You Could Be Here For Some Time

Last year I was in Los Angeles. Idlewild were playing a short run of west coast shows and were going to spend five days in a recording studio after them, recording some new songs and ideas. Driving into Los Angeles fills me with excitement, no matter how many cars and lorries are cutting in front of you. The place is full of a million memories, some of them mine. Idlewild spent three months here once, in 2004 recording ‘warnings/promises’. It was one of the best, most memorable times in my life so far. I could write a book about it, or maybe a novella. Anyway, on this day we had a few hours to kill - the venue didn’t open until 5, and we couldn’t check into the air B&B bungalow until 4pm. It was 3pm, so we took the exit onto sunset boulevard and drove to Ameoba music.

For those who have never been to this record shop it is the worlds largest independent record store - as a music fan, if that doesn’t fill you with a warm, happy, safe feeling then I don’t know what will. It is a musical sanctuary the size of a huge supermarket, stuffed full of so much good music from all over the world that it’s almost impossible to know where to start. I’ve been quite a few times and know from experience that it’s somewhere to come with a purpose. You must have something in mind. Or you could be here for some time. When we made ‘Warning/Promises’ at Sunset sound studios, we were only a ten minute walk away from Ameoba, so when I wasn’t needed in the studio (which as a singer, is frequently) I’d often walk along and spend hours looking through records. It is an amazing place to spend time by yourself. It’s like a combination of a (sound) library, art gallery and museum, except it’s a shop. They do gigs too - I saw Devandra Barnhart play one afternoon.

The jazz section in Ameoba is vast and impressive. I love listening to Jazz and finding more and more about it as I go. I head to Miles Davis. If you don’t know much about Jazz, then Miles Davis is a good place to start the journey - there is something for everyone. Even someone who doesn’t think they like jazz, will like it - He is that good. One of my all time favourite Miles records is ‘On the corner’ - released in 1972, it ended up as Miles’ worst selling album of the time - and subsequently was the last studio album he made that decade.  Totally out of step with what Jazz fans were listening to at the time, it was of course, way ahead of it’s time (like these sort of records often are). It is a dense album full of jagged musical grooves, incorporating bits of funk & tape editing - even drawing influence from experimental composers like  Stockhausen. ‘On the Corner’ made its lasting influence on post-punk, electronica, hip hop, and Jazz. It’s weird and brilliant and you either hate it or get lost within it. Driving around LA - a city built for driving around, listening to ‘On the Corner’ and the relentless & mesmeric hi hat that grooves through all the tracks - the car, the highway, the palm trees, the sunshine, the hi-hat, the ideas, all seem to merge into a cosmic meditative Californian aural/visual cocktail. You should all try it, if you haven’t already.  

I have a friend that used to joke with me that by the time I was 40 I would be into Free Jazz - as a music fan you are always looking for something new, inevitably you are going to get bored with one genre. I listened to so much rock music growing up - metal, into punk rock, into indie rock that by 26 or 27 was just hearing the same things repeated again. Any genre is is cyclical I suppose, like the generations listening. I looked back, I moved onto 60’s and 70’s singer songwriters, then folk music became my interest, and simmering underneath it all was a developing taste for jazz. When you discover musicians like Albert Ayler, Ornetter Coleman, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy then things start to get very interesting, and any notions you had before of what the music was, get challenged in the best possible way. It’s a progressive musical language, one that’s quite hard to understand. Not understanding, just feeling, is probably the point. A bit like being in Spain and enjoying hearing people speak Spanish even though you have no idea what they mean. Free Jazz. 40. yes, you were right Ally.

(please note: Free Jazz attracts aficionado’s to the extreme. I am not one of those, so have peppered the playlist with well known and much loved Jazz artists like Bill Evans, Nina Simone etc and more recent stars of the genre - Kamasi Washington and BadBadNotGood)  

 

The Puritan and the Hedonist

 

Listen to the blog's accompanying Spotify playlist.

