Rodge Glass is perhaps best known as an author of a number of novels as well his award winning biography of Scottish author, and all round artist, Alasdair Gray. He contributed to the wonderful ‘Ballad of the Books’ project, collaborating with Vashti Bunyon and he is currently writer in residence at Strahtclyde University. What might not be so well known is his love of music. He has been involved in bands for quite sometime, but it is his latest project Burnt Island who have really grabbed the imagination of the Scottish music industry. Their mini- album ‘Music and Maths’ was recently released on Chaffinch Records and is a piece of dark, folk loveliness which you really must get your hands on. I had the pleasure of meeting him this past Friday when we played with Burnt Island in Edinburgh and he is a truly lovely man. Before you rush to check out his work, sit back and enjoy this interview as Rodge kinldy took the time to answer some questions for me. You can check out the work of Rodge the author here and the work of Burnt Island here. Enjoy.
TSP: Let’s start with the music. How exactly does an author fall into the music industry?
RG: By accident. I had been in a very noisy band for years – I’m still close to all the other three guys, and Paul Carlin, a fantastic drummer, went on to be in Danananaykroyd – but that band fizzled out in 2003/4. Soon after, I got my first novel published and just assumed I was no good when it came to music. After being encouraged by Paul Savage at Chemikal Underground to get started again (I met him doing the joint track with Vashti Bunyan for the Ballads of the Book album) I did some demos, slowly put a band together, and here we are. I’ve always written stories and always written songs. I see them as two parts of the same thing. But I never imagined I’d be lucky enough to enjoy doing both so much.
TSP: Have you been surprised by such a positive reaction from the music press in such a short space of time?
RG: I think we’ve been fortunate so far – I did wonder whether reviewers might take against me because of my day job – you know, who does this guy think he is? But there’s been none of that so far. Just analysis of the music. And I’m pleased the broadsheets have picked up on it. We took advice as a band to not wait for someone to give us permission to be a real band – just GET STARTED – so that meant the single, then this, and to try to do it to the highest standard possible. Because we’re just beginning, it was hard to imagine if anyone would notice at all. This is a good start, but it’s only small. We don’t take it too seriously.
TSP: The mini album ‘Music and Maths’ has recently been released on Chaffinch Records and received some very positive press. Following its success, are you planning a full length follow up in the future?
RG: We definitely want to do a full length record, but it’s just a case of how, and with who. When still putting the band together, me, Malcolm (guitar player) and some friends went into Chem 19 and recorded an ‘album’ which I imagined would be called ‘Yes, I’ve Been Gone a Long Time’ – all recorded and mixed in seven days, all close up, all intimate, mostly overnight in downtime. I even had an order in my head of how it would go – but then the live band came to be, we used two tracks for our first single – ‘The Moments Before / Timeless Colour’, then took three for this mini album, and recorded a few new ones. There’s still 5 songs left over we haven’t used, but we’re a different entity now, it may be weird to go back. This is a small-scale release so maybe ‘Music and Maths’ might contain songs we’d re-use for a full length record. Dunno, but it’s a good problem to have!
TSP: Obviously, you yourself are best known for being an author of a number of successful novels and your award winning biography of Alasdair Gray. What/Who inspired you to be a writer, and who would you say have been the greatest influences on your work?
RG: Well, Alasdair himself was a big influence – I loved the fact that he saw no boundaries between art forms, and couldn’t care less what people thought of him. He’d just go where the energy was, did what satisfied him. And he taught me that there’s a long tradition in Scotland of creative people doing lots of things at the same time, sometimes just to get by. I liked that attitude. As for style, nobody sees it but Alasdair’s approach to language – understated, never a wasted word, plain language packed with multiple meanings – that’s what I aim for. I was brought up on very different things though. Old Jewish literature from Europe. Contemporary American stuff. George Orwell. Now I love Raymond Carver and especially Chuck Palahniuk – these people have no fear.
