Sunday, December 28, 2014

INTERVIEW: Jamie Lenman (March 2014)

Following several years of radio-silence punctuated only by the occasional gig or internet track, former Reuben frontman Jamie Lenman came roaring back onto the musical landscape last year with a fearsome double A-sided single, Fizzy Blood/Pretty Please. Subsequent album Muscle Memory stretched across two discs and placed the man’s head and heart on full display for all to see through one side flamethrower hardcore and another encompassing folk, country, swing and practically everything else in between. Never one for doing things by halves, he even contributed the artwork.

While I’m sure he’d hate to hear it (or at least dismiss the notion as sentimental claptrap), for many there seemed something oddly poignant about his return. Deserving contenders though they undoubtedly were, Reuben sadly never found a mainstream audience, yet they remain one of the most respected British rock bands of the last decade - and certainly one of its most fiercely beloved cult acts (see here for my previous article on the band). Part of their appeal lay with their sheer approachability as individuals, as embodied in Lenman’s affable onstage persona: as the excitable rock-geek liner notes for Very Fast, Very Dangerous suggested, they were always very much the everymen of British rock, the sort of band who you suspect would be out in the crowd discussing the merits of the latest Nine Inch Nails album if they didn’t have to be up onstage.

Fast-thinking, passionate, witty and never short of opinions, it’s no surprise that Lenman makes for terrific conversation. I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, including a rather embarrassing incident at a friend’s birthday party in 2012 when he happened to walk into the room just as I’d started spinning a Reuben record, as if summoned like Batman (more on this later). I’m not sure that I entirely agree with his characterisation of Reuben’s lyrical content below, since references to the creative process (in Agony/Agatha and now Fizzy Blood), touring fatigue and various other bands (No-One Wins the War, Crushed Under the Weight of the Enormous Bullshit) are scattered throughout their catalogue. Equally, Reuben’s long-form DVD, What Happens in Aldershot Stays in Aldershot, detailed the lack of glamour associated with life in an underground band with disarming candour. However, you’d have to forgive him for wanting to correct such common misconceptions, particularly if they threaten to pigeonhole the sheer range of his musical ability. He also proves remarkably patient when addressing many of the rumours or conjecture which sprung up after the band’s dissolution, which is where we come in...

There seemed to have been so little fanfare surrounding the break-up of Reuben - from the outside, it just appeared to happen one day, and that was that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like the break-up of the band was entirely amicable and it had just stopped being a functional possibility given the financial circumstances - is that a fair analysis?

Well, you’ve said a lot of stuff there, so I’d like to answer it all in turn if I may! Firstly, it’s been said to me a lot of times there was no fanfare about the break-up of the band, and I’ve always taken issue with that. None of us were people who.... we never approved of, like, these big grandiose farewell tours and the ‘last record’, that kind of business - we saw that as a bit false. So although it seemed on the outside to have happened all at once - I mean, it’s not like we could post a news update on the website, “Just had huge argument” six months before we split up, you know? So... I mean, how could it not come out of the blue - the only way I could think of it not coming out of the blue was if we were regularly updating everyone on how it was falling apart. Which, on the other hand, we sort of were, because if you listen to all those songs - people said “Oh, I didn’t see it coming”, and we were like: “Really...?!” On the last record, one of them is called Suffocation of the Soul - that should’ve given people a clue!

So I feel like the reason we didn’t do a farewell tour or any of that ‘fanfare’ as you called it was that we couldn’t look each other in the eye at that point; we hung on to it for so long that it also annoys me a bit when people say “Oh, they just finished it on a whim” - that’s not the case. We hung on to it as long as was humanly possible until we were down to our fingernails - and then finally when our fingernails gave way, we lost it. So by that point, it would have been absolutely impossible to do a farewell gig or a farewell show - it was not workable. We did it until it was completely impossible. And it wasn’t just because of the money - the money was obviously a problem, but there was... I dunno, there was loads of stuff. Obviously there was tension within the band - you know, it’d been really hard for the last ten years to just rattle around in a van with two other boys with no money, so obviously we nearly killed each other... but that happens to all good bands, you know? The bottom line is that we did it until we couldn’t possibly do it anymore.

It remains one of the great scandals in a way that Reuben never broke through - everyone thought you would, everyone thought you deserved to, but you seemed to end up being one of the great casualties of rock music in the music industry over the last decade. It really felt like there was no rhyme or reason to it, and in a way the people who did end up breaking through were simply the last acts standing at the end of it all: Biffy Clyro and Frank Turner.  Did you feel hard done by in any way?

Right, but the thing you have to understand about Biffy Clyro and Frank Turner: Frank Turner has got Frank Turner as a lead single, and Biffy Clyro have got Simon Neill as a lead singer, both of whom are handsome fellows... whereas I look like a bag of spanners! And the music that we were making sounded like Botch mixed up in a bag with Weezer, you know what I mean? We weren’t playing marketable music, and we didn’t have a marketable image - I’m never going to be on a poster in Just Sixteen, which I think Simon and Frank have, you know? [Laughs] Plus, the music we were playing - if you look at what happened to Biffy and Million Dead, they were of-a-piece with Reuben, weren’t they: they were playing aggressive, angular, heavy metal, right? Not, like, Maiden metal - angular post-hardcore. And both of them - Frank and Biffy, for whatever reasons - smoothed that sound out to enormous success. Plus, as I’ve said, they’re easier on the eye than myself - so when you look at those reasons, it’s no wonder at all. You know, an ugly metal band - how’s that going to get into the Top 40?! I don’t blame anyone for that, and that’s fine. It just wasn’t commercial.

Well, you say that, but certainly to me, Very Fast, Very Dangerous is a fairly poppy album in places..

No, I’d agree with that, yeah.

But there was always a certain gallows humour to a lot of what you did - calling the compilation album We Should’ve Gone to University immediately springs to mind. Did you regret any aspect of it - did you feel like there were decisions you could’ve made differently, or were you happy with the artistic choices you made?

Well... in terms of artistic choices, there’s loads of stuff where I feel like, “Oh, I could’ve done that differently” in terms of, oh, I should’ve put an extra verse on that song or should we have used another liner style... But in the whole, I like all of it - and I have to say, I’m very pleased with what Reuben achieved. You know, in my mind, when I was a kid - and even now, when I think about it - there was a Plan A, and there was a Plan B. Plan A was obviously to become the biggest rock band in the entire universe and have a mansion and a diamond plectrum or whatever - to live off music and be a fantastic rich rock star. That was Plan A, right? Plan B was always to be one of those bands that release three underground albums that were really important to a lot of people, they inspire other music, and are recognised by their peers and the rock community as being innovators - or at least, honest musicians. That was always Plan B - and you know what? Dude, I can’t be annoyed with Plan B.

What Reuben ended up being was like all the bands that meant the most to me - like Far, like Failure, like... all those other bands, I can’t think of any that aren’t huge! The bands that I love the most - Barkmarket, things like that - they’re bands like Reuben who maybe didn’t make it to mainstream, but they stopped before they went crap and they’ve got a really short catalogue of really good records. To me, that’s a huge success. I don’t know what Plan C was - there wasn’t even a Plan C! But I feel really good about Reuben.

Maybe you’ll end up becoming a bit like Kerbdog - after being one of those bands who were touted for big things but never broke through, it’s only ten to fifteen years down the line when they really get their due and start being recognised as a really influential band. Are you happy with that as a legacy?

I’m over the moon with that - I mean, Kerbdog is a great example of one of those bands that I’m on about: a very small catalogue, but all good stuff. And while your Mr or Mrs on the high street won’t have heard of them, people like me - kids like me when I was 15 and into rock - they were the world to me, and I still listen to those records today. And if Reuben can be mentioned even in the same sentence as Kerbdog - that is a huge success to my mind, so I’m overjoyed with that kind of status.

[n.b. Since this interview, Lenman has fulfilled one of his own life’s ambitions by supporting Kerbdog at a live gig.]

After Reuben broke up, you seemed to go into a kind of self-imposed exile whereby you avoided music completely, and were absolutely resolute in that. Why was that - was it bitterness there towards the industry, were you exhausted by the whole thing, or did you just put the armour on to shield yourself emotionally?

