THE singer-songwriter Kenny Anderson records his beguiling songs under the moniker King Creosote. The name captures the tone of his albums, which blend the ordinary and down-to-earth with the ethereal.
Anderson was born in 1967 and has lived most of his life in the East Neuk of Fife. He currently lives in Crail. His musical style has been influenced by the sounds of the sea and the bustle and clatter of harbour life. He has long played the accordion, that most seaworthy of instruments.
Anderson has a fierce work ethic. He has recorded over fifty albums, but much of his music is difficult to find. There is a reason for this. He has never liked to court the music industry. He is a stoic, independent person and uncompromising when it comes to his art. One of his albums is appositely entitled Rocket D.I.Y, which gives a sense of his attitude to life. When he was 27 he started Fence, his own record label, which soon morphed into an artist collective. In the last twenty years Fife has had a reputation as the well-spring of great contemporary Scottish music. Artists such as James Yorkston, The Beta Band and K.T. Tunstall have all found their voice and thrived in this corner of Scotland. Anderson has been a central force in maintaining the health of this musical community.
In the last five years Anderson has produced some entrancing and unique records. In 2011 he released Diamond Mine, a collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Jon Hopkins, who brought his own musical style ñ electronica ñ to bear on Anderson’s folk-pop sound. The album was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize. In 2014 he composed the soundtrack to the documentary From Scotland with Love (directed by Virginia Heath), which uses footage from numerous archives to reflect on the lives of Scottish people in the twentieth century. Anderson’s latest album has an enigmatic title, Astronaut Meets Appleman. It bears his trademark idiosyncrasies and experimentation. If the album has a theme, it is the tension between technology and tradition. The music is loose yet elegant. It retains a Scottish sound, with the use of accordion and bagpipes, but never cleaves to one tradition. The lyrics suggest the duality at the core of Anderson: an authenticity and directness tinged with wry, self-effacing humour.
Nick Major met Anderson in a café overlooking the harbour in Anstruther, four miles west of Crail. In the bay boats swayed and clanged under the swell and heave of the Forth. A sharp easterly wind blew across the town. In the café, the friendly banter of customers filled the air. Every so often the bracing smell of shore wrack came drifting through the doorway. Anderson was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. His beard was peppered with grey and neatly trimmed, and he wore a wool hat throughout the interview. A quick talker, he recalled situations and events in his life with a colourful precision.
Scottish Review of Books: When I was outside, the sounds from the café reminded me of the beginning of Diamond Mine.
Kenny Anderson: I was just thinking that this very minute. Jon Hopkins and I were sitting out there at a table on a beautiful spring day in 2010. He’d come up from London for a week to collect some everyday Fife sounds. He had a digital recorder hidden inside his coat pocket. I don’t know what technology they have in these microphones but the clarity is unbelievable. He managed to record our entire conversation ñ including the dulcet tones of the Coast Coffee waitresses ñ without the rest of us being any the wiser.
Does he do that often?
Not really. Thinking back to that album, we didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but at that time we were getting near the end of a seven-year recording project that had begun in 2004. By May 2012 we were definitely heading towards making a themed album. Jon thought it should sound like the soundtrack to a life spent in a Fife fishing village. The oldest song we’d recorded from my back catalogue was written in 1988 -‘Your Own Spell,’ which I wrote at university ñ and I was adamant that the newest song on the record would be bang up-to-date. In 2009 I had a year off drinking alcohol and Hopkins got it into his head that I was singing better because of it, and that I should record and re-record all the vocals right then. I turned up in East London with my songbook boasting a half-finished song called ‘Bats in the Attic’. Although it lacked a chorus, it name-checks Kilrenny, and together with ‘John Taylor’s Month Away’ it definitely helps root the album in the East Neuk. It was a good idea to capture that spring day here in Anstruther. The finished record is like a zip-up bag that contains a Fifer’s twenty-one years of song.
You grew up a few miles down the coast, in Crail?