TSP: The biography of Alasdair Gray won you the Somerset Maugham Award, one of the most distinguished literary prizes in the UK. How did that feel and how do you begin to follow up an award winning book? Do you feel like there will be greater pressure/expectation on you now as a writer? Are you even considering writing more any time soon?
RG: It felt a little strange. I’d been nominated for awards before with my novels, and you always have to wait ages, go to some weird posh do with crappy corporate sponsors, and get told as soon as you walk in the door that you haven’t won. I never cared about awards but I was determined to keep writing – and for that I needed recognition and money. Only liars pretend they aren’t interested in these things. What writer doesn’t want a bit of money to help them live while they write their next book? With the Somerset Maugham it was totally different. I just got a badge in the post saying ‘Somerset Maugham Award Winner’. No note from agent or publishers, nothing. As for pressure for the future, no, I don’t think so. This is an award that gets you recognition and critics take it seriously, but it doesn’t make me a big seller or anything. It just buys me more time and the chance to write another, better book. Nothing more. It’s strange. For years I felt like in day to day life I got no respect at all. You know, when I was working in cafes and bars and dreaming. I wished people would be polite and respectful, no matter what I’d achieved or not. Now people pay me too much respect. I’m not much fonder of that. I’m not interested in the big ego side of writing. Having said that, the award has opened a few doors – now I get offered interesting commissions, so I’m doing projects I couldn’t have before. I’m scripting a graphic novel called ‘Dougie’s War’ based on research and interviews with Scottish soldiers with PTSD. I’m editing a book of new Scottish fiction. That stuff wouldn’t have happened before.
TSP: You are also the writer in residence at Strathclyde University. Do you get the same sense of satisfaction from teaching as you do from your own writing?
RG: I do – I’m a great believer in apprenticeships, and after having a generous mentor for a long time I understand how important it can be. Also, I was an Undergrad at Strathclyde so it’s nice to be back in a new capacity, trying to grow Creative Writing there. The key thing is to get the balance – at certain times of year it completely takes over and that can be frustrating, but at other times you’re completely free to do your own research. And my research is my books!
TSP: Can you teach somebody to write or is it more about guiding thoughts and ideas in the right direction? I guess what I’m trying to get at is do you believe anyone can tell a good story or is it something that comes naturally?
RG: You can help someone to find their own voice, and to say more in less words. To be thriftier with language. More direct. To avoid cliches and overstatement and all that stuff. The structural stuff most writers are bad at. But you have to have a degree of talent, as well as, most importantly, determination, stamina, and a very thick skin. I think you can create a space, a community, for writers to grow and develop and share ideas with each other. Does everyone have a novel in them? No. But lots of people have a potential story to tell.
TSP: Turning to Ballad of the Books. How did that come about and was the experience for you?
RG: Alan Bissett got me involved – he was doing a song with Malcolm Middleton, told me about it, and recommended me as he knew I was a musician too. I gave them the words to a poem I wrote called ‘The Fire’, about a line from that Bukowski book title – ‘What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire’, Vashti chose it and off we went. It was a little strange as I didn’t really know who she was beforehand but I think that was best. Otherwise I would have been too nervous. I went round to her house, she put the kettle on and played me this song idea, then invited me to sing and play guitar on the track. She was kind and indulged me, it must have been hard especially as she’d been out of the music industry for decades and hardly ever recorded anything at all. We did the track in her home studio. By the time the album came out Burnt Island was in its infancy and the whole experience was hugely important in getting me started and giving me confidence. Without it, I doubt this band would exist.
TSP: In terms of Scottish artists, both in music and literature, are there any you would recommend people take some time to check out?
RG: Oh Christ, it’s hard to know where to start. Literature – Kevin MacNeil is a huge talent, also Suhayl Saadi. There are a lot of good performance nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh now throwing up some interesting writers who are going to be on this collection I’m editing, which is called ‘The Year of Open Doors’ – Anneliese Mackintosh, Kirstin Innes, then there’s the likes of Sophie Cooke and Kapka Kassabova from Edinburgh. Scottish Literature is much more diverse, and internationalist than before. The old guard are still great – Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Kelman, but I’m more excited by younger writers. As for music, I love James Yorkston, he’s a big influence. I also love the Phantom Band record (Rick Redbeard, the singer, does fantastic acoustic Scottish-Johnny-Cash type stuff on his own too.) I like the Beerjacket album – again, very DIY, I like the spirit of his songs. We played with the Second Hand Marching Band at our record launch and they always make me happy. It’s chaos, but I think it has some heart to it.
