From his early days playing keyboards with local smooth, pop band Stylus to his stints with Air Supply, John Farnham and his own own band and acclaimed solo albums such as ‘Jubilation’, Sam McNally has always radiated music quality. AM’s Greg Phillips caught up with the busy McNally to talk about his career and gear.
For a musician to hold down a career in the fickle music business for over thirty years, three very distinct factors have to be in place; talent, versatility and drive. Keyboard player, songwriter, producer and music educator Sam McNally possesses all three qualities and more. Our first introduction to McNally was through the legendary music TV show Countdown in the late 70s, where he appeared as keyboard player with local pop, soul outfit Stylus. That band was famous for it’s cool fusion tunes and slick musicianship. In fact, that may also be another hint of McNally’s survival skills. He’s always surrounded himself with musicians of the highest calibre, feeding off them and learning from them.
“In the early days of Stylus, I was very much entranced by the jazz rock and fusion thing,” recalls Sam. “Here in Australia, one of my favourite bands was Crossfire. Every time we came to Sydney I would hunt down those guys. I became good friends with Jim Kelly and Mick Kenny. I really looked up to those guys and they were a big influence because Stylus had a jazz rock edge in our soul, funk.”
The late seventies was a time when the LA fusion sound was king and international musicians such as Larry Carlton, Stanley Clarke, Lee Ritenour, George Duke, Herbie Hancock and the Brecker Brothers to name a few, garnered as much attention as the singer-songwriters of the day. It was a period of music which had a deep and long-lasting effect on McNally.
“George Duke was my hero… still is,” says Sam of his biggest keyboard influence. “Only a couple of months ago we did a George Duke tribute in Sydney at Bluebeat. It was a major success and we did that because George Duke passed away in August last year. Chick Corea was a major influence as well and also Herbie Hancock’s jazz rock early records.”
McNally’s route to becoming a professional musician was not so much planned but happened out of necessity. His father’s suggestion that he follow in his footsteps in the banking industry was never going to materialise. It wasn’t too long after he’d left school that he acquired his first electric piano and the seeds of his professional music career had been sewn.
“I bought a Hohner Pianet which was my pride and joy and I used to polish it,” says McNally. “It was a poor man’s Wurlitzer in a sense. It had a beautiful wood finish and stained wood frame and I used to treat it like a princess. The song ‘She’s Not There’ by The Zombies … Rod Argent was the keyboard player. He did an electric piano solo in that song in 1966 and it is one of the best examples of that instrument.”
McNally used the Hohner for about a year before trading up to a Wurlitzer, then soon after a Fender Rhodes. He then acquired a Clavinette to stick on top of the Rhodes and his Stylus rig was set. As the band evolved and were listening to the latest sounds coming out of the LA scene, it became apparent to Sam that he now needed to add a synthesiser to his arsenal… that’s when he purchased an awesome ARP Odyssey.
Today McNally keeps busy with many varied projects including performing and recording with his own band, doing sessions for others, and producing artists in Australia and overseas. His stage rig has changed dramatically since the Stylus days and after many years of road testing gear on stage and in the studio, Sam has found a great deal of satisfaction with his current set up.
“I have been lucky enough to secure an arrangement with Casio,” explains Sam. “I had a call from them in 2011 to ask if I might be interested in some of the new gear. They gave me a PX3 digital piano, which absolutely astounded me how good an instrument it was … and still is. It’s now been superseded by the PX5S, which is clearly a brilliant and game-changing digital piano. So I am using that as my main piano. I also have a synth called the XW-P1, which is a damn good synthesiser. As a matter of fact, I was out last night jamming with Mitch Anderson, a guy who did very well in The Voice last year. I used just the XW, it’s a fantastic little synth. So they are my main axes.”
The ever-inquisitive McNally not only enjoys playing the Casio gear live but also investigating the units’ many innovative features. His curiosity particularly applies to his XW-P1synth. “More and more I have been enjoying the lead synth thing and wangling the filter cut-off knobs,” he says. “It’s got these four knobs and you feel like you’re playing a mini moog again. I love the playability of it and the quickness that you can jump from one tonality to another. It’s got a bunch of tabs right in the middle and you can literally jump from a brassy polyphonic pad to a lad synth to an organ to a marimba or piano. To me it is the most playable live synth I have ever used. Funnily enough, it took me a while to get comfortable with it. That’s probably a good sign because you do need to spend time with an instrument. You can’t possibly just sit down with something and immediately say, damn this is the best thing I’ve ever played. You have to spend a little time and figure out what its strengths and weaknesses are and that’s precisely what I did with the XW-P1. You have to work with the editing. I now know who the chorusing and delays work, all that stuff.”
“There’s a bunch of stuff on the PX5S,” he continues, “that I have yet to experiment with. I guess, in my mind I pretty much treat it as a piano. I know it’s a very serious thing and fully featured synthesiser in itself. In my mind I compartmentalise things and I treat the PX5S as a piano. In time I will get into using its synth tonalities a bit more. What I do love about the PX5S as a piano is … obviously the sound of the damn thing is incredible. It really does sound very good, both the acoustic piano sounds and the electric pianos. Again, the playability and the ease with which you can EQ something. I often find myself in situations where I go into a small playing situation where I haven’t got my on-stage mixer. I just resort to the onboard EQing on the PX5S. It’s so convenient to be able to seriously EQ something and back off a little bit of the lower mids or bottoms or lighten things up if you need to do that.”
Sam has just returned from Bangkok where he has been working as a producer with a young Thai artist who performs under the moniker of Earth Collide. “She’s an English speaking, singing performance artist, which is pretty rare in Thailand,” says Sam. “Half of the album is her own songs and half covers. That’s an ongoing project. Me and my production partner Michael will finish the album here. Producing is a big call. One of the most important things is overview,” he says in explanation of his role as producer. “With Earth Collide, very much front and centre with that project is … this is not an artist just for Bangkok or Thailand. She sings in English so we’re talking potential world market. She presents well, she’s full of beans. So you have to think big picture. On the other end of the scale, you are forensically involved with the minutiae of pronunciation, vocal phrasing and the multitude of ingredients and details that have to be taken care of. I am not a producer who has a list of hit records to my name but I have been around a long time and been involved in a lot of production projects. I do know that when I sit down and producing something, I can draw on a lot of experience. You just quietly know things. There are so many little things that you just instinctively know from experience. I always go with instinct and it saves time. One’s instinct is usually correct.”
In addition to his production work, McNally is currently teaching at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney, is playing live, has been reviewing his back catalogue with the view to remixing tracks for a release and he’s also writing a book. For a musician who has remained busy for almost four decades, I asked Sam what qualities a young musician should seek if they were seeking similar versatility and longevity in the music business.
“First of all, stay in love with what you do,” he says. “You just have to love it because there are going to be a lot of things working against you doing this as a full time profession. Second thing … listen. Always be interested in what other people are doing. Listen to the vocal if you are working with a singer. The vocal matters more than what you are doing … and most importantly, stay positive. The music business is a mighty cynical entity so you just have to get on with it.”