Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview - Rob St John

Words: Chris Hynd
Photo: P. St John

I hope he doesn't mind me saying this but we in Edinburgh miss Rob St John and so his visits up here are always something to look forward to and cherish. His two EPs and evocative live performances left a lot of good memories and as he headed down to Oxford for academic (and now professional) life it was with a bittersweet realisation that appearances back in the city would become quite rare. So it was with great delight (to me anyway!) that Rob would be playing not one, but two times in the space of a few days earlier this month - supporting Ryan Francesconi and headlining the second Ides of Toad gig put on by Matthew Young of the Song, By Toad label and blog. Rob very kindly took time out from his busy schedule while he was in the city to answer some questions I sent to him.

You’re back up in Scotland to play a couple of shows – how do you find coming back up to play now that you’ve been away? i.e. is there anything you miss from your time in Edinburgh or anything you don’t!

Edinburgh will always be very important to me, there’s a very special community of interesting people approaching music in an inspiring way, and I plan to come back in the next year or two. As a place it seeps into most things I write, butting up against the dark Lancashire moors in some imagined mental terrain.

Everyone involved in the LP recording and live set in Edinburgh - Neil Pennycook (Meursault, Withered Hand), Ian Humberstone (Tissø Lake) Tom Western, Malcolm Benzie and Bart Owl (eagleowl), Rob Waters (The Great Bear), Tom Bauchop (UNPOC), Louise Martin, Owen Williams (Pineapple Chunks, Randan Discotheque et al) - has their own main going concerns. We brace and buckle each other’s projects, cross-pollinating ideas and support networks as we go. This project wouldn’t be the same without them.

Following on from that, how is Oxford for a musician such as yourself? I have no knowledge about it as a place for bands so I’m interested to hear what it’s like. Do you play many shows down there or is there a similar thriving musical community such as the one in Scotland? Obviously, it’s like comparing apples and oranges but it would be good to get your perspective now that you’ve been there a while.

This is related to the previous question (and you might have already answered it !) but you were involved in a recording with The Braindead Collective that was released in December. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like recording with them? Would you like to work more with them in the future?

It’s certainly different. Despite being there for the best part of 18 months, I’ve yet to find anything comparable to the Scottish DIY community. But perhaps that’s just through a lack of effort, or luck. For all that any scene or community may intend to be open and approachable, the fact that it’s small in scale and niche in taste, aesthetic or ethos means that it may simply be difficult to find for anybody aspiring to get involved. Relating back to Edinburgh, I suppose this is where (unfounded, in my opinion) accusations of nepotism within the DIY scene stem from.

That said, Braindead Collective are a likeminded, shifting bunch of talented improvisers based loosely in London and Oxford around Seb Reynolds. Recording "The Whites of their Eyes" was a great process - set up in a medieval city centre Oxford church with banks of amps, organs and percussion in a frozen winter weekend and improv over a freshly formed song. We’re playing a collaborative set opening for A Hawk and a Hacksaw in April, and will keep working together, for sure.

I’m currently taking this experience of moving cities and using it as the basis of a fanzine which documents how best to start DIY promotion. A screenprinted and letterpressed document, it’ll collate advice and anecdotes from a bunch of promoters who’re willing to share their hard-won wisdom. Something cheap to sell on merch tables to inspire a new raft of people forging creative communities with a DIY approach.

I believe we can expect a full length LP from you soon! Can you tell us how that’s going, i.e. what the recording process is/was like, the people involved and who plays on the record and what they bring to the process. It’s coming out on Song, By Toad Records – did Matthew approach you with a view to releasing it or did you always see SBT as a good home for you.

We recorded for two days with Neil in a shutter-drawn Victorian living room in north Edinburgh under the weak kaleidoscopic light of an ailing mirror ball like some slow film, and powered on by bananas and strong coffee. It’s a record of events, strung together by creaks and drones. Songs for daybreak and for evening gloam.

