Interview: Emma Pollock

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Arts (Scotland) on January 23, 2016…

Emma Pollock has long written songs for wonders that we cannot touch.

She serenaded chemical reactions – light and heat; smoke and sound – on her 2007 solo debut, Watch The Fireworks. She sang torch-songs stoked by probability theory for 2010’s The Law of Large Numbers. And now Pollock – former member of Mercury-nominees The Delgados, co-founder of Scotland’s revolutionary indie label Chemikal Underground, and one of our most vital, poetic and singular voices – has just released a career-high, thanks to In Search Of Harperfield. It’s a record that explores and excavates secrets and identity; life and loss; memories, ghosts and shadows that we cannot quite define. And cannot hold.

It is a remarkable, beautiful album that conjures jazz, pop, punk, rock, chanson and Laurel Canyon: an inventive, physical force of nature that builds a world from stories and characters – real and imagined – then swoops and soars around it. It sings of wolves and vacant stares, of monsters in the park and betrayal, of dark skies and clemency and alabaster.

Its roots are in Pollock’s family landscape. The titular Harperfield is a house that her parents inhabited before she was born; that looms large in her mind, despite having never lived there herself. And throughout, you can discern the echoes of parenthood (Pollock has a teenage son), of a parent lost (her mother died last year), and of the hard-won life of another (her father has been seriously ill). Its secrets, too, are ground(ed) in ancestry. “They destroyed my mum,” says Pollock.

You might notice that her surname is turned upside down on the album cover. And little wonder, given the record’s eddying sense of reflection, and its upending of roles and identities. Lives and bonds are frayed, untethered, uprooted. Buried. The sun comes up.

Emma Pollock grew up in Castle Douglas, played the violin, loved music, but never played in bands at school. Nonetheless, her teacher, Mr Davidson, chalked up her vocal talent. “He told my mum and dad one parents’ night that I could be a folk singer – and I was like, folk? How?” she recalls with a laugh. Folk was about the only thing she didn’t listen to at home. “My mum and dad were huge trad jazz fans, my mum loved Ry Cooder – that was my first concert – and Bonnie Raitt. Along with Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell, I listened to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Erasure, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode. I have a pop heart.

“One of the things that really switched me on was New Order,” she continues, and lists their charms, which bear a distinct kinship to her own. “Their melodic sensibility. The coolness of their presentation and production, but the warmth of the pop. And the voice – there’s a subversion going on with New Order,” she says. “You take pop music, and then you sing with that almost deadpan delivery. [Bernard Sumner’s] been slagged off for not being able to sing, but that’s what’s interesting about a vocal performance: it doesn’t have to be technically good. It’s never really been about that. That’s why I think the X Factor is so, so reprehensible. Because they miss the very thing that gives a vocal its essential nature. And that is character.”

Pollock’s own voice calls to mind Dusty Springfield and Chrissie Hynde, but sounds like no-one else. It’s effortless, languorous even, yet thrilling. “I try to stick with that understated thing,” she says, and it is hard to overstate how very good she is at that. Yet it was a city, not her voice, that compelled her to make music. “Glasgow was the force,” she says over soup and loud tunes in the CCA. “There was just so much going on. I came to study physics, then I met Paul [Savage, her husband, producer and former Delgado] at university, and realised there was loads of music around here. I started engaging with other bands. I started writing too. And I gave Paul some songs.”

They went on to form alt-rock heartbreakers The Delgados with friends Stewart Henderson and Alun Woodward, and soon thereafter, in 1995, the band launched Chemikal Underground – a label that released early records by Mogwai, Arab Strap and Bis, as well as their own, and which thrives to this day with acts like FOUND, Miaoux Miaoux, RM Hubbert, Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat. The label’s Chem19 Studios, run by Savage, also bears noting: it’s been responsible for records from King Creosote, Franz Ferdinand, Deacon Blue and Calvin Harris. Our musical landscape, it’s fair to say, would be considerably more barren without The Delgados, who split amicably in 2005. There’s a resonant line on chamber-pop aria, Dark Skies, where Pollock sings, “They gave us a stage, to write our own page of history”. And so they did.

There are myriad histories on In Search Of Harperfield, which also ruminates on the people our parents might have been before we were born. Pollock’s father played clarinet, and loved to work the land (that’s him on the album cover). Her mother could clock a pop hit at fifty paces. “She told me the Bangles’ Eternal Flame was going to be a Number One the first time she heard it,” Pollock smiles. “She was amazing.” Her mother died in February last year, on the same day as Pollock’s maternal grandmother, and one often seeks – or offers – solace in such uncanny patterns when life, and death, throws them at us. But as the album’s blind-siding opener, Cannot Keep A Secret, intimates, there’s a great deal more to the story than that.

“My mum was born out of wedlock to an Irish girl in 1937,” Pollock offers. “My gran lived in Donegal, and when she got pregnant, she was dispatched to Glasgow. She had the baby, and there was a fairly forced adoption policy, so my mum was taken home by a cleaner of the hospital – kind of unofficially – and raised in Stobhill.

“My gran moved to London, she was a bit of a wild child – she knew Kenny Everett, she ran flats and a hotel,” she continues. “My mum and gran never really had a great relationship, so I didn’t see my family in Donegal much.” There are three sisters referenced in Cannot Keep A Secret, who knew nothing of Pollock’s mother, and vice versa, until two years before she died. “I’ve got three aunties in their sixties I didn’t know about – and all because of ‘The family shame’”, she says. “It destroyed my mum, that whole thing. Destroyed her. And it’s very common. That destruction of families. Horrendously common.”

Despite such devastation, In Search of Harperfield is not an angry album. And nor is it all about Pollock and kindred secrets and ties. “Not at all – a lot of it’s just daydreaming and exploration of character,” she says. “Quite a few songs seem to be concerned with very old testament ideas – betrayal, retribution, punishment. Maybe I’d been watching too much Game of Thrones,” she laughs.

