Interview: Modern Studies – 'It makes me feel like we've taken people on a bit of a journey'
Scottish supergroup discuss new album Swell to Great
Modern Studies are a Scottish supergroup, in that they're a Scottish group which happens to be very super. They're also a supergroup in that old prog sense as well, because everyone involved has a previous life in the Scots musical firmament; Emily Scott (vocals, harmonium, double bass, piano and most of the songwriting) in her own right, Rob St John (guitars, vocals, bass, synths, field recordings) with eagleowl, Pete Harvey (cello, piano, vocals, harmonium) as the cellist in King Creosote's band and gothic Edinburgh punks The Leg, and Joe Smillie (drums, vocals, percussion) as the owner of Glasgow's Glad Café.
Together, they make a gorgeous sound which lands somewhere between Belle & Sebastian at their most icily wistful, and Fairport Connection's autumnal folk-rock (Scott's voice bears echoes of Sandy Denny). Here, Scott and St John tell us how the band and the debut album Swell to Great came about.
Rob St John: Emily had a big old pedal harmonium in her flat in Glasgow. It's an imposing and slightly gothic thing: dark carved wood, candle holders, mirrors, 'mouse proof' pedals and creaking keys. In early 2015 she got in touch to say she'd written a set of skeleton songs and melodies on this, before it was donated to Pete (Harvey)'s recently-built Pumpkinfield studio in rural Perthshire. We had collaborated a lot around a decade earlier in Edinburgh, we played in each other's bands and toured in the UK and Europe. She brought Pete Harvey, a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and arranger who we'd both worked with for years, and Joe Smillie, a great drummer and singer who Pete had played with in Iain Morrison's band, into the fold. I don't think any of us anticipated how productive and exciting the collective dynamic would be.
How did your sound develop, and is there a particular aesthetic you're aiming for as a band?
RSJ: Bar an instrumental written by me ('The Sea Horizon') and a traditional arrangement learned from a Shirley Collins recording ('The Bold Fisherman'), the songs on Swell to Great were all written by Emily, and developed and arranged by the band. We had a few weekends in Pete's studio together, and long periods of contributing bits remotely from home studios in Glasgow and West Yorkshire, and for me this gave enough time and space to let the songs develop slowly in my head, to be able to test out ideas and experiments without pressure. Pete and Emily's string arrangements are characteristically great and slightly odd at times – in the best possible way – and Joe's percussion is so dynamic and clever. Personally, this project is a nice thing to work on after a few years when I've been working on a set of more experimental sound art projects in installations and exhibitions. In many ways, it's been great to bring some of those approaches to Emily's songs; for example, there are plenty of submerged layers of tape loop experiments buried in the arrangements. I suppose Brian Eno's bridging of experimentalism and pop sensibilities is a guiding inspiration for me I've also rediscovered the joy of playing the acoustic guitar on this record (again, after a few years of neglect), and have been inspired by a bunch of contemporary solo guitarists – Dean McPhee, Steve Gunn, William Tyler, David A Jaycock – in my playing.
Emily Scott: Yeah, the sound developed partly due to the instrumentation – we've got the combination of old and new technology, with this antique droning harmonium at the centre. The harmonium itself invoked to me the sound of the sea, something to do with its breathing; it reminded me of a sort of broken and faded sea-side resort, with arcades and depressing chippies that would've had their heyday in another time. We have disparate but overlapping tastes in music, and that keeps the band interesting and constantly developing. We introduce each other to a lot of new music, it's been costing us a fortune.
Tell me about the recording of the album, and how you view it now it's finished
RSJ: Pete's Pumpkinfield studio is in rural Perthshire, attached to his family home. You can walk out into the hills and rivers, sit in the garden with some home-made cider, or nip into the kitchen for a coffee. It's a great place to work, and there's probably a sense of calm and fun that filters through somehow into the recordings.
ES: Swell to Great is the name of an organ stop, it conjured up the right image in terms of the sea, the breathing, the bellows of the harmonium; and it's reminiscent of phrases from the shipping forecast, that sort of poetry. A couple of favourite tracks for me are 'Supercool' and 'Swimming', which top and tail the record. They're both really personal songs, but I like the way the opening track bursts open, all bombastic with Joe's drums at the start, and the final track whimpers out slowly with the harmonium at the end, like the dying embers. It makes me feel like we've taken people on a bit of a journey. I think what we've made is a very listenable, cohesive record, we were all genuinely proud hearing our test pressing, and there's nothing quite like that feeling when you get a hold of the final product with all the artwork.
Where does Modern Studies go from here?
RSJ: We're writing material for a second record right now, and I guess the collective dynamic of the band is settling in. The new material's perhaps a little heavier, more expansive … a little odder, maybe. But we won't rush it. I think we're all delighted, and a little surprised, in how this record has come together and how it's being received. It feels like we're onto something good. We've recorded a couple of new compilation tracks for Earth Recordings in London, which should come out this year, or early next.
ES: I'm looking forward to us testing our limits. We've worked so comfortably together, I think we can explore a bit more on the next one, perhaps a bit more improvisation alongside composed instrumentals. It looks like we're heading that way based on the tracks we've got coming out before then.
What do you remember of Modern Studies classes at school?
ES: The name came from the journalist Euan McColm on Twitter, offering up Modern Studies among other pretty unsearchable ideas for band names. It struck a chord with me; it sounds like a utopian 1960s vision of the future, in the same way that modern art or modern music is never really what's cutting edge - it's what has become mainstream enough to be called something, by which time it's out of date. Modern is a very un-modern word! I never studied the subject, I'm not sure it was an option at my school, but in my mind's eye, Modern Studies classes concern little plastic architectural figures, screen printing propaganda posters and building sputniks out of ping pong balls and cocktail sticks. And I don't want anyone to spoil that theory.
Modern Studies' debut album Swell to Great is out now on Song, By Toad. They play Eastern Promise at Platform, Glasgow, Fri 7 Oct, and support King Creosote at dates across England and Wales in Jan.