Saturday, September 27, 2008

Interview - My Kappa Roots

Words: Chris Hynd

Right now Pablo Clark, who records and plays under the name My Kappa Roots, may well be one of Scotland's best kept secrets. Clark's hushed, acoustic songs are full of beauty and wonder and joy and elan. As John Mackie says in his review below this interview, we just want to shout to the world about what an extraordinary record "The House Of St. Colme Burnt Down" is and what an extraordinary performer Clark is. It was a pleasure for me and John to come up with these questions for him and read Pablo's replies to them. Here they are for you to read.

To start off, can you give us a brief history of My Kappa Roots and what led you to start writing, playing and recording under that name?

"I was nineteen and I was studying at Edinburgh art school. Although having been accepted into the institution on the “strength” of my drawn portfolio, as someone close to me said: “You’re not a particularly talented artist but you always seem to be obsessing over things and that must count for something. They probably let you in because although you can’t paint like a painter you at least come across as one.” So it was at this time, feeling very unsure of what precisely I was achieving by being at art school, walking around the corridors sound tracked by the bottom of a barrel being scraped and (no doubt) obsessing incessantly, that I heard from an old friend that the old bar by the beach had burned down in the village where I grew up. I borrowed a camera from the film department and went to visit the remains. When I arrived rumour was rife that it had been an inside job, fingers were pointed, voices in the bars were raised in protest or else they conspired quietly with the rims of their pints. All was as it should be. As I walked through the town I realised how much of my identity was tied to its surrounding. There was the tree that bore witness to my first fumbled kiss and behind that public toilet was my first cigarette. It struck me how funny and sad it was that all my memories were tangled up in the leaves. When I saw the burned out ruin it seemed to me that even things of stone have their time and that just as I no longer belonged to this town neither did all the things that I had done. I decided to document all the places in the village that I had in someway made my own. I wrote some music for it and considered what words I would use to say that these ordinary memories that are uniquely mine have been lived through in different guises, by different people, time and time again. Everyone (or at least everyone that comes from where I come from) remembers where they used to drink with friends (the shelter at black sands) or the private places you went with girlfriends (the woods behind Craig‘s house). I made a documentary about the first tracksuit I was ever given, how I tore it at the knee and was too embarrassed to wear it outside, so I hid it away and when I finally came to try it on again it had lost its new clothes smell. This taught me to always value and take pride in my tracksuits. I called it “My Kappa Roots” and I started obsessing about that instead."

Your LP came out last year to very little fuss or fanfare, was that frustrating for you in that you'd like your music to be heard by as many people as possible? What was the reasoning for releasing the record on Drifting Falling and will you continue to work with them?

"I felt more an acute sense of failure. I felt that perhaps I had over stretched myself. In trying to communicate something inherently personal to a large collection of people, assembling an audience, it had become dispersed in the ether in between. Embarrassed by the keen sound of silence. I felt frustrated, not in particular with Drifting Falling, but more with what seem to be the mechanics of any record contract. I felt a distance grow between myself and the material, at least in its recorded state. I care about those songs deeply, I care about the people that the songs concern and the events they discuss. Until, after a time, I came round to the idea that the record would exist somewhere between worlds, heard by the people who stumbled upon it. I felt a real sense of relief. I think I would enter into a new contract with a lot more caution, really consider why I was agreeing to allow the purchase of my songs. I think that I am an unsteady and unsure person and that particular proposition from Drifting Falling went some way to validating the conviction that I rally around my songs. Jon and Justin, who work for and with Drifting Falling are two lovely people who have put their time and effort into releasing that record and I’m flattered that they did so. But the company is now based in Houston and compared to the majority of music they release I feel like the black sheep. The idea of releasing something under my own steam is appealing. The knowledge that the direction the songs take, from their initial conception to their final form, would always be close to me, would certainly be comforting. Then all I need to do is barricade all the doors and windows to make sure nobody gets in, nobody breathes on the furniture and my kingdom and psychosis will be complete."

The flip side to that of course is that it's all the more satisfying as a listener to discover your music for the first time and hopefully word of mouth, more gigs and the like help to get your name out there? Is that along the lines of what you hope to achieve with My Kappa Roots or is it simply the case of continuing to write and play for yourself and let others find out about you as they have been doing?

"The process of writing songs, speaking for myself, I set apart from all other considerations. It takes me months and months of trying to pick apart what I‘m trying to say. As I’m writing this I’m staring at a stack of notes. I keep them on file on my bedroom floor. I take great pleasure and comfort in writing music. I feel a duty to the subject matter but not necessarily the audience. In turn if people take a shine to it then I’m pleased but I would rather people came to it willing rather than to have it forced down their throats."

The LP was mostly recorded in a masonic hall. Did it have one of the big "all seeing eye" symbols on the wall?! These factors must have contributed towards an interesting ambience in which to record. Was it a conscious decision not to use a studio?

"There was an eye, unblinking and all seeing. I was sure it knew what I was thinking, it took to winking and made me blush. The walls were all lined with the portraits of old lodge masters, all seeing and all knowing. It certainly seemed that they knew what I was thinking, they took to coughing into their beards until I couldn’t look them in the eyes more. One of the windows was broken and a tree was trying to climb inside. There was a huge ceremonial bell that we rang with our shoes. Always with a great sense of ceremony. We wrapped ourselves up against the cold in banners we found in the basement and drank until it was almost light, recording the backing vocals to a song called "The Dour Festival." It is a terrifying fact that this Masonic hall is also where I went to nursery. It seems we are all eyed and sized up from a young age in Fife. I had no money for recording studios, and for as long as I could remember my friends and I would play music there. We had a key. It seemed that there was a no more fitting place to play those songs. (Ma)sonic Youth 4EVA IDST."

One of the things I like about your shows and the record is that you do not strive for "perfection" or polish. It seems to me that it's about the feel of the performance (man) I love hearing that approach because it is still so rare! I can't imagine you doing multiple takes of songs. Is this a fair comment?

"Ideally when recording I want to capture a sense of place and of a particular time. I do however, on occasion, allow myself more than one take. I don’t subscribe to a purists lo-fi aesthetic in that respect. Enshrining every mistake I make will not make my music any more real. I have a (degree of) command over what I play and in playing my best I am trying to do justice to subject. Rather, what appeals to me are the more incidental sounds. The sound of traffic or animals flirting outside. These things I try to retain; they define the song in that particular moment, as something both inconsequential to its surroundings. It is a transient, passing moment. I make a lot of mistakes and I’d rather not be reminded of every single last one. When I play live I am never further than a note or two from disaster."

What is the phrase you use near the end of "The Dour Festival", i.e. "We hunched young..."? I'd just like to add that I find this song and the words simply extraordinary. Could you tell us a bit about what inspired it?