Pollock’s lyrics are cerebral, ambiguous and articulate, yet never heavy-handed. “I’ve never had any doubt that I want to write lyrics that are slightly too difficult to understand, so that nobody really knows what I’m talking about, but they’re evocative enough for people to get their teeth into,” she says. “They’re to be understood and interpreted in any way the listener chooses. And that’s brilliant. That’s when art permeates people’s lives.”

Was there a particular title, or image, or manifesto, that gave Pollock a feel for the album she wanted to make? “I began to realise that song was the enduring principle,” she reflects. “It didn’t matter what vision we had going into the studio – what we had was the that holy trinity of music: rhythm, melody and harmony. And if ever there’s been a lesson in the simplicity – or complexity – that offers, then this album has been that. It’s got all these disparate elements; all these different ideas and tempos and genres. But at the end of the day, it’s still me, it’s still Paul, it’s still our sensibility as musicians. You have to have faith that there’s a thread. You’ve just got to try and find it.”

Our grabbing hands grab all they can. We grapple in the dark for roots, connections, recollections and humans to wind around ourselves. We get wrapped up in secrets, lives, and loves, and myriad real and imaginary yarns. Sometimes we find magical, abstract things – like beats and words and melodies – that can unravel the world around us. If we’re lucky, those records are liberating and uplifting, and waste nothing. And, on very rare occasions, they light up the sky, they serenade science, they embrace family, landscape, home, pop music and the jurisprudence of large (and small) numbers. This is one of them. Everything counts.

In Search of Harperfield is out via Chemikal Underground on Jan 29. Emma Pollock plays Oran Mor, Glasgow (Celtic Connections), on Jan 29; Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh on March 3; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on March 9.

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From the archives: Donovan interview


This article first appeared in The Herald Arts magazine (Scotland) in May 2015

Donovan and I are holding hands over coffee in the Glasgow sun. We’re sat so close our legs entwine as he sings me a song he once wrote about sunshine, and spins me winding, colourful yarns about post-war Maryhill, transcendental super-vision, Pink Floyd, Billy Connolly, and how he influenced The Beatles.

The 1960s pop visionary blazed a trail for psychedelia, celtic rock and flower power, and inspired bands from Led Zeppelin to Belle and Sebastian. Such righteous feats secured his position at the heart of a canon that sometimes forgets him. Perhaps this is why he’s not slow in reminding us. At one point in our meandering discourse, he catalogues, “The heroic poets, the higher songwriters,” thus: “Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Neil Young. I could go on,” he congenially offers. And so he does.

An interview with Donovan is an audience with Donovan. And this audience with Donovan is intimate indeed.

We meet in a suite in One Devonshire Gardens, a stone’s throw away from Maryhill, where he was born Donovan Leitch in 1946. We sit on sofas across from each other, but he gradually comes around, and pulls an armchair right up beside me. He educates me in the meaning of bliss (via meditation), and rarely seems happier than when he’s recalling the women from his infancy going dancing down the Barrowland. “They’d all be in furs – the mammy, the grannies, the aunties – and full of perfume, with that great red lipstick, and they’d lean down and kiss me as they left,” he says, a glint in his eye. “That was okay you know, being surrounded by seven women all the time.”

Women have had starring roles in Donovan’s songs and mythology since those days of dolled-up, scent-billowing matriarchs. We’ve grown to know and love Jennifer Juniper, Guinevere, Lady Of The Stars, Susan On The West Coast Waiting, Mellow Yellow’s Saffron, and Legend Of A Girl Child Linda, which is one of countless tributes to his enduring muse and partner, Linda Lawrence (when that song was written, she was still the girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones). The dedication in his 2005 autobiography, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, simple reads, “For She…”

Donovan’s patchouli-loaded fables follow suit. He frequently invokes what he calls “The power of the feminine” – from ancient tales of women fighters and prehistoric dominant spirits, to quoting Billie Holiday, saluting Beyonce, and allying his Maryhill roots with Maggie Bell. “It’s all about the goddess, Nicola,” he sagely nods. He counts the chakras on my spine. He shares my cup and eats my biscuit.

It is 50 years since Donovan released his debut single, Catch The Wind. The loved-up folk psalm debuted on the UK singles chart on March 31, 1965 (it peaked at Number 4) – the same week that Bob Dylan, with whom he’d often find himself compared, also made his chart debut with The Times They Are A-Changin’ (it reached Number 9). Half a century on, the erstwhile “British Dylan” is returning with a brand-new single, One English Summer, a hand-selected career retrospective, and a Glasgow date which feels like a timely homecoming for the romantic outsider who has variously dwelt in London, Ireland and on higher planes.

Does he feel at home when he’s back in Glasgow? “It’s scary,” Donovan replies. “Why scary? Well, because my memories of those first ten years of my life when I lived here, in Maryhill and then in St Vincent Street – before we moved to Hertfordshire – were always dark and grey. It was granite stairs and the mammy washing them. It was me getting the polio when I was five. And it was after the war, so the city was bombed out – all the buildings, or a lot of them.”

It’s a curious tale, this story of a sickly boy from post-war Glasgow whose lexicon became uniquely gilded in amber, yellow and gold. Traditionally, Scottish pop artists tend to reflect our gloomier skies – The Blue Nile, Deacon Blue, The Waterboys, Frightened Rabbit (Sing The Greys), Belle and Sebastian (The Blues Are Still Blue) – but Donovan’s work was always illuminated by the sun. And he, in turn, shone a light on life and love: Summer Day Reflection Song, Voyage Into The Golden Screen, Sun. You might wonder how such a bright idiom emerged from illness, rubble and darkness. You might even ask him. But Donovan is not one for direct answers.

He is, however, a consummate storyteller. So after deviations into the history of the British Isles, ages-old tribeswomen fostering offspring, and Glasgow’s unbeatable knack for culture and shipbuilding, Donovan hits on an explanation as to why his music radiated brightness. Art was a beacon. “At first it was quite dark, when I started looked back on Glasgow,” he explains. “But then I remembered the songs that the mammy sang, the aunties sang, the uncles sang. And then I realised that in all that darkness and oppression and poverty – so-called – it wasn’t really dark at all. There was music. There was poetry. There were songs. And that was everything.”

