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Interview: Idlewild

Idlewild made the leap onto an independent label for their sixth album, but for their new record, Post Electric Blues, they decided to do it alone. Funding the album via fans ‘pre-orders, they sought out a cheap studio in north Wales and recorded the album in just a fortnight. And the result is a confident blast of melodic indie-rock and pop. Speaking to eMusic from his home on a remote island of Scotland, bookish singer songwriter Roddy Woomble talks about the band’s contentment with their music, and life.

Post Electric Blues has a particularly upbeat, confident sound — what would you put that down to?

It’s quite positive as we were all contented when we made it. We had nothing to lose because we hadn’t used the normal format of a record label. We were making it ourselves and had nobody to answer to, which obviously carries with it a little bit of trepidation, but the positive side of that is you feel “well, let’s just make a record that’s going to play to our strengths”. Our strengths are that we’re a very good melodic rock band so we made a record like that.

We had two weeks to record the whole thing. Other records we’ll have taken semi-finished songs into the studio, embellished them and turned them into something else, but this time we had finished all the songs in the practice space. It’s quite a live-sounding album because we didn’t have a huge amount of time to waste on getting the right drum sound.

Idlewild are a guitar band. A lot of the riffs are almost as important as the words and the melodies. When we were recording we had such a short amount of time we really put so much more into it than we would have done if we’d had longer, when you can be more analytical and side step away from songs and come back to them. We were throwing a lot of ideas at the songs and just leaving them there. Like on “Readers & Writers”, there are loads of brass instruments that we found in a box in the studio. Rod used to play the trombone when he was at school, so he managed to work his way through them all and play bits and pieces. And we found synths there so we were adding that to certain songs. I think that’s why the record has a joyful feel to it because it really is us having a good time in the studio trying to do as much as we can in the time we had.

How did you reach the decision to put out the album yourselves?

It was mostly Rod and Colin that decided on this and I just went along with it. I think people presume that because I’m the lead singer in the band I’m the lead decision maker, but that’s not really true. I write the words and the melodies, but I don’t do the daily organizational aspects of the band which are quite a big part of it.

How did you find the studio?

The studio Bryn Derwyn is in the north of Wales, registering on the fringes of the Snowdonia National Park, so some of the mountains looked quite different to the scenery in Scotland. It was nice to be able to see that.

We were there in February so the weather was very bad. We didn’t have any heating. The cover of our album is actually a photograph of Allan heating up his hands with the electric heater, it was like the kind of thing you’d have in a caravan. Eventually the guy who runs the place brought these big industrial style heaters that just stink of gas so I think we were slowly poisoned.

What are your ideal conditions for songwriting?

Nowadays we just do it when we can. I mean, there was a time when we used to light scented candles and be in a north-facing room and all that kind of stuff. Now we just write songs in an ordinary room. A lot of them are written in my living room, actually, and then we turn them into rock songs in the practice space. Living rooms have everything you need —a comfortable chair and a pot of tea. I’ve been there plenty of times when there would be been no ideas going around and that’s frustrating, but if you’ve got ideas you can write songs anywhere.

In the past we would go into an elaborate effort to try and work out what exactly we wanted to do, listening to lots of different music and trying to play our favourite songs and now we don’t do anything like that. I think we’ve been doing it long enough to know for ourselves that we can write good songs. The band’s grown naturally towards melodic pop.

I have a book that I write in most days and sometimes songs come from that and also I don’t play an instrument, so I work with people and I think quite often that’s a really good spark because someone will play a guitar part and it will give me an idea. Collaborative songwriting’s a really interesting thing. I can’t imagine being a guy or girl in your bedroom playing guitar trying to finish writing complete songs on your own. That would be really tough. Working with someone is brilliant.

What were you reading at the time of writing the album, and how does literature feed into your lyrics?

I think that writing lyrics is quite removed from the prose I read. Song lyrics are quite different because they don’t really mean anything when they’re just read. They’re given their meaning purely by the music. There are exceptions to this like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, whose lyrics might stand up to being read without the music, but generally I don’t think that happens, especially not in rock music where the music’s very important to making songs.

At the time, I suppose I was reading quite a lot of Bruce Chatwin and George Mackay Brown and I always carry a lot of George Orwell books close to hand so I was reading them every so often. And a lot of non-fiction, too. I’m interested in books about Babylon and medieval society, but there’s nothing of that in Post Electric Blues. I suppose Idlewild songs have always been existential pop songs; very simple ideas that exist in everything, not just songwriting, put to good tunes.

