Interview: Sleater-Kinney


This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland)

Occasionally, something happens that makes you realise that you might be an adult. One such thing is catching yourself making a phone call sat on the hall stairs, so as not to be disturbed by your children, as opposed to fearing your parents might overhear. Another is noting that you have loved US indie-punk heroes Sleater-Kinney for a lifetime; from your teenage years to the present day. The two intersect when you find yourself chatting with the band’s Corin Tucker – or rather, whispering down the phone-line, lest the offspring interrupt. “Oh, I hear you,” says the singer and guitarist, laughing. “I’ve done the same myself.”

Many things have changed since Sleater-Kinney emerged from riot grrrl’s femme-punk underground in 1994. Tucker, singer / guitarist Carrie Brownstein and Quasi drummer Janet Weiss (who joined in 1996) have variously created TV shows (Portlandia) and spin-off groups (Wild Flag, The Corin Tucker Band). Feminism has become a more prevalent subject in pop music dialogue. And Sleater-Kinney have been hailed as “America’s greatest rock band” (Time Magazine) and “The best American punk band ever” (Rolling Stone).

But many things are still the same. Inequality and sexual and domestic abuse are still rife, myriad less privileged or dominant voices in society are still unheard, and these were always issues that Sleater-Kinney sought to address through their music and its characters. Plus, the band still sound like nobody else. Returning with a new album, No Cities To Love, after a nine-year hiatus, they’re as relevant, riled and urgent as ever. It’s a brilliant return to form, and it rightly bagged the trio their first-ever UK Top 40 album last month.

“I know, it’s crazy! It’s amazing,” says Tucker. “It’s just been so overwhelming and rewarding with this record, because we didn’t know what was going to happen, after so long of not being a band. When we decided to write a new album – Carrie and I first started talking about it in late 2011 – we had to reconnect with being a band again. We had to see if we felt like we still had something to say. And we did.” Or, as they holler in disco-punk anthem Surface Envy, “We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear.”

The tale of Sleater-Kinney’s glorious rebound began last Autumn, when they released a vital, career-spanning remastered box set, Start Together. The endeavour was spearheaded by Tucker – did she learn new things about the songs, or band, in the process of re-inhabiting these records?

“Yeah, I thought that some of the old songs were just hilarious,” she offers. Any in particular? Tucker laughs. “I think Sold Out, from our first album [1995’s Sleater-Kinney], is pretty outrageous – just the persona, and the sexual references. We were outlandish in our characters and voices and everything that we were doing, and I think that’s great,” she says. “When you look at all of the music, you can so clearly hear the struggle of us trying to figure it all out: who are we, who do we want to be, where do we want to go? How do we deal with society’s expectations, how do we destroy them, how do we reinvent ourselves? Looking back, we were struggling with all these different issues. So I have an affection for everything that we’ve done in different ways.”

Start Together consolidated Sleater-Kinney’s rightful place – centre-stage – in the punk-rock canon. But that’s not all. There was also a brand new single hiding in plain sight within the vinyl box set. A seven-inch white label bore the title Bury Our Friends along with an enigmatic series of digits – 1/20/15 – which transpired to be the US release date of a new album (their first since 2006’s The Woods). It was recorded in secret last year. The ensuing online excitement was clamorous.

Bury Our Friends is a furious, joyous call-to-arms – fighting fit and rising from the underground, which is a recurring scenario on the new album. (“Exhume our idols!”) It provided the perfect comeback kick-off. “Yeah, Bury Our Friends was actually the last song we did, but it really became this fiery kind of mission statement, of how to reinvent the band, and why we were doing what we were doing,” Tucker says. “Because we wanted to do something new with this record. We wanted to reinvent ourselves in the present.”

Was there a particular moment, or song, during writing, where they realised the new material was going to work; that their fire was far from out? “I think we had a piece of the song No Cities To Love – maybe just the verse – and I thought it was great and really interesting. I loved it,” Tucker recalls. “But it took us a long time to find the right chorus, and that was typical of the process. We’d find part of a song and then we just had to keep working and working until we found the rest of it.”

No Cities To Love is a gorgeous post-punk chorale, all trademark serpentine guitars, interwoven vocals and formidable drums. Its lyrics are variously transcendent (“My body is a souvenir”), restless (“A life in search of power”) and reinforced by a sense of community (“It’s not the weather, it’s the people we love”). Are the band still roused by the same concerns and frustrations that drove them two decades ago?

“Yeah, absolutely,” Tucker nods. “I think we’re always trying to reach a sense of a larger picture, of what the society looks like, from our point of view. And I think that there’s always that sense of looking at where we’re at, where we’ve come from, and where we need to go. What will happen if we don’t call out some of the things that we see? To me, that was, and is, rock ‘n’ roll. It’s people who have something to say, and who’re not just angry for their own personal frustrations. It’s more about a collective relationship between our selves and our fans. I feel that more than ever.”

