Sunday, August 10, 2008

Interview - The Pictish Trail / King Creosote: Part 2

Words: Chris Hynd

And so we return to our heroes where we left off with them in the corner of Edinburgh's Doric bar. Kenny had just got a round in, Johnny resisted the temptation to say naughty things about him when he wasn't there. Let's return to the story.

Going on to talk about Fence Records, you've been receiving a bit more attention of late, for example from the national press, TV and radio. Does that bring with it some extra pressures or is it just a good thing for what you're doing to be getting that extra interest?

JL - “Yeah, it's nice totally, the positives outweigh the negatives. We've had some good national press and also have ambassadors for Fence recording on other labels, Kenny's one with the whole Warners thing, James Yorkston was arguably the first bigger name, Gordon with The Aliens and more recently KT Tunstall. That was a different audience for us but it was getting the name out there it brings in a lot of folk. There were people at that instore there who were at that KT Tunstall gig we did last month and I know who are big KT Tunstall fans so it's weird as we're not looking to convert Tunstall fans, it's not going to happen!”

KA - “One at a time!”

JL - “One at a time. The thing is, the perception of how Fence is is that it's bigger than what it actually is. We struggle to sell a lot of records but because it's pretty much a 2 man operation it doesn't really matter...”

KA - “Well, it does! If we can do well in a year then we can do more records by more artists, the more people buy the more we put out, the less they buy then we have to cut it back. We never get into a financial stushie, or we're having to borrow money or thinking “we have to sell!”, it's the other way round. If we do well, let's make more, if we don't do well then let's make less.”

JL - “On a big scale, we're not selling a lot of things. With The Caves gigs, it takes a lot of effort to get people to buy tickets for them, I'm always very frantic the day before the show thinking “oh shit, we've only sold 60 tickets” but we've been lucky with the last couple of shows managing to sell a couple of hundred but it still requires a massive walk-up. I'm still aware that people don't have to have it immediately, unlike the Homegame, but there's other things that haven't got there yet. The ideal thing for us I think is that in the next 5 years if we can get a fanbase of say 500 people, at the moment it's about 200 that are hardcore, who just have to have everything then that's perfect. We wouldn't have to worry about losing money on a record.”

KA - “If 500 people are willing to buy 1 record a month...”

JL - “That's unrealistic.”

KA - “It's 12 records a year, I think it's quite realistic. Imagine at that stage if we had, maybe not the cream of Scottish bands but better bands who were willing to do smaller runs of things then you could do that, you could have one a month that 500 people would be willing to buy. I'm not saying it's within our grasp, we've got to work hard for that but we've received bigger bands approaching us to do things and we're like “why?” It's like you said, the perception of it is bigger than it actually is. There is a lot to be said for playing that Homegame. The thing about Homegame is that it attracts the media, and not just the Scottish media but the likes of Channel 4 have been up filming and it's just unusual. So even though you're playing to a few hundred people in a completely inappropriate hall, there's a spin-off from that in that it's so wrong it's completely right! I think by Fence remaining small, that's the attraction for it.”

JL - “It's really tiny, that's the bizarre thing. You have all these major labels, Kenny was on 679 - a major label trying to be an independent label and they got it because they were getting into certain media streams, they could get TV and adverts and stuff. Conversely with us, we're managing to get some good mainstream media coverage that doesn't really equate to record sales. I don't know if that's because record sales are on the wane, for us they've gone up year-on-year, we're probably the only record company in the UK that's managed to do that but only because we're not selling that many anyway.”

KA - “We were a label when we were selling less than 10 CDRs anyway and we were a label that other labels knew about so we were attracting the music fans within those record labels and still had music fans working for them, that was the thing. It wasn't anything to do with numbers, it was about people finding music they like and there's probably very few people working for major labels who actually give a toss about the music they're putting out because if they did they wouldn't work there. So, if you're working and trying to sell a product you don't like, that's a certain type of person who would do well in any business but if you're working with something that you're precious about you'll either do exceptionally well or you'll do nothing because you just happen to like something that is just so obscure and ridiculous so it's a trade-off for us. We want to attract music fans but they've got to be the type of music fan that we want to attract! We don't want to attract people who are expecting too much, you can't attract somebody who's only been to about 3 gigs that year, they're only going to be disappointed.”

JL - “These people who are only going to a few gigs and they just happen to stumble across a Fence thing, maybe they will enjoy it and maybe they will keep buying stuff...”

KA - “We know that we have got acts that you have to grow to like.”

