Interview: Pixies

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This interview originally ran as the Herald Arts Magazine cover feature in September 2016…

There is a new photograph of The Pixies, in which they’re flanked by a baying wolf. You wonder whether the creature is fearful, or fiercely protective, of the band. Perhaps it represents their spirit animal: a symbol of feral cravings and instincts. Or maybe it is howling at them, as one might the moon – its cries not unlike those of Black Francis, their wild vocal thaumaturge.

Then again, it might just be a throwaway prop. “I’m afraid that’s all it is,” says Pixies founder member and drummer David Lovering, with an apologetic laugh. “We did those photos in Brooklyn prop house, and they kept wanting to put these things in beside us. Usually we object to having stuff like that, but this time we thought we’d just do it, for the hell of it.”

Whatever the reason, real or imagined, the wolf is not the first beast to rove across the ravaged alt-rock of the Boston, Massachusetts band, whose malevolent pop and surrealist punk has influenced David Bowie, Radiohead and Nirvana. Since they formed in 1986, they’ve been variously plagued by Caribou (on their 1987 debut EP, Come On Pilgrim), Snakes (2014’s Indie Cindy), and praying mantids (their brand new album Head Carrier) – not to mention a Monkey Gone to Heaven (1989’s seminal Doolittle) – over a tumultuous career that has weathered fractures, splits, reported brawls, reunions and the loss of a well-loved linchpin.

For 28 years (break-up notwithstanding), the indie alchemists’ line-up comprised guitarist and vocalist Black Francis (aka Frank Black, born Charles Thompson), guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist and vocalist Kim Deal, and drummer David Lovering (who famously turned down an offer to join Foo Fighters after The Pixies split). New bassist and vocalist Paz Lenchantin joined in 2014, following the sudden departure of Deal, who also made huge alt-rock waves with The Breeders.

Deal was nigh-on synonymous with The Pixies – her bass and vocal swagger at the heart of many of their best-loved songs – and if fans of the band felt lost when she left, then they were not alone. “We were lost as well,” says Lovering, who recalls her announcing she was leaving after a seemingly amicable band dinner. “It was a very hard time. I remember that. But there was no real reason why, or why not, and we all wish her really well.” True to this sentiment, there’s a shimmering girl-group ballad on Head Carrier, All I Think About Now, which the band have called a tribute to Deal.

That said, The Pixies are laughing in their lupine promo shot, and the new album sounds like they’re having a ball. Despite it being their first without Deal, Head Carrier feels like a celebratory affair, as it revels in religious esoterica (Plaster of Paris), Mesopotamian deities (Baal’s Back), and raucous Neil Young invocations (the title track). The drummer nods. “It was a great experience all over,” he says. “We had so much time to work out songs. We had six weeks of rehearsing as a band, and that was a luxury we haven’t had for a long time. Each Pixies album back in the day got quicker and quicker to make, so we were kind of re-living what it was like as a baby band in Boston. That was a joy.

“And working with Paz has been a whole new experience,” he says of The Pixies’ rewired (and ever-cardinal) rhythm section. “Having worked with Kim for so long, I didn’t know anything different. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – that was a wonderful thing, I thought. But having Paz? Well, that’s a new animal. And she’s such a good bass player, she’s making me play better, because I don’t want to get embarrassed,” he laughs.

The band have enjoyed a long and illustrious alliance with producer Gil Norton, who helmed their mid-period triple-header of Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990) and Trompe Le Monde (1991), and with whom they re-joined forces on Indie Cindy. For Head Carrier, however, they wanted to be less defined (or confined) by the band’s history and mythology, and more fired-up by the band itself. In its new incarnation, that required a radical approach – or, as they put it, “a punch in the face.” They hired a new producer, Tom Dalgety (Killing Joke, Royal Blood, Simple Minds).

“I think this has all really just been about change for us,” Lovering says. “It was all around. It was there while we were having fun in the studio, and with a new bassist, and it was there with Tom producing. His name and credentials were perfect when we looked him up. And also, he was able to say, ‘I don’t like that song – throw it away,’” Lovering laughs. “That’s pretty tough. I don’t think The Pixies had ever heard that before.”

The self-proclaimed “dysfunctional band” (Lovering’s words) first assembled in early 1986, after college friends Santiago and Thompson advertised for a bassist who was driven by a musical love of folk revivalists Peter, Paul and Mary and hardcore punk trailblazers Husker Du. They only received one reply – from Deal – who then brought Lovering on board.

“I had worked with Kim’s husband, and he knew I was a drummer, so that was how it originally came about,” Lovering recalls. “I hadn’t played drums in a long time when they asked me – I was going to school by then – so I was surprised that I even went along. It’s interesting looking back on it, now I’m really thinking about it, because I don’t remember that much about going to meet them.

“I remember they had an old square Linn Drum [machine] though, and Charles had this acoustic guitar, and he was just playing stuff, early songs,” he continues. “And I was trying to play along, with my fingers, on the Linn Drum. But that’s about it. Although, when I asked Joe about it later, he was like – ‘man, you were so stoned that day’. And I don’t rule that out. So I can’t tell you that much more about the day we formed. But we left on good terms, as far as I recall.”

And lo, that was the birth of The Pixies. Their initial tenure stretched from 1986 to 1993, they were split from then until 2004, and when they got back together, “through a series of phonecalls that were started by a joke Joey made on the radio”, they re-entered the studio, fired straight into Monkey Gone To Heaven, and never looked back.

