Interview: Chvrches

An edited version of this feature ran in The Herald Arts Magazine (Scotland) on March 26, 2016, under the heading: CHVRCHES: MIRACLES DONE IN 45 MINUTES…

There’s an old picture of Chvrches where they’re under a neon sign that promises: There Will Be No Miracles Here.

You have to wonder though.

The Glasgow electro icons have dedicated the last five years to conquering continents, roaring their gospel – a rapturous, enlightening doctrine that draws on industrial synth-pop, feminist punk, epic post-rock, dance-floor anthems and immaculate R&B. Their home-recorded second album, Every Open Eye, tore up charts across the world when it was released last autumn (Top 10 in the US, Top Five in the UK, Number One in Scotland); its 2013 predecessor, The Bones Of What You Believe, is edging toward one million sales; and they headline Glasgow enormodome SSE Hydro next weekend – despite having only played around 10 shows in Scotland to date.

Such achievements are extraordinary, if not miraculous, as is their knack for concurrently coming across as stadium-filling international pop stars and a well-loved local indie act. It’s a brilliant trick of the light, or quantum physics, or black magic, or – most likely – ingenious cyber nous. And it’s crucial to Chvrches’ exceptional charms. They’re a grassroots band with global reach.

All of which means that they’re rarely back in their home-town, let alone all at once. And so it is that vocalist Lauren Mayberry takes time out to talk on the phone during a week’s holiday in New York, while her synth-brandishing colleagues Martin Doherty and Iain Cook suggest an interview in a Glasgow pub that spirals into nigh-on eight hours and covers – among other marvels – Wasabi Kit-Kats, reggae, typography; their alleged alignment with cryptic cult The Illuminati; sportswear, capes and Quincy Jones; and whether Lionel Blair invented the pas-de-basque.

Heavy metal looms large, too. “I feel like we’ve spent most of this interview talking about Iron Maiden,” muses Cook about three hours in, and flaunts the band’s cut-throat commercial instinct by shifting the conversation not to Chvrches’ latest single or tour, but rather to his bygone Christian rock troupe, Ephis Dammim. “It’s Hebrew for boundaries of blood,” he says, as a scarlet votive is placed on our table.

“The candle of shame,” says Doherty, shaking his head. “Day turns to night.”

“It’s night-time now,” Cook declares, in what feels like a Kelvinbridge out-take from The Lost Boys. “More drinks?”

In the beginning, there were Chvrches: a secret cabal who were born on the internet. There were few clues in the early days as to the trio’s Scottish indie lineage (Blue Sky Archives, Aereogramme, The Unwinding Hours, Julia Thirteen, The Twilight Sad); there was simply a thrilling synth-dirge, Lies (2012), anonymously dispatched online. It exploded, spectacularly, everywhere at once – Europe, America, Asia, Australia. Its title resonated across The Bones of What You Believe, then rebounded in the opening salvo of Every Open Eye – “Throw me no bones, and I will tell you no lies, this time…”

If their debut was fixated on anatomy (Lungs, By The Throat) and hidden depths (We Sink, Under The Tide), then Every Open Eye feels more outward-looking, and landscape-focused (perfect storms and turning tides; myriad references to leaving traces, drawing lines in the sand, and burying entities – memories? Bones?). There is a sense of distance. Perhaps of letting go.

Taking a step back was crucial for their second album, says Mayberry, down a long line from America. “Having the space to figure out what we wanted to do this time was really important,” she offers. “Part of that, for me, was finding an aspect of the band that felt more comfortable, because although I’m really proud of what we achieved with the first album, it did all feel like a bit of a sh**storm,” she says with a laugh. “I was pretty exhausted from feeling I was fighting my corner all the time” – Mayberry’s righteous take-downs of online misogynists have been well-documented – “and I wanted to find a better more positive way to frame things.

“I wanted to put a bit more distance between the real life and the band versions of me,” she continues. “But I also started thinking – what is it I actually like about being in a band? What is it I like about writing? And I think it’s about communication, at the end of the day.” This ethos is echoed in Chvrches’ Fanclvb community, and in Mayberry’s feminist collective, TYCI.

Mayberry reassessed her approach to performance, too. “A lot of people have a lot of opinions on a lot of stuff – and that can feel quite overwhelming when you’re on the receiving end of it,” she says. “When I had time to step back from it all, I thought, okay, I didn’t do all the things that some people would project [on me] – but how do I want to do it? Rather than thinking – how would someone want me to front the band? It’s a band of three people, but ultimately there is a front person, and I think that rather than getting caught under the weight of that, I needed to think about what I wanted to do.”

