Thursday, August 07, 2008

Interview - The Pictish Trail / King Creosote: Part 1

Words: Chris Hynd

So this is part 1 of an interview with The Pictish Trail and King Creosote. These 2 lads can sure chat away so it turned into a bit of an epic and so perhaps the best thing to do was to break it into two.

A somewhat unexpected treat awaited me as I made my way to Edinburgh's Avalanche Records on a wet and wild Wednesday afternoon. I had arranged to interview 2 of Fence Records' finest, Pictish Trail (a.k.a Johnny Lynch, who was playing an acoustic set in Avalanche) and HMS Ginafore (a.k.a Jenny Gordon, who was appearing later that evening with Johnny at a gig part of the Retreat Festival at St John's Church).

However, Jenny wasn't around to do the interview, but Johnny had a cunning plan. “I'll get him to tag along”, gesturing to his pal who had just accompanied him on the majority of his instore set. His pal being Kenny Anderson, or King Creosote to you and me. As substitutes go, it was pretty much up there. So we headed to a nearby hostelry, drinks were procured and I kicked things off by asking their thoughts on the instore that had just finished.

Johnny Lynch - “I think it went as well as it could have done. They're weird things because you're there totally dry, people feel a bit awkward as they've not had anything to drink, which I think is a massive factor. Everyone's a bit nervous and they're aware that this isn't something that you would normally get in a record store but I tried to do a bit of chat, there was a bit I did about a disabled person, that wasn't great!”

Kenny Anderson - “It's also quite brutal. It's you standing there trying to sell your wares, it's like having a wheelbarrow full of oranges on the street or something, going “buy my thing”. When you normally play live, there's never any mention of that, you might mention an album but not when you're working in a record shop.”

JL – “I think people are more forgiving because of that. When you're seeing a band, unless it's totally rammed, like some instores “oh man Sons And Daughters are playing!” and it's packed, that's kind of what I was expecting...”

KA - “Yeah Johnny, it was absolutely rammed. You couldn't get out of the shop...”

JL - “Is this what “rammed” means...?”

KA - “The worst one to do is One Up in Aberdeen, a big record shop like that in front of 20 or 30 people but in a way it makes it better, you come out of your shell more and you have a better craic with the people that are there. But, it's an odd thing.”

Moving on to the gig you're due to play tonight. There are a lot of competing attractions in Edinburgh at this time of year. How do you think the Retreat Festival will fit in to Edinburgh in August and do you think it's a much-needed addition to the city?

JL – “I think it is but it's going to take a long time to establish itself. If it's successful this year then great but I think it's going to take a long time for it to get to that stage. This whole town changes in this month, we've done little bits and pieces at the Festival like at the Underbelly, I did a show for Acoustic Edinburgh last year and it was well-attended but the norm is that people go and pay £8 or £9 for a comedian for 40 minutes and then they walk out. The gig type thing doesn't really fit in in that environment, you have to be there for at least 3 hours. The Retreat thing's interesting, they're trying to do something that's affordable, reaching out to a local audience but you're right, it's competing against a total monster.”

KA - “I used to have a real bugbear about playing during the Festival – being a Scottish band playing at the Festival, people can see you at any time of the year so why would you knock back going to see The Mighty Boosh live or whoever in favour of a band? But somebody pointed out that people all over the world may know the band and the band name and we never tour in those countries. We never tour in Italy or Spain and this would be the chance where a random person who comes over for the Festival but would never buy a plane ticket to come over and see you play. They might know your name, they might pick your gig out of whatever's on so thinking about that maybe it does work.”

Looking from the outside, the Retreat Festival's been put together with a lot of care and love for the music being put on, with a notion to doing something different. It seems like a similar ethos to Fence. How important is that to putting something like this together?

JL - “There's so many promoters in the big cities, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh, who just do the same, generic shows, they'll put massive posters up for The Complete Stone Roses or whatever, it's just really boring. There's a few folk out there that are doing things, like Synergy, Grainne puts on some great shows and she really believes in the bands and particularly American bands that she's very willing to put on. I think what's good about the Tracer Trails thing, Emily Roff who's the founder of that is from where we're from, we used to teach her when she was at school...”