It’s one thing to reform and play old favourites, but another thing to reboot your canon with a new album, as The Pixies did with Indie Cindy, their first new LP since Trompe Le Monde. When did the subject of new material first come up? “Well, when we reunited in 2004, and up until 2011, we played reunion shows, we played our old catalogue, we toured Doolittle, and after that, we realised we’d been back on the road for over seven years,” Lovering offers. “Which was surreal, because that was longer than we’d initially been a band, before the split. So that was surprising, and that was also the impetus of what came next. We thought, ‘we can do this, we know what we like to do as a band, we’re still viable, let’s write new songs’. And here we are now, with Head Carrier, another new album…”

But Lovering hadn’t counted on that. He never believed there was a chance The Pixies would get back together. Which is why, when they split, he became a professional magician. He called himself The Scientific Phenomenalist, and toured with Grant-Lee Phillips, The Breeders and Camper Van Beethoven. “If you’d told me I was going to be a magician when I was younger, I’d have rolled on the floor laughing,” he says. “But I went to a magic convention years ago, and I saw magic that I’d never seen, like really cool close-up magic, and I was fascinated. I just didn’t know how they did it. After that, I took classes, I read books, I joined clubs. I woke up many times in bed with packs of cards all strewn around me. I love magic. It has a sense of wonder. It suggests that somehow, the impossible is possible.

“I could have picked a better career choice though,” Lovering quips. I’m not so sure. Whether in magic, or in music, he has long summoned invisible forces, subverted reality, defied nigh-on impossible things.

 

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Interview: Carla Easton (Teen Canteen / ETTE)

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper in January 2017.

There’s a state-of-the-art recording studio in an old Leith warehouse. It’s called Tape. The building used to be a brothel, a cork factory and a whisky bond, and in keeping with its colourful past, it’s now a digital / analogue hub whose stash of rock ‘n’ roll equipment has links to Fleetwood Mac, ABC, Abba. Glasgow indie-pop grrrl-gang Teen Canteen recorded their debut album there, and channelling their love of classic girl groups – not to mention Tape’s vintage fetishism – they recorded it in mono.

“We wanted to reference old girl group records and Spector records with the album. We were trying to build a new wall of sound,” says singer, keyboard player and songwriter Carla Easton, who is joined in Teen Canteen by Sita Pieraccini (bass), Chloe Philip (guitar) and Debs Smith (drums). Her Spector-esque references ring true, and Easton’s abiding love of girl groups – The Ronettes, The Cookies, The Shangri-Las – resonates throughout her work.

Teen Canteen trade in epic indie-soul (their debut, Say It All With A Kiss, was released in September), while her solo(ish) psychedelic DIY-disco project, Ette, is a titular nod to the suffix adopted by her favourite troupes (The Chordettes, The Bobbettes, The Marvelettes). Homemade Lemonade, Ette’s debut LP – as aided and abetted by Joe Kane of Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab – came out via Olive Grove in July.

Releasing two debut LPs within one year is no mean feat. “It’s been great, it’s been a brilliant year, and I’m so happy with the response to both records,” she says. “The Ette one was actually a kind of happy accident – I never intended to record an album’s worth of material, but Joe and I were enjoying ourselves so much we just kept doing it.” Around the same time, Teen Canteen wrapped up their crowd-funded calling card, so both LPs were released within months of each other. “People have been in touch to say that they own both, which is really nice,” she says. “I think they sort of work hand in hand with each other.”

It’s testament to Easton’s songwriting clout and versatile aesthetic that both albums shine in their own right, with neither eclipsing the other. Both play out like fizzy (power) pop-fuelled celebrations of life, love, and cheerleading the sisterhood, but there are stylistic divergences, too – Ette is more experimental and synth-led than Teen Canteen. “Both albums were very different in terms of recording atmospheres,” Easton adds. “The Teen Canteen album was done in this pristine, design-led space in Edinburgh – Tape – whereas the Ette album was done in a wee garage in the West End of Glasgow.”

Teen Canteen’s music has evolved – live and on record – since their formation in 2012; did Easton consciously set out to write a separate, stand-alone batch of tracks for Ette?” It just kind of happened with some songs I wrote last summer,” she offers. “Usually, when I write a song, I’ll do a wee demo of it, and send it to the rest of Teen Canteen, and we’ll all come together with ideas and parts. But I’d been working up the demos a bit more than usual, with vintage drum machines and synths and organs, so they just felt a wee bit too finished, as ideas.” And lo, the Ette songs were born. She worked them up in the studio with Kane. “It was just different,” she says. “Although now, if I write a song, everyone’s like – you know – Is that Ette? Or is it Teen Canteen? And I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing now,” she laughs.

That’s as maybe, but Easton has always seemed quietly assured and determined. Her teenage band with Pieracinni, Futuristic Retro Champions (those lively vintage vibes again), shared bills with The Vaselines and Kate Nash, and explored music’s kinship with visual art – a theme which still abounds in her work. Futuristic Retro Champions’ single, May The Forth (2010), featured artwork from Turner Prize winner Martin Creed (whose own band also played at the single launch), and Easton credits her former Edinburgh College of Art advisor, the late Paul Carter, with encouraging her to make music as well as art. Her postgraduate study at Glasgow School of Art followed a similar path: she sought out tutor Ross Sinclair, also a musician, who would go on to provide the artwork for Teen Canteen’s debut LP.

“I’d always been a fan of Ross – Paul Carter introduced me his work, and I love his music as well as his art,” Easton says. “So when I was at Glasgow School of Art, I had a tutorial with him – I think we ended up just sitting chatting about music, rather than any work I was actually making. So this felt like a nice way tie all that up, to have Ross involved with the album somehow.”

