‘The Ramblings of an old Rocker’ (His words not mine!) – An interview with Wayne Ellis of Limehouse Lizzy
Wayne Ellis talks about the moment he first discovered a musical identity, unusual American/Irish accents and the pressures and perks of running a band like a business.
Were you always musical and did you always know that you wanted to be in a band?
Yes, from a very young age. I started playing bass guitar when I was fourteen at school. I told my careers teacher that’s what I wanted to do and he told me to ‘Get out!’ The options were either try to get to university because it was a grammar school, or go to the local apprentice place. But I said I really want to be a bass player. I persevered though and I played with some good people: I played with an early incarnation of Simply Red.
What music did you grow up listening to? Did you have any favourites, was Thin Lizzy a feature?
My family are West Indian based: my dad’s Jamaican and my mum’s Indian. It was all reggae and black music, soul, and things like that. Then I went to grammar school; I was the only black kid there and nobody wanted to listen to what I wanted to, they all wanted to listen to rock. They all but battered the reggae and soul out of me, that’s where I learned to appreciate rock. I was struggling a little bit, but I remember watching a local programme on TV one day called ‘Look North’ and they always finished with a band. I was eating my tea one day and heard: ‘New band Thin Lizzy with their new single, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town…’’ And I remember I wasn’t looking at the telly but I thought, ‘Oh this is good’ so I looked round and I saw this guy on TV, Phil Lynott, the lead singer and bass player. And I just thought, ‘Wow, you’ve got a black guy in a white rock band’, which was very unusual at the time. And I half looked like him so I thought, ‘That could be me!’
When did you form Limehouse Lizzy?
I moved to London in 1990 and there’s a place called the Bass Centre; they sold only bass guitar equipment. I went and convinced them to give me a job. When we closed the shop up at the end of the day, we’d all grab a bass off the wall and start messing around. I remember I was playing one of my favourite bass lines, from a song called ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Thin Lizzy, and I heard this perfect accompaniment on guitar. It was coming from the workshop, from one of the lads, Greg. So it came to where the vocals come in and I just automatically sang it. Everybody stopped and said, ‘Wow that really sounds like Thin Lizzy! This is mad Wayne, because you look like him, you sound like him, and you play bass like him!’ So Limehouse Lizzy was born on that spot in 1993, in February, in Wapping, in London.
Do you have a favourite song to play?
Yeah, my favourite Thin Lizzy song… It’s very hard to pick, I love so many of them. I mean, listen to a song like ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ – it’s gorgeous, it’s almost soul. But then you have ones that are really heavy, almost metal. My favourite song is on an early album – the song is called ‘Wild One’. It’s a very beautiful song; it’s part ballad, part rock. It’s a lot of the things that I’m about: I love soul music, I like rock music. I think that’s why I gravitate towards Phil Lynott – because he combines the two in a very clever way.
Do you feel pressure when you’re performing to try to replicate Thin Lizzy? Do you worry about details or does the enjoyment take over and your natural performer comes out?
I think especially initially we always have to be very mindful. We’ve had a lot of press over the years and our first lot was quite devastating really: ‘Well this guy looks like him but it begins and ends there’. Then you realise you’ve got to take this seriously. I’ve lost players over the years because I want the satisfaction of doing a job as best as I can. The players that have stayed with me are those who are likeminded, who can sit there for hours and pick bits out. We try to be very faithful in how we replicate, so we spend ages listening to the songs, pulling them apart. I don’t really sing like Phil Lynott – I’m not a natural singer at all, I had to take lessons – but if I do certain things with my voice it pushes the subconscious, people will make their own conclusions. If you’re a rock singer, you inevitably sing in an American accent, and Phil Lynott did the same, but he had a very heavy Irish accent so I realised – approach it by trying to sing in an American accent, with an Irish accent. I know it sounds mad but then you start getting the pronunciation that he had; he sings things a certain way and it gives him a very distinctive voice and I picked up on that.
What do you think makes your band stand out as the best Thin Lizzy tribute band, because you seem to be widely regarded as the best?
Whilst I’m really proud when someone says you’re the best, there’s a part of me that really rails against it. When we first started off, there were two reasons why we had to do well. Number one was because it was going to be our living. I ran it like any other business and I targeted it financially. I’d go round to everybody and say: ‘How much do you need to be paid to buy food?’ I’d get all the figures of what everybody needed and translate it to tickets sales: ‘Right guys we need to sell x amount of tickets a week so we can do that over three gigs and sell that many per gig’. People say: ‘You’re a musician, you’re so lucky!’ But I do accounts one day and advertising the next. Then, every Wednesday, Greg comes over and we work from about half nine until five o’clock on booking and administration. Then Thursday, Friday Saturday we go out and play – it’s a full on, full time job. You always get bands that say: ‘My band’s better than yours’ or whatever. It gets to a point when you know something, I really don’t care! I feel very blessed to be doing what I’m doing: I’m making the money that I need to make to survive and doing a job that I love doing. It doesn’t get any better. Call me what you want, ‘the best’, ‘the worst’, ‘the middling’; I really don’t care because it goes beyond that. But it’s still nice when people say, ‘Limehouse are the best at what they do’, though it can be a pressure and I don’t want that pressure any more. We go out, people still come and see us, and we make enough to survive. Label it what you want, I’m good to go with that.
Limehouse Lizzy are playing in Warrington at the Parr Hall on December 10 for their Christmas Jailbreak – Livewire ACDC vs Limehouse Lizzy show.