‘Don’t say: what if we did this reggae style?’ The huge yet humble lives of unofficial band members

<span>‘Now I’m part of the family’ … Sarah Brown performs with Jim Kerr of Simple Minds during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Las Vegas.</span><span>Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images</span>
‘Now I’m part of the family’ … Sarah Brown performs with Jim Kerr of Simple Minds during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, Las Vegas.Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Wayne Murray has been with the same band for 18 years. He has played guitar in stadiums and arenas. He has headlined festivals. He has toured the world and felt the adulation of countless thousands. But after all that time, and all those shows, he is still not an official member of Manic Street Preachers. And that’s fine with him.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Murray says. “I live in Brighton and I have a studio with another musician – we do a lot of music for film and TV. I have a career outside the Manics from that, so I still get to sing and write a lot. And when we tour, I am part of the fold. It’s just perfect.”

The touring member has an honourable history. Some of the world’s biggest bands have long relied on extra musicians to complete their sound: Darryl Jones has played bass with the Rolling Stones for 31 years without ever becoming a full member; Ted Sablay has spent 18 years playing guitar and keyboards with the Killers, and for the last two of those he has been their live musical director; guitarist Jason White has spent 25 years as the unofficial fourth member of Green Day.

Coming on board as a hired hand can be an intimidating experience, not least because longstanding bands have their own private language, which outsiders can struggle with. That was the case for the American musician Daryl Stuermer, who joined Genesis as a touring guitarist and bassist in 1977, and stayed with them until their final tour, across 2021 and 2022.

“When I got into the band, I had to observe,” Stuermer told me before that final tour. He and longtime touring Genesis drummer Chester Thompson talked about how, when original members Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins get together: “We might as well just go somewhere else because we’re not gonna understand what they’re getting at. It’s not even just being British. I don’t have that problem today, being with these guys all these years, but it did take a couple of tours before I really got it.”

It was just as hard for Sarah Brown, who has sung with Simple Minds for the past 15 years. She had learned to sing in a gospel choir and was steered away from pop music in her younger years. She found Jim Kerr’s Scottish accent impenetrable. “The first time Jim called me, he left a message. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I didn’t do anything about it, but Jim called me again. I asked my partner to listen to the message. I said: ‘Someone is trying to employ me but I don’t know who.’ He said: ‘Sarah, do you know who this is? This is Jim Kerr from Simple Minds.’ ‘Oh, right.’ ‘You don’t know who he is or who they are, do you?’ And I didn’t.”

She flew out to Copenhagen to try out with the band at sound check, then to watch the show and see if she fancied the job. Kerr told her she might as well be part of the band that night. She stood between the then drummer Mel Gaynor and guitarist Charlie Burchill and was astonished by the wall of sound. “It was incredible. I did think to myself: how am I going to add anything to this show? How can I give it a tone? That’s my job as a backing vocalist, to give it some colour. I was really convinced I couldn’t add anything. But 15 years on I understand Jim’s voice a lot more, and I understand Simple Minds – they have different colours flowing through them.”

You might imagine touring musicians get the most boring part of the job – playing the barre chords or the root notes. That’s not necessarily the case. “My role has changed over 18 years,” Murray says, “and James [Dean Bradfield] has given me more of the iconic guitar parts – I’ve played the arpeggios in A Design for Life for the last eight years.” And sometimes he ends up being creative by mistake. “When there’s a new album I will be given the new songs. I transpose them myself. Sometimes, I get it wrong, and when James hears what I’ve done he might say: ‘That’s cool – do that instead.’ But ultimately, they write the songs.”

Banks noted that Stuermer became hugely important for Genesis when they drew up their touring set lists because he had learned their catalogue so thoroughly that he knew it better than their founder members. “They look at me for cues a lot of times because I practise the songs before I go to rehearsal, so I know the songs inside out.”