I grew up in St. Andrews. My mum’s family is from Crail. My dad’s a musician, from inland Fife, and every other year he would disappear for weeks to play a summer season in exotic places like Inverness, and so, for my mum to keep her sanity, I would be sent to my gran’s in Crail for a holiday. I actually spent very little time in Crail, preferring to cycle there and back on a summer’s evening, but when I was at gran’s the week stretched to eternity, and most of it was spent on the beach. She had a television, but she didn’t have a bathroom, and her kitchen was in a tiny turret ñ just enough space for a cooker. All my schooling took place in St. Andrews but I went to university in Edinburgh, then busked my way around Europe for a couple of years, and although I’ve never gone back to live in St. Andrews I’ve always stayed within a ten-mile radius of the town. There are various reasons for that.
What are they?
When I left school I found a summer job in the St. Andrews’ Woollen Mill. The bosses Raymond and Bob Phillip were very generous and cut me a lot of slack, and I worked part time with them right up until the Mill closed in 1999. I realized the life of a musician was definitely better suited to a countryside cottage existence where the rent is less than half of the town rents. My brother got quite ill in 1993 and the family hunkered down together until well after he was on the mend, and that was that.
Living next to the sea has influenced your songs. Are there other ways that Fife has shaped your work?
North East Fife is fairly small. In fact, with Panama in mind, a stogie-sized canal from the Tay to the Forth would make Fife into an island not much bigger than Mull but without the clouds of midges. There are plenty of very diverse towns and villages throughout the Kingdom, but most of them are hidden between trees and behind rolling hills. It’s ideal for someone like me who likes the feeling of solitude and open space in the secure knowledge that a small civilization is right there on the next doorstep. St. Andrews is a university town in winter and a tourist trap in summer, attracting all walks of life, but in music circles there doesn’t seem to be the competition that you find in the cities, meaning you can be left largely alone to make your own entertainment. The people here are very down-to-earth, and there still exists a very old world, no-nonsense wisdom about the place, qualities I’m inspired by even if I can’t measure up to them myself. I very much fit the place, but then I am short.
Did you play music as a child?
My dad’s an accordion player so it fell on my shoulders as the eldest to carry on the family tradition. It’s a hard instrument to play ñ both your hands are doing two very different things, and although you can’t see your left hand you still have to work the bellows with the left wrist. I didn’t like most of the traditional music my dad was trying to foist upon me. I’d veer towards the slower, mellow tunes and he would always say: ‘why are you always playing these tunes in minor keys, they’re so doleful?’ My tears were all born of frustration.
He played traditional Scottish country music?
Yeah, he’s always had a Scottish dance band. He avoids the word ‘ceilidh’ but he’s played at plenty of them. I’m loathe to describe him as an all-round entertainer but he has that quality in him. One of the highlights of his musical career was when he took a big travelling Scottish show to the States in ’75 and ’78. It was called Scotland on Parade. In addition to his own six-piece band there was a dancing troupe of eight or more dancers, a pipe band, a couple of singers and a compere or comedian. It was almost like the White Heather Club of old. Thinking back to my time with Jon Hopkins, we got the chance within the Diamond Mine bubble to go to the US. Sonically, Diamond Mine was quite a different record for both of us, having neither the dance beats of Jon’s music nor the immediate and simple song structures of KC records. It was an album that demanded concentration. We didn’t want to play empty cavernous venues so we set a few conditions, the first being that there weren’t too many tour dates. Jon wanted to keep the shows special, and we asked to play venues with a capacity of one hundred or less. The label thought we were underselling ourselves. We ended up playing eight gigs to an average of only fifty people each night. The quietest gig was in Minneapolis. There were eight people in the audience ñ two of them were at the wrong show entirely, and four of them had driven eight hours to see us.
