughs) Doing what I enjoy as well.

When I originally wrote this question down, Marc put a question mark against it. I’m not quite sure I’ve put it clearly enough. I’ve actually written “do you have any aspirations musically?” I don’t mean, you know, the head of EMI’s going to drop into Lendal in his helicopter and go, “There you go, there’s a recording contract.” I’d probably tell him, “No,” to be honest. Basically, I’m not talking ideal world, but where do you want to go with music? Again, you’ve probably covered this with the kids and the… Yeah, ideally, I really want to have a space to work with kids. That’s very much at the top of the list. I’d like to put myself at a level at sort of… I don’t know if you know Ryan Keen and Jon Gomm. Both incredible artists. Jon is a friend from Leeds, I’ve known him for a long time and from the first time I saw him play live, well my jaw hit the ground the first time. The first song he played I was like, “Wow!” (Laughs) He’s been an inspiration and a real role model for a long time and still very much is. He’s been offered record deal after record deal. He’s been offered it on a plate. They’ve bent over backwards to try to get to him and still the answer is very much a “No” from Jon and he will only play venues that are of a certain size to keep that intimacy and the guys tours the world. (Laughs) Regularly. I saw him at Fibbers last year and I was the same as you. Jaw to the ground. I played with him the last time he was in York before that at the Basement and again he was… he just… that was just before the YouTube went viral and again, even then he’s just an… everything he does is perfect. All his albums are pay what you want. He sells postcards with codes to download it. He doesn’t care if you give that postcard to somebody else. That postcard could go round the world and he wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But the fact that it’s free makes it worth double what it’s worth. I’ve seen people hand over twenty quid for one song on a printed piece of paper because it’s Jon and they know who he is and what he stands for. And Ryan’s the same. Refuses deal after deal, he’s got himself a cracking manager and a reallyDSC_4123 good booking agent. Again, I played with him at The Duchess last year and he was coming to the end of his headline tour to then go straight into a support tour playing the stadiums with Leona Lewis and he’s still unsigned. (Laughs) And when you mention those to names to most people that aren’t really that connected, they’ll scratch their heads and generally Jon’s fairly unheard, you know, and it’s… well, you’ve been to a John gig. It’s sixty, seventy per cent musicians in there. Total respect for him. Every single person that sees him play will go again at some point, whenever and wherever they can. And, at that level, I’d be really, really happy. Really, really happy. To be playing my stuff and to be earning from my stuff would make a much bigger difference, to not have to sell out as much. But, I mean, I’ve done the occasional gig, it just scares me a lot. (Laughs) You know, I can sell the Basement out, I did last year for my EP launch, and it’s a really good night, you make money, it’s all your music and you feel really proud at the end of it but… it’s such a stress. (Laughs) It’s such a stress. So, I much prefer to take the stress element away and not have any financial commitment to it. You know, if it flops I don’t lose.

Without naming names, you don’t have to put anybody on the spot or anything, but what kind of percentage of buskers do you think are in the space you’re in, or the ones who just like to busk for busking’s sake because they enjoy it, or the ones that are hoping it will lead to something beyond what you aspire to? There’s… only one. Alessio. He’s the only one busker that I know that is purely on the street. He doesn’t care what goes in his bag. He’s purely there to practice and to play and because he loves it. The rest of them, not the rest of them but the bands especially are out to make money, and they want to make a lot of money. Hoping to be seen as well? Yeah. Yeah. I’m not going to drop any names but you know the ones where you go round and they’ve got a massive board out. I make a point of not putting anything out. It’s only really very recently, in the last week and it’s purely for this theatre gig, because I want people to know where to look once they’ve seen me at the theatre. But I make a point of not advertising myself and people then have to come back and see me. (Laughs) And it leads to genuine opportunities, because I’m really bad at communicating. I’m really good at my phone. If my phone rings I’ll answer it and I’ll speak to you. And once I’ve spoken to you, we’ve exchanged real words and things are going to happen. But the internet annoys me somewhat, so when people just go and email the Unfinished Drawings page it rarely even gets looked at, never mind responded to. Yeah, so I mean, there are bands that have been signed from the street and best of luck to them but they’ve gone for the 360 deals they’re just going to get churned up and spat out and they’re going to be back in a couple of years. There was a band that got signed and ended up back on the street in York within three months. Kitted out nicely, but it never went… and I think if it leads to anything it’s a bonus. I don’t think you should look for it. I don’t look for anything. I’m out there, generally it’s to make ends meet. I only ever really busk for what I need and that’s not a lot. You know, I’m quite a happy character. I didn’t mean the question in any way bad about anybody. If people are there and really what they want is to make a fortune, be seen and make a fortune, like you say, good luck to them. Yeah, I mean, the ones that do really well are the Y Street Band. They are really good at that. They work a lot, they play a lot and they only play for money. And they make a lot. As a band. Individually I reckon we’re on a par earnings-wise, you know, once they’ve done the five ways split. But they get a hell of a lot more weddings than I do. (Laughs). But it’s because they’ve got the board there and just that simple thing of saying “Available for…weddings, parties and all that”, you can imagine them getting double the bookings. So, yeah, I’d say most of them are there to make money. One or two are there for exposure. Beth’s there for exposure. And there’s that one lonely little guy on his own (laughs) tapping away on his guitar, playing for love not money.

