Glasvegas interview: Full transcript
- Henry Northmore
- 21 August 2008
Henry Northmore talks to singer and songwriter James Allan and his cousin and guitarist Rab Allan from Glasvegas, the hottest band in Glasgow, as they get set to play Hydro Connect as well as their own headline dates
How did Glasvegas first get together?
James Allan: There wasn’t any clear concept right from the start. A few of us went to school together, and listened to the same kind of songs. For a while it was just “you hit this, I’ll hit that’, but eventually we tried to get something melodic that would go from A to B without falling apart. That’s the long story short.
I think that first time people are involved in writing songs in a band, you imagine it to be someone sitting down with a guitar. But really, the first time you’ve sat down and really expressed any ideas in words is probably just when you’re writing a Valentine’s card, or when you’re in English lessons in school writing a poem. And everybody’s done that. That’s really your first experience of putting words together. I guess that was mine, really. Before Glasvegas, mine were probably a bit gothic never really got me the girl that I wanted.
The first poem I wrote was in English in first year at school. I was terrible in school, really bad, and I always remember this because it was the one time the teacher said that I was the best in the class at anything. That’s how it all started.
Were you ever nervous about presenting your songs to people to listen to?
James Allan: No, it was more of an embarrassing time having to admit to my family that I liked music. When I was younger I hated everything. I said I’d never drink beer, never like girls, never like music. I only really liked football. But then everything changes; I didn’t really see football in the same way, started to like girls, started to drink beer, started to like listening to music. So it was definitely more of an embarrassment having to admit to my family that I’d started playing the guitar and that kind of thing. Before that I’d always been a bit stubborn.
What level did you take your footballing to?
After I left school I played for Gretna and Falkirk, stuff like that. I think football’s just like art or anything like that. I don’t think it’s just something you can just dip your toe into. It’s something you’ve got to give your whole life to, with the lows and the euphoric highs and everything. You’ve got to give yourself to it completely. I’m sure it’s the same with your writing. That’s your art, and you know yourself it’s got to be 100%.
What are the positives/negatives about starting a band in the East End of Glasgow?
If I ever saw anybody on the guitar I’d always think they looked quite peculiar. As a kid, you’re not really used to that. Nobody in my family played or anything.
How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
Rab Allan: I’d describe the music quite simply as a bunch of people playing together who are too stupid to know what their limitations are. I mean, Caroline had never even drummed before. Because it’s just about expressing yourself, and lightening the dark a bit. I think a lot of people are a bit lost, but if you’re in a band you feel a bit less lost because you’re expressing yourself. We think that’s one of our strengths.
How much do your personal dynamics help to create your sound?
James Allan: I was sat round the corner on a brick wall, howling at the moon, and it came to me in a vision.
Rab Allan: It was his epiphany.
James Allan: Seriously though, our personal dynamics are a huge part of our sound, rather than any musical skill. It’s a certain dynamic and electricity that you get in any human relationship between people that love each other, and that’s a great platform for a band. I guess it’s just a human thing. I’m not saying that that’s the only way to go, but I’m quite glad.
Some people are in bands for different reasons and with different agendas, and there’s not always that beauty and romance. Four people getting together and their personalities just working.
How do you think you fit into the Glasgow music scene?
James Allan: I dunno, you’d probably have to ask other people about that. We’re all very similar, you know. We all love certain music, certain films and certain art. Because of that, I suppose a lot of bands were kind of oblivious to us, which can be a good thing and a bad thing, The good side is that we’re just expressing ourselves without any interruptions, and without having to deal with any distractions, part-time jobs, stuff like that.
The down-side is that they’re might be some really good, nice artists that you don’t notice because you’re in your own wee little world. I’m happy at how it’s gone though, even though it’s nice to meet other bands and other people.
Has Glasgow informed the sounds that you make, and the songs that you’ve created?
James Allan: Of course. Your surroundings definitely have an impact on your art and your music. Some of the ideas in the songs are very specific to Glasgow.
What is it that draws you to the dark subject matter on the album?
James Allan: Very simple man. It’s just things what I’ve been thinking about. You notice something, you lie in bed thinking about your history or your work or whatever, and your mind keeps coming back to that thing. I’m quite a forgetful person, but I’m not a numb person. Because I’m not numb, I’m sensitive to certain things. Some of the songs are simply just expressing these ideas with simple words and a wee melody. To get back to the question, it’s just things I haven’t been able to forget about.
Do you write everything James?
James Allan: Well normally I record all the parts, and just give them the song complete. Rab’s a better guitarist than me though, so although I can record a part, I need him to be play it exactly how it sounds in my head. For example, there’s a guitar part in “My Cheating Heart . . .” that I wrote using the keyboard. So when Rab’s playing the guitar part, I’m saying, “more like this, more like that.” and he’s like “more like fucking what?’
But even though I’ve got a whole song, all the parts and everything, in my head, I still really need the band.
Does that put the pressure on you because you’re writing it all?
Rab Allan: It’s a group thing. If the pressures on James, then we’re all under pressure. I guess the hard work is on him. He has to put the songs together.
James Allan: When you’re on the dole and writing about it, you do feel a certain pressure. I take it as a compliment, though, that people think you’re writing well and want to hear about what you think about their lives. That said, I do hope all my family and friends know that my songs are just expressing really common ideas in everyone’s world.