"I mumble don’t I? I think the lyric is "we young hunched pack rats." It refers to certain people I spent time with growing up. It’s about the physicality of adolescence. The song itself is about my home town, Aberdour. The second part of which, dour, is a Scots word meaning unfriendly, unresponsive. Each year a festival is held. The (Aber)Dour Festival. The song is a condemnation and celebration of the whole place. In the opening passage I tried to relate the beauty of a sleeping place waking: "From the faltered steps of dreaming the speechless sons arise." The second half, I tried to address all the different characters who populate the village, celebrating together in the marquee they erect on the top of a hill that runs down to the sea. I have strange and snatched memories of moving between the lights late in the evening, watching the dancing inside and walking off into the drunken night to where my friends stood in a knuckle. The barge bodied ladies, the drowned sailors, the moon’s young daughters, the clay cracked poets and us the young hunched pack rats. In places like this, remoter and more private, it seems that every human drama becomes magnified. The whole human race simmers down to a few familiar faces. Many of which spend their days lamenting the fact that the world revolves ever forward. Similarly these places posses a great sense of community, of history, ritual and tradition."

In general, how do you approach playing live, especially as someone with a quiet way of playing and singing? I recall a gig supporting A Hawk And A Hacksaw where you reduced the crowd to silence so they could hear you as you were playing so quietly. Is it difficult to concentrate and play your songs if there's crowd chatter and not many people paying attention?

"It can feel like your dragging the whole sorry business out into a public forum. If people are talking it can all get a bit much. But it can also give you something to rally against. I don’t want to impose the songs on people, I simply play quietly because it comes naturally. Sometimes I play with an electric guitar. But I’m drawn to playing live. After all no one is making me do it. I’m not contractually obliged. I certainly enjoy the ceremony. I enjoy the confessional aspect. Setting yourself up for a hanging. I find there is a redeeming quality in playing live. The chance at the gallows to make amends.

"Hawk and a Hacksaw and I stayed drinking after that show. I secretly wanted to marry her and run away together through the high thighs of the city. Pawn my possessions and live in the engine room of a slow train."

At the risk of sounding muso what guitar players do you like? I would certainly associate you with the likes of James Blackshaw and Jack Rose, some of the more free-form guitar players, very fluid and organic musicians. Would you describe your playing in similar terms?

"That’s a very nice thing to say. Thank you. However in truth I don’t have the discipline or the command over rhythm they do. My guitar playing is much more confused. Most of the songs I play are in alternative tuning, but I can’t read music, know nothing of time signatures or the names of the notes I’m playing. I would really like to learn more. When I was growing up my dad would listen to Bert Jansch, Can and Captain Beefheart, and I wouldn’t. I’d listen to Oasis (no danger I’d be caught listening to Blur). Then it got to the stage that I saw Christopher Mack in the Glasgow underground and forgot how to speak. I spent a summer staying up all night with a friend (and really exceptional guitarist) who plays under the name Rob St. John. We would spend our time drinking suspect fruit wine and playing guitar in his tiny apartment. Then we’d wander bleary-eyed downstairs, sit in the garden and put the world to rights like only young men think they can do. I like Captain Beefheart, Can and even Blur now. I hope Oasis can find it in their hearts to forgive me.!

You're originally from Fife and I'd say that there is a good side to living in Fife, for example some of the scenery! There is a bleakness and an eeriness to parts of the kingdom, particularly the coast. In that sense to me your music breathes Fife. How important do you think landscape and surroundings are to your songs?

"When writing songs for "The House of St Colme Burnt Down" the landscape was certainly a huge factor in how I wrote the songs. I wanted to treat it like a wide canvas that I had to people. I wanted the human element to be relegated to the role of a minor player, wanting the landscape instead to take on human characteristics. Trying to extract and give form to the memories that played out there. Musically, I wanted to continue this thinking and have long instrumental passages that evoked the landscape. All across the coast of Fife there is that ragged beauty. The trees bent by the prevailing winds and the estuary waters hidden by the haar. To relate a sense of memory by obscuring the lyrics, by making the music more obtuse and vague. In contrast to the countryside many of the towns are ex-coal mining, old dock and textile communities. Places that have been politically and financially abandoned. I still remember when the red road ran by Burntisland, the refining dust from the aluminium factory there. It feels like the hearts of a lot of theses places were shut down and they bled out through the streets. I will always treasure Aberdour for its obscure lanes and old graveyards, a place where I spent a childhood by the water and by the trees."

Related to the last question, you've now moved to Glasgow. How do you think being based there will affect your writing and performing, especially when your songs appear to be so rooted in Fife?

"After graduating from Edinburgh art school I left Britain and lived in Paris. I left behind the familiar landscapes of Fife and across the water that sleepy "city" Edinburgh and found myself in a huge place. The result was distressing, I found it really hard to write. The landscapes of Scotland had nurtured not only my song writing but my art work. It is much harder to romanticise a tower block than a forest and it is much harder to lyrically lay claim over a populated place, almost impossible to imbue it with a singular purpose. So, slowly I found myself drawn to people and my relationships with people and the songs appeared lyrically, with the landscape out of focus, but increasingly with the music relating a sense of progress and directness, a sound more like the city. I am in the middle of recording a new record at the moment. Lyrically I feel it is stronger and, much like the musical direction, more focused. After writing “The House…” I felt that subsequent songs I wrote were diluting the message and intent of what I was trying to say. It felt wrong to sing about the country when I hadn’t lived there for a long time. It has taken over two years but I feel I am finally finding my feet again."

Do you ever have any thoughts about using a band or at least some other instrumentation for live gigs? This is a slightly loaded question because I want you to say no!

"I sometimes have friends who play on stage and when we play we go under the extended name of My Kappa Roots and the Sound of Music (groan). This is usually very spontaneous and is rehearsed on the day. I am very lucky to know some really wonderful musicians, especially people who are related to the Fife Kills: Collective and I have every confidence they could play my songs better than I could. Saying that, lyrically I feel very stunted writing with other people because I feel some sense that I have to make the song more encompassing, relate more to other people. I find that very difficult to do in a song. Selfish really. I like playing on my own because I feel very close to the songs when I play them live. If I was to add more instrumentation I would like very much to play as much of it as possible. Once more block the windows and doors. Stocks of tinned food. No visitors. Rumours of riches in the basement."

Finally, what are your plans for the future? Any gigs at Clem's Lounge in Kirkcaldy?! That part isn't serious but do you have any horror stories of playing gigs in Fife? Fence-related ones don't count!

"When I was younger I played at the Path Tavern in Kirkcaldy. I once got asked to play at an energy conference in Glenrothes, got told the wrong date and spent a day in the Glenrothes shopping centre looking for people who looked like the might run energy companies. I played "The Dour Festival" at The Dour Festival, hosted by a band called A Yard of Ale, at an event called Poems and Pints. I supported Ainslie Henderson from Fame Academy in a pool hall in Dunfermline, got so drunk I spent the whole set knocking over the pints that seemed to litter the stage and with the money I made went up to Harlem, drank aftershock all night and spent my time trying to chat up an old girlfriend, with miserable results. I didn’t get glassed mind. We used to get lock-ins at a pub called the Cedar Inn (under old management) and would spend the night playing songs, whilst the owner told us stories about being in the navy. They often ended with some startlingly racist remark."