Well, I have to say, this is one of the rumours that sprung up which has always half-amused me and half-annoyed me! There is this sort of theory that I went into ‘exile’ [laughs], but I didn’t at all - you know, I did some recordings with other people, I did a song with Sean and that went onto the internet and people listened to that; in fact, I did a Kerbdog cover... you know, I even played a show at one of my wife’s cabaret projects, so I didn’t divorce myself from music at all - I just didn’t promote it excessively in the public eye because I had no vehicle; I had no record coming out or anything. It is true that I did sort of... okay, maybe there was a year after the band finished where I didn’t do any music, but I was burnt out. After that, I started getting back into it.

I think what confuses people about this is that at the same time that Reuben finished and I quit music - although I’ve just said that I didn’t quit music! - is the same time that Facebook and Twitter became huge, and I’ve always hated all forms of social media; I despised and distrusted Myspace when it came along, and I feel the same with new social media. And now everyone, even people who’ve never done anything - just Tony who works in the Chip Shop - he’s got a Facebook page that makes himself sound like he’s in a rock band, right?! Everyone on the planet now promotes themselves as some kind of celebrity, which is just ludicrous - and because I didn’t do that, you couldn’t find me on any of these horrible sites, people thought I must have become a monk. But I just have never been interested in all that bullshit - and even now, the accounts that I have on these awful websites are official only; I don’t have any contact with them, I have a friend who takes care of them for me. You know, they’re a necessary evil. But I think those things went together - it’s mostly that I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter all the time going “LOOK AT ME!” that people thought I’d retired, but I hadn’t. Like I say, I was still dabbling with music for fun, and obviously I concentrated on my job as an illustrator. But it’s funny, that - people say, “You went into a convent for five years and learned how to raise lentils!” ...No, I’m still here!

It’s interesting though that, as someone who was in an underground band and is still an underground artist, you say you want nothing to do with social media - when that’s how most leftfield acts help sustain themselves these days.

Well, I can’t really say I want nothing to do with it and then have my own Facebook and Twitter profile - I wish that they weren’t the way that information gets across, as I prefer the days when we used to send out literally thousands of hand-mailed letters to people. But that’s just not how to do it these days - you have to strike a compromise between how involved with this sort of stuff you want to get if you dislike it and how many people you want to reach. And I do want to reach people with this album I’ve just released, so I’ve had to get involved with it - but I can’t stand on the high ground and say “It’s all crap, you’re all dickheads”, because I’m on it; you type me in and I’m there, so I can’t really separate myself that much. In that regard, it is a good tool to use - but still, you know, you won’t find me posting pictures of my breakfast. “Let me tell you I had some fucking good breakfast so it isn’t lost to the world!”

Mind you, having said that, there was a section on the Reuben DVD where you gave us all an in-depth analysis of your cereal cupboard, I seem to recall...

- I’ve already done it! See, I’ve already done it...

I came to see you in Birmingham on the last tour, and you seemed genuinely surprised that so many people had turned out. Given what you’ve said about Reuben being a cult band - and there was a real love out there for them, together with you as a frontman - why was that?

Well, because it’s not Reuben, is it - Reuben is a different thing from... first of all, it’s a different thing from me as a person, and secondly it’s a different thing from Jamie Lenman the solo act - which isn’t quite the same thing as me as a person... Again, it’s a product. You know? It has to be - it’s got a logo. Who’s got a logo?! Frank’s got a logo of his name, and I’ve got a logo of my name - but that’s weird; even doing that’s weird, isn’t it?! So that’s why - because number one, you can’t guarantee that all the people writing on the internet about that old band actually translates into ticket sales, and number two, you can’t guarantee that the people who liked that old band will automatically like my new stuff. And what I was pleased about is that I don’t think anyone came along expecting to hear all the old Reuben stuff - and of course, I did play some Reuben songs because they’re still my songs. So that was heartening - I was afraid that if people did turn up because of Reuben they might be expecting some kind of nostalgia rubbish, but it’s only been, what, five years, right?

But I was surprised, yeah - I can never tell, but surprised as well as... the word ‘humbled’ is overused, especially by disingenuous Americans, but I was humbled. And really grateful: really happy, and that was the best thing about doing that tour. I find live performance quite difficult, and to see the people - ‘the people’! - to see the audience, and afterwards to say hello to everyone and to sign everyone’s CDs or whatever, that was the best thing about it. Yeah, I was surprised - there’s no guarantee, is there? It could have been a shit album, or they could have just not got it, but thankfully I think the people into that old band - who at least at that point were my audience for this tour - have been well-versed enough in bizarre music to catch hold of the record I’ve just put out.

We’ve got mutual friends. Now, psychologically - I don’t know if you’ll agree with this! - but it’s been suggested to me that you’re a bit bloody-minded by nature, and have always gone out of your way to do the more difficult thing when it would be easier to put out, say, Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin as the first single instead of something like Blood, Bunny, Larkhall. Your live set was very cleverly-structured, interspersing five or six of the older tracks throughout - given that analysis of your character though, was there ever a doubt that you were going to go out and play Reuben songs, or did you initially think you wanted a completely clean break?

No, not at all; not at all. That was a question I got a lot at the start of this whole campaign and I’m glad it’s disappeared now - I’m not saying it’s a bad question, but a lot of people did assume that I wanted a clean break to draw a line under Reuben and say: “No, this is a different thing”, whereas what I wanted was the opposite, really. I don’t see the music that I’m making now as very different at all to the music I was making in Reuben. Everyone who liked that band was aware that I wrote it all - they were my songs, although Jon and Guy contributed their own flavour to things - they were very similar, so at no point would I seek to distance myself from Reuben or not play those songs in my set. I regard Muscle Memory as my fourth album, you know - I did three with Reuben, and I’ve done this one on my own - so they’re going to turn up in my set. When you go and see a show to promote a new record, most of the show will be that new record, that’s what people are excited to hear - but god, you’ve gotta play the classics; I love those songs, and I love playing them.

I don’t know whether I would say I was bloody-minded - the example that you pull out of putting out Blood, Bunny first and Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin second, to see that as bloody-minded takes two things for granted. Number one, it takes for granted that I wanted big chart success - when in fact what was wanted was to scare everyone with the first single, right?! So that is the wrong thing to do if you want to get into the charts, but if you want to show everyone how horrible your new record is, you put out Blood, Bunny first. And secondly, it assumes that we thought Deadly Lethal Ninja Assassin had the chance of chart success, which I don’t think we did by that point - we put it out because it was a nice song. So it all depends on what you want to achieve, you know - I certainly don’t do anything to be difficult, but often the thing that I want to do happens to be the difficult thing. And people would say that all the time, especially with things like single choices - they’d say “Why don’t you put out the commercial one”... But ‘the commercial one’? No-one knows what’s gonna be a hit. Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody, right? [Laughs] It’s seven minutes long, and there’s an opera section! Who the fuck knew that would be number one, you know? One of two number ones - and the same when they did it ten years later with Innuendo; again, it’s seven minutes long, it’s half heavy-metal and half flamenco instrumental. It’s absolutely nuts; you can never tell what’s gonna be commercial.

Maybe you should have put out Return of the Jedi and it would’ve been your breakthrough hit...

Well, exactly! It would have had exactly the same chance, wouldn’t it - and the singles I’ve chosen these times, you’ve just got to abandon... I think we were still trying to do it on the first Reuben record, but after that... no, I tell a lie, we did expect those singles off Very Fast, Very Dangerous to be commercial successes, but after that we were proven solidly wrong! [Laughs] We just put out the songs that we liked the best, and these singles I’ve put out this time - you know, half jazz-metal, half-whatever... there’s nothing to say they wouldn’t get to number one! I strongly believe, logistically and practically, that has no less chance of getting to number one that the latest hit by, fuckin’... Adele or whatever, d’you know what I mean? You can never tell what the public is going to get into, so I just don’t think about it anymore.

It struck me that the older songs in the set seemed specifically picked for their lyrical content, and what that maybe said about how you arrived at this point (and indeed your own attitude now) - tracks like No One Wins the War, Good Luck and the like. Was that the case, or am I over-reaching it?

No, you really are over-reaching it there! [Laughs] But no, why not! I have to tell you, in all honesty, not “nothing could be further from the truth”, but I did not consider it. I chose those songs because I think I did someone a Venn Diagram at one point: if you say one circle are songs I have a good idea people want to hear, and the other circle is songs I want to play, then where they intersect is where I chose the songs. And they were handy because the Reuben songs could often be soft and quiet within one track, whereas on this new album I’ve got heavy and quiet on individual tracks, so those tracks, putting them where they went, were useful to segue between the two. But I wasn’t trying to send anyone secret messages - I’m too honest for that, I say exactly what I mean... and not in the way that people on Big Brother use it as an excuse for insulting people; I hate that! They do that on the telly when they go “I just say what I mean!”, and what they mean is: “I insult everyone”. [Laughs] Whereas I say what I mean - luckily, I don’t think; I’ve insulted too many people and I would certainly think twice about insulting someone publicly! But what I’m trying to say is that if I had any message to give people, I wouldn’t do it through obscure song choices. Although that could be fun - unless you were saying obviously that what I was doing with the songs was inciting race-war, in which case we’re in quite the trouble...!