Tucker views her mythological riot grrrl status in similarly communal terms (she played in Heavens to Betsy; Brownstein was in Excuse 17). “I feel like I’ve been part of a movement, of a group of people, a group of women, who were trying to raise awareness and work together,” she says of the early-90s DIY revolution that included Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Huggy Bear. “And maybe that work has the most impact when you view all of the bands, and all of the things we wrote about, together. Then it can really have a sense of force for people.”

True to this, No Cities To Love is galvanised by a collective spirit, from Surface Envy’s battle-cry (“Only together can we break the rules”), to Price Tag’s diatribe against commerce and exploitation (“It’s 9am, we must clock in, the system waits for us”). The latter song opens the new album, and its theme resurfaces in sublime closing track, Fade. “Oh, what a price that we paid,” they lament in unison, on the remarkable conclusion of a thrilling comeback album. When they sing its final words – “The end” – it sounds like anything but that.

No Cities To Love is out now via Sub Pop. Sleater-Kinney play Glasgow 02ABC on March 25 – there’s an official aftershow at ABC2, hosted by the ever-righteous TYCI.

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Live Review, Neneh Cherry (Glasgow SWG3)

neneh cherry

This review originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland)

Neneh Cherry

SWG3, Glasgow

January 30

(Five Stars)

What a difference a year makes. Last February, Neneh Cherry released Blank Project, her first solo album in almost two decades, and a stark record in title and in form that meditated on grief, love and loss.

Twelve months on, that LP’s dark and minimalist songs came brightly to life at this rare Glasgow show. The introspective, lost and disembodied became bolshy, animated and joyous, in no small part thanks to the live drums and electronica of Cherry’s backing duo RocketNumberNine, the industrial-tech overlords with whom she collaborated on Blank Project (alongside producer Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet).

Cherry has enlivened myriad musical guises since her days in Rip, Rig and Panic – stamping out the boundaries of jazz and punk, pop and rap, perpetually kicking off in unexplored sonic realms – but her on-stage persona is hearteningly consistent.

She remains as effervescent, magnetic and brassy as the pop star who hollered 1989’s Buffalo Stance, a song that was reinvented for a rapturous encore in Glasgow, all thundering drums and plunging bass and the ghosts of chart-topping melodies past. 1989’s Manchild was similarly re-tooled, but the set was largely focused on Blank Project, with highlights including Cynical, Dossier and the title track, whose renderings were variously depth-charged, banging and delirious.

Weightless was anything but, Everything was exactly that, Out Of The Black’s cautious optimism was a revelation, and the entire show had the sold-out crowd beaming, as women yelled thanks for a brilliant role model, and men high-fived thin air while hugging each other, and Cherry thrilled in a kilt, medallion, regulation box-fresh trainers, a customised neon Save The NHS t-shirt, her grin like a beacon. She lights up the dark.


Related articles: Neneh Cherry interview (The Herald, January 2015)

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Interview: Neneh Cherry

neneh 2

This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland), under the headline LATEST ALBUM A MAGICAL JOURNEY WITH THE ENCHANTING MS CHERRY…

The intrepid journalist is always alert. Ears are primed for revelations; emotions swapped for stoicism; unblinking eyes are ever-seeking, ever-scanning, never admiring. But if that journalist’s youth was defined by Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance (“wearing padded bras, sucking beer through straws”), then all objectivity is floored when Cherry is on the phone. It will become a challenge to focus on the task in hand – to maintain composure and converse – rather than, say, fanatically screaming. And while transcribing the ensuing discourse, said correspondent may find herself re-playing Cherry’s warm farewell – “Take care, my darling!” – countless times.

Cherry has been a singing, rapping, boundary-trashing tour-de-force for over three decades. She was a fleeting member of The Slits; joined ex-members of The Pop Group to form jazz-punk insurgents Rip, Rig and Panic; and was later infamously spotted “hanging with The Wild Bunch”, Bristol’s counter-cultural 80s crew, which counted her partner Cameron McVey and Massive Attack among its number. (The band would later record their seminal Blue Lines album in McVey and Cherry’s home, and credit her with galvanising them into making the record in the first place).

If Cherry’s solo calling card, Buffalo Stance, and its attendant album, Raw Like Sushi (1989), ushered hip-hop into the pop mainstream, then her 1994 duet with Youssou N’Dour pulled another blinder: 7 Seconds brought a whole new language (Senegalese Wolof) into the UK charts. In 2014, she released Blank Project, her first solo album in 18 years, but she’s never been far from our hearts, thanks to several excellent collaborations, not least 2012’s alliance with Swedish jazz noiseniks The Thing.