While I was away my dad was always asking, ‘where are ye, where are ye?’ And I’d say, ‘oh, we’re in Philadelphia.’ ‘Ah’ve been thereÖwhere are ye, where are ye?’ ‘Oh, we’re heading back to Chicago.’ ‘Ah’ve been there’. When we got back I finally asked about his tours in the 70s. They toured for three months straight, played every state except Hawaii and Alaska, and travelled on a Greyhound bus. I asked him what sort of venues he played. ‘I wouldn’t say they were huge,’ he said, ‘mibbe two or three thousand [capacity]. You know, there were plenty of full seats.’ ‘Every night for three months?’ ‘Oh no, we got the odd day off.’
They sold out of merchandise every night and had to order copies of their LP to be manufactured three cities ahead. I said, ‘So Dad, remember when you came back from that tour and instantly gave up your day job, and opened a record shop, and bought that Lada Estate, it was all on the back of that tour wasn’t it?’ ‘Oh aye’. So there was me and Hopkins having just struggled around the US on this soul-destroying, money-losing tour. Remember, this was all off the back of a Mercury nomination, we were on National Public Radio and had racked up pages and pages of digital over-promotion. And there was my dad going over there in the 1970s as a complete unknown. I said, ‘Dad, I think we should stop comparing our lives.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but ah’ve never had a record contract or written any songs.’ Proper Fifers.
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Until my sister asked for a record player there was never music on in the house. I know my dad had a tape deck but that was for his job as a radio DJ. He worked with music, but I don’t think he really listened to it in the same way I did. He always claims he prefers The Stones to The Beatles, but there’s no physical evidence of that. I would only ever hear this magical stuff coming from car radios or blaring out of the odd workie van, and it was only aged twelve or thirteen when I realized there were five record shops in town.
At that time ñ in the late 1970s ñ my dad started to push me into playing these live shows alongside him in St. Andrews. I would play accordion and my sister would dance. They were only five-minute slots, a couple of times a night. I had to get dressed up and hang around the hotel lobby for three hours, but it earned me a tenner a night. It was tip-based so sometimes I’d get £15 for playing a total of six tunes. My pals were getting £3.50 a week for a milk round. So I started buying music.
The shop I liked in St. Andrews was Tracks. It was an independent and I had to order what I wanted and wait for weeks, but I loved that sense of anticipation. I would listen to the chart shows on a Sunday night, and I would have a sneaky read of reviews in the music magazines in John Menzies. Then I would buy 12-inch singles and when the album came out I’d buy the cassette version. I monopolized my dad’s cassette player. This one had Dolby sound and input faders, so my mix tapes became a work of art.
My music taste varied. I was into old electro: Simple Minds around the era of ‘Love Song’ and ‘I Travel’. I dimly remember being warned to stay clear of the St. Andrews’ punks ñ they looked brutal. They shoved pins through their ears and wore bondage trousers. They were a real alien invasion. But I missed all of that era and got into Mod and Ska. I went to university in 1985 and was listening to Scottish bands like Win, who I think became Nectarine No.9, The Bluebells, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Hearing Dexys Midnight Runners’ ‘Come On Eileen’ made me think I hadn’t been totally wasting my time learning the accordion, but still I rejected the instrument, and in university I bought sequencers, samplers and a 4-track to record on. My earliest endeavours in song-writing were drum-machine, sequencer-based. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I tried to learn the acoustic guitar.
King Creosote: ‘Nobody was listening to or buying my music, so I did whatever I liked.’
Were those early recordings just instrumental, or were you writing lyrics?
Music and lyrics together. I was still eighteen when a friend of mine from school got in touch in Edinburgh and asked if I wanted to play music with him. On that first evening, he had a verse of a song and I wrote a chorus for it. I was hooked. I loved the sense of achievement. I had picked a science-based degree only because I found maths easy and had no idea what I wanted to do, but the experience of writing and performing a song was a flash of inspiration. It was one of the few times I had found something creative that gave me this feeling of absolute joy.
Did you know then that you could earn money from songwriting?