Among other sonic endeavours, Sinclair played drums in Sean Dickson’s Bellshill indie rabble the Soup Dragons – a band whose allies include Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Duglas Stewart of BMX Bandits. Stewart is also a vocal supporter of Easton’s work – so much so, he recorded one of her early songs, Fireworks, for the 2012 LP, BMX Bandits in Space.

“That song kind of kick-started the whole of Teen Canteen,” Easton says. “Duglas has always been really supportive, and I was a fan of BMX Bandits growing up, so it was a real confidence boost.” She recorded her own version of the song for Homemade Lemonade. “I think it’s quite nice to have that to sit alongside the BMX Bandits version,” she says. “And also, it was nice to do it because the cover of Homemade Lemonade is a photo of my eldest niece, Zoe, and Fireworks was written about her, shortly after she was born…”

Much of Easton’s work is similarly embedded in family and friendship. Teen Canteen bassist Debs Smith is a childhood friend, and her brother, Murray, co-runs indie label Last Night In Glasgow, which released Say It All With A Kiss. They’ve just teamed up for another LP, The Christmas Effect: a live recording of an all-star gig Easton and co staged last week to raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid and the Scottish Refugee Council. The Christmas Effect leads on from Easton’s charity nights, The Girl Effect, which also raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid (and which, naturally, sing the joys of the girl group…)

Does Easton feel a responsibility to raise social and political awareness through her art? “I feel that with everything going on at the moment, if you’re in the creative community, you can use a voice to raise awareness,” she says.

Having helmed two debut LPs and a charity album in 2016, you’d think Easton might stop to catch her breath, but 2017 kicks off with an Ette gig at Celtic Connections and a new Teen Canteen EP. “This time,” she says, “we’re recording in stereo.” Sometimes, there’s a lot to be said for coming at things from different angles.

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Interview: Bossy Love

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This interview originally ran as a Herald Arts magazine cover feature in August 2016.

There’s a great 1980s video by The Specials, for their ode to urban discontent, Ghost Town. It sees the ska revivalists crammed in a car, patrolling a city – presumably Coventry – navigating empty streets and socio-political angst, and defining an era in the process.

Their monochrome promo is loosely invoked in a recent clip from R&B livewires Bossy Love, but in their audio-visual rewrite, the car cruises Glasgow, the city is thriving, the subject is physical (the song is called Body), the mood is joyous – and the passengers are not a vintage 2 Tone troupe, but rather the day-glo future of Scottish pop.

Bossy Love are vocalist / MC Amandah Wilkinson and drummer / producer John Baillie Jr. They variously conjure Robyn, The Dream, Beyonce and Neneh Cherry with Rocketnumbernine, and they’re as bold and fun and glorious as their name suggests. Their track titles play out like exclamatory pop demands (Want Some, Sweat It Out, Tell You What, new single Call Me Up), while the music unleashes not so much an invitation to dance as an order.

They’ve only released a handful of singles and mixtapes to date, but have already bagged a heavyweight management deal (they share a roster with PJ Harvey and Radiohead), and had their brilliant recent Glastonbury performance televised by the BBC – and all from their HQ in Dennistoun, Glasgow.

The three of us meet in a Duke Street cafe, and talk about pop, architecture and happenstance over twice-fried chips and cheese, and builder’s tea in china cups. Baillie Jr and Wilkinson constantly spark off each other, sharing tales about playing with Kelis, the wonder of Glasgow, and how burgers and the Megabus saved their band.

The duo first crossed paths in 2008, while Wilkinson, then still based in her native Australia, was in the UK with her Gold Coast indie-punk rabble Operator Please. They ended up sharing a bill with Baillie Jr’s Glasgow fight-pop champions Dananananaykroyd. “We were both supporting The Futureheads at Fat Sam’s in Dundee,” Wilkinson recalls. “We rocked up to the gig, I got to the dressing room, and I saw the name Dananananaykroyd on the wall. I was really scared, because I’d heard so much about them, and I thought they were this scene-y kind of band. But then John, looking half-jaked, knocks on the door, nearly falls down the stairs, and does this: [she takes a deep breath, wavers backwards, closes one eye, drools and slurs] ‘Hey, I’m John, we’re sharing a dressing room…’”

Baillie Jr interjects. “I remember none of this. Obviously.”

“We clicked right away,” Wilkinson continues. “We spent three hours in there, being hyperactive, talking about the same stupid stuff.” They made their first recordings in Baillie Jr’s Glasgow flat shortly thereafter. “Nobody’s ever heard those tracks we did in 2008,” he reminisces. “We might resurrect at least one of them.”

Wilkinson nods earnestly. “We totally should. That track was banging.”

They kept in touch.

Towards the end of 2012, Wilkinson disbanded Operator Please, and moved to London with music in mind. “Bossy Love had been an idea for a while, and I had this bunch of demos, so I sent them to John,” Wilkinson says. Baillie Jr set to work on them that day. “The first thing he sent me back was Call Me Up, and I was amazed. Without having had to say a word, it was everything I’d ever wanted in a song.”

They worked together on a series of demos entitled Me + You through 2013, with Wilkinson travelling up to Scotland every few weekends. “I worked for Crossrail in London,” she recalls. “I’d leave the office on Friday night, get the overnight Megabus up to Glasgow, and John would pick me up in at six in the morning. We’d work on the tracks all weekend, and then I’d travel back down through Sunday night and go straight to work.”

