Interview: St Vincent


This interview originally ran in The Herald newspaper, Scotland.

To paraphrase from chaos theory, when St Vincent kicks a ball in New York, it knocks kids in Bridge of Allan for six. The avant-pop star and David Byrne collaborator – also known as Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Annie Clark – proved this Transatlantic soccer-pop hypothesis earlier this year, when she made a short film for US feminist teen magazine Rookie, displaying her impeccable knack for a rainbow kick. I watched it online with my daughter and her friends, and soon there was a gaggle of six-year-old girls out the back, attempting St Vincent’s football tricks.

“Really? That’s wonderful,” says Clark – who recently fronted Nirvana in their first public appearance since Kurt Cobain’s death – down the line from San Diego. “That’s really cute, but it’s also wild. I just didn’t know what to expect when Rookie asked me to do it.” The online magazine runs a regular feature called Sunday Video, in which women in music are filmed doing unlikely and / or inspiring things. Neko Case made borscht. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna gave tips on public speaking. “They came to me and said, ‘Everybody knows you play guitar, but do you have another skill you could maybe show us?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at ordering room service,’” she quips. “I know how to get a good coffee. That’s about it. And then I remembered that before I started playing guitar, I used to play soccer all the time.”

Clark’s formidable kicking technique suggests that her commitment to art, be it playing football or fierce guitar, was always fastidious, and relentless. The viral success of her Rookie video also neatly captures the scope of the digital age – a fundamental theme on St Vincent’s sublime and remarkable eponymous fourth solo album, which was released earlier this year. The record is, in many ways, her most emotionally and musically direct to date, but Clark remains an avidly private artist. Is it hard to balance such a private nature with interacting on social media (she is lively on Twitter), or writing from the heart?

“A lot of this album was simply writing my life, and I feel very free in music to do or say anything,” she offers. “I always think that songs have to come from some emotional truth and real place of human empathy, although do I balk a little bit at the idea of quote-unquote confessional songwriting. I feel like it implies, especially in terms of female writers, this idea that you lack the imagination to write about other things,” she says. And so it is that the current LP explores love, obsession and sense of place, via experimental groove-pop odes to naked desert-walking, severed integers, religious imagery and snorting the Berlin Wall.

The album’s most overt nod to the internet era, Digital Witness, is also perhaps its clearest musical nod to Clark’s kindred art-pop spirit, David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012’s excellent Love This Giant. You can hear shards of Byrne’s Talking Heads in its awkward grooves and angular vocals. Did working with Byrne consciously influence Clark’s aesthetic, or outlook? “It was tremendously inspiring being around David,” she recalls. “That whole experience was just wonderful. I think we both just felt so positive about the shows, knowing that fans were walking away having had a real experience, and that whole idea has become hugely important to me.”

Has it impacted on St Vincent’s live shows? “Yeah, it’s made me think much more about how you communicate in every single thing that you do when you’re on-stage, from the movement to the outfits to the staging – and obviously the music, that’s the most important thing,” she says. “So I’ve really dug in on the performance aspect of this tour, and I think that was really inspired by everything that we did on Love This Giant. Everything was very intentional. That show was maybe a bit more joyful and silly than what I’m doing on my own, but the dedication to detail and performance remains the same.”

Clark even recruited a choreographer for her current tour. “Yeah, it’s not 100 per cent choreographed, but I worked with [Byrne / Eno collaborator] Annie-B Parson,” she says. “I’m not a dancer, but that means I’m not coming at it with any baggage – I’m not worried about being really expressive or whatever. I’m just like, ‘Okay, this is interesting, how do I make this movement? How do I embody it and make it be right for my body, and for what I want to say?’ And that’s a challenge.”

Has Clark’s relationship with her songs changed since she started to physically inhabit and interpret them? “Well, my relationship to the songs gets deeper every night, because you keep finding these nooks and crannies and crevices and places to stretch out and breathe,” she says.

When we last spoke, around five years ago, Clark enthused about economy in music; about trying to make (and find) more, from less, in her art. Is that something that still drives her? “Yeah, I’d say especially on this record, there’s nothing superfluous in there – it’s kind of succinct songwriting – just get in, communicate your message, and get out,” she says. “But I also wanted this to be a very open-armed record. I wanted to connect with people. That’s the whole goal of life.”

St Vincent plays Glasgow 02ABC on Tuesday August 26.

