I’m listening to a copy of ‘Strange Weather Lately’ that just arrived. This original late 1999 shrink-wrapped CD still had the promotional sticker attached. According to Melody Maker it is “stuffed full of infectious songs, utterly ace.” ‘Play Dead’ was the first Astrid record I bought when it came out. It ended up being played quite a lot, but I never dug deeper than the band name. Only last year did I learn, not quite correctly, that Willie Campbell was the lead vocalist. While listening to your previous EP ‘Carve a Horse’, I was constantly thinking how familiar the voice sounded. Only after the first full listen did I read about your own founding role in band. I still have not been able to find ‘Play Dead’, temporarily misplaced, to help me untangle my confusion about who is singing when. How were the vocal duties generally split between you and the rest of the band?
“I sang lead on ‘Stop’, ‘Standing in Line’ and ‘High in the Morning’ and Willie and I shared lead vocals on a lot of the songs like ‘Dusty’ and ‘Boy or Girl’.”
I would take a song to the table as would Willie Campbell and Gary Thom then all four of us would put it together, but generally speaking you would sing your own song. Gary Thom was a really important part of how that band got it’s sound. Gary wrote ‘Zoo’ which is still my favourite on that album.”
Digging a little deeper online, I found ‘Our Lunar Activities’ which I had missed altogether. It certainly would have found a way into my collection if I had been aware of it. Is OLA finished or just on a long hiatus? The internet, by not being overly helpful, suggests that the full length was never completed, is that the case?
“OLA is very much done, we split in 2009. The album was finished but never released. I really liked the stuff we started writing together at the end of the band, but I really don’t care for the songs I wrote for the album. I was a little crazy when I wrote them.”
The EP that lead to my ‘re-discovery’ was recorded later at Wee studios on the Isle of Lewis. Could you explain the bandcamp tag of ‘Kundalini folk’?
I recorded ‘Carve A Horse’ with Keith Morrison at Wee Studio in Stornoway just before I moved. When I first moved out to Los Angeles a friend of mine asked me to write a song about a close friend she had just lost. We worked together on the song and as payment she gave me a pass to a Yoga studio in LA, which I was very dubious about at first but went regardless. The type of Yoga is Kundalini Yoga and it has now become huge part of my life and daily routine. Turns out it’s more than just a workout. Without sounding too much like a hippie the tag is about emotional energy.”
What prompted the move to Los Angeles?
“I married an Angeleno!”
As I just recently also found out, Francis Reader happens to be in LA as well. What Trashcan Sinatras‘ song would you consider doing as a cover?
“It’s weird, I supported TCS before when I played in The Zephyrs and I put them on once before at a night I used to run in Glasgow but was never really familiar with their music, for no other reason than just not being familiar with it. Is that blasphemy?”
I just read that the new EP will also be available on 10 inch vinyl. I’m delighted to see that even though it forces me to think of another question. How did you decide to split the 5 songs between sides A and B?
“That was actually kind of tough so I asked Eric McCann who produced the album to decide and his choice matched my first choice so it felt right and we just went with it. It seemed to work well in that order.”
It was very kind of you to let me have a peek at the new video for ‘Sunken Ships’ before the premiere. I can’t quite make out the cross streets – where was it filmed? Although the lyrics are not cryptic, would you be so good as to relate the story behind the song?
“Thank you and you’re welcome. It was filmed in Historic Filipino town where I live in LA. Sunken Ships is a bittersweet love song about my time in Glasgow. I love that city but also had some very difficult times there as well. I wanted the lyrics to be clear and simplistic. That city and everything about it still inspires me to this day, the people, music, art and film.”
In terms of instrumentation there is a little more ‘Americana’ on the new EP ‘Feel Something‘. Did that come about from your local collaborations?
“It did. I had been making music with Yohei Shikano for several months before I recorded ‘Feel Something’ and he introduced me to playing bluegrass style so I really opened up to idea of instrumentation possibilities. I’m such a huge fan of 90’s Lo-Fi Americana and Scottish Indie Folk anyway that it felt very natural. I started playing more mandolin and harmonium and singing really tight harmonies, which is the thing I love to do the most.”
I would be criminal of me not to ask about your co-vocalist. The harmonies on the first track ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ are exceptional. That the vocal pairing consistently continues throughout the rest of the record caught me by surprise. It sounds natural and is emotionally affecting. Your voices get along very well together. I’m sure you would be the first to admit the possibility of even being upstaged. How did the collaboration come about?
“Brandi Emma is without question the most talented vocalist I have worked with yet so it was clear to me when she recorded her parts for the album that she kicked my butt in the studio! These are 5 very personal songs to me hence the solo record but I can say the following, to me this record IS a collaboration with all the musicians who played, because they’re all incredible at what they each do. Each of them helped shaped the sound of the record absolutely, especially Brandi. We have a new album that we have written together in the works with Eric McCann and we hope to get started on that when we’re done promoting ‘Feel Something’. I don’t know what we’re going to call it yet.”
