Wednesday, 14 January 2009


I really rather like Rob St John. His music sends the kind of shiver down my spine normally reserved for a pucker lipped kiss from my - rather bed ridden at present - better half. To catch him live is like a gift from the gods : a beautiful whisper flutters through the airwaves while at all times accompanied by the sweetest harpsichordal melodies. He is, of course, part of Edinburgh's bountiful Folk scene and a few months I got the opportunity to chat with him and band mate Rob Waters prior to the release of his new EP Like Alchemy...


Hushed, brooding, maudlin - all adjectives I've read that describe your sound. Is this sort of atmospheric something you're trying to achieve when creating music or does it just comes naturally?
Rob St John [RSJ]: I guess that stems from a number of sources. The basic songs are written by me, then augmented, orchestrated and generally made better by the band. I guess the choice of instruments is very influential: the harmonium, saw, cello, double bass, autoharp. I love minimalist and droney music - Steve Reich in particular - where one well played note is worth a thousand self-indulgent ones. If we can meld that to a good song it feels fresh and new and exciting. We're careful never to saturate a song, and never to stick instruments in where they're unnecessary.

Equally, I think the instrumentation stops a song from becoming one-paced and dry. The ability the instruments give us to leap into a crescendo belies our post-rock leanings and hopefully stops the music being dirgey and depressing. I like that melancholic euphoria you get with bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Nina Nastasia, I guess that's partly what we aim for.

Your songs are incredibly poignant, and in many cases very personal. How emotional an experience is song writing for you?
RSJ: It's certainly not the soul-searching experience you hear of people having. I'm very, very un-prolific, unfortunately. I have notebooks of scraps of lines and observations scribbled down here and there. Sporadically, a tune will present itself and I'll delve into the notebooks to find themes. Whilst the nucleus of a song is usually built around a few lines, the random nature of bits and bobs of lines being written down next to each other, but at different times, can lead to you drawing unexpected connections between themes.

The seemingly-personal songs are, in fact, not written about me but my view of other people dealing with their own situations. The last thing I ever want is for my songs to be an open-diary confessional. If you can write things with a certain ambiguity, hopefully it'll resonate with people as they tie it to their own experiences. After Elbow won the Mercury Music Prize, Guy Garvey said they "avoid grand statements in favour of quiet revelations", which really resonates with me - even though I'm not a huge fan of their music.

It'd be quite easy for us hacks to lumber you into the singer/songwriter bracket. Does that concern you?
RSJ: A bit. I guess it's a really ugly term - almost a byword for backing-music-bland. But then what is there? Nu-folk? No. Acoustica? No way!. Librarian pop? Probably. The nearest I can get is creaking and droning lo-fi folk music. Eagleowl recently got categorised as anti-drumcore in a German fanzine - how good is that?
Rob Waters [RW]: The problem with the singer/songwriter label is that it is tainted by association with so many sub-standard acts and drab open mic events. But beyond this it does not account for the organic process involved in performing where a song is developed by the musicians present. Singer/songwriter does not sufficiently describe the process of performance in a band like ours, even though the basis of each song originates from one person.

Have you ever thought about creating a full blown pop opus just to set the cat amongst the probable pigeonholing?
RSJ: Definitely. I like the idea of continually releasing small scale EPs, which are all really cohesive, and doing a "pop" one appeals. If nothing else, it makes life more fun doing new things, and not getting stuck in a rut.
RW: I think it is good to develop stylistically, and I think it's something which is built into our music, whether by chance or invention. Even this latest record differs a lot from the previous one in structure and feel.

I saw you play at the Bowery [Edinburgh venue] the other week and it was one of the finest performances I've witnessed this year. How different is your approach to playing live when compared to making an actual record?
RSJ: I think music should always have spontaneity to it, a spark and hint of the unknown, even if that sometimes feels like you're walking a tightrope where things could fall apart any second. I'm very lucky to have found four musicians in Rob, Bart Owl, [glockenspiel/ukulele], Emily Scott [double bass] and Louise Martin [cello/saw], who are very in tune with what I want from the songs, and so massively talented that it takes very little time to make them sound good. In fact, we've now become a band in all but the name - is it too late to change it!? - with everyone being integrally important and crucial to the song-writing process. They're all great people too, and none of us have any grand designs for fame or exposure, taking everything that comes along as a good experience, and so avoiding any ego or arguments.