KA - “I taught her Physics and Maths...”

JL - “I did Maths as well, you can't have done Maths?”

KA - “You did English.”

JL - “No, we did these music workshops there.”

KA - “I think a lot of these ideas, our passion for things, rub off on folk, and it does rub off on folk. I think what she does with Tracer Trails is very Fence and very Trailer Park, even the name itself is tied in.”

JL - “Not a rip-off of that but it makes sense. She's been to a bunch of Fence shows and for me that was the attraction before I was even involved in Fence, seeing a collective of musicians that were local and were good and were approachable and wasn't intimidating. There's a totally different relationship you have with music if there's a dialogue there with your audience. I think that's hopefully what Fence has with the Homegame and I think that's what Emily's trying to have with her own thing.”

KA - “You're allowing people to choose. You do your thing and you let people find you, there is a certain type of music fan that would rather it was that way, they'd rather approach the band on their own terms than have some other third party force that band down their neck. I just think it's cooler if you find something for yourself. A lot of people latch onto music and gigs as it's the thing to do, they're not necessarily fans of bands or scenes they just go because everyone else is going and it's perceived to be cool. But, you've always got people who fall out the cracks, they don't dress trendy and they feel awkward in these situations and they're the kind of people who gravitate to us as well. It's not only for misfits, but we do seem to have a lot of awkward people who queue up in a line of trendy fans then they're going to go to this other thing.”

I was going to say that with your gigs, you're getting a lot of like-minded people in the same room, for example the gig you did at The Caves, there was this great atmosphere, people were enjoying themselves and it was a great night.

JL - “The good thing about that night was that there was a lot of different guests involved, it was quite free form. I listened back to what we played, technically it was a bit off! But people want that in a way, they want to see the mistakes. The danger is, and Fence has definitely encountered it, you've got to a certain size and there's an audience and the awareness is such, particularly in the media, that you're very established. 6 months later another Fence item comes along, people are like “I've heard of them, what they do is quite naff”, these music events where you do have this communication with the audience is perceived as being quite naff because the thrill of rock & roll is going to see bands and them being untouchable. For example, one of Kenny's favourite bands is Simple Minds or one of my favourite bands, and I'm going to put it out there, is A-Ha...”

KA - “You're all right, that's got kudos.”

JL - “We both like naff things but these are things that are totally untouchable and you're allowed to have a thrill about these bands.”

KA - “It is true though that it's disappointing when you meet your musical heroes, they're human. We bumble about at gigs, we don't scuttle onstage from some back route, we just walk through the audience. I haven't yet asked a Fence fan whether they find that less rewarding or more rewarding, that they know all our faults.”

But it breaks down this barrier between performer and audience though. You're on the stage, we're on the floor watching you and we think maybe we can relate to you, that we're on your level.

KA - “I think a lot of our fans tend to be people who play music as well. There's a thought that “these guys can do it, and they're quite approachable”. There's no secret to what we do and when you see us play live it's not always going to be perfect.”

JL - “We're not technical players in that way. You're like...”

KA - “I'm incredible on the accordion!”

JL - “You're incredible on the accordion is what I was trying to say...”

KA - “I'm not actually.”

JL - “What I was trying to say about our songs and stuff, there's not anything flash.”

KA - “Our gigs are kind of a free for all for the people we invite along. That live set we did in The Caves, it's not rehearsed, we just stand onstage and start and see what's going to happen and when it works well it's amazing, it's a great buzz for the players. It does go wrong though.”

JL - “But people are more forgiving. They see things going wrong, they see the weaknesses...”

KA - “If you get people who've read a bit of press, you know “this is what they're meant to sound like”, they stand there and go “this isn't very good” and it isn't very good. They don't appreciate that thing that we're just up there winging it because a lot of people go to gigs and think that every single thing was meant.”

Talking of playing live, do you approach a show differently whether you play solo or with a band? And which do you prefer doing?