Although billed as a solo LP, Blank Project was recorded in cahoots with electronic alchemist Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), and fraternal tech-duo RocketNumberNine, the latter of whom will back Cherry at a very rare Glasgow date next week. It’s an aptly-titled record: a futuristic vista of avant-pop, beat poetry, free-jazz and minimalist electronica that variously utilises silence as an instrument, salvation, weapon, and conduit for personal loss. As ever in Cherry’s realm, it breaks new ground while furthering her motley pop continuum: once, Buffalo Stance’s brassy opening lines echoed Rip Rig and Panic’s Keep The Sharks From Your Heart; now Blank Project’s gentle opener, Across The Water, conjures her 1989 hit, Manchild.

“Yeah, for better or worse, you can’t escape yourself,” Cherry offers, with a cackle and a cough. “You can push the boat out, and try to challenge yourself, or say something in a different way, but there is a thread – it’s all connected. Sometimes it’s conscious, and sometimes it’s not. It’s been really interesting on Blank Project, because I’ve almost come full circle – it feels like I’m working in a similar way to how I started, with Rip, Rig and Panic,” she says. “I think I was able to put myself into a more spontaneous head-space for Blank Project because of how we did things back then. I love how these things come around.”

Blank Project’s roots lie in her previous endeavours, too: she teamed up with RocketNumberNine after The Thing (themselves named after a track by her stepfather, Don Cherry) were unavailable to perform with her at an awards ceremony. And she’d been eyeing up Kieran Hebden’s uncanny production chops for years.“Kieran’s a kind of wholesome minimalist,” Cherry says. “He’s got a very clarified way of looking at things – he’s super-intellectual and concise, but he’s also really soulful, and he has this ability to keep his eye on the heart of the matter. He’s pragmatic and calm and I think that helped really disarm us; helped us just receive the vibes, and be in the moment, so we could improvise. And that was really important,” she continues, “because we only had five days recording together. But, you know, that was enough. Let less be more. It means the record has this bareness, but it’s also quite rough-neck.

“And the chemistry is so important,” Cherry continues. “It’s about the people, and the energy, and that combination,” she states. “It’s science, isn’t it?” Maybe. Some of us think it is magic. “Oh yeah, once you’ve got the science, then the magic can happen…”

Blank Project is a magical album – from the haunted melancholy of Out of the Black (a duet with fellow Swedish pop radical Robyn), through the dystopian space-pop of Cynical, to the disembodied opening track, Across The Water – a song which distils and introduces the album, despite having been the last song written, and even then, it happened “by accident”. It is hard to imagine the record without it. “Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about that, it’s like organised chaos,” she says. “When we eventually did that track, it was shouting out to be at the beginning, but there’s no way we could have known that at the start.”

The accidental lives of a song are fascinating, and they’re not easy to predict. Buffalo Stance is a case in point: it was originally the b-side to a 1986 single by Morgan-McVey, (the McVey, of course, being Cameron), which was then entitled Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch, and featured Cherry as guest MC. And that would have been the end of that, had Tim Simenon from Bomb The Bass not fallen for the song, and reworked it as 20th Century pop classic. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” says Cherry. “Imagine, if Tim hadn’t heard it, or hadn’t felt compelled to re-make it. It was never in my head that I’d ever go back and re-record that song. And yet somehow it became the leader in the pack.” As if by magic.

Neneh Cherry (backed by RocketNumberNine) plays Glasgow SWG3 on January 30.

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Interview: Jim White and George Xylouris (Xylouris White)

XW by Manolis Mathioudakis

This Article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on November 25, 2014.

There is a rumour that drummer Jim White has been attending Greek dance lessons. “I read that too, but it’s not true – I haven’t been learning any dances,” says the wild-haired, preternatural sticksman who has played with PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bonnie Prince Billy, and who co-helms instrumental rock diviners the Dirty Three.

The Australian percussionist’s latest endeavour sees White join forces with Cretan lute visionary George Xylouris for a visceral, boundary-trashing trip that transcends language, place and time. They call themselves Xylouris White, and they variously summon free-jazz, avant-rock and ages-old Greek folk traditions, as evinced on their excellent debut, Goats, which topped the Billboard World Albums chart last month.

White’s immersion in Greek folk dancing, according to said erroneous rumour, was a bid to physically internalise the rhythms of traditional Cretan music. But he didn’t need to dance for that. His intuitive, thrilling alliance with the wayfaring lute virtuoso sees both men inhabit and enliven each other’s musical realms, visions and idioms – Xylouris’ virtuosic grasp of ancient Greek culture; White’s dexterous, esoteric take on improvisation and avant-folk – and they map out something uniquely expressive, rugged and beautiful along the way.