There’s a sense of physical (and emotional) transportation in much of Bossy Love’s work, perhaps because of their origins in transit and motion. They’re propulsive, gleaming, and high-impact, yet they’re also deceptively minimalist, not least on Sweat It Out. It’s a stripped-back, beat-fuelled tropical jam that elicits Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, and the work of that song’s super-producer: the doyen of less-is-more, Quincy Jones.

“I love that,” says Baillie Jr, and aligns such precision pop with modernist architecture. “I have this theory,” he offers. “When you go into an old building, with ornate cornicing and everything, it ticks the ‘nice building’ box. But if you go into somewhere new, where you can see how it’s been built, and you can work out how it’s standing up, it has a certain presence, and power, of its own. I think it’s the same with music. If you can hear it, if everything’s clear to you, if you can pick things out, it can sound heavier. It can have more power. You don’t need much.”

That aesthetic resonates with fellow Glasgow electro trailblazers Hudson Mohawke and Chvrches, and Bossy Love highlight the city’s burgeoning (counter) cultural community in other ways, too: their genre-defying vibes noise up dance clubs, rock dives, indie gatherings and riot grrrl stages (they played an early gig for feminista-pop collective TYCI), and they underscore the city’s knack for nurturing brilliant, singular artists (see also: HQFU, Kathryn Joseph, Ela Orleans, Golden Teacher, Auntie Flo, The Van T’s – and WHITE, with whom they shared a stage at this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award ceremony at Paisley Town Hall, and with whom they play at Edinburgh’s Summerhall tonight).

“What I love about here is that we’ve got loads of friends that are in way different bands, all amazing at what they do, and there’s no competition,” Wilkinson says. Little wonder, perhaps, she was drawn to the city. She moved to Glasgow in 2014, thanks to a Bossy Love residency at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club, and Baillie Jr’s sideline as a kick-ass barbecue restauranteur.

“The Bongo residency was a real catalyst for me moving,” says Wilkinson of the venue, which was also a critical early space for Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers. “John would DJ, I would MC and sing over other people’s tracks, and then we started dropping our own songs,” she remembers. “The only problem was travelling from London and back to play.”

Baillie Jr had a plan. He opened up a “burger shop” – the delectable Texan hangout Dennistoun BBQ – and offered Wilkinson a job.

The duo’s nascent Bongo Club set-up has since evolved into an incandescent live show. Their gigs are thrilling and action-packed (Wilkinson can bust some moves), and the band always look like they’re having a ball. “We do a lot of pre-production, and put a lot of work in beforehand – and then we try to forget about it all onstage,” Bailllie Jr laughs. “Who in a crowd connects with someone trying to be perfect in front of you, anyway? People connect with vulnerability. It always feels like the wheels are about to come off at any minute when we’re playing live – and we’re not that bothered. A crowd doesn’t owe you anything. Your job is to go up there and try to summon something. Mistakes can free you up. You should be surprised as a performer, too.”

Wilkinson nods. “I love surprises. We supported Kelis in London the other week, and John did a new harmony onstage that he’d never tried before. He totally nailed it. And I was like that, into the microphone – [wide eyed, euphoric, punching the air] – ‘YES!’”

These days, they’re bolstered to a three-piece onstage, thanks to keyboard maharishi Ollie Cox – who, as fate would have it, was looking for a flatmate just as Wilkinson moved to Glasgow. “Everything just fell in line when I moved up here,” she muses. “It’s obviously how it was all supposed to be – this long, travelling idea that came to life when John and I started working together.”

We step out of the cafe; blink into the afternoon as the sun comes out. Baillie Jr squints at Wilkinson. “When I look back at us doing dance tracks in 2008, I knew then,” he says. “I knew we had unfinished business. We always had something. But you lived in Australia. And now here you are in Dennistoun.”

They head for their respective homes, this East End boy and East End girl, who light up the room and the sky and the city. Bossy Love is all you need.

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Interview: King Creosote

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This feature originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on August 25, 2016.

Elton John was bang on, as usual. It really is lonely out in space. Take Major Tom’s solitary tin-can odyssey, or Lou Reed’s forlorn Satellite of Love. Or take the new album from King Creosote, which sees our astral pop swashbuckler, aka Fife’s Kenny Anderson, navigate the vagaries of the cosmos – its isolation, obscurity, absence; its uncertainty and darkness; its light and stars and shadows – and reflect upon the distance between us.

Astronaut Meets Appleman, released next month, is the official follow-up to 2014’s celebrated From Scotland With Love, and may be KC’s most celestial and earthly album to date. If From Scotland With Love was a stunning epistle to (and from) our collective past, and 2011’s Mercury-shortlisted Diamond Mine was a love letter to the East Neuk of Fife, then Astronaut Meets Appleman is a series of postcards from the edges – of emotion, time, the coast, the sky, the underground, patience, silence and hope.

It’s a wilfully disoriented record, but it’s never alienating. Chamber-pop lullaby Betelgeuse locates him all at sea in the universe (“My ship has set course for the space in between Orion’s Belt and Betelgeuse, and I may not back”), bluegrass lament Wake Up To This finds him dealing with a leaky roof and / or biblical penance (“I deserve the flood”), and calypso serenade Love Life calls forth Flashdance and Scarlett Johansson before crashing back to earth (“she’ll have you ground down”).

We usually meet at Anderson’s house, do interviews over Earl Grey tea and macaroni pies at his Crail kitchen table. But Astronaut Meets Appleman sees KC depart his comfort zone – musically, lyrically, geographically – so this time, he journeys to the Central Belt. We meet in a Bridge of Allan pub, put the world and neighbouring planets to rights, surrounded by late-afternoon locals, two dogs, and a handful of men in their sixties who seem disinterested until Anderson makes to leave – at which point they accost him, tell him they love him, sing the praises of Bats in the Attic (from his Diamond Mine collaboration with Jon Hopkins), and continue to rave about his “magical” voice long after he has pulled down his hat, huddled into his jacket, and headed for home.