JL - “They both have their positives. I like playing with a band because you get bigger shows and audiences and you don't have to play as much, I certainly don't when I play with my band, at any one point I can stop what I'm doing and just sing and know there's somebody there behind me. I'm more relaxed when I'm playing band shows than acoustic shows, but there's that thrill when you're doing acoustic shows, there's less of a distraction and you don't have to put on a front.”

KA - “Don't you put on more of a front in a way? If you sit on your own playing then the chat can go whereever. There's no setlist, you can play whatever you feel like playing and you can use an audience, because it's a lot smaller, to guide you through a set. If you've got a band, you've pretty much got your set, the songs you've all worked out. I don't know how many songs as a live band we could pull out of the bag?”

JL - “The KC thing is a lot. We did these 2 consecutive shows at Oran Mor in Glasgow, a 2 hour set each night and didn't repeat 1 song. There was 4 hours of stuff and still it was like “oh shit, we could have played that song!”

KA - “That's slightly different because it's a smaller pool of songs but it does depend on the gig. If it's a festival gig you need your band there. Even when we did the big support slot last year, I did one of the gigs on my own and it was horrible, standing in front of 2,500 fans of the band coming on next. It was a nightmare and I don't want to ever do that again. Whereas with a band it's still a nightmare but it's easier, there's safety in numbers.”

JL - “With the support shows, the perception is that all you're there to do is make a noise and if one song gets out there then great. You're just there to fill up time and fuck off stage! People are not there to see you, not so much for smaller shows but we did these KT Tunstall shows and Squeeze shows last year and there's a bit of a crossover audience but there's also an audience that are just there to see these people and it'll be the only gig they'll go and see that year. That's fair enough, although you're not really playing to music fans.”

KA - “Remember that show we did in Reading and the acoustics in the hall could not accommodate a band sound. We had to play acoustic and it was right in the middle of a tour, the backline wasn't too happy because it meant they had to sit it out but it made a better show for the people who were there. I don't know if you ever learn how to read an audience but there is a time for playing a solo song even in the middle of a band set if you think people are going to want to hear it.”

JL - “Definitely. It needs to have that dynamic and it makes it more exciting.”

KA - “But we're also a band who haven't had “hits”, there isn't a whole audience there for 1 or 2 songs, a lot of bands are in a situation where they have had 1 or 2 hits.”

JL - “I think that's less true, there's 1 or 2 things that folk will be aware of.”

KA - “But people still want to hear songs off that last record, “Bombshell”, they want to hear “KC Rules OK” songs, they want to hear “Favourite Girl”, the hits that they've made up from that album.”

Do remember the ABC show last year, there were these drunk kids down the front consistently shouting out?

KA - “There was this one guy going, “play something we know!” Well, ask it in a nice way and you might get it. I think he'd been brought along by KC fans, I don't think he was a fan. Somebody came up to me after that and apologised, “yeah, we brought this guy along, he got totally drunk and became a nuisance”, they ended up having to haul him out.”

Good! Going on to talk about the new Pictish Trail record Secret Soundz. Johnny, how happy are you with it and what was the reason behind delaying its proper release and only selling it at shows?

JL - “I'm really happy with the way it sounds. There was a lot of pressure on me and I had been doing the songs from the record for quite a while and people were asking if I was touting it round other labels but I was just too busy with the other Fence stuff and with Kenny's band. In a way I was kind of neglecting my own songs a little bit but I didn't feel like that at the time. There was stuff coming out through Fence anyway and I recorded this stuff with The Earlies and I recorded these things at home and then I listened to the versions of my own stuff so much that I couldn't really think of them being in any other way. I fitted them together and I got this image from the guy who did the artwork for the album, as soon as I saw that I thought I could see an album with this thing. I wrote the last song, Secret Sound #5 specifically with that artwork in mind, that'll bookend the album with the other one. I was quite nervous about what other folk would think of it, I gave it to him and...”

KA - “It's amazing. Your albums are so random. I first met Johnny and he said he'd recorded these songs on this weird computer of his sister's and they were great, we had to get those out there. Then you decide to meander about so this thing being pulled together from so many things it just makes sense. When are you ever going to into a studio and say “I've got an album to make”? That's never going to happen.”

