The word “boyband” conjures up certain images. Fan mania. Handsome, fresh-faced looks. An abundance of hair gel. Low V-necks. Embarrassing dance routines. Ballads. Each member standing up from swooning atop their bar-stools for the song’s key change.
One Direction makes you think of all these things, but a little more too.
If you haven’t heard of them, you must have been living under a rock. Although currently on hiatus, they are undeniably the biggest boy band the UK has given the world for some time. Birthed from the 2010 X-Factor TV series, they are the most successful act to have come from the show, despite coming in third place in the competition. Formed on the show from five individual participants hoping for solo success, they made a winning combination and had one of the fastest climbs to worldwide success. They have had a colossal amount of hits, including 95 international number-one singles, and their ‘Where Are We’ Tour was the highest-grossing tour of all time by a vocal group.
Although they are very much a pop act, with thousands of young girls’ affections in the palms of their hands, they aren’t totally squeaky clean; their live show was heavy-hitting, with shredding guitar solos Brian May wouldn’t kick out of bed. Harry Styles did his best to channel his inner Mick Jagger at all times. It turned out they had more to offer to the adult fan base than people had perceived. I got to meet them in person during the filming of the X-Factor series where they met; Niall came strumming in my direction back-stage, singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd.
Sandy Beales had been building his career as a session bass player when he got the call for the One Direction live band audition, shortly after the series finished. Hailing from Devon, Sandy had moved to London to attend Tech Music Schools and study for his degree in Popular Music Performance. He had worked with many artists including Loick Essien, Ben Montague, Leddra Chapman and Franka De Mille performing on TV shows and touring across Europe.
Little did he know that joining the session band for some X-Factor contestants could blow up to be the wild journey that it was. He was on the road for nearly five years with the notorious 1D boys, so he must have some stories…
V: Sandy, you were touring with One Direction for 5 years. Over that time you must have a lot of experiences to share. I wanted to start with asking about how you got the One Direction gig.
S: I got put forward for the audition and went from there. They were at Grove Studios and it was the typical thing; go in, have a two-minute chat and then play the track that they sent us. It was pretty full-on, especially the second day of auditions. Everything was thrown at us, making sure we could handle high-pressure scenarios.
V: I read that you thought it was just a UK tour you were auditioning for.
S: Yeah, we were told we were needed for just three months. I think I realised it was going to blow up when we went to New York to play the Today Show. We were pulling up to the TV studio at 4 am in Manhattan, in this little van. As we got there we could see queues of fans, going half a mile back around the corner. It was one of these moments where we thought, “Wow, this is crazy.” It suddenly became apparent that this gig was going to be a bit different.
V: Yes, I remember watching that performance and thinking how mad it was — you were performing outside amongst a sea of fans. When the tour began, were the venues you were playing already quite big?
S: We played theatre sizes, relatively small venues but still a really good size for a band’s first tour.
V: I came to your show in Brighton on the first tour and even then, I remember it being ridiculous. I arrived late, after you guys had already gone on stage and I’ll never forget walking into the venue, being absolutely blown away by a wall of sound made by screaming fans.
S: Yeah, it’s that wall of sound, from start to finish. Pure screaming. It was like that everywhere in the world apart from Japan. They scream right up until the minute you start playing. Apparently, it’s a respect thing. They want to respect the other audience members and that everyone wants to hear the show. The concept of that is pretty amazing. One time, on a Japanese TV show, the security guards had to make a human chain, to stop the fans pushing through. But the show started, and they stopped. It’s the only place it’s been almost silent whilst we’re playing. One time, the boys put their mics down and sang a song a capella. They couldn’t have done that anywhere else.
V: Speaking of security guards, I know that eventually even you guys in the band had your own. At what point did that happen?
S: I can’t really remember, but it got to a point when the boy’s fame was so big, that that attention and following spilt over to anyone attached to the project, ourselves included. Our security wasn’t just to protect us, but to make sure we were never causing a scene or problem for the rest of the team. It was mad — as session players you never think you’ll need security.
V: Yeah, I think it’s quite unusual for session players to have their own dedicated security. There must have been some really crazy fans as well. Did you have any experiences with them that were good or bad?
S: It was just amazing always seeing a sea of fans, 100% giving it their all in the audience. That was the cool thing about it; it was amazing that the boys and their music brought that out in people. It’s great to get that intense a reaction from people.
V: Okay, tell me the craziest fan story?