The result, she suggests, means the shows they play now feel a lot more fun. “I like being able to play music that we made, that we love – that’s this kind of emotional bass-y, synth-y pop music – but conducting the show like I’m still in a punk rock band. I like that juxtaposition, and it feels genuine to us.”

Like the band themselves, Every Open Eye has a knack for feeling intimate yet universal; for appearing near and faraway at once. (Much of the album chimes with Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on loss and landscape, A Field Guide To Getting Lost – specifically, her chapters on The Blue of Distance.) But, says Mayberry, there was no over-arching lyrical theme for the record.

It just needed space.

“For me, I guess I need a bit of time to pass, so I can think about things to write about and build up a bank of ideas,” she offers. “I’m not really very good at writing abstract narratives about characters. It has to come from a personal place. So then you actually have to have the experiences in order to write about them.

“But I got to the point of over-analysis – I got caught up in wondering what I wanted the lyrical themes on the record to be,” she continues. “And I never approach writing like that. Ever. In the end, I wrote Never Ending Circles in about 45 minutes on a train – it was just a rough stream-of-consciousness thing. Taking a step back like that ended up being the way I wrote lyrically for this record, and that all started with Never Ending Circles.”

Light years (well, three thousand miles) back in Glasgow, talk revolves round that cardinal song – which opens Every Open Eye – as the candle burns. “It was really important to us to try and capture the same dynamic we had on album one with this record,” says Doherty. “Same studio, us producing, same set up. Day one, we all went in, and just like that: Never Ending Circles.”

Cook elaborates. “Day one, Martin walks straight up to one of our new synths and goes – [mimics the album’s ripping, rippling opening hook]. I was like that – ‘Martin, that is absolute shite,’” he laughs. “I came round to it eventually.”

Doherty grins. “I was trying to write the world’s most annoying riff.”

Cook: “It worked.”

There’s a meticulous precision to Every Open Eye – a hi-octane minimalism that evokes the ultra-pop productions of Quincy Jones. There’s plenty space, but it’s never empty. “That’s something that was really in our minds making the second record,” Cook offers. “Minimalism – specifically, Quincy Jones minimalism. There’s not a lot in those mixes. There’s a few elements, maybe four, but it sounds huge. It sounds massive.”

“We were obsessed with that on this record,” nods Doherty. “We were constantly like – ‘Can we take anything else out? Are there any elements that are working against the DNA or the economy of the song?’ We thought we could do a lot more with less this time,” he says. “Sounds and ideas have to stand up for themselves if they’re more exposed.”

For all that, Every Open Eye is full of warmth. “We’re pretty warm people generally,” Doherty offers. “We’re used to being in bands that wrote directly from their psyche. The whole ethos of indie music was about being a human being, and that’s still an intrinsic part of what we do. It’s like we’re a rock band who play electronic instruments. And write pop songs. We’re always thinking of ways to relate to the more human element of electronic music.”

“Because it gets a bad rap for being cold,” adds Cook. “And while pop in general has almost always been regarded as lowbrow, that tide is starting to turn. I think that one of the reasons things are going well for us is because there’s been that cultural shift, in perception, of seeing pop as high art; as art at all. Look at Beyonce. She’s making relevant, gritty, important music, and challenging political norms. Pop music can have depth. Of course it can.”

“The time I realised how extreme that shift was, was when I heard Shutdown by Skepta,” says Doherty. “That song was ubiquitous, and I suddenly realised that counter-culture and the mainstream were converging. Then I heard Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna, and I was like, okay – times have changed. Then, that Weeknd record dropped [Can’t Feel My Face], a deeply subversive, dark song about sex and drugs. That’s the mainstream, man. That’s brilliant.”

“Isn’t that great?” enthuses Cook. “Isn’t that a great time to be making music?

And doing it their way. For album two, Chvrches returned to Cook’s basement studio in Glasgow, where they made The Bones Of What You Believe. “I love that space,” Doherty says. “It feels like home to me now. Whenever we come back, or we’ve got something to do, and we sit in that room, it’s like… snapshots. The first time we sat there, properly, we’d done nothing, and all that we talked about was things that we could maybe do or maybe write. The second time, for this album, we were trying to follow up this perceived huge success. The next time, I don’t even know where we’ll be at, because for me we’re in completely uncharted territory now.

