Tag Archives: music

Courage, creativity and connection

The sad news that the body of Scott Hutchison had been found at a marina on the banks of the Forth on Thursday evening got me thinking about two things: what it takes to write songs that forge profound, often unbreakable connections, and what it means to endure such inescapable turmoil that there is no alternative but to take your own life.

Although I’ve never earned much as a musician I’ve served time in the trenches and worked behind the scenes for long enough to speak with a little authority about the difficulties and tensions that come with choosing to make something out of nothing and thereafter being fair game for criticism, often from people who know less than fuck-all about what it involves. It might be creatively fulfilling and it can work wonders for your social life but in almost every other respect being a musician is not an easy gig.

I quit writing lyrics and singing to focus on playing guitar and simply creating sound not far short of 20 years ago. I had got to a point where my confidence in my ability to articulate what it means to be me was shot. I didn’t think my efforts could add to the sum of human experience, and still don’t.

(Unsurprisingly, my lyrical productivity hit a peak when, at the age of 21, I discovered I had a young half-brother and my father had established an extra-marital relationship with the boy’s mother. After composing too many verses and choruses clumsily describing my subsequent emotional state I zipped across the spectrum and embraced obfuscation and smart-arsery before concluding I had nothing to say within the limits of the pop song.)

Fortunately there are plenty of others who aren’t so encumbered. Or perhaps it’s more the case that they endure the same doubts but are strong or bloodyminded enough to overcome them. Stronger than I was and am, at any rate.

I wasn’t anything other than peripherally acquainted with Scott’s songs – it would be impossible for anyone living in Scotland with a passion for music to be unaware of the music of Frightened Rabbit – but from the mountain of words I’ve read in the wake of his death they spoke profoundly to a great many people. This, despite – or because of – him openly warring with anguish and its army of debilitating belligerents over the course of a decade and a half of making music. That’s an accomplishment on which you can’t put a price.

It takes a lot to conjure – from nothing – words and music that make people feel less alone. It requires courage, empathy and eloquence just to get started. That there are musicians who overcome anxieties and self-doubt to chronicle their experiences, whether to help themselves make sense of what often appears to be chaos or to help others do the same, is a blessing. From industry (and often compulsion) they create magic.

If you’re reading this then you’ll likely agree that music is eternal. It’s our church. It’s always there when you need it and complements any mood the human heart has ever witnessed more effectively than any other art form. I cannot imagine life without playing and devouring music; incredibly I even get paid to criticise it in a newspaper, The Herald.

Making no apologies for patriotic bias and in the interests of brevity, to my fellow Scots and Scotland-based musicians Kathryn Joseph, Teenage Fanclub, Karine Polwart, James Yorkston, Ela Orleans, Tracyanne Campbell, RM Hubbert, Mogwai, Emma Pollock, Kenny Anderson and dozens of others, all of whom help me and others make sense of life, I salute you. You are treasured; your work will outlive you and sustain future generations. Keep the magic coming.

Lastly, a few thoughts on the black dog.

Few of us go through life without sometimes feeling it’s a losing battle, and for most the feeling passes. In my own experience, the death of my father three years after my mother’s was the trigger for a period of sporadically dizzying anxiety and generally low mood. Not for me the loss of appetite, insomnia and lack of drive more typically associated with depression, but when my mind broke free from its anchor I could see little else than danger, pain and despair looming on the horizon, and at first I had no means of turning back to safe harbour.

I liken the grief over my dad – a more complex and nuanced grief than I’d experienced when Mum passed away – to Cato from the Pink Panther films. One minute I’d be nonchalantly going about my daily business and the next it would spring out from a wardrobe and pin me to the floor, a solid knot of dread turning my stomach to stone.

I was fortunate enough to get help – a short course of antidepressants then, after a four-month wait, CBT counselling – within a time frame that prevented me from spiralling. Thanks in particular to the counselling, the next time Mr Fong leaps out from behind a rack of coats I hope to be ready for him.

For others a sense of hopelessness comes and goes over years and years, rising and falling in intensity, and like the common cold it can develop at a pace health professionals can’t keep up with. I imagine Scott had tired of feeling worthless, even – especially? – when things were going well. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends, whose pain I am unable to imagine.

This weekend I’m on the outskirts of Newcastle with my partner Katherine, staying at her mum’s terraced house in a former mining village. Security, love, warmth: this home has them all in spades. It’s a good place to be. When Katherine and her dad, David, returned this afternoon from a craft show at which she’s running a stall I gave her a long hug as soon as she crossed the threshold.