Matthew is very enthusiastic, organised, supportive and tolerant of my whims of creative control and artistic vagaries, and is keen to put the record out on vinyl, which is fantastic. We work well together.

Your music has evolved over the time I’ve seen you play from quieter, acoustic songs with harmoniums and the like to you using an electric guitar and having a more heavier and, dare I say it, doomier feel! What led to the change in sound and was it something that came naturally to you? Has your writing process changed in that you’re writing specifically for songs that are designed to be played on the electric rather than the acoustic guitar?

The LP is swathed in skittering drums and bells, harmonium, saw, organ, fiddle and group singing. I was thinking about how group singing has almost exclusively become professionalised and institutionalised in Britain, resulting in the widespread loss of the tradition of communities singing together simply for fun, storytelling or togetherness. Regardless of communal harmony or skill, there’s something liberating about the shared purpose of group singing – something like a football chant without the daft puns (largely) or wavering moral compass.

Similarly, I’m fascinated by the idea of rough music (or ran-tanning) - where a chorus of villagers would ostracise a criminal or wrongdoer with a loud, primal chant and the clatter of saucepans, drums and cymbals. Bill Drummond’s 17 project , where a rotating cast of 17 amateur singers were assembled to sing compositions based on ideas such as the tones and harmonies made by the machinery of a rusting, whirring old Land Rover driven from Hull to Liverpool , is also inspiring. That rediscovery of remaining a happy amateur and emphasising something crafted and communal, rather than necessarily forged from high art, is an idea that resonates (hmm…) with me.

That said, all the players on the record are excellent musicians, well versed in tolerating my oscillating and improvised recording ideas. Held together on some tightrope of other’s talent tapering into waveringly tuneful slips of songs. The recording is the document of the time, the room, the line-up and the available instruments. The live show is constantly changing; hopefully remaining fresh and interesting for all involved, audience and performers alike. The live performance is where I think the true nature of a song is formed and continually redefined.

Played live, songs mutate: becoming louder, quieter, faster, slower, heavier, sparser. I think when you begin to hone and over-practice a set of songs you run the risk of reducing meaningful lyrics or melodies into slick anonymous products, asking to be watered-down and endlessly recited.

The songs are largely in some invented altered guitar tuning or other. You become that happy amateur again when forced to play your hand in an unfamiliar tuning, inadvertently rediscovering the love of the Cs, Gs and Fs you shun as an aspirational learner set on forging something original. Happy accidents as simple phrases played on new or unfamiliar instrument sound exciting and fully formed. Once when touring with Woodpigeon I left a guitar tuned in this way in a musician’s B&B in Manchester, only to return a week later to find the owners had fallen for the tuning and were eager to find out what it was. Guiltily I quickly retuned to standard, for fear of discovery. Tunings can do strange things to a man.

I’ve been listening to a lot of dense, dark, droney music lately, which has most likely influenced the record. A course of Grouper, Lichens, Richard Skelton, Swans, Earth and Ben Frost, punctuated by the crystalline, improvised clarity of Tsegué-Maryam Guébrou’s piano playing, and the songs of Phil Elverum, Ben Wetherill, Karen Dalton and Elizabeth Cotten. That said, when recording, Owen and I took to communicating with each other in code: this song should sound like a frozen waterfall slowly melting; this one should sound as if Low were from a Northumberland pit village. How this cryptic daftness carries through I have no idea.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the process of field recording, and working on a soundtrack documenting a short walk along the River Thames between Oxford and the tiny, mediaeval Binsey Church. When played back, the wheezing, faltering phantom hymnal of the harmonium recorded in the thick churchyard gloom sounds almost identical sonically to some of the distortions made by the wind whirring into my cheap dictaphone whilst field recording. Inadvertent coincidences like this really inspired the shifting, somnambulant aural fog that clouds this record.

Finally, what are your hopes and plans for the year? Obviously the release of the LP will be uppermost in your mind so is it a case of promoting that and playing shows around the country?