"The House Of St. Colme Burnt Down" is out now on Drifting Falling Records. If you've any sense, you'd better go and buy a copy. Now. Go on, you know you want to... You can find a link to so from here -

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Record Review - My Kappa Roots

My Kappa Roots

The House Of St. Colme Burnt Down
Drifting Falling Records

Words: John Mackie

My Kappa Roots- “The House Of StAye. My Kappa Roots. I first came across him an age ago. He looked about 12 years old and was all straggly hair and messed up shoes. He was playing 4th on a low key bill. There was hardly anybody there except those in the bands. He sat down with a guitar. The guitar was battered to hell. So was he. He tried to get the thing in tune and got pissed off when he couldn"t. The folk in the room were murmuring and getting into the beery chat of the gig goer. I thought to myself "he"s a wee nervous guy with a guitar. They"re going to ignore him completely". When he finally played a song EVERYTHING changed. He played quiet. Dead quiet. He strummed in the way of the natural. He was wholly raw and unpolished. It just came straight to him. Even the sound of his guitar alone was enough to begin to quell the chatter. Once he started singing the place was silent. People stayed hushed simply because they wanted to hear him. His performance was astounding. For its simplicity, for its honesty and for the levels of yearning and pain and intimacy in his voice which for the most part was nothing more than a whisper. He made no attempt to paper over the cracks and flaws in guitar or voice. Part of what made you listen to him was the sheer act of bravery in playing so quiet. He just had "something" which grabbed you. This was not music which seemed to utilise "rock language". There were no "black eyed dogs" or "cold hearted women" on here. No mumbo jumbo. The style of his words was as spare as the instrumentation. The meaning was there for you to investigate, not given to you in a passive arrangement. He gave you all you needed. It was undiluted. It came from the world of inner thoughts, brave failures and half remembered feeling. So skeletal, yet so full of life and depth.

I walked away thinking that I had seen a real talent. For one reason or another I got detached from Pablo (Clark, MKR himself) for a year or two and recently saw him playing live again. He looks about 18 now. His hair is shorter. The guitar's still battered. The show was another incredible experience. He still had the same qualities. His performance was in the moment. It was what it was. It was his. He played his songs. He sang. The songs were more confident now. Different and better ones than before. He played a new song about his granny which defied belief in terms of the scope of its poignancy and depth of longing and pain and joy for a life. I thought that if this is the direction and the quality he will continue to produce then we're all lucky bastards. It was the easy power in his voice I noticed most this time. As well as the fluid guitar runs of course. He can build and develop a tune seemingly without raising the volume or changing what he"s playing. Again the crowd listened. They had to. Something about him commands your attention.

Following the show, for the first time I discovered a couple of key things about him. Firstly, he's from Fife. The Fifeness is key for me. This is a place which stamps its mark on you. It's a dark land full of (cultural) deprivation. It's easy to become isolated in about every sense imaginable. You spend time wandering around coastal areas dreaming of something better and wondering how you can achieve it. How could I ever do that? You're feared that you'll end up a freemason or a Rovers + "Kirry's" van in the afternoon / Flyers, stovies + "Tony Hand wank wank wank" at night person. You'll become satisfied with nothing but a Tanfastic and a David Sands. Maybe you'll end up a suicide left behind amongst "the books and all the records of your lifetime" (I think I can be excused from using this phrase in every thing I write. Listen to the song if you don"t think it's justified). Fife scars you. The only thing Fifers who "don't fit in" do is get the fuck out of there. For those who manage it there is a weird sense of fellowship. We've survived with the scars and the marks of the struggle intact and writ large.

Secondly he made an album. This record screams all your Fife things. I'm positive that it must have come from a background of having to grow up in a place where there's not just a culture of defeatism, you are defeated already. The LP was recorded two years ago. I cannot believe I missed it until now. I was literally too busy playing with myself in a bedsit in Dalry to discover it. Right now I want to shout about it. I honestly do want to tell EVERYBODY about this record. I'm not sure this has happened since I first heard "Blue" when I went bonkers in 1999. In my world it's that good. (I'm not comparing it to that particular record tho'. Don"t worry about that. Just linking it to a sensation I felt at a time and a place!)

I guess I’d better tell you about it. Well the first thing I noticed when I picked up the sleeve was that it was mostly recorded in a Masonic hall in Aberdour and references Rosyth. My father is obsessed with freemasonry and worked in that odd wee addenda to Dunfermline for most of his working days. I used to traipse round Aberdour in my post office days trying to cram "Free Fuji Film" exposures through unforgiving letter boxes. I already sensed somehow that this LP was going to plough into territories which would have substantial personal resonance. I like to think of how this record was recorded in places of great shiteness. To muse on what he has produced out of all this makes me feel good.

It even starts with a tune called "The Lord Of Rosyth" (this one is recorded in Dalgety Bay of all places. It's an entirely lifeless collection of "new" 1st time buyer housing estates overlooking the Forth which everybody mistakes for being a new town), a leisurely preamble to start proceedings. He has a wonderfully light way of playing the guitar. The melodies seem to jump out of him. He can idly strum a passage and then suddenly pick up a melody from nowhere and play it with such crispness. He has entirely unassuming ways with both guitar and voice. They get me running to the thesaurus for synonyms of "natural". It's hard to put one's finger on it but he carries so much pain and weight in even a solemn gentle warble. "All that I bring to the table is my youth. All you bring are your years". It sets the record up most succinctly. Parched reflection. An understanding of the way of life. It's mostly futile. It's usually heartbreaking. It's occasionally exhilarating. When I think of Rosyth usually all that comes to mind are those black jackets with MOD on the back that most folk from the town used to wear. This song does not make me think of Rosyth in any way. It's a low key start to the record but an enticing one. You're in already. A few echoey lines of backing vox appear. They are used in a judicious fashion. He seems to be coming from a lo-fi standpoint and I love the incomplete and non-note perfect side of that thinking but I feel in an ideal world I would have looked to have had the sound stripped away even further and shorn of as much as could be removed.

