Hydro Connect Festival - Glasvegas
- Henry Northmore
- 21 August 2008
For a band so profoundly influenced by their hometown that they named themselves after it, Glasvegas are set to explode far beyond Argyle Street. Henry Northmore caught up with them on the eve of their performance ay this year’s Hydro Connect festival and debut album release and found them ready to take on the world
It’s hard to think of a band that sums up the Glasgow experience as succinctly as Glasvegas. Primal Scream and The Fratellis may have captured the hedonism, Biffy Clyro the anger and Franz Ferdinand the art, but Glasvegas are the streets of Glasgow writ large in aching paeans to the city’s gritty heart.
Not only do the band name check the dear green place in their moniker, Glasvegas’ lyrics cover subjects mined from the city’s dark underbelly, from violence and knife crime to social services and absent parents, as well as the grim mundanities of life, echoing the urban decay of the suburbs and housing schemes – areas unaffected by the gentrification of the 80s. While their sound may be retro in origin, it captures the paradox of a city at the forefront of culture, but still wearing its hard man image with pride. ‘Your surroundings definitely have an impact on your art and your music,’ explains singer, songwriter and guitarist James Allan. ‘Some of the ideas are very specific to Glasgow.’
Much like Glasgow, the band’s eponymous debut album is made up of light and dark, proud of its roots while striving for a glorious future. Their sound draws on rockabilly, indie, post-punk and classic doo-wop, all of it sung with a distinct Glaswegian accent. Perhaps the closest equivalent is Phil Spector, girl band supremo and inventor of the Wall of Sound, producing The Ramones’ End of the Century: two worlds colliding to create something truly unique. Echoing his now legendary signing of Oasis, Alan McGee caught the band at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in 2006 and has been noisily backing them ever since. They still haven’t released their debut album, but have already been dubbed ‘The Greatest New Rock’n’roll Band in the World’ by the NME. Their live shows – including a rammed and rousing set at T in the Park – and singles ‘Go Square Go’, ‘Daddy’s Gone’ and ‘Geraldine’ back up this claim with ease.
Growing up in Dalmarnock in Glasgow’s East End, writing and singing in a band wasn’t the most obvious career option. In fact James Allan is a former professional footballer with the likes of Gretna and Falkirk FC. ‘I think football’s just like art: you can’t just dip your toe into it,’ he says. ‘Both require you to give your whole life to them, with the lows and the highs. You’ve got to give yourself to it completely.’
Despite being clad exclusively in black, and gravitating towards serious, often dark, subject matter, Allan is easygoing and witty. ‘I was sat round the corner on a brick wall [outside Glasgow’s Mono], howling at the moon, and it came to me in a vision,’ he explains of Glasvegas’ conception.
‘It was his epiphany,’ adds the even more affable man mountain of a guitarist (and James’ cousin), Rab Allan. The line-up is completed by bassist Paul Donaghue and drummer Caroline McKay.
‘Seriously, though, our personal dynamics are a huge part of our sound, rather than any musical skill,’ continues James. ‘It’s a certain dynamic and electricity that you get in any human relationship between people that love each other.’ Famously, McKay couldn’t even play the drums until James recruited her into the band, but on hearing his songs, everything clicked. There’s an unspoken trust between James and his bandmates as he hands his creations over.
‘I’d describe the music quite simply as a bunch of people playing together who are too stupid to know what their limitations are,’ laughs Rab.
But Glasvegas’ output is most definitely James’ ‘vision’: he writes all their material and presents it to the band as fully-formed songs. ‘I record all the parts, and just give them the song complete,’ he explains. ‘Rab’s a better guitarist than me, though, so although I can record a part, I need him to play it exactly how it sounds in my head. So even though I’ve got a whole song in my head, I still really need the band.’ James even co-produced the album alongside Rich Costey (who has worked with everyone from Nine Inch Nails and Muse to New Order and Interpol) to ensure they captured the sound he envisioned.
James’ songs are personal and rooted in Glasgow but resonate well beyond the west coast. There’s a loneliness, yearning and deep sentiment across the shimmering guitars. These are songs that evoke emotions instantly: the absent parent at the heart of ‘Daddy’s Gone’; the distain of violence on ‘Stabbed’, the palpable sadness that runs though ‘Flowers & Football Tops’, which addresses the murder of young football fan Kriss Donald. It’s this power to connect that is one of Glasvegas’ true strengths.
The band even did a tour of Scottish prisons before they were signed, calling in at Glasgow’s Barlinnie, Polmont Young Offenders Institution, Edinburgh’s Saughton and Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling. ‘It was as magical and as real as T in the Park was, but in a different way,’ explains James. ‘It was beautiful and it was heartbreaking, just the way life is. Sometimes when reality hits you right in the face, it can be quite overwhelming. There were some euphoric moments, but there were some moments of pure heartbreak and despair every night. Being quite sensitive people, and being surrounded by so many people with so much sadness in their lives, it was really fucking hard sometimes. We’d love to do it again though.’ It must have been a powerful experience: the lasting effect on the band is demonstrated on album track ‘Polmont on My Mind’ a song rich with melancholy regret.
Despite this ability to connect with almost any audience and the fervour with which the music world is awaiting their debut, there may not even be a second straight album. While this isn’t set in stone, James admits he doesn’t have any immediate plans for another album, taking faith in the old maxim that it’s better burn out than fade away.
Before this premature departure, though, there’s the small matter of the Glasvegas Christmas album, which they insisted on before signing any recording contracts. ‘When you decide to do something, in your head it’s so simple and normal,’ says James. ‘You forget that for other people it might be quite a confusing concept. It’s not covers, it’s just a Christmas album. It’s not like the lyrics are just going to be “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas”, it’s going to be about the mood and electricity at that time of year, and what it means to me. We’re off to Transylvania to record it.’
In the meantime, the band’s live shows have been joyously received in Scotland and their slot at Hydro Connect is one of the most anticipated of the festival.
‘The writing is about James expressing himself,’ adds Rab, ‘but live, we all get a chance to express ourselves.’
‘When it comes to writing I’m out in the Milky Way,’ James concurs, ‘you’re losing yourself in your imagination, but live, you’re losing yourself in the noise that four people are making together.’
You can also read the full transcript of this interview between The List's Henry Northmore and Glasvegas.
Glasvegas play Hydro Connect, Guitars & Other Machines Stage, Sat 30 Aug; QMU, Glasgow, Fri 5 Sep; Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Sun 7 Sep. Their eponymous debut album is out Mon 8 Sep. See next issue for review.
Thanks to Street Level Photoworks, 48 King Street, Glasgow for use of their space for our photo shoot. Street Level will exhibit the Jerwood Photography Awards from 6 Sep-18 Oct. www.streetlevelphotoworks.org