You can trace many of Donovan’s touchstones – folk, jazz, poetry, bohemian romanticism – back to his Glasgow childhood. “Everybody had a way of singing in my family,” he says. “And I don’t just mean folk songs. Mammy sang Frank Sinatra, an auntie sang Nat King Cole. So at the party – in the front room, in St Vincent Street, three floors up, the tram cars coming by – a slightly tipsy relative would be forced onto a chair – ‘Gies yer song!’ – and all the wee boys and girls under the table, with the shandy, would listen.

“Nobody played a musical instrument in Glasgow, except my Uncle Bill,” he continues. “He was a kind of bohemian. He played guitar. He died in a motorbike crash with a girl on the back. Many years later, Billy Connolly said to me, ‘Your uncle was Postie!’ – because he was a post-man, and he was quite well-known in Glasgow. Only later did I think about it and realised, this was the guy, that when I was a kid, must have first sat me in front of a guitar.”

And then there was Donovan’s father. “He’d stand up in the middle of the room, and recite poetry for half an hour,” he recalls. “And now we’re talking about the bardic tradition, and that’s why I am so powerful and skilled in my work – it’s because he taught me, from the age of five. Some of the poetry he’d read would be bawdy. Sexy. Funny,” he says with a laugh. “But other times, he’d read high poetry of noble thoughts. I think that’s where I got the idea that we’ve been here before – that belief in the ancient Irish / Scottish tradition of reincarnation. And that’s what eventually sent me to India. That’s why The Beatles and I became friends.”

Donovan and his enduring sidekick, Gypsy Dave, met The Beatles when they hitch-hiked from Hertfordshire to London in search of Bohemia. He later joined the Fab Four on their infamous 1968 trip to India, whereupon he taught Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison guitar finger picking techniques. Harrison was later quoted as saying, “Donovan is all over The White Album”, and Donovan tells me a story about helping John Lennon write the lyrics for Julia. But I’m slightly distracted because, as he relates this, he reaches across my lap, to my cup and saucer, helps himself to the shortbread that’s on it, gesticulates with the biscuit briefly – the better to delineate John Lennon’s tragic genius – and then he eats it.

“You’ve got to understand,” he continues, chewing. “We so-called spiritual songwriters of the 1960s were very well read. And why we were reading? To find out the answer to the question. When Gypsy Dave and I arrived in the pop community, we added something that they didn’t actually have at the time. Now, that wasn’t just how to make Sergeant Pepper, or how Pink Floyd would make Dark Side of the Moon – although Dave Gilmour’s told me that, and The Beatles have told me that – they said, ‘We watched really closely what you were doing, in Sunshine Superman.’

“So all that stuff is important,” he says. “But we also brought all the poetry my dad had read me, all that Gypsy and I had spoken about, and that added up to reflection, introspection and meditation. We had the idea that inside is the answer; outside is the question. Of course, there are many ways to look inside – a bit of hashish, can do that, or you can go in quick with LSD, mescaline, magic mushrooms – but you have to be careful on certain substances, because you don’t have a guide,” he cautions. “You need a guide. And then you can find the big secret of the whole thing. Which is that there is an invisible world. And everything comes out of that.”

That sounds not unlike music. Donovan nods. “Music is the invisible art. The other arts you can see. But music is magic. You can’t see it, but if it’s made in a certain way, and a human being receives it, it harmonises with the seven parts of the spinal chord, called the chakras [he gestures to them down my back], and then people feel at rest, at ease, and in control of their life.” He muses on the physical effects of music, and counsels me on super-conscious transcendental vision.

If Donovan’s philosophies were progressive, then so too were his tunes. His 1966 LP, Sunshine Superman, is widely credited as the first psychedelic pop album. Did he realise he’d created something so significant at the time? “I was the first one to hear that song,” he replies, with a typically charming non sequitur. “I picked up my guitar one morning in the flat in Maida Vale.” He strums an air guitar and starts singing. “Sunshine came softly a-through my a-window today…” He begins to annotate the lyrics. “That line was actually a statement because the sunshine was coming through, as I sat there,” he says. “’Could have tripped out easy’, meaning, I could have done anything – but I’m focused on this one gal that I really need, and it’ll take time. It’s a love song, but it’s also about many other things.”

Where did his ideas for the album’s far-flung arrangements originate – the exotic baroque flourishes, the sitars? In seeking an answer, I inadvertently upturn my palms, and without breaking eye contact, he takes both my hands. He seems unfazed and I am speechless, so we sit like that for quite some time. “Musically, when I first heard Sunshine Superman, I heard harpsichord,” he offers. Then he launches into a verbal trip that veers across Ravi Shankar, producer Mickie Most, the anatomical kinship between humans and saxophones, and touches down in his Glasgow tenement. “My dad played me jazz,” he reminisces. “Billie Holiday”. He sings Strange Fruit.

Donovan sold millions of records and epitomised hippy-era pop, but he dropped out of music and shrugged off its attendant shackles in the 1970s. If music is magic, the invisible art, then Donovan cast the ultimate spell. He made himself disappear.

There have been rare and welcome revivals since: as the unseen inspiration for Vashti Bunyan’s 2008 film, From Here To Before, which documents her 1969 journey from London to Skye in a horse-drawn cart (her goal was to join Donovan in his Hebridean commune, but he’d left by the time she arrived); as the Happy Mondays’ spirit guide on Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (they quote him at length on a wig-out named after him); and now with a new song and career retrospective.

There’s something heartening in seeing Donovan embrace invisible wonders, half a century since the Glasgow beatnik tried to Catch The Wind. I’m dazed as I leave him there, waving and smiling, bathed in the sunshine. A super man.

