Lorne Jackson meets an English teacher with a sideline as a critically-acclaimed rock star and another as a photographer.
On entering King Edward VI High School for Girls in Edgbaston I’m confronted by a wall of pride.
The wall displays a list of former students who distinguished themselves academically.
It boasts of the achievements of Marion, Mabel, Agnes, Winifred and many others.
Hard working young ladies who progressed to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Birmingham.
What you won’t find on the wall of pride is a list of girls who progressed to nose piercing and skinny leather trouser shimmying. There are no accolades for girls who mangled their hair in a mosh pit or fractured fingernails strumming a Fender Stratocaster.
That’s because King Edward’s is a place of privilege, prestige, scholarship and tradition. Where pupils are defined by school badges, not their most ornate tattoo.
So what exactly is Findlay Mackinnon doing here?
Teaching, is the short answer.
Findlay is proud to be on the staff of King Edward’s, where he has been an English master for over a decade. But he also has an alter ego. In his spare time he’s a rock star.
The forty-year-old bashes drums for The Butcher Boy, a critically acclaimed Scottish band.
“I was always passionate about music,” he tells me, sipping a cup of tea in his classroom during lunch break. “I always played in bands, always wanted to be part of the Glasgow scene and get involved with the groups up there.
“The jewel in the crown for me back in my teenage years would have been to get to play on Top Of The Pops. But I was a provincial guy from Ardrossan in Ayrshire. So even just playing a show in Glasgow felt like it would be amazing.
“There was a place in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street called Nice n Sleazy. Getting on the stage there was a huge goal – that was my Wembley Stadium.”
What music did he listen to at the time?
“Teenage Fanclub were a massive influence.
“As were all the punk bands. I remember The Ramones playing Glasgow Barrowland. Then there was Stiff Little Fingers. And new wave bands like Dinosaur Jr...”
While Findlay enthuses about his favourite groups, I find myself musing that this is an unlikely conversation.
It’s certainly the first time I’ve exchanged words with a teacher and it hasn’t involved being ordered to tell the rest of the class exactly what I find so interesting outside the classroom window.
But Findlay, who lives in Stourbridge, isn’t your average teacher. Smacking bottoms with a cane was never an aspiration. Smacking drums was the goal.
“Drumming just came naturally. I could always do it. I never needed coaching or lessons. I just naturally could keep a rhythm. I always kept the beat.”
After leaving Ardrossan to study in Glasgow, Findlay rapidly became a fixture of the city’s bohemian music scene. Before committing himself to The Butcher Boy in 2004, he played in roughly one hundred bands.
At the same time, he was getting an education at Strathclyde University. An education that eventually led to Birmingham and a career in teaching.
Though The Butcher Boy has enjoyed critical success and are adored by the music press, the money made from record sales and gigs has never been enough to allow band members to become full time musicians.
Is that frustrating?
“We’ve probably sold under 10,000 albums or so. But they’ll go to music lovers, and that’s the main thing. You’ve got to understand how the world works. The world is never going to be fair. Why should it be? It makes it better that we just do what we do for the love of the music, and that we keep on kicking on. We know that it’s beautiful music. We know people absolutely adore it. And we prefer it that way, rather than people just buying our stuff because they’re jumping on a bandwagon.”
Besides, Findlay also has a love for teaching.
“I’ve always had a sort of conformist view, and I’ve always been pretty humble. I see teaching as a very important part of life.
“It’s about being beneficial to other people. Music heals and helps, and so does teaching. So it’s a great privilege for me to be involved in both. There’s been a proud history of teachers playing rock.
‘‘Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers was a teacher. And obviously there’s Sting. It’s one of those professions that does allow you a bit of scope to be yourself, though obviously you don’t want to be a bad example to young people.”
Findlay is happy at King Edward’s and King Edward’s is happy with Findlay.