S: Well… there are loads I won’t mention, but here’s one. There was one time when myself and the other musicians were in our hotel, coming down in the lift. As we got to the bottom, we saw a girl wheeling around a huge suitcase. The hotel security decided to stop her and ask which room she was going to, and to see inside the suitcase. They opened it up and her friend was inside. They were trying to pretend they were staying in the hotel, to try and get to the floor where the boys were. She just spilled out on the floor.
V: Wow… that’s really, really wild! Go on… do you remember any other stories like that?
S: The trouble is my memory is so bad.. it’s funny when I talk to other people on the tour and they’re saying “do you remember that time this happened?” and I had totally forgotten about it.
V: This is the trouble — when you’re moving around so much you really can forget where you are. It sounds ridiculous and cliché, but it’s what happens. That’s why I called this blog ‘Where Are We Again?!’
S: Yeah, there have definitely been times I have been on the phone to my wife and she asks where I am and my answer has been, ‘I couldn’t even tell you what country I’m in right now.’ It sounds dumb but genuinely, you’re not sure. One time we got out of the bus to go get a McDonalds or something and we weren’t sure what currency we were meant to use.
V: Yeah, especially if you go to sleep on the bus somewhere, you could wake up somewhere else. In America, my way of figuring out at least what state you’re in, is looking at what the state number plate is on the majority of cars.
S: I remember especially in 2013 when we were in a lot of arenas, the bus drives straight into the arena. You wake up inside, with literally no idea what city you’re in. Each day is like the previous, and it becomes a bit of a blur. As a fan, you remember a show completely. Going to see an artist like Prince at the O2 would be really memorable day, but for everyone on-stage and in the crew, it’s day 51 of 200 on the road. Each day is special, but it’s a different experience as a fan and as a musician.
V: There must have been some really memorable shows though. What were they for you?
S: Definitely Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Gardens in New York. The first stadium we ever played with 1D was in Bogatá, Colombia. It’s so fanatical and intense there anyway, for that be our first stadium was pretty amazing.
V: Since it was such a whirlwind, it must have taken some adjusting to get used to. Was it hard at times?
S: It wasn’t really. It was just so much fun. It was what I always I wanted to do, and to be doing it was amazing. Let’s be honest, as musicians however much faith we have in ourselves, we all have self-doubt too. I’m not sure that I’ve ever met someone who knew ‘Yes, I’m definitely going to do all these things I dream of doing.’ It’s one thing saying it you’re going to do these things, and it’s another actually really believing it will happen. That self-doubt is not always a negative thing, it can be a good thing. It’s being realistic. But I was doing it, thinking wow, this is actually happening. It was just special, so it wasn’t hard at all. I enjoyed every moment.
V: I think that’s the thing, when you’re on a tour like that, you’re living out your wildest dreams so you just feel….really chuffed!
S: That’s it, and I think you need to allow yourself to have that buzz and excitement and just love it; just let yourself be part of it. I feel like some musicians think you need to act really aloof or stand-offish, and I just think, just enjoy yourself! Let loose and be yourself. Your façade is always going to get found out.
V: Well I’m sure for a lot of people on that tour, it was their first experience of a gig of that scale… constant stadiums! I always thought it was particularly special that you and Dan Richards (the 1D guitarist) had known each other since you were teenagers, went to college together in Devon, then both went to the same university in London and then ended up on this huge tour together.
S: Yeah, it was mad, because we’re from such a small place — it’s not a music hub by any means. I remember seeing him when I parked up at the auditions. There we were, both auditioning, and it was crazy. I did a masterclass tour last week and I was saying to the students in the schools, “you’re making your contacts now. You might not think it, but it’s already begun.” You never know what’s going to happen in the future and who you’re going to end up working with.
V: It’s good to know it wasn’t ever a struggle for you to be on the road. I remember before I went on my first big tour, a musician friend sat me down and said, “There’s going to be some days where you’re going to find touring really hard, and you might be sad and want to go home.” I took it on board and was a little worried, but for me there were actually never times where I was really feeling down. I certainly never wanted to go home. Were there any days that you wanted to go home?
S: I felt the same, there was never a day that I wanted to book a flight home. It’s being away from your friends and family that’s the hardest bit about touring. I like to think that we’re not really being paid to play music, we’re being paid to be away from home.
V: Some people say we get paid a lot to be on stage for an hour, but it’s not the hour that we’re on stage that we want to get paid for really, it’s all the hours of bullshit surrounding that…
S: Yeah, its a 24-hour job. You could be working any time, getting up at 4 am for a flight every day of the week. That’s the unique thing about our job. The actual music part is amazing, but everything else… isn’t necessarily not fun, but there can be times where it can be full-on. There can be times when you don’t know why you feel a bit upset on the road; you’re just run down. It gets everyone to some extent. Though this is the thing people don’t really talk about much; the fact it can be hard sometimes.