There is embellishment on here and if you've seen him live it does take you by surprise to hear somebody else on there tho' the backing vox, strings, melodica etc which emerge at various moments through the record are unobtrusive, minimal, appropriate and highly highly pleasing wee interventions which underline and emphasise instead of dominating or clouding what he's doing. I suppose I can't get away from my knowledge of what he can produce in a guitar and vox only setting. I want him to take this to a zenith. I guess I have fear of him one day appearing with a full band and losing the immediacy and intimacy of his performances. He has a bona fide "bearing" and taps into such a scope with simple voice and guitar. I would have wanted that built on, isolated, heightened even more so the sound is wide open and all around you 'til there is nothing more and nowhere else to go. This effect even if it exists just inside my head would be wholly devastating on these old heartstrings. You wouldn't lose warmth or spontaneity this way because it's all there in his playing however you record it or arrange it. You don't change the way he plays, you would just hone in on a different aspect. I have read the odd mention of Nick Drake as a point of reference. I don't get this. It's a lazy comparison ie one man playing "dour" (ha!) intricate music on a guitar. There is classicism to ND which is not always there with Pablo. I feel that he's more jumpy and dare one say it "progressive" in his thinking than a chestnut sic as Nick (albeit my favourite chestnut in the whole world). In my heid I keep coming back to Christopher Mack (a much loved (by me) great once lost "post-singer songwriter" singer songwriter who recorded as The James Orr Complex and then disappeared to Brazil) as a point of reference. They share an elegiac and swoony playing style. They embody differing shades and textures often in the same tune.

He continues with "Narcissus Waits By The Water", a wee Jimmy Orr-esque instrumental which shows off more guitar. It's not precise, it's not perfect. It's piquant and rich of tone. These opening two tracks are good but you know there must be more to come. "Man Of The Islands" is the first "major" piece on the record. I can't get away from the prodigious beauty of this song. I can remember seeing him play it on our first encounter. It's the sparseness and economy. All the components of this song are set on "the right level". They say all that is required and nothing more. You know what he is talking about. He sings it with dignified, aching yearning. That voice. Even with a whisper it carries a rare rare power. He just knows how to "sing", how to phrase words, how to tell a story. Why do people sing songs? To express themselves. To have a connection with people. To entertain themselves and others. To stir feeling. To feel. To feel alive. This record, this song, this artiste remind me of these facts. One tends not to hear all components of a song working together like it does here and throughout this collection. He works so splendidly with what he has. It sounds like he can wring any permutation of feeling and nuance out of a tune. This one's a story of loss and an elegy to his uncle and when he says "Find you by the sea, you"ll be by a lake, find you in the earth, find you with the trees, we can start again", it kills me. You see, people nearly always sing in a manufactured way. I kid you not folks. I do not care if this sounds like sheer hyperbole. I cannot put it any other way. He sings like he has a line straight from his heart and his thoughts. They are expressed whole and neat without adulteration from style or pretense. No genre statements or fashion items can be made out of them. This song produces incredible "moments". I feel as if I might never hear hurt and loss expressed in this way again. Musically this song features sympathetic strings with lush "Five Leaves Left" arrangements. He finishes it with an apt jaunty coda as if to prove that life goes on and has many moments which are so worth living. I do give apologies for saying all this but I"m trying to be honest. On listening to this song it feels like there is hope when music and times such as this can be produced.

Following a song like that successfully is almost impossible. He makes a good fist of it and does so with a pleasing folky doodle called "Home-Coming". It's the most "traditional" song on the record with it"s refrain of "and all the ships which made it back home wore black sails and black masts so tall…". Again the tonality of his guitar alone makes it worth hearing. Because I've listened to this record so often I have a sense of it being sequenced around a handful of key songs with the rest acting as high quality warm ups and preparation for the emotional toll to come. It does feel now like I'm waiting for the next masterpiece to come along. It doesn't come quite yet with "The Burn Will Make It"s Own Way", a comely delay fest recorded outside "in the park by the lane". It has a diverse feel from the rest of the LP tho' the record is not uniform in texture over it"s duration by any means. The delayed guitar on this one recalls Sparhawk at his most billow-y. The eloquence of the picking at the end section picks a clear route through the FX and he comes in with a world weary tale of a kind of loving. "By the dawn we are timid and ashamed of our very flesh…" A few lines of this ilk, an electro gurgle and then it's gone. Point made. Impression left. His songs are unhurried despite the lack of procrastination. He doesn"t mind taking time to establish mood and build character. It's a heady combination. There is a great deal of confidence and elan in his song structures. The words are given space to breathe and inhabit the tune.

This brings us to "Fleeting Like Etain". It IS the next biggie. Giving a description might well have me slipping into plots likely to cause embarrassment to self. I don't know where to start with this song. He picks a line on the guitar and sings like he's completely alone and trying to pour his heart out to no one. In Fife people do this or is it just me? There is a mad form of solace to be had in the emptiness. I'm hurting, I'm defeated but none of these bastards are able to hear my pain. I find it comforting. I can sing to the void and nobody can take it from me. You taste the sheer presence of his voice. He is close miked and has joined you for the duration. He sings in his own accent but there is none of the forced "Scottishness" which has crept into a few "quiet" records one has heard of late. There is no aroma of Jock Scot on here. Anyway… The words keep coming. Internal monologue. Innermost thought. "By the night the entire set connected in the darkness", "coal pit side, Cranes in the wind like young girls dancing.bIt's when we"re dashed against the gates of desire", "we are lone satellites in the fog… bramble babies born of a buried wind" He keeps going he knows the side effects of blissful love. It all ends. "She says we're not born of the stars above, we are but fleeting moments in the sun and there is no higher glory just a quiet human end". It expands and grows. A wheezy melodica wafts in and out. A harmony voice provides confirmation of his thoughts. His words are homespun and lyrical passages. Christ, he has an understanding of life and all its crushing pointlessness as well as its greatness. The imagery and melodies of these songs display an assurance in composition and performance which you just don"t hear. Period.

Next up is "Summer you Dancer!". Cracking title but on the surface it"s not a cheery song. At any level, jesty outing it ain't and how splendid it sounds as a result. The first line is "Thunder across the spine of the world". The first wee chorus coils the words "you tow some heavy cargo" round a spidery melody with a blithe violin providing emphasis. Again, this tune uses a scanty set up for a yearning crescendo which goes and goes to the end... "with thirsting lungs we do pursue". The level of emotion he provokes, there seems no limit to what he can do with just voice and guitar. It continues on a journey towards a perfect starkness with "A Night Full Of Reverse Birds". The more I write about this record, I just want to quote you the lyrics and let them speak for themselves re how good they and the songs are. "And we fled to the wind's whispered dirge. Behind us the woods roared and spat". "We set out our wicked path" "We shrieked and carouseled". Again, he"s nearby and sounds so desperate and desolate. It is the sparsest song on the record . 99% shorn of addenda. Slow and resonant. "All I could think of is what we had done. All this hate is unnecessary. All this shame is unnecessary. All this guilt is unnecessary. All these regrets are unnecessary", he repeats over and over until he's purged. He is right. It's all of no consequence in the end. Except for what stays in your head from day to day during the routine grind. What keeps you going and what you think about at small moments of wax and wane. These songs matter to me. They have not left me since I heard them. It's the intangibles which appeal. I guess I'm trying to "make recompense for what"s done" in terms of my lack of articulation skills but how can we accurately say why something elicits a response in us? I just know that I feel a kind of familiarity in what he describes and invokes. It resonates with my own pain. I feel succour. I feel tinges of that pain coming out in the wash. I feel rewarded and welcomed by his sounds and words. It all comes back to my feeling of how I "like" this record. At the risk of being a fan-atic, on this occasion it isn't nearly enough just to say "like". I should move on…