You were playing with just one other at the Bowery - I think it was Emily - how does that compare to playing in a fully-manned group?
RSJ: That we play shows with different line-ups is entirely down to us all working full time jobs, and not always getting time off. It makes each show something different and interesting for both us and the audience. Sometimes, like at the Bowery, it's great to have the songs very sparse, with lots of room to breathe, and sometimes it's great to go all out with the orchestrations. Everyone improvises a lot too. Not in a Phish/ endless jam band way, but just subtly altering the tunes each time out.

So what do you prefer: playing live or making records?
RSJ: Generally, playing live is more fun. Making records the traditional way - multitracking each part - is quite a tiring and monotonous process. For the last EP, we hired out Stockbridge Church overnight, hired a load of vintage equipment and got a great friend and wonderful sound engineer Damon Thompson to record us playing live. We sat in a huge circle in the vast, cold and reverby church, playing each song over and over til we were too tired and drunk. In the cold light of day, we picked the best takes, did minimal overdubs and there was the EP. The spontaneity, and feeding off each other in the recordings made it really fun to make, and we're all pleased with it.
RW: Live shows are eclectically different by the mere virtue of the varied assortment of the musicians we manage to get together to perform. When we make a record we actually rehearse a bit.
RSJ: The last thing we ever want to be is a band who can get up on stage and knock out the hits to a crowd of A&R men. We have our small bunch of loyal fans (6 at the last count), and to make everything we do slightly different and new really appeals.

You're part of a tight-knit and thriving musical community in Edinburgh right now, how does it feel to be a musician in the city?
RSJ: We're so fortunate to be a part of it. It's very true that you have to build your own scene, sometimes you get asked how to get gigs, and I think everyone quickly realised that no-one's going to come and do it for you, so DIY shows became the way forward. We owe huge debts to our good friend Emily at Tracer Trails, who by putting on some stunning DIY gigs for a couple of years, proved to everyone that it was possible. There's so much healthy cross-pollination between bands too. I play in Eagleowl full-time now, and Bart plays full time with us. Withered Hand and Meursault have members in common. Again, there's absolutely no ego, everyone just wants to have a good time and enjoy themselves. Importantly too, when you are seeing these great bands and you hear the great new Meursault/My Kappa Roots/Great Bear/Withered Hand/Eagleowl song you're then inspired to do something better yourself, not in a competitive way, but just through being in awe of the great people involved.
RW: The music scene in Edinburgh is fantastically lively and I think this helps to drive everyone involved to keep re-thinking their approach to music. It's also a very supportive atmosphere to work in, and folks like Fife Kills: and Tracer Trails have made things possible which would have been very hard to achieve alone
RSJ:I think there's a really great and appreciative set of gig-goers in Edinburgh, who have come out of the woodwork in the last year or so, to really embrace the "lets find a room, get a PA, put on a gig!" philosophy. Playing to 20 appreciative people in a tiny gallery or church somewhere sure beats playing to 300 disinterested people in a soulless venue.

You've submitted a track for the Ten Tracks sampler for December. Why did you choose do this?
RSJ: I think Ten Tracks is a great concept. We're really into the idea of making our physical releases something worthwhile to own - we hand stamp and number each one of the recycled heavyweight card cases for example. However, you've got to be aware of the scope the internet and digital files gives you. I'm not a fan of selling mp3s, preferring to wait until the physical release has sold out, then giving away the tracks for free. What I like about Ten Tracks is that - contrary to most music downloading, where you cherry pick tracks here and there - the cohesiveness of the playlists each month: ten tracks that work together, and that pair well known acts with acts people have never heard us.

What are your plans and ambitions for 2009?
RSJ: We're talking about doing another UK tour in February, this time an Eagleowl/Rob St John double header. We're recruiting a great new drummer, so the songs will add another dynamic. We'd love to do another EP as soon as possible, but we need to sell a few of Like Alchemy before we can afford that! Rob’s ' The Great Bear project is being resurrected, and we're both very excited about that, if you haven't heard his songs yet, I can't recommend them enough.
RW: We're also chatting to a label about putting out a split Rob St John/Great Bear 7” and a tape compilation.