Not at all. It was just a diversion. I was almost a loner, or certainly somebody who chose when to be sociable, but I loved that I could get on with something on my own and create these other worlds. I met my first girlfriend in summer 1985 and I started writing a diary because she wrote diaries. I think the songwriting and the diary writing arrived at the same time. My diaries were written as if somebody was reading them over my shoulder, so I think my song writing was the flipside of all that shy and introverted writing. I could create this exaggerated, and sometimes truer, sense of myself in song.
Do your diaries inform your song writing?
My brother Gordon writes songs and he’s a great painter. He once told me he could go over every square inch of a painting and know what he was thinking about at that particular time. If I look back at my diary in 1986, I don’t have a visual picture of that day. But if I hear the songs that were written, I suddenly have a memory of what the flat smelt like and I can even picture what the sunlight was like on Arden Street. There’s the playful side of songs too, though. You can be whoever you want to be and take on opinions that aren’t your own. The diaries are pretty factual and dull, so if they do inform my songwriting it’s no more than the scenery behind the play. My songwriting, and the performance of my songs, has more likely informed my diary writing.
Can you talk about the process of writing a song? If we take, for example, ‘Betelgeuse’ from Astronaut Meets Appleman.
The songs that work best in my canon are lyric-led. Often a lyric arrives fully formed ñ all wheat with no chaff. Then there are some songs where the subject matter is coloured by the juxtaposition of two sometimes quite abstract words. One word will suggest the next all the way to the end. Other songs need a lot more work. I am always striving to create an elegant lyric. So this is the process: the idea arrives, I go through it a few times until the lyrics are nearly done, then I use my guitar to forge it into something approaching a song. As a memory aid I’ll record it on my Dictaphone or my Blackberry and only at that point is a song good enough to be written into my songbook. Then I’ll record it on my 8-track with proper mics, adding keyboards and accordions etc., and that’s where the song is really formed. My entire Fence back catalogue comes from my 8-track recordings. Once I have recorded songs on there I know which ones are worth pursuing with a band, and it is these that are re-recorded for the ‘bigger’ albums released by Domino.
‘Betelgeuse’ is a great example because the very first version is right there on the record, and it is this song that best fits the album title. In April 2015 I recorded two verses and a chorus on my Blackberry, and I found myself listening back to it time and again. My cellist, djembe player and I went to Ireland to start recording the new album on analogue tape, and I wanted our new version of ‘Betelgeuse’ to follow the recording on my phone ñ it’s a bit woozy, but I knew I’d nailed the sentiment on that first recording. So the album version tracks the phone version, which peters out at the end of the second verse, so we had to adlib the second half of the song with a view to it becoming more polished and, well, more astronaut than appleman. Thus, the genesis of the song has made it all the way to the finished album. Our session in Ireland set a blueprint for the entire album: Astronaut Meets Appleman is a mixture of first versions, busked recordings and re-recordings that were made in different studios using old and new technologies.
You wouldn’t expect the album to sound as cohesive as it does.
Yes, it was an odd idea for me to take the recording process on tour to three different studios and record on analogue tape machines, digital recorders and computer pro-tools. James Yorkston maintains that the atmosphere of a place can bleed into a record, so I tried it and it worked. The album was co-produced by Paul Savage, who has worked on a number of my records ñ Bombshell, That Might Well Be It, Darling, Flick the V’s, and From Scotland with Love ñ and he thought that as long as at least one instrument on each track was recorded in the final stages at the studio Chem19, it would help the album sound coherent.
Do you have a strict routine for writing and recording?
I tend to write as and when the ideas for lyrics or chords arrive, so I have lots of little notebooks and scraps of paper lying about my home and in my guitar case. As these build up I’ll record a few of them on my Dictaphone. I start recording only once the chores are done, and by chores I mean the constant budgeting, accounting and general gig-related work. When all that is out of the way I take over an entire room with bits of musical gear I’ve accumulated over the years. It becomes an addiction for a fortnight or so, and I’ll record every spare minute of every day, putting down all the ideas I’ve stored up over the preceding months. I’ve just come through such a phase and I have another three albums recorded for my own label.