 

I lived in New York City for ten months between 2004/5. I say ‘lived’ but I was a tourist on extended stay really. I had a visa from Capitol records so I could stay for a year. I didn’t do anything that you associate really & truly with living somewhere. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any possessions really, other than a suitcase, some clothes, a few books and photographs. I didn’t know many people, and didn’t really try meet anyone, well I went out to socialise but always mostly came home on my own. I didn’t even really ever buy food and cook - i ate out all the time in diners (the 24hr Ukrainian diner on 12th street was my favourite). The room i rented was tiny, the size of a large cupboard. I think at one point it might actually have been used as a cupboard. At least it had a window, although no curtain. I was in-between Avenue A & B on 13th Street in the East Village, an area full of practicing boho, pseudo hipster poet rockers living in cupboards. I felt at home! It was a solitary and magical time.

Ultimately though, as anyone who has spent a length of time in a city where they don’t know many people and have no real sense of purpose will know - a homesickness creeps in. All the things about Scotland I’d mocked in years past seemed the things i wanted back. I started to appreciate tartan carpets. I dreamed about endless rain and potato scones. The smell of the breweries in Edinburgh, the smell of the Caledonian Pines in the highlands. I wanted to see my friends. Nostalgia is literally a craving, a longing to return to the home. My home sickness manifested itself in simple forms - I’d go and see any Scottish band playing in town, occasionally I’d go for a drink in a Scottish pub (they are always just full of Scottish tourists). I’d have conversations with America music fans about Scottish bands and loved how they would romanticise and idolise these groups and talk about them in similar ways to how I would about American bands.

American bands, singers and musicians tend to have dominated my listening since from my teens. At times this has frustrated me and led me onto discover music from other countries and continents Japan, Africa, Jamaica, New Zealand. But there is a sense of searching in American music that keeps the listener coming back - it is a huge place - you can go in search of yourself in America and get lost, and become somebody new in the process. The variety of experience on offer is immense, the diversity of people it’s possible to meet (and make music with) is intense. Of course you can go in search of yourself in Scotland too, but it won’t take that long, and most of the time you’ll be on your own in a remote glen, or knee deep in a bog. Groups like Funkadelic, The Beach Boys, or Sonic Youth could have come from nowhere else than America

The exotic and romantic is perhaps what has always been missing from Scottish music for me- but I suppose that is because I am Scottish and therefore the music has a familiarity, an omnipresence, like all these songs have always been hanging around. It’s comforting though - like my Grannies old house, with the usual selection of biscuits, familiar smells, and the fire on. Actually many of my favourite Scottish songs and singers are ones I heard around my Granny’s - Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Moria Anderson. All the Old songs.

A country has a collective soul as well as a collective history, and Scotland has a very worthy musical soul. In the 70’s and 80’s Scotland did a fine line in producing bands who could provide the anthems, all with suitable production values of the era. These provide some of my top Scottish musical moments, even if they’ve fallen in and out of favour over the decades with the taste police.

In my mid teens when Grunge hit and we were all disciples, Teenage Fanclub were our heroes. Everyone else thought they were American, and they toured with Nirvana, but they were from Bellshill in Lanarkshire, and that made them cooler. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain around that time. Along with The Blue Nile and The Waterboys (introduced to me by way of my elder sister’s record collection) these were my favourite Scottish bands, and probably still are.

I tried to think about a lot of the bands that begun in Glasgow and Edinburgh around the time we did (mid Nineties) but the only ones I really liked that much - Gilded Lil, and Eska, only made a few singles and EP’s which aren’t online. Which is a shame as they were great and would’ve been included on my list. There was quite a healthy punk scene in Edinburgh in the early nineties too. I dipped into a bit although I was always a bit young & scared at the gigs to fully embrace it.

I’d have been more at home with Postcard records, Orange Juice and Josef K - proper Scottish art school punk rock, angular, and still so influential, sonically, stylistically. But I was 21 or 22 before I heard any of these great songs, so was 15 years late for the party.

Later in my twenties I started digging though all the folk songwriters - Dick Gaughan, Archie Fisher and the like - serious, authentic vocal skills and tales. All the drunken ceilidh’s I’d attended over the years in the Highlands & islands started to make sense - traditional music - it was the music for the puritan and the hedonist - Classic Scots dualism!

The Oral tradition of passing down songs and stories was always strong in celtic (and nordic) countries - singing them to your friends and family members at night round the fire. I always wonder if these songs changed from year to year as they were past down - little pieces being forgotten, misinterpreted, re-arranged, new lines and verses made up - so that the songs ended up not making complete sense - in the best possible way. Surrealness was at work,  purposeful vagueness, darkly comic, nihilistic sometimes, all done with charm and character - a feeling that’s all through Scottish music still.