"The Green Shelter" is the longest song on the record. Oddly enough it"s probably the "happiest" in purely crass terms. "Even tho' I was not raised here. It's where I belong" He's found a place. Security. He talks about "homespun bones". It features evocative, intricate picking in the middle with fractured snatches of conversation bubbling underneath. It changes tone and gets closer to a form of reflection. The melodica groans away again. He counters it with emphatic flourishes and tumbles. He travels in a stately instrumental fashion through the mid section. His guitar lifts it all near to the heights touched earlier when he used far darker hues. Mr. C can seriously "play". When I say that, I'm not talking about a virtuoso display / Listen to how he can solo and be a bluesy wailer. It's the feel and the tone and what he can conjure from it. There are a number of fluffed lines on this record. Their inclusion helps to convince me of the admiration I feel for him and his music. It ends with another slight ray of sunshine. "To this place part of me will always belong. Let's take a walk amongst the giant's footsteps... let the green shelter weather our storms". It's barely a rasp by the end but he's sure in his convictions. He can make a tiny sound and you will still hear him loud and clear. "Goodly sin and sunshine" are further let in by "Here's To The Sun-House" which is a jaunty Davey Graham-y instrumental and the simplest track on offer. It is gleefully played (it also makes me yearn for this LP to be re-titled "All That Moody") but tends to act as an usher into the closer, a number which is an unforgettable experience.

That is "The Dour Festival". When I first heard it I couldn"t think of other songs which are so complete, so fully formed. It's bursting with vitality and all that I want to hear in a record or in "a piece of art". It"s another scouring and elegant take on loss. It begins with a stroll amongst the Dylans. "The whole village is sleeping in some hushed lullaby from the faltered steps of dreaming speechless sounds arise...". It has momentum and pace and the words weave their spell. Poetic and seamless. "The sighed song of the living is unveiled from every doorway and perched upon the breeze to be carried across the sea and settled in every bough of every tree and amidst their bludgeoning rocks… or wherever we shall lay". It's the way he knits these impressions together and layers the world weary perdition. Then, just as you're starting to think how much you love this already, he turns it round and unleashes a stunning melody upon which he adds maybe the most heartbreaking vocal I've ever heard. I just want it to go on forever. I thought earlier that he had just produced a definitive evocation of defeat and sadness but then this came along. I have to quote what I think he's singing during this last bit in full

And the old dancers, the large bodied ladies who careen by

And whisper "We'll never be young again"
And the drowned sailors who sneer into their mugs
And pine and call for another round of vitriol

And the moon's young daughters faces painted neon white with flesh revealed

Pant and crawl into the night
And the clay cracked poets who"s liver spotted anecdotes are bandied round
And who are crushed by old desires

And we young, hunched pack rats (?)…we loved in the face of the stars

Oh were they jealous of our youth?
And now we lay in the road side sun drenched and forgotten about at this dour festival.

Maybe I'm flawed but it reads to me like a kind of perfection. The vocal performance here is breathtaking. He sings in Fife-ese ("His liver spoated anecdoats". I adore the way he gives this line) because that"s how he speaks and it's so relaxed but at the same time dripping with regret and turmoil. Underneath this a chorus intones the phrase "At this dour festival" over and over. A sax plays somewhere miles away. I never quite believed the phrase "life-affirming" before now. It's taken a song about death to convince me of the existence of this quality in song. Every time I listen to this tune I really can't quantify how much it means to me. This is a great piece of music.

Aye, well I guess the album is over. How do I sum it up? Do I need to? I think you will know my feelings on it by now. The type of words which I could come up with feel insufficient. Awesome. Great. Outstanding. Aye. This is an album I will treasure. Maybe it's the Fife connection, maybe it's the naked understatement, the seeming ease with which he does it all, the fact that I perceive him to be unconcerned with getting it "right". It could be any of these factors and tons more. In the end, it doesn't matter. Yeah. This is a special record.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Interview - James Yorkston

Words: Chris Hynd

For the past half dozen years or so now, Fife's James Yorkston has been creating and releasing warm, lyrical, folk-tinged songs and records. An integral part of the East Neuk's Fence Collective, Yorkston's latest release, “When The Haar Rolls In”, has seen him garner his best reviews to date. Before undertaking a UK tour to promote the new record, Yorkston headlined the latest Fence Club, a regular series of shows put on by the collective, at the Caves just off Edinburgh's Cowgate and I caught up with him before he went onstage.

When The Haar Rolls In” has just recently come out and this has come out at a time when you've moved back to Fife. Is it a record that was born out of that particular environment?

I don't think so. A lot of people have made that connection so maybe there was in a way that I didn't think about. Most of it was written before... actually, I don't know if I can say that truthfully... no, I guess most of it was written when I was back in Fife but I don't think so. Moving back to Fife brought a great sense of relief and maybe that did come through on the record.”

In general, how happy are you with the record and the reaction to it?

I'm over the moon with both. The reviews haven't all been great but the ones I've seen, 95% of them have been very, very good. They've mostly been four stars, a couple of five's but they've all read very well, they've all been positive about the record and how it's a good record you know? Myself, I'm over the moon with it, which is more important obviously. I don't think there's a duffer on it, I think it's a very strong record, I'm really happy with it. You're always judged by your last record and I think my fourth album is easily as strong as any of the one's that have gone beforehand. I'm delighted with it.”

Talking of Fife there, a friend of mine thought that there was a sense of your records being tied to Fife with a kind of nostalgia for the place. Have you ever thought that, is that a fair thing to say?

Yeah I would but it's not to Fife though. There's definitely nostalgic qualities to them but most of the nostalgia are for places I go to on the road, people I meet. The lyrics are definitely looking backwards but at people or places away from home so it's not tied to Fife but it is tied to memories. On that most recent one, the first song and the last song are about west Cork, I guess the song “When The Haar Rolls In” has lots of references to Fife.”

Linked to that and looking at your records as a whole, do you feel they've followed a path or a trajectory over the years? For instance, do you feel you've become more experimental or more confident in what you do?

I think the first record, “Moving Up Country”, was a pop record. With the second record, people talk about the second album syndrome and I definitely had it. I love that album, I think it has some of my strongest songs on it but it was a fucker to write. So when “Year Of The Leopard” came along I just had to break out from doing acoustic music so that's why it's got me singing in falsetto, it's got electronica on it, all sorts of different things. That kind of left me free to do what I wanted. I don't think the new record is inhabiting any genre but I didn't feel I had to break out of any genre with this one, that there was any strain with what I had to do and finally because I love what I do and I love my music and I'm very proud of it, taking all of those things aside, I'm very aware that it's uncommercial. It's not experimental, it's just that I don't have to worry about having a hit!”