At the other end of the scale, what do you think about the people who have boards that say things along the lines of “Poor students. Please give generously.”? Errm… It’s cheeky. It’s not a posh begging. But I believe it should be based on, not talent, but if somebody thinks, “Yeah, he’s alright,” money talks. The quid says, “You’re alright.” For me, having that sign I would just simply feel like it was sympathy pennies all day long and I’d just feel like a tool at the end of the day. (Laughs) You know, there’d be no justification in what I’d just done. But fair play to them, I reckon. DSC_4106I know the guys you’re on about and it made me smile and I gave them a quid because it made me smile. If you can make people smile, which is the main reason behind the cheesy half of my set list, because make somebody grin… I sing I Need A Dollar, which is the same thing, pretty much. It’s a cheeky way of, you know, “Come on…” (Laughs) And it works a treat, every single time. It’s a big one, that one.

Do you have any advice that you would pass on to anybody that was thinking of starting busking? Errm, just get out there. See what you feel. Survive the first half hour. Yeah, that would be my only thing. Do the first hour and if you can do that you can do a million hours. If you can get past that initial fear of, “Oh my God, this is the general public,” because it’s completely different to a gig environment. It’s the polar opposite. Very rarely do you get… unless you’re a five piece band and you’re pulling in a crowd, very rarely do you get people stopping and clapping. The times when it does happen, it truly baffles me. Like when you’ve got a square full of people and it’s just me on my own, there might be thirty people there and I’m like, “What are you all doing??” (Laughs) “This isn’t how this works.” So, yeah, my advice would be go out, make friends with as many buskers as you can and stay friends with them. And try not to be greedy, because that gets noticed and buskers talk. We talk a lot, more than most people probably think. And the communication’s quite in-depth as well. We can stand for half an hour and we can discuss everything that annoys us. And generally we come to the same conclusion that it’s… there’s only one or two of them and I think most people know who they are. But there’s a general vibe, but those one or two people they genuinely don’t know what they are doing. Well, I think they must do but they’re so far up themselves that they just don’t care. It’s sad to see it, because it is nice to be nice. So that would be my only advice, would be find out what the rules are, stick to the pitches that you’ve seen people playing, because there are reasons people don’t play in certain areas, or there are reasons why they play in certain areas, because it’s much more accepted in certain areas. And don’t busk anywhere near a church that has a service on. That’s the worst thing you can do in the world. And then don’t try to argue with the priest. Ever. Ever! The wrath is just unbearable. (Laughs) It only rains on your pitch for a month? Yeah. Oh, I remember that day…