I want to return to your early life: what did you do after university?
In my fourth year I realized I had made an error studying electronic engineering and so I didn’t apply for any related jobs. I did have a fantasy of doing pub gigs though. At that time you could walk into a bar with a demo tape and if they liked it they would book you, so it was a viable money-earning option. In Edinburgh there were enough places that booked bands and I did end up dropping off a tape at a few Southside bars, hoping to earn the fabled 50 to 60 quid a night. When I finished my degree, however, I moved home to work at the Woollen Mill, but it was hard returning to that environment. My friend Bruce had planned a year out, and one day he said: ‘look Kenny, let’s get ourselves an inter-rail card each. You bring your accordion and I’ll bring my mandolin. We’ll go busking for a month in Europe.’
We set off in early September 1989 and arrived in Boulogne-Sur-Mer three days before our rail cards became valid. After a night spent sleeping in bivi bags in a rat-infested campsite we bought tickets to Amsterdam. I can still remember the surge of optimism and excitement I felt the moment we stepped out of the train station and into Dam Square. Although it was getting towards the end of the summer season, the town was very busy so we walked up Kalverstraat and set up in front of some shop shutters with graffiti on them. Within no time these two guys appeared ñ one was so French it was laughable. He was wearing a striped shirt, salopettes, no socks, had a pony tail and carried a banjo. The other guy was a huge Dutch rockabilly guy carrying a double-bass. The Frenchman grinned at us like an imbecile but the Dutchman merely glowered at us; we quickly worked out we had taken their spot. But they asked if they could join in, and by the end of the day we had ourselves a five-piece band with a classical violinist in tow.
We were rattling out a mix of Scottish, Irish and American folk tunes to crowds of about three hundred people, and we must have looked like a bunch of freaks. Our diminutive female violinist was a punk and a heroin user and by far the best musician of us all. As a classical musician she could regularly make three or four hundred guilders a set, three times a day, and this afforded her an Amsterdam rent and all the drugs for herself, her husband and his pals. The French and the Dutch guy knew that to make good money you had to have an album to sell. Within a few days of living in an Amsterdam squat, Bruce and I had had a quick crash course in street life. We lived in and around Holland until the end of the year. We used that inter-rail card just the once, then hopped into the Dutchman’s Renault 18 with the others and took off to Germany.
Over the next two years Eric, the banjo player, and I were the mainstays and we spent our winters in Scotland, turning up to play at folk clubs and pub sessions, recruiting new members and making new tapes to take to the streets, and we had settled on a name: The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra (SDO). That time in Europe felt like a proper adventure, and there were many diversions along the way, including a three-month stint in the Dordogne painting the wall of a farmhouse. There was no Internet, no pictures of us circulating the world, nobody at home checking up on us via social media, no encumbrances like insurance and council tax ñ we were completely off the grid. We felt like pioneers, living off our wits. I learnt how to perform live during those two years on the street.
Were you performing your own songs?
No, it was all bluegrass standards or Scottish and Irish reels made to sound like bluegrass. I was writing songs but I didn’t have the courage to bawl them out on street corners. In early 1991 there were four of us singing songs like ‘Old Joe Clark’ and ‘Cripple Creek’, and at the end of that final summer of busking we returned to Fife and began recording original songs in a studio outside Kennoway with Dougi MacMillan at the helm. That winter we transitioned from hell-for-leather skiffle mongers to an acoustic band performing our own songs, and in 1992 we got a booking agent based in Aberdeen, and a record deal.
When did you start your own label, Fence Records?