You've done a couple of things that are a bit more stream of conciousness lyric wise, “Woozy With Cider” on the last record, the title track of this one. Would you be looking to do more things like those?

I think that you can't look backwards. With my second album I think I was looking backwards a bit as we'd made the first record so good. I became aware about half way through writing the second album that it was just the wrong thing to do, I had to look forwards. I don't really look back. “Woozy With Cider” is a record that a lot of people relate to but can you imagine if this record had an electronica song with me speaking over the top of it?! It would have been really corny - “he's trying to do another “Woozy With Cider!”” It's more important to not pay attention to what you've done before.”

The new record comes in a very beautifully put together box set, with the double 10”, the remix and covers CDs, the works. How did all that come about and is it something you'd consider doing again or is it a one-off?

We'll see what state the record industry's in in two years time or whenever the next record comes out. There were lots of reasons for doing this box set. One was that we had collected all this stuff. The covers thing started out because originally there was going to be a covers EP, “Tortoise Regrets Hare” was going to be the main track and the b-sides were going to be three covers but I asked five people because I figured two people would drop out and all five came through. I mentioned it to a few other people and before we knew it we had fifteen/sixteen people so it happened really naturally.

The remixes was kind of similar. We had all these old remixes and a few people got in touch and asked “can I do a remix?”. Again, it just happened naturally and I got in touch with Domino and we were talking about a promo for the album and they just said “what have you got? What can we use?”. I said “I've got this and these seven cover versions” so they came back and said “why don't you finish those off and we can put it out as a box set.” My album sales are going... I have to be careful what I say because it might not be true... but it's looking like that this one is going to sell more than the last one and the last one sold more than the one before. It's only tiny increments, I'm not at Bonnie Tyler status! But, the record business as a whole is selling a lot less and the figures you hear, not from Domino necessarily, albums are generally selling half as many as the one before because of downloading.

So this box set has been really good because we've sold a thousand things that couldn't get downloaded so we've actually brought some money in which nowadays for someone of my size is a reasonably rare thing to happen. Normally I'm subsidised by the bigger bands but who knows what will happen in two years. It's just getting less and less and less and less, people are buying less each week so I've no idea what'll happen.”

Following on from that, part of the lure of buying the box set is the chance to win the golden ticket to have a song written about you and then performed for you. Has that been claimed yet?

No, it hasn't. I've got a feeling though that Domino know which box the golden ticket is in and they're not going to send it out until... I don't know how many boxes are left, I know we sold about 500 in the first week so there can't be that many left now. If they've got any sense they'll wait until there's about a hundred left and then put it in randomly but I don't know that. I'm selling three here tonight and it could be in one of those, all honestly it could be in one of those.”

Did you like the idea when it was first put to you? Did you think it would work?

I thought it was a bit cheesy but the record company put a lot of money into recording the album and I thought that if this is going to help in any way, help them recoup some of the money then I'm happy to do it. There's a certain part of me that thinks it's going to be an interesting project, say someone like you won it...”

But I didn't. No golden ticket for me! I had grand plans of you coming round to my house and everything...!

Exactly, you just never know. You're speaking to someone and trying to write a song, it's a difficult thing to do one way or another. There's that side of it and the other side of it is that I know it's been good for publicity, it's a reasonably good idea, I'm quite happy to do. Right now at least, ask me in a year when I've done it and it's about some nutty guy and it'll be quite different now I've done it!”

As I said to you before we started this, I've interviewed Johnny Lynch and Kenny Anderson for the blog and Johnny described you as a kind of “ambassador” for Fence Records, do you see yourself in those terms or is it just a matter of having the freedom to play songs for and with friends to complement your releases on Domino?

When I started... you love music you know? I imagine you do, you're doing music journalism and I got asked in loads of loads of interviews which bands do I like and it was very easy and very truthful for me to say the Fence people, you could say Lone Pigeon or King Creosote or UNPOC because it was true. It was honest as well because I wasn't listening to or had a love for a London band, I was getting into the Fence thing, I was really excited about that. When I first started it was really easy to work with Fence because it was natural.

Imagine you're an artist, you were painting and all your pals were artists doing something staggeringly new and original and somebody would ask you which artists do you like then you could say “oh, my pals!” Because I was playing with them and was so immersed in it, it was the easiest thing to do, talking about genuine talent. I knew that when I sent a King Creosote or a Lone Pigeon CD to whoever I knew I was sending them something really good, it wouldn't sound like an acoustic Oasis or whatever it was really fucking good. Nowadays it's completely different because Kenny is way better known than I am. Now, I play shows that's just me and my acoustic guitar I play whatever I like. Kenny's got so many good songs, Jenny (Gordon, aka HMS Ginafore) is great, Johnny's great but I just do whatever, traditional songs, my own songs.”

I was going to ask about playing with Kenny and Johnny as The Three Craws. I've seen you a few times now and it just looks like an absolute joy to play with those two guys, is that the case?

Yeah, absolutely. It's funny, when we first started that we did mostly Kenny and Johnny's songs, we didn't do any of mine because I was touring and touring and the last thing I wanted to do was any of my songs. Now Kenny's touring and has become better known we hardly do any of his songs, now we're just doing Johnny's songs but his record's just come out now and it's doing really well, it's almost sold out of the first edition which is really good in today's climate so we're doing less of his one's as well! We're doing more of Gordon's (Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon), more of Jenny's, more traditional songs and more things that aren't our own. It's a great thing to do, to go onstage and have fun with the harmonies and try to trip each other up. I love it.”

A few months ago I saw a piece on The Culture Show on the BBC about the Fence Collective and on it you're interviewed where you say that you don't see yourselves as folk singers/musicians but as songwriters. Is that still an important distinction to make?

Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that's out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn't describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they're not very popular. One may say it's folk and that's one's opinion and that's fine but it's not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It's not a big thing, it's not a war cry or anything.”

Obviously, you've covered Lal Waterson's “Midnight Feast” on the new record so I take it folk music will always have an influence in what you do?

Oh yeah, absolutely. It's more of an influence on me than any other type of music. All these horrific titles of genres you hear, alt-country and new-folk and all that, the only one that I ever thought was good or funny was kraut-folk because I was really into krautrock, Can and Faust, as much as I was into traditional music so for me it worked. At the moment it is a little tricky because I'm working on an album that is completely traditional songs. I don't know what I'll say when that comes out and I'm asked that question but at the moment I really do think I'm a singer-songwriter, as horrible as that expression is.”

I saw you at the Green Man Festival last month and I think it's fair to say you've become a bit of a fixture there, playing every year. This was your first time on the main stage at the venue where it's held now, how do you think it went and were you nervous at all?