“We’ve already gone past what I ever thought a band who retained total credibility could achieve – and I really feel we have done that, I don’t think we’ve sacrificed anything,” Doherty adds. “We’re getting bigger in front of my eyes, we’re selling more tickets in America than we’ve ever done, we’re selling more records than we ever have. And it’s the same in Glasgow, in our home town…”

The main difference in terms of the studio set up between albums one and two is a redoubled trove of synthesisers. “On the first album, we had three synthesisers, and we stacked them up and did it that way,” explains Cook. “For this album, we were able to afford the shopping list of our teenage dreams. We had it really streamlined, and as a result we discovered a lot of sounds and built new sounds that inspired the music. That’s always been a key thing for us: the technology inspires the writing. New sound, new song.”

“Yeah, and that’s a expensive way to work,” laughs Doherty. “But it was a fortunate by-product of being self-sufficient. We had the budget to record the album, like anyone else does, but instead of spending it on studio time, or Rick Rubin, we reinvested it in ourselves. That was important.”

Bang in the middle of their self-produced record, there’s a euphoric, melancholic anthem called Clearest Blue, whose lyrics give the album its title. It’s bold and bright and exquisite. “Clearest Blue was one of those moments in the studio where you get that flash of light,” recalls Cook. “You can see the crowd, you can see how it’s going to pan out. You don’t get many of those moments in a career, let alone on an album.”

Doherty had a similar revelation as Clearest Blue materialised. “To go from that first day of playing it and jumping around the studio, to seeing 10 thousand people bouncing at the same time to that song at [London’s] Alexandra Palace – that’s serious,” he says. “That’s amazing.”

The day we meet, Clearest Blue has prompted another ardent response – this time in the guise of a YouTube film that suggests the song proves Chvrches’ alliance with an infamous mystic faction. “We’ve just had our first Illuminati exposé online,” beams Cook. “I got half way through it and started believing it myself.”

The YouTube revelation is incredible in its depth and detail, and underscores the extent to which fans clamour to get inside Chvrches’ songs.

“Oh man, totally – that’s a life goal,” Cook nods. “When people start writing about your band in terms of mythology and symbolism it’s like, okay, I feel like I’ve achieved something. And the myths in rock ‘n’ roll are always more interesting than the truth. The truth is, I got out my bed this morning and had a bagel.”

Doherty looks thoughtful. “I think people feel like we’re connected to the internet; that we’re almost synonymous with it,” he says. “And when the lines of communication between us are so short, and so clear, that maybe breeds a higher level of engagement and fanaticism to some extent.”

“It’s that idea of finding a sense of belonging and identity in music,” Cook notes. “That’s something that I grew up with, as a metal kid, but it still exists – bands like Iron Maiden, they go to India or South America and play stadiums, multiple nights. That’s not something I thought I’d ever achieve in any band I played in, that level of dedication.”

Chvrches have long induced such fevered communal exultation – online, in live arenas, and on the dancefloor. As with their debut, Every Open Eye plays out as two perfectly-crafted sides of vinyl – and simultaneously as a glorious 11-track club set. “It was sequenced for vinyl, but I love the club thing, although I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Cook. “I also read that someone’s done a blog about how the album follows the dramatic arc of a John Hughes movie. Maybe there’s something universal about that narrative form.”

It’s a formidable illusion though, conjuring so many distinct narratives in parallel. How do they do it? “I’ll tell you how you do it,” Doherty deadpans. “Eighty or 100 revisions of a tracklist.”

Cook buries his head in his hands.

“Oh well,” Doherty brightens. “On album three, we can relax a bit. We can do whatever we want. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but a lot of people have successful first albums and the second record, so very often, is a disappointment for fans, or a disappointment for people that the band are in business with, and ultimately it becomes a disappointment for the band themselves. We were obsessed with not making that mistake,” he says. “We had to make sure everything was right and we wanted to put out a great record and focus on the music completely. Now that’s done, the ship is out to sea, so to speak, and we’ve got a genuine career – and we really do feel like we have a genuine career – so now’s the time to have some fun with that. To really explore the creativity a bit more. I think we might even take more than six weeks off between this album and the next one.”

Cook nods. “I might even be willing to relax my 45 minute rule on album three. The double album rule still stands though. No double albums.”