That said, it’s slightly disappointing that we won’t witness the swaggering White cut some archaic Greek dance shapes when they play in Glasgow this week. “Oh, we can say it anyway if you like,” White suggests with a laugh. “Say I wanted to learn the dances. Say I’m trying.”

The duo’s alliance was bolstered by hardcore-punk icon Guy Picciotto, who produced their album. What impact did the Fugazi livewire have on their Xylouris White collaboration? “I think he focused us,” says White. “And he was always just really supportive of it. He was there when we played our first show in America. It was funny because I don’t think he realised it was our first show. I kind of forgot it was too, actually.” Picciotto has since said one track on the album, Psarandonis Syrto – inspired by an old melody from Xylouris’ father – is one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever been involved with.

And what of the record’s titular Goats? Are they mythological, literal, or other? “George thinks the title’s symbolic,” says White. “I think it’s literal. But George – you think it’s an analogy, don’t you?”

The equally unruly-maned Xylouris dances into view on our Skype conversation. “Yes, I compare Goats to our past, our lives. We are here and there, in the world, jumping around, like goats,” he muses. “And you could say our music’s got that goat-ish rhythm – music which is made roughly, like it’s on the rocks. Rocky. And at the same time, the sound of the lute, and the drumming, that makes me think of goats. I can hear and see the goats. Or something like that,” he says with a laugh. White laughs along.

Their easy camaraderie is evident on camera, as they clamber in and out of view all over the Skype screen, like a smiling, shock-haired kaleidoscope. They share sentences, jokes and half-philosophies, and occasionally translate for each other. It’s testament to a friendship and creative relationship that spans decades.

“We met many years ago in Melbourne,” White recalls. “Twenty-five years ago maybe. George came to Australia on tour with his father [Greek music legend Antonis “Psarantonis” Xylouris] and he ended up staying in Melbourne. This was a few years before the Dirty Three started, and I’d go and see George play, and see [his group], Xylouris Ensemble play, and he’d come and see my old band, Venom P Stinger,” he says.

“We eventually started hanging out,” White continues. Soon thereafter, he formed the Dirty Three with Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and Venom P Stinger’s Mick Turner. “When the Dirty Three started, we were playing in small bars around Melbourne, and we invited George to come and play with us. I think that was his first experience playing with a rock band, or doing a louder thing, is that right George?”

Xylouris nods. “I had lots of experience of playing, because in Crete we play outdoors, at big fiestas, in villages, all summer long, almost all night long,” he says. “But it was a new thing for me to play with a band like the Dirty Three because, you know, they were – unique. They’re very, very free and comfortable to play with. I thought that every time I played with them.”

Given their history, would it be fair to say that both men had an impact on each other’s work before their current Xylouris White union; that in some ways, Xylouris influenced the Dirty Three, and vice versa? “I do think so, maybe not in a direct way, but it must have done,” says White. “As soon as we started playing together, even back then, it always felt natural, to me. It still does.”

“Yes,” agrees Xylouris. “Somehow we made our sound together, at the same time, because Jim was listening to Cretan music, Xylouris Ensemble, my father’s music – and I was listening to Jim’s bands, going to where he was playing. Our music has become all of that. It pulls many things together,” he offers. “I have lots of connections with Jim, it’s almost like we are from the same village. That’s how I feel about it. That’s how I connect with him musically.”

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Look To The Future: Scottish Pop / Rock Highlights, 2015

ela orleans

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

If the early days of 2015 feel grey and humdrum, it’s little wonder: Back To The Future Part II promised we’d have flying cars and neon hover-boards by now. The 1980s sci-fi escapade also predicted invisible dog-walkers, food hydrators and talking clothes, but thus far, in Stirling, at least, there has been nary a sign of those. There is solace, however – as ever – in Scottish pop, whose 2015 looks magnesium-bright, wildly inventive, and capable of time travel, cosmic voyaging and global adventure.

It bears noting that 2014 made for an excellent springboard: last year was a landmark for Scottish independent music, as local grassroots acts came of age and conquered the UK pop charts. Mogwai bagged their first-ever Top 10 with Rave Tapes; Chvrches’ debut, The Bones Of What You Believe shipped Gold; King Creosote bothered the Top 20; The Twilight Sad threatened the Top 40; and Young Fathers scooped the double, winning both the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award and then the Mercury Prize. And that’s not to mention excellent, high-charting albums from big-hitters like Deacon Blue and Simple Minds.

