Charlie Clark

CLARKLIVE

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.

Don’t Let Me Down                      Grateful

 

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Kevin MacNeil and Willie Campbell Are Visible From Space

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…”

Thor