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Interview: BMX Bandits

bmx bandits

This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 30, 2015

In 1986, indie magazine Sounds reviewed the debut single from BMX Bandits. “Indigestably sickly sweet,” they wrote of the Bellshill sunshine-pop rabble’s inaugural seven-inch, E102. “These BMX Bandits present the absolute personification of everything that could possibly go wrong with the traditionally sturdy Scottish youth.” And lest such barbs seem ambiguous, they concluded: “This is without doubt the worst single of all time.”

Their affable frontman and chief songwriter Duglas T Stewart was delighted. “I went about with a copy of that review in my pocket, stopping people I only vaguely knew in the street and showing them,” he says with a laugh, over fizzy pop (well, it would be), in Glasgow indie paradise Mono. He’s looking back on 30 years, and counting, of BMX Bandits – the group who put the groove in the Bellshill Beat, who’ve influenced three decades of Scottish indie-pop, and who have two albums planned for next year alone. They took Oasis out on their first UK tour, starred in a lovely documentary by Jim Burns (Serious Drugs), and prompted Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to say, “If I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”.

They’ve crafted some of our brightest, most inventive pop songs, and left unwitting – and unlikely – chaos in their wake.

Indeed, BMX Bandits’ aforementioned calling card – released on Stephen Pastel’s fabled 53rd and 3rd imprint – went on to provoke further consternation when it was debated on BBC Radio 1’s weekly singles review show. “E102 caused an argument between Janice Long, Neil Tennant [Pet Shop Boys] and Nick Heyward [Haircut 100] that lasted over 20 minutes,” Stewart recalls with glee. “Both Neil and Nick were going, ‘This is absolutely awful’, but Janice was the host, and she was a big fan, and she just would not let it go.”

BMX Bandits formed in the aftermath of The Pretty Flowers, but their origins can be traced to Stewart’s high-school pop exploits with a boy in the year below him called Norman Blake. “We’d improvise melodies and lyrics – Duglas would sing and I’d hit margarine tubs with kitchen utensils,” remembers Blake, also of The Pretty Flowers and The Boy Hairdressers, but now perhaps best-known and loved as part of Teenage Fanclub. “We could put together an album a night. The songs were kind of ridiculous but it was a lot of fun, and it was a start,” he says. “Duglas has always been a bit of an eccentric. When everyone else was smoking roll-ups behind the bike shed at school, Duglas would be smoking a pipe and wearing a deerstalker.” He called himself Nancy.

Stewart and Blake were soon joined by another Bellshill ally, Sean Dickson (The Pretty Flowers, The Soup Dragons), and an early incarnation of BMX Bandits was born. “We became this gang of three,” Stewart remembers. “We all had a notion about being dissatisfied with the world that we found ourselves in, and in our own way we refused to be part of it.”

If their modus operandi – kitchen-sink rebellion, creative freedom – sounded punk in spirit if not execution, then so too did their live appearances. “I remember there being something like six shop windows smashed in Motherwell after one BMX bandits gig,” says Stewart. “If you heard that story, you’d think we were playing really aggressive music, but we were singing – you know – [waves hands, Playschool-style] ‘I’m so happy, love has come to town!’ That seemed to really wind people up.”

Bedlam ensued wherever BMX Bandits unleashed their insatiably romantic (albeit bittersweet) songs, as musicians like Jim McCulloch, Joe McAlinden, Francis Macdonald, Finlay MacDonald and Sushil K Dade variously joined the ranks. “I met a guy a few months ago and he told me he saw us years ago in Aberdeen he threw a pint glass at me,” Stewart recalls. “He was really embarrassed about it, but he said he’d never seen men behaving like I did on stage – smiling, waving, playing a kazoo, singing about love and being happy all that – and he was so confused. He didn’t know what else to do.” Laughter, again. “Or someone will go, ‘I saw you play live and you were eating an apple! On stage! I couldn’t believe it!’” he says. “Of course, eating an apple doesn’t sound threatening at all, but in the context of that time, guys in bands tended to be playing out the hedonistic alpha male type, strutting and posturing. It wasn’t that long before us that guys like Orange Juice, The Pastels, The Television Personalities, and Jonathan Richman, started to break that mould, and people found it all weirdly subversive.”

Glasgow’s legendary mid-80s Splash One club – as recently documented in a Dazed film, The Outsiders – also impacted on the Central Belt’s (counter-)cultural imagination, with Primal Scream, Jim Lambie, The Pastels and many more frequenting its dance-floor. “We hit Glasgow at a really good time, and we discovered a whole other bunch of like-minded misfits at Splash One,” Stewart nods. “A lot of people went there and exchanged ideas. And of course then everybody goes off and does their own thing.”

And so they did. “I think people maybe saw BMX Bandits as being indie-pop’s Toy Dolls or something, this kind of novelty comedy band,” Stewart says. “But then they started writing nice things, comparing us to people who weren’t such common reference points for indie guitar pop at that time – Serge Gainsbourg, Brian Wilson. And I think they maybe started to see that our music was – it still is – a combination of humour and pathos. A lot of the time when I’m at my very, very saddest, and closest to walking off the edge of a cliff, I can still see humour in it. That doesn’t mean it’s not painful, but I can usually see the absurdity too. It’s that tragicomic thing, like in Serious Drugs.”

Serious Drugs bagged them a glorious signature song, and a 1990s record deal with indie empire Creation, while BMX Bandits’ anti-macho stance and guitar-pop re-animations of girl-groups, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Chic won them fans in Nirvana and the US rock underground (there’s an enduring kinship between bands like BMX Bandits, Teenage Fanclub and The Vaselines – whose Frances McKee also played in The Pretty Flowers – and the Seattle and Olympia DIY scenes).