JL - “Yeah, there are acts on Fence that people hate, who are totally different to King Creosote or myself, but there are those who think they're the best act on Fence. There's people who think Art Pedro is the best act on Fence, he's not, but he's really good and he's totally insane. He's just given me another EP, his third EP in one month, the guy is so prolific. Seeing the type of music fan who likes that sort of thing the most is quite interesting. With Art Pedro, it is quite difficult to get into. He can't sing, he can't play guitar in time but he writes these amazing songs. Lyrically, it's quite heavy going but you have to persist.”

KA - “Even in the early days, we never made it easy, you know with that whole Shinya Mizuno thing? At the time, that really shocked the Fence hardcore, it was proper Japanese pop and really bizarre but at the time people were used to Lone Pigeon, myself, Pip Dylan, Billy Pilgrim, they had an idea of what Fence was and along came this thing that slapped them in the ass.”

But it's a good thing to challenge people though isn't it? Make them feel uneasy and take them out of their comfort zone and have to try a bit harder to get it?

JL - “Definitely, but you can't make everyone happy. I like pretty much everything that's on Fence, I don't think that there's anything I don't like or wouldn't listen to regularly but we can't expect that of our audience at all.”

KA – “It's 2 people's music tastes, I mean our tastes are slightly different but Johnny and I haven't yet had a major clash over a band. Johnny may try and convince me of the merits of an album by whoever and vice versa but we each know that we're not going to both like that thing, it just becomes the white elephant in the room. For us, it's music that's got the right spirit behind it, and there's other things that influence what we release. It's about bands that are willing to play live, well maybe not HMS Ginafore who's the most unwilling to play live, she has no expectations, she's not phoning us every day saying “why is my album not doing better than it is?” so there's this sliding scale of people who are desparate to play everything right down to people who never want to play live but when they do it's just jaw-dropping and there's just everything in between. It's up to Johnny and I to work out where we place them in some kind of pecking order. It's like “this guy is working really hard, he's amazing, we need to at least match his talent” and we've got people who have huge talent but don't want to play live so we don't base this thing on how they play live, we've just got to think of another way to do it. That's what we're good at, we always come up with some bizarre way of overcoming these obstacles, but there's 2 of us to do that.

“When KC got busy, I just couldn't run Fence. The KC thing is a shackle, there was so many things to sort out but we made the decision a while back that it was actually good for Fence that KC goes forward because King Creosote the live band is very much a Fence Collective band. It's done Johnny no harm, it's done On The Fly no harm, we're like a united force under this one name and that's how it should be. The KC thing will dip and Johnny's thing will come forward then his thing will dip but hopefully we'll always be there in some form pushing things forward.”

Cool. Continuing the Fence theme, I grew up in Kirkcaldy just down the coast from yourselves and growing up there was just nothing culturally interesting in Kirkcaldy...

JL - “There still isn't!”

There still isn't, and that's why I moved but just up the road from me something was happening musically. What do you think it is about the East Neuk of Fife that has led to the setting up of what's now known as the Fence Collective?

JL - “For me, when I was first introduced to Fence as a student at St Andrews I was a big fan of the Beta Band and Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados, at that time up and coming Scottish music. Within my first week seeing Kenny playing in a bar in St Andrews with this batch of musicians with him, hearing him play for 3 hours I thought it was incredible, I hadn't heard anything like this. I went back 2 weeks later and he was doing the same thing but totally different songs and with different people playing with him but still the same crowd who were there and just loving it. I saw that there was this thing going on in this town, people are seeing this music and they want to be involved.

“The Fence thing for me that totally bowled me over was seeing Kenny and his brothers singing together, the 3 of them, I think the best musical thing I've ever seen. There was just this spark and I think, like Kenny said, there was something about the Fence thing that just attracted fellow musicians. I had my own songs at the time that I didn't want anyone else to hear and after seeing them do that...”

KA - “What you've got to remember is that Johnny was just one student in a huge pile of students that just breenged into that bar and I'd say that most of them left the bar because we weren't playing a Crowded House song or something that they knew. That's what I was saying about Fence, it attracts the people it's meant to attract. Johnny has an ear for that and we impressed him enough but a lot of people probably thought “yeah, it was alright but there was a couple of real bum moments. It sounds like they don't rehearse...” but it did weed out the people who were for it.

“The reason I stuck in St Andrews is because I'm from St Andrews and spent the best part of a decade in a band doing what you're meant to do as a band only for that band to fall apart at the seams. St Andews is a university town so it's very transient, every four years you get a completely different audience. I just had this idea, “you know what? Let's just play here.” 1 – there's no music scene, nothing to compete against. 2 – people don't expect anything so it's like you're saying, if something kicked up in Kirkcaldy it would probably do amazingly well but it would take time. We took the best part of 2 or 3 years to find the audience that liked us. When we started, for every 40 people in the bar, 38 were like “well, that was pretty guff” but that 2 were ardent fans. And then the next week, they were joined by another couple but it just took time. Johnny arrived in 1999, we'd been doing that for 3 years and that audience changed all the time but the students in St Andrews who did get into us they took that away as, not one of the highlights of their university career but certainly something that they treasured. We had some amazing, mad nights.”