That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. Anderson has been amassing a DIY trove of intergalactic ballads and squeezebox shanties since the early 90s – not to mention his bluegrass punk peregrinations in the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and Khartoum Heroes, his beloved Fence Collective cabal (James Yorkston, KT Tunstall et al), and a mid-2000s major-label deal with Warners – but Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love are the records that have quietly, slowly captured wider public affection.

Diamond Mine’s excavation and re-honing of songs from Anderson’s prodigious back catalogue (a conservative estimate might put it at 100 albums) shines light on a timeless body of work full of hidden gems, and his recent albums follow a similar trajectory: historic favourites like My Favourite Girl and Pauper’s Dough were revisited on 2014’s hit From Scotland With Love along with original specially written works, and Astronaut Meets Appleman transforms and re-contextualises older recordings alongside new songs. Stunning orchestral-pop hymn Faux Call was a b-side almost 10 years ago; several tracks had a low-key outing on last year’s Smavulgar LP. Anderson’s songs seem to have their own time zones, life-spans and circuitous flight paths. People find him in their own time.

Now that they’ve done so, he seems to be trying to get lost again. He ventured into remote spaces making Astronaut Meets Appleman, which was variously recorded at Analogue Catalogue in Ireland’s County Down, and An Tobar on the Isle of Mull – although his spiritual home, Glasgow’s Chem19 studios, still played a part, as did its stellar foreman, Paul Savage, who co-produced the album. “I love Chem 19, I love Paul, we’ve done loads together, but I have to say, having places with views for a change – that was just stunning,” Anderson offers.

The music, too, evokes picturesque terrain, thanks to Catriona McKay’s exquisite harp, Hannah Fisher’s swoon-inducing fiddle, and the thrilling bagpipes of Mairearad Green, alongside KC’s stunning big band ensemble. “I thought it would be great to make a record that was musically Scottish after From Scotland With Love, which wasn’t really that Scottish at all,” he says, with trademark good-natured contrariness. “But I didn’t want this to be a traditional album. Like that Hendrix thing that Mairearad busts out, it totally grabs you.” He plays air bagpipes in the pub.

Green contributes to an anti-wind turbine song called Melin Wynt, named after a Welsh town called windmill, despite there being no windmills there. This clearly appeals to Anderson’s humour. His lyrical modus operandi has long been brilliant, cryptic wordplay – his protagonists and subject matter disguised in allusion, ambiguity and landscape – as best exemplified, perhaps, by You’ve No Clue Do You, the lead single from 2007’s major-label opus, Bombshell. The song unravels itself like a crossword puzzle (you’ll note the word Cluedo within the title, and the drive-rock whodunnit is populated by Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, et al). It contains one of KC’s most telling lines: “That’s yet another wrong guess.” We can but try.

But on Astronaut Meets Appleman, his words, on occasion, seem more straightforward than usual. Anderson nods. “There was the dislocation of getting out of the usual city and using other instruments with this record, but I also wanted to push myself songwriting wise,” he says. “I wanted to try and get some naivety back. If I’d done this record three years ago, there are lines that I’d never have left like this. I’d have kept on twisting words, I’d have kept on overthinking it. But here, I’ve let that go a bit. Sometimes you just have to take it on the chin and accept that you say daft sh*t.”

It’s hard not to suspect that this is a double-bluff; that such lyrics are deceptively simple – and therefore twice as complex as usual – but Anderson laughs off the suggestion. “I’m not always being cryptic here. And that’s allowed me to try and assert myself as someone who’s not as good as even I sometimes think I am. I can be banal. Everyone can. To allow yourself to be average, that’s what I’m aiming for.”

To what extent has writing for From Scotland With Love – which was largely composed in response to a brief – impacted on Anderson’s new material? “I think writing to rote for From Scotland With Love, and that whole idea of taking myself out of the equation, has freed me up a bit,” he offers. “I’d never done anything like that before. And I like that now, if I want, I can just go with the first couplet, and move on. The song can work anyway.

“The other thing is that taking the cleverness away from the words makes you concentrate on what’s going on with the music a bit more,” he continues. “The songs are getting longer and longer to accommodate everybody. There’s all these instruments. There’s all these singers.” It’s a beautiful record as a result – the unhurried arrangements of Faux Call and Rules of Engagement in particular are breathtaking, and will delight fans of Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love. But KC is not one to rest. “I actually almost feel I’ve stretched that big band idea as far as I can now,” he says. “I already hear this as a stepping stone to the next thing, even though I don’t know what that is yet.”

The album title similarly grapples with the unknown. “It’s a reality check,” says our DIY rocket man. “It’s an illustration of what my life’s like. This record wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for emailing WAV files around, and yet it doesn’t matter how much we strive for this digital utopia, there’s always this other thing that bites us in the ass, and it’s real life. It’s people. It’s mistakes. And then there’s the fact that I feel like I’m always reaching for something. I feel like I always have been. And I never get there.”

There’s a song about the moon on Astronaut Meets Appleman. Or rather, there’s a song called Surface, about losing sight of ourselves (and each other); about being eclipsed and taking cover; about seeking light and glimmering hope and finding a way when darkness falls. “It’s a heady descent,” King Creosote sings, and he’s right of course. But the sun also rises.

