Interview#2: Bartholomew Owl

Bartholomew Owl is one of my oldest friends in Edinburgh.  I first saw eagleowl play when the Kays old bassist Jake’s girlfriend Clarissa had just joined the band.  It was their first tentative steps away from the 2 piece, that had toured the Edinburgh open mic circuit and slowly built a following, on the road to becoming one of Edinburgh’s finest underground acts.  Debut EP ‘For The Thoughts You Never Had’ was released in August 2008 and has received glowing reviews far and wide, and deservedly so.  If I had to credit somebody in Edinburgh for embracing the idea of a “community” and ensuring it never becomes a clique, then Bart would be the man.  Along with his own brilliant band, he also plays with The Occasional Flickers, Rob St John and, from time to time, The Second Hand Marching Band.  He runs The Gentle Invasion nights in Edinburgh, which have introduced us to many wonderful acts along the way and on top of all of this, he still finds time to attend every gig you can imagine.  He’s kindly taken the time to answer some questions in the second of the Steinberg Principle interviews.  eagleowl’s brilliant new single ‘Sleep The Winter’ is released in December on kilter  Enjoy.

TSP: ‘Sleep the winter’, the new eagleowl single is due for release in December this year.  After the release of ‘For the thoughts you never had’ I think the assumption from most quarters was that eagleowl would follow it up with a debut album.  As I have come to learn, you should expect the unexpected with eagleowl but will we be seeing a full length record in 2010 or should we just stop second guessing you and let you guys get on with what you do?  Following on from that, is there a particular reason why you chose to delay an album?

BO:  There will be an eagleowl album at some point, but not sure if it’ll be 2010. When doing Sleep the Winter, we probably recorded enough material for an album. But for some reason it didn’t feel right. It just didn’t hang together – it was a mixture of stuff we’d written recently, and stuff that was quite a bit older that we’d not had the opportunity to record properly before. So we it didn’t really feel like a complete set of songs.

I didn’t want to just come out with 40 minutes of music and go “Okay – that’s enough for an album”, and put it out.  I want the album to feel coherent and complete. So we decided to split the material up – between this single which we’re putting out in December, and an EP which will be released in the first half of next year. Meanwhile, we’re working on the album proper.

TSP: I personally think this new track is one of the best things you’ve ever written.  Did you feel pressure to follow up the EP with something equally good?  And if so how do you deal with this pressure and expectation, which definitely exists amongst your fans?

BO:  I think we did.  Not that I listened back to the EP and thought “how are we ever going to top this?”, but because the response had been so positive, I was very nervous about a follow up. You convince yourself that people go easy on you because it’s your debut, or as a small band people cut you some slack. Championing the under-dog, and all that. So following that up was a bit of a stress. People’s expectations were raised. But so far the response to the single has been really good, which is a bit of a relief.

TSP:  One of the things I’ve admired most about you guys is that despite Malcolm’s absence you and Clarissa have continued to play live and generate attention and respect for your live performances.  For me, the violin is an absolutely essential ingredient in your music.  Did you at any point consider finding somebody to stand in for Malcolm at shows or even consider not playing live due to his absence?

BO: That was a worry too. We do tend to stress a lot. It was weird because Malcolm was there from the start. The first shows were just me and him, so it felt weird carrying on when he was away. Rob (St. John) started playing with us around the same time that Malcolm moved away – but it was never seen as a replacement. I didn’t want to get another violin player, both because Malcolm’s got a very distinctive style of playing, and also I’m not sure if many people could deal with our way of working. But Rob and Malcolm are still both a big part of the band – they just aren’t living in Edinburgh at the moment. It means we’ll be concentrating more on writing and recording than playing gigs. And the line-up for gigs will be dictated by who’s available at the time.

I think it’s healthy, in a way. If you go and see a band a lot of times and it’s the same line-up each time, playing the same stuff – it can get stale. I like the idea that we can play a set stripped back to a duo, or we can play as a full band – depending on who’s around. It also helped with writing. Sleep the Winter, I think, was the first song we wrote after Malcolm moved away, and so it’s much more consciously based around boy/girl vocals than anything we’d done before. We’ve played it live as a duo, and it works – but then when we play it with the full band and Malcolm comes in with that lilting violin line – it becomes a whole other song.

