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Backstage Stars – Phil McDaniel

Backstage Stars
24 January 2019

Staring in the business as a roadie and truck driver 35 years ago, Phil McDaniel soon learned how to mix sound, although he still had to drive the truck, qualifying as an HGV driver. Then he and business partner Richard John founded PA hire and production company ESS (Entertainment Sound Specialists), based north of Nottingham. These days he handles the company’s finance and HR, while continuing to be touring sound engineer, specialising in stage monitors … and still loves trucks.

What are your first live music memories?

”Coming from Coventry, I grew up in the time of The Specials and the Two Tone movement, whilst mingling with punks and teddy boys at school, and nursing half-pints amongst the alternative crowd at the Dog and Trumpet in town.

”The first concerts which impressed me were at Birmingham Odeon, with [German industrial band] Kowalski, Gary Numan, Tears for Fears and my all-time favourite Bauhaus.

“I went to Trent Polytechnic to study electronic engineering, but at the end of year two, having missed several exams due to time-off setting up PA systems and crash barriers for gigs, I realised that would most likely be my career path. So I dropped out to pursue the job I am still doing now.”

How did you get into the music industry?

“At the Poly Fresher’s Ball, I was fascinated by the front-of-house audio console and asked the person running the college tech committee how it worked. That person was Richard John and suddenly I found myself on the committee too. He then moved on, leaving me to run it.

“We got together again and started a PA company, renting the kit from Richard Prentice in Mansfield. We owe a lot to Rich for that first step on the ladder and his endless help and support.

“Some years later we started buying our own equipment and became PA suppliers to all and sundry. Back then we didn’t tour but would often do seven one-off shows back-to-back, with entirely different bands and specs, it was exhausting, but very educational.”

How did your career develop?

”For the first 10 years I was working as co-manager, PA tech and sound mixer with ESS, and we developed a reputation for being small but dedicated.

“We toured with artistes such as Arlo Guthrie, Womack and Womack, Billie Jo Spears, Don McClean, Shabba Ranks, Stiff Little Fingers, Yousson N’dour, Malkit Singh, John Martyn and Fugazi – quite a mixed bunch.

”We also provided PA systems to many festivals, including the Heineken Music Festival – six cities through each summer for six years, with headliners such as Blur.

“Suppliying a full city hall PA to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine in the early ‘90s meant investing in the largest amount of new equipment we had ever owned to that point. Since then we have developed a client base that includes Spandau Ballet, Russell Watson, UB40, Emeli Sandé, 10cc, Robert Cray, Mahalia and ABC.

”I also started touring as a mix engineer for artistes like Faithless, EMF, Razorlight, Ed Harcourt, Editors, Amy Winehouse, Florence + the Machine, Emeli Sandé, Of Monsters and Men and The Temper Trap.

What were your greatest low and high points?

”Undoubtedly 18 November 2001 was our lowest point. We had a truck full of equipment stolen. We had some insurance in place, but with a limit of liability, and we had to decide whether we should give up.

”Staying in business meant building up from scratch again, and a tonne of hard work to get back to where we had been, I was devastated and found it hard to dig deep and generate the enthusiasm to get done what we needed to do.

“However, we both knuckled down and navigated our way through. These things really teach you how to push through the hard times and who you can ultimately rely on.

“High points include supplying Nottingham’s Rock City for 15 years, before it installed its own rig, and servicing many of the awkward and intense stages at Reading, Leeds and Latitude festivals for well over a decade

“Personally, being asked by REM to fly to Frankfurt and do monitors for their MTV Awards guest appearance was special – an amazing band and crew, lovely people.

”Otherwise, being helicoptered late into Leeds

Festival for a line-check before Razorlight’s headline slot, having just done Live Earth at Wembley Stadium [2007], was special.”

Where do you see the industry going?

“The live music sector is an amazing place just now, with significant advances and changes in technology happening all of the time. Live shows are the lifeblood of the industry and the future is full of amazing opportunities and experiences for all.

”The UK is such an influential generator of sound engineers globally, and I think that’s because it has a high density of small independent PA companies, who all feed in engineers, who often have their unique ways of operating.”

How do you unwind?

”I am married to Cara (pictured), who springs from the Black Isle near Inverness, and who is a very successful tour manager, having worked with Emeli Sandé, Chvrches, St Vincent and many others.

”We are animal lovers and have hoards of rabbits and cats, and about 60 fish in a self-built pond, We are very lucky to live in the people’s republic of Brighton where inclusiveness and open-mindedness are welcomed and encouraged.

”After a busy time at work, I love hearing the countryside make its own music, listening to the fractal sounds of nature is just so restful, and there is no click track. Otherwise, I own a Honda VRF750FV motorbike, Destiny II makes an appearance here and there too.

”However, the best Sunday wind-down will always be a vegan gluten-free roast at one of many Brighton pubs.”

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