And finally, can you tell me what you think is more likely to kill the music industry stone dead: Illegal downloading, TV programs like that fucking Orange Unsigned Act filth or the return of Axl Rose.
RSJ: Apathy - and expecting something for nothing.

This interview was conducted for this here feature at The Skinny

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Spins & Needles: Whinging like fuckety...

Hello and Happy New Year! As you may, or may not, have noticed Spins & Needles has undergone a bit on an aesthetic upgrade since the arrival of 2009. This aint part of no new year's resolution I'd like to point out, I just thought I'd try and instil a bit of life back into my writing as well as this here site. It’s been a hectic and tumultuous six months that’s involved getting married, dealing with the UK Embassy, getting a new flat and trying to feed two mouths on the measly wage of a single Edinburgh financial sector job – so apologies for not updating as much as I did before, I've been a little tied up.

I’ve also been pondering exactly where I’m going with this writing milarkey. I once thought of it as a possible career; y’know, I’d be a kind of Lester Bangs of the Central Belt or something equally as ridiculous. But REAL music journalism is dead. Kaput. The blogosphere has seen to that. I quote from an interview I did last week with Ben Curtis of School Of Seven Bells: “Music journalists would write something and that was the definitive word but now any kid in any country can write to a blog and say whatever they want. And this is just some kid who hates his life... it’s such a delicate situation”. (full interview soon to come...)

Sadly, never has a truer word been said. It’s all blaggers who wanna find the next scene; vocabulary-bereft fucktards who’d gladly suck Billy Sloan’s cock to progress; and joy riding dirtbags all about the swag of free Big-boy band gig tickets but none about frequenting a scuzzy dive to dish out a few constructive sentences on some up coming local scamps. Man, I sound cynical. Fuck, lets face it: I AM cynical. But that’s what a new found sense of perspective brings. I’ve never done this for the money – which is pretty fucking fortunate – but sometimes, just sometimes, the lack of imbursement for all those hours stashed away in a stinking, airless cauldron of a room grates like the rubbing of a thistle to the scrotum.

So where now?

Well, that’s what I’ve been asking myself.Perhaps it’s time to branch out; move on to pastures new? A fucking degree in journalism wasn’t attained by effusing over some jumped up, ratfaced cunt attempting to master the intricacies of playing six different chords in succession. Admittedly, it wasn’t gained by reading Su’s trash mags either but, hey, a boy can have some vices, right? Anyway, this year Spins & Needles may take on a bit of a different guise. Sure, expect the usual plenitude of overly-verbose reviews and interviews but nestling in between these mainstays may be a scattering cultural observations, a shower of incoherent rants (as this one has so become) and, yes, a rainbow of witty asides.

Oh...and from now on there will be no more scoring. You want to know how I feel about an album? Read the words. Scoring was so 2008.

RECORD REVIEW: Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light

It feels like aeons since Antony & The Johnsons' majestic I Am A Bird Now snatched the Mercury Prize. In reality, only four years have elapsed since that fateful eve but group lynchpin and New York-dwelling cooer Antony Hegarty - sans dabbling with euphoric disco ensemble Hercules And Love Affair - has been as reticent as the record’s coy melodies.

Finally returning with The Crying Light, Hegarty remains ill-at-ease with the limelight’s blinding gaze; fortunately, he’s retained a penchant for jaw-gaping compositions. His unmistakeably enunciated chords soar across every ivory-keyed arrangement like a sea bird migrating to the heavens. Subtly nuanced numbers like One Dove and Daylight & The Sun are still riddled with the inherent complexities of an outsider looking in but furrowed beneath is an optimism that stirs hope into the heart-melting vignettes. It may have taken an age but, here, Antony proves he was well worth waiting on.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Record Review: Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

After a six-month long fanfare of blog-whetting hyperbole and disingenuous half-truths, Merriweather Post Pavilion [MPP] has finally – FINALLY - landed. So what’s to be made of Animal Collective long-player number nine? Well, iris-crossing cover art aside (It's nae moving, but it fucking is), it's exactly what you'd expect from these perennial, Baltimore-born boundary pushers: A micro-cosmic conflate of wobbling electronics snared by harpsichordal Wilson-stitched harmonies and skeletal folk ricochets.