I’m very proud of the record, and all who’ve contributed and been involved. I’ll hopefully be able to get to play out a bit more this year. Perhaps a wee bit further afield than before. The second LP is almost written, and will be recorded in the summer. Pablo Clark (My Kappa Roots, Milk) and I will make a (long overdue) homage to "Bert and John" in the near future, a project formulated six years ago in tiny Edinburgh flats as we traded our fledgling, whispered tunes, and argued over who should be "Bert" and who should be "John". I’m also working on a bunch of soundtrack, film and writing projects, exploring ideas of place, memory, landscape and sound. And the fanzine. Sleep is taking a wee bit of a back seat at the moment.

It sounds as if there's a lot going on creatively with Rob at the moment and I know a lot of people will be looking forward to what he comes up with. Personally speaking, the prospect of a record with Pablo Clark is something I can't wait to hear, but that's only one part of the future. Exciting times ahead, always moving, never complacent. It's something that we could all do well to heed as we go forward ourselves.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Interview - Edinburgh Man

Words: Chris Hynd

Well, where were we on the interview front? It's only been since 2008 after all...

The first one back is with Jonny Dobson, the genial host of the Edinburgh Man podcast. I first came across Jonny's podcast last summer when my friend Gordon joined him for a couple of shows over the Edinburgh Fringe period. Although the more indiepop songs on his playlists are not quite to my taste, I do like the mix of indie rock, lo-fi and shoegaze that he also plays so I've found myself keeping a half hour free every week to tune in. Jonny was kind enough to agree to do the interview and took the time to give full answers to my questions.

The Edinburgh Man podcast has been going for around a year now (correct me if I'm wrong!). Can I start by asking what was the inspiration to you to do a podcast in the first place? Did it take a while to get into the swing of things (e.g. I look back on my first couple and cringe, do you feel the same?) or was it something that came naturally to you?

Yep, it's a year this week! I'd been meaning to do a podcast for years, actually years and years, ever since I started listening to podcasts in about 2004/2005, but it's something I never really got around to doing. The actual rather lame impetus was that I got a new MacBook that had a pretty decent inbuilt microphone, plus it came with GarageBand. I also spent a while trawling websites like Music Alley to try and find music to play. After a few days of looking around I had enough tracks for something like five shows, so I just sat down and recorded the first one.

I'm not sure if I've ever really got into the swing of things, and I certainly don't listen to old episodes. Once it's gone, I'm onto the next. The first few aren't available on the podcast feed anymore, but that's more to do with laziness after I changed the server, rather than anything else. Since about episode ten I've tried to do them "live" after GarageBand crapped out on me once and I had to re-record the show. It's much more fun to record them live, so from then on I think I got a lot more comfortable with it. Despite the fact it has probably increased the number of mistakes I make!

The music you play is either “podsafe”, i.e. released under Creative Commons licensing or free downloads that bands have made available to everyone. Was it a conscious decision to do this or wasn’t the PRS-affiliated Mixcloud up and running then and so you had to go down that route and not risk getting into bother playing copyrighted songs?

I think Mixcloud kicked off a few months after I started, or at least that was when I became aware of it. In general I don't listen to much music on major labels, and a lot of my favourite larger independent labels, such as Kill Rock Stars, Polyvinyl, and obviously Sub Pop, openly encourage podcasters to play the tracks they make available on their site. What I also found from that first few days of researching music for those initial shows was that there is so much exciting Creative Commons music out there. I have to admit, a few years ago I'd been put off by so called "podsafe" podcasts because I thought the music they played was, by and large, bland major label wannabe music, rather than anything interesting or innovating. But when I really started digging around for myself, I found so much music that really excited me. Music that I wanted to share.

I also knew that I wanted to join the Association of Music Podcasting. I'm not entirely sure why, maybe I just thought it would be good to be able to tap into the experience and knowledge of guys who have been doing this for years (some from the dawn of podcasting!). The membership criteria is that your podcast must only play podsafe music, so that pretty much clinched it.

