I’ve spent a good deal of time listening to your voice on ‘Colombian Fireworks’. I think I replayed that opening track such a disproportionate amount of time that it seriously delayed my appreciation of the rest of the record. How did that come about and how did you convince them to make it the lead track?
“I really like what There Will Be Fireworks did with ‘Colombian Fireworks’. It came about because we happened to meet at a gig and they subsequently emailed and asked if I would write something for them. They’re great musicians and I was happy to create a new piece of work for them. I was living in Shetland at the time and my brother came to visit and recorded my voice. I deliberately wrote about fireworks to chime with the band name. I visited Colombia a few years ago and mentally absorbed something of the colours and beauties of Medellin. I wasn’t involved in the recording or track listing or anything like that, but I do think it makes for a great album opener. I like music with real intensity and TWBF certainly have that.”
It was a ‘There Will be Fireworks’ FB recommendation that pointed me to this project. Already predisposed to purchasing without hearing a note of it, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that William Campbell was the voice of ‘Astrid’. How did the partnership with Mr. Campbell come to be? Have you had the pleasure of hearing something from the new TWBF album? If so – do tell.
“I’ve known Willie for a long time – we were raised on the same Hebridean island, the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland. And I was a huge fan of Astrid. Their first and third albums, in particular, are classics. I remember one time my friends and I hired a car and went on a road trip from the Outer Hebrides to Glasgow just to see them play. We were fans, as well friends, of theirs. And I still think that they would have been really, really successful if they’d only had a lucky break or two.
Anyway, Astrid and I talked about collaborating on a song but then I moved to Sweden and Astrid imploded so that never happened. Fast-forward a year or two and Willie and I were both living back on Lewis and we decided to work together. From the first time we sat down together, we were surprised how well we gelled. I had some words, he had some music and they fitted together like fate’s own jigsaw! The song that came out of that first afternoon of working together was ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’. And so a few weeks later it was released as a vinyl single by Fantastic Plastic! What’s really great is that our personal chemistry – we get on very well as people – translates into great professional chemistry. We respect and trust each other and we don’t have huge egos so we can have a laugh at ourselves, too.
As for TWBF, no, I haven’t heard their new album. They should send me one since I never got paid for ‘Colombian Fireworks’ 😉 I imagine the new album will be superb.”
It is a bit early to ask considering ‘Kevin MacNeil And Willie Campbell Are Visible From Space’ just came out, but are you sufficiently pleased with the experience, result and reception to do this again?
“We’re both very pleased with the album. The critical reaction seems to be gaining momentum all the time, which is very gratifying. We’ve done various gigs over the years – at book festivals as well as music festivals, which is kinda cool. Also, the BBC recently made a tv documentary about Willie and that has boosted his profile. I imagine we will do more music together, yes. I think we might get a video done for ‘Christmas Ghosts’ and release that as a Christmas single – one that’s considerably darker than the average Christmas single!”
What are some your favourite current Scottish bands? Has anything come out recently (in the past year or two) that has really caught your attention?
“Around Stornoway and the Isle of Lewis there is a music scene which is amazing and which I think of as a low-key version of what was happening in Seattle in the 90s. An explosion of talent. I could list a dozen superb bands from the island. I think Astrid’s success – signing to a cool record label, making a living from music – inspired a lot of teenagers in Lewis to pick up a guitar or some drumsticks and hone their talents. And with the honed talent came self-belief and, sometimes, success. I’m thinking of, for example, Colin MacLeod (aka The Boy Who Trapped the Sun), DotJR and others. Willie’s band The Open Day Rotation do rare but unforgettable gigs. My brother’s band, Brawth, are fantastic live, too, as are my pals the Murderers of Love. As for Scottish bands who aren’t connected to the islands, Gareth from Idlewild (and who used to be in Astrid) took me to a gig by The Twilight Sad that blew me away.”
Coincidentally, the CD and a copy of ‘The Stornoway Way’ arrived on the same day. I listened to the record three times before starting the novel. When I got to the poem from which ‘Every Month’ was apparently derived the day’s experience came full circle. Do all the songs stem from poetry already written?
“I think ‘Every Month’ is the only one that relates to a novel I wrote. Willie liked the words to it and it turned into one of my favourite songs because of how powerful and poignant his chorus is. The ‘Gaelic Song’ developed from a poem in my first book (‘Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides’) and musically relates to a play I wrote and for which we commissioned Willie to compose a soundtrack. ‘Corneal Graft’ is about an eye disease I have and was originally commissioned for the 500th anniversary of a college of surgeons. Tracks such as ‘Into the Next World’ and ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’ were written specifically for us to record and perform together. I think the track listing gives the album an overall coherence that’s really important.”
