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 -

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very interesting interview - I think The Dour Festival shows a lot of influence of Under Milk Wood both in its language and sense of place it evokes. No bad thing