So, onto the new album - I feel like the first half of the record speaks for itself in the sense that it gets in there, gets the job done; it melts your face. It’s tremendous.

Cool. Thankyou!

But you cover so much ground on the second disc that it’s possibly more instructive to look at individual tracks and see how they came about. So, first of all is my favourite song on there - Shotgun House. Do I detect a bit of a Dixie jazz influence there...?

Well, Shotgun House is my most overt... not parody,  not homage - cribbing, really, if you like! - of the work of a gentleman called C.W. Stoneking, who himself is recycling or reviving, depending on how favourably you look upon his work, the songs of the early twentieth-century American blues artists. So, what I mean by that is there’s this great Australian fella, and if he’s to be believed, he’s spent a great amount of time in New Orleans, and he’s just soaked up those delta blues and pre-war jazz influences, and he then regurgitates them in his own songs, which are just tremendous. And I spent a long time listening to him - not so much for the original artists themselves, it was him: he had such a magnitude, and it was him who got me strumming a banjo. And I think that song Shotgun House, which I’m pleased that you singled out as I’m quite pleased with it - that’s the closest I came to assimilating that sort of early twentieth-century jazz. If by that you mean Dixieland, I have to admit that I’m not schooled enough to know whether Dixieland is accurate, but it sort of rings a bell, so I’ll go with that and I’ll say Dixieland. I think Dixieland is a bit more up-tempo - I think what we’re talking about there is... it’s more delta blues isn’t it, Shotgun House, but again I’m no expert, I’m afraid.

The reason I mentioned that was because when you played it live you got the whole band involved and it took on that kind of a ‘Swinging 20s’ lilt.

Okay, thankyou - we’ve got a new arrangement planned for the next tour, so I think that’s going to be even more interesting!

That leads into the next one, Pretty Please, which I think is an astounding piece of writing. You’re touring with the brass now - is that a long-harboured ambition of yours?

Well, it is, but I didn’t realise that until it was suggested! You know, I always sort of thought vaguely that it’d be nice to tour with a swing band, but I’ve only got one swing track so it’d be a short set! Plus, you know, a twenty-piece swing band is expensive and it’d be hard to sell the tickets for whatever they’d cost - forty-five quid a pop. And when the label asked if I wanna do some more dates and I said I don’t really want to repeat the show that I just toured like the show you saw in Birmingham, they suggested getting a swing band in - and after we’d dismissed the idea of actually hiring a twenty-piece swing band, I said: “Well, what about just a small brass section to pad it out?” And that was very exciting - I thought, “Ah great, that would be a way to do it”, that would be a way round it to bring those jazzier moments to life in a live environment, so I am looking forward to it.

I suppose it’s all good as long as you don’t turn into Robbie Williams - that would be the ultimate nightmare...

Yeah - well, I don’t know, Robbie Williams did it badly though, didn’t he? [Laughs] He did it badly, it was awful when he did it! When you say “turn into Robbie Williams”, there’s no reason that I wouldn’t do a whole album of swing tunes, but I’m not sure about an album of swing covers - I think that would be a mistake. One day, I will write twelve swing numbers - it might take me another twenty years, but I’d like to do it.

Another song I really love on there is A Day In the Life  - you’ve talked about the evolution of Shotgun House, but what sort of influences went into this one? It seems to have a distinctive chain-gang flavour to it which really complements the subject matter...

Yes. Well, A Day In the Life is a bit complex, because what we ended up with... on that record you’re talking about Dixieland and jazz and it’s American music, really, isn’t it - even though I feel very English and look very English, it’s funny that that record came out so American. And that one blob of Englishness is that Day In the Life song - I did mention in an interview with someone else that if you research in any depth American music, specifically American music of the early twentieth century and then back into the nineteenth century, you end up looking at the slave songs, and field songs. I was reading the life of a former slave and got quite involved in those stories and some of those old songs, and I thought I’d sort of like to sing one - but then I thought it might not be appropriate because it’s not really my heritage. And so I looked for an example that maybe was more to do with my heritage - the obvious examples are the work songs of the fishermen and the tin-miners in seaside towns and port towns and tin towns. And coincidentally, over the last few years as I got afraid of flying, I’ve spent all my holiday time in various ports in the UK - and usually if you go there, on any given night in one of these towns you will end up in a pub with about thirty old fishermen singing these amazing songs. And that’s what I did - I was regularly to be found in these old pubs, singing along... South Australia’s a very famous one, all these great regional variations, and I thought: wouldn’t it be great to sing one of these? This is slightly closer to where I’m from.

But still, you know, I’ve never mined tin and I’ve never trawled for cod, so to sing one of these songs, just as to sing about how I’ve been working all day in the cotton fields would be wrong, it would be wrong for me to sing about how I’ve had a hard day at sea - because I haven’t. So the answer was to write my own sort of homage or version of one with details of my own life, so that’s how that came about - I wanted to put an a cappella work song in there because I love them so much, but again, I would’ve felt a fraud singing ’em.

One of the songs which really jumped out at me when I first heard the album was a track that a lot of people don’t seem to have picked up on, which is Saturday Night. I’m assuming that’s autobiographical?

[Chuckles] Yeah. Yeah, it was, yeah.

Was that a particularly tough song to write and put out, given that it addresses a subject so close to home?

No, it was the opposite, actually - when my Dad did die, which happened five years ago now, I almost thought: “I hope I don’t end up writing a song about this!”, because they were huge emotions, and what happens if everyone else is thinking: “I wonder when Jimbo’s gonna turn this into a song”... which at the time, I thought would be crass. And the only example I can compare it to is Simon, actually: Simon’s lovely song about his mother on Biffy’s Puzzle record, which just reduced me to absolute tears - whenever I heard it, actually - I think that’s a wonderful song. So it can turn out beautiful. But it’s such a big thing and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, so I just tried not to think about it - plus, I wasn’t writing a lot at that time. Then right at the end of the album - so we were already underway recording the album - it just sort of spilled out, and four or five years after the fact, this song came out that just expressed everything I felt about it, and it was really simple. And in the same way that it sounds funny that a lot of my fondest memories of my Dad are in the last stages of his illness - a lot of people find that, oddly enough - this song that confronts his death so obliquely and so head on, you know, that I do enjoy singing it because it’s... this is going to sound like another cliché, but it makes me feel close to him. So in many ways, it’s a happy song - but I don’t think I’ll sing it again because it’s probably been said; the version that ended up on the album was the only take that we did. I think that crystallised it pretty well, and it’s fine where it is.

It’s interesting you should describe it just tumbling out, because it does sound more like a ‘thought’ than a song in many ways - it doesn’t have a definite structure of any kind; it just kind of wanders in quietly and sits really beautifully towards the end of the album.

Well, thankyou for saying so.

I’ve always taken the view that the best songwriting is those where what’s going on in the music mirrors, reflects or parallels what’s taking place in the lyrics. To that end,  I Ain’t Your Boy may just be the best song you’ve ever written. That’s the one that choked me up when I first heard - it seemed to just really nail that sense of dislocation you’re describing. Was it particularly cathartic?

Well, that’s very kind of you to say! That song was cathartic - I’d never used music for catharsis before and it’d never really happened, but I’d gone through a very low period and again it was almost like a burp; that sounds unromantic, but it all just sort of bubbled up and came out, and there it was. And it’s only when something’s out that you can really see it, and so I ended up writing those words and those big, sad chords. And it’s almost like trapping it in a bottle - somehow all the sad feelings, once I could see them and once I had trapped them in that song like you would trap an evil genie in a bottle, I did sort of feel loads better about it. Yeah. God, it was bizarre, because I’m not really that kind of person - and I never have before used music to cure me of feelings; even the song we said about my Pa, I’d already dealt with that by the time the song was out and I wrote the song more as a reflection - it didn’t make me feel better about him dying. But writing that song, I Ain’t Your Boy, overnight it did make feel better about myself - I’m glad you can hear that in there, and I do regard it as the best that I’ve written, not only for what it meant to me emotionally but because I’m quite proud of the structure and the chords, and I just think it hangs together very well. So thanks for picking it out - that’s very nice of you to say.