V: I think the difficult thing to wrap your head around is the highs and lows. One minute you’re on tour, playing to thousands of people and the next you’re back at home doing the dishes. I think you have to get used to that. I remember one week I was doing a TV show with Cee Lo Green with Snoop Dogg there in the audience dancing along — it was great. The next day I was back in the pub, pulling pints. It’s just a bit mad.
S: And that’s the nature of our job, that you can go from those crazy highs, experiencing some of the things that artists do and then the next day, that’s it. You’re back at your flat, eating Chinese food or whatever.
V: Yeah, making beans on toast.
S: Exactly! It’s crazy, but it’s amazing — I wouldn’t trade it for the world. That’s probably what got me through any hard times. Just telling myself, “This was your dream, you wanted this.”
V: Throughout your years of touring, you must have found yourself in some very surreal situations, in places you’d never thought you’d be. What were some of those moments where you thought, “Is this real?“
S: Oh man…so many. We all got to go to the Real Madrid training ground and meet the team, including Christiano Ronaldo…it was insane. We went to watch a Manchester United game in Chicago, and I’m a big United fan. We got to go to the locker room afterwards and meet some of the players. It was proper childhood dream stuff. You don’t think being in music is going to get you those kind of dreams — it’s crazy that side of it. We did a TV show in Japan and Katy Perry was performing on it too. This was when she was dating John Mayer and he was watching the show backstage. I was sitting next to him watching it too — and I love John Mayer — and there he was, right there. It was surreal the first time I played with Brendan (from the band Wheatus). Josh (1D’s drummer), Brendan and I were in his studio and we jammed ‘Teenage Dirtbag.’ I just look at Josh like, “We’re playing Teenage Dirtbag, with Wheatus.” There was also a show we did where Ronnie Wood came up and played. Lots of things like that happened, and you’ve gotta keep your cool but you’re thinking, “This is crazy.”
V: Where there any other people or celebrities you met that were memorable?
S: Will Smith… Katy Perry… it was the really nice people that stand out. People like Olly Murs and Dermot O’Leary; not necessarily global mega-stars, but just super nice people. That’s what sticks in my mind.
V: I would love to know about your favourite ‘day off’ between shows on a tour.
S: There’s been a lot of good ones. We had a few days off in Australia, so Jon and I took a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. You’re at work, and then suddenly it feels like you’re on holiday. There was a time in Minnesota where someone we know took us out on a boat on Lake Minnetonka…
V: Oh, was that Doug?
V: I did that with him too! Dan told me to go hang out with him in Minneapolis.
S: (Laughs) There you go, we had a shared experience! That’s the thing that’s great, when people tour and they end up with friends all over the world and then we all get to meet through each other. It’s always nice to have a local show you around too.
V: I’ve read that your advice for aspiring session musicians is to be a chameleon and be multi-skilled. What other qualities do you think make a good musician?
S: Firstly, being a great player is most important. Then I would say punctuality and personality. Just being a pro. Wanting to be the person that someone would recommend when they’re asked about bass players. Our industry is word of mouth.
V: What were the qualities in yourself that you think landed you the One Direction gig?
S: I spent at least two years saying “yes” to everything. There were bad gigs, there were great gigs, and so much in-between, but you just meet so many people that way. It’s about not closing any doors and doing as much as possible.
V: So, you ultimately got the One Direction audition because the person who put you forward was someone you’d met as a result of saying “yes” to something?
S: Yeah, it was somebody who had seen me in the studio one time. Saying “yes” led me to all those things. Sometimes you do things that lead to nothing, but what have you lost really? You still performed that night, and I think any time the bass is in your hands is a time well spent.
V: So since One Direction have stopped touring for now, what have you been up to?
S: I’m touring with a new artist JP Cooper, teaching and presenting masterclasses. Just keeping busy! Taking the time to decompress after the tour was important too. I think you need to give yourself that little bit of time to get back to normal life. It was nice to get back and have a few months of doing nothing.
V: Yeah, plus you came off tour and had a wife and a new house to spend time with.
S: Yeah, if I didn’t have my wife I don’t know what I would’ve done. The start of 2016 would’ve been very different, and I don’t know how I would’ve coped with it. But we had a family unit, a house to decorate, and all these other things to take my mind somewhere else. It was also important to take the time to enjoy how all the hard work had paid off. It’s about being able to look forward, and put yourself in that mindset to think “what’s waiting for me at the end of this tour?”