This year kicks off with long-awaited returns from indie champions Belle and Sebastian, who release a disco-clad new album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (they play Glasgow Hydro with the Scottish Festival Orchestra on May 22), and the rollicking, soul-fried new long-player from The Waterboys, entitled Modern Blues, which features Muscle Shoals legend David Hood among its stellar cast (they play Aberdeen Music Hall on November 9, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on November 10 and Glasgow Barrowland on November 11).

Alt-rock swashbucklers Idlewild also make a welcome comeback in 2015 with their eighth album, Everything Ever Written, which deftly interweaves Hebridean psychedelia, Scottish folk and Americana, and is released on February 16 (they play Glasgow 02ABC on March 7 and 8). And here’s hoping that rumours of new albums from Franz Ferdinand (in tandem with art-punk dissidents Sparks), Emma Pollock, Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat, FOUND, Trembling Bells, Paul Vickers and the Leg, Kid Canaveral and Teenage Fanclub also come to pass.

We’re set for a thrilling, retro-futurist Spring, thanks to electo-rock leviathans Errors, who’re primed to pull a(nother) blinder with their imminent fourth studio album, Lease of Life. The record’s choral title track, a homage to the arpeggiated synth, is variously embellished with cosmic-ray vibes, baroque chimes and primal / intergalactic beats. Plus, Errors remain the group most likely to perform as holograms: even Marty McFly would be impressed by that. Lease of Life is released in March via Rock Action (they play Aberdeen Lemon Tree on April 10 and Glasgow Art School on April 11), and the band’s label bosses, Mogwai, are set for more undead aural undertakings with Les Revenants’ second coming: following their SAY-nominated original soundtrack, they’re set to compose music for the French zombie TV sequel, due for release later this year.

Cult-pop time-traveller Ela Orleans (pictured above) is a Glasgow-based, Poland-raised tech-noir collagist, who follows up her brilliant, uncanny double-LP, Tumult In Clouds, with Upper Hell – a collaboration with Howie B (Bjork, Tricky, Baaba Maal). The album is based around Dante’s Inferno, features guest vocals from indie champions Stephen and Katrina Pastel, and looks set to further Orleans’ status as one of our most remarkable talents. Upper Hell will be unleashed via Howie B’s HB Recordings on April 17 – and in the meantime, while we wait, there’s always the exquisite sonic limbo of The Twilight Sad’s fourth album, Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave.

That record was released last year, but the band will expose and explore its hidden depths well into 2015, starting with a picture disc (I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want) on February 9, and a record shop in-store tour next month that touches down at Edinburgh’s Vox Box Records on February 14, and Glasgow’s Monorail the following day. The Twilight Sad also play an intimate show at Glasgow King Tut’s on February 6, as part of the legendary venue’s 25th anniversary celebrations, which also include a gig on February 5 from alt-rock tearaways We Were Promised Jetpacks, (whose moniker sounds not unlike yet another Back To The Future Part II let-down).

It may have a dearth of jetpacks and flying cars, but the Scottish pop landscape remains as kaleidoscopic as ever, as testified by forthcoming releases from African disco aficionado Auntie Flo, hip-hop renegades Hector Bizerk (who continue their terrific EP series inspired by Glasgow’s coat of arms) and electro genius Hudson Mohawke (fresh from credits with Mark Ronson and Kanye West). It’s watched over by a Supermoon (the new guise of alt-rock livewire Meursault aka Neil Pennycook, who launches Supermoon at Edinburgh Henry’s Cellar on Jan 23, with an EP to follow), it’s bedecked with various art-rock appendages (Bdy_Prts are set to tour their “big hair and keytars” this Spring), and warmed by the scuzz-pop of Tuff Love (who release their Dross EP on 10-inch pink vinyl on February 9). And it’s soundtracked by The Phantom Band, who release their excellent fourth album, Fears Trending, later this month.

There’s upcoming talent round every corner – Kathryn Joseph, Kloe, Happy Meals, Ultras, Naked, Book Group, White, Monogram, United Fruit, Model Aeroplanes, Ubre Blanca, Prehistoric Friends, Hausfrau, Le Thug, LAW and Garden of Elks among them.

And there are treats abounding from the old guard: goth-pop dreamers Strawberry Switchblade are set to release a rarities retrospective, and electro-pop icon Jimmy Somerville is gearing up to release an album of disco originals – thus bringing two of the 1980s’ most colourful pop acts back to the future.

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Interview: Faust / Mogwai


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

When wayward Krautrock pioneers Faust assembled in Germany in 1971, their aim, says co-founder Hans-Joachim Irmler, was “to create music for the future”. The electronic rock visionaries, who were touted as “The German Beatles”, subsequently defined the country’s experimental movement (alongside Can and Kraftwerk); became one of the first acts signed to Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin label; and prompted Julian Cope to declare “there is no group more mythical than Faust”. And that was a reasonable charge: the band’s history spans naked live shows, jail spells, orgies, living off dog food, police chases and arson.