Following on from that, is it difficult to source podsafe songs or is it quite rewarding to do a bit more research and digging about and unearth some gems that might not have been so widely known about? What has been your favourite find – someone like Entertainment for the Braindead for instance, for which I have to say thanks for introducing me to!

That EFTB album was the one that really got me too. It's a wonderful album, certainly one of my favourites of 2010. I love the Dressed Like Wolves album, and there are a couple of great EPs by Wisdom Tooth, both of which I first heard through - a great website for free lo-fi and DIY music.

To be honest, yes, it's a lot of work! I easily spend much more time researching the music than recording the show. But it's so rewarding. I have an insatiable appetite for new music, and finding something new and interesting is just so exciting. I also don't want the show to be the same music that you hear featured in lots of other podcasts, but by the same token I'm conscious of slipping in a couple of tracks into each show that might be familiar to listeners. I think that's something John Peel used to say about playing music - play something that people want to listen to, and then play something that you think they should listen to.

After a few months I started reaching out to bands and artists, and asking them if I could play their music on the show. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to do this. I think the first band was the Go Away Birds (Catherine Ireton from God Help The Girl and Michael John McCarthy from Zoey van Goey) after I saw them at a wonderful acoustic flat gig. It was very exciting, if only because Michael John instantly got the reference to The Fall in the name the podcast! Since then, if I want to play a track on the show, but it's not necessarily released under Creative Commons I just get it touch and ask. Some of these are unsigned bands whose EPs I stumble across on Bandcamp, while others, such as A Sunny Day In Glasgow are quite a bit more well known, but no-one has knocked me back yet!

I'm totally indebted to the people who have let me play their music on the show, bands like The Last Battle, Kid Canaveral, Schwervon!, and many, many more besides. Without them it'd just be me talking rubbish for thirty minutes, and I wouldn't want to wish that on anyone.

One thing I think about a lot with my podcasts is the mix between older and newer music. Do you think a podcast should exclusively feature newer material or do you share a friend of mine’s view that any song could be new to somebody, no matter when it was released?

I try and play new music for the most part, but it's a balance. I do like playing old stuff and as your friend says, it's always new to someone! In fact, I've often received email feedback from listeners who have specifically been introduced to older bands through the show, which is pretty cool. I do like slipping in some old stuff. A few weeks ago I had an itch to scratch, and played some Bratmobile from the early 90s because they're a band I don't think enough people know about. And I do play the odd Beat Happening track, because you can never have enough Beat Happening!

Is half an hour / approx. 6 songs the perfect length for the type of show you do in that it’s a weekly show and people may be pressed for time throughout the week to listen to a longer show? I’ve seen that you now upload an extended version of the show to Mixcloud with a couple of extra tracks of non-podsafe material – is that something you’re going to continue with?

I reckon so. My favourite podcasts have always been about half an hour to forty five minutes in length. Perhaps that's because my commute has always been about that long, or perhaps it's just my attention span.

I think podcasting is a very different from medium from radio, and the format of the shows needs to reflect that. Radio shows are generally on in the background while you're doing something else, but I think a podcast is a more engaging experience. You've chosen to listen to it, so you're concentrating a bit more, and when you're concentrating more, especially when it's mostly music that is new to you, you don't want a longer show. Two hours is fine for a radio show, but way too long for a podcast. I've yet to be convinced that sixty minutes isn't too long either, although admittedly some of my favourite podcasts, such as Jon Hillcock's New Noise podcast or obviously the wonderful This American Life are about that length.

I'm not sure about the mixcloud versions. They are an experiment that may or may not continue. Certainly the download versions get many hundreds times more listens than the mixcloud ones. We shall see. I know that you use mixcloud for your podcast, but until they sort out a mobile version of their site, or a mobile app, it doesn't really fit in with how I listen to podcasts.

