Interview #8: Matthew Young

Matthew Young.  Many of you will simply know him as Mr Toad.  The man behind the amazingly succesful blog songbytoad.  I stumbled upon this blog when it was recommended to me by Bart from eagleowl as a “good read”.   And that blog and indeed Matthew himself have played a big part in my life for the past 3 years.  Not only has his blog provided me with hours upon hours of entertainment but he’s one of the most helpful fellas you’re likely to meet and has constantly supported Trampoline, The Kays  and now mini50.  Even though I think we have very similar tastes in music,  we disagree on lots, all the time, which is odd.  However, at the end of the day, Matthew’s contribution to grassroots music in general, but Edinburgh in particular, cannot really be matched and should never be underestimated.  He’s kindly taken time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions in this the 8th interview for the Steinberg Principle.  And for the record, yes Matthew, I was deliberately exaggerating your DJ skills!  Enjoy. 

TSP:  Successful music blog, successful record label, rumour has it not a bad dj either.  What does 2010 have in store for you,  in terms of the blog and record label in particular?

MY: I am aiming to live up to this question, to begin with!  Successful?  Only on a very small scale, I think, although I appreciate the compliment.

I don’t think there will be any radical changes to the blog this year, just some refining of the emphasis.  In terms of the content that means a bit more video, hopefully, and maybe a few more interviews on the podcast and maybe some snappier live reporting from festivals and the like, which I’ve been a bit slow with so far.  I want to get the house gigs and live-streaming going properly this year too.

In terms of the label, we have a lot of releases planned but the hardest will be the new Meursault album.  It needs to be a big step up from the last one, because the band have a chance to make a big impact this year and I really don’t want the fact that they’ve been loyal to a label as small as ours to end up holding them back.  So there’s a big responsibility there and the whole process is going to be a level above any of the releases we’ve done so far, so it could be a bit of a steep learning curve.

TSP: With regards to the blog, do you find it difficult after 6 odd years to keep it fresh and interesting?

MY: Do you really think it’s fresh and interesting?  It’s had a fairly predictable format for a while now.

The two things which keep it relatively lively, I suppose, would be that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for the two key factors: music and talking pish.  If either of these ever runs out then I’ll have a problem. 

TSP: What makes a blog good in your eyes?

MY: One which is the blog the writer wants it to be and doesn’t second guess itself about popularity, tone or influence.  To do that needs confidence and integrity, and it tends to show through in the writing.

TSP:  For me personally, in the 2 or 3 years I’ve been using your blog, the reviews have changed significantly and certainly appear to be more and more focused on less well known acts and of course local music.   Would you agree and do you find writing the blog more rewarding now than back when you started and perhaps had more of a focus on the mainstream?

MY:  Well partly.  There’s only so much I can stay on top of all by myself, so that wasn’t a deliberate shift, but you’re right that it has happened nevertheless.

I think what I find more rewarding is how the blog has allowed me to participate in the making of music, despite having no musical skills of my own.  So I suppose it’s almost inevitable that would turn me towards grassroots music, because unfortunately Tom Waits is hardly champing at the bit to record a Toad Session.  Yet.

TSP: Is there more passion for what you write about now or is it just a change in taste and direction?

MY:  No more passion, exactly, just an inevitable result of the limit in how much I can personally take in.  I’d like to move back towards covering more well known bands and maybe going through to Glasgow for gigs from time to time, like I used to.  That would be a subtle shift in emphasis though, not really a big change. 

TSP: Compared to other blogs I’ve seen or use, you seem to have a massive readership and, more impressively, a huge amount of people actually commenting on the site.  What is it about your blog, do you think, that not only attracts but retains peoples attention?

MY:  I genuinely have no idea.  Partly, I was very early on the scene in the UK – there were only a small handful of established blogs when I first started writing, which does help.   The other thing is with all the multimedia stuff, live shows,  record label and radio stuff, there are a lot of different ways to get into Song by Toad, which I assume helps.   Also,  a lot of the commenters are people I know personally, so it’s just an extension of the conversation we were having down the pub, with a few more people chipping in. 

TSP: One thing I have noticed, and we’ve discussed before is that often the music posts generate less discussion than the more general posts.  Given that the blog is primarily a music blog does it frustrate you when you write about an artist and nobody comments whilst, at the same time, a post about say…. a political view will generate huge volumes of responses.  Or do you see it as all being part and parcel of the site?

MY: Well maybe.  Bart explained that nicely by pointing out that you often need to digest music a bit more before you know what your opinion actually is, whereas with politics or general pish talking,  people often have been thinking about it already and so often have something they want to say readily to hand.