Related articles: St Vincent interview (The List), July 2009.

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The East End Social: Glasgow Mix Tape

photo (3)

On August 2nd, Chemikal Underground’s East End Social brings an absolutely bloody marvellous day of independent Glasgow music from through the decades to Glasgow Green. It’s part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme, doors open at 10.30am and it’s free.

In the meantime, here’s a collection of recent (or, in some cases, recent-ish) interviews / write-ups I’ve done with the artists playing…

Lloyd Cole, The Herald

Bis, The Herald

Malcolm Middleton, The Quietus

Errors, The Herald

Ken McCluskey (The Bluebells), The Herald

Trembling Bells, The Herald

Trembling Bells & Mike Heron, The Herald

The Phantom Band, The List

Admiral Fallow, The Herald

Ubre Blanca, The List

Holy Mountain, The List

Richard Youngs, The List

You can find out more about the Glasgow Mix Tape here and about the East End Social here.

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Live review: Honeyblood (Old Hairdressers, Glasgow)


This article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland).

July 14

(Five stars)

As debut album launches go, noise-pop duo Honeyblood’s homecoming gig will take some beating. “This is the room where it all started two years ago,” mused vocalist / guitarist Stina Tweeddale, flanked by glittering hearts and stars. “The difference is, there are people here this time,” added drummer Shona McVicar, laughing, and she wasn’t wrong. The venue was packed-out, radiating a collective steam, and that’s not to mention the queue of disappointed fans that snaked down the stairs.

The riotous grrrls’ comments served as a timely reminder that Honeyblood have established themselves as alt-rock queen bees in a relatively short period of time. Much of their brilliant, eponymous debut comprises their embryonic (yet prodigiously fully-fledged) songs – as did their uproarious live set – from gorgeous indie-chorale No Spare Key (“the first song I ever wrote,” said Tweeddale), to swaggering axe-pop wig-outs like Biro and Super Rat. Their garage-punk ruckus and minimalist line-up evokes the charged dynamic of the White Stripes (Choker), but they’re equally adept at widescreen alt-Americana (Bud, I’d Rather Be Anywhere But Here). They’re fast and loose; raw and intense. What a glorious, infernal racket they make.

Tweeddale is an electrifying guitarist and rock ‘n’ roll vocalist, McVicar is the fiercest, most charismatic drummer I’ve ever seen, and the smiles and sparks that fly between them are a joy to watch. Much of their calling card is populated by fallen romeos and love rats, but this thrilling gig reminded us that Honeyblood have bigger concerns at heart. “This song’s about Shona”, Tweeddale drawled, as they fired into Killer Bangs. “I need this with you. I made this with you,” she hollered. Try and stop them.


Related articles: Honeyblood album review, Time Out, July 2014

King Tut’s New Year’s Revolution Nights preview feat Honeyblood (The Herald, Dec 2012)

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Interview: Two Wings

two wings photo

This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on June 13, 2014.

Two Wings vocalist Hanna Tuulikki is discussing Peace/Fear, the opening track on the Glasgow folk-rockers’ new album, A Wake. “Somebody said it’s a cross between Kate Bush and Dire Straits,” she says with a laugh. She sounds quite delighted.

Your correspondent also heard the drum-thundering echoes of Easy Lover by Phils Bailey and Collins in Peace/Fear’s maiden bars. “Oh, I love that too,” beams Tuulikki, a multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and truly unique vocalist, who composes Two Wings’ songs in cahoots with Ben Reynolds (vocals / guitar).

“I think there are a lot of pop influences, and a lot of 80s references, on A Wake,” she says of the follow-up to their 2012 debut, Love’s Spring. “We used synths and gated reverb on the snares, and I guess we were less interested in drawing upon folk forms on this record. We wanted to explore the craft of songwriting in a different way. We wanted to connect with the music that first appealed to us as children, and we grew up in the 80s.”

Formed in 2009, Two Wings are a thrilling proposition – equal parts familiar and surprising – and their line-up is virtuosic. Tuulikki’s airborne vocalisms and Reynolds’ soaring guitar solos are flanked by Lucy Duncombe (vocals), Kenny Wilson (bass), Owen Curtis Williams (drums) and recent recruit Jody Henderson (guitar). They interweave madrigals, trad-folk, psalm-singing, chamber-pop and soft-rock, and leave something freewheeling yet easy to love in their glittering wake.