TSP:  Turning to Edinburgh, the music community that has been developing over the past 3 years or so is quite an exciting place to be as a musician, in my opinion.  For those people who don’t know much about what’s going on here.  What would you say, for you, are the best aspects of being a band based in Edinburgh?

BO:  I think the community spirit, more than anything. I think the problem before, or at least one of the problems, was that people were perhaps not communicating enough. There does seem to be a rash of great bands in the city at the moment – more so than any time I can remember. But there have always been interesting things happening. What’s different now is that people aren’t working in isolation. They’re not competing. There’s a real sense of community. People go to each other’s shows. People play on each other’s songs. They look to each other for advice and support. I know at times perhaps that becomes a negative, as it can appear as a clique. But I think any community or group is always going to appear like that from the outside. And all you have to do to reverse that is say hello. Introduce yourself. Get involved. I’m really excited about what new bands will appear. No one knows if what’s been started will grow and flourish or will just burn itself out as quickly as it started. But it’s a really interesting time now that people who have been consuming music and putting on live shows are now turning to putting out records – like Kilter, who are putting out our single, had previously operated as a gig promoter as ‘Tracer Trails’. And yourself setting up mini50 – and Matthew and Ed who have turned successful blogs into labels (Song by Toad and 17 seconds). It’s exciting to see what will happen next.

TSP: I just compiled a top 50 records of the decade post for this blog.  It was really just a bit of fun, but I would say that the top 20 records have had a massive impact on me as both a musician and person.  What records do you love more than anything, and what/who inspires you to keep making music?

BO:  I think people are always quick to pick up on the Low influence. And it’s true. Low are probably one of the reasons why I started this band. It’s the fact that they saw loud guitar music was getting popular, so decided to write the slowest, quietest music they could. I love that.  There’s a lot of bands that have been an influence on us, but more for their approach to the industry and making music, rather then the actual music itself. I’m thinking of Fugazi here more than anyone – because they made such amazing music, and had such a huge impact and following, but refused to engage with the ‘industry’ as far as possible.

TSP: For those who don’t know, you are also a music promoter under the moniker ‘The Gentle Invasion.’  Over the years, you have introduced me personally to so many exciting new bands.  At this moment in time, which underground acts are exciting you most both in Scotland and further a field and are there any records you are looking forward to in 2010?

BO:  I think the two new Edinburgh bands I’m most excited about just now are Conquering Animal Sound and the Last Battle. Both are really great for different reasons. They seem to fit well into whatever ‘alt.folk’ thing that seems to be all the rage in Edinburgh at the moment, but both with their own spin and ideas to add to it.

The Gentle Invasion has been relatively quiet of late, but I’ve had an old friend called Johannes, who performs under the name ‘the Late Call’, contact me recently as he’ll be back in the UK in February.  And also Hexicon – a London band who were one of my highlights of this year’s Retreat! festival – will be back in February as well. Though nothings confirmed yet.

As for records, I know I always end up mentioning my friends. But I can’t really not get excited about my friends releasing albums, so I’m not apologising. Meursault are putting out their second album next year. Woodpigeon have a new album in the new year. It even has a song on it called ‘woodpigeon vs. eagleowl’, which is kind of surreal, but amazing. Allo, Darlin’ (who played Retreat! this year and at our EP launch last year), and has an album coming out on Fortuna Pop next year too. Also North Atlantic Oscillation – who are an Edinburgh band who have been working on recordings for a while now – have their album out next year. And Hexicon have been working on their debut for about two years now – it’s being released in 2010 as well. And the Kays Lavelle album, obviously – I’m really excited about hearing.

TSP:  What does 2010 hold in store for both eagleowl and your other projects?

BO:  Well we’ve got the new EP, and we have a track recorded for a Jonathan Richman tribute album, which is due out next year. We’re playing the Versus night in January, which is where three acts set up at once so they can play and collaborate on each other’s songs. I’ve also become involved in helping organise future Playing with the Past events – which is where bands select material from the Scottish National Film Archive to prepare a soundtrack to, which is then performed live. It looks like Our Ladies of Sorrow are breaking their “one gig a year” tradition to play the Glasgow Film Festival in February.We’ve also plans for another Retreat show in August. So yes – 2010, looks like it’s going to be a busy year, but a good one.

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