But far from an extension of 2007's much-lauded Strawberry Jam, MPP seems more attuned to the cloud-bursting dreamscapes of Panda Bear's majestic Person Pitch. The shimmering, cherryade sonics imbued within on-the-spot jogger Brother Sport and the equally frantic My Girls may not mark a Tardis-like rejuvenation in either scope or scale but they're unavoidably Animal Collective and, with that, they're undeniably mesmerising.

A wealth of ethereal, space-aged cuts peppers the inner core of this openly exploratory affair. Summertime Clothes' slew of key and chorus spiral giddily into the cosmos before crossing more intricate constellations in Daily Routine's mesh of rhythmic synth-bending; and such star-twinkling pathways continue to be hopped, skipped and pirouetted throughout the record's remaining numbers.

So far, so Animal Collective.

Yet, MPP displays a side that’s long been embellished under layers of gauzy instrumentation and muffled, tin-pot vocals: a cohesive, linear narrative that reeks of affection. Bluish, a hopeless, habitual love song that’s engrossed in childish desire, is the kind of tear-duct moistening lament that's oceanic in melodic depth, while No More Runnin’ and Taste are textured in such creamy, heart-cooing splendour it feels almost intrusive to wade through their deeply welled, emotional mires.

For those requiring the less expressive edifices of yore, a familiar sense of derangement eventually emerges in the Lion In A Coma’s pulsing tribal fizz. But even in this chasm of android chimes and scattershot percussion, wary lugholes retain a periscope-like tautness in anticipation of the soul-plucking ambuscade destined to follow. But, like the teasing chanteuse of an album MPP is, it never comes.

See, such playful, esoteric card-shuffling is what renders this record - and, ultimately, this group - a truly unique proposition. A rich, multi-layered amalgamation of the band's past, MPP captures the cascading feints of their less-celebrated roots and cloys them together with Strawberry Jam's pyrotechnic showers, producing an instantaneous and exhilarating imprint of Animal Collective in the here and now.

God only knows where they go from here.

First published here

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Skinny's Ones To Watch in 2009

Last year our scribes foretold glories for the likes of Frightened Rabbit, Yeasayer, MGMT and the now omnipresent Noah & The Whale and, by Jaga's beard, were we right. But, rather than patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we’ve come up with another batch of acts upon whom we’ll put our house. So, infused with more buzz than a crack addict in a beehive, these are ten of our ones to watch in 2009...

Crystal Antlers are more than a wee bit special. The Californian quintet’s debut EP is a cranium-compressing bruiser: skewering brutal guitars with whip-cracking drum thunderstorms to create a cacophonous frenzy of amp-blowing sound. As ravaging as this will no doubt be to hair-flicking indie hipsters, droplets of prog and classic rock can be found slithering between the sheets of every rambunctious number. And that's what makes Crystal Antlers such a pant-pissing proposition: by having one foot in what was proven righteous in the past they're about to catapult straight into the future.

Exalting colourful yarns of banana slugs and dinosaurs with seagulls’ wings, High Places' lyrical content bears more than passing resemblance to a Roald Dahl novel. But underneath the Brooklyn duo's quirky, childish disposition lies an ocean-sized penchant for lucid melodies, woven into a tapestry of highly strung calypso and jovial, swooshing synths. The sublime collection of EPs 03/07 – 09/07 first brought the pair to the Skinny's attention and the release of their luscious debut LP coupled with a hectic continent-hopping touring schedule will have this phosphorescent ensemble bending its way into your imagination soon.

Joe Gideon and the Shark are the kind of band your mother warned you about. With scuzzed-up guitars leering over nihilistic pummels of drum, theirs is the sound of writhing rustic blues. To call this 'electrifying' would do little to convey the surging energy created by this London based brother-sister duo whose debut longplayer is set to embed itself within the nation’s ear-sockets early this year. Think the Archie Bronson Outfit muzzled by Mark E Smith’s flaming growl: there’s absolutely no doubt about it – you need Joe Gideon and the Shark in your life this year.