Which musician has most influenced you, and which writer?

Lyrically Bob Dylan’s my favorite musician because I think he’s quite an inspiration the way he’s managed to describe his life through songs and most songwriters can look towards him. Dylan is like Shakespeare — he’s someone you can’t really touch, but he’s permeated everyone’s work, so he’s an inspiration in terms of what you can do with the song lyric.

My favorite writer is a writer I read probably on a daily basis — an Orcadian poet and novelist, George Mackay Brown. I love his stories, poems and his non-fiction — I just think he’s fantastic. Some writers, the minute you read them you feel like you know them and I really feel a connection to him even through I’ve never met him, obviously. What originally drew me to him in my early 20s was the fact he had such a sense of place because he’d never travelled. He lived all his life in the Orkney Islands and just wrote stories and poems about them. He travelled the world through his islands, if you see what I mean, and I still find that really fascinating —the fact that a lot of people search and search for something, but never look around their own room or out the window and properly think about where they are. I think that’s something I put into some songs. Certainly the album 100 Broken Windows was quite inspired by the idea of knowing where you come from.

On “Readers & Writers”:

I’m interested in the relationship between the writer and the reader in the same way as I’m interested in the relationship between the listener and the musician because it’s a pretty fascinating thing. I can write a song with my band in one context and I associate it specifically with something and a place, and then it goes into the hands of the listeners who have a completely different idea about what it means to them and the way it makes them feel and they associate it with the place they know and that’s very much the same with the reader and the writer. It’s always interested me since I’ve been in the band and songs like “American English” are all about that. I just deal with that sense of awe of the mystery of it.

I suppose “Readers & Writers” is a continuation of these themes; the whole idea of the mystery of art and why are they connected to each other, but at the same time they need each other so much. The reader needs the writer and the writer needs the reader so it’s kind of like an invisible love affair. That’s why there’s the “heartbreaker” line at the end of the chorus. The line “bigger than the monuments we had” is about how there’s a bit of a myth around a lot of literature and music being an impenetrable towering monument, but they’re just words and chords. They mean nothing to some people and everything to others. It sounds quite dense talking about it, but it’s a pop song.

On “Younger than America”:

I like John Steinbeck’s books a lot and there’s a reference in there. And I went through a phase a few years ago of quite enjoying watching Western films. It fascinates me the idea of the frontier and the life that lies behind it or beyond it and what these people were looking for. I find it interesting the place that people will go to, to find something better. Musically Idlewild’s always been influenced by American rock music because it’s what we grew up listening to. We grew up in the Nirvana generation. We were all around 13 when Nevermind came out so all those groups like Sonic Youth, Pavement, Superchunk, then you go back and discover all the other stuff like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. That’s really where the band’s coming from musically, it always has. I think all the musicians, Rod, Colin, Allan and Gareth are confident with their own style and I do think our records sound like Idlewild, they don’t sound like a rip offs of anything, but they are influenced primarily by American rock music so the music always has that feel to it.

There are some new additions to the Idlewild collective family. How does the band cope with family responsibilities?

My first son is now a year old, Colin’s got three children, Gareth’s expecting his first and the bass player we used to have, Gavin, who we’re all still very close to, has a wee boy now, too. So it’s an Idlewild collective family growing by the minute. But we’re all between 31 and 33 so it’s what happens when people get to that age. And I think we’ve been a band for so long the band is a different kind of a family too. The band’s a passion of all the guys in it so it’s no matter if you have a family. You adapt, and anyway, we treat the band completely different today than we did when we were 23.

Most bands nowadays make a living playing live which means you have to go away to play and that can be a bit trying, but the longest we’ll go away is two weeks and then we’ll always have time off. It’s not like some bands, when one member has a baby and the rest don’t understand and want to get drunk all the time; it’s good that we’re all on the same page in terms of the people we are and the responsibilities that we have.

What inspired the album title Post Electric Blues?

It’s tongue-in-cheek. I’m quite often teased by my friends for being backward-thinking in terms of technology — mobile phones, and computers are just vague bumps on my radar. And I don’t understand everyone’s obsession with having new things all the time. It was just something I said once and it stuck around. And if you put it as an album title it sounds very Dylany and 60s and obviously I love that kind of music and I love Bob Dylan so it was a nod in that direction. But sometimes it’s not that complicated. You just want something cool for your album title.

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