 

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Interview: Anna Meredith

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This interview originally ran via The Quietus in April 201
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South Queensferry is a picturesque old town on the banks of the Firth of Forth. Stationed between the river’s iconic road and railway bridges, it’s a realm of blurred and eddying boundaries – between city, countryside and coast; land and sea; history and industry.

Before the bridges existed, it was a ferry crossing from Edinburgh to Fife, and since then it’s thrived on making connections – ancient, modern, geographical, social – and composer / pop alchemist Anna Meredith grew up there.

Meredith, now based in London, has written music for Hong Kong park benches, Singapore sleep-pods, M6 service stations and Suffolk MRI scanners. She’s shared bills with Anna Calvi, James Blake and These New Puritans, versed Goldie in the world of classics, written concertos for human beatboxers, and was Composer in Residence for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Her recent BBC Proms performances have spanned a body-percussion magnum opus, collaborations with Laura Marling and The Stranglers (for the debut 6Music Prom), and a Last
Night At The Proms composition, Froms, which was simultaneously played by five symphony orchestras across the UK, and broadcast to 40 million people.

Caught your breath? Her thrilling debut album, Varmints was released last month on Moshi Moshi.

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NM: South Queensferry’s one of those places that isn’t one thing or another – it’s not in the city, nor quite in the country; it’s defined by bridges to other people and places – and I wondered if that landscape is reflected in the sociable, accessible, boundary-crossing music you make…

AM: “Yeah, it’s a slightly strange place to grow up, South Queensferry – in that your postcode’s Edinburgh, I went to school in Edinburgh, most of my mates lived in Central Edinburgh, and I went to orchestras and music groups every night there after school – but I spent most of my teenage years wishing we actually lived in the city. I feel like I spent half my life back then on incredibly infrequent buses. There was this amazing bus that used to go back and forth late from the city centre, it was called the Night Reveller – isn’t that a great name for a bus? You had this kind of Sophie’s choice between either a bus at quarter past midnight, and then there was nothing till quarter to three. So you’d just be sat there, on Waverley Bridge, in your tiny little sparkly dress, waiting and waiting for the Night Reveller. Or the Night Hawk, that was another one. They were always like the seventh circle of hell, those buses, with everyone being sick, winding through all the little rural villages out of the city…”

As much as those nocturnal odysseys sound faintly gothic and grim (and familiar), they also underscore ideas of human contact, and progression, which seem to be at the heart of your work – from your Connect It symphony, which embraced the human body as instrument and orchestra, to Varmints: an album of driving, communal party music.

“Composing can be really isolated. You write the piece, you hand it over to an orchestra, and that’s the end of your relationship. You’re not involved with the performance at all. But I guess I’ve always had this nagging idea that I wanted to be doing stuff with people – that’s why me and some friends put together the Camberwell Composers’ Collective. I’m quite a people person, so it feels pretty weird that I’ve ended up mainly doing this thing where I’m on my own for days and days and days on end, just sitting in my pants and hoodie, thinking, ‘Oh God, I really need to see somebody soon’. [Laughs] That’s why playing in a band, with this record, is so much fun.”

How did making the album compare to your classical commissions, in terms of how you decided on instrumentation – especially with regard to what traditional, or synthesised, sounds you used? There’s everything on there from cello, clarinet and xylophone, to all manner of bombastic, and sublime, electro divinations…

“Everything comes from a really practical place – it’s not like there’s been a guiding artistic principle that’s governed it all. I’m not a craftsman, I’m not somebody who enjoys spending hours finding a vintage synth, or a valve, or whatever. If it can work with really shitty sounds, then I’m happy, because that means the material’s good.
But I’ve also got a brilliant band, so we work with whatever sounds best.”

You sing on Varmints: that’s a new progression…

“Yeah, singing was a bit scary, and it’s definitely a step on from anything I’ve ever done before. But there’s a real accountability thing with this album. I wanted it to tie in with it feeling like I’ve done everything on it, and I also always want to push myself. I can’t think of anything – in a musical sense – where I’ve ever said, ‘Oh no, that’s too much for me’. Or, ‘I can’t do that, it’s too scary’. So even though I definitely do not have the best voice, it is my voice, and that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s honest. It’s not very polished. But that’s how I sing – like a squeaky five-year-old boy. [Laughs] I’ve made that work for me. I’ve got loads of amazing singer mates that I could have used, but I wanted not to make it seem like anyone else. I really wanted to make it clear that there was no-one else behind the record. There’s not some dude behind the scenes, who’s actually doing all the stuff. This has, from start to finish, been my thing.

“And when I’ve done everything, start to finish, I think it’s important to point that out. Hopefully it’s also a good role model for younger girls, to feel that they can do it. Whenever I’m teaching teenage girl composers, the one thing I always say is – don’t be too daunted by stuff you don’t know how to do. Because, having dipped my toe into this whole world, I’ve realised that there are as many factions and preconceptions and problems and rules [in pop] as there are in classical music. Someone, somewhere will always tell you what they think you should be doing. But all you should really be doing is working out what you want to do, and what you can do for yourself.”

You also explore your lyrical voice and language on Varmints. Even the titles seem loaded with poetry, or incongruity – from ‘Taken’s galloping choral euphoria, which feels like it gives us everything (and then some), to the woozy wordless diction of ‘Honeyed Words’…

“I’ve been thinking of titles in some form for years, but it’s been interesting watching how they evolve. I like idea that something’s not quite what you think it’s going to be. And quite a lot of the album track titles are slightly – I dread to use the word steam-punk, but it’s that idea of something being archaic but powerful, or spindly but massive, in whatever form.”