Over four decades hence, the radical collective still cast long, psychedelic shadows across popular music, and their liberated (and liberating), progressive spirit continues to thrive. The members of Faust have variously disbanded, reconvened, passed away and re-spawned themselves as dizygotic twins (two separate factions now operate under the Faust appellation). Now, keyboard player and engineer Irmler is set to explore Krautrock’s vital and enduring influence on Scottish pop thanks to Musik / Reise (Music / Travel): a one-off collaboration with members of Mogwai and The Phantom Band that takes place at Glasgow’s Platform on January 10. The project was conceived by Platform’s music programmer Alun Woodward (also of Chemikal Underground) and is supported by the Goethe Institut.

Irmler – who will also perform solo and participate in a career-spanning Q&A at the event – is typically enthusiastic about his upcoming sonic adventure with some of Scotland’s most ingenious contemporary artists. “I’m always interested in understanding how other musicians, and other people, think and feel – how they generate ideas and create things,” he says. “I like Mogwai very much, because their music is different – it’s hypnotic, and complex, and it’s not easy to understand how they make these sounds; where they are coming from; what are their origins. And we coincide in wanting to create musical landscapes in the minds of the audience which combine natural and industrial images.”

Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite says Krautrock in general, and Faust in particular, have had a central impact on the band’s ethos. “When Brendan O’Hare was playing with us, he introduced us to a lot of Krautrock,” Braithwaite recalls of the ex-Teenage Fanclub drummer who played with Mogwai around the time of their 1997 debut, Young Team. “Ever since, they’ve been a very inspiring set of musicians, and a very inspiring set of recordings – it’s just a really great era of music,” he says. “There are definitely things that we’ve taken from it, but I’d like to think that the main thing is the spirit of freedom, just to try things. Not everything is going to work, but hopefully something great will happen along the way.”

The upcoming Musik / Reise collaboration looks set to reflect this philosophy, while looking – and moving – ever-forward. “I think the general consensus is just to get together and see what happens,” Braithwaite offers. “We’ve got a few days [in the studio] before we play, so we’ll probably just go for it. I’m excited about that. Winging it is always fun.” Braithwaite knows of what he speaks: he and Mogwai’s Barry Burns collaborated with another Krautrock icon, Can’s Damo Suzuki, for an entirely improvised live performance at Holland’s Incubate festival a few years back. (“That was like immersion therapy,” he quips.)

Irmler and Braithwaite will be joined by Mogwai’s Martin Bulloch (drums), plus keyboard maharishi Andy Wake and guitarist Duncan Marquiss, both of The Phantom Band, who release their fourth album, Fears Trending, on January 26. Krautrock’s influence can be discerned across our music landscape – from King Creosote and James Yorkston’s unplugged mantras, through Primal Scream’s dread disco and The Twilight Sad’s post-rock, to the trance-evoking electro-prog of Django Django, Errors and Remember Remember – but perhaps The Phantom Band’s kaleidoscopic Scottische pop comes closest to conjuring Faust’s genre-melding, psychotropic dogma.

Braithwaite nods. “Yeah, definitely. I think The Phantom Band have taken a lot of that wide variety of influences and managed to make their own music out of it – and I think that kind of idea defines the Krautrock era as well.”

Faust met in Hamburg in the late 1960s, and were signed up to Polydor in the hope that their ramshackle, unorthodox genius might bear fruit as Germany’s answer to The Beatles. Such commercial heights did not transpire: Faust had other plans. Their substantial advance allowed them to construct a now-legendary studio in Wumme, and their freewheeling experiments in jazz, electronics and home-built instruments were fundamental to Krautrock’s forward-looking ideals.

“We wanted to make music for the future,” Irmler recalls. “There was lots of blues and rock, but we thought it was time to create something new. There was a real pain in our brains, with what had happened years before – with the events of the Second World War – and we really wanted to make a cut with everything in the past. And so, some German bands, like Can and Faust and Cluster, we tried to go a special way. A new way. To create something that was – just like the name Neu! – new.”

Despite their ingenuity, Polydor dropped Faust after two albums, on account of their relatively poor sales and capricious live shows (which often featured nudity, drugs, pinball and pneumatic drills), and so the band looked to the UK where, recalls Irmler, “our crazy music got a lot of attention; even love.” They signed with Richard Branson’s nascent Virgin label and issued an introductory album, The Faust Tapes (1973), with a unique marketing gimmick: it retailed for 49p.