Your site hosts your podcast but do you have any plans to branch out into more of a music blog, e.g. interviewing and reviewing bands or are you happy with the site as it is right now. Also, I really enjoyed the shows you did over the summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, are there any plans to do more of these, not just about the Fringe but around other events?

I'm not really a blogger. I feel like a bit of an imposter when there are so many great Scottish music blogs around, and all I really use mine for is posting a link to a new podcast! I reckon I'll just stick to doing the show. So many people can write blogs better than I ever could do.

The Fringe recordings with Gordon were good fun. It was great to record the show outside, in the sun (sometimes) and with a beer (most times). I also met some really nice people as a result of those shows, like comedian Dave Hill, and the wonderfully talented Charlyne Yi. Depending on work commitments, maybe we'll do some more Fringe shows this year.

Finally, what other podcasts do you listen to and recommend to others? And, do you think more and more podcasts will spring up in the future as people will listen to the ones out there and think “I could do that too!”?

There has always been a healthy churn of podcasts, which I think keeps the medium fresh. There are always people saying "I could do that too", because that's exactly what I thought one day when listening to Song, By Toad (no disrespect to Matthew!). I really enjoy Song, By Toad and Glasgow Podcart; and further afield, Dave Hill's Podcasting Incident and This American Life. Those are my main ones. I also subscribe to The Sounds in My Head, and while he doesn't always play music I'd normally listen to, I enjoy Peter Clitheroe's wonderfully titled Suffolk 'n' Cool, for enthusiastic chat and an interesting variety of music.

My favourite podcast is sadly one that was a victim of that podcast churn. If any podcast really put the seed into my mind of doing this it was the long defunct Dailysonic. Unfortunately you can no longer download this great magazine show from NYC, but I've got most of the episodes still in my iTunes library and dip in now and again. They did some innovating things like customised feeds that dynamically changed the show content based on your preferences, something that even now no-one else is really doing. But at the core it was an interesting and entertaining show written and presented by creative people. A great example of how podcasting is quite unlike any other broadcasting medium out there.

Indeed. Thanks again to Jonny for doing the interview. His podcast is uploaded every Thursday night and can be found at -

You also can follow him on Twitter - @edinburgh_man.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Plentycast #13b

As indicated in the previous post, we had far too many songs for a regular podcast and we felt that because they were of sufficient quality then trimming down 2 shows worth into 1 would prove quite difficult. We recorded this one right after the finishing the last one so I suppose this is more of a "part 2" (or "#13b" as I'm calling it) than a brand new show. I appear to be even more forgetful than I am in #13a, why it took me a long few seconds to remember Isobel Campbell's at one point name is anybody's guess. I'm leaning towards old age...

Also, the first of the interviews I have lined up is ready to go. It's with Jonny Dobson, the host of the Edinburgh Man podcast and will appear on the site this coming week.

Clickety click...

Tracklisting -

1. Wilco - She's A Jar
2. The Pastels - The Viaduct
3. Nina Nastasia - Outlaster
4. David Dondero - Motion Picture Song
5. Rod Stewart - Gasoline Alley
6. Miracle Legion - You're The One Lee
7. Billy Bragg - The Passion
8. Shirley And Dolly Collins - Are You Going To Leave Me?
9. Mark Lanegan - Woe
10. Peter Broderick - Guilt's Tune
11. Rachel's - First Self-Portrait Series
12. Vashti Bunyan - Here Before
13. Meursault - Weather
14. Iron And Wine - Passing Afternoon
15. My Kappa Roots - The Dour Festival

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Plentycast #13

And so, as previously advertised, we come to the Quietcast, the Gentlecast, whatever you want to call it, the anti-Noisecast if you will. The brief was to come up with some quieter songs to play, the only snag was that we came up with 29 quieter songs to play! The quality was so high that we decided to go ahead and do two Quietcasts and just split the songs up instead of having to decide what to leave out.