I recently obtained Withered Hand’s Good News (rather late to the dance) and while taking the record from the sleeve, I began looking over the lyrics. They were so exceptional that I ended up reading them all before putting the needle down. When the same words were ‘heard’ with music the effect wasn’t quite as powerful as I anticipated they would be. Their power seemed to be diffused somehow or, perhaps more accurately, the music that I imagined would go with them was understandably different. On your record, the alternating spoken word (verse) and Willie Campbell’s singing (chorus) is extremely moving and effective. Was there a typical process for writing the songs or a philosophy behind them?
“No, we just do our best. We’re lucky, and we don’t take it for granted, that the words and music seem to fit together in a very natural, organic way.”
People, perhaps understandably, seem to primarily focus on your poetry and literature. What prompted you to first combine poetry with music?
“Maybe I’m a frustrated rock star! I suppose I get a little distraught when I hear songs with the same old unoriginal lyrics, one cliche clunking into another. If you’re going to go to all that bother of writing some wonderful music, why not give the lyrics a little depth and meaning, too? That way, you’re giving your audience more respect.”
This record has apparently been a long time in the making. Was the ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’ single the first collaboration? What are the most recent tracks? Are there songs that didn’t make it on the record?
“Yes, ‘Local Man Ruins Everything’ was the first song we wrote together. The most recent tracks are ‘Into the Next World’ and ‘Kingdom’, which I had never heard prior to the live performance on the album – a performance I didn’t know was being recorded. The chat at the beginning of the song is genuine and makes me smile. We were playing a gig in our hometown and hadn’t rehearsed this song. I’d never heard it before. I went to the gym before our gig and was late in arriving at the venue. So Willie called me onstage at the end of the night, and I just read the words on a page someone handed to me. You can hear me make a mistake, talking over Willie. That’s fine, though – it’s very natural. We didn’t want to make a robotic, overly polished album and that’s especially true of the two live tracks.”
Glass half full or half empty, or just a glass where half the contents have been consumed and the other half remains?
“Yep – it is what it is and to see it otherwise a delusion.”.
Musically, I’ve been drawn to Edinburgh this past year. I’ve begun reading some Rankin and my wife’s Macall Smith books to obtain little more local flavour. I just ordered ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’ and am looking forward to seeing Edinburgh through a different set of eyes. What is the Scottish equivalent of anglophile? (There must be a joke in there). Could you recommend some contemporary Scottish literature that gives a sense of place?
” As with music, there are very many talented writers in Scotland. Edinburgh’s Laura Hird writes with a delicious dark humour, so I’d highly recommend her novel ‘Born Free’. Shetlander Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Haapie Land’ is an epic and rewarding read. Likewise James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’. I could sit here recommending Scottish books all day!”
I just reacquainted myself with the music of Iain Morrison. I do have some ‘Crash My Model Car’ in the itunes folder, but didn’t make the connection at the first. There is the isle of Lewis again. The video for the new single ‘Homeward’ seems evening more heart wrenching having just read Stornoway. Are you aware of, and able to recommend, other musical artists specifically from the isles?
“Iain Morrison is very talented. I loved Crash My Model car – their gigs were so impassioned and energetic. There are a few bands making traditional music as well as the more contemporary guitar-orientated bands.”
My poetry set to music collection is limited to Patrick Jones and Kevin Gilday. Are you familair with them? Could you point the way to anyone else?
“I think there are a few more bands doing this now than there were when we set out, so maybe more people are placing greater value on the words they marry with the music. Something that inspired me was a CD I have of Jack Kerouac reading various poems to improvised jazz. Kerouac revered the musicians he worked with but they hadn’t even heard of him, which ultimately left him sitting in the studio on his own crying. Poor Kerouac!”
I did not realize that Astrid recorded a third album. How is it?
“Ah, Astrid’s mysterious third album. It was only released in Japan and Spain. There is a song on it called ‘Seahorse Perfect’ which Willie wrote (he took the title from a poem of mine) and which must be one of the highlights of Astrid’s career. It’s a stunning track. A few of my friends reckon this album ‘One in Four’ is their best. I have a soft spot for ‘Strange Weather Lately’, their first album, as it is so happy and innocent sounding. ‘Distance’ is a perfect pop song.
A Fish Called Rwanda? Truthfully? If you had to come up with another band name what would it be?
“A Fish Called Rwanda was just a bad joke I made somewhere. We called this album Kevin MacNeil and Willie Campbell Are Visible From Space because we were going to call ourselves Visible From Space from the next album onwards. But I heard there’s already a band called that so we’ll need to come up with something else, or stick to our own names…”