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"It’ll probably piss Doctor Who fans off" Rob Reed comes clean about that theme tune

Robert Reed in an empty warehouse
(Image credit: Aga Tomaszek)

Rob Reed likes a rant. You know one is coming because he usually announces it. “I’m about to rant,” he’ll say. Or, “This is one of my rants.”

There are quite a few things that Reed likes to rant about. Things like Spotify. “It’s the final nail in the coffin. As a musician, you don’t get anything from it. You’re basically giving away your music for free. It’s the Devil’s work.”

Or modern prog. “I’m not a big fan of it. It’s all a load of widdling. Yes, we know you can play your instrument, but where’s the tune? I’ll probably get burned at the stake for saying that.”

And then there’s social media. “You see so many bands on Facebook, going, ‘Oh my record’s the best thing in the world, I’ve just written the best song ever.’ And you’re thinking, ‘Oh please, that’s embarrassing.’ If all those bands had to reveal what they were doing business wise, that would put an end to the bullshit.” 

Don’t get the wrong impression. The driving force behind Welsh prog band Magenta, the Sanctuary series of albums, all-star quasi‑classical blowout Kompendium and other projects and collaborations too numerous to mention is perfectly good company. He’s funny and self-deprecating, and a lot less stern than he looks in photos. But when something is bugging him, he can’t help but let it out like a Victor Meldrew of The Valleys.

We’re sitting in Reed’s studio, surrounded by a clutter of keyboards and computer screens. The studio is located at the top of the tower of a converted pop factory near Pontypridd, South Wales (that’s ‘pop’ as in soft drink, rather than music). Reed grew up nearby, and still lives just down the road. A few years ago, the building was home to a TV company. Reed worked here, writing music for Welsh-language programmes (despite his undiluted Rhondda accent, he says he doesn’t speak a word of Welsh).

This eyrie is the centre of Reed’s universe. It’s from here that he writes and records his music, and masterminds his label, Tigermoth. He has used virtually every corner of the building to film the impressively entertaining videos that accompany many of his songs. He frequently spends nine or 10 hours a day holed up here. It’s the perfect habitat for a man like Rob Reed – a one-man music industry, and an outsider even in a scene made up of outsiders.

“I don’t like the bullshit schmoozing involved in the music business in London,” he says, with the firmness of someone who has been on the receiving end of it one too many times. “All the falseness. I can’t do it. It’s probably to my detriment, not playing the game.”

Maybe, though it seems to be working out fine for him. Reed has spent a lot of time in the studio recently, juggling two imminent projects. The first is his reworking of the theme to iconic science fiction TV show Doctor Who. It came about after a friend who works in the CGI industry asked if he could “do something in the style of Mike Oldfield”. “Why not?” thought Reed. He recorded what he describes as “a straightforward version”, then passed it on to frequent collaborator (and former Oldfield producer) Tom Newman, who sprinkled his magic dust over it. 

“He put all this crazy dialogue and stuff on it,” explains Reed. “Just took it up to another level.”

It’s a sly piece of iconoclasm. Reed isn’t the world’s biggest Doctor Who fan. Nor is he a particular aficionado of Delia Derbyshire, the visionary composer who arranged the original theme, which is odd because he seems to be cut from the same lone-maverick cloth. This lack of reverence gave him free rein to mess about with things.

“Because I haven’t got a connection, I didn’t think twice about it,” he says. “It wasn’t untouchable. It’ll probably piss Doctor Who fans off, but I don’t really care. There’s other bits of music that I wouldn’t go near.”

Such as?

“Well, I wouldn’t touch Tubular Bells. Even though some people say I already have.”

He laughs at this. He’s talking about the other thing that’s due to land in the next few weeks. Reed spent much of last year working on the third Sanctuary album, a continuation of the solo passion project that he began in 2014.

The first Sanctuary record was an unabashed tribute to Mike Oldfield, Reed’s big hero. It consciously evoked Oldfield’s landmark trilogy of albums – Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn – in sound, structure and spirit.

Reed admits that the original Sanctuary album was “close to the bone in places”, though it came from a place of respect and a desire to do what no one else has done: namely, build on what Oldfield had created and then abandoned. Still, he managed to piss off the more passionate sections of Oldfield’s fanbase, who accused him of everything from piggybacking on a greater talent to outright theft. 

“Oh, I knew I was going to upset some people,” he says. “And it’s always the ones on Facebook that are the most mouthy.”

He draws breath. There’s another rant coming. “I’ll get slated for this, but if the Sanctuary albums were released with Mike Oldfield’s name on them, they would be hailed as the second coming of Christ by all the Oldfield fans. Cos it’s exactly what they want in style. But cos my name’s on it, they go, ‘Oh, it’s not the real thing.’”

The haters have missed the bigger point. If Sanctuary was Reed’s sole focus then their claims of using Oldfield as a leg-up might have some validity. But it isn’t. Sanctuary came 30 years into a career that has taken in prog, rock, electronic music and 90s pop. “Oh, I’ve been around the houses,” Reed says.

It was pop that made Reed the man he is today. In the 90s, he was one half of dance pop outfit Trippa with future Magenta singer Christina Booth. Trippa was his big shot at stardom. “I wanted to be a pop star,” he says. “I wanted to be on Top Of The Pops. I put the prog stuff on the back-burner. But then I’d sneak it into my music anyway.”