“I don’t think we feel we need to consciously invent something new,” Tuulikki offers. “There’s so much good music, and so many good forms that already exist. We prefer in a sense to make reference to those.”

And so it is that you might discern the new-wave riffs of Television (Peace / Fear) or the sultry harmonics of Fleetwood Mac (Stranger) amid A Wake’s celestial psych-rock arias and acid-country chorales. Its themes are timeless and universal, exploring the myriad phases of love – friendship, lust, death – in language that feels otherworldly, yet applicable to our day-to-day.

Ben Reynolds nods. “Absolutely, that’s what it’s for,” he says. “That’s the great thing about love songs – everyone can find something in there. I like the universality of that topic.”
Both songwriters’ fledgling careers were in improvised music, in Glasgow’s free-folk and noise scenes (Tuulikki performed with Scatter and Nalle; Reynolds was a solo improv-axeman before his bygone stint in Trembling Bells). But do they find it can be liberating to work within the (loose) confines of structured songs, as they do in Two Wings?

“Sometimes in improvisation, it’s quite easy to become scared of form,” Tuulikki muses. “So it’s a really refreshing and freeing experience to work within a known form, and to make music that we might want to dance to within that – although I’d say what we’re doing now is still experimental, because it’s still pushing something in ourselves.”

Reynolds agrees. “If you set yourself simple parameters, even something as basic as having a song as a starting point, it means you’re setting certain limits in terms of the amount of space you’re opening up,” he offers. “But the amount you can then do is vast. You can do a ballad, or you can do a dance song – it gives you all these options. You can invent your own way of working.”

Two Wings operate as a particularly harmonic outfit, and their moniker is inextricably linked to their sound, their aesthetic, their history. It conveys the songwriters’ sense of mutually-supportive craft (each providing, they say, one wing of their bird), evokes sonic references (both 1968’s folk-rock act Wings and Paul McCartney’s unrelated 70s-pop wonders) – and it traces their nascent work together. In 2008, Reynolds issued a solo recording called Two Wings, for which Tuulikki created the artwork. Its title was inspired by the Rev Utah Smith’s gospel-blues masterwork of the same name.

The Two Wings designate also resonates with Tuulikki’s fascinating endeavour, Away With The Birds (Air falbh leis na h-eòin), an inter-disciplinary venture which celebrates the vocal mimesis of birds in the Gaelic folk tradition. The project is currently seeking crowd-funding to stage a one-off performance by a female vocal ensemble in the harbour on the Isle of Canna this summer.

Does Tuulikki perceive Two Wings and Away With The Birds as having a kinship, beyond their avian resonance? “Although they have strong separate identities, there is a flow between them,” she says. “What I’ve learned from writing harmonies with Two Wings has informed the way I think about composing for a lot more voices, and that applies the other way around too. I think my passion is always the voice, and its exploration.”

Tuulikki’s extraordinary vocals elevate A Wake – from the mediaeval-groove of Loveless to You Give Me Love’s carnal, feverish lullaby – and despite parting titles like Go To Sleep and Adieu, this feels like an LP invested with hope. “I suppose this album is slightly less joyful than Love’s Spring,” says Reynolds, “but it’s about holding on, in a positive sense – and articulating that in a way that sounds optimistic.”

Tuulikki nods. “A Wake comes from the song A Wake To The Dream, which is about keeping something real that was alive – it’s more about that than a funeral,” she says. Her words ring true on the album’s glorious swansong, Go To Sleep, as the band sing together, “awake with the sun”; their bright spirits flying high.

Two Wings’ A Wake is out now via Tin Angel; album launch, Glasgow Nice N Sleazy, June 21; the Away With The Birds Kickstarter campaign runs until June 15.

Related Articles:
Two Wings interview – The List – March 2012

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The 2014 Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award


The public vote for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award shortlist is now open – it closes at midnight on Wednesday May 28. 

Here’s a guide to this year’s longlisted albums, which originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 24th. There are also links to my related artist interviews and album reviews throughout.

I’m one of the judges for this year’s SAY Award; full panel info here.


Since it was launched in 2012, The Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award has celebrated home-grown music in its myriad forms. The 2014 longlist, as selected by 100 industry nominators, follows suit: it spotlights baroque and hip-hop; electronica and indie-pop; folk and jazz and stadium-rock. And it presents them on an even footing, irrespective of genre, label affiliation, critical acclaim or commercial success.