Earlier tonight, when I was sitting outside smoking a cheeky fag (relapse number 4008), I thought to myself: this is all good. The piece of grass mottled with dead patches caused by my brother-in-law’s staffy and his acidic wee. The coloured solar lights I wouldn’t have anywhere near my garden but which speak here of a deep sense of home. The rusting basketball hoop on the wall, unused for decades. The quiet of a village peopled by folk tired after a week’s work. Enjoy it, I thought. This is more than enough. You are the luckiest man alive.

Almost midnight. Everyone has gone to bed. I pour a tiny dram, barely enough to cover the bottom of the glass, add a few drops of water and pad outside for one last smoke, tiptoeing past the cockatiel, his cage cloaked in a sheet. Sleep well, Scott.

Extended review – Family In Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

Family in Mourning featuring Lydia Lunch: Eulogy (Galtta)

As concept albums go, it barely needs saying that Eulogy is among the less whimsical of its kind. But that is not to suggest it is a collection of songs burdened by the weight of their subject matter. With no wave poet Lydia Lunch, an ordained minister with the multi-faith Universal Life Church, fronting the most potent of the 10 tracks that make up this record, the overall mood is not so much sombre as reflective and feline, unafraid of allusions to the carnal impulses that can remain once a loving relationship is severed for ever.

Family In Mourning themselves are a funeral collective among whose ranks are an undertaker, a funeral director and a psychic adviser. They proudly tout their services for pre and post-mortem events starting at $5000, with prices for the higher end of their performances available on request. If you’re wondering how much of this is tongue-in-cheek, time spent with Eulogy should provide you with the answer.

It will also acquaint you with a sporadically devastating suite of songs that speak tenderly and eloquently to and about an experience common to every human being who ever walked the earth ­– loss – while making such sublime musical strides that it leads you to question why nobody has ever attempted such an undertaking before (sorry). This is music touched by echoes of Miles Davis, Swans, Johnny Cash and even glam rock. You might argue it is gothic in spirit, but sonically it is in a world of its own.

For an illustration of the sensitivity and acuity of Eulogy’s approach to death and mourning it is hard to see past Lunch’s lyrics on Dust And Shadows.

“What would you say to somebody who only had 30 days to live?” she purrs. “What could you say?/ That in this land of illusion/ We’re all just transitional creatures/ Peeping toms at the keyhole of all eternity/ That the past is only the present cloaked by invisibility/ And that the future is a murmur of a memory we will never possess.”

Thus she begins the 11-minute finale of Eulogy, a track fuelled by David Lackner’s keening saxophone, humid bass and jazz drums that builds in parallel with Lunch’s increasing distress, culminating in her promise to a departed loved one: “I won’t forget/ I won’t forget.” Questions of irrelevance, the cosmic hierarchy, purpose: all these and more are intrinsic to the grieving process and thus fair game for Lunch to mull over.

While Dust And Shadows is the highlight and emotional climax of Eulogy, the tracks that precede it only fall short by a whisker. Last Time We Met, a two-chord threnody garlanded by circling sax and ambient tones redolent of Oren Ambarchi’s sumptuously minimal In The Pendulum’s Embrace, gives Lunch’s mantra – “I’m making love to his ghost” – a suitably coital warmth, the introduction of queasy, off-axis drums merely adding to the low-level giddiness of the song.

Prey, which follows, finds Ben Lord posing as the Angel of Death armed with an acoustic guitar: “Come into the promised land/ Come into the promised land for you/ You are the prey that I have come for/ I wanna take your soul right now/ Push it in the fires that burn below.” Soon Lunch is repeating this reaper blues in a snarl Michael Gira would be proud of, psychedelic flute soaring and flipping like a leaf above a blazing pyre.

There’s also a poetry of sound at play within Eulogy that it would be remiss not to applaud, not least the opening Bell Tone, 19 seconds of crisp plangency that serves as the curtain raiser. The vignette Broken Glass pairs the sound of a broom on shards with portentous drone bass, while the apex of non-verbal grief therapy comes in the short intro to I Fell From Grace, wherein a disembodied choir emerges from heavily modulated noise and insistent organ, the cumulative effect being no less than euphoric, albeit at odds with the glam-rock ballad cum gospel of the song itself.

“Death is just a shadow,” Lunch repeats over and over as Eulogy arrives at its final resting place. If you find yourself in need of light, there could be no better place to start than this peculiarly therapeutic offering.

Click here to buy Eulogy from the Galtta Bandcamp page.

Extended review – Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop)

Iron & Wine: Beast Epic (Sub Pop, 2017)

Clad in an electric-blue jacket and brown trousers, a blindfolded man with flecks of grey invading his otherwise cocoa-coloured hair and generous beard cradles an acoustic guitar. The cover of Sam Beam’s sixth studio album under the moniker Iron & Wine is a fine piece of embroidery that chimes with the immaculately executed folk rock he has been purveying since the early 2000s.