OK, we’re coming to the end. Anybody else you would recommend, either to see busk or to interview? I’d recommend the Y Street Band. They are the kings of busking in York, I would say. They are good at it. They sing twenty songs that are big songs. (Laughs) And they know what they’re doing. They’ve honed in to a tee. So, I’d get them in, definitely. The magic ball guy’s been around for a long time. Do you know who I mean? The contact juggler. Is that the guy in King’s Square that gets people involved? No, not the big ball guy. He stands on Petergate with glass balls. He’s been around. He’s been away and back and away and back again. And the guy that’s been there on the scene forever is, obviously, Dave Ward Maclean and he will have a lot of stories to tell you. He will have a lot of stories. (Laughs) He can talk, even more than I can. So, I’d go for those three. They’re your three that are on the scene. I mean Dave and the Y Street, definitely all year round buskers. Don’t go for any seasonal ones. They’re just… you know… cop outs. (Laughs) If you can’t busk in the cold, get out…

This was going to be finally, but I’ve rearranged the questions slightly. Is there anything you’d like to say to the people who stop, listen and drop cash or hopefully drop cash? Errm… Nice one. It keeps me going and it’s a real joy to do it as well, especially when people stop. It’s not even so much the money thing. I mean, when you get a noted donation, that’s always a mega bonus and I always really, really appreciate that and I go out of my way to give them a hug or something. (Laughs) But the people that stop every day… there’s a little old lady who stops every single time she sees me and tells me I have the most adorable voice in the world and she would like to put me in a box and take me home. That’s your Gran again, is it? (Laughs) I’d love to know who she is, because I would like to go into that little box and be molly-coddled by that lady. But every single day, she stops and it’s a joy and people like her make it worth doing. Definitely. And just the general… I see the people that work in York every single day on their lunch breaks. I will give them a nod and a wave and a smile and it’s just a good life. So, yeah, keep giving, keep supporting it and, yeah, when the mess hits the fan, if the mess hits the fan, I would hope that the general public would come on side with us, as a general busking population, rather than… because I think, in the next few months, I mean the Council’s talking about banning it and banning amps and you can’t ban amps for everybody. That’s… not fair. (Laughs) That’s not fair, it should be done on a case by case. But without anybody to enforce it, because they can’t afford to do that, it’s one or the other. So, hopefully, if the general public are on side with any petitions or anything that we’ve got, get on board.

Definitely finally, Just give a plug to your other stuff. Sweet. Unfinished Drawings is the band name. We’re doing every Tuesday in the Spread Eagle, the open mic there. We’re actually running a Battle of the Bands there for the next ten weeks for Apollo Festival. So that should get quite exciting over the next few weeks. On Fridays it’s The Nook, which is awesome. £3 cocktails. Great staff. Awesome staff. The staff get just asDSC_4126 drunk as I do. No. They do neck a fair few Tequilas with me, though. Then we’ve got the Sunday nights at The Hop, which is just belting. That, in not just my opinion, many other people have said it, is the best open mic in York. But that didn’t come from my mouth. That’s a really buzzing night is that one. And then, just every now and again I’m… well, on all the other nights I’ll be playing in some pub somewhere, so go and find me on Facebook somewhere and see where I am tomorrow. If you’ve logged on and updated it… Yeah, if I ever actually get round to… I’m really good at sheet text messages. You know, just adding the whole group and going, “I’m playing here. Do you want to come?” when I’m sat with my morning cigarette and coffee. And another great one is The Hop as well, which is due to start in the next month or so on a Wednesday night, we’re doing original bands within a fifty mile radius only, so pure Yorkshire. And that’s going to be cracking, going to be awesome. Is that going to be called anything? I’m not sure. It is. It’s going to have some sort of quirky, Yorkshire-related title. And it’s going to be Yorkshire beer, Yorkshire bands. Yorkshire, proper. Might even call it “Born and Bred”, something like that. So, yeah, just keep your eyes peeled and watch out for my kiddie art space in the next in the next year. Good luck with it. Cheers. Thanks for having me.

Thank you very much.

Words From The Street is a co-production from Not Quite Music Journalism and Yellow Mustang Photography, with Ian Massey on the keyboard, Marc McGarraghy behind the lens and both asking the questions. All photographs are © Marc McGarraghy/Yellow Mustang Photography 2014. No cropping, editing or publishing without prior written consent. The views and opinions expressed in the replies are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the authors.


About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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