Ten of these titles will be shortlisted on May 29 (nine elected by a judging panel; one by public vote), and one will be awarded this year’s £20 000 SAY Award on June 19 (with £1000 for each of the shortlisted runners-up). In the meantime, here’s to a longlist of day-glo debuts and slow-burning returns; of insurgent rap and saxophone-jams; of human beat-boxing and bruised-folk yarns: of our kaleidoscopic voices.

Adam Holmes - Heirs & Graces - Web

Adam Holmes – Heirs and Graces (Gogar)

The debut solo album from Edinburgh’s Adam Holmes is a stellar homage to trad-pop song-writing, whose warm blend of Celtic ballads and Nashville arias was produced by folk sage John Wood (Nick Drake, Richard Thompson). Holmes was nominated as Best Newcomer at the 2011 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.


Adam Stafford – Imaginary Walls Collapse (Song, by Toad)

Falkirk art-pop polymath Adam Stafford is a Scottish BAFTA-winning film-maker and thrilling live performer and songwriter. His second album, Imaginary Walls Collapse, underscores Stafford’s vivid knack for loop-fuelled machine-hymns, euphoric guitar-pop, beat-boxing and gospel-blues hosannas.

Related articles:
Adam Stafford, Imaginary Walls Collapse album review, The List
Adam Stafford interview, The Herald

Biffy Clyro – Opposites (14th Floor Records)


Nothing says “bona fide rock gods” like a concept double-album, emblazoned with artwork by Storm Thorgerson (who fashioned Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon). Kilmarnock stadium-rockers Biffy Clyro pulled off such a statement with Opposites, et voila: they bagged their first UK Number One album.

Related articles:
Biffy Clyro – Opposites album review, Time Out (London)


Boards Of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp)

Preceded by a teaser campaign that rivalled Daft Punk in the cryptic stakes, Tomorrow’s Harvest is the first album in eight years from Edinburgh electro-diviners Boards of Canada. The arcane-pop revolutionaries summon a typically unsettling voyage through warped psychedelia, uncanny sci-fi and pastoral symphonies on their fourth outing.

Related articles:
Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest, album review, BBC Radio Scotland

Camera Obscura - Web

Camera Obscura – Desire Lines (4AD)

The fifth album from Glasgow’s vintage indie-pop seducers sees Tracyanne Campbell et al ramp up their lavish chamber arrangements, girl-group harmonies, and melancholic grandeur, to dreamy effect. This long-player has been held up in high places as a highlight of their career.

Related articles:
Camera Obscura (archive interview), Plan B Magazine.


CHVRCHES – The Bones Of What You Believe (Virgin)

The debut LP from Glasgow trio Chvrches is an electro-pop masterpiece which gatecrashed the UK Top 10 and continues to win them global acclaim, but it’s also a testament to Scotland’s collaborative grassroots music community: two of the band were longlisted for the 2013 SAY Award, thanks to their other sonic allegiances: Martin Doherty in The Twilight Sad and Iain Cook in The Unwinding Hours.

Related articles:
Chvrches interview, The Herald
Lauren Mayberry SAY Award interview (scroll), The Herald

Chvrches – The Bones of What You Believe album review, The List.


Dunedin Consort (Dir. John Butt) – J. S. Bach: Six Brandenburg Concertos (Linn)

The Herald’s penultimate classical album of 2013, this recording sees Bach aficionado John Butt OBE and baroque ensemble the Dunedin Consort shine new light upon, and breathe new life into, Bach’s enduringly popular Six Brandenburg Concertos. The musicianship on their first entirely instrumental release is stunning, but never showy.

Related articles:
John Butt SAY Award interview (scroll) – The Herald

Understated-(Web)Edwyn Collins – Understated (AED)

The eighth solo album from Scotland’s indie statesman – and second since two brain haemorrhages in 2005 – finds the Orange Juice and Postcard Records poster boy in excellent, reflective fettle, and allies his nascent art-rock and country roots with Motown, Stax, jangle-pop and soul.


Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse (Atlantic)

Frightened Rabbit had the spotlight turned on them after making the leap from indie (Fat Cat) to major (Atlantic), with many fearing the corporate step-up would compromise their charms. Such concerns were assuaged with Pedestrian Verse – their major-label debut, first Top 10 record, and a superb collection of poetic alt-rock and stadium anthems.