TSP: A good album or a good book?
RG: Ha! No way you’re getting me to answer that one – a good book with music on in the background!
TSP: What are your plans for the rest of 2010?
RG: The graphic novel (or comic), ‘Dougie’s War’ is out at the end of May. ‘The Year of Open Doors’ is released at the end of July, and we’ll be doing Edinburgh Festival and a series of showcase events for that which I’m excited about. And I’m about 2/3 of the way through a new novel I’m dying to get back to. As for the band, I’m hopeful. I want to do more shows, get better live, work on new songs, perhaps travel some more, do a couple of wee festivals. We forget we’re still just getting started – experience experience experience. That’s all there is. And fun…
TSP: Finally, if you had to choose between writing or music which way would you go?
RG: But that’s the point – they’re the same thing! You can’t divide them up.
One of my favourite songs. Ever.
I will be playing a solo set with this wonderful artist on 21st April at the Roxy Art House in Edinburgh. Happy Days.
Willy Vlautin’s previous 2 novels ‘The Motel Life’ and ‘Northline’ are 2 of my favourite books ever. His writing style is simple and beautiful. Interestingly, I recently read a piece about Raymond Carver, one of Vlautin’s literary heros, which said that Carver’s early tutor John Gardner taught him the skill of using 15 words instead of 25. His editor at Esquire magazine Gordon Lish made him go further and instead of using 15 words would make him use only 5, where possible. This minimalist approach to forming sentences is evident throughout his work and indeed throughout Vlautin’s novels too. Short chapters, short sentences all add to the instant readability and connection with the books. They become an addiction. Difficult to put down, easy to become trapped in.
Apparently the reason behind Carver’s love for short stories was that they could be written and read in one sitting. The style of both his and Vlautin’s writing means that their novels are easy to absorb, easy to digest and easy to finish in 3 or so sittings. This doesn’t mean that the novels themselves are simple of course. Not at all. In fact, the intensity and development of many themes, messages and ideas throughout their books is quite incredible, given the simplicity of the structure and language used. To say so much with so little is testament to the brilliant writers that both these men are.
Lean On Pete is Willy Vlautin’s 3rd novel and like the 2 before explores the vulnerability of the human race. It explores loss. It explores loneliness. And, as always, it explores hope. Charley is a teenage boy who lives with his dad in a trailer. He is often left alone for long periods. He has very little and wants for even less. Only to make the football team, when school starts, and for the life of a normal boy. To say he is neglected is an understatement, a fact that leads him to work so that he can afford food when, as is often the case, his dad doesn’t come home or works for days on end. He takes a job at the nearby racetrack and develops a attachment to a horse named Lean On Pete. A series of events lead to Charley being thrown into the world alone with only Lean On Pete for company. What follows is a tragic tale of a young boy lost in a world he doesn’t understand. A boy trying to survive. A boy trying to find his aunt. The only person left who can save him from the harsh world in which he exists.
This is a beautiful book. At times, like Vlautin’s other 2 novels, it’s heartbreakingly sad. Yet, it always retains a sense of warmth and a sense that hope exists even for those who think that all is hopeless. I cannot recommend this book highly enough nor indeed the writing of Willy Vlautin in general. All 3 novels are wonderful reads and I’d encourage you to get your hands on them all asap. You can find his work here. Buy them. And Enjoy.
