Interview: The Grand Gestures

This interview originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on 31 May, 2012, under the heading GRAND GESTURE TO CREATE A BRAND NEW MUSIC GENRE…

Not every Scottish pop group can regard Pat Cash among their fans. But The Grand Gestures are no ordinary band.

Curated by Jan Burnett, frontman of enduring Dundee scuzz-pop voyagers Spare Snare, The Grand Gestures sees Burnett compose electronic, (un)earthly soundscapes, upon which the likes of Sparrow and the Workshop’s Jill O’Sullivan, former Delgado Emma Pollock, and comedian / writer Sanjeev Kohli (Still Game, Look Around You) cast their lyrical and vocal charms. They release their eponymous debut album on Burnett’s self-run Chute Records this week, and play a special one-off show at King Tut’s in Glasgow on Friday.

“A lot of the reason behind making the record was to do stuff I’ve never done before, and to actually speak to people – to get them involved, be sociable, have people round to my house, make curries, and songs, of course,” says Glasgow-based Burnett of a project that’s been a year-and-a-half in the making. It also features artists Celie Byrne, Calamateur and Calamity Horse, plus Burnett’s dad on slide guitar, and a cameo from his young daughter. The album was recorded in Burnett’s toilet, and artists were remunerated in curry.

It’s an approach that allies the communalism of folk with the openness of jazz, but it beats with a dark electro heart. “What I collect and listen to and love is pop music – St Etienne, Pet Shop Boys, I’m a big fan of Mute Records,” enthuses Burnett. Indeed, while Spare Snare’s no-fi indie was beloved of Peel, the influential cult outfit (who have a new album in the pipeline) also recorded ace covers of Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name and Cliff Richard’s Wired For Sound.

For Kohli, a long-standing friend of Burnett, the project’s appeal lay in trying his hand at something unexpected and new. “I’d never recorded anything like that before in my life,” says the man who plays Still Game’s Navid, and Rajesh Majhu in Radio 4’s Fags, Mags and Bags. “It was genuinely great fun to go to Jan’s house, go into his toilet, record a song, then have a curry.”

The LP has two contributions from Kohli – one a rhythmic, Ivor Cutler-ish monologue on the dude behind Lady in Red (I Wonder What Chris de Burgh is Doing Right Now); the other a widescreen, and genuinely moving, groove epic about a Wimbledon romance called The Ballad of SW19 – hence the Pat Cash endorsement. “I’ve written comedy songs before, and I think I’m quite musical, but this was the first time I’d sat down to write a serious lyric,” he says.

Kohli has cult-pop form, however, thanks to his TV alter-ego Synthesizer Patel, star of BBC instructive science spoof, Look Around You. So popular was Kohli’s synth-obsessed picador that he performed onstage at London’s Royal Festival Hall, at the behest of alt-rock idols and Patel fanatics, Wilco. “They got in touch and asked if Synthesizer Patel would like to join them live. So there I was, miming along with them on the keytar,” Kohli laughs. “And then my second time onstage with a band was two days later, when I did it again at the Barrowland. I feel like it was building up to this though.”

Other members of The Grand Gestures are rather more versed in singing, recording and collaborating – notably Emma Pollock (The Burns Unit, Ballads of the Book), and Jill O’Sullivan (The Fruit Tree Foundation). Yet Burnett’s endeavour still offered a chance to break new ground, suggests O’Sullivan. “I liked the fact that Jan gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted. I’d never really sung with someone else’s music before and I wasn’t sure what to do,” she says. “But it was cool, focusing more on the lyrics, whereas I usually focus more on the melody.”

O’Sullivan was the only Grand Gestures member that Burnett did not know in advance. “I’d been looking for a female vocalist, and got talking to Muslim [Alim, BBC radio producer] who immediately said, ‘Ask Jill’ – and lo and behold,” Burnett smiles. It makes for a remarkable pairing – Burnett’s sparse alt-rock and organic electronica provide a vivid backdrop for O’Sullivan’s gorgeous, expressive vocals.

“I think you have to treat everything you do as a unique experience,” O’Sullivan offers. “So for Deer in a Cross Hair, I was thinking about The Shangri-Las. I’ve never spoken during a song before, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ The other song Jan sent me felt a bit more dubby, more R&B – a bit more spaced out – so I went with that for There’s No Place Like Home. It’s about the idea of potential totalitarianism; the idea that someone else makes decisions for you.”

Kohli feels this multitude of voices and perspectives is what makes The Grand Gestures. “That’s the beauty of the album,” he says. “You’ve got these six different viewpoints, but it all fits together, and there is a kind of theme of darkness, but I also think there’s something that characterises all the music on the record. It’s really hooky, but at the same time there’s something really otherworldly about it. It’s almost unnerving at times.

“It’s strange to call this music industrial and warm, but it is,” continues Kohli. “The first thing Jan sent me was the music for The Ballad of SW19, as it became, and that was a hell of a funky – it reminded me of a Prince song and I’m a massive fan of the wee guy. I had this idea about a romance set in a tennis court, and I just started writing and writing, and it ended up being 15 minutes long so poor Jan had to write more music. And I tell you what, the music that he added on, with that kind of heartbeat thing going on, that makes my wife cry every time she hears it.”

“That was quite deliberate, to make it as warm as possible,” Burnett smiles. “I wanted it to be like happy families; like a Kraftwerk you can speak to.”

“Friendly Robot,” concludes Kohli. “That’s the genre Jan has created.”

The Grand Gestures is out now on Chute Records. They play Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, London on 02.11.12, details to follow.

(Jan Burnett photograph by Graeme Ogston)

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