“What about the no shorts on stage rule?” Doherty ventures.

Cook looks through him. “Come on, man. That stays”.

Given their escalating banks of synths, how about capes, a la Rick Wakeman?

“Capes are fine,” shrugs Cook. “I love capes. Wizard hats, that’s cool. But sportswear? Not good.”

Chvrches wear their fortunes lightly. They bear the weight of their pop miracles well.

Chvrches play Glasgow SSE Hydro (with support from The Twilight Sad) on April 2.

Related article: CHVRCHES interview, The Herald, Dec 13

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Interview: Hinds

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on February 19, 2016.

Don’t be misled by the cervine vibes of Madrid garage-pop rabble Hinds. Their name might conjure Frida Kahlo’s barbed self-portrait, The Wounded Deer, or Goldfrapp’s nascent obsession with antlers, but it was, they say, picked almost at random – a haphazard moniker for a band they thought would never play a gig, let alone make an album.

Yet their debut LP, Leave Me Alone, came out last month to widespread fawning, thanks to their harmonic take on kamikaze rock ‘n’ roll.

We speak while Hinds are on the road – they’ve veered across Europe, the US and beyond almost constantly over the past two years, and won fans from Los Angeles to Glasgow, where they’ll return this weekend for their second sold-out show in the city. Despite their musical travels in place, and in time (they variously invoke The Velvet Underground, Thee Headcoatees, Thee Oh Sees and The Shangri-Las), Hinds are very much a product of the (counter) culture and geography of Madrid.

“I think Madrid is more poor in a way, than Barcelona, the youth and stuff, and I guess that makes us more brash, and DIY, and lo-fi, and punk,” says vocalist / guitarist Ana Garcia Perrote. “I think also the fact that Barcelona is closer to the rest of Europe, geographically, means a lot of big bands go there if they’re playing in Spain – they don’t come to Madrid because it’s so far.” So they do their own thing there. “We grew up surrounded by people who were musicians, or who did pictures. We were like a big band, like 100 people, doing music, doing art.”

Hinds formed in 2011, and then again in 2013: a band so good they made it twice. Perrote and co-vocalist / guitarist Carlotta Cosials started as a two-piece called Deers in 2011, “just for fun”, and played some covers, played some shows, then called it a day. “We stopped because we stopped having fun,” recalls Perrote. “We did this one horrible gig and we were so embarrassed that we just stopped playing. But we kept being friends. It wasn’t such a big deal that the band didn’t work, it was more like – okay, let’s just be friends for a while. And that worked.”

But rock ‘n’ roll intervened in 2013, as rock ‘n’ roll does. “Two years later, we came back from a festival and we were feeling melancholic – you know that way when you come back from a great trip and you’re sad because it’s over? So we started watching old YouTube videos of us from when we played together, and we were like, maybe we should play again,” Perrote recalls. “And when we did, the magic happened again – because we always felt, since the very beginning, that we did something special, even when it was covers. All the things that people seem to really appreciate about our band – the rhythms and tempo changes and singing together, and doing that thing like, ‘Now you sing and I’ll respond’, we always had that. But this time, when we got together, we wrote our own songs.”

Those intervening couple of years are interesting – the time during which Perrote and Cosials were resolutely not a band seems to have been crucial in forging the camaraderie, and musical ideas, which provide the foundations for Hinds’ grrrl-gang charms. “Exactly,” nods Perotte. “When we first played together, we played all sorts of covers – The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, the xx – our taste in music was not defined at all. We were music lovers, but we didn’t really know what we liked. What we discovered in between the two beginnings of our band was all this new music that was young, alive, and about things we thought and felt. It helped us realise we didn’t have to write like Bob Dylan. Now we always try to do honest music, talk about what we feel, scream when we’re angry. And we love that.”

When the band was born for the second time, they were still a duo, still called Deers. Soon thereafter, they welcomed bassist Ade Martin and drummer Amber Grimbergen to their increasingly thrilling ranks. But as they made a name for themselves, they were forced to change their moniker, following a legal threat from an existing Montreal band with a similar name (Dears). “The name Deers had come to us in a stupid way, it was just for fun, it was totally random,” Perrote recalls. “But when we had to change it last year, we suddenly felt so naked. We felt like they were taking everything we had built with that name. So having a name that was similar – Hinds – explained that we were going to be the same.”