Turn the album over, however, and an altogether more distressed image meets your eye – the mess that lies behind the needlework, all loose threads, disharmony and confusion.

Whether it is Beam’s intention or not, the aptness of the above as a possible metaphor for the human condition as the fortysomething songwriter perceives it is hard to resist. After all, Beam is on record as saying Beast Epic continues his fascination with time, and in contrast to the youthful inquiries of his early releases the new record – following an arc that began around 10 years ago with The Shepherd’s Dog – is a distinctly adult affair, both in theme and in execution. We are outwardly civilised, he might be saying, but remove the mask and we are frayed and fragile.

There’s every chance, though, that Beam simply likes to see himself represented in needlework, just as he acknowledges he chose the title of the album because it sounded good. The case for such a view is only strengthened by the absence of anything related to the beast epic narrative genre within Beam’s sparkling lyrics, which, as per each and every previous Iron & Wine release, seem to come to him as easily – almost too easily – as sleep does to a cat.

If the jury’s out on the depth of meaning behind the title and the artwork, what, then, of the 11 songs that make up Beast Epic?

The album is unlikely to win Beam new followers, a conclusion that has less to do with the standard of songwriting than the lack of creative development. If anything, Beast Epic represents the first retrogressive step in Beam’s 15-year career in music, the likes of Song In Stone and About A Bruise shying away from the vigorous soul and jazz flavours of Beast Epic’s immediate predecessors Ghost On Ghost and Kiss Each Other Clean. Instead they cleave to the more intimate, less embellished palette of Iron & Wine’s debut The Creek Drank The Cradle and its follow-up Our Endless Numbered Days, albeit with a settled line-up of additional musicians fleshing out Beam’s creations.

But despite seemingly reverting to the methods that first brought him attention and making no effort whatsoever to pretend it’s anything other than 1974, with Beast Epic Beam has delivered a suite of songs that is equal to anything he’s done before. There’s a consistency that won’t surprise long-term fans, though they might be disappointed by the lack of a standout song to rival Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me (from Kiss Each Other Clean), the Woman King EP’s Evening On The Ground (Lilith’s Song) or Burn That Broken Bed from In The Reins, Beam’s 2005 collaboration with Calexico.

This record is snug, unthreatening and comforting, which means anyone looking for rage and catharsis ought to give it a wide berth. But for many of those preoccupied by the kind of concerns that trouble Sam Beam – chiefly thoughts of mortality and fallibility – Beast Epic will be a long, warm, healing embrace.

Watch the video for Call It Dreaming from Beast Epic below:

This article was originally published by The Quietus.

Why paying for music matters

Hard as it may be to visualise the scene, the other day a senior Herald executive who shall remain nameless stopped me on my way out of the office to show me Spotify on his iPhone.

I know – a man with ink in his veins singing the praises of music streaming on a smartphone. My legs buckled and I collapsed, though that may have had more to do with the half-litre of single malt whisky I’d scoffed for lunch.

Upon regaining my senses, I remonstrated with my colleague, deploying the unequivocal lingo of a stevedore to inform him that I take a dim view of Spotify and similar services, especially when they’re bundled into a phone contract. The way I see it, the music makers get a mere nibble of the money generated while Spotify and the provider of the mobile phone contract feast on the financial equivalent of larks’ tongues, cockentrice and caviar.

Speaking from the perspective of someone with many friends who at one point earned enough to call rocking out a job, besides a few who still make music for a living, the rise of streaming and concomitant decline in sales of physical product have changed how we value music for ever. The dinosaurs had their meteor; musicians, or at least those operating in fields that can be found far, far down the rock family tree, have, by way of the internet, Spotify.

Uncountable are the occasions in the course of my work and life where a musician has bemoaned the lack of reward for their endeavours. Not angrily, but with resignation. A rubicon has been crossed.

But if, like me, you still think an album – often but not exclusively the sum total of years spent following and honing creative impulses, endless outlay on equipment and the attached upkeep, and the costs of recording, manufacturing and distribution – is worth your hard-won cash, I urge you to use services such as Spotify prudently and focus on ensuring your dough takes the most direct route possible to the creators of said album.