Related articles:
Frightened Rabbit Pedestrian Verse interview, Sunday Herald
Frightened Rabbit, Pedestrian Verse album review, The List


Hector Bizerk – Nobody Seen Nothing (Self-released)

You could never accuse Hector Bizerk of appropriating US rap. Their remarkable, funk-fuelled take on hip-hop is steered by drummer Audrey Tait’s beats, and loaded with (Sauchiehall) street-level poetry courtesy of Louie Deadlife, who rejects cliches, bling and machismo. (“It’s not my fault I’m just a man”).

Related articles:
Hector Bizerk – Nobody Seen Nothing, album review, The List
Hector Bizerk, SAY Award interview (scroll), The Herald
Hector Bizerk interview, The Herald


Kid Canaveral – Now That You Are A Dancer (Fence)

Power-pop party-starters Kid Canaveral unleashed a melodious alt-rock barrage on their second album, Now That You Are A Dancer – from the carnal throb of A Compromise to the axe-chiming doo-wop of Who Would Want To Be Loved? (They would, and they are).

Related articles:
Kid Canaveral – Now That You Are A Dancer, album review, The List
Kid Canaveral (archive) interview, The Herald 


Mogwai – Les Revenants (Rock Action)

First nominated for 2011’s Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, Glasgow instrumental rock behemoths Mogwai return to the SAY longlist with Les Revenants, their terrific (and faintly terrifying) soundtrack for the French un-dead TV series of the same name.

Related articles:
Stuart Braithwaite and Douglas Gordon interview, The Quietus

Rick Redbeard - Web

Rick Redbeard – No Selfish Heart (Chemikal Underground)

In which Rick Anthony, frontman of The Phantom Band, moonlights as a gorgeous, peat-crackling bard, strips his cracked-Americana bare, and floors us with his baritone charms. This yearning anthology of meditations on nature, love and death is intimate yet universal, and timeless.

Related articles:
Rick Redbeard – No Selfish Heart album review, The Quietus
Rick Redbeard – No Selfish Heart album review, The List
Rick Redbeard – interview, The Herald


RM Hubbert – Breaks & Bone (Chemikal Underground)

Insatiable axe-seducer RM Hubbert lifted last year’s SAY Award for 13 Lost & Found, and swiftly released this beautiful follow-up. The final instalment in his Ampersand Trilogy, it sees Hubbert find his singing voice, as exquisite guitar instrumentals alternate with post-rock lullabies.

Related articles:
RM Hubbert – Breaks & Bone / Ampersand Trilogy interview (and further conversations), The Herald.

Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire (Web)

Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire – Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire (Middle of Nowhere)

Roddy Hart’s impeccable take on Scots-inflected Americana swaggered to the fore on this eponymous debut with new backing band The Lonesome Fire. It won him many fans, including US TV supremo Craig Ferguson, who invited Hart to perform a week-long residency on the Late, Late Show.


Scottish Chamber Orchestra (R. Ticciati) – Berlioz: Les Nuits d’été (Linn)

Featuring excerpts from Romeo and Juliette and La mort de Cleopatre, this exceptional recording from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and lauded Berliozian Robin Ticciati (who has been SCO’s principle conductor since 2009), was awarded last year’s top classical album garland in The Herald.

SNJO-In The Spirit Of Duke (Web)

Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – In The Spirit Of Duke (Spartacus)

Jazz firebrand Tommy Smith first appeared on the SAY Award longlist in 2012 with his wayfaring solo LP, Karma. He returns his Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, who re-animate the Duke Ellington canon on a spontaneous (yet meticulously stage-crafted) live run-through of favourites and surprises.

Steve Mason- Web

Steve Mason – Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time (Domino)

A socially-charged outing from former Beta Band trailblazer Steve Mason, Monkey Minds… sees the Fife-via-London electro-folk polemicist embrace themes ranging from social (in)justice and protest, to (black) affairs of the heart on swoon-inducing psych-pop serenade, A Lot Of Love.

Related articles:
Steve Mason interview, The Herald

The Pastels Slow Summits (Web)

The Pastels – Slow Summits (Domino)

The first full-length album in 16 years from Glasgow’s beloved indie linchpins, Slow Summits lives up to its name, and then some: it’s a wonderful, unhurried compendium of elevating chamber-pop and hazy, airborne arias. But don’t be misled by its modest charms: The Pastels have been an influential force for 30 years, and our musical landscape would be less colourful without them.