While Hinds’ name may have been half-accidental, their debut album title – Leave Me Alone – was anything but. “We take real care over all our songs, and we take a lot of time,” Perrote explains. “And although the title didn’t come with any [particular] song, it was about the whole project, because it’s so personal to us. This started with just Carlotta and I and two acoustic guitars, and then suddenly our team was growing, and everyone had an opinion – some in a good way, some in a bad way. And we understand that we have a label and stuff, and that we have to do things. But the music is ours. That’s just the four of us. Leave me alone for this. Don’t touch that.”

They’re untouchable, all right, these raucous leaders of the pack.

Hinds play Stereo, Glasgow on Sunday. Leave Me Alone is out now via Lucky Number / Mom and Pop

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Interview: Aidan Moffat and Paul Fegan

Aidan on Ferry copy
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on February 17, 2016.

There is this story that comes from The Bible, or from an old folk song, or maybe from Nick Cave’s album, The Boatman’s Call. It came to mind a few years back, as cult-pop swashbuckler Aidan Moffat sailed, and gruffly serenaded, a party of us up the Clyde. It’s a tale about a life done living, how it passes on to death, as the river meets the sea.

And it seemed an odd myth to recall that night, with all the beer and laughter flowing, but then, amid Moffat’s bawdy laments, he sang a reinterpretation of The Parting Glass / The Parting Song. It’s a bygone folk hymn popularised by our pre-eminent travelling balladeer, Sheila Stewart, whose version plays out like an earthly farewell (“My ship lies in harbour / she’s ready to sail”), and is one of several old Scottish songs Moffat re-wrote against a modern backdrop, for a musical road trip – and film by Paul Fegan – entitled Where You’re Meant To Be.

The film premieres at the Barrowland this week, almost two years since Moffat and Fegan launched their adventure at Finnieston Quay. It’s a beautiful, quietly funny film that explores life, loss, music and (unreliable) memory. And if Moffat’s bawdy raconteur makes for a righteous protagonist, then so too does folk matriarch Stewart, who unexpectedly sang and harangued her way into the very heart of the film. After an early encounter, wherein the septuagenarian firebrand chastened Moffat for daring to upset her folk traditions, (“You’ve taken the context and blootered it”), Stewart took the wheel.

“Sheila was the obvious story to be told,” says former Arab Strap frontman Moffat. “We knew it as soon as we met her, as soon as she ticked me off. And regardless about how she felt about me, she clearly loved being in front of the camera and wanted to be a part of the film – in fact, her attitude was more that it wasn’t going to happen without her.”

Stewart comes across as formidable and wonderful on-screen – deadpan, in charge, hard to impress, and capable of provoking highly uncharacteristic hand-wringing in Moffat. That she also waxes lyrical on her life, and songs, and family – at one point she walks us to their gravestones – is prescient, and profound: only a few months later, in December 2014, Stewart died. She was the last in line of a centuries-old folk tradition that found friends, and fans, in Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl. Where You’re Meant To Be features her final interview and performance footage. This is her parting song.

Did Sheila know she was ill when they met her? “I don’t think she sensed it for a moment,” offers Fegan. “I certainly never got that impression. A lot of that stuff – like the graveyard scene, or Sheila’s stance on her songs and stories about her family – it fitted with the story that we were already trying to tell, which was about the conflict between Aidan and Sheila, over loss, of her culture, of her songs.”

Fegan’s previous work includes the multiple award-winning Pouters (2012) – a short documentary about two doo fleein (pigeon flying) rivals in Glasgow – and the music video for Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells’ 2011 magnum opus, The Copper Top, in which Moffat and Wells take to a loch-side graveyard, clad in undertakers’ suits, to wave off a life lived over the water.

As with those films, Where You’re Meant to Be is warm, poetic and minimalist: birds feature as symbols of liberation and entrapment; water is a conduit for life, and death, and reflection; landscape (be it urban or rural) is cardinal – and sometimes breathtaking – but never indulgent. You could credit Fegan with impact by stealth, but he’s quick to shift the accolade. “The editor, David Arthur, is a massive part of this,” says Fegan. “He made sure we didn’t digress from the story, from the relationship between Aidan and Sheila, and never used a beat more of anything than we had to. He constantly kept everything moving along.” It is moving, indeed.