I once heard Reuben quite memorably described in a web article as “a band who always liked a good whinge”. The main subject matter of the band - and still to this day on your own album, to a certain degree - always seemed to focus on ‘being in a band’ or ‘being an artist’, and the various trials and tribulations involved. Do you feel more comfortable nowadays in the position you’re in, just doing your own thing?

Well first of all, can I begin to answer that by refuting the idea that we were a whingey band! Because I have heard that, and I don’t think that’s strictly fair. There were songs like Return of the Jedi and Suffocation of the Soul - and Freddy Kreuger as well, I don’t know if many people realised that - that dealt with how tough it is being in a band, but that’s three songs in, like, three albums (or four albums’ worth if you include all the rarities and stuff). So really, it’s not that whingey! But they do stick in people’s minds - and I’m glad that they stick in people’s minds, because we are actually saying it and still, people don’t actually say it: like, it is fucking hard being in a band, and specifically in the period when we were in that band when the music industry was turning inside-out, and support for small artists was disappearing like the fucking polar ice caps, it was even harder than usual to be in a band. Plus, as I’ve said, we chose to be in an angry, angular band that didn’t have a hope in hell. So I’d say that on the whole, not only were we not a whiney band - but if we were whiney, it’s just ’cos we were being honest! [Laughs]

These days, am I more comfortable? I have to say, yes I am. I didn’t expect the campaign for this record to become quite as extensive as it’s become - I thought I’d put the record out, play a couple of shows and it’d go away again. But I am comfortable, yeah, because I’m not a musician anymore - when I was in Reuben that was all I did, and again that’s why some of the songs are like: “It’s tough being in a band and going to a show”, because that’s all I did, that was my whole life. And you’ve got to write about your life, you can’t write allegories about a Hobbit or whatever - that’s what got punk started in the seventies! My point being that that was all I knew, so that was all I wrote about. Whereas now, all I know about is drawing the illustrations for children’s history books, designing cool infographics for various websites and doing animations and what have you - so I am more comfortable, yeah; I’m no longer really a full-time musician, so this is something that I can just keep at a bit of a distance.

You hint in the album liner notes that may you end up doing another one - do you think that’ll be the case, or will it just be something that happens if it happens?

Well, it’s always if it happens, it happens. I’m always saying - in fact, they might put it on my fucking tombstone, if I get a burial! - that there’s no plans. And there are no plans. It’s funny - it depends on which day I wake up. Sometimes I wake up and think: “Oh , I can’t wait to get into the studio with these new songs and put ’em out”, and I get all excited about what my next video’s gonna look like, and other days I wake up and think: “I’m gonna sell these guitars, and I’m gonna move to Bromley”. You know? Not that that’s anything against Bromley - it’s nice! So, I can’t tell. If you are asking me, ‘Will you do another record?’, the realistic answer, the truthful answer is today, like, “Probably”. But not for a while - I’ll probably get round to it, because when I finished the band I thought: “I’m never gonna make another record”, and eventually I did. So at the moment, like I say, sometimes I feel like I will and sometimes I feel like I won’t, but probably I will get round to it at some point. But there’s no plans - there’s no, like: “Right, 2015, here’s what we’ll do, we’ll hit ’em hard with a single! Then we put out the poppy one! Head out on tour!” There’s none of that because I’m not a growing concern - I’m not an act, I’m just a person.

Last one, then: I suspect we’ve already covered one of the answers already, but what are your Top 5 favourite songs that you’ve written, or what are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?

Oh! Well, that’s a kind question to ask. Well yes, we have - we’ve talked about I Ain’t Your Boy, I’m very proud of that one... The other one that really vies in my mind for the most accomplished thing I’ve written is A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is on the last Reuben record - I really, really like that song. So those are my two absolute favourites.

In terms of the other songs I’d really like to be remembered for... it gets tougher to choose, ’cos all of them do bits and bobs... I suppose Pretty Please, I still regard that as an achievement because it came out sounding so good, so I’ll put that on the list. Aaaaand... [laughs] I can’t remember! Cities On Fire...? When I wrote Cities On Fire, which went on the last Reuben record, I was very pleased with that one; I really liked that one. And... errrr... the other... No-One Wins the War. I like that, that’s a good one!

All good shouts. Another one I would’ve perhaps thrown in there was Nobody Loves You, which up until I Ain’t Your Boy was the one I always held up as the high watermark of your songwriting.

- Really?! What an interesting choice! Some people hate that song...!

That’s odd, because when I saw Reuben on your final tour, you played that and it seemed to go over really well. It’s perhaps the same with Cities On Fire though, which I also really rate - it’s all completely subjective, and could change on any given day,

Well of course, and it’s interesting that you asked. Yeah, the thing with Nobody Loves You was that when I went to The Rock Box in Camden - this is my local record store and it means a lot to a kid if you end up with an LP in a record store - when our second album came out, John (who’s always worked there since I was a kid and used to give me cool deals on stuff) was like, “I don’t like that one with the strings on it...!” And I was like, “What...?!” I still had pretensions of chart success and I was convinced that was gonna be our big ballad, and he said: “No, that’s boring”. And in fact, someone else had written a review and they were like: “Oh! I really like this third Reuben album, which is weird because when I first heard them it was Nobody Loves You and I hadn’t heard a duller, more rubbish song ever”! But they’re all valid though, aren’t they, and it’s great - this other fella saying it’s the dullest thing ever, they’re both true. I haven’t had so much faith in that one, so thanks for redressing the balance - I feel better about that now!

Just before you go, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but I was DJ-ing at our mutual friends’ birthday party last year and accidentally put on a Reuben record... at the exact moment you happened to walk into the room. Now, I didn’t know you were going to be there, and felt like such a tool afterwards...

Did you not? What was it...?!

Well, it was Blamethrower, which I regularly chuck in there when I’m DJ-ing...

D’you know what, that happens to me more than you might expect - I went to the Kerrang! Christmas Party, their office party last year and they put Christmas is Awesome on the decks! And I thought it was some kind of set-up, but they had no idea who the fuck I was; no-one knew I was there! [Laughs] So don’t worry too much, it happens more than you might think. But at the same time, thanks a lot - I probably get a bit of PRS out of that!

I have to say, you were an gent about it when I bumped into you briefly afterwards - it really could have gone either way though. You get the impression that had Billy Corgan walked into a room and heard a Smashing Pumpkins record featuring anyone but him on it, things might have turned out very differently...

Oh, dear! Yes, that’s a big problem, isn’t it? No, I think Blamethrower’s  great - put that on the Top 5 as well. Banger!

Muscle Memory is available now on Xtra Mile.

INTERVIEW: Roddy Woomble (March 2013)

I’ve written previously on these pages about the artistry and personal influence of British rockers Idlewild, a band who I’ve always felt never seemed to get its due either critically or commercially. While the initial fervour of teenage adoration may have faded over the years, I’ve always retained a distant fascination with their enigmatic frontman, Roddy Woomble. Following the band’s hiatus a few years back, their guitarist and co-songwriter Rod Jones carried on making fuzz-bomb indie-rock as The Birthday Suit, while Woomble retreated to the Isle of Mull and began reinventing himself as an acoustic, folky singer-songwriter. Though the departure hardly came as a surprise to those who’s been following the band for some time, with solo albums My Secret is My Silence, The Impossible Song and Other Songs and his latest, Listen to Keep, it seems telling that Woomble has gradually begun to open up the protective shell that always appeared (to this observer, at least) to be erected around himself and his work.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting from Woomble, who never seemed to have been one for interviews or explaining himself during his time in Idlewild - like many of his lyrics, I think I’d suspected him to be frustratingly aloof and difficult to read. In actual fact, he proved the complete opposite: warm, thoughtful and more than willing to delve into the processes underpinning both his own writing and that of others. As the welcoming sound of his latter-day releases suggest, he really does seem to be a genuinely lovely man - and really, one couldn’t ask for much more when chatting to someone whose work you’ve admired for so long.

So, a couple of questions about Idlewild first. Since the hiatus was announced, you’ve been fairly quiet about the whole situation - you seem to be quite happy to get on with your own thing, whereas I know that Rod has expressed some regrets about the whole process. As far as you’re concerned, do you see the band as one chapter of a personal journey that’s still ongoing and unfolding?