JL - “Such incredible nights. One of the best things I went to see was Kenny, his brother and the rest of the band dressed up as women, they made a proper effort, it wasn't just guys in drag, they properly looked like women, really ugly women!”

KA - “We'd done this thing before, the 4 Davie's, so let's do this covers set but let's dress up as our own dads. So we dressed up as older guys, my dad's really into that scene, ceilidh bands so we did that and it was funny. I just got it into my head that we should just do this regularly, the next thing should be the 4 Mavis, i.e. wives of that band, so that was the next thing. The next thing was the 4 Boris, the Ukrainian cousins, just stupid stuff, ridiculous stuff. We'd do the same gig, every second Wednesday without fail, it went throughout the summer. We found out that during the summer when the students were away you had to play a different thing, you're playing to golfers and a few celebs and a few more locals as well so we had to modify it. During that summer we thought “you know what? We should do more covers but let's not do them as us, that's quite embarrassing. We were competing with this other guy who did covers, we played Wednesday's because we didn't want to play weekends because we thought everyone's out at the weekend, we wanted to play a night where people have to make a bit of an effort and that thing where “wouldn't it be great if a weekend actually started on a Wednesday night?” Thursday night was always a big night for students as they all had Friday off. We built this Wednesday night up but it took time as nobody was out on a Wednesday night, it was completely the wrong night.”

Going on to talk about this year's Homegame, which you've mentioned, you were both heavily involved in the setting up and the running of it. Did that leave any time to actually enjoy the weekend?

KA - “That Homegame we did, for me, was my favourite one. One of the main things about it was that it was a return to an earlier Homegame, we kind of built the stress levels up. The first one was really difficult...”

JL - “Oh man, so many mistakes.”

KA - “So many duffers, but we learnt from it, The second one, there was new mistakes. The third one, new but by the fifth one we kind of went back to something like Homegame 2. It's like when you're studying for your Highers and you're looking back at an O-Grade paper and thinking “why was I so panicked about that O-Grade? It's so simple”. It was kind of like that for me, taking a step back. I knew where Johnny was, he knew where I was, it just ran like clockwork, it was easy. There was a lot of work in the background, Johnny did a lot of the set up work, for me running a PA and doing sound there is a stress doing that and the first time I did sound, in Pittenweem, was horrible, I thought I couldn't do this. But this time, I stood back and it sounded good. If you could have taken that sound and multiplied it and made it a big gig it would have been the best live sound you could have, it just sounded brilliant. There were times where we were right in the firing line but we were always there and present and in years gone by, was it Homegame 3 where we had that press deluge...?”

JL - “That's the worst thing. There's press up for it and you know you have to impress them , you literally can't spend 5 minutes with them every day so you have to let them fend for themselves. And these are the people who kind of have the best time. The Homegame thing is good. I've pretty much organised all the different bits of it, the booking of bands, scheduling but a lot of the onus is on the bands to be there on time, set up and go and there's been a bunch of things happening where me and Kenny haven't been there and the band have just gone on and played. If you were at any other festival, people would think “this is really rude! Why aren't we being told when to go on?” but because it's Fence bands they know we're off doing stuff. I email them beforehand to let them know that if we're not there then please just go on and do your thing, set up your own sound if you need to. We're going to make it bigger next year...”

I was going to ask that, whether it was going to become bigger? There's a lot of interest, tickets sell out really quickly and it is becoming a really big deal to play there and attend it.

JL - “There is a lot of pressure to make it a really big thing. Kenny's managers are big managers, proper mainstream big and they've got this thing that we should make it a 10,000 capacity festival. We were like “well, we're not going to do that” but at the same time we would like to make it a bit bigger, it feels shit for all the people who don't manage to get tickets because you know that those people who want to have tickets will really fit in. Festivals only get shit when they really have to push on individual names, they have to drag all that kind of stuff in and maybe Homegame will get to that stage. I don't think it has to but at the moment we've already got some names for next year which are really big and we're really excited about but we don't want to announce them. If we announce them, we'd have 10,000 people wanting to get tickets and we don't want to do that.”

KA - “It's back to getting the wrong type of people.”

JL - “Exactly. You want to have a crowd there that feels special because they're seeing this act. I am really excited about the next Homegame. We're going to sell as many tickets as we can to folk that want to be there through the Fence website and we'll cap it at a certain level, we might announce 1 or 2 acts afterwards. We're going to look at what we can do in that time, look at what we can fill up without making it shit! Without making it just like any other festival.”

KA - “That Homegame just passed was kind of like an exam in a way.”