Yeah, I was really nervous. Obviously, we'd played on the main stage at the first one but I actually prefer playing on the smaller stages and I asked them to put us on the smaller stage but they wanted me on the main stage because I've played there every year and they have to mix it up. It's a great festival, I absolutely love it and I'm terrified that one year I won't be asked but I'll be fine about it, I'll take it like a man. It's great fun, but it can't go on forever.”

Did you hear what Kenny said during the King Creosote set after you, mentioning that you played a greatest hits set, of mainly new songs...

I think his tongue was in his cheek when he said that! You just have to play the new stuff especially if you play a festival every year. That was kind of influenced by Kenny the year before because he played totally new stuff with three or four old songs. I really enjoyed it, I was happy with the performance and thought we did ourselves reasonably proud.”

And again this year, the now legendary Jason came onstage for “Cheating The Game”, how did that all start off and come about?

The first ever Green Man was in a country house and the main stage was a drawing room! We played a drawing room and it was about five times the size of this room. He kept on standing up and going “PLAY TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH!” and we're like “no man, we're not playing that, there's only two of us”, it was just me and Faisal on the harmonium before he got ill so this guy got up and walked out the room so as soon as he got out the room I started playing it and he got really annoyed, it just went backwards and forwards. Eventually I said “look I'll play it if you come up and do the drums” so he got up and did the silly drums, the “TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH”. We've done it ever since and had him up playing every year. It's good fun, I hope it doesn't become wearing for the audience because we only do it once a year but I look forward to it because you never know what he's going to do as he's a bit of a jokey character. But, it's not like we're doing a comedy song or something, it's one of our own songs.”

Do you ever see him outside of the festival?

No, I don't know anything about him! I know his name, I know he's approaching 40 and I know he's got a son called Alfie but that's only because I've met him onstage and he's told me that!”

Finally then, how do you see the next wee while panning out for you? Obviously, you've got a tour coming up with The Pictish Trail and Rozi Plain...

I'm curious to see whether the great reviews this album got is going to translate into numbers at the shows. I'm curious to finish this next record which is the traditional songs and then I'm going to get on with the next James Yorkston record. That's really the plan, just keep on keeping on. It's great that everyone else on Fence is doing really well now. There's always talk of a Three Craws album or a Fence Collective album, there's talk of the moment and there's been talk since 2001 when we started up. It's the same with this traditional record, I started in 2001 with Domino, it's been on the back burner ever since and now it's almost finished. I've got one of those old projects out of the way so now I want to get some of the others out the way as well.”

With all the work you do, do you ever get time for a break, have time to yourself and just relax and not think about music?

Yeah, but it's not really like that. Playing is fun, we go on the road and it's good most of the time, it's tiring sometimes. Obviously you take holidays, have a couple of weeks off and recently I've been at home just doing DIY and reaping the rewards in the garden. It's good, Fife seems a very long way away from where the record company are and it doesn't feel as if my nose is to the grind stone. I live a very easy life!”

And some might say that Mr Yorkston has earned the right to those rewards and hopefully the success of “Where The Haar Rolls In” will lead to those rewards continuing. Thanks to James for the chat and for taking a couple of interruptions we had to the interview in his stride. He's a real pro, and a gent to boot. Maybe that golden ticket winner is reading this, I can't think of a better man to write a song for you if it is you!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interview - Oxbow

Words: John Mackie

California's Oxbow were last in the country on tour this past summer with fellow noise-makers Harvey Milk. Now home, vocalist Eugene Robinson took time out to answer some of our questions via email.

I've come to Oxbow very late...

This might be considered, in many quarters, to be a positive development.

My first serious introduction was the gig in Glasgow with Harvey Milk. I've subsequently investigated "The Narcotic Story" which I love. Could you tell us a bit about the recording of it?

Our records are always difficult and bloodied affairs. Our refusal to work with anyone other than producer Joe Chiccarelli on this (versus say having him record the basics and then have someone else mix it) caused innumerable delays as he would frequently skip out to produce stuff for Jack White and the Raconteurs and other much much larger groups and personalities. Within this framework as well just getting what we need to have happen creatively is difficult. First Lou Reed had thought he might be on it. Because you really can't have a record called The Narcotic Story without Lou Reed. And then he bailed. And then we couldn't afford prime time hours to record in so we took off hours. The first studio we did the basics in was shit even though we knew that all of the records that had been recorded there, many by Metallica, sounded like shit we thought it'd be different for us. But no... So we had to construct a skiff, or a room within a room, at the studio to make the sound make sense. And then because the vibe was so bad with the studio we escaped and went to another studio to do my vocals. This studio was a great one for vocals. So great that immediately on our completion of them the studio went out of business.

ADD to this the generalized agita born of sleeplessness and just trying to corral the craziness and you have: The Narcotic Story.

It's a dense and multi-layered record with so much going on. How does an Oxbow record usually take shape?

It takes years. And years. We went through one 6 month period where we rehearsed nothing but a 3 minute section of a song. Just this. Again and again. I say WE here but I really mean Dan, Niko and Greg. Since the first note that I ever sing on a song is the note that you hear on the record, I mean we never rehearse vocals BEFORE recording them, I mostly just listen and let the song come alive. In my head. And having written the lyrics I have months and months to have them make sense for me from an emotional standpoint as well. and this is even outside of the actual logistics of how we get things to happen my an audio production standpoint.

"The Narcotic Story" is your first record on Hydra Head. How has it been working with them? As a label, does it feel like a natural home for band like Oxbow and do you envisage remaining with them for the forseeable future?

In short order: GREAT. And YES.

You recently finished a tour of Europe with Harvey Milk. On the surface there are few similarities but from the audience's point of view it certainly made for an interesting and varied bill. Here's a 3 part question! What was touring with HM like?

Quite nice. Temperamentally the bands are coming from completely different places. They're, culturally speaking, pretty Southern Gothic, if that makes any sense and it is no wonder to me that some of my favourite writers are Southerners, so from my my vantage point this really worked. From their vantage point I think they expected me to be getting into a LOT more fistfights and were actually disappointed that this tour, sadly/gladly, offered very little of that.

What do you make of playing in Europe compared with back home?

Well our last tour of the States was with Isis... so it was GREAT. Our last tour of the States withOUT Isis can be best be described if you can envision a pair of boots slowly compressing your testicles, if you have them. and now imagine this forever. or for at least 6000 miles. Welcome to America. And truthfully: the UK is great for Oxbow but not very different in many regards, usually in the "fuck you - we don't care about you" regard, though the UK has always been cool to/for us... The stench of seen it all/done it all clings to the soundmen, support staff, promoters and venues here as it does in America. I say that though while also noting that this last tour was our best one ever in the UK and everyone we dealt with was unfailingly wonderful. it's just that my memory of the UK goes back 20 years and it has not always been so.

A bill featuring different "types" of bands can often mean one of them playing to the other's audience or at least an audience used to different fare. How do you feel about that?