One of my favourite posts, though, was the hundred-plus comment thread on Alela Diane’s latest album.  The debate was all about prodcution values and her label chipped in as well, and it was all very on topic and constructive.  A good debate, I thought.

TSP: Turning to Scottish music, and I guess in particular Edinburgh music, are there any bands outwith the bands on your label who are really exciting you at the moment. Who do you expect to make waves in the next year or so?

MY: Well I love the Withered Hand album, obviously, and the eagleowl single and would have loved to release either of those myself but irrespective of that, they are brilliant releases and both are phenomenal bands.

I am personally much more keen on The Japanese War Effort but I get the impression that Conquering Animal Sound could make a big impression this year, judging by the level of excitment they seem to be generating.  The Pineapple Chunks are exciting me a fair bit at the moment, but they might be a little strange to make a wider break through.  I’m still really looking forward to hearing their new recordings though.  Mammoeth could have just the pop sensibilities to make more of a popular impression than some of our more eccentric pals, so I’m looking forward to their album too.  And this other band called The Kays somebody…I forget.  Don’t they have an album out soon too?

Outside Edinburgh I am excited to hear the full length debut from Sparrow and the Workshop who are brilliant people and a brilliant band.  Findo Gask have so little material for a band who’ve been around for a while, but I love what they do have.   I also think it will be an interesting year for the likes of Mitchell Museum and The Scottish Enlightenment who are both bands I think have a lot of potential.

TSP: What are the differences in terms of the music scene in Edinburgh from when you first moved here until now?

MY: Confidence.  Even when I first started exploring, bands like Broken Records were really surprised to get coverage on the site when I first interviewed them – even at the modest level I was at at the time.  Now there are more avenues to get out there with so many more blogs springing up, and that has actually made it clear to bands that there actually is an audience out there fore them, which breeds confidence.  Also, examples like Broken Records and (hopefully ) Meursault and Withered Hand will be able to show that being in Edinburgh need not limit your career potential, despite the Scottish media’s continuing Glasgow-related myopia, and then the wider British media’s general indifference towards Scotland as a whole.

TSP: Turning to your record label.  For being little more than a year old you must be delighted with how things have gone for the label to date?

MY: Erm, yeah, that just occurred to me over Christmas actually.  It feels like I’ve been a label for ages, but it’s only been a year, hasn’t it.   I do have to confess though, I got very, very lucky with Meursault who not only work their arses off without the slightest complaint but dropped one of the best albums of the decade right into my lap.

TSP:   Can you tell us what’s scheduled for release in  2010?

MY: My 102nd podcast was all about that actually – you could have a listen to that if you want this list to have some musical samples as well.

First off we have albums by Maxwell Panther and Montreal band Trips and Falls then, at about the same sort of time, the new Meursault album and the Cold Seeds record, which is a collaboration between Neil and Pete from Meursault, King Creosote and Frances Animal Magic Tricks.  Then later in the year we should hopefully have albums from Inspector Tapehead, The Savings and Loan,  Jesus H Foxx and Animal Magic Tricks (in order of proximity to completion).  We’ll also be working further with Loch Lomond from Portland, hopefully releasing their Night Bats EP and a new album before the end of the year as well.

It’s a dauntingly long list, in all honesty,  both in terms of how much it will cost and how much work it will take to do it properly.  There is an awful lot of very repetitive work in releasing an album, which even the bands themselves don’t entirely appreciate.

TSP:  Given that you have stated that 2009 was slightly disappointing in terms of quality new albums are you hopeful for more positive things this year?

MY:  Well it was a really bad year for full length albums, but still a great year for music.  The EPs released last year were incredible, and I got into some fantastic new bands, so I don’t want to sound too picky.

TSP: What record are you most looking forward to hearing this year?

MY:  Honestly, I think the one that comes out of nowhere.  There’s such a thrill to hearing a brilliant album for the first time when it comes entirely out of the blue.

TSP:  Finally, what’s the key to being a good DJ and if there was one tune you’d guarantee would get the crowd on the floor what would you choose?

MY:  Erm, I think you might somewhat be exaggerating my DJing skills.  I have DJd a grand total of about 3 or 4 times, I have no idea what I’m doing, and the only thing I ever promised anyone who asks me to DJ is that the playlist will be totally incoherent and most probably no one will dance at all.  Whilst that suits me just fine, I’m not sure it’s particularly useful advice to give an aspiring young DJ.

I did show Malcolm Ross how to work the decks though – is anyone reading this old enough to know how cool that is?  (er, yes… – TSP)

Although, if you really want to get those ice cool, cheque- shirted, skinny jean sporting hipster kids in their bloody silly indie slippers then Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen seems to get them everytime for some inexplicable reason.