Um - not really, no. I mean, I think about it a lot, obviously, because it’s quite important to me: all those records and songs that we did. And friendships, as well - I’m in contact with Colin and Rod and Allan fairly regularly, so it’s not something I just sort of... closed a book and put it back on the shelf and that’s part of the past. I actually think we’ll probably make another record sometime quite soon, certainly in the next few years, because I think there’s a lot of creative energy there and ideas, and I’ve always worked well with Rod. And I’d like to do that again - it’s not something that I want to say: “Oh, that’s what I used to do”, if you know what I mean.

I just felt towards the end that we weren’t playing very well, the last few years before we decided to stop it for a while - it was just becoming a bit of a drain on everyone, because we’d been so used to being this major-label band; we’d been used to that kind of world. And suddenly we were in a world where musicians and bands were having to do everything by themselves, and we were adapting kind of slowly to that. And I just think, yeah - we toured too much towards the end as well, and we were in places like Barrow-in-Furness... nothing against these towns, but they were just the wrong place! [Laughs] Tuesday night in Barrow-in-Furness, on the back of a record where - I mean, even myself, I thought the last Idlewild album was slightly patchy; it wasn’t a record we would’ve put out, say, five years before that. So yeah, all in all, it contributed to a general feeling within everyone that we needed to stop it for a while. And now that we have stopped it for a while, I think everyone’s starting to realise aspects of it that were really good - and for me, the best aspect was the actual creative process of working with Rod, specifically, but also with Allan and Colin. And I think that yeah, we’ll probably do that [again] sometime in the future.

[n.b. Since this interview was conducted, Idlewild have announced details of a new album and tour for early 2015.]

Listening to your solo records alongside Rod’s work with The Birthday Suit, you really get a sense of the two sides of Idlewild’s personality - at the risk of sounding flippant, do you think that these days you’re more the Idle and he’s more the Wild?

I see what you did there! [Laughs] Um - I don’t know, I mean... It’s not for me to judge Rod’s work - I think he’s an extremely good guitar player, a great melodicist, and he’s very good at recording - that’s kind of his ‘thing’. Quite often, his recorded work is kind of an exercise, I feel, for him, in terms of writing and recording a song, doing it all himself. If you listen to his records, he does everything pretty much himself - I think he gets a drummer in, but in that way, he’s pretty accomplished.

I’ve always had a more ramshackle approach - I can’t really do things on my own, I need to work with folk, but I have lots of ideas. Lyrically, I have lots of ideas - the way the song feels and goes, that kind of stuff, and so - maybe much more than Rod - that’s what I’m interested in. And that’s why we worked well together - you had more of this sort of musical technician-type... and me! [Laughs] So that’s why we made that. And you can see that, on his own, left to his own devices and doing his own thing, he’s much more inclined to play sort of ‘indie-rock’ or ‘pop’ music, whatever you want to call it - and I think some of it’s very good.

But I’m not interested in that, really - being in a rock band has become quite dull, you know; and really, it’s a young man’s game. The older we’re all getting - I’m not old, by any stretch of the imagination - but rock years are like dog years! So I do feel that lots of younger guys or younger girls are doing this kind of thing much better - and anyway, I was sort of more interested in trying... I mean, I listen to a lot of country music and folk music and jazz, and all these different kinds of stuff - and that was interesting to me more musically than, you know, distortion pedals and that sort of thing. Because I really feel like I’d done that - I feel like I’d done five records of that, so it was just.... what was the question again?! I’ve sort of gone off on a tangent...

Well, that leads onto something I was going to ask - you make reference on the album very specifically to Dischord and SST records being “Memories that are buried in the basement”. You’ve branched out into country and old-time American folk on a couple of tracks here - do you still listen to Fugazi and the like, or does it just seem like a thing of the past?

It does seem like a bit of a thing of the past, and that line kind of came from staying at my friend’s flat in Glasgow last year in-between tours - I was sort of there for the night and a lot of my records were stored in that flat in Glasgow; I didn’t bring a lot of those records up because there’s only limited room in this cottage. And all my records that are stored there are all kind of indie-rock and stuff like that, and we were listening to stuff, you know - all the records that I used to love when I was in my late teens and my early twenties. And it was really difficult to get through them, you know what I mean? Halfway through the side you’re like, I just... I just don’t want to listen to this! It feels like poring over pictures of yourself when you’re a teenager or something, it’s really not that healthy - it’s fine to look at it, but not if you’re just, like, staring at it.

And nothing against those records - those records are fabulous pieces of work, and that’s one good thing that’s amazing about albums and recorded music is that they take part in your life, don’t they, at a specific moment. And some records aren’t really for life, if you know what I mean - they’re a diluted shot that you need as a young man or whatever, whereas some records stay with you for the duration. And I find that a lot of those indie-rock bands that I did love, I can’t listen to anymore - it just feels like... I don’t know... it feels like my past. And I don’t mean it feels like that’s a painful place to go back to [laughs], but just on a musical level or base, or whatever you want to call it, there’s so many more records to discover - and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years since those records were always on my turntable, is just discovering different styles of music.

And so at home, as I say, we listen to jazz - we have a record player and I buy a lot of old jazz records online, and that’s mainly what we listen to. I mean, I love the fact that most of it doesn’t have any words, and also it’s just kind of like ‘art’ - it’s been improvised as it’s been recorded, so it’s been preserved in amber, this feeling of creativity. But I also like lots of other stuff - the new Veronica Falls album’s a bit of a favourite in our house at the moment. I’m a big fan of them.

There’s a picture of you in the album booklet sitting with your feet up in front of the fire! As a young punk rocker, did you ever see yourself becoming a respected folk musician?

Well, I don’t really consider myself to be a folk musician. And I don’t really feel the respect! [Laughs] I don’t mean that in a bitter way, but I don’t really know many musicians round here - I have friends who play in bands and stuff, but basically what I’m saying is that they don’t really hang about with people who would be telling me that!

Sure, but Kris Drever and John McCusker who you’ve collaborated with before, they’re not insubstantial names within that world...

Oh, no, they’re amazing players, but we don’t see each other, hardly ever - they all live in different places.

Do you feel like you almost ‘gatecrashed the party’ in that respect...?

Yeah, I think to be honest it really was my first solo record that established me, or maybe made people think of me [that way] - because that record is a folk record; it was produced and recorded by John McCusker, who’s obviously a folk musician, and most of the people on that record were his friends who are folk musicians that came in to play on it - so that gave it a real sound of a folk record. And that was also around the time that I sang on Kate Rusby’s record, so it was just like... I mean, the whole little package was that of a folk album. And it really is - it’s quite traditional-sounding in places. But The Impossible Song and Other Songs, and also Listen to Keep - I mean, they touch upon elements of that, obviously: fiddles, and things like that. But the songwriting’s not really sort of ‘folky’ songwriting, I don’t think - when I think of folk songwriting, I think of Dick Gaughan, that sort of thing, Martin Carthy... and that’s not really what I do at all; I guess compared to that, I write pop songs, essentially. I mean, that seems a bit of a bad word these days, but to me it just means something that’s memorable.

Listening to this and your last album in particular, you get a real sense of the surroundings influencing the sound - you seem to exist in a world of your own with no external pressures. Is that how it feels when you’re writing and recording with the new band?

Yeah, it does actually. I don’t feel [pressured] - and I haven’t for a few years, I must say, which is really good. Which is another thing going back to the first question about Idlewild, how it just became a drag for everyone because, you know, we were so used to having these pressures put on us - and we’d learned to put them on ourselves as well; I’m talking about external pressures from record companies, stuff like that. And it just felt like it went with that band, all that  kind of feeling - doing things on my own, from My Secret is My Silence, there was no expectation from it, and musically I felt I was much more free to wander. And my stuff’s either been I’ve done it myself, or licensed it to a very small label, or the budget’s very non-existent - it’s all kind of very economical, and I can get my head round all that kind of stuff . So yeah, I don’t feel any expectation, I don’t feel any pressure - I think that’s really a positive thing sometimes, creatively. Not always - sometimes it’s good to have deadlines and things like that imposed on you so you can work towards something, but musically speaking I feel like I can do what I want, and I couldn’t do that if I was on the conveyor-belt of the music industry.

How does it work in terms of the songwriting process? You have co-writing credits on here - do you work up the general idea and then bring in the band to work on the arrangement?

