Virgin Trains East Coast onboard senior host, family man, rock star… few people would be able to juggle three different lives but Robb Weir is no ordinary man…
It was a sunny day in 1999. Robb Weir was attending to the family of canaries that he and his wife were breeding – quite successfully, in fact – when he got the phone call.
“It was Jess Cox, the singer on our first album, Wild Cat, in 1980,” reveals Robb. “Jess had a small record company in the north-east that supplied bands to Wacken Festival in Germany. He said we’d been offered a spot on the line-up.”
More than a decade had elapsed since Robb had last thrashed his axe as the lead guitarist for British Heavy Metal band Tygers of Pan Tang, and in that time he had been cultivating a life outside of the spotlight.
“At that point, we lived just off the seafront on Whitley Bay,” Robb recalls. “We were part of the Adult Family Placement Scheme and we looked after three fellas with learning disabilities.”
But the call was too good an opportunity to miss.
“All the original Tygers were contacted, but only Jess and I could do it,” says Robb. “So we hired three local musicians, did four rehearsals and jumped on the flight to Hamburg.”
Tygers of Pan Tang were part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that revitalised the genre in the late 1970s and 80s. In their heyday, the band were filling town halls and peaking in the UK album charts at 13, alongside the likes of Michael Jackson and David Bowie. But Robb was still caught off guard by Jess Cox’s announcement on the flight.
“Jess and I were sat next to each other and he said, “Oh, by the way, I didn’t tell you, we’re headlining tonight. There’ll be about 22,000 there and they’re filming for a TV transmission in Germany, and an American record company are going to put it out as a live CD.’ OK, so no pressure then!”
Pressure, it turned out, was something that Robb thrived on. Since headlining Wacken, the reformed Tygers of Pan Tang have released six studio albums, four compilation albums and toured the world. This year alone, the Tygers are scheduled to perform in Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, to name just a few.
In that time, Robb has also become part of the Virgin Trains East Coast family and a grandfather nine times over, so how does he juggle it all?
“I have a great relationship with the two wonderful people in our roster department, Jacqueline and Alistair, who really help me out. It also helps that the Tygers’ management organise what we are doing roughly a year ahead. In the music business, you really need to.”
In fact, Robb is just one of many musicians juggling different lives. “We do big festivals, and then the next morning, at breakfast, we talk to other artists and I’m blown away by how many of them have day jobs,” Robb says. “I think, crikey! I thought you did this full-time but you’re just like me.”
A lot has changed in the music industry in the last three decades, it turns out. “The contrast is stark,” says Robb. “Back then, if a photographer turned up, everyone would be punching each other to get into the middle of the shot. It was all about ‘me’, whereas now, nobody wants to stand in the middle!”
Robb doesn’t encounter the big egos he used to when gigging in the 80s. “It’s become a lot more business like; more levelled out,” he says. But despite the seriousness of the industry, Robb and his bandmates enjoy more camaraderie than ever before.
“Touring now, being a bunch of old fellas, is great. When you’re driving down the highways and byways and the mick-taking starts, it’s a laugh from start to finish. There are several occasions when I’ve been driving the bus through the continent and I’ve had to pull over because I thought I was going to die – not because of bad driving, but because I was laughing so much and I couldn’t breathe!
“Craig, our drummer, who has asthma, instead of having a beer in each hand, has an inhaler in each hand!”
So Robb is not only lead guitarist, he also shares bus-driving duties with the other band members – highlighting another big change in the life of a touring musician.
“Back in the day, we actually made a loss touring because you had to take your own lighting system and sound system,” explains Robb. “We toured with two 40ft trailers and 16 crew in another bus. Now, we have two crew, and all the places that we play have their own lighting and sound systems, which have got a lot smaller but a lot louder.”
As well as the music, the merchandise has also changed – you can now order a Tygers of Pan Tang beer called Tyger Blood, created specially by a local Newcastle brewer – but the band have made sure that some things have remained the same.
“We released the first single of our latest album, ‘Only The Brave’, on vinyl, and it has sold out and gone to reprint,” Robb reveals. “I think it really helped that the video we did for the single has reached close to 100,000 views on YouTube.”
There’s no doubt that this combination of classic metal principles and modern technology is working well with the Tygers’ fan base. ‘‘It’s certainly struck a chord with old fans and new fans,” says Robb. But he is the first to admit that the advent of the internet has been a double-edged sword for the music industry.
“It’s been a great thing, but it’s been an awful thing as well,” says Robb. “You can buy a CD and put it online, and then people can download it for nothing. The artist then struggles to get any financial reward, but it’s still just as expensive to go into a recording studio and get time off.” This explains why many of his peers in the music industry still have day jobs.
Robb is among the more fortunate in this regard. “I’m very open with work,” says Robb. “I’ve never had to take any unpaid leave from Virgin. As I know what I’m doing a year ahead, I can go to the roster department with a list of dates and say, ‘Can I move this to then? Can I take my holiday then?’”
And when there’s already someone on the roster, Robb has found his colleagues just as amenable. “On the occasions when I find out there’s already someone on holiday, I can go to them and ask to swap – we all look out for each other. The roster department helps by suggesting who I can ask,” he says.
Robb also has a third demand on his time – his family. But he still manages to carve out some quality time for them, even when the Tygers are on tour. “It’s my grandchildren’s turn next to come and see me play, when they’re old enough. My eldest grandson, who’s 19, came to see me recently.”
And this is despite the fact that the Tygers don’t have much in common with the music that’s charting at the moment. “I like all sorts of stuff, though,” says Robb. “I take two of my grandchildren to school every morning,and the first thing Tia, my 11-year-old granddaughter, does when she gets in the car is turn the radio on.”
So, with all the chart music he is listening to, is Robb getting any modern inspiration for his own music?
“No, I write what I write,” he says. “But in saying that, in recent years I’ve listened back to Wild Cat (Tygers of Pan Tang’s debut album, released in 1980 on MCA Records), and I’ve realised how much punk is in that hard rock record. Punk was very much around in the mid-70s when I had aspirations to be in a rock band, but I always thought punk isn’t really me at all, but it’s clearly had quite an influence on me!”
Perhaps in 30 years time, Robb will listen to Tygers of Pan Tang’s eponymous latest, album and hear a riff that could be straight from the 2017 album charts.
You can listen to the Tygers of Pan Tang album yourself by ordering it from the band’s official website, where you will also find all the latest news and tour dates.