Related articles:
Stephen Pastel SAY Award interview, The Herald


Young Fathers – Tape Two (Anticon)

Signed to celebrated US rap enclave Anticon, Edinburgh-based hip-hop trio Young Fathers have gradually evolved from party-rap livewires to global brooding-pop concerns, thanks to a series of increasingly potent releases – including Tape Two and its truly wondrous dirge-soul opener, I Heard.

Related articles:
Interview – Young Fathers, The Herald


The Scottish Album of the Year Award is developed by the Scottish Music Industry Association. The SAY Award shortlist is announced on May 29 – PUBLIC VOTING IS OPEN UNTIL MIDNIGHT ON WEDNESDAY MAY 28 HERE.

Related articles:
The Scottish Album of the Year Award, 2013 – The Herald (plus interviews, reviews etc)
The Scottish Album of the Year Award, 2012 – The Herald (plus interviews, reviews etc)

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Album review: The Phantom Band, Strange Friend (Chemikal Underground)


An edited version of this review originally ran in The List Magazine, May 2014.

(Four stars)

Who’d live in a world like this? A democratic world, that is, that’s cast in darkness, fuelled by spuds, roamed by statuesque women and barefoot hominids; that’s over-hot and groove-fixated, with a wind that cries the lot of it. One look (or listen) through the wormhole says it can only be The Phantom Band: our six strange (invisible) friends from Scotland-via-Saturn’s rings.

The stellar third long-player from our Glasgow-based prog-pop diabolists maps out, explores and downright rules across a motley realm of far-flung deserts (‘Atacama’) and archipelagos (‘Galapagos’) – with a drum-scorched kraut-folk culinary landmark here (‘Clapshot’) and an industrial electro summit there (‘Doom Patrol’).

Fans of the clanging motorik wig-outs that underscored debut Checkmate Savage (2009) will fall heavy for ‘Sweatbox’ and the robo-bone rattling ‘Galapagos’, while lovers of the twisted machine-melodies that enlightened 2011’s The Wants will find much to admire in kosmische raga ‘The Wind That Cried The World’, arcane lullaby ‘Atacama’ and the rangy, rubbery groove on ‘Women of Ghent’.

Oh, their sonic virtues are myriad – from the retro tech-swagger of ‘The Wind That Cried The World’, to the chiming mirage of ‘(Invisible) Friends’ – but perhaps their biggest charm lies in their circuitous narratives, which pull the (kaftan) rug from under you: the 80s-metal beast that lopes into ‘Doom Patrol'; the slow-burning woodwind fanfares on the rapturous ‘No Shoes Blues’.

It is that deceptively simple ballad that illustrates how much magic(k) the Scottische-pop sextet summon with what they’ve got: the woozy, weird keyboard motifs, the wounded growl of Rick ‘Redbeard’ Anthony’s voice, the howling guitar lines, the prime-evil beats. The Phantom Band are, at heart, a rock group in the most inventive sense – like The Beatles, Can, Pink Floyd – and the world they inhabit is strange, congenial and often beautiful. Wish you were here.

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Interview: Aidan Moffat and Paul Fegan


(Photograph by Neale Smith)

This interview originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on April 10, 2014.

Lately, Aidan Moffat has remodelled himself as Tom Weir. The Scottish cult-pop makar has swapped indie garb for fair-isle threads as part of Where You’re Meant To Be – a road trip, tour and ensuing film, conceived in cahoots with film-maker Paul Fegan, which kicks off with a series of ceilidh-style gigs round the country later this month.

Moffat will debut a new body of work inspired by our oral tradition, backed by James Graham (The Twilight Sad), Jenny Reeve (Bdy_Prts) and Stevie Jones (Alasdair Roberts). The gatherings span Port Ness Social Club, Faslane Peace Camp, Glasgow Barrowland and beyond, and will welcome local folk-singers and storytellers – plus unplugged-punk poet Wounded Knee, championship bothy balladeers Geordie Murison and Joe Aitken, and travelling folk torch-bearer Sheila Stewart.

Footage from the shows, the trips, and the characters they meet en route will provide the groundwork for a feature-length film, directed by Fegan (ere of Triptych festival), to be premiered after the close of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games in late August.