No, I’ve always been a collaborative player - partly because I’m not a very good guitar-player myself; I can play a bit, but I tend to just play the same chords, so I’d rather work with someone that’s good and then ideas come much quicker. So generally speaking, we’d either work at my house or we’d go to An Tobar, which is the arts centre in Tobermorey where we record all this stuff. And it was me and Sorren McLean, the guitar-player in my band who I write the songs with - and he just has lots of ideas, he plays these chord ideas and we rearrange some of them and I come up with the melodies and I’ve got my notebook of words... it’s very kind of, like, thrown at the wall, like a big scrapbook. And we record a lot of it and then just work on it like that: sort of ‘draft it’, if you know what I mean. And it’s nice up here because there’s a studio in Tobermorey which is fifty miles away from where I stay, but it’s not... it’s a nice drive! [Laughs] And yeah, we just work on it like that throughout the year.

Quite a lot of the time, what we found was - more so on The Impossible Song and Other Songs than on Listen to Keep - a lot of the demos are the basis of the songs, but we just recorded extra things on top of them. Which gives the song a lovely feel, because when you’re writing a demo you’re not thinking about other people listening to it, so you just have this sort of very relaxed attitude to it - sometimes it’s very difficult to capture that again when you’re trying to record it properly. There’s a song on Impossible Songs called New Frontier, and that whole thing is a demo. That’s pretty much - well, we thought we hadn’t finished writing the song yet. But listening back, I felt we just couldn’t really improve on it; I mean, I’m playing drums on that one, actually, rather than getting someone in to play! There was a wee bit of that on Listen to Keep - not so much though, because obviously we’ve played so much over the past couple of years live, and my live band are so good, it felt like - I mean, obviously they all heard the rough demos and learned them and came up to Mull, and in about three days everything had been recorded beautifully and played beautifully. And it felt like, okay - that does sound better than the demos because that’s a really good band that play together, realising these ideas. And the record has a very kind of ‘live’ sound, because it was: it’s quite simple, almost, there’s not too many overdubs and all that, it’s quite straight - and all the better for it, I think, because it’s just good musicians playing good songs, isn’t it? [Laughs]

It’s interesting you should mention jazz earlier, because that’s the sort of feeling I get from these last two records - they’re very much snapshots of that certain moment in time.

Well, it’s nice that you say that, because that’s the intention, really - it’s not to labour over them like with Idlewild records, which were laboured over... and latterly not by me; I ended up on the last two just going in and doing my stuff and then leaving! Because Rod and the other people are into that, but I’ve never really been into that whole idea of... I love writing songs and recording them, but I don’t want to spend too long with them - I would rather go and play them live then, and that’s kind of the way I approach my solo work. And I say this because I do have such a fabulous band; they’re great musicians that play with a number of other people as well, so they’re capable of just coming in and doing that quickly - but at the same time, giving it a lot of depth. Not everyone has that, so I’m quite grateful for that - but yeah, there is a ‘feel’ about them... well, that’s what you’re trying to do when you make a record is try to preserve a moment of time. You’re making a recording of time, or a piece of time - which is why a lot of these old records are really fascinating when you put the needle on, and it crackles, and then suddenly you’re in a room, in some recording studio in 1924 in New York City, and it’s come to life in your room - that’s pretty magical, and I mean... that’s why I’m a music fan! [Laughs]

There’s a real sense of serenity in your lyrics these days - I always used to describe your work in Idlewild as quite precise and mathematical, whereas in your solo work it feels a lot more open and questioning. Is that a shift that you’ve noticed happening gradually over time, or is it just a consequence of developing your own material from scratch?

Yeah, I think the last thing you said there was the true one. I think that when I started writing songwords, I had no idea what I was doing, really - and no-one really cared, as we were just out of our teens or whatever; we were a punk rock band, really. But then on 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part, I started getting much more of a sense of trying to ‘say something’ - although, I must say, I’ve never been hung up on that; I don’t feel a song needs to be ‘about’ anything, I never felt that. I’m a big fan of surrealism, particularly in songwords - people like Dylan, Stephen Malkmus from Pavement, and Beck, they’re really good at that kind of thing where they can convey a meaning and put some thought into the lyrics, but at the same time they’re not really about anything specific. And that’s the approach I’ve always taken, too - obviously I’ve refined it over the years, and the older you get, the more comfortable you are with being a bit more straight-ahead, honest, whatever you want to call it, about a specific... you don’t feel you need to mask behind some kind of tortured, terrible rhyme or words - you know, a line you’re going to be really embarrassed about years later!

I also don’t really care so much about what people think of them - I think that’s important, because when you’re younger you tend to care more about that, whereas now I don’t. You know, if someone thinks it’s terrible songwriting, then that wouldn’t bother me in the slightest; it’d be like, well...

Yeah - “you do it, then”!

Yeah, life is short - go and do something else, instead of worrying about my lyrics! [Laughs] So I think that when you kind of let yourself go a wee bit in terms of not worrying about that, it’s quite liberating. As I say, I’m just really into - not in day-to-day life, I don’t mean I’m wandering round as a surrealist in Mull! - but in lyrics, I love that idea of having loads of different images and ideas going on in the song that are not necessarily related. And my songs don’t really do that very often, but there’s a song called Making Myths, and he’s a Greek myth sitting in a croft, you know, a Greek god, and there’s all these different ideas going on there - there’s someone dressed up as a priest, and the next minute he’s not there anymore; all those kind of things don’t really make any sense, but while the song’s going on you feel like it’s sort of captivating in a way. And I don’t know if I possess that, but certainly a lot of songwriters I really admire do - when you’re really kind of absorbed in that, you don’t really know what’s happening.

A friend of mine met you once and had a conversation about films - you’ve always been very influenced by cinematics, and so it seems almost kind of David Lynchian, this idea of getting the meaning without really understanding what it’s about.

Yeah, well, I mean that’s what really draws me to... that’s the kind of thing that I like, in terms of music and also films. I don’t watch films very often, because I only really like watching films at the cinema; I can never concentrate otherwise - so I don’t really go to the cinema, because there’s not one! [Laughs] But yeah, the kind of films I like are Bergman films, or Tarkovsky - a lot of the European arthouse stuff that lots of people think are rubbish, that’s what interests me! I also really like Wes Anderson films. And books, as well - I don’t really read too much fiction, because I don’t like the idea of... things always need to have a plot, you know, people always want [that]... and that’s the thing that really doesn’t appeal to me about a book. I don’t want it to... it doesn’t need to conclude a certain way for me, which is why I tend to stick to more non-fiction and poetry, because that’s a bit more, you know... ‘real’.

I know that you’re a big fan of R.E.M., who you toured with and have obviously also been influenced by - I’m currently reading Marcus Gray’s R.E.M. companion, It Crawled From the South, and there’s a really interesting section in there about Michael Stipe’s ‘cut-up’ approach to writing his early lyrics, which he appropriated from William Burroughs.

And David Bowie - he was famous for that as well.

Getting to meet someone like Stipe - what sort of conversations did you have with him?

Well, he’s a very charming man - we didn’t really hang about that much, but we did do a tour with them. He’s quite quiet, I suppose... yeah, really nice - friendly... I can’t remember what we talked about! The chattiest one in R.E.M. is definitely Peter Buck - I talked about music a lot with him. But Michael Stipe, we just kind of talked about... the weather, you know; what we were eating at the catering table, that sort of thing!

So you didn’t sit down and pick his brains or anything, as a fan...?

No, I mean, I wouldn’t really want someone to do that to me, so I wouldn’t really do that to him. It’s fine in this sort of situation, an interview situation, where we’re kind of discussing the work - but I wouldn’t want to go and sit and bother him while he was having his lunch about the way he writes lyrics, because ultimately I don’t really want to know how he does it; I want to listen to them. But yeah, that cut-up technique is quite famous - Burroughs used to write books that way, and Bowie (who was obviously friendly with Burroughs) kind of adapted it to songwords. I’ve never done it myself - I mean, I do it kind of unconsciously in my notepads because I’m taking rhymes from other pages onto a different page, so in that way you’re kind of making verses from lines on different pages, and I suppose that’s kind of a cut-up technique from your own words. And obviously if you write songwords, everything you read influences you a wee bit - sometimes more so than others. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of lifting lines into songs from others, but you never know because sometimes subconsciously you have it in your head, don’t you? I think more so I did that when I was younger than I do now, but that’s really [a thing] in pop music - The Smiths were famous for that: there’s entire bits of dialogue from films that Morrissey liked in Smiths songs. So it’s sort of a mixture of everything you’re thinking about at one particular time goes into songwords, and I think it’s probably the same for Michael Stipe - or anyone in any band.