Since then, they’ve issue myriad classic, off-kilter pop delights – 2006’s My Chain; 2007’s Bee Stings; 2012’S BMX Bandits In Space – and recent personnel include co-vocalist Chloe Philip (TeenCanteen) and The Pearlfishers’ David Scott. “I always wanted to be in the BMX Bandits,” Scott recalls. “There’s a story I love about Duglas. He attended a guitar group as a kid and he was so bad on guitar that he was eventually demoted to tambourine. But he was so bad on tambourine he was eventually even taken off that,” he says with a laugh. “And yet Duglas is one of the best musicians I’ve met in my life. He’s not shackled by theory, he’s got a great imagination, and he’s got a fantastic non-formal musical language.”

Stewart elaborates. “We’ll be in the recording studio and I’ll say to the band – ‘This is the bit where she’s walking to the wishing well, with her bucket and all of her animal friends are following her!’ – because certain films have their wishing well moment, from Grease to Snow White. And I can say that to David Scott or Stuart Kidd or Jim McCulloch or Francis Macdonald and they’ll say, ‘Okay – got you!’ And they’ll make it work. Being surrounded by people like that is part of my identity, that’s part of being a BMX Bandit. There have been so many members, but that doesn’t mean they’ve ever been interchangeable.”

Norman Blake officially left BMX Bandits in 1991, but he’s been a recurring presence since. “You never really leave the band completely,” offers Blake. “It’s always a fun experience, Duglas isn’t afraid to take risks, and that’s always been quite inspiring to me. His life has been told chronologically through his songs, and he’s very open and frank about his personal life. Not many songwriters are like that.”

Stewart, despite his effervescent, infectious charms, sometimes takes convincing. “In the last little while, I’ve found it harder to know who I am,” Stewart admits. “I’ve struggled a bit with that. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I think I’m becoming more and more like Bagpuss. If I wake up and do BMX Bandits, and I’m in that world with those people, then I know who I am. But a lot of the other time, I feel completely lost. It’s a strange thing, to get to my age, and to not really know what’s going on.”

Perhaps that is just the condition of getting older, though: of realising we know very little, and fear more than ever, where we once felt invincible and knew it all. And Stewart is a man, for all that, who never aspired to be anyone else. “I just always wanted to be the best Duglas that I could be,” smiles the technicolour North Lanarkshire bard, whose life is devoted to sound-tracking the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical things in our grey Scottish days and nights. Wake up, be bright, be golden and light. And oh, hear what he sings.

BMX Bandits play a special 30th Anniversary show at Glasgow CCA on May 14th, 2016.

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Interview: Julia Holter

MAIN PHOTO  - Julia Holter - Photo Credit Tonje Thilesen - DSC04320-300dpi

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in November 2015.

We always speak after the leaves have fallen.

The first time was in 2012, while she was doing her thanksgiving shopping. As she traipsed LA’s supermarket aisles, Californian art-pop diviner Julia Holter ruminated on her second album, Ekstasis (whose avant-lullabies variously touched upon philosophy, classicism and French New Wave cinema) and its predecessor, Tragedy (a conceptual electronic suite that reanimated Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy, Hippolytus). And all this amid chatter of topiary gardens, Decreation by Anne Carson (the poet tutored Holter at the University of Michigan), and that time she interpreted John Cage’s Circus On piece via the conduit of a 1920s cookbook.

The next time we spoke, in Autumn 2013, Holter was orbiting a foreign urban landscape (Copenhagen), recalling the inspiration behind her third album, Loud City Song – an impressionistic re-imagining of Gigi, the 1958 musical rom-com. Her chronicles of the record’s creation were as otherworldly as the album itself, from her supernatural experience on the video shoot for Horns Surrounding Me (which shared a locale with the Silencio scene from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) – “I almost fainted off the balcony”, she recalled – to the artwork’s dim-lit, urban ghost town.

And here we are, talking again as the year turns, against a backdrop of fog and frost and burnished leaves and nights drawn in, which feels a fitting place to be, in light of her exceptional new album. Have You In My Wilderness is a baroque pop masterpiece that variously invokes Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, The Ronettes, and sometime collaborator Linda Perhacs, and exists in a realm beset (and comforted) by clouds and glowering heavens. “It’s impossible to see who I’m waiting for in my raincoat,” she sings on opening harpsichord serenade, Feel You. And then: “You know I love to run away from the sun.” The seasons follow suit.

While Tragedy and Loud City Song had over-arching narratives that largely drew from single existing works, Have You In My Wilderness bears more of a kinship to Ekstasis, in that it’s a collection of songs with varying self-contained stories, and scenes, and characters, therein. Did Holter always have designs on this album being less overtly conceptual? “Yeah, I wanted to make a record like this, that was just a bunch of songs – more like a normal record, I guess,” she quietly laughs. It is anything but that.

At the heart of the album is the swooning choral title track, which explores the wild, possessive throes of love. It was one of the earliest songs written for the record, and came to inform what followed. “Yeah, I wrote that song a long time ago – five years or so ago, maybe four – and the idea behind it felt like it sort of shaped the record,” Holter says. “It’s that idea of [writing] ballads or songs about love that are possessive, that idea of ownership – so Have You In My Wilderness is about this character who’s like, ‘I want to conquer you! I want to take you into my world!’. I mean, I know there are a lot of songs like that, but I wanted to make one also.”

There may be other songs like that, but few of them play out like Gregorian chamber-pop psalms that conjure Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – or, perhaps more likely, David Sylvian and Japan. (“Oh yea, I second that emotion”). Its notion of monomaniacal ardour resonates throughout the album’s fables and protagonists, from the skiffle-blues chanson of Everytime Boots (“Should I be a prouder conqueror?”) to Night Song’s sense of romantic entrapment (“I run from you / Then walk back to you”) and Silhouette’s apparent surrender – or at least, compromise – of self (“I cede all my light and play abandoned fool”).