So, during the first half of the 90s there was still a template you could adopt as a working band. The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra put out studio albums on a small Scottish label, and we had a great live audience, especially in the North-East, from Aberdeen right up to the Shetland Islands. But there was a nagging feeling that we were still not quite a part of the music industry: how do we get in there? How do we get reviews in music magazines? How do we get on the radio? How do we get onto this other conveyer belt of foreign tours and festival bookings? Now I’ve experienced what the music industry has to offer I wish could go back and give myself a talking to. There was a lot of disappointment within the band. We were continually playing small music bars, and there was a general apathy. Our second album got a single one-line review in the Dundee Courier‘s revered Rock Talk section: The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra has put out another album called Spike’s 23 Collection. That was pretty much it.
In 1994, after recording our third album at Land Studios, engineer Dougi MacMillan invited me to his studio to record solo and to sing atop an instrumental he’d been working on, and the resulting four songs became the first recordings for Fence and King Creosote. I’d really missed recording at home so I went out and bought myself a new 4-track tape recorder. Over the summer of 1994 the SDO had undergone a name change to Khartoum Heroes and we immediately started to splinter. I formed a new line up with Vic Galloway and, until the middle of 1995, we had this fantastic crossover folk/pop/punk band. Vic was keen to get a record deal, but the Skuobhie Dubh veterans wanted to go back to busking so it didn’t work out. Between ’95 and early ’96 the SDO was at its best, with my brother Een in the ranks, his girlfriend Kate [Tunstall] on vocals, and a first rate rhythm section. But it all fell apart again. I was a 29-year-old university graduate and my grand plan to return to living on the street had run aground. I’d been the ship’s captain only for the crew to jump overboard, and you can imagine the pressure from the home port to make something of myself the way that most of my peers had done. Cue depression, happy pills and a doctor’s permission to soul-search for a year and to convert all the negatives into something positive.
At the end of 1996 I took stock of what I had achieved. I loved writing and recording songs as King Creosote, but I hated trying to promote the albums and I certainly didn’t want the stress of running a band again. I stopped caring about selling music. I decided that if the music was good then an audience would seek it out. It was a rejection of the music industry. I formed a ceildih band, worked away at the Woollen Mill, upgraded my recording gear, bought a CD burner and recorded a bunch of King Creosote records for Fence that I sold as CDRs in a local St. Andrews record shop. I was making music and selling it at a loss. I remember explaining it all to Vic Galloway when he joined Radio Scotland. He said, ‘Good luck with that. There’s no way the music industry is going to find you in St. Andrews.’ But it didn’t matter, I just loved making the music, including the artwork for my albums.
You enjoyed having complete creative control?
It was all about the art. Nobody was listening to or buying my music, so I did whatever I liked. I got a job in a St. Andrews record shop and at the turn of the millennium I ended up taking it on with shop manager Jason Kavanagh. Now Fence was a record label and an outlet. A girl from Edinburgh, who had been a Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra fan, walked in one afternoon, recognised me and told us she was a website developer. We said, ‘What’s a website?’ She put one together for us and up it went. The content was nonsensical, but to the outside world we looked like another obscure label.
People from all walks of the musical spectrum gravitated toward us. There are a lot of singer-songwriters out there who have no interest in standing on stage, never mind dealing with interviews or photographers. Some of the best songwriters have no truck with show business. Music is just how they deal with their lives. It’s their art form. A collective began to form around the record shop, and Jason and I began doing these wacky residences in the local bars.
All of a sudden, thanks to James Yorkston, The Beta Band and Vic Galloway’s Radio One show we had interest from a few music publishing companies. Domino regarded us as a Scottish independent label, and we had great fun informing them we weren’t a label, nor did we want to become one. We didn’t sign a single act, we didn’t send out promotional material and we did our best to put folk off buying our handmade CDRs. But we quickly made fans and started to make samplers that were shop-specific. We made a Fence sampler called Rough Trade Hung Up On Fence that you had to buy from the Rough Trade shop in London. Soon we had different label samplers made for Missing Records and Monorail in Glasgow. So having our venture music-led turned out not to be such a bad idea after all.
Could you start something like Fence now?
