Interview: Rob St John

This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on January 4 2012, under the heading FREAKING OUT WITH A MASKED DRUMMER AND A DISCO BALL.

(Rob St John – Sargasso Sea)

Doom-pop troubadour Rob St John is recalling the recording process for his stirring debut album, Weald. “We went faintly mad in this huge Stockbridge town house. We shut all the shutters and got the glitter ball going.”

The residence belonged to Matthew Young, who runs Edinburgh DIY label Song, By Toad. While St John’s bluesy, brooding alt-folk does not immediately conjure disco balls, we meet after a live performance in which a break-dancing, clarinet-wielding drummer in a Chinese mask was par for the course. St John’s music and live shows are thrilling.

“It’s really nice being back in Edinburgh,” smiles the Lancashire-raised singer-songwriter, who lived in the city from the mid-late 2000s, and now resides outside Oxford. “You can collaborate with everyone, and everyone who was onstage tonight contributed to the record.” The all-star, equipment-swapping cast included Meursault’s Neil Pennycook, and Eagleowl’s Bartholomew Owl, Malcolm Benzie and Owen Curtis Williams. Together they invoked something akin to the Velvet Underground, the Bad Seeds and Low indulging in a Pentland love-in.

“We’ve been playing this material in some shape or form since 2005, so we’re all really familiar with it,” muses St John. “The record is sort of a document – we’ve been able to put our marker down with it – and so now we’ve got the opportunity just to do whatever we want with the songs. I think all of us are into more avant-garde, experimental music than that which perhaps we usually play, so now we’re using these songs as a springboard to freak out. If we want to use field recordings, or if we want our drummer to dress in a mask and writhe around on the floor, then that’s what we do,” he laughs.

While St John’s solo and band shows are uniformly compelling, Weald is a heady entity unto itself. It was released on gatefold vinyl in November, and swiftly drew plaudits from the likes of Radio Scotland’s Vic Galloway and 6 Music’s Andrew Collins. Indeed, the latter was so taken with Weald that he named it his album of the year. It is a singular long-player – by turns sparse, melancholic and lavish – and St John’s sonorous larynx and romantic silhouette are striking.

His poetic vernacular is similarly versatile: it subtly evokes and unites his homeland and his adopted city. “Most of the language that I use is either Lancastrian or Central Belt Scots,” he nods. “There are just so many really lovely words when you start thinking about it, and I try to sort of collect them. Like I love how people see the mountains and use words for them, not only for their meaning but also for their sounds, or the way you can twist them round a beat.”

St John’s intoxicating atmospheres hang heavy round his songs – no more so than on surging choral psalm, Your Phantom Limb. “I recorded that in Ian Humberstone’s kitchen,” he says of his beguiling bucolic-folk ally. “I went to his cottage last year and it was much colder than this. Freezing fog was rolling in off the fields, and coming into his badly insulated kitchen,” he laughs. “So we just sat there recording, literally in fingerless gloves. It was wonderful.

“But obviously every song on the album is very important to me, and every song has its own meaning, and context, and ideas, and feelings,” he continues. “What’s so fascinating with all the reviews we’ve had is that people have had such different interpretations. If people can attach their own meanings to our songs, I’ll be a happy man.”

Despite having written all the material, St John constantly refers to the album as a collective effort. “Absolutely,” he says. “I toyed a lot about putting this record out under a pseudonym because it was such a collaborative process. The reason I didn’t is because I couldn’t think of one that I liked enough. But the record comes a lot from a really fertile time in Edinburgh.

“I came here in 2004,” he continues. “I came to do a degree, and over the next few years everyone just seemed to be cross-pollinating, and everyone was playing in each other’s bands [St John reciprocates with Eagleowl and Meursault among others]. These are songs we wrote at that time, these are people we met at that time, and it was such an amazing time – I think maybe 2008 and 2009 especially. I don’t know, maybe I was just really lucky to hit on a really nice bunch of people who were really inspiring…

Had he been involved in, or been aware of, any similar grassroots artistic communities before he moved to Edinburgh? “Not really, no,” he says. “I was only 18 when I moved here and I’d played in a couple of bands and sung some really sparse songs by myself – you know, kind of tried to be John Martyn.” He shakes his head and smiles.

Does St John ever wonder what music he’d be making now if he hadn’t come to Edinburgh; if he hadn’t chanced upon such like-minded artists?

“I really don’t know,” he says. “I was listening to like really, really heavy psychedelia before I came here – I loved The Soft Machine, I loved Pink Floyd, and at the same time I was listening to Bert Jansch and Jackson C Frank.”

A flicker of unease crosses his face. “I could have ended up in a techno band for all I know.”

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