So, this is #13a. I was feeling hyper still from the news that Superchunk are playing the Jeff Mangum-curated ATP in December so that may have been on my mind throughout the recording and I had a few brain lapses. Either that or I'm really, really old... I think it's the latter... Anyway, apologies for said brain lapses and mistakes. They're honest mistakes if nothing else and it makes it all the more real. Yes.

On you go...

Tracklisting -

1. Edith Frost - Temporary Loan
2. Damon & Naomi - Translucent Carriages
3. Josh T. Pearson - Woman, When I've Raised Hell
4. Debutant - Thirst
5. Low - Sea
6. Hamish Imlach - Cod Liver Oil And Orange Juice
7. King Creosote - So Forlorn
8. Neil Diamond - Lonely Looking Sky
9. Entertainment For The Braindead - A Smile
10. James Orr Complex - Looking Into Nature
11. Karen Dalton - Ribbon Bow
12. Nico - My Only Child
13. Bowerbirds - Teeth
14. Cat Power - Colors And The Kids

Monday, February 14, 2011

More News...

So yes, doing the podcasts every so often are fine and dandy but I realised that there was something missing from the site and that was to do more on the music blogging side. I really enjoyed interviewing bands and I think I miss doing that so I'm going to include more interviews on the site from now on. I already have a couple of irons in the fire and depending on how quickly people get back to me then these will hopefully appear on the site soon.

I'm less inclined to get back into reviewing music, I always found it a chore and quite difficult at times especially when I was up against a deadline to keep the review relevant to the time the LP was released or gig took place. To me, it was far less interesting than thinking up questions to ask people so I think it's fair to say that you won't be finding any reviews on here any time soon. I guess I'm more keen to promote bands by speaking to them and hearing what they have to say about their music and encouraging people to check them out for themselves in a more organic way (man!).

The majority of these will be conducted via email, to give me more time to formulate the questions and also to give the bands a bit of time to formulate their replies. I've been really lucky in the past to talk to people who thought about what I asked them and got back to me with equally thoughtful responses, but I'm not ruling out any face-to-face ones if the opportunity arises (with bands on tour and the like).

The podcasts will still appear, I know I said that they would be monthly but having spoken to John we both agree that we'll do them on an "as and when" type basis as opposed to a strict timetable. The next one will be up on the site hopefully by next weekend and I hope these augment the interviews (and vice versa) quite nicely.



Sunday, February 06, 2011

Plentycast #12

aka the Noisecast...

So we welcome John to his first show as co-host and we decided to do a full-on noisefest. There's a lot of good things going on here and it's not all ear bleeding, face melting armageddon or anything like that. There's a bit of thought and craft that's gone into some of the songs we've chosen but sometimes you do want a bit of an assault and so there's a bit of that too. It's the usual mix of older and newer things and since it's the first in our new monthly series it's a bit longer than you're probably used to on here, 94 minutes to be precise.

There's a bit of rambling, some diversions, a bit of silliness but in general it's all good. I don't know why I didn't do something like this from the start, it just sounds so much better with more than one person in the room talking about the songs and we had a whole lot of fun recording it which I hope comes across when you listen to it. I think we're going to do something a bit more gentle in the next 'cast so tune in for that at the start of next month.

On you go...

Tracklisting -

1. Envy - A Breath Clad In Happiness
2. Floor - Downed Star
3. Japandroids - Sovereignty
4. Battle Of The War Machines - Delete All Life Forms
5. Probot - Centuries Of Sin
6. Kylesa - To Forget
7. Hoover - Return
8. The Crownhate Ruin - Stretched Too Thin
9. Pissed Jeans - Dream Smotherer
10. Fudge Tunnel - S.R.T.
11. Pailhead - I Will Refuse
12. Rangda - Serrated Edges
13. Th' Faith Healers - Reptile Smile
14. Refused - New Noise
15. Chavez - You Must Be Stopped