The film departs Glasgow via the Clyde, and charts Scotland’s remote parts, as Moffat and his band (The Twilight Sad’s James Graham, Bdy_Prts’ Jenny Reeve, axeman-extraordinaire Stevie Jones, composer Michael John McCarthy) perform at folk clubs, kitchen tables and shoogly stages from Drumnadrochit to the Isle of Skye, before coming full circle, back to the Barrowlands.

It never strays far from Stewart’s voice, but there are colourful digressions along the way. They run into feuding monster hunters in Loch Ness, and a barrage of battle re-enactment warriors near Oban. That latter gig, in an ancient churchyard, was particularly memorable: they performed amid tombstones, flanked by a quad-biking crofter and kilt-clad Ramones fan, with mediaeval-costumed caterers serving up turnips, gruel and spit-roast fowl.

It was a late night – there was an ad-hoc ceilidh in a barn, there was 80s-fuelled moonwalking into the dawn – at which point, Moffat was called upon to shed his hangover, don full chain mail, and attend a hillside jousting lesson. “Oh, that was horrific,” Moffat recalls with a laugh. “I was walking away that morning. I was going home, I’d had enough. And then it got cut from the film. Gone.”

You can see him in said battle garb on the cover of the film’s accompanying live album. (He does not look like a happy man.) In another film scene, he’s flat on his back in Loch Ness in a dry-suit. All at sea. “In terms of a subject, Aidan’s the antithesis of the way your average pop star would want to be portrayed,” says Fegan. “I think that’s an important part of the film, Aidan being like that – it allowed us to almost tell an anti-music documentary kind of story.”

“I don’t really care about how I’m portrayed, it never really bothered me,” Moffat shrugs. “The majority of concert footage in the film comes from the [worst] gigs, because they’re the most entertaining.”

They recorded the album live at Drumnadrochit Village Hall, and it features almost all the songs Moffat re-interpreted for Where You’re Meant To Be – including, of course, The Parting Song. “I’d dedicate this song to [Sheila] – indeed, I’d dedicate the whole album to her – but for the fact that she really, really didn’t like it,” Moffat writes in the liner notes. “So all I’ll say is, although I don’t believe in Heaven or spiritual nautical metaphors, I hope she had a calm and comfy voyage.”

He might not think that higher plains or maritime fables hold any water, but Moffat’s words elicit the lyrics to an old Arab Strap song, The Night Before The Funeral: “When I’m going, I’m going the Viking way … lay me in a boat … and kick me out to sea…” Stewart would surely have approved.

Where You’re Meant To Be premieres at Glasgow Barrowland, Feb 19, as part of Glasgow Film Festival, then tours Scotland. The album is released on March 25.

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From the archives: Concrete Antenna

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This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in September 2016.

Imagine if the walls had ears. Imagine if the walls could sing. A new construction on Edinburgh’s skyline explores those ideas, and much besides.

Housed within the new landmark tower at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Concrete Antenna is an interactive sound installation from local art / pop conceptualists Simon Kirby and Tommy Perman and alt-folk topographer Rob St John.

Their previous collaborative work includes an emotional robot band (Perman and Kirby’s #Unravel, with FOUND and Aidan Moffat), and a sonic cartography of Edinburgh’s waterways (St John and Perman’s Water of Life), and Concrete Antenna shares characteristics with both.

Its site-specific, interactive, variable sound art draws from, and responds to, landscape, nature and the elements, thanks to a cache of local field recordings and samples, played out through four vertical speakers – from church bells to foghorns; from voices to fork-lift trucks.

Rising 28 metres into the Newhaven sky, the structure features a large rectangular opening that funnels sound – and weather, of course – down to the ground, and out the open doorway. It’s industrial and organic, solid and abstract, receptive and transmissive. The tower serves as landscape, monument, canvas, environment, instrument, muse and lead character. It’s even getting its own album.

Kirby laughs. “I’m glad you said that. I do think the tower has got this personality – it has this weight to it, by being so dramatic, standing up there in the skyline. It’s like part of the team,” he says. “When we were working on the installation, sometimes we thought of it as a periscope, projecting outwards, and other times we thought of it as an antenna, picking up sound. It feels like a place where sound comes together, along with memories and associations of the area. And that’s what we wanted to capture with this – we wanted to bring together sound and memory and place.”

St John agrees that the tower exerted a certain creative control over their work. “When I first saw the plans, what stuck out to me was that it was a receiver, it was in the landscape, it didn’t seem to have a purpose – buildings like that just don’t get built,” he says. “But it was quite uncanny – it was like we knew what we needed to do with the installation, without any prompting from The Sculpture Workshop – the space itself, the architecture, kind of told us what to do.”