Where You’re Meant To Be is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme, and its exploration of Scottish folklore and identity resonates as the independence referendum approaches – but the project’s roots go deeper than that. “I had the idea to do a ceilidh-style gig with spoken word stuff years ago, and I asked Paul to promote it,” Moffat recalls. “Then we forgot all about it for ages – I did the album with Bill [Wells, which bagged 2012's Scottish Album of the Year Award] and there just wasn’t the time.

“When I had some free time, and started thinking about it again, we were in the pub with Stewart Henderson [of Moffat's label, Chemikal Underground] and he came up with the idea of trying to get funding. So it went from talk of doing a few gigs, to re-writing an album’s worth of songs, making a film and touring all over the shop. It’s become this massive cultural event,” Moffat says with a laugh. It’s popular too: free tickets for the eight-date tour were snapped up in a couple of hours.

Where You’re Meant To Be transcends time, and current events, in many ways – it excavates and updates forgotten songs, celebrates traditions before they are lost (Sheila Stewart is the sole surviving speaker of local travellers’ language, Perthshire Cant), and looks set to uncover many a yarn on its 21st century journey. “There’s lots of stories too,” says Fegan, who received numerous awards for his 2012 short documentary, Pouters. “Whether they’re about Faslane protesters, or a crofter in Skye swimming his cattle, or the Loch Ness monster, we want to display these stories, and characters, and characteristics … of contemporary Scotland.”

Moffat’s trad-folk reworkings are similarly forward-looking. “There’s a song I do called The City Tonight, which takes its melody from Bonnie Glenshee, but I didn’t like the words,” he says. “In Bonnie Glenshee, there’s a man and a woman breaking up underneath the beautiful scenery of the hills, and I just thought, ‘I feel the same way about the city’ – the Kingston Bridge at half five in the morning is as exciting to me as any hill. So I transposed the action to the city.”

The project’s title track, Where You’re Meant To Be, locates its protagonist in Moffat’s beloved Glasgow local, Nice N Sleazy. The narrative also features WYMTB player James Graham (“he’s the Jim in the song,” says Moffat), but the synchronicity doesn’t end there: its melody was inspired by a ballad sung by Sheila Stewart’s mother, Belle (of Blairgowrie’s “Travelling Stewarts”).

“It was actually Belle Stewart who sparked this whole idea,” says Moffat. “I was listening to an album of her [unaccompanied] stuff, and that’s when I started to think more about the storytelling thing, because that’s what her songs do. You have to concentrate. And I like the challenge of it – trying to hold people’s attention when there’s nothing else is quite difficult,” he says. “It’s like stand-up comedy in a way, which is kind of what the live set’s turned out like. Most of these old traditional songs are hilarious.”

Despite the (erroneous) “miserabilist” tag that dogged his former band Arab Strap, Moffat’s approach to Where You’re Meant To Be has been anything but. “I knew there was going to be a film of this, a portrayal of Scotland, before I wrote a lot of the songs, and I thought, ‘I don’t want Scotland to be seen as this miserable place’,” he offers. “I’m sick of Scotland being portrayed as a cesspit of violence and bigotry – especially now, in this year, when we’re supposed to be discussing its future. I want to be seen having a laugh. I mean, it can be a dark, miserable place – look at those clouds today – but it’s a beautiful country. And it’s a hilarious country.”

Fegan shares Moffat’s outlook and aesthetic, and hopes the film will find its own path around the tour; that the tales will tell themselves. “Because we’re not coming from a conventional film background in terms of approach, any aesthetic element has to work around a set schedule,” he offers. “We’re not only going to shoot on sunny days, or wet days – we need to shoot with what we get. It’s possible that all we’ll get is rain shots, but that can be quite beautiful too.

“For me, the focus is on getting as much material out of the tour as possible,” continues Fegan. “We’re trying to avoid making a fly-on-the-wall rock-doc, so it’s finding a balance between Aidan, and his process, and the picture of Scotland he’s taken and reinterpreted. A lot of the characters in the film will reflect an older part of Scotland and those traditions. It’s not going to be a wild road movie.”

So there won’t be any filmic shots of Aidan flashing his bum out the car window? “Oh, that might happen,” deadpans Moffat. “In fact, I’d say that’s quite likely.”

Where You’re Meant To Be starts in Port of Ness Social Club, Lewis, on April 19, then tours.

Related articles: UFO spotting with Aidan Moffat, The Quietus.

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