Two songs preceded Have You In My Wilderness. Sublime pop madrigal Sea Calls Me Home (“Wear the fog, I’ll forget the rules I’ve known”), and swooning piano ballad Betsy on the Roof (“What of this cloud?”) – which Holter describes as being “more of a stream-of-consciousness thing” – both first featured on a live cassette in 2010. Have their album re-workings changed much in terms of style, or arrangement, or even meaning, in their new context? “The songs themselves didn’t change that much form-wise, and the lyrics are the same, so they’re actually quite similar,” she offers. “It’s really just that there’s a band playing, so the musical arrangement is different.

“Those older songs I wrote weren’t necessarily based on stories so much,” she continues. “But I wanted to put them on a record with a bunch of other ballad-type songs that were kind of in that world, [although] the more recent songs are more based on stories.”

And so, among other tales from the more recent offerings, we encounter a mythical Californian outlaw on percussive jazz mantra, Vasquez. “He was a 19th Century bandit – I don’t remember the full story, but [Tiburcio Vásquez] was a wanted man, the cops were after him, the law was after him, they were all chasing him,” she explains. (More obsessive human pursuit; more running.) He hid in rocks that now bear his name. “The rocks are in a state park now, that’s named after Vasquez the bandit,” she says. “That just seemed like an interesting story to play with.”

Lucette Stranded On The Island, meanwhile, is a clattering orchestral hymn inspired by Chance Acquaintances, a story by Parisian novelist Colette, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She also wrote the novella, Gigi, which in turn, of course, inspired Loud City Song. There are such echoes and cycles throughout Holter’s work – a warm and sprawling wilderness in itself.

Her new album is being called her most personal to date, but that’s a relative assertion. Granted, Holter’s vocals and lyrics are more upfront this time around – “I wanted people to be able to hear them, because sometimes people make assumptions about my music that are wrong,” she says – and this gives the impression of it being more direct. But that may well just be a trick of the light.

Holter’s picturesque song-craft and arrangements are meticulous, but her idiom remains abstract: concerned with fluid boundaries; with moons and tides and seas and shores; with experience lived through the seasons and elements. “The sun comes up / Slower than I remember,” she sings on Lucette… as autumn turns to winter. No matter. Her realm of half-remembered yarns and Californian fever dreams is a wonderful place to lose oneself, while the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey.

Related articles:
Julia Holter interview, The List, 2013
Julia Holter interview, The Herald, 2012
Julia Holter Tragedy album review, The List, 2012
Julia Holter Loud City Song album review, The List, 2013

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Interview: The Spook School

spook school

This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in October 2015.

Edinburgh power-pop rabble The Spook School are chronicling the rock ‘n’ roll carnage that beset the making of their second album. “We got a hotel room near our recording studio in Leeds, with four little single beds,” recalls vocalist and guitarist Nye Todd, misty-eyed. “It was really cute. We all watched Harry Potter. But Niall, our drummer, got over-excited. Every night at nine o’clock, he started jumping around the room. It was ridiculous.”

The ensuing Spook School album is ridiculously good, and considerably more raucous than such quaint origins might suggest. True to its title, Try To Be Hopeful, the record’s hurtling indie-punk is optimistic, resilient and joyous: a hyper-melodic DIY blare of Buzzcocks, Rezillos, Violent Femmes and XTC. And it’s important, too. On incendiary opening track, Burn Masculinity, they blast male privilege and the patriarchy, while brilliantly upending conventions of sexuality and gender (“And I’ll never be as strong as my mother will be, it’s just not on the male side / And I’ll never be as sensitive as my brother, it’s just not within me”).

As album salutations go, it’s quite a statement of intent. “We recorded that song first, a month or two before the bulk of the album,” offers Nye’s brother, guitarist and vocalist Adam. “And I think fairly on we were like, ‘It would be nice to have Burn Masculinity first – that way, we can get it over and done with,’” he says with a laugh. The song recently sound-tracked a Rolling Stone magazine documentary on the band, which saw Nye discuss his transgender identity with US trans rocker Laura Jane Grace.

The album’s politicised opening salvo is bookended by an optimistic, gentle sign-off, Try To Be Hopeful, which is also rooted in Nye’s trans identity. “I started testosterone last year, and I thought everything was going to happen really quickly. I thought my voice would change right away, but it didn’t, so I had a few months in between,” he recalls. “When you put everything into something, and you’re like, ‘When I do this thing, everything’s going to change, it’ll be so much better’, and then it’s not what you expect – it’s about that kind of emotion. But I didn’t want to write a depressed song about it. I wanted to write a hopeful song about it. A song with repeated refrains that you can join in with,” he adds with a laugh.

The testosterone started affecting Nye’s voice just before the band went into the studio, as Adam recalls. “The album was recorded over a fairly long time scale, so you can hear Nye’s voice changing over the course of the record – from the first song we recorded, Burn Masculinity, to the last one, Binary,” he says.

The record is direct, infectious, wry and righteous, from the glorious Vicious Machine – a wry falsetto art-punk ode to never knowing what’s going on in someone else’s head – to the life-affirming I Want To Kiss You, whose loved-up euphoria culminates in a somewhat controversial brass wig-out. “I really like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, they’re my favourite band to listen to while I wash the dishes, so I really wanted the end of that song to sound like Dexy’s,” Nye recalls. “But Niall [McCamley], our drummer, didn’t want brass. So there was a long negotiation of me being like, ‘I really want brass at the end of this song!’”

Fanfare warfare notwithstanding, The Spook School are an easy-going, amiable band. The songwriting is split between McCamley, the Todds and bassist and vocalist Anna Cory, and their fired-up live shows are equal parts performance and party. They’re interactive, too: the gender-overthrowing, Joy Division-evoking Binary has already become a clamorous gig favourite, replete with unlikely shout-a-long chorus (“I am bigger than a hexadecimal!”).

It’s also at the heart of the album, Nye suggests. “We had Binary pretty early on,” he recalls. “I could never understand gender when trying to think about it as a choice between ‘men’ and ‘women’. When I discovered the idea of gender as something a lot messier and more nuanced than two categories, something that could be defined according to how people actually wanted to identify and place themselves, things made a lot more sense,” he explains. “I’m so proud and fortunate to know quite a few amazing people who openly identify as non-binary or genderqueer – they exist in the world on their own terms and consistently challenge something that so many people just take as read, that there are men and women and nothing else.”