By using Spotify prudently I mean viewing it as a shop window or a listening post (remember them?). Give Glasgow acoustic ensemble Sound of Yell a spin; dedicate a few minutes to the lucid guitar work of Sir Richard Bishop; investigate the ambient splendour of Anjou. Then, if you’re so minded, buy a digital download, a CD, a vinyl record – anything, really, because anything is better than nothing. For a world bereft of investment in its greatest art form will be a world not worth living in.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Come on feel the no)))ise

Manifold are the possible scenarios I foresee myself in at the age of 71.

Reading the complete works of James Ellroy in the cosy library of my thatch-roofed cottage overlooking Luskentyre beach, a glass of single malt whisky resting on a handmade occasional table by my side. Strolling up the 18th at the Old Course after a fine round under cobalt skies, a timid breeze whispering in off the North Sea. Adopting the lotus position and rocking to and fro in a straitjacket, cackling like a pantomime crone.

What I don’t predict is that I’ll be intoning the refrain “Bump the beaky” over a rhythm spelled out in whipcracks and a miasma of saturated guitar distortion manufactured by two long-haired, bearded dudes dressed entirely in black, the sole gatekeepers to an entirely new and diabolical level of subterranean frequencies.

This is but a snapshot of the milieu in which Scott Walker finds himself these days. The aforementioned “song”, Bull, is one of five tracks ranging in length from 8min 42sec to 11min 59sec that make up Soused, a collaboration with the US drone band Sunn O))) that arrived in the post this week. Easy listening it is not.

You might recall Walker from his spell in pop trio The Walker Brothers, none of whom bore that particular surname until dazzled by the bright lights of showbusiness. Or perhaps you know him from the first draft of his solo career, during which he brewed a gumbo of balladry, theatrical chanson and big-band standards.

In the 1960s and 1970s Walker committed to tape an astonishing number of essential songs, both covers and his own, including Lights Of Cincinnati, It’s Raining Today and Montague Terrace (In Blue).

Then Noel Scott Engel, to use his birth name, grew tired of the ephemeral pop universe and fell silent, publicly at least, until Climate Of Hunter, the 1984 album whose title hints at the restless questing that took root within and grew in the fertile soils of subsequent albums, from a sapling staring goggle-eyed at faraway clouds to its ultimate form of the towering tree that is Soused.

No matter how untelegraphed each stage of Walker’s recent career has been, however, few predicted his alliance with Sunn O))), a duo who essentially tune their guitars in the key of oblivion and plug into a wall of the loudest valve amps in the world.

The gospel according to Sunn O))) suggests: “Maximum volume yields maximum results.” So turn it up. It keeps you young.

Watch the trailer for Soused below.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Tape: the medium that refuses to die

Sceptics might lump it in with Rotherham Plough Fortnight, Penny Farthing Week and the Year of the Zeppelin.

Others who, like me, retain a scintilla of optimism in a hostile world, will regard International Cassette Day – that’s today, daddio – as a welcome event and one worth trumpeting, while simultaneously acknowledging that flying the flag for analogue is an increasingly futile stance. After all, today’s mega-brands are not TDK, Maxell and BASF; they are Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. (Feeling nostalgic yet?)

So what’s it all about, I hear you half-speak, half-yawn. Well, tempted as I am to point out that it’s a global celebration of tapes and tape culture that lasts for – you got it – a day, I fear doing so will make you turn prematurely to the breathless prose forged by my colleagues observing the life-and-death battle between sporting squares taking place at Gleneagles.

Instead, I can reveal that in independent record shops up and down the land there will be limited runs of music obscure (3eme Sexe, Hebrew Witches) and less obscure (The Wedding Present, These New Puritans, John Grant), all on the medium that – in one sense at least – refuses to die: cassette.

While I’m happy to lend my support and a modicum of publicity to the shebang, I should confess to my lack of interest in buying any of these tapes, though I do possess a cassette deck.

Frankly, it isn’t the future of the C90 that galvanises me – let’s be honest; there isn’t one – but rather the past.

The central feature of analogue tape that rendered it all but vanquished by the advent of digital media is the one I cherish most: its perishability. The tarnished, depleted sound of a cassette that’s been played to within an inch of its life or kept in a too-hot room – or chewed up by an ill-tempered machine and clumsily salvaged – is a sound that knows its fate yet strives to outrun it, to repair itself by sheer force of will. The romantic in me can’t see a better metaphor for the human condition.

The avant-garde composer William Basinksi felt the same and built his opus The Disintegration Loops around it, authoring a hymn to 9/11 and New York without equal. Across four volumes, cyclical motifs play over and over and over, decaying incrementally until nothing but hiss remains, as ghostly as the final wisps of smoke from the World Trade Centre. You can’t say the same about Brothers In Arms, can you?