It’s a commendation to the open mindedness of the school that they employed a roving rocker in the first place. After all, drummers have the kind of reputation that makes even lead singers blanche. If Cro-Magnon Man stood next to your average drummer, he’d suddenly look a lot less hairy and scary. (Next to a drummer, he’d probably be mistaken for Noel Coward.)
Tommy Lee – the former jail bird and ex-husband of flesh-flouncing, bikini-jouncing actress Pamela Anderson – is a drummer. Drug scoffing, toilet exploding, car pranging Keith Moon was a drummer.
Even that gargoyle gurning puppet from the Muppets was a drummer... and his name was Animal.
“I’m certainly not Tommy Lee,” laughs Findlay. “I’m more Charlie Watts. The gentleman drummer. Somebody who has got principles and holds to them. I stick to the basic things in life and give a lot of respect to people.”
Does that mean no sex and drugs – just rock and roll?
“Critical acclaim has come to me late in life. So I’ve got a relatively sensible head on my shoulders, and I’ve been able to deal with any issues in a level headed way.
Plus the guys I play with, they’ve been through it all before.
“We’ve all had our teenage strops, and we’ve all been through our brat boy moments. But now it’s time to play it for the music. That’s all that counts. Not beer, or anything that goes with it. We don’t play so that we can appear in Q Magazine or sell football tops. We’re not trying to be Kasabian. We’re doing this because we love music.”
Do Findlay’s pupils at King Edward’s know that their English teacher is in a band?
“Somehow a lot of them do know a lot about me, without my even telling them.
“A few of them have bought my LP off of iTunes.
“They seem to like it – but the mothers like it better. When I meet the parents on parents’ evening, there is often a nice nod, and some of them will ask where they can get an album. Most of them are very supportive. So are my colleagues. They always want you to do something outwith the school. To have that balance.”
The Butcher Boy might not be interested in appearing in this week’s hot magazine.
But that doesn’t mean the press isn’t hot for them. Their 2009 album, React Or Die, was named number 93 in The Times newspaper’s 100 best albums of the naughties, beating recordings by Johnny Cash and Paul Simon.
It was described as “the kind of record that could change a more sensitive 18-year-old’s life”.
Sensitivity is indeed the band’s strong suit. They have been compared to former Brit winners, Belle And Sebastian, another Glasgow band known for achingly sweet, angst-ridden pop songs.
B&S are big fans of the The Butcher Boy and asked Findlay and the rest of the crew to support them at a homecoming gig in Scotland just before Christmas. The bands played at the Glasgow Barrowlands, one of the UK’s most famous rock venues in what could be a major break for The Butcher Boy.
“This is the biggest gig of my life. A sold-out show at a brilliant venue. It’s a massive step up. There’s 50 people in the audience who know us and have heard us. But there’s another 1,950 who don’t know us, and got to hear our music. With a bit of luck it will lead to some good revues.’’
The band are also getting attention in the US. The cult vampire TV show Moonlight used one of their songs in an episode.
“Because they loved our stuff so much, they wanted the whole song, not just a bit of it. We had to get a lawyer in to negotiate for them to use the tune in its entirety, and that was pretty interesting. Seeing how the high level mechanics of Warner Brothers operates.”
Findlay’s music career is certainly blossoming. But he also has another passion – photography.
He has an exhibition of his work, The immigrants they wanna sing all night long, displayed at Edgbaston’s Coach House Gallery until the end of the month. The title comes from a Joe Strummer lyric, and the photos provide an outsider’s vision of the people and places of Birmingham.
“At university I was intrigued by photographers from the depression era, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Their work really spoke to me. I admired them so much that I thought I could do that.
“I wanted to share photographs with people. Show them something beautiful about the world. I noticed Birmingham didn’t have examples of that sort of photography. So I started snapping images around the place, trying to bring out the intensity of the place.”
He may have many extracurricular activities, but Findlay gets as much joy from teaching.
“To see the kids getting their first experience of some of the classics of poetry is a fantastic feeling. Or to see them when they read Shakespeare for the first time. I have to pinch myself when I think about it. Doing this job really does make me feel massively proud.”