Binary, as with the rest of the album, is forthright and driven, but never angry. The Spook School’s brand of political punk is tolerant, compassionate and inclusive. “If we sing about things like gender, and identity, perhaps people who wouldn’t usually feel that comfortable at gigs might feel like, ‘Oh, this is my thing, I can go to this,’” offers Adam.

Plus, says Nye, pop can be a vital conduit for shifting perceptions. “It’s a lot less effort for someone to listen to a song,” he says. “Compared to, say – well, for example – when I first joined the department I’m in at work, I was at a meeting early on, and someone was doing a presentation. They were talking about how they were changing this website, and they said, ‘We’ve got this drop-down list that’s currently male or female. But some people have suggested that we maybe have another option.’ And I was just about to go – ‘Yeah! That sounds like a really good idea!’ – but then everybody started laughing. And I was just like, ‘Oh God’”. He puts his head in his hands.

As ever though, Nye looks on the brighter side. “But then, you fast forward three, four months,” he continues. “And somebody else from that same department did a talk on non-binary genders, and being trans-inclusive. That can happen if you’re working with people, and they know you and like you, and they get invested in the things that affect your life. But you can’t get to know every single person in the world. So you might as well just put it in a song,” he smiles. “It’s much easier.”

Nye and Adam have been writing songs together since high school, and their effervescent punk-pop has long explored the vagaries (and expectations) of sexuality and gender. “It’s funny now, looking back on very early songs like Devil of Mine or History, which were written before I came out as trans, or really realised it myself,” Nye offers. “Because those lyrics are quite – you know…” He quotes History. (“I was a boy or so I was told / I was a girl or so I was told / Don’t believe a word you’re told…”)

History and Devil of Mine later featured on The Spook School’s 2013 debut album, Dress Up. “A lot of the lyrics on the rest of that album were me figuring out my identity,” Nye continues. “Whereas this album’s more like, ‘Hey! I’ve got this identity! Don’t you try and stop me!’” he laughs. His brother laughs along. The Spook School could teach us all about boldness, hope, and having fun.

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Interview: FOUND

FOUND cloning pic 1
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in October 2015.

In the beginning, there were five. That was before the robots came. That was before art-pop collective FOUND spawned a cyborg plant orchestra in a hothouse; sired a sentient android band in a wardrobe; built a storytelling robot ensemble whose songs were shaped by mood and environment. And all the while, they made brilliant records, shed human members, and mutated identities, so that the one-time quintet is now a two-piece – Ziggy Campbell and Kev Sim – and they’re staring down the strange dawn of a new LP.

It’s a kosmische, uncanny soundtrack to an imaginary sci-fi film, whose songs and instrumentals invoke Tangerine Dream, library music, retro TV themes, Vangelis, Max Ernst’s alien landscapes, obsession, kissing, brimstone, Carlisle and the apocalypse. It’s the follow-up to FOUND’s stellar Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award nominated Factorycraft, and – in homage to composer Brian Bennett’s same-titled analogue wig-out – it’s called Cloning.

Which is a fitting title for a record that is in itself a replicant. Cloning is the genetically-modified twin of an album that never existed, after Campbell inadvertently consigned the original to a black hole. He shudders at the memory of accidentally wiping their first opus in four years. “I’ve no idea what I did, but I distinctly remember opening up my computer, and there was a big hole where the album should be,” he says. “I realised I’d somehow deleted the entire thing.”

Campbell set about cloning FOUND’s lost album from what he calls “orphan files”, rough mixes and memory. “I managed to re-build it all, but I couldn’t edit some of the tracks, I couldn’t get in about them again,” he says. “In retrospect, I think that’s what’s given this record its weird eerieness: the vocals aren’t mixed as high as they could be, and there’s a lot of effects that I might have changed, but I’m really glad we never polished it up. The record became its own entity. It made its own mind up about how it wanted to sound.”

The tensions (and possibilities) between machine and mankind, between technology and nature, have underpinned the FOUND aesthetic for over a decade – from ingenious collaborations with Professor Simon Kirby and erstwhile member Tommy Perman (Three Pieces’ robot / plant alliance; Cybraphon’s Scottish BAFTA-winning android / wardrobe ensemble; #UNRAVEL’s moody mechanical pop group, as voiced by Aidan Moffat), to Campbell and Sim’s nascent exploits as a two-piece. They’d engage in thrilling sonic duels under their alter-egos: Ziggy as flamenco-wielding casanova Lomond Campbell; Kev as the techno-grinding, SEPA-baiting River of Slime.

Somewhere, along the way, their synthetic / organic rough-and-tumble morphed into a harmonious kraut-folk spectacle, as Campbell and Sim appeared to assimilate each other’s aural traits. Was that a conscious evolution, or a natural consequence of performing together? “I think it probably came from us playing live,” Campbell offers. “Although I do remember there was one point where I asked Kev what he’d been listening to. He’d been buying loads of old Tangerine Dream records, and I’d been buying loads of Vangelis – you can pick up all that stuff for really cheap – so we ended up chatting and I was like, ‘Let’s hear some stuff you’ve been doing’. He played all these mad arpeggio synth things, and I’d pretty much been independently doing exactly the same. We’d been working on that stuff with a view to each of us doing separate albums, but it just made sense to zip it up and present it together, as FOUND.”

FOUND have long revelled in multiple identities, realms and narratives – they’re musicians and an art collective; they’re a duo that sometimes recalibrates, live, into a “sprawling six-piece synth monster”; they’re out-there inventors and home-grown pop engineers. “I think it’s always been in our band ethos to do experimental things, but there’s nothing wrong with pop,” Campbell nods. “Pop is a brilliant format in its own right, so we always try to have a tight, well-structured song in there as well.”