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – Howie Reeve

Howie Reeve has a toy keyboard in each hand. “These cost me 70p – the batteries were dearer,” he says. “I took my top off and went …” He then rubs the keyboards lustily on his belly, a gush of high-pitched droning with a distinctly central European flavour filling the room. “It sounds like Thracian pipes or something.”

The song under discussion – Bellyboards – is one of two vignettes that, on vinyl at least, come midway through each side of his forthcoming album, We Are In Repair, the follow-up to last year’s self-released debut Friendly Demons. The other, At Matthew’s, is less baffling – it’s a 33-second burst of acoustic piano – but equally arresting. Those tracks aside, the album is an assembly of tender, thoroughly instinctive songs that mostly follow an unembellished recipe of Reeve’s vocals and the acoustic bass sitting a few feet away in the living room of his flat on the south side of Glasgow. “It’s only a light guitar and it gets an absolute hammering,” he concedes when I suggest it occasionally sounds as though he might snap its neck. “I play too hard – that’s part of the quality – but there’s something about laying off. The album was recorded with some finesse and live I’m definitely rougher, but it’s important that the subtleties come out on the album.”

The fact there’s a Hammond organ but no television in the room is telling. (There’s a handpainted ostrich egg, too, but that’s another story.) For Reeve, music is life and vice versa, and tuning out the static of the everyday is a constant battle (“I’m forever being distracted by that thing” – he points at his smartphone – “watching a monk wank with a tuba”). “I’ve said to one or two friends that I’m fighting for my life by doing this, and that sounds dramatic, but if I was to extrapolate that, it’s absolutely conducive to my wellbeing and my happiness, and it helps make sense of a difficult world.”

A parallel can be drawn between such an outlook and that of RM Hubbert, whose debut album First & Last, Reeve says with sincerity, “means an awful lot to me”. Hubbert has spoken candidly about the therapeutic role music plays in his ongoing issues with chronic depression. “Some of his solo stuff is the best he’s ever done,” says Reeve. “It’s so intrinsic to him. In the early days he was an inspiration.

“We’ve all got shit. Friendly Demons is called that because once you make friends with your personal demons you realise they are not 50ft monsters, they are little dwarves you can deal with.”

Prior to his solo debut Reeve was a member of Tattie Toes, an ensemble aptly described by The Herald’s Nicola Meighan as “Balkan folk miscreants”, who in 2011 released the acclaimed album Turnip Famine. Three years on, over decaf coffee on an early autumn evening, he says, “The autonomy of being solo is beyond liberating. The rate at which I can operate – I can write a song this week and play it on Saturday. I can book three weeks of gigs. Middle-aged people with responsibilities, kids and jobs can’t do that. I don’t want to make it too strong or unequivocal but the more I do this the more fulfilled I am and the more I feel I’m happy doing it.”

He’s set to reach peak fulfilment, if his schedule is any indication, with UK and European tours before the year is out. In early 2015 he hopes to visit Ghana in cahoots with his friend King Ayisoba, whose concert in Glasgow in April – under the aegis of the East End Social – Reeve can take credit for.

“An intrinsic aspect of wellness is about living in the moment, isn’t it?” he says. “If I go to Ghana, it might be only for three or four weeks but what am I going to learn as a human being? It’s untold. I’ve been to Kenya for work and I came back profoundly happy.”

Reeve is also buoyed by his collaboration with a figure he views as totemic in his musical development, Mike Watt, the American bass player whose early 1980s hardcore troupe The Minutemen wrought incalculable influence on a generation of musicians. The pair have recorded a seven-inch of bass duets. How did the alliance come about?

“He loved Tattie Toes,” says Reeve, “and then I met him in 2011 and said, ‘I’m Howie from Tattie Toes.’ He went, ‘I can’t believe I’m meeting you.'” He chuckles. “There’s a photograph of me with him pointing to me and saying that, and my jaw is on the floor. I had a Dalai Lama-like radiance after it. This teenager was crying in the bus stop and he came to me for comfort, and I thought, ‘This is because I’m glowing with fulfilment right now.'”

It’s a glow that shows no sign of fading.

We Are In Repair is out on Product Records. Buy it here.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Review – Trans Am: Volume X (Thrill Jockey)

From the first 30 seconds, you’d think this was Frankie Goes To Hollywood; from the last, Genesis.

In between, the Maryland trio embark on a picaresque tour of genres, stopping off at Zapp (on the talk-box buffoonery of Reevaluations), Metallica (Backlash) and Jean Michel Jarre via Kraftwerk (Night Shift).