“Oh, we thought it was that such great political idea,” Irmler says, with a laugh, as is his way. “We wanted to make a point about the charts, about buying records, about counting sales – because at the time record companies bought their own records back, so they could get them into the charts. And we thought, ‘How can we do the same without selling our own records back?’ So we got the idea to make an album and to sell it super cheap,” he explains. “We were actually going to give it away for free, and then Richard [Branson] said, ‘No no, that makes no sense – it should be a selling point. There should be a flow of money’. So he got the idea of selling an album for the price of a single, 49p.” The album went on to sell over over fifty thousand copies, although its low retail price rendered it ineligible for the charts.

Decades on, artists including Radiohead have conjured similar concepts, that ask us to question (or reassert) the value of music. And all the while, Faust continue to soundtrack the future, in their myriad guises: crossing musical and geographic borders, breaking new territory, creating brave new sounds – as with Musik / Reise.

Are we likely to see any traditional Faust live tropes in Glasgow? Should we prepare ourselves for on-stage nudity? “Oh no,” says Irmler, cackling. “Don’t worry.”

Braithwaite sounds relieved.“Glasgow’s quite cold in January, so I’m very glad about that.”

Musik / Reise: Platform, Glasgow, January 10, 7pm. Return bus leaves Mono at 6.30pm

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Interview: The Waterboys


This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 24, 2014 under the heading ‘JOURNEY SONGS’ CHART A CAREER SPENT CONQUERING NEW GROUND.

The tracks at the heart of The Waterboys’ new album are, says helmsman Mike Scott, “journey songs”. And this is apt, because our wayfaring bard has spent over three decades exploring and excavating punk, folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His ongoing, enlightening quest touches down at Stirling Castle on Hogmanay, then time-travels back to 1960s Memphis, thanks to Modern Blues, the band’s soul-fired eleventh long-player, which is released in January.

The record’s “central tracks”, says Scott, are opener Destinies Entwined and swansong Long Strange Golden Road. “The album is bookended by these two journey songs with very different melodies, but similar rhythms,” he offers.

Between those songs, Modern Blues further Scott’s poetic odyssey through the mystical, cosmic and romantic. Its voyages and vantage points, as ever, look upward, outward, backward and inward. But whereas previous albums have taken their cues from epic rock (1985’s This Is The Sea), Celtic folk (1988’s Fisherman’s Blues) or Irish poetry (2011’s An Appointment With Mr Yeats), Modern Blues looks across the Atlantic, to vintage Memphis.

“I started putting together an American band because it’s very expensive taking a whole band over there every time,” says Edinburgh-born Scott, of the project’s roots. “And I like the way that Americans play – there’s a swagger to their playing, especially bass and lead guitar. There’s a real different feel. [Fiddler Steve] Wickham and I went over last year, and we did a big tour with our American Waterboys, and it was brilliant fun. That gave me a real taste for working over there, so I decided to record in America too.”

“I decided on Nashville because unlike so many cities, it hasn’t suffered a decrease in the number of recording studios,” Scott continues. “They’re still all there. And more to the point, they’re big recording studios that can accommodate a five or six piece band playing all at the same time. That’s how I like to record, with a live band. If I was to record in the UK or Ireland, I’d probably have to do overdubs because very few of the studios are big enough.”

The record’s R&B roots are underscored by Memphis keyboard wizard “Brother” Paul Brown, falsetto-soul heart-breaker Don Bryant and FAME Studios / Muscle Shoals legend David Hood. “David’s a fantastic bass player,” says Scott. “My manager recommended him. There’s something about these guys from the Sixties and Seventies – one doesn’t automatically think of hiring them. To me, having grown up listening to them, I think, ‘Oh no, I could never get him’. Which is crazy, because often they’re just waiting for the phone to ring – they’re happy to come and do a session. David and I hit it off really well – so well, in fact, that he’s joined the band.”

Did the record’s personnel and geographic heritage influence the direction, or writing, of the album? “Well, they impacted on the sound, but not on the actual writing – I had all the songs written before I started recording,” says Scott. “I wrote five of them in 2008 and from those I knew this was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll record with a soul influence. The rest were written around 2012, 2013. Once we were in the studio recording, the song that changed most was November Tale, which began as a kind of folk-rock ballad, and then got more and more Memphis as we worked on it,” Scott recalls. “A big catalyst for that was our guitar player, Zach [Ersnt] – he’s from Austin, Texas, and he’s really schooled in that Sixties and Seventies soul guitar sound. He just played out of his skin on that song.”

