Wednesday, 14 January 2009

INTERVIEW: Rob St John

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...

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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 of....like 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