The eyebrows of anyone familiar with Trans Am will remain unlofted at this news, so accustomed have they become to the band’s heroic fusion of rock tropes – savage riffs a la King Crimson (the skew-whiff synthscape of Failure is lapped by the flames of Robert Fripp’s more lysergic inquiries) and superlative drumming from Sebastian Thomson – and analogue electronica undercut with slacker humour, a studio geek’s fidelity to sound (guitarist Phil Manley’s many production credits include Wooden Shjips) and, on the debit side, an inability to assemble a great album from beginning to end.

No matter; while Volume X lacks the cohesion of their millennial diptych Futureworld (1999) and Red Line (2000), it still throbs like few 10th albums do.

Listen to a fuzz-rock version of I’ll Never below.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – Belle and Sebastian

Belle And Sebastian, from left to right: Stevie Jackson, Bob Kildea, Stuart Murdoch, Sarah Martin, Richard Colburn, Chris Geddes

You’re in the chippie when Usain Bolt and his entourage enter and jump to the front of the queue. Do you say anything?

Sarah Martin, performing a vague approximation of Bolt’s signature flourish: “What does he do? Is it a lightning bolt?”

Stuart Murdoch: “That’s more of a Bruce Forsyth sort of thing.”

Chris “Beans” Geddes: “He’s probably in a hurry, isn’t he? Fair enough – let him order.”

Murdoch: “I’m the invisible man in queues anyway. I’m used to people waltzing past me.”

You join us in a secluded cranny in a restaurant five minutes’ walk from Kelvingrove bandstand in the west end of Glasgow – the natural habitat, you could say with confidence, of Belle And Sebastian. Present are four of the seven members of the group – Murdoch (singer, chief strategist, long-distance runner), Martin (singer, violinist, “fairweather runner”), Geddes (keyboards, Celtic supporter) and Northern Irishman Bob Kildea (guitar, bass, sport-averse Status Quo nut). Richard Colburn (drummer and snooker ace), Dave McGowan (the new boy, also a member of Teenage Fanclub and Snowgoose) and Stevie Jackson (singer, guitarist) are absent for miscellaneous reasons including, in Colburn’s case, parenting obligations.

The group have just been photographed in baking heat at the refurbished bandstand, where they will perform on July 23 as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. All 2100 tickets for the band’s first hometown show in three and a half years sold out within five minutes of going on sale.

Now they’re cornered for a grilling, a band whose lauded second album If You’re Feeling Sinister sprung out of the traps with The Stars Of Track And Field.

Starter question: who’s the sexiest sportsman or sportswoman of all time?

Without pausing Murdoch and Geddes chime in semi-unison: “Ennis.”

“Back in the day,” says the singer. “Well, I say ‘back in the day’ but she kept it up. I think it’s beauty and strength combined – the idea that she could lift you up and throw you across the room like a javelin.”

Murdoch turns to Kildea: “Bobby, have you ever fancied a sportsperson?”

The immediate reply: “George Best.” “Oh yeah,” says Martin, suddenly animated. “You can put me down for Best.”

What was your greatest sporting achievement at school?

“The three-legged race,” says Murdoch. “It was me and Peter Grassom. We didn’t have speed but we had technique. And we trained, even though it was P6 so we were 11 or something. We used to tie a tie around our ankles and folk saw us: ‘There they go again, whizzing across the pavement.’ Come the day, we were so focused, wearing matching tracksuits, going ‘one, two, one’ to keep the rhythm, and we stormed it. The fast guys were trying to go faster than each other.”

“What we used to do at school,” recalls Kildea, “was football in Bangor leisure centre. We used to go and sign our names then we’d go up to the house and watch Rolling Stones films.” He laughs loudly. “Gimme Shelter, The Stones In The Park and all that.”

Who has the greatest facial hair in the history of sport?

“I did like Mark Spitz,” says Murdoch. Geddes’ eyes light up. “He had a moustache that he claimed made him more hydrodynamic,” says the keyboard player, “and then at the next Olympic Games [in Montreal in 1976] all of the swimmers had moustaches.” David Wilkie for one. “Yeah, you’ve got to love swimmers,” says Murdoch. “How about WG Grace?”

“Classic hipster beard,” says Geddes.

“Captain Webb as well,” suggests Martin. “He had some good hipster facial hair.”

“Who’s Captain Webb?” asks Murdoch.

“He was the first guy to swim the English Channel,” replies Martin, “but he drowned trying to swim across the Niagara Falls.”

What was your worst sporting injury?

“I once got knocked unconscious by taking a football to the groin,” says Murdoch to a chorus of “oof” and much wincing. “I knew that would make you all go ‘oof’,” he says.

“I taught a small child how to sail,” recalls Martin, “then put him in a boat on his own and he sailed straight into my back, dislodging one of my vertebrae.”