If Modern Blues lives up to its name thanks to its forward-looking R&B, then so too does it echo another of The Waterboys’ great albums, Fisherman’s Blues – although the kinship of their titles is, says Scott, “just a coincidence”. Fisherman’s Blues was reissued as a six-CD treasure trove of session tracks last year, entitled Fisherman’s Box: The Complete Fisherman’s Blues Recordings, 1986-1988.

The Fisherman’s Blues sessions were infamously epic and fruitful, as detailed in Scott’s terrific 2012 memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy. “The twelve songs [on the original Fisherman’s Blues release] told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier,” he writes. “We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many out-takes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers.”

Did the Fisherman’s Box offer a sense of catharsis? Did it finally lay the ghosts of Fisherman’s Blues to rest? “Do you know, I think it did,” he says. “I think it did. Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear there’s still even more unreleased stuff from the Fisherman’s Blues sessions,” he adds, laughing. “But all the best stuff is on the Box, it’s out there now, and I’m really relieved about that. The original Fisherman’s Blues release was only the thumbnail, if you like. The Fisherman’s Box is the real album.”

“We went on tour with the old Fisherman’s Blues band last year to celebrate the Box Set,” Scott continues. “It was like going into a completely different strain of Waterboys music, and the tour was so good that I was tempted to stay in that mode. But no. The songs on Modern Blues required something different, so I pulled fully back to rock ‘n’ roll. I’m really glad I did.”

Modern Blues’ rock ‘n’ roll odysseys are populated by typically colourful characters: adding to a role-call that kicked off with 1983’s A Girl Called Johnny and The Three Day Man comes the new album’s Rosalind, who married the wrong guy, and The Girl Who Slept for Scotland, whose narcoleptic feat is celebrated with the sample of a cheering crowd. Is it lifted from a particular event or football match? “Do you know, it must be, but I can’t remember where it’s from,” Scott offers. “I have oodles of sound effects in my data bank, it must be from one of those.” The songwriter has form with meticulous samples. “At the start of the track Be My Enemy, from This is The Sea, there’s a little synth instrumental, and every chord I play triggers the applause from a Prince bootleg,” he says with a laugh.

Prince makes his presence felt throughout This Is The Sea, from the aforesaid bootleg cheers to the ongoing conjecture that he is the subject of The Waterboys’ defining track, The Whole Of The Moon. “It wasn’t about Prince, no,” Scott clarifies. But that hasn’t stopped the Purple one perpetuating this pop rumour: he performed the song live last year. “Yeah, Prince has certainly played it live at least once,” Scott offers. “Apparently it was a solo piano vocal version. I haven’t heard it, but I would dearly love to.”

Reports of Prince’s version were glowing, but The Waterboys’ live rendition is peerless. Stirling Castle, at the turn of the year, will make for a suitably mythical, cosmic backdrop for Mike Scott’s new songs and heavenly favourites, that look to the future and summon the past: his every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars.

The Waterboys play Hogmanay at Stirling Castle; Modern Blues is released on January 19.

Side panel: The Waterboys: Four Of The Best

A Pagan Place (1984)

The Waterboys’ second album saw Mike Scott map out his epic and melodic vision for The Big Music (the title of one of the record’s many stand-out tracks) on a spirited, swaggering LP that fused Celtic folk-rock (A Pagan Place) with loved-up rock ‘n’ roll mysticism (Church Not Made With Hands), and the characteristically restless post-punk groove of Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains: a rare foray into Byrnian art-pop, or Berlin-era Bowie, and all the more striking for it.

This Is The Sea (1985)

Mike Scott’s most ambitious attempt at harnessing The Big Music’s cosmic, multi-layered rock could have been eclipsed by the album’s biggest hit, The Whole Of The Moon, were it not for the strength of bombastic tracks like Don’t Bang The Drum, epic, jazz-inflected wig-outs like Old England, the spellbinding mysticism of The Pan Within, and the record’s revelatory title track.

Fisherman’s Blues (1988)

Having turned his back on rock music, Mike Scott decamped to Ireland and began an epic recording session that would result in the raggle-taggle folk-punk masterpiece that is Fisherman’s Blues. Along with its glorious title track, the album’s highlights include the frenzied bass-enraptured wrath of We Will Not Be Lovers, the folk-rock rapture of World Party, the greatest Van Morrison cover of all-time (Sweet Thing), and a WB Yeats poem set to hymnal Celtic folk (The Stolen Child).

An Appointment With Mr Yeats (2011)

After Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott continued to explore Yeats’ poetry through his music, and this eventually resulted in a series of excellent live shows and this LP, which sees The Waterboys’ music and Yeats’ words enkindle and embrace each other. This is no bookish exercise, though: Scott liberates and reanimates Yeats’ poetry through blustering folk-rock, chamber ballads, free-wheeling blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.

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