GAZ Birtles – singer of Cumbria-bound band The South – admits the first time he came to the county he got a shock.

“We have been to Workington a few times, and Aspatria, and Barrow – it is a long way from Leicester!” said Gaz.

“The first time we went to Barrow I thought ‘great’, we are going to the Lake District. Going there I was expecting a quaint town at the end of it, and they have got submarines!

“I like that sort of place, I am looking forward to going back. It is a few years since we were there.”

The South – formerly The Beautiful South – are returning to Cumbria in June. Anyone who saw the band on their last visit though, may recall that then, Gaz was the saxophone player.

He and fellow singer Alison Wheeler have been with the band for many years, but Gaz’s introduction to the musical scene came at a relatively late age.

“I started quite late in life. I bought a saxophone when I was 19, and I started my first band when I was 21,” said Gaz, who was inspired to take up the saxophone due to the success of the hit band of the time, Roxy Music.

“I didn’t know any musicians. It is not like now when everyone and his mate are in a band.”

Until that point Gaz had presumed he was set for a more down to earth career. In his younger years he had a number of jobs including a qualified gas fitter, salesman and a plumber.

Then in 1989, while on the dole, a chance call changed his life. The Beautiful South wanted him for a one-off gig in Paris.

“When they first went out playing live the Beautiful South had gone out as a six piece. But the full instrumentation off the album wasn’t there, so they wanted a full brass section and a percussionist.”

That gig in Paris changed Gaz’s life. He was with the band for many years playing the saxophone, but all that changed a couple of years ago.

“Dave Hemingway had been getting tired of it and he had had enough of being on the road all the time,” said Gaz. We were going to pack up but speaking to agents they said ‘why don’t you get another singer.’

“We thought about looking for another singer but I knew all the songs, so we decided to give it a go. I auditioned myself, we did 10 songs one day, and it went well.

“I thought I knew the songs inside out but I didn’t. I had to relearn, or learn it differently, just for the phrasing. There is only one song where we had to change the key, but generally I sing them in the key they were written in.”

As the singer, Gaz says that his favourite song on stage is currently Let Love Speak Up For Itself, which was from the Beautiful South’s second album, Choke.

For many people coming to see The South, they will be fans of and remember the songs that initially made the band famous as The Beautiful South.

“The Beautiful South meant a lot to a lot of people. We were doing arenas and football stadiums to 80,000 people, but it still felt like it was a band that people had just found. Paul Heaton (who formed the band) wasn’t into all the publicity, and it helped not being in people’s faces all the time,” said Gaz.

One of Gaz’s other roles involves Leicester venue The Donkey, booking bands and taking on sound duties, something he also loves. But he also notes a ‘general lack of enthusiasm for original bands,’ in recent years, adding, ‘It seems to be about tribute and cover bands at most venues’.

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask what right his band – with just two survivors from The Beautiful South – have to be out there playing hits mainly penned by Paul Heaton and David Rotheray.

“There is a genuine feeling that people don’t know what we are. I can understand some opinions that we might be a tribute band. We’re almost a tribute band to ourselves now. What we were to The Beautiful South is always like an off-shoot, not an extension. But mainly it’s about Beautiful South songs.

“I’ve been there since day one, pretty much, and think that lends authenticity. The reality is that people we meet after shows tell us how much they’ve enjoyed it. A lot haven’t seen The South or The Beautiful South before. We provide a night’s entertainment of great songs. And those who saw The Beautiful South come back and still love it.

"The songs are the bottom line, not the personnel. And we stick pretty much to the sound and arrangements The Beautiful South did live.”

The fact that you’re going out as a nine-piece suggests your belief. It can’t just be about making money if you end up having to split it nine times every night.

“Absolutely. If that was the case we could whittle down to a four-piece and add backing tracks, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about that. There’s no reason to. We’re all in it for the same reason. We’re a band rather than a bunch of session players. We look at ourselves as a proper unit.”

Despite all the years of touring, Gaz is still enjoying being with the band as singer – the saxophonist with the band is now Su Robinson.

“It is good fun and we are all good mates. When you are in a band there is nothing more crucial than the chemistry within the band,” said Gaz.

“Back in the old days we would do three or four weeks on tour. These days people don’t really go out Monday to Wednesday so venues don’t want book you at these times, so we do lots of weekends.

"Most of the band are professional musicians – doing lots, from teaching to playing in other bands – but a couple have full-time jobs.

“We did about 40 gigs last year, and this year we have got 38 booked already and more dates coming in all the time. We have had a lot of people come to see the Beautiful South and the South, and they keep coming back and telling me I am doing a good job. While people are coming out to see us we will keep going.”

The band is made up of Alison Wheeler (vocals), Gaz Birtles (vocals), Phil Barton (guitars), Steve Nutter (bass), Dave Anderson (drums), Karl Brown (percussion), Gareth John (trumpet), Su Robinson (sax), Andy Price (keys).

The South are at The Forum in Barrow on Friday, June 5. Go to