What’s the best sporting anthem of all time?

“We Are The Champions,” says Kildea unhesitatingly.

“There are so many,” says Murdoch. “I love the Superstars theme from the 1970s [Heavy Action, written by Johnny Pearson].”

“The Booker T tune that used to be the cricket music as well, Soul Limbo,” suggests Geddes.

“When you’re young,” says Murdoch, “you don’t know it’s Booker T, you just know it’s the cricket song. Or the Allman Brothers, the racing, Fleetwood Mac.”

“The Allman Brothers is Top Gear,” points out Geddes. “Formula 1 is Fleetwood Mac.”

Talk turns to the Commonwealth Games, which kick off in 11 days’ time. Belle And Sebastian’s enthusiasm for the city in which they formed in 1996 is well-known. How do they view the overhauling of many of Glasgow’s shabbier corners ahead of the Games?

“I’m a big fan of what’s going on in the city,” says Murdoch. “As soon as the velodrome was built I was out there snooping around all the time – there’s a good cafe – and the whole vibe in Dalmarnock. It might be different for the people who live there but it’s such a changed place. There’s quite a vista you get when you walk up those wide avenues now. It reminds me of Spain in the 1990s or the 2000s, Valencia or somewhere.”

“Don’t say that,” warns Geddes. “Look where they are now.”

“Seventy per cent unemployment,” says Martin.

“All these nice buildings but nobody under 40 has got a job,” adds Geddes.

“Fingers crossed,” says Murdoch. “We’re lucky we have all these great facilities. We’ve got all these stadia and it’s good to see we’re actually using them.”

It transpires that none of the members of Belle And Sebastian has tickets for Games events, but at least one of them will be taking in the cycling road race. “You know last year where they tried out the route?” says Martin to her colleagues. “I was in Wagamama [on West George Street] with my pal. They went by 14 times while we ate noodles. You could see them tearing down the hill and into Nelson Mandela Place. They had to slow down going into that bend but they were doing some speed. They can’t ticket it, so that’s one thing I will see.”

You’re out running and see Mo Farah speed past an old dear with a walking stick, almost knocking her over. What do you do?

Murdoch: “I’d probably ignore the old lady and try to see how long I could keep up with Mo Farah. I like to range all over the city and occasionally I get a posse of young guys trying to keep up with me. I’d be one of those guys.”

Geddes: “Like Rocky II?”

Murdoch: “Like Rocky II.”

And so to the bandstand and amphitheatre. The 90-year-old venue in Kelvingrove Park was closed in 1999 and became an eyesore before Glasgow Building Preservation Trust launched a campaign to restore it, with Belle And Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand and Teenage Fanclub lending their public support. After a £2.1m upgrade the bandstand is taking bookings again.

“To quote Bob, sitting right next to me,” says Murdoch, “it took for Glasgow to have an international event to get it going. That’s typically Scottish – you do up your good room when you’ve got visitors coming round.”

Apart from festivals in Italy and Spain and a short tour of the US in the autumn, the group will spend the remainder of 2014 honing their live show before releasing their ninth studio album – recorded in Atlanta earlier this year with producer Ben Allen – in January 2015. They’re pondering set design, choreography and video, prompted, in part, by a comment from Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys after this year’s NME Awards, at which the group were honoured for their outstanding contribution to music.

“We met him in a pub in London,” explains Martin. “He was really nice and he was like: ‘I was at that awards thing and I was thinking they’ve got so many good songs, it’s a shame they’ve only got curtains and lights.'”

“With that little phrase …” says Murdoch.

“… He changed our world,” finishes Martin.

“What’s he got?” asks Geddes, mildly affronted. “A guy who stands there doing nothing and a load of cardboard boxes.”

“And four dancers who turn themselves into dustbins,” adds Martin.

“It’s a sweeping statement,” says Murdoch, “but I find rock shows pretty boring. I’m getting old and I like to see exciting young bands in exciting small venues. That gets me going. But once it’s a couple of thousand people you’ve got to ask: ‘Would I love our band if I went to see them?’ It makes you want to make a bit more of an effort.”

Will the Kelvingrove bandstand reflect elements of this new approach to performance? “No,” they reply in chorus before more laughter rocks the room, leaving the last word to Kildea. “The bandstand is the show, isn’t it?”

Check out the band’s Soundcloud page below.

Belle And Sebastian play the Kelvingrove Bandstand Opening Ceremony Party on July 23, 2014.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.