There’s a glorious cognitive dissonance in tracks like ‘Nautilus’, whose title evokes a fairly fragile mollusc, but whose sound is colossal and brawny and blazing with rock-opera histrionics..

“Exactly – and that’s gone on in lots of my classical stuff as well. Like Axeman for Electric Bassoon, where you look at a bassoon player, but it’s wired up to an electric guitar pedal, so – again – it’s that idea that what you see, or what you expect, is not what you hear.”

Other titles are founded on mythology, and memory. I’m sure I once read that your early EPs – Black Prince Fury (2012) and Jet Black Raider (2013) – were named after your mother’s imaginary horses…

“Haha, that’s right – isn’t that brilliant? My mum and her friend, when they were about eight, they thought they were imaginary horses. I’ve known about it forever, because whenever her friend would call, she’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s such and-such – she’s the one from the days when we used to think we were horses.’ So, I’ve always had those names in my head. And now they’re records.”

I love that idea of taking something abstract, or imagined, and making it physical; of creating a monument to a reverie. There are these giant horse-head sculptures near us, The Kelpies, and every time we pass them, my daughter’s fascinated by the fact that they’re what she calls, “Myths made out of metal”…

“Yeah, I love that too. It’s like taking a bit of something and making it whole. I guess that’s a lovely thing about doing this album – and it’s opposed to everything else I’ve done in my life – which is that it actually exists. First of all – and I know every band in the world must have this problem – but, as a composer, it seems amazing to put so much time and energy into something that nobody’s even asked for. That’s a very strange idea to me. Normally, with commissions, people are paying me, and there’s a deadline, and there’s a structure. But with stuff like this, with making an album, you’re living on the belief of the future of the whole thing.

“And now these EPs, this album, are things. They’re objects. Whereas anything else I’ve written is played once and then possibly never played again. All that weird process of building and creating something that’s just a moment in time and then passes on forever is quite a strange thing to get your head around. So it’s lovely to actually make something physical, that you build out of nothing.”

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They’re building a new Forth bridge in South Queensferry later this summer. It promises an original, improved and uncharted mode of forging connections, defying limitations and bringing people and places together. It’s an inspired idea, but not unprecedented. Some of its restless natives have been breaking that very ground for years.

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Interview: Minor victories

minor victories pic
This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in May 2016.

Stuart Braithwaite has been losing sleep. You may not be surprised to hear this, given his predisposition for invoking untold dread as a member of post-rock leviathans Mogwai – from composing for film-maker Mark Cousins’ nuclear meditation, Atomic, to conjuring fearful psalms for undead people (they soundtracked French zombie TV smash, Les Revenants).

But the root of Braithwaite’s nocturnal trauma is more chilling than any ex-corpse apocalypse or Cold War dystopia. He’s been having anxiety dreams. They’re caused by his moonlighting in a shoegaze supergroup called Minor Victories.

This searing, dreamy alt-rock alliance comprises guitarist Braithwaite, vocalist Rachel Goswell (Slowdive, Mojave 3), drummer Justin Lockey (Editors) and his brother James (bass) – not to mention exquisite guest turns from The Twilight Sad’s brooding lodestar James Graham, and Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon. They release their debut album next month. They play their first-ever shows this week. They have barely met each other.

According to Braithwaite’s recent nightmares, here is how those gigs play out. “I have the lyrics written in front of me, because I do a bit of singing, but they’re too small and I can’t read them,” he shudders. “I try to wing it, but the words are too wee, so I just sing gibberish. And when I look up, everyone’s left, because it’s so sh***.” He hazards a laugh. Still, he’s not alone. “Barry [Burns, Mogwai] had one about Atomic, where all the keyboards just made animal sounds.” Mogwai’slive debut of Atomic – which crashed the UK Top 20 Album Chart last month – is also scheduled to take place this week, to Braithwaite’s mild hysteria.)

Despite the guitarist’s subconscious concerns, here’s what’s rather more likely to happen at this week’s Minor Victories shows: collective swooning, voluble cheering and covert weeping, prompted by a gorgeous, languorous body of work. Despite the songs’ gravitas and cohesion, however, they were created in fragments, in remote parts, and emailed round band members who had rarely, if ever, met.

Braithwaite was recruited at the behest of indie trailblazer Goswell. “I was a big fan of Slowdive when I was at school – I went to see them in the early 90s – and when they reformed a couple of years back, we kept bumping into each other at festivals,” he says. “That’s how we got to know each other.” How did Goswell persuade him to join a band who’d never met, and who were going to make an album without everbeing in  the same room? That’s a pretty big sell.

“It started in a low-key way,” Braithwaite recalls. “Rachel messaged me asking if I wanted to play guitar on some songs she was doing with Justin from Editors.” The plan, back then, was for Lockey and Goswell to record a noise EP. But the collaboration found its own momentum, and course, and before they knew it, they had “seven or eight” songs.

“The first song I got was Out To Sea,” Braithwaite remembers. “That was pretty finished, so I just put more guitar over the top. But then something like Breaking My Light changed a lot as we sent it round each other and added stuff on. That was originally just Rachel and a piano, but when I did my guitars, I realised the song could be a lot longer. So we quadrupled the length of it, and then Justin played loads of mad drums over the top, and then – because it was longer – Rachel had to go and write more words,” he explains. Just like that. “It just all worked.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its disembodied origins, and evolution through the ether(net), notions of being untethered loom large on the album – from titles like A Hundred Ropes and Breaking The Light to searching entreaties on Give Up The Ghost (“Won’t you tell me what it’s for?”) and Scattered Ashes (“Tell me what it’s all about…”)

Did they discuss any over-arching aesthetic for the album in advance? “Not really, but I think we’re all from quite similar independent music backgrounds,” Braithwaite offers. “I’m sure we’ve not all got the same record collections, but I think we’ve probably got similar ideas about music.” (You could probably bet on Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Berlin-era Bowie and The Cure featuring in their collective jukebox.)