Reed never did get on Top Of The Pops. Trippa came crashing to the ground in the early 00s, after several years of being fed through the music industry mincer with little to show for it. The final straw came when he had to restrain Booth from leaping over a desk to physically attack a record label executive. “I thought, ‘Fuck, I can’t be doing pop any more,’” he says. “I was fuming at how it turned out. All the effort we put into it.” He looks pained. “It scarred us.” 

That’s when Reed decided to go for broke and form Magenta. It wasn’t quite the prodigal son returning home. Rather, Magenta was more like his prog coming-out ball. Their debut album, 2000’s Revolutions, was a grand ‘fuck you’ to the mainstream music business, and a repudiation of Reed’s own thwarted pop ambitions.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to make the most prog album in the world,’” he says. “It’s going to be a double album, it’s going to be a concept album, it’s going to have four songs on it and a big booklet. Fuck everyone.”

It was a bold move. Magenta arrived at a time when prog’s stock market value was only just beginning to pull itself off the ocean floor, where it had been bumping along for the last decade with an anchor tied around its feet. In Reed’s view, the bands who were operating in that sphere at the time were busy denying that they were prog. Cue another mini-rant.

“When we started doing Magenta, prog was a swear word,” he says. “Bands were scared to carry the flag. You had all the big bands who are now gracing the cover of your magazine going, ‘No, we’re not a prog band.’” 

Like who?

“Ah no,” he says, grinning. “I’m not getting in trouble.”

Prog has done well for Reed ever since. He quit working in TV a few years ago. These days he sustains himself with his own music, funnelling what he earns back into his various musical enterprises.

“It’s on a knife edge, constantly,” he says. “The problem today that every band hits is just the massive amount of stuff that’s out there. There’s only so much disposable income, only so many fans, and there’s way too many records being released to fill that.”

It’s not just quantity that’s the issue, he says. It’s quality too. 

“I see certain people making records and not really giving it the love and respect it deserves for the fans: ‘I’ll do it in the house, I won’t really put drums on it, I don’t give a fuck about the singer being out of time – I’ll just knock it out cos I want to be onstage.’”

Presumably that’s not what you do?

“No, I want to make the best record possible, which is a lot more grief and pain and money and sacrifice,” he says. “Magenta opened the floodgates for the female fronted band thing, and everyone looked at it and went, ‘The majority of the audience are male, so if we stick a girl upfront, not wearing much…’ But you’ve got to have good tunes. You can put a pretty girl upfront, you can throw money at it, you can have all the bullshit, but the hard bit is sitting at the piano, writing the tune. [Laughs] That’s the bit that kills me.”

Do you have the tunes?

“Yes, I think so. I’m self-critical enough to know that everything I put out is the best I can possibly do. Nothing leaves this room that I’m not confident I’ve spent blood, sweat and tears over. I wouldn’t put it out if it wasn’t good.”

Where does the need to be in charge of everything you do come from? Do you have a big ego?

“Well, what’s ego and what is self-belief?”

Ego is when you think you think every decision you make is better than everybody else’s.

“[Pause] No. Because I value everyone’s opinion. But in the end, it’s my money and my balls on the line. If I’m spending 20 grand making a record, then I’ve got to have the final say.”

There’s no arguing with what has emerged from that final say. But neither is there any arguing with the fact that Magenta and especially Sanctuary are hardly pushing things forward. Both exist in a happy bubble, content to stand on the shoulders of giants. Hand on heart, is he bringing anything new to the party? 

“Bloody hell, that’s a question. Is there an original bone in my body?” He pauses. “I’d have to be honest and say no. I can’t think of anything, especially in the prog stuff, where I’ve gone, ‘Oh, that’s different.’ For me, it’s about doing great songs within a certain style. What I bring is some great new chords and melody. But the way it’s packaged up? No. There’s nothing new to be found in the prog style.”

This isn’t being entirely fair on him. Magenta’s last album, 2017’s We Are Legend, added a shot of modern electronic rock to the mix. Another musical venture, Chimpan A, found Reed letting his maverick flag fly free. “That was prog rock in the truest sense,” he says of the latter’s sole album, released in 2006. “It mixed Björk, James Bond, electronic music. I thought, ‘Let’s chuck everything in the mix.’ If I had to say what is groundbreaking musically, it’s that.”

A second Chimpan A album could appear later this year. The music is done, but he has a mad idea to make a film to accompany each of its six tracks. He’s also considering a new Magenta album at some point. “Because that last album was so modern, I’m tempted to go the other way. I’d like to make it like an antique, an old bit of furniture.”

That’s Reed’s approach in a nutshell: a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new, something of the past meets something of the future. His portfolio is a perfect balancing act, something that has enabled him to keep his head above water where others have struggled. Suddenly, the Victor Meldrew of prog is back in the room.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know the bullshit that’s involved, whether that’s bullshit on Facebook or record company bullshit. I run the labels, so I know the harsh reality of what’s being sold. Everything I earn from my music all goes back into it. I don’t want a gold house with a Ferrari outside.” 

He pauses. “Well, I wouldn’t mind, but that’s not going to happen.”