I don’t know if I could do it the same way now. The Internet seemed very quiet back then, a secret hideaway for music obsessives, and I’m not sure our early collective could live up to the high levels of scrutiny and comment that go on nowadays. Living in St. Andrews you had to make your own entertainment and that meant very little competition, so we were working in isolation and weren’t affected by what was going on in Edinburgh or Glasgow. We attracted those people unable to compete in the city music scenes. Now it seems you have to have a sensational idea to make even the slightest headway, and albums are old long before they can be discovered through word of mouth. We were able to build from a local base and at the same time appeal to a very few Internet music sleuths. Our thing was very organic, and because people weren’t living their lives online they were much more aware of what was happening locally. We took our time. If people wanted your music they had to read your daft posters, hear you play live, come find you and physically buy an album. The Internet has devalued music to the point where very few people actually want to be encumbered by it.
You have recorded over fifty albums to date. Is your output so prolific because you aren’t so constrained by the music industry?
My output was greater before 2005. After that I became entangled in the music business again. If it weren’t for all the experimentation captured on my Fence albums, and the freedom to put my music out in relative obscurity, I don’t think I’d have had the guts aged thirty-five to venture into the world of album reviews and audience expectations. I still balance what are seen by some as my mainstream records with the weird and wonderful records that roll off my 8-track at home, and many of the artistic decisions are explored far out of the spotlight. As King Creosote has slowly climbed the music ladder, the time spent on my label has dwindled. For the last four years I have been working towards a year out in which I intend to stay home and reverse engineer Fence back to the haven for creativity it once was. I have eight new titles ready to go.
How did you come to write the soundtrack to From Scotland with Love (FSWL)?
One of the studio engineers at the studio Chem19, Davey MacAulay, works in film sound design and had already worked with Virginia Heath. Given the brief that the film was to be a collaboration between film maker and songwriter, both Davey and Paul Savage put my name forward.
How did you write the songs for that film?
At first it was tricky because the film makers needed time to trawl through the archive, meaning I didn’t have a completed film to write to. They wanted their choice of particular scenes to be influenced by my songs ñ talk about cart and horse. With the deadline approaching, Virginia drew up a chart for the whole 69-minute film, split into sections of three minutes each, and in each section she had a description of the theme. She indicated which sections were to be songs, which ones were to be instrumentals, and then alongside each music section she listed the songs of mine that matched the mood she was going for. Two weeks before the band were to start rehearsing I boarded a train to London, and although I’d been thinking it over for the best part of two months, I had worked myself up into knots over whether I had the knowledge, the authority, to be the commentator on all these lives gone by. But I thought: if I’m to bring the on-screen characters to life, maybe there is somebody in all that footage who thinks like me and who has had similar life experiences?
After that it was fairly easy, and I was able to draw on stories I’d heard from my own parents and grandparents. By the time I pulled into Kings Cross I had eight song lyrics penned. I recorded my ideas solo for the film makers, and then as a band we worked up a couple of the better ones. The instant we heard our rough version of ‘Miserable Strangers’ alongside some of Virginia’s dockside footage we knew we were on the right track. The songs were tweaked right up until the last minute, however, as new scenes clashed with existing words or offered up better song ideas altogether. Virginia worked incredibly hard to find footage that backed up some of the lyric details and I was determined the mood of each song should match the footage.
When you are performing live, do your songs change in form?
I try and keep albums and live shows as far apart as possible. I detest rehearsals, and I allow the players to decide their own parts. The current eight-piece are all on the Astronaut album, but they are not all on every track, so everyone has about four songs open to their own interpretation. Conditions in which to sing are near perfect in a studio, not so live, and so when it comes to singing falsetto over a krautrock beat, as in the song ‘Surface’, the live arena can be a nightmare. I get bored of my songs very quickly, and the biggest rush for me is when songs work out as if by accident. A lot of my older songs are totally unknown to this acoustic band, and I have no intention of sitting them down to listen to the earlier albums. Having said that, the players are the best bunch of musicians for listening to each other and playing off each other, meaning all the mistakes are my own.