JL - “It's the one thing on Fence where everyone knows they have to get a ticket early. It's the same case this time, there'll be a privilege ticket upfront, if you're one of the first 500 you'll get a special thing. We just want to keep that sort of thing in there, “I was one of the first 500 so I got a 7 inch”, that's why I do this thing at the Caves where you get a 7 inch. Hopefully it'll get to the stage where you can't buy that thing afterwards, you can only get it at that gig. That's what we want to do with this Homegame, create an excitement for the real hardcore and if other people want to come and they're excited then great.”

KA - “And it's leaving it loose enough where we can put in these random things, every year there's this random thing and we allow that to happen and we encourage it. If you go to the type of festival that's so tight where every slot is filled, well what was great last year was that there was empty slots. People couldn't turn up or didn't turn up – one of the highlights was that Three Craws set which only came about because Lone Pigeon didn't want to play after all. I'm sure he would have played a blinder but the thing about Homegame is that people always zone in on the things that have been shoehorned in there, like us playing in The Ship. People expect an after-hours thing at Homegame, everyone's twittering about “what are they going to do?” and that's brilliant.”

JL - “It's catering for an audience that are total Fence fans and real music fans and are excited about new things happening and don't yearn for the old days and it being better in the old days, people who are excited about what's coming next.”

KA - “We did have people at that Homegame who had basically moaned at every Homegame since the first one – not as good, not as good, not as good, then at that one just went, “actually, pretty good.”

JL - “I think this year as well with there being less people and it being more exciting, trying to instil that feeling. At the moment right, I'm getting these phone calls while we're speaking from this guy from The Skinny and Drowned In Sound about this interview I was meant to have with them this evening. Well for me it's more important to do an interview like this for a zine that's going to be passionate about music, generating more excitement about something within their small little thing.”

Cool, thank you sir. Just to finish up then. How excited are you about the future of Fence Records and who from the label do you tip for success?

KA - “I think The Pictish Trail!”

JL - “Sickeningly enough, I think Rozi Plain. We've got this album coming out in October, and I'm doing a tour with her in September, it is absolutely stunning. She's this girl from Bristol who sent us this thing last year and it was the most lo-fi thing you've ever heard and we were like “look, no-one's going to buy this. We like it, the song's are great but there's potential in this record and the songs are big enough to go for it a little bit more and add these other things.” She went back and recorded stuff in Fife, recorded stuff in Bristol and has come up with this album that to listen to is an absolute joy. There's so much going on there but it's sparse at the same time, she doesn't over egg the thing. Every time I listen to that record, and I've listened to it twice every day for the last 5 months or something, I always get something new from it. I think she's absolutely amazing and has that thing the first Beth Orton record had when it came out, everything that was great about that and holds promise for all the ones after it. Her voice is amazing, her playing's great, her lyrics are really sparse, there's hardly anything to the construct of the songs but they hold it together. I've done some press on it in this past couple of weeks and we've already had some feedback from people like BBC 6 and Word magazine, the sort of medium-level media things, they're not Mojo or Uncut or Radio 2, the champions of new music and they're really into it. We know this record's hopefully over the course of a year will get an audience. That's the big thing for me, but we're also working on a Fence Collective record.”

KA - “It's still in our heads!”

JL - “It's still in our heads but we have a pile of songs and it's hopefully going to happen over the next 3 or 4 months and make an actual Fence Collective album and not just a compilation.”

KA - “We've also got The Red Well in the studio and hopefully we'll get that by Homegame.”

JL - “They might be gigging that by the end of this year so we'll hopefully release it by February/March next year. There's a few things that are coming in. There's a band called Love Stop Repeat that I really like.”

KA - “I got an amazing demo sent through by Animal Magic Tricks. Check them out on their Myspace, it's this lo-fi, hard to describe, sounds old, like 1940s. I dunno, it's just bonkers! We've got HMS Ginafore.”

JL - “Kenny and Jenny have done a record together, we're putting it out in November. That is amazing. I'd forgotten about that actually!”

KA - “It's because it's already in there, it's already a classic!”

Well, it sounds like the future's bright, the future's Fence! I can't tell you how much of a joy it was to speak to 2 people who care so much about what they do and about the music they're putting out, whether it's their own or other people's. As they said, it's a rare thing for those running a label to be such music fans, and just downright good people. They even gave me a lift to Johnny's gig at the other end of Princes Street, which they were running late for because this interview went on beyond the time I thought it would. You could do worse than have these 2 on your side and I wish them all the success. They bloody well deserve it.

1 comment:

AC said...

Brilliant interview. They seem like a great couple of guys. And consider me officially excited about the Fence Collective album.

I saw Rozi Plain in Manchester earlier in the year, and can confirm that she's got some amazing songs.