Scotland has always done a fine line in creating highly individual, slightly eccentric artists, musicians and writers with a sense of place, both ordinary and visionary - Ivor Cutler, Edwyn Collins, Mike Scott, Liz Fraser, Donovan, Stuart Murdoch, Paul Buchanan, Kathryn Joseph, are just a few of them.

 

Solo Drives & Journeys with Jazz Singers

Listen to the blog's accompanying Spotify playlist.


When Idlewild took a break from playing and recording in 2010, I concentrated on making my own albums. Based in the Scottish Hebrides, which I had been for several years by that point, I effectively tried to do as little as i needed to get by – it was cheap living. Staring at sunsets, pottering about with paintings, poems, growing potatoes, drinking red wine, hanging about with my infant son - these things took priority over the kind of touring work Idlewild had focussed on for the previous 12 years. Living a fairly straight & normal life (albeit in a fairly remote location) seemed more rock and roll than rock and roll.

I be-friended Gordon Maclean who ran the An Tobar arts centre in Tobermory which had a small studio in the attic - I’d started writing songs with Gordon’s son Sorren (one of the best guitarist i’d ever heard, and at at the time only aged 19) the three of us started working on songs - and we’d get any musician who was passing through involved. It was liberating and completely different to any musical working situation i’d been in before. There was no expectation and i could do what i wanted (and did) and the record we starting putting together became the most diverse thing i’d been involved in. It was released as ‘The Impossible Songs & Other Songs’ in 2011. Another,  record, ’Listen to keep’ followed in 2013 - that album was more straight, country influenced and live sounding, mainly because it was written to play (and sell) on tour.  By this point I had a new band - Sorren on guitar, Danny Grant on drums, Gavin fox on bass (later replaced by Craig Ainslie) and Seonaid Aitken on violin (later replaced by Hannah Fisher) - we had been playing everywhere visiting towns and areas that i’d never been to before, playing folk clubs, art centres, small theatres, anywhere really.

Music & memories -

When I think back about tours - often it’s actually the albums we listened to while we were travelling that define them. Travelling and listening are two things that go together well. I travelled a lot when I was younger and my Dads collection ‘best-of’ tapes that accompanied the journeys (Paul McCartney, Beatles, Beach boys, show-tunes) had a lasting influence on my music tastes and my memories. Many of my favourite records are intertwined with the memorable journeys I’ve made - Touring America a lot between 2001-2003 The Grateful Dead soundtracked the long drives through the plains and deserts .’American Beauty’ or ‘Live in 1972’ would be on the tourbus stereo, as we drank beer as stars appeared and the world sunk into shadows outside the bus windows.  Wilco’s ‘A Ghost Is Born’ - I listened to repeatedly on headphones in my tourbus bunk throughout 2005. Band dynamics had started to change, anxieties were creeping in, and it wasn’t a wholly happy time on tour. It’s still one of my favourite records though, and I still prefer listening to it while i’m moving. A little more recently, Tame Impala and their album ‘Lonerism’ - as the solo band drove between the folk clubs, and I wondered to myself if maybe playing folk music actually suited me. Kevin Parker and his pals seemed to be having more fun deconstructing their version of psychedelic pop. The Ulrich Schnauss album ‘A Strangely isolated place’ - we drove about 400 miles around Ireland in a hire car with only that CD as accompaniment. That record sounds much more like Ireland to me that anything by the Clancy Brothers.  Cass McCombs, Beach House, Hamilton Leithauser, Thundercat ,Dylan, Joni - they’ve all got their particular stories and places attached to them over the years of travelling and touring.  Solo drives & journeys with Jazz singers, hip hop & punk rock songs playing loudly, soundtracking the wild landscapes - both rural & urban. Yes, listening to music in a car, van, or tourbus - the ideas go in deep and influence thoughts & feelings. The world winds by and the album playing defines it temporarily.

My new album ‘The Deluder’ which is coming out on September 1st, I’ve had it on in the car recently - i think it’s a good driving record, certainly for me, hopefully for others. Its diverse, not folky, quite introspective I suppose, a midlife crisis record some suggest? hmmm, maybe, but if so it’s still got good tunes, and they work with well with the moving landscape. You can pre-order it now here.