For all of its physical signposts and industrial sound references – bygone blacksmiths, gas works, construction sites, railways – Concrete Antenna is equally concerned with space and imagination. It’s in the installation’s gorgeous minimalist compositions, and it’s at the very heart of the way that Perman, Kirby and St John conceived the installation: they created it almost entirely from memory.

“When we first visited the tower last year, it wasn’t finished, and we were only there for five minutes,” Perman recalls. “I think it was another six months before we got back in again. So a lot of the installation was written from our memory, or imagination, of the space.”

Much is left to our imagination within the tower, too: its structure raises questions about what is there and what is not (and what has gone before). In an accompanying essay, Perman notes: “At first glance it has no obvious purpose – you can walk inside but cannot climb up to see what must be an incredible view of Edinburgh from the top.”

For Kirby, this is key to the building’s strange allure. “When you walk in, you can’t help but look up,” he says. “It’s like a magnet. It pulls your head up, and you see that space above. We haven’t been up there, so I’ve no idea what the view is, and in a way that’s nice. It leaves the space for the imagination.”

It’s a welcoming space, too – uncanny, but never alienating. “The installation’s interactive,” Kirby explains. “It detects people approaching – as you approach the doorway you’ll hear a voice – and the idea is that it pulls you in. As you cross the threshold, music starts up very high in the tower, and a sound-scape kind of falls down on you. So it’s got – I hope – this sense of being there for people to discover, by walking in, rather than it just sitting there, doing its thing, not caring about people.”

The tower’s apparent compassion has paid off. Perman, Kirby and St John became so fond of its physical and psychic charms that they decided to immortalise the structure on celluloid. “There was no intention for an album, but when I was mixing the sound for the installation, I got to know the music we’d composed really intimately,” Perman recalls. “I just thought, ‘I love this. It should live on beyond the installation.’”

Kirby nods. “We had to release this as a record, because we fell in love with the project, and with the site. But we thought we’d at least have to doff our caps to a thread that runs through all our work – the idea of not having a definitive version of recorded music,” he says. “So we put a tide table into the package. One side is labelled ‘Tide Out’ and the other side is labelled ‘Tide In’, and the instruction is to look at the tide table and then play the relevant side. By doing so, we’re taking a little bit of control away from you, and also it means you’ll be playing a particular side while the tower installation’s playing the same version. So what you’re doing in your living room is tying you to this tower out in Newhaven; connecting you with anyone that might be in there at that time.”

St John revelled in giving the building, and local environment, creative jurisdiction. “You’re taking composition away from yourself in the best possible way,” he says. “The only non field recording or archive sound is the piano. Everything else is sampled or sourced from sounds in the local area,” he says. “It takes a long time, but you find that from across all these disparate sources – foghorns and ships whistles and YouTube clips and steam engines – you start finding chords and resonances. Everything becomes in tune.”

It’s a beautiful tune at that, from an unlikely star – a brown clay brick and concrete tower, brightening our northern sky.

Concrete Antenna runs Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. A 12” LP box set with art prints, essays and tide tables is available via Random Spectacular.

Related articles:

Rob St John and Tommy Perman on Water of Life (The Herald, November 2013)

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Preview: WildLife at The Poetry Club

This originally ran as an Arts News preview in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland), February 2016.

Glasgow’s counter-cultural haven, The Poetry Club, is set to host to a new free-jazz / avant-garde brouhaha called WildLife.

Celebrating experimental and outsider vibes from round the corner, round the world – and far beyond – WildLife is curated by drummer, songwriter and psych-folk topographer Alex Neilson (Trembling Bells, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Tight Meat duo), and ingenious local noise / improv / alt-pop promoter Ideal Mexico.

Incoming sonic voyagers include preternatural drummer Chris Corsano in cahoots with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, who’re joined by kaleidoscopic Glasgow collective Still House Plants on Feb 16; and gospel / avant-jazz visionary Linda Sharrock (pictured) and her band, (In) The Abyssity Of The Grounds, who’re supported by Neilson’s own wayfaring wyrd-jazz firebrands Death Shanties on Feb 22.

To borrow a title from Basil Kirchin et al’s 1979 future-jazz odyssey, also called Wildlife, it all sounds like the birth of an (awesome) adventure.


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Interview: Emma Pollock

photo (10)

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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