Brown’s role in Simple Minds has become more than a simple backing singer – she sings lead on Book of Brilliant Things, and her role offers more freedom than a player might get. “When I worked with Roxy Music, I ghosted Bryan Ferry on most songs, singing every word. He is very particular – his rhythm and timing is so exact. With Jim, he will push one word then pull back on another and be in the pocket on the next. I’m not always needed to be on top of him, but sometimes I am. I regulate myself according to what Jim is giving out, whereas the guitarist and bassist will play the same line every night and it’s always the same intensity.”

Not everyone is plucked from obscurity, relative or otherwise, to join a band on tour. Wolf Parade frontman Dan Boeckner was part of the early Arcade Fire lineup but chose to concentrate on his band Wolf Parade when both acts started blowing up in the early 00s. In recent years, he has returned to touring with Arcade Fire, a refreshing change of pace. “There’s less responsibility,” he says. “If it doesn’t fall on you to have to be at the mic and address the crowd and facilitate the exchange of energy that makes a good show, then you can focus a little more on the music. It’s less of an all-encompassing, trance-like state.”

Despite his long relationship with the band, he knows his place is to help, not to lead. “Nobody wants the new guy saying, ‘What if we did this reggae style?’ Several legacy bands I love have folded in new members and it is occasionally embarrassing to see the new guy trying to get some spotlight.”

Then there are musicians who join as touring members and end up being folded into the full band. That’s what happened to Yoann Intonti, drummer of the Vaccines. He was playing with indie band Spector when he was asked to fill in for the last three dates of the Vaccines’ 2016 summer tour, including shows at the Reading and Leeds festivals. At that point he was just doing the Vaccines a favour: his ambitions were centred on Spector. “Getting close to the end of summer I started to really enjoy it,” he says. “Their music really suited my style as a drummer. They kept auditioning other people because they didn’t want to create any trouble in Spector. By the end of summer they still couldn’t find anyone to do the album [Combat Sports] so they asked if I could do a few months in the studio, and that was the beginning of me joining the band.”

Through recording, Intonti was paid a monthly salary (auxiliary musicians are paid only for their time with the band – Murray says that now the Manics tour less, his earnings with them are smaller). By May 2017, Intonti was cut in on the profits, along with touring keyboard player Timothy Lanham, but was still not a full member. “But you get to the point where you just want to be in the band – I always wanted to be creative and exchange ideas. Tim and I got to the point where it was either: ‘We’re in it together or not. And if not, maybe we should go back to being session musicians.’ The other three also came to that realisation.”

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Why jump ship? “The thing I loved with Spector was that feeling of being with friends and sharing the same goal. But they were just not as busy as the Vaccines, who were really driven to make more music and tour. That’s what changed – being with very driven people.”

Even then, it took time to settle – like Stuermer, Intonti, who is French, had the additional issue of being from a different country. “Because English isn’t my first language, the communication part is the first big thing you need to overcome. Everyone has history and you don’t want to come in and rock the boat. At the beginning, I was trying to find my place in the band, but now I can say what I want to say and I am prepared to have an argument.”

It took Brown “at least 11 years” to truly feel comfortable with Simple Minds. “I feel I’ve overcome the awkwardness and fear factor I had,” she says. “Jim does call me forward to the audience, and it’s taken time for them to get to know me and welcome me in and appreciate me. But now I’m part of the family – if I pre-empt Jim with a note and he doesn’t like it, it doesn’t crush my world now.” And Kerr and Burchill, she says, have become mentors and helped her make her debut solo album, Sarah Brown Sings Mahalia Jackson.

None of these musicians has had any doubts they chose the right path. They understand their role, and they are happy to take the highs. And those highs can be very high indeed. “The 20th anniversary of Everything Must Go, with two nights sold out at Albert Hall with all my family there, that was stunning,” Murray says. And we did the [rugby] tour of Australia, out there for three weeks because the Manics were part of the fan experience. It was incredible.”

But for all of that, there is one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten, and that all these musicians have to remember. They aren’t best mates with the frontman; they weren’t there at the beginning. They are employees, and the minute they start to think differently, trouble awaits. “I am always very conscious of that,” Brown says. “And I never forget my colleagues are colleagues. I most definitely believe in boundaries, which is why I am still in the industry to the extent I am. I wouldn’t be working if I was different.” In the band, but not in the band.