Math Rock may have slipped from the pickled brainboxes of de rigueur-happy aficionados but Maps and Atlases are far from Foals-mimicking rehashonistas. Nestling between the algorhythmic rush of Cap’N Jazz and Battles' more inclusive moments, this fresh-faced Chicago quartet have already whetted palates with a brace of mindblowing EPs in Trees, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s melodically serrated You & Me & The Mountain. Armed to the gnashers with barraging, algebraic percussion and spasmodic guitar taps, 2009 should finally be the year this band not only pins itself on your map but the whole damn globe.

2008 saw Edinburgh’s musical subculture rise with a boldness not seen since the halcyon days of Josef K and the Fire Engines. And sitting proudly atop Auld Reekie’s perch of creativity is the alchemistic sonics of local quartet Meursault. A schizophrenic ogre of heart-pounding acoustic folk and shuddering synth, the ensemble’s debut longplayer Pissing On Bonfires/Kissing With Tongues – our album of the month last December – plundered lugholes with vehement surges of electronica before soothing the mind with lilting strums and frontman Neil Pennycook’s reassuring crow. Already a favourite amongst the central belt’s more tuned-in dilettantes, Meursault look set to venture out onto more luscious pastures over the next 12 months.

In almost every sense Over The Wall are a typical Glasgow band. The duo of Ben Hillman And Gav Prentice makes charming, minutiae-detailing paeans that bleed twee pop sensibility while stoking the fires of transient electronica. Really, the only noticeable difference between this pair of west coast wannabes and many of their hometown adversaries is this: they’re good. Very fucking good. Without pretence or sneer, the captivating ensemble have built up a devoted following on the back of ditties like the impeccable Thurso and equally elegiac A Grand Defeat. Having recently made a successful play for the nation’s airwaves, these lads should this year prove just how untypical a 'Glasgow band' they can be.

Passion Pit ain’t exactly a band for all seasons. Toploaded with handclaps and synths, the Massachusetts-based quintet’s debut EP Chunk Of Change was built with one thing in mind: sunshine – and plenty of it. A firm sense of Hot Chip’s retro-tronica resonates throughout their gush-heavy reveries but below this floor-filling core is the good time pop sensibility of Phoenix and The Sleepy Jackson. Despite having only a handful of gigs under their belts, the group’s disco melodics and cuddling hooks have already wormholed their way through the blogosphere and with Frenchkiss Records spurring them on, this lot will bedazzle you with sunshine long before the summer does.

The hushed reverence of Rob St John is a sound to behold. The Edinburgh based troubadour’s cerebral tones and stupefying sense of atmosphere is always breathtaking, and at best the purpose of adjoining strum and voice as one. Tingling neck-hairs with his slow-handed brilliance, St John’s knack for a tune is similar to local luminary James Yorkston, but there’s enough autumnal despair in his finger-plucked trinkets to suggest Messrs Drake and Buckley have had a hand in developing his wispy, evocative laments. Either way, Rob St John’s a remarkable, uncut diamond soon to be dug up.

A rip-roaring stomp of indie-pop, Sky Larkin teetered on the brink of a crossover last year. With more gazump than Los Campesinos! and less whine than Johnny Foreigner, the Leeds-born trio seem perfectly poised to make that final step when their debut long-player is released through Wichita in the coming months. With hooks aplenty and the bolshie tones of Katie Harkin at the helm the group’s live shows have become a must-see spectacle of raucous, virulent energy, and if they can muster up a record half as exhilarating then the world is theirs for the taking.

Blessed with the most inspired moniker since Lesbian Dopeheads On Mopeds, We Were Promised Jetpacks have established themselves as firm favourites in these quarters. Now signed to the mighty Fat Cat Records via a nudge and a wink from Glasgow brethren Frightened Rabbit, the four piece wear the badge of Franz inspired indie-pop-pickery with brazen aplomb. Bulging with infectious riffage that rushes into you like a two minute knee-trembler round the back of the bikesheds, WWPJ have both the cheek and charm to launch beyond the stars in 2009.

First published here