One of the album’s stand-out tracks is Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard), a duet between Goswell and Graham that’s so impassioned, fierce and intimate you’d swear they were singing face-to-face, into one microphone. Not so. “They were never in the same room,” Braithwaite says. “I tried to sing that song at first, but I couldn’t sing high enough. Justin’s a big Twilight Sad fan – Editors have taken them out on tour – and they’re really good friends of ours, I’m a huge fan. So we got James in. It was good fun. When he was recording it, Rachel was on Skype, because she was really particular about exactly how the phrasing should be. She’s a very, very particular musician. Probably more than anyone I’ve ever made music with,” he muses. “And it’s totally worthwhile.”

The video for Scattered Ashes depicts a panic-ravaged urban landscape in which cats look set to take over the earth. In a scene redolent of Mogwai’s Atomic, the promo climaxes in a mushroom cloud: a devastating, earthly reminder that laser-eyed felines and pop music are eternally cool, but we’re all just dust. What with that, and titles like Give Up The Ghost, it’s little wonder Minor Victories look set to haunt our hearts and minds. Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.

Minor Victories’ debut album is out on June 3 via PIAS / Fat Possum.

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Interview: Savages


This interview was originally published via Instagram Music in January 2016.

Savages don’t pull any punches. But there’s more to the fist on the London­-based quartet’s new album artwork than that. Adore Life, the cinematic post-­punks’ second LP, is by turns inflammatory, menacing and tender, and if the cover’s fist aloft suggests protest, empowerment and jubilation – and maybe holding something (a person?) tight – then their recent singles further explore the myriad expressions of the human hand. The sleeve for “T.I.W.Y.G”’ is almost a wave, or a letting -go. “The Answer” sets forth a raised palm, like in a classroom.

What is the question? The answer is love.

“The idea for the artwork started in the back of the tour bus,” recalls Fay Milton, who plays drums in Savages alongside Jehnny Beth (vocals), Ayse Hassan (bass) and Gemma Thompson (guitar). “We realised we needed something very personal to the band, and something very human. We liked the idea of using the heart tattoo on Jehnny’s wrist. We wanted something which represented the message and the sound of the record,” she explains. “The fist is such a great icon of strength, positivity, resistance, confrontation and solidarity. The tattooed anatomical heart is the depiction of the pain and reality of love.”

Since they formed in London in 2011, Savages have invoked minimalist, dramatic rock that’s primal yet precision­-tooled. It’s honed by a democratic creative process which, says Milton, involves, “All of us bringing ideas, [and] working and reworking the songs until they don’t even resemble their starting point… like a long four-­way train of thought.”

True to this collective spirit, the visual imagery of Adore Life, and its attendant singles, variously features the hands of each band member. The half-­open palm on the artwork for ferocious rock avowal, “The Answer”, belongs to Milton. “I wanted to try a gesture that was more welcoming than the fist,” she offers. The day before their album artwork deadline, she and Beth had an extensive discussion via text message about the myriad meanings of the angles and positions . “That’s just like us to be over­-thinking things at the last minute,” Milton says with a laugh.

Savages’ 2013 debut album, Silence Yourself, was dispatched with a 36­-line manifesto on its sleeve, and while their their second album cover text is minimal in comparison (reading simply, SAVAGES // ADORE LIFE), its image speaks volumes about its direction; suggests a sense of breaking through, of pushing things – to the limit, perhaps. “We definitely wanted to take all of the elements from Silence Yourself and push them further and in different directions,” Milton nods. “And the title, Adore Life, could be seen as a two-­word manifesto for the record.”

Adore Life was recorded in London in April 2015, a few months after the band played a live residency in New York with a view to firing up (and road testing) their new material on­stage. “The songs really take form in that environment,” offers Milton. “It’s the place where anything unnecessary is cut out, and everything becomes harder and faster. It breathes life into the songs.”

Savages thrive on fan interaction, as their recent, chaotic, crowd­-surfing video for “The Answer” attests. “That was an amazing day,” Milton recalls. “About 100 fans came to the shoot [in Lisbon] and jumped and moshed for 10 hours straight. When we weren’t in shot, we went and joined them, so if you look really closely you can probably see us jumping around at the back. It was like one giant party.”

There’s a photo of those fans en route to make the video, and they look delirious. It’s one of many behind­-the-­scenes images that illustrates Savages’ relationship with their fans. “It’s a two way thing, so we need to reflect that in our videos, writing process and Instagrams,” Milton offers.

And what of the shot of their Christmas party – the four of them huddled behind a couple of teapots? Did they don party hats? Sing festive songs? “Haha, no crackers or carols I’m afraid. Just a lot of laughing.”

There’s an aesthetic theme that unifies Savages’ Christmas tea parties, Portuguese moshpits, promo shots and gripping cover art – and that is the band’s predominant framing in black-­and­white. Is it designed as an extension of their stark music – of their impeccable study in the tension between dark and light (and in-­between) – or is it an austere kick against our frantic, technicolour media landscape?

“It does reflect our minimalist tendencies,” Milton nods. “But it was an intuitive decision, and it’s a look that’s been part of Savages from the start. We became monochrome and monochrome became us.”

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