Following your writing style right from the start, there’s a very definite shift in perspective - on the early records you have a very tight, ‘interior’ style, whereas nowadays it seems to be a more philosophical approach to your position in the world. This is especially true of Making Myths and The Universe Is On My Side - the latter in particular reminds me a little of R.E.M.’s Nightswimming in the way it evokes memories triggered by images of the past. On one track here you say that you “Did it wrong so you could do it right” - do you feel like wisdom comes with age and experience?

Well, I mean, it does - it’s such a cliché, isn’t it, but it’s so true, that “I wish I knew what I know now when I was younger”; all those kind of ideas. But I think that’s kind of the beauty of it, too - when you’re young and you don’t really know everything but you’re so full of life and you want to experience everything... then when you get a bit older you don’t really want that anymore, but you know a bit more about it! [Laughs] It’s what humans are condemned to! Yeah, so obviously in my songwords that’s been the case too - there’s this kind of gnawing at the world when you’re younger; you want to kind of... you want people to listen to you, don’t you - especially if you’re in a band. Although we weren’t as good at that as other people because we were, you know... too Scottish! Too kind of polite and quiet. But yeah, when you get older you just think, again, there’s no way in hell that everyone can listen to your music, or like it - it’s ridiculous to even assume that. So you just do it more for yourself, and you realise that if the work is quality and you go and play, and if your name’s still known in music circles, you know, people will pay attention to it. Aiming low: that’s my new thing!

Time and memory seem to be the most prominent themes on this album - the passing of time seems to be of particular concern to you, especially on what I think is one of the key lyrics: “The minute you close your eyes / The little you die”. You’ve always been a quite cerebral writer who seems to be trying to fathom their place within a much bigger puzzle - what are the big questions you want answered these days, and are they different from what they were, say, a decade ago?

Well, I don’t know - I think obviously the really fascinating thing about art and music is that it’s all touching on the same theme, which is essentially uncertainty, isn’t it: again, I think what Freud said was that humans are condemned to uncertainty, and that’s very true. And I think most art is, at its core, dealing with that - that kind of... you get up and you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you kind of carry on. And that’s as equally scary as it is kind of euphoric. And that’s kind of what I’m talking about always in words, that kind of idea, and within that - that’s obviously a massive kind of theme - within that theme there’s so many things you can discuss: you know, drinking in a bar to sitting at home on your own or going walking on the hills, it’s all these kind of things within that. And yeah - I do think that’s kind of what I’m talking about when I’m writing the songwords. So they are different - but it’s essentially the same thing! [Laughs] Just filtered through the years.

Another key lyric on the album is the one you’ve singled out on the packaging, which is “Eternity - it’ll make a talent show of history”. While there’s a definite sense of wistful melancholy about a song like I Know Where I Went Wrong, you seem - and sound - very content nowadays. Is that the case?

Yeah, I am. I mean, as I say, because I had a more kind of surrealist approach, words were always in a bit of a tangle to me until they’re finished and the record’s out - and even then, I don’t spend hours poring over it. So sometimes it’s difficult for me to get an idea what the record means to other people, and that’s why I find it interesting quite often doing interviews. And also, my wife sometimes - she doesn’t listen to the records very often, but we had one on once and after about four songs she went, “How come all of the songs are about death and money?” [Laughs] And sometime it takes someone like that [who’s] kind of removed from the whole situation to make you realise that maybe they are about death and money! [Laughs] I mean, I certainly didn’t sit down and think, “Right - I’m going to sit down and write an album that’s going to be all about death and money”; I never did that. And they’re not actually things I think about too much - maybe subconsciously they’re on my mind occasionally, like everyone, but it’s not something that I’m at all fixated with! [Laughs] But she’s probably right - she’s right about most things, so that’s what the record is...

I once wrote of your lyrical style that if you wrote a love song, you’d never know it - you’d get to the point indirectly and find any number of ways to talk around it, rather than addressing the subject directly. So it’s interesting that maybe that’s the dominant perception of your work - that while you may not have intended it, that’s what people take from it.

Yeah, well - I mean, again, a lot of that’s to do with my approach to it: at the very early stages, I don’t want it to be about anything, if you see what I mean. When I was working on the songs with Sorren, he’s a lot younger than me, and used to that kind of song. He was quite, to begin with - not perplexed, that’s too strong a word, but slightly confused by the whole idea of: I’d be quite wanting to leave the songs as just sort of scraps, not wanting to work on it anymore - we’ve got the kind of melody idea, let’s go move on and do something else, then come back to that. So I think I sort of build them up, don’t I, over a period of time - in that way, their meaning is kind of garbled, but it’s still there somewhere. Also, one thing I’ll say is, love songs and things like that, I do like some - but often I don’t trust songwriters who write them. Because I feel like it’s quite a selfish thing to do, to write songs: you’re sitting describing yourself and you’re sitting for long periods of time writing songs about yourself - sometimes they’ve got lovely melodies which people will be swooning over, that kind of thing, and if you’re writing how you love someone and how much you miss someone... I’m sort of the guy who’s standing at the very back of the room by the door thinking: “I’ll let myself out - I’ll have to leave the room. I don’t think I can handle this, because it’s just a bit too cringeworthy”. And I find that, more often than not with kind of ‘heart-on-their-sleeve’ songwriters that I can’t really... I just don’t believe it. Maybe partly because I know how you write a song, and how you work on it - I just think the best love songs are the ones that aren’t really supposed to be.

‘Distance’ would always be the word I’d always use to describe your writing - you seemed to consciously remove yourself from the lyrics, whereas nowadays you seem a lot more comfortable putting yourself in there in the first-person.

Well I am, because I mean... well, the classic songwriter thing is always to use ‘I’, because it goes well with music, and you can use it to rhyme with a lot of different words. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you, does it - when I say “I” in songs, it’s not... I mean, you are creating some sort of character in whatever you do, whether it’s writing a poem or a book or a song or a painting - really, it’s a version of yourself; it’s not you, really. And sometimes it’s a complete creation - there’s a song called Travelling Light on the album which is not... it certainly wasn’t written with characters in mind, but it’s certainly not me, it’s someone else it’s talking about: all these things he’s doing. Meeting people called John McDonald and stuff. Although I do know someone called John McDonald...! But again, none of it’s premeditated, and I think what you’re getting at in what you’re saying about a lot of the work is that it has that feel, because it isn’t thought out too much in the initial stages and because of that there’s room to breathe always, in the words. And you can put your own meaning into it - it’s not written out, like... I’m just trying to think of a song that’s written out and I can’t, but there is plenty! But you know, you feel when you’re listening to that that “this is what it is, and this is what it’s always going to be”, and you either like it or you don’t - whereas my work, it’s not like that, really. And obviously because musically it’s quite gentle, really - it’s quite listenable, so hopefully people’ll listen to it.

I have a couple of questions that are basically for my own amusement - I’ve got a bunch of friends who are big Idlewild fans, and when I said that I was going to interview you, the one question they all wanted answered (if you can, given what you’ve just said about your lyric-writing!) was this: what does the term ‘Roseability’ mean?

Well, it was a made-up word. I made it up! Gertrude Stein is an American writer and poet - she has this endless poem called A Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose: kind of like this idea of what we were talking about - word deconstruction in words and poems. So they mean nothing, but in that you can really see the beauty of the words, and the way that nonsense can really make you feel something. So that was her idea in that poem - or what I took as her idea - so I made up that word ‘roseability’ about kind of... nonsense being profound. [Laughs]

Nice! Finally, I always ask this of people who’ve had a long career in music, or whose work I’ve been following for a while: what are your five favourite songs that you’ve written, or what are the five songs that you’d like to be remembered for?

Well, I don’t know - that’s not really for me to say in terms of... I mean, I’m a very critical kind of fan of the stuff - obviously I like it, but also I can’t really listen to it for pleasure very much, because I just see the flaws. And that’s not unique to me, that’s how every single person I know who does something creative feels about their work. So you know, I’m analysing it probably in a different way from someone who’s just a fan of it.

