`The Proms? Do me a favour!'

Steve Martland, the would-be bruiser of the classical music world, is back on the road. He tells Phil Johnson about his hatred of the establishmen t and petty rules and... spirituality

The idea of "the hard man of classical music", however ludicrous it might appear, remains a very appealing one. One fondly imagines EastEnders' Grant Mitchell as a conductor in dickie bow and cummerbund, vaulting over the podium to sort out a spot of bother in the strings, or Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones responding to accusations of serialism in a pre-concert talk by chinning the presenter. That the role of hard man (it's a tough job but someone's got to do it) should have fallen to the composer Steve Martland is even more unlikely, despite the fact that he used to go on training runs with the Arsenal. In conversation, his Liverpool accent is more cultured Lily Savage than Tommy Smith but, if you believe his press cuttings, he's the classical equivalent of the council estate skinhead who somehow bragged his way into the posh garden party, pushed the polite string quartet from the stage and then started to bawl out obscenities at the top of his voice.

It's a role that Martland -who is currently touring the country for the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network - still tries endearingly hard to fulfil. A self-appointed Mr Angry, he's as full of controversial soundbites as any rent-a-quote Tory MP. The Arts Council? Get rid of it and start again. Fee-paying schools? Ban 'em. The Proms? Do me a favour! Cute little puppies and kittens? Remove them from their owners, forcibly if necessary, and subject them to a rigorous re-education in order that they may once again roam free in the wild like their ancestors. Actually, I made the last one up, but you get the picture. Though his celebrated skinhead crop has grown out into a rather neat flat-top with slight Mohican tendencies, the top-knot of hair gelled into vertical spikes as if by an off-duty squaddie on the razz, Martland remains convincingly rude.

Even from the conductor's rostrum of the concert platform he can't resist having a pop: at the boss of Radio 3 who didn't know he had an education department; at Michael Nyman, who commanded less applause than he did in a shared concert for Euro '96; at Steve Reich, whose Nagoya Marimbas has to be included in the programme because the Arts Council insisted on it. He also prefaces one number with an impassioned speech about the need to conserve our specialist music colleges in the face of all-party political threats.

But to his credit, Martland walks it as well as talks it. On Monday night, at the end of his rapturously received concert at St George's in Bristol, he spent ages talking with starry-eyed young music students, and he really does seem to care about education. He contradicts what he sees as the merely token respect accorded to workshops and out-reach projects by the broader musical establishment by working in schools and prisons, and running his own, non fee-paying summer school.

He's also, somewhat surprisingly, immensely likeable and, compared to the wonderfully leery and beery unreconstructed new lads in his band, he's actually a bit of a wimp, despite the haircut and the carefully wrought lean and mean physique. At the end of a long, ranting interview spent dissing absolutely everything about the classical musical establishment, he even reveals an unexpectedly spiritual side, like Vinnie Jones confessing he's a closet Buddhist. "Music is about the transcendent," he says, in the context of his admiration for the works of his hero, Michael Tippett. "This sense of transcendence is what people get into at rock concerts, and in a way all music is connected to that. Ultimately, it's a substitute for lost religious states."

Martland's reverence for rock music can come across as rather quaint, a kind of Seventies Rock Follies-era, proselytising for a form that hardly exists any more in any unified sense (or at least to anyone but "serious" composers). Interestingly, the band he would most like to work with is the Manic Street Preachers, whose music seems to offer exactly that lost, messianic sense of rock as a potentially transforming social force. "I'd love James Dean Bradley to sing with the band," he says. "In fact, it would be a pity if they did find Richie James in Goa because I think Bradley is brilliant."

In concert, Martland's new music remains hard on the surface, with dense, propulsive rhythms punched out at aggressive volume and tempi, but if you listen carefully (and that's not easy), there's a soft, even lyrical underbelly of quintessentially English origin; Purcell, Holst and Hovis as much to the fore as the European minimalism of his teacher, Louis Andriessen, or the power-chords of "rock". Played with passion by his brilliant band, compositions like "The Horses of Instruction", or "Eternal Delight" justify their Blakeian derivations, sounding like brutish muzak for the assembly- lines of those dark satanic mills.

Martland came to prominence in the Eighties as perhaps the only "proper" composer to take rock as seriously as it took itself. One of his first compositions (from 1981, when he was 22) was entitled "Remembering Lennon", after his hometown hero. Later, when he signed a record contract, it was with Manchester's Factory Records, the same fashionable label as Joy Division. After contemplating a career in the navy as a boy, he eventually trained in music, graduating in 1981 and going on to study in Holland with Andriessen, about whom he later made a film for the BBC.

His career since has been full of impressive commissions from home and abroad for dance works, brass band, chamber ensembles and orchestra, as well as his own musicians, and he has a new recording contract with BMG, for whom he is to go into the studio next week for a crossover project involving both the band and a couple of New York rappers. So why does he continue to bite the hand that feeds him?

"It's because of this class thing," he says. "I just have a real ingrained antagonism to middle-class things. I hate petty pretensions, stupid rules, everything that's expected of you. I am arrogant, but it's about the establishment, about what people will do for just one little performance at the Proms; about all these fucking brown-nosed composers who never say anything because they so desperately want to keep in with the BBC or the Aldeburgh Festival or whatever. And that's why everything they write is meaningless as far as I'm concerned..."

Though he admits that his outsider status might be the result of some kind of bad-boy compulsion, he insists: "The things I say aren't said just to keep me there. I actually believe what I say about education, about the establishment and who music is for, and the whole, hideous, class nature of English society. It's important to be on the outside because then you don't have to suck up to anyone." When I ask if his role as the conductor on the current tour, experiencing the hierarchical structure of a performance from, as it were, the very belly of the beast, has offered any fresh insights into the establishment, he laughs gleefully. "It's more like I'm up its arse," he says. "I'm an irritant to its bowels!"n

The Steve Martland Band's `The Horses of Instruction' tour continues tonight, 8.15pm, The Stables, Wavendon, Berks (01908 583928); tomorrow, 8pm, Newcastle Playhouse (0191-230 5151); Fri 21, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game