This interview originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on November 14 2011, under the heading WHY WOUNDED KNEE IS BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE.
Edinburgh vocal artist Drew Wright, alias Wounded Knee, is detailing a recent shopping binge. “I went into the Harris Tweed shop in Tarbert and went a wee bit mad,” says the self-professed “future-primitive” bard, who aligns Hamish Henderson with Dead Kennedys. “They were selling bags of Harris Tweed cut-offs, and almost without thinking I picked them up. It just seemed like a good idea,” he laughs. “It’s such beautiful stuff.”
We can share the fruits of Wright’s Hebridean fabric splurge thanks to his new album, House Music – an enthralling oral anthology that comes with a free swatch of Harris Tweed. Fusing traditional songs, contemporary psalms, political reels and soul re-wirings, it’s a striking introduction to an artist whose primal hymns and vocal loops might loosely be termed as “techno-folk”.
“I suppose House Music kind of shows off the feathers in my cap,” offers Wright, who is as likely to cite Public Enemy and The Blue Nile as he is Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl. “There’s plainsong on it, there’s stuff with loops, there’s more abstract feedback-y tape experimentation, all distilled into these quite accessible wee chunks.”
With the record’s initial low-key run via Wright’s Krapp Tapes label long sold-out, House Music is being re-issued by Edinburgh DIY enterprise Gerry Loves. In-keeping with the label’s devotion to physical artefacts, the re-release comes on yellow cassette with bespoke artwork, stickers, the aforesaid twill – and a download code.
As with Wright’s versatile aesthetic, and his Wounded Knee pseudonym (it derives from a football injury, but its historical weight is not lost on Wright), the title works on several levels. House Music echoes Wright’s fascination with art’s sense of place, and it locates his own work which is largely created at home. But it also resonates with his nascent musical exploits seven years ago.
“When I first started trying to make music, I was trying to make dance music,” he says. “I found the programming a bit frustrating though, and I started listening to a lot more abstract, experimental music which was looser and more improvised. That gave me a bit more confidence to start doing stuff myself.” Several self-released records and a remarkable debut album, Shimmering New Vistas (Benbecula, 2009), ensued.
There are still traces of minimal techno, dub and R&B in Wright’s compositions, and often his work celebrates the interface – tension, even – between ancient modes and futuristic technology. But a recent residency at Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies as part of the Archive Trails endeavour, alongside Alasdair Roberts and Aileen Campbell, has seen him re-evaluate the perceived gulf between old and new.
“It’s been interesting to find that quite often there’s not that much difference between notions of modernity and tradition,” he ventures. “If you’re in a sweaty house or techno club listening to really stripped-down drum music, then that’s not a million miles removed from some ritualistic aspects of more primitive folk forms.
“I’ve also been quite heavily influenced by Hamish Henderson,” continues Wright of his Archive Trails enlightenment. “Hamish was always an advocate of a living tradition – he coined that phrase of the carrying stream of tradition, which is a beautifully poetic image, but it’s also that notion of something being passed on. So as soon as I decide to perform a song publically, then that keeps it alive in some sense, you know?”
Wright does not so much uphold songs in our consciousness as invest in them a thrilling (and often transformed) new lease of life, as evinced by his version of Scots ballad The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow (for a recent split-single with Roberts and Karine Polwart) or his haunting, a cappella re-draft of The Blue Nile’s glossy urban classic, Tinseltown in the Rain.
Yet for every pop re-animation or trad-folk relocation, Wounded Knee has an original, punk-spirited mantra up his sleeve. From last year’s jaw-dropping Tomlinson’s Rant (provoked by death of Ian Tomlinson at London’s G20 protests), to House Music’s ingenious Anti-Fascist Reel, there is a livid streak of political discourse in Wright’s portfolio. Does he believe music should be a conduit for activism?
“Definitely,” he nods. “I don’t think there’s enough music with a social conscience at the moment. Maybe there is and I’m not aware of it, but I feel that it’s not the kind of thing that hits the mainstream so much anymore. Not in the way it used to – you know, Public Enemy, Dead Kennedys, The Pogues. They could have a big appeal, even though they were highly politicised. Even people like Dick Gaughan: there’s a lot of it in the folk tradition too.”
Our lover of folk, and punk, and tweed, concludes as he warms to his theme. “There should always be an element of protest in music, as much as it should be about celebrating all the good things in life.”
See www.iamwoundedknee.com for news, gigs, releases etc.