The title track ‘Feel Something’ sounds like what a world weary Astrid might sound like today. The entire song, including the guitar chorus, is melancholic confection. Where was the EP recorded? What was the experience like?
“Thank you. I recorded the EP at Eric McCann’s other bands (A House For Lions) rehearsal space in Santa Monica. It was really focused. Eric sat me down in front of a mic late one night in September and said play me the songs and I did. I played them all on an acoustic guitar and sang live that night. We built everything up from that and in fact kept the guide vocals on Three Sheets and all the guitars on the other tracks. We didn’t waste a minute in the studio but it was very relaxed. We had all the parts written for everyone except Yohei so they came in and did their thing, had a cup of tea and then off they went! Yohei is such a creative man you just have to let him do his thing. Anything weird you hear on the record, that’s Mr Shikano. His band ‘My Hawaii’ are totally amazing and original.”
The track ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’, at least in the beginning, is just you and your guitar. (the armchair producer in me was expecting that to continue throughout the entire song) When did you first start playing? What is your current favourite guitar?
“I first started playing seriously when I was 10 or 11 but switched to bass until I started Astrid. We were a 3 piece before Willie joined, so I was on bass and Gareth was on guitar in the beginning. I love Martin Guitars and always have. I currently just own one which is about 3 years old, a toddler! I think it’s a DM.”
The song title is an interesting idiom –apparently an odd number of sheets are not very seaworthy. Have you amused your friends with Scottish turns of phrase?
“My friends really do take the piss out of my Island Twang and my little sayings! I had to take another job through Xmas and ended up at the cash desk at a rather large bookstore chain and guaranteed every other customer would ask if I was Irish or do an impersonation of a Leprechaun or something equally vulgar so I’m immune to it now and I’m really surprised I was never fired.”
‘Sunken Ships’ doesn’t actually sound so short when listening to the record as a whole and the last track ‘Grateful’ might just have the best vocal pairing yet; almost dovetailing as if a single voice. At this point in time, what are you most grateful of?
“My wife and my family.”
I’d love it if you could share a Reindeer Section anecdote or two.
“The only time I’ve ever toured Japan in my life was with The Reindeer Section. All four members of Astrid went on the trip. I swear I was on a blackout for 5 days, we started drinking at the airport and I lost it altogether drinking on the plane. We were doing the Summer Sonic Festival in Tokyo and Japan and all I really remember about that trip is Gwen Stefani making a fry up, completely freaking out the cellist of Mum and coming round in a Toys R Us with Aidan Moffat and a shopping trolley full of Star Wars figures. This is one of the many reasons I quit drinking. I can joke about it now, but I never want go back in that capacity.”
I was just thinking what a fantastic full length the last two EPs, alternating a track from each, would have made. Are there any plans to put one out in the future or does it currently just make more sense to do another EP? I’m questioning my own incessant desire for a band to release one. It struck me while listening to the music that it doesn’t even seem necessary. As a fan, I’d be perfectly happy either way.
“I am just going to continue with 5 track records but hope to release a couple every year in an ideal situation. It’s realistic and cost effective to me. I even feel like I don’t have the attention span for a full length record anymore. It’s funny how technology has altered that concept in my mind.”
What ‘Scottish’ records have you picked up of late? Have you recently caught anyone’s show in LA?
“I love the new Fake Major record and love everything that Dan Wilson (Withered Hand) does. In the last 2 years, I’ve seen Mogwai, B&S, Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines, The Rabbit and a few others out here.”
Did Isobel Campbell just happen to be in town?
“Isobel played cello on Three Sheets and was about when we were recording. It’s always awesome hanging out with Isobel.”
The release date is now on April 29th and you’ve mentioned the possibility of shows in Scotland. Do you have a ‘local’ release show set up yet? Have you played in SF before and is it likely you’ll make it up here this year?
“I hope to come home sometime soon for a tour but am still putting it together myself and every time I look at the costs, I have to go do the Yoga thing! All the shows I do have to make sense and I want to tour with my band. I haven’t played SF yet but hope to make it up before the year is out.”
Who do I need to bribe to get a hold of that fabled 3rd Astrid album? – It could be arranged.
“You know what, I don’t even have it. There are 2 versions, Japan and Spain. I gave both of mine away because I’m an idiot. I’ll ask Willie for it and send you it my good man!”
Thor (sometimes it pays to just ask)
Here are live versions for the lead and closing tracks from ‘Feel Something’. Perhaps a little more melancholic, but still utterly ace.