JL - “No, it's not happening like that. One of my favourite records is this Beck album called “Stereopathic Soulmanure”. I love Beck and not even all the songs on it are good but as an album it just works so well. There's so much mad shit on it, you've got the tracklisting on the back that starts off but by track 12 he's forgotten that he's put an extra couple of tracks on it and it's wrong! There's stuff there that's been recorded in a studio and stuff that's been recorded at home, I totally love that record. There's definitely a bit of that when I put this thing together and I want to have that whenever I do Pictish Trail. We were talking already about how I want to do sessions with Kenny, do recordings at his place, maybe go to Chem 19 at some point and do 3 or 4 songs there and I want to have that hotchpotch feel for everything. I just get bored!”

KA - “The thing as well, you do an album in stages then there's a better chance that it's a better album. If you distance yourself from it then it's not the 12 songs you had at that certain point. There's something to be said for albums like that, that capture what that band's like and that's fine. If you're somebody like Johnny or myself, we're here, there and everywhere doing collaborations and mixing things for other people, it's good to take time away. My next album will be done in 2 very different time periods. “Bombshell” was very extrapolated, “KC Rules OK” was done in 10 days but the songs were pulled at random so for us it works going to an album either (a) not knowing you were doing an album anyway or (b) not knowing how it's going to turn out. That's very much a Fence thing, to make it up as you go along and that's what interests us, the whole idea of taking a band to some far, distant studio wherever having rehearsed and rehearsed for a month to record these 10 songs has no appeal, not for me anyway. That sounds like music by numbers.”

JL - “That would be such a stressful period to do music in as well, to go away knowing that 10 days later you've got to have a thing.”

KA - “Remember when we turned up at Rak Studios to do 4 songs, we hadn't rehearsed and when we went in there the guys that ran the studio wanted to do them as live takes and we were “yeah, yeah, whatever”. We've had bands tell us this in the past, really good bands telling us that we'd never manage live takes, completely berating us but what it made us do is go away, play it round a few times and go “we can't actually get any better than this!” so we're either a shit band who'll never be able to do a live take or I don't know what. We went in there and just nailed those takes and the engineers said so and these were the very guys who were telling us that before. Maybe it made us play better.”

You mentioned that you bring it all together from a hotchpotch of ideas, you have electronic songs, acoustic songs etc on the album but you're not thinking that “I want to do an electronic album” or “I want to do an acoustic album”, you want to bring it all together?

JL - “Yeah. I'm doing this thing at the moment with Adem and he does these quite acoustic sounding things and this past month we've started doing a record together, we did a song a day for 4 days and we'll be looking through another batch of things this weekend. We want to get 10 tracks together, and they're quite electronic, and get it out next year. For me, that's a totally different way of recording but it's exciting. I don't think it's Pictish Trail stuff but that's good. I think it's probably the most accessible stuff I'll ever do because it's really electronic and recorded really clean, that sort of “dance” thing.

“The reason for delaying “Secret Soundz”, I wanted to try and stagger it as much as I could. We don't have any money to promote a record properly in terms of full-page adverts in the NME and all that sort of stuff so I figured that the last couple of records we put out on Fence we would try and widen the release date as much as possible to try and get as much coverage as possible. I suppose it's crass reasons but it just means that a record isn't over the week it comes out.”

Plus you can build up word of mouth, people are buying it at gigs and they tell their friends about it who go to your gig and it builds from there.

JL - “That's it totally. I just wanted there to be a bit of excitement and I wanted people to to have to be at that gig to buy it. There's a weird thing now with the record industry. Before when I first got into music, you'd buy a single from a band, 3 months later there'd be another single and then the album would come out. There was that formula that worked, certainly in the mid to late 90s and in the last 5 years it's totally changed. Now you sell most of your records in the first week and certainly in the first month, so the campaign for this record is going to take place a week before the record's out with the first single and it'll end a month later. It's really disappointing, you have a single out and next week the album's out, I want to stay at home and listen to the single, listen to the b-sides and figure out what the album might be like. There's no drama to it any more. They did that with Kenny's stuff and it was heart-breaking. You want to have a bit of a run-up and a bit of excitement and it just didn't happen.”

Part 2 to follow shortly...

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