It’s a very happy day for mini50 records. We are delighted to announce that we will be involved in a split release, along with Leeds label Gizeh, of the absolutely sublime Conquering Animal Sound’s debut album. This is set for release in September 2010. I guess the truth is that CAS have signed to Gizeh but the album is a split release because I’ve wanted to work with these guys from the first moment I heard them and because Anneke and James from CAS, and Rich from Gizeh, were brilliant enough to keep us involved when Rich and his label came a knocking. The opportunities and support that they will get from Gizeh will be far greater than anything I could offer them but it feels nice that, in this slightly fucked up world, there are still people who value support, no matter how little that might be. James and Anneke stuck with me when they could have just ignored my interest and rolled with Gizeh solo. And Rich was very kind and spoke to me about his keenness to sign the guys but keep me and Russell involved.
For mini50 it’s a total win win situation. Not only do we get to work with possibly the most exciting artists that I have come across in my 6 years in Edinburgh, but I also get to work with, and learn from, Rich. The months leading up to this announcement have been really eye opening for me and I have learned a huge amount about how to run a label with style and grace. I cannot place a value on the experience I am getting from working with and learning from Rich. It’s been beneficial both for the label and for the Kays.
And it’s a very exciting time ahead for mini50. Mammoeth’s album comes out on 28th June and then Conquering Animal Sound’s in September, which is very exciting indeed. And CAS will be remixing a Mammoeth tune as well, which is also great news for Russell. The Mammoeth album is sounding amazing and what I’ve heard of CAS so far is also stunning, so we’ll have 2 really great releases in 2010 and hopefully more will follow from that.
Anyways, I’m hoping we’ll have a few more announcements in the coming months regarding people signing to the label.
Thanks and Enjoy.
Chantal Acda is a Dutch woman living in Belgium and writing and performing under the name Sleepingdog. I first came across her music thanks to Rich from Gizeh/GLISSANDO as her last record ‘Polar Life’ was released on Rich’s label. It’s a fabulous record filled with beautiful piano moments. It floats. It swirls and it rests itself firmly in your soul. Many times I’ve turned to it to help release the stress of a day, week or month. Let the demons float away into the beautiful darkness. Since she played Trampoline way back when we have become friends and may even soon get to work on some songs together, which for me would be an absolute delight. If you have never heard her wonderful sounds please do so now by checking out her work here. And keep an eye out for a new record in the near future which, from what I hear, is absolutely stunning. Enjoy.
TSP: For those people who may not be aware of your music can you tell us a little bit about Sleepingdog. How it started? How it has developed? And where it is going to next?
CA: It started as a homeproject. I always played in bands and I really needed a project to be on my own. I am not an easy person to work with because when I write songs they end up as if they were my babies. It’s hard to let go and trust people with that. For the second album”Polar Life” I started working with Adam Wiltzie. He helped with the production and arrangments. For the new album (2010), almost finished, we seem to work as a duo. It’s amazing I can trust someone in music like I trust him. It’s also funny because we both come from completely different world. I normally take the folk/emotional side and Adam is used to playing with the beauty of sounds and orchestrations. We found eachother halfway I guess. So the music did change and develop. From very intimistic songs with a guitar and funny instruments to very quiet piano/orchestration popsongs.
TSP: Tell us a little bit about the Belgian music scene. Would you say it is vibrant at the moment? I’m assuming most of my readers will only know of dEUS from Belgium. Are there other artists you’d recommend people check out?
CA: Yes and I think it always was. I am originally dutch and I really moved to Belgium for the amazing music scene. This country is a big chaos. You have no idea of the mess around me all day ha. There seems to be no clarity in running this country, rules, the way the cities look. Just chaos and I think it’s this chaos that keeps the music coming. Although I have to say that the exciting dEUS from their early years seems to be gone. That very intense, original sound. Also in Belgium most bands seem to be copycats and all sound like American/ English bands. That’s a bit a shame. Bands like Wixel, Yuko, Toman and V.O are bands you should definitely check out!
TSP: Talking of dEUS, we recently discussed a shared love of this band. Just how big a deal are they in Belgium? Would you say they have played a big roll in encouraging people to play alternative music in Belgium and indeed in your life?
CA: They are still big. But