While Factorycraft was a Scottish pop classic, it was also, says Campbell, “A brittle, spidery wire-y guitar album,” which hinted at their new record’s direction in its epic, synth-fuelled swansong, Blendbetter. Did they set out to write the follow-up with an over-arching theme in mind? “Well, we’d been playing around with loads of synths, and it became pretty apparent early on that Cloning could be a concept album,” he says. “I’m not squeamish about calling it a concept album – I think all albums are concept albums in a way – and it started making perfect sense to give it this video nasty, sci-fi, dystopian vibe, because it’s quite a menacing record.

“I tried to build a narrative into it too,” he continues. “So the first track, A Souvenir For Every Hope You Had, is quite poppy, quite optimistic and hopeful, and then it gradually becomes darker and more sinister and disintegrates, so by the time you’re at the last track it fades into this huge reverb. And then the lights go out.”

What also becomes increasingly apparent as the record progresses – or degenerates – is that there’s a very human frailty at the heart of this ominous album. “Yeah, you can do a lot by having an over-arching theme – it’s that classic thing of putting your heart on your sleeve but doing it through characters and stories,” Campbell nods. “And that spurs you on to write more, because you realise that you can talk about relationships and all that stuff, within this apocalyptic framework.”

And so it is that deep-space serenade Hit The Clone Button invokes the hurtling head-rush of eye contact (“Has anyone looked into you the way that I have?” … “Nothing seems to slow down”), while brooding electro-dirge Wheel Out Apocalypse rolls over scorched earth and untold catastrophe, but its widescreen Armageddon belies personal crisis. “Bring me calamity, disaster and tragedy, if there’s no more you and me”, Campbell sings.

Is this actually a record about a man in mortal fear of being dumped?

Campbell laughs. “It’s that thing, you know – ‘Look mate, it’s not the end of the world…’”


Related articles:

FOUND and Aidan Moffat #UNRAVEL interview (The Herald)

FOUND factorycraft review (The List)

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Single / EP reviews: HQFU, The Van T’s, Hector Bizerk, United Fruit, Songs of Separation.

HQFU press pic

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 18, 2015.

As the pop prophet Axl Rose almost said, nothing lasts forever, even cold December rain. But while it pours, let’s stay indoors, with songs to nurse our wrath and keep us warm, courtesy of new singles / EPs from HQFU (pictured), Hector Bizerk, Karine Polwart, United Fruit and The Van T’s.

HQFU is the badass alter-ego of alt-folk musician and visual artist Sarah J Stanley, and her EP, CA$HLE$$ LIP$, is a rapturous electro trip, with hyper-melodies to die (or kill) for. Until now, Stanley has been quietly celebrated for her beatific folk psalms, but with HQFU, she reveals assiduous production chops and a thrilling knack for fusing 90s dance – Inner City, Crystal Waters, Missing-era Everything But The Girl – with machine-pop, R&B, and a poetic vernacular that cuts deep. She meditates on the price of desire on the title track’s righteous techno odyssey (“I pay for your last kiss / I pay with my cashless lips”), and upends spiritual axioms on chiming synth aria Dust and Dirt (“You need dreams and you need hopes / You need faith in God to save your soul / No you don’t”).

Stanley is not alone in bridging folk and electro. Karine Polwart’s terrific last album, Traces, conjured synthesisers and featured Chvrches’ Iain Cook on production duties, but her latest endeavour is more indebted to oral traditions, landscape and nature. Songs of Separation is the product of a week-long collaboration on the Isle of Eigg, and finds Polwart in cahoots with ten female folk musicians – Eliza Carthy among them – who seek to explore notions of togetherness and parting; of the kinships and differences in our musical, cultural and linguistic heritage. An album is due in the new year, but they’ve just released a teaser single, led by a rousing, visceral rendition of Echo Mocks The Corncrake. It is unadorned, evocative, beautiful.

Back in the city, inimitable hip-hop duo Hector Bizerk conclude a brilliant series of poetic, politicised EPs inspired by Glasgow’s coat of arms. While previous instalments have recruited the likes of Liz Lochhead (The Bird That Never Flew), their latest offering – The Tree That Never Grew – sees formidable MC Louie, drummer / producer Audrey Tait, and their exceptional band, join forces with flamenco-punk romeo RM Hubbert and Bella and the Bear’s Lauren Gilmour (on the jaw-dropping, humanitarian title track), and urban-pop livewire Be Charlotte (on music industry-skewing tropical-pop rant, Empty Jackets). Meanwhile, Pronto Mama’s Marc Rooney lends his voice to an exquisite, fired-up epic called They Made A Porno On A Mobile Phone And Everybody Laughed, which is among the most striking, and haunting – and vital – songs Hector Bizerk have recorded to date.

The latest dispatch from Glasgow’s United Fruit is also a career-high: they’ve issued an alt-rock powerhouse in Nightmare / Recovery – an EP that’s as dark, dramatic and resilient as such a title suggests. The lead track’s brainy, brawny punk-rock and swoon-inducing chord progressions are glorious, as is the woozy-axe dreamscape of Cause and Effect, whose shimmering, shoegazey intro gives way to a riled colossal-rock epic that’s redolent of the Manic Street Preachers circa Generation Terrorists.

Searing guitars and melodic punk continue apace on the joyous Laguna Babe EP, from Glasgow grunge-pop harmonists The Van T’s. The title track is nagging and languorous – think Siouxsie, The Breeders, The Bangles – and the gorgeous, sun-bleached indie of standout Growler follows suit. Fronted by twins Chloe and Hannah Van Thompson, the band recently augmented to a four-piece, thanks to bassist Joanne Forbes and sticksman Shaun Hood, a dude from the riot-grrrl school of rock who wears a sun-dress behind his drumkit, come rain or shine (okay, mainly rain).

Related articles: 

Karine Polwart interview, The Herald, September 2012
Hector Bizerk album review (Nobody Seen Nothing), The List, October 2013
Hector Bizerk interview, The Herald, September 2012

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