Um... I think on the new record, I’m really proud of quite a few of the songs: Making Myths I think is one of my favourite songs I’ve done, because it’s a different pace and a different feel, and it’s not... I think a lot of the songs I’ve done in the past and also with Idlewild are quite ‘clipped’, if you know what I mean - it’s always kind of three-minute-based, you know. That’s the way I’ve always learned to write songs, whereas this one’s six minutes and it’s not in a rush to get there - I felt like I’d really just put all my words I wanted to put into there in it, and I just really love it; I really love it as a piece of music, and so that would be in there. I also really love the second one after it on that new record, The Last One of My Kind - again, because I’m a big fan of a lot of country-rock, Gram Parsons and people like that. We could never do that with Idlewild, but the band - Gavin and Danny and Sorren and Seoniad - they can play different styles of music quite well and comfortably just switch into it. And they were like... they were just so good at doing that kind of thing. I mean, it’s a wee bit daft lyrically - it’s more along the lines of being concerned with being catchy than having any proper meaning... which is fine, because a lot of songs I’ve done are like that, particularly with Idlewild.

In terms of Idlewild, then, what do you think are the main two or three that stand out above everything else?

Well, I wouldn’t say any of the ones that people would probably think - I mean, obviously I recognise that American English and You Held the World in Your Arms were quite important songs in terms of establishing us as a band, so for most people, they would be the ones that they’d associate with the band - and with me. And that’s fine, because they’re good tunes, and also they’re well-recorded and well-produced and realised. Unfortunately they weren’t realised enough to become proper hits! [Laughs] But like, you know, we were trying our best... My favourite Idlewild album is Warnings/Promises, and I think that has got all my favourite Idlewild songs on it. The Space Between All Things is one of my favourites - particularly when we play that live and sometimes it’d stretch to eight, nine, ten minutes because the band could just play into it and there’s a lot of guitar solos, which I love. So I would say that would be one... um... another Idlewild song that I love...

I’ll tell you one I really love is City Hall from Post Electric Blues. I just really like how that starts - you see, I like weird little bits of songs rather than the whole song, like... I really like the end of quite a lot of the songs and just little specific chord changes and stuff, but the start of City Hall I think’s really brilliant - the way everything kicks in, it’s got a good feel to it.

To narrow it down then, we’ve got Making Myths, Last One of My Kind, The Space Between All Things... I’ll definitely put on that list Little Discourage, too. That’s just kind of... as a summation of all the Idlewild records - what is there, six or seven of them? - that’s kind of the song that we played every single night since we wrote it. It just has a really solid feel to it, and it was all the things that people liked about the band: lyrically quite thoughtful, really good tune with a bit of jangly indie-ness to it, but at the same time it was quite hard-hitting in the chorus... all these things. And I think that would be a good song for the band to be remembered by, certainly.

Listen to Keep is available now via Reveal Records.

INTERVIEW: Ha Ha Tonka (November 2013)

Thank whatever fictional God you pray to for Spotify. While Taylor Swift and Thom Yorke may not be signing up for a Premium account any time soon, over the last couple of years the streaming service has proven itself utterly indispensable in helping to uncover acts which would likely have never crossed the radar otherwise.

Nowhere has this been more the case for me than with Ha Ha Tonka, a four-piece indie-folk act from Missouri whose 2011 album Death of a Decade popped up on Spotify Radio one morning and promptly began a great musical love affair. Part of the esteemed Bloodshot Records stable in Chicago, the band’s melding of up-tempo college rock with Out of Time-era R.E.M. (perhaps best evidenced on the songs Made Example Of and Jesusita, which I challenge anyone not to be roused by) hit the spot immediately, and quickly a turntable mainstay for months afterward.

As fate would have it, the band were performing in London the very week that my physical copy of the album arrived - so taken was I with their obvious delight at playing to a crowd 150-strong in a small club (not least their spirited run through Ram Jam’s Black Betty in the encore) that I promptly gave them a hug afterwards... and then proceeded to accidentally rob them when the singer from their support act kept the cash for one of their albums when I was buying the support’s EP. (It’s fine, I explained myself on Facebook afterwards and they forgave me.)

At the time, the band were plotting their most accomplished LP to date in the form of Lessons - one of my Top 3 albums of last year, and a grandiose epic of galloping widescreen sweep. Lead singer Brian Roberts and I exchanged Q&As via email last winter while the band were still trekking across North America.

Hi there, Ha Ha Tonka. Now, I’m personally of the impression that you’re just about the best band in the entire world right now. How do you feel about that?

HA! Well, that’s definitely a matter of opinion and would probably be hotly debated by just about every single person you talked to, but having said that, yeah, I feel pretty good about your statement. 

Sound-wise, Lessons has a real range, depth and vision which marks a major leap forward from your previous records - how far were the producers [Dan Molad and Ryan Whitehouse] involved in helping to craft the songs and shape the album as a whole?

Dan and Ryan are two of the best musical minds we’ve ever encountered and they really challenged us to push the songs we brought into the studio. They created a carefree creative environment that was a lot of fun to operate inside of. Yes, drugs and alcohol might also have been involved! 

Before going into the studio, did you have the intention of having many of the tracks blend together? Was the album conceived and written as ‘one piece’ so to speak, or did this effect emerge gradually during the recording process?

We really wanted to make an ‘album’ type of album, if that makes any sense.  The term “concept album” gets tossed around too loosely, because I believe that most good albums have a certain feel throughout their respective playlists without completely being ‘Tommy’.  We wanted this record to be sonically diverse while still having enough threads to make it sound cohesive.   

There are all sorts of disarming or ear-catching moments throughout the album, but Arabella is particularly interesting when it evolves from a soft acoustic track into a swaggering T-Rex glam-rock stomp. It’s indicative of the feel of the record as a whole - particularly compared with Death of a Decade, which seemed almost short and sharp by comparison. Did you purposely set out to ‘stretch your legs’ this time around, musically-speaking?

Yes.  Both Dan and Ryan stressed the repetition of hooks and drum beats...and some of the moodier pieces we really wanted to let breathe and expand a bit. I think it’s the longest record we've ever made, actually.  

It’s a very evocative and cinematic record from a sonic perspective - the way Rewrite Our Lives thunders along like a wagon-train means that it packs a mighty wallop! You also reference literary and historical figures in several of the songs - how influenced are you by books, history and films in your creative process?

A lot. It sounds terribly cliché to say it, but you really never know where inspiration is going to come from.  It could come from a book, a movie or a certain landscape scene... I remember driving across Spain last year and there’s a spot where all the trees looked like tombstones from a distance... I think that will be a song one day.  

Can you tell us more about the Maurice Sendak and Terry Gross NPR interview which you mention in the liner-notes as initially inspiring the album?

It’s really one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Sendak’s views on living life to the fullest, facing death and how he makes his art is endlessly inspiring.  I really just recommend folks listening to it on their own.

Hailing from the American heartland, you can really hear the dust swirling in your music - how far do you knowingly absorb or draw on traditional forms of music from the region?

I feel that our home region (the Ozarks) permeate almost everything we do.  However, it’s never been a conscious decision to a make our band’s sound a certain way.  I think we’ve always just wanted to be a rock band and it comes out sounding the way it does, for better or worse.

Following on from that, do you feel quite ‘cut adrift’ in relation to the contemporary music scene? It seems like - certainly from this side of the pond - you don’t necessarily fit into any particular geographical ‘scene’ per se. Is that the case?

I think that is the case, but most of my favorite bands really don’t fit into any scene so I kind of like that we don’t either. It’s not great in the commercial sense, but it is very liberating artistically.  

There seems to be a very definite sense in your lyrics - in previous songs like Made Example Of, but particularly on this album - of time being finite: Dead to the World, Colorful Kids and Rewrite Our Lives all address the notion of opportunities running out with every second. Without wanting to retread old ground, do you feel this is a conscious result of your experience with cancer?

It probably has something to do with that experience.  Having cancer in your early 20s makes you realize quickly that you're not invincible and that you will die... it’s just that you want to believe that you’ll “eventually” die.  It hits home whenever you know that that could be sooner as opposed to later. In short, I think it affected me in ways that I’m still figuring out, but I’m really happy I’ve got time to figure them out.  

I notice on your website that you’ve made yourselves available to hire out as a wedding band of choice! How did that idea come about, and have you had many take-ups from fans on this front?

It was really more of a joke than anything because we’d probably be an absolutely terrible wedding band.  A couple of people have been talking to us about actually doing it, but we’re trying to talk them out of it... 

Finally, what are your five favourite songs of yours as a band? Which are the five you think best sum yourselves up, or the five that you’d best like to be remembered for?

This is a toughie, because it’s like having to pick your favorite pet.  You’d feel bad leaving out your cat, wouldn’t you?  It’d be so easy to pick your dog, but I’m a cat man at heart... therefore I’m dodging it and avoiding the selection altogether.

Lessons is available now on Bloodshot Records.