Interview – Cass McCombs

US songwriter and musician Cass McCombs
Cass McCombs: ‘Life is a crazy science experiment and it could go one of a million different ways’

Cass McCombs is trying to describe where he lives these days. “New York … California … on the road,” he says, his speaking voice as candied and languorous as it is on record. “I try to live light.” It’s not by choice, he emphasises, but rather necessity.

Forward motion and restlessness are themes that pepper the 37-year-old’s canon, which swelled to seven albums with the release of double LP Big Wheel And Others last October. The rumbling, rolling title track opens with: “I dig the taste of diesel and the sound of big rigs/ Rubber, metal, oil and stone/ Scoring at truck stops, lot lizards and driving far alone.”

McCombs’s music is neither folk nor country, rock nor soul, yet touches on all four, as nomadic as its creator.

There’s no money in touring at his level, he tells me. He can’t put his band on a wage – “There’s nothing to pay them with” – and he can’t afford roadies. So why tour? “It’s a reward, it’s what it’s is all about,” he says. “We get to travel and talk to people and learn about what’s up in these different places, instead of reading it in a newspaper – which is valuable – but to hear what people are saying about politics or whatever, it’s essential.

“What it comes down to is feeding off that moment. It takes a long time to create the space where that microsecond of creation can exist. Because life is just a crazy science experiment, like a mad doctor’s laboratory, and it could go one of a million different ways.”

With nothing but musical satisfaction to offer his band, how does he keep a steady – and happy – line-up? “There’s a loose policy to the band, how it’s organised,” he says. “It’s like a tag team. I understand people come and people go – that’s natural. Everything should be fluid and natural, and imitate the natural world. So if you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. But I’ll find a replacement.”

The singer is speaking from New Jersey, where he is spending time having just completed a North American tour before heading to Europe next week. McCombs’s show in Scotland on Thursday will be his third time in Glasgow. Asked for his fondest memories of the country, the road takes centre stage once more.

“It’s always so wonderful driving into Scotland,” he says. “It’s such an emotional experience just to watch the terrain turn … Scottish,” he chuckles.

McCombs’s oh-so Californian evenness vanishes briefly at the suggestion he should visit the Highlands. “Oh, I would love to,” he says animatedly. “One of these days.”

Until then there is the endless road and recording with which to keep busy. Having delivered seven albums in 10 years, besides his debut mini-LP Not The Way in 2003, McCombs is among the most industrious artists around. How does he view the evolution of his music?

“I don’t really think about it, y’know? I don’t like mirrors. I have this thing with some friends of mine, where if a question is too personal we say: ‘That’s a mirror.’ When you look in a mirror you can do your make-up or fix your hair but it doesn’t actually show you what you look like.

“It’s a reverse image and it’s a distortion. It’s not even three dimensional. It’s a two-dimensional reverse image of yourself. I feel the same way about trying to assess my feelings on myself. It’s not up to me to know.”

While his records are dotted with musical and technical imperfections (his second album, PREfection, concludes with 10-plus minutes of a car alarm going off), it’s possible McCombs’s profile is most hampered by what can be interpreted as prickliness, but which is in all likelihood little more than a distaste for the rules of the game. Here is a songwriter with all the chops of, say, the late Elliott Smith, Josh T Pearson or Jimmy Webb, but little of the kudos. Is he a square peg in a round hole? “I don’t know if I’m a square,” he says, sniggering. “Maybe a rhombus or a triangle. A giant triangle trying to fit into a tiny hole.”

How, then, does McCombs explain his failure to prosper, financially if not creatively? “There are so many factors to making music. There’s music, that’s number one. That exists beyond any business model, before all the chatter. It’s a very tranquil dimension. Then you sprinkle in the physical reality of trying to perform that music, and the gas it takes to be able to do that.

“Then there start to be corrupting agents, and it takes effort to maintain music as just music. You want to keep it music, and everyone wants to turn it into some kind of dialogue. Well no, I don’t want it to be a dialogue. No-one wants it to be a dialogue except you.”

At this juncture McCombs is at his liveliest. Whether by “you” he means music writers or not is unclear.

“It’s not a dialogue. It’s not a concept. It’s not a genre. There’s no reason – it’s just music. Can’t we just have our music be music? Why does everything in the world have to be commerce? I don’t get it.”

His point made, McCombs collects himself and continues: “I actually like this business. It’s fucked up and stupid and wack, and everyone’s wrong, but I kind of like it. It’s like prison – it’s evil and awful and scary but it’s real, and in some ways it’s better than not being in prison.”

I ask what he’ll do when he hangs up the phone. “I’m just gonna walk around in the snow a bit. It’s a winter wonderland out here.” Another echo of restlessness. For Cass McCombs, drifting beats standing still every time.

Reproduced with permission of Herald & Times Group.