You worry that you’re putting these ideas out in the open, in magazines and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to say “fuck that” because, as an artist, after I express these ideas I can get a good night’s sleep. When people talked to us about being signed and releasing singles and stuff like that, that meant the fucking world. Sometimes you’re going to feel uneasy about getting your ideas out there, but as an artist all you have to do is get down your painting, your poem, your melody, whatever. Those are the important things.
So to answer your question, yes, I do feel pressure, but it’s perhaps a different pressure to other bands. They don’t need to worry about the same things that I worry about. That’s my pressure, although I don’t feel it as much anymore. I don’t give myself as much of a hard time about the things that I’m writing about any more. They’re not exactly party anthems, know what I mean? You just need to express yourself truly, and everything else will be fine.
Rab, what did you think when you first heard these songs? Did you instantly connect with them?
Rab Allan: Aye, I guess. James would normally record them himself, and then let us hear it. I’d be like “that’s a fucking hit man” and he’d be like “thanks’. I guess he knew that himself.
James Allan: No, I didn’t at all. It’s not my business to say whether the song’s good or bad, it’s only my job to try and do my best, and let your imagination go onto the CD. Once it’s out there, the song’s not really yours anymore, it’s other peoples’.
Does it feel quite disconnected when you catch your songs on the radio, or see yourselves in a video?
James Allan: With all the things that are happening, you kind of get used to it.
When you see headlines about yourselves, “the greatest new rock‘n’roll band in the world” etc, that must be quite exciting, but also a bit scary as well. Is that how you’ve found it?
James Allan: Some of it’s really surprising man. Seeing people like Morrissey turn round and say nice things about your writing, for a split second you’re like “it’s mad that.” But then you still do the same things with your day and you don’t really walk about with these things on your mind. You’re just doing the normal things that you’ve always done and thinking the normal things that you’ve always thought.
Rab Allan: I remember when we were on the cover of NME. I remember picking it up over breakfast and reading it over breakfast. It’s cool and everything, but you can’t get too caught up in that kind of stuff. You’ve got to just move on to the next thing.
James Allan: It’s just people’s opinions, people saying things. But hearing people say those nice things is really sweet and encouraging. It’s a beautiful thing. Because you don’t always know that it’s all going to work out, maybe it looks like it was meant to be from an outside perspective, but it wasn’t always definitely going to happen. Only Elvis was definitely going to happen, but apart from Elvis, and fuckin’ Beowulf, and fuckin’ Van Gogh, it wasn’t always going to happen. We’ve had a few wee twists and turns, good timing or whatever.
What do you enjoy more the writing and recording process or playing live?
James Allan: Well both are quite alien to each other, they’re totally different things. When it comes to writing, and you’re at that time and in that place. I’m out in the Milky Way man, know what I mean? When you’re writing you’re kind of losing yourself in your imagination, but live you’re losing yourself in the noise that four people are making together. It’s a human thing, with other human beings in the room. The electricity between us, and the other humans, and the amps being so loud.
Rab Allan: All that together makes it a gig. The writing, you know, is about James expressing himself, but live, we all get a chance to do it.
You must have to trust these guys - you’re handing over all your work?
James Allan: Oh yeah definitely. First of all, before all the instruments, just as people. We trust each other very much. And that’s interesting because there’s lots of people in certain environments where there’s doubt and distrust, but between the band, as people, it’s always alright.
You’ve created a very distinctive sound. How do you think you’re going to take that forward onto the next album?
James Allan: “Taking something forward”, that’s interesting because ultimately our music is all about moving forward. Whether it’s me in the band or whether its in some other way. I’ve not got an idea right now about the next record, but maybe I’ll have some tomorrow, or the next day. There’s a couple of things, but some of my ideas about the future are kind of connected to that first album, but also kind of detached.
Are you constantly working on new stuff, or are quite absorbed by this idea of the Christmas album?
James Allan: The Christmas Album - it’s quite a confusing thing for people. I think that sometimes, when you decide to do something, in your head it’s so simple and normal. You forget that for other people it might be quite a confusing concept.
People have asked if it’s covers - it’s not covers. It’s just a Christmas album, and it could be a lot of different things. A lot of famous rock’n’rollers want to play on it with us, but I dunno if that will be too confusing for people and maybe it’s better if just the band do it.
It’s not like the lyrics are just going to be “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.” It’s going to be about that time of year, and what it means to me, the mood and electricity at that time of year. I just want to express some of that onto an album. It probably won’t be exactly like Wham!. It might have some influence, because it’s an amazing song, but not exactly.
Subtly or unsubtly, when you listen to it you should be able to slip into the mood of that time of year. We’re going to go to Transylvania to record it. When we sat down with the labels before we were signed, and we explained that we wanted to do a Christmas album, they were like “next year?”, and I was like, “no, this year” and they just sort of looked at us and said “do you want us to sign you or not?”
You did a prison tour. How did that go?
James Allan: We did that before we signed our deal, a year and a bit ago. It was as magical and as real as T In The Park was, but in a different way. It took us to a different place. It was beautiful and it was heartbreaking, just at the way life is. Sometimes when reality hits you right in the face, it can be quite overwhelming. There were some euphoric moments, but they 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.
Glasvegas play Hydro Connect, Guitars & Other Machines Stage, Sat 30 Aug and their own headline shows at Fat Sam’s, Dundee, Wed 3 Sep; QMU, Glasgow, Fri 5 Sep; Liquid Room, Edinburgh, Sun 7 Sep.