We've played with A Perfect Circle, Isis, Tom Waits' band Oranj Symphonette, Mike Watt, The Melvins, Neurosis, and swing bands. Harvey Milk was as close as we're going to get to a band that sort of occupies the same art space. that is: one where the audience is OK with WHATEVER.

The Oxbow live experience was genuinely unlike anything I'd seen before! Intensity (an overused phrase but apt I think), performance art, feral noise... There were people near me who were standing literally open mouthed. I guess audiences, myself included, are not used to being part of such a truly visceral experience. For me it was thrilling. It got me thinking a lot of how it seems as if audiences for the most part clearly tend to want something cosy and traditional. I'd like to know if you agree with this? Also how important is it to you to challenge perceptions of what a live band does? Do you feel that that you consciously set out to challenge an audience?

I don't know about cosy and traditional and them really WANTING it. I mean people eat EGGS... I don't know how many of them really WANT to eat eggs. We are habituated in strange ways and if an evening's entertainment involves a LACK of real physical peril, existential anxiety, and psychosexual discomfort, well that would be fine for about 99 percent of the people out there walking around. decent people all, in all likelihood. there have been people at our shows who have wanted to, they say, see us and have not managed to for 20 years. This is virtually impossible, really, so I am left to assume that this is only the kind of thing you hear when you're ready to hear it. that is: understand it when you CAN understand it.

Or more prosaically... People who are real music heads like the accumulation of musical info as much as they like music. Right now I could not tell you at ALL what Yo Lo Tengo or Galaxie 500 or Linkin Park sound like but I have a GENERAL idea and for me? That's clearly enough given how short life is. this is the efficiency argument and this might play heavily into people saying "once you've seen one crazy Negro screaming to a noisy but highly proficient and divinely inspired band you've seen them all" but this is probably not true.

As for whether what you call the challenge is conscious, well I'd have to say no. Maybe if you have not read the lyrics it might emerge as a challenge but there is a direct one to one relationship between what we're singing about and how we're playing it and this has everything to do with how all of our lives are lived: with great difficulty. NOT sub-saharan African difficulty. We're all quite well-fed. But 1st world difficulties and clearly difficulties of the blood.

Eugene, how much do you see your live show as a "performance" as opposed to an act of "playing music" in the way other frontmen might approach it? Again, this goes back to challenging audience's perceptions with regards to the role of a frontman in a band, you often break down the barrier that exists between the band and the audience. Is this something you set out conciously to do or does it just feel like a natural thing to do?

Without the music what I am doing has no measure.

There are so many different elements to your sound. All these ideas and "influences", for want of a better phrase, fighting AND at one with each other at the same time. Being great musicians gives you the freedom to explore these different areas. Do you ever feel the urge to make a straight ahead "rock" record?!

Are our records NOT straight ahead rock records? They're not madrigals.

The amount of lazy descriptions of you I've seen are quite astonishing often along the lines of, "a metal band", "a hardcore band" etc. To me your music seems almost impossible to categorise even if I was inclined to attempt to do it. Are you bothered or frustrated by these types of statements? Do you thrive on them?

I am bothered and frustrated by capricious gods who see fit to under-reward me while those half as talented are over-rewarded. But naming conventions? I could not care less.

Eugene, could you tell us the background behind your book "Fight"? You've also written extensively elsewhere. Do you have any other books in the pipeline? As both a writer and a musician, do you ever find yourself having conflicting priorities or are both elements able to co-exist without being detrimental to each other?

Yeah. I wrote an article about my obsession with fighting and was flown to NY immediately afterward and given a book deal with Harper Collins. The gods were not so capricious that day, apparently. It's a great book that is NOT being distributed in the UK by the company publishing it because of the 2 pages I was urged to include on knife fighting and the idea that the book would aid and abet citizens of the monarchy in putting holes in each other. It's presently on sale ONLINE so... hey... I'm not asking for a handout... I'm just asking for A GODDAMNED HAND... Buy the book. Other books? Always... But nothing I've managed to sell yet. So: Air. And lots of it. Until a check gets written.

But do I find the writing/music thing tough? No. Writers are much more egomaniacal than musicians. I mean YOU know this, hahaha...

Finally, Oxbow have been together for close to 20 years. How do you keep things fresh?

Our music is not our business. I mean while we're involved in the business of music, we can't feed ourselves doing it and so then it becomes something done beyond real world constraints. like wicker basket weaving. it keeps us off the streets. I don't know if this equals FRESH but when no one cares what you do it can be quite liberating to do WHATEVER.

What makes you want to keep making music together?

Anger. And bitterness. Mostly. And a mutual hatred of fate. And our own wretchedness. And I wish I was joking but I am not.

How do you think Oxbow have evolved over the years?

Have we evolved? This could clearly be part of the "problem." Hahaha...

Thanks to Eugene for replying to our questions so quickly, it was a pleasure to chat to him. You can find out more about Oxbow and Eugene here:

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Record Review - The Pictish Trail

The Pictish Trail
Secret Soundz Vol.1
Fence Records

Words: Andrew Cleary

The Pictish Trail – Secret Soundz Vol 1Johnny Lynch, the Pictish Trail, helmsman of the good ship Fence Records is, as anyone who has heard his work will attest, a talented chap. He has been impressing, both solo and as part of King Creosote's band, for some time now, so this debut album proper is certainly eagerly anticipated. And it is worth the wait. It kicks off with Secret Sound #2, one of the electronic non-sequiturs that intersperse the album, then we have the first high point in "All I Own" – initially appearing on last year's "Don’t Fudge With the Fence Made" compilation, it is an incredible song, contemplative yet full of wonder. It also gives the first glimpse of the beauty of Lynch's vocals – pitched somewhere between the aforementioned KC and Liam Hayes (aka Plush), they have a real fragility but also an instant charm that makes virtually every song immediately singalongable. Next up is "I Don't Know Where To Begin", which displays a quality of song writing that puts most "bigger" artists to shame. Other highlights are "Winter Home Disco", which signals a more upbeat change of pace and features the unmistakeable vocal talents of James Yorkston, "The Lighthouse" featuring a gorgeous opening guitar line and "Into the Smoke", a relative epic that would sound out of place on neither the biggest nor smallest of stages.

That last comment pretty much sums up the feeling that the listener gets from this album. While it encapsulates all of the finest qualities of the Fence Records output – warmth, a homeliness, lyrics that tug at your heartstrings yet make you smile and melodies to die for – it also has numerous songs that sound huge. Songs which one could imagine being heard by a great many more people. That is, of course, not to say that record sales should be equated with quality by any means, but it does frustrate that the public at large buy so much rubbish while songs of this quality might go unheard by the majority of the population. Still, it is exciting to imagine what the future holds for a songwriter of the quality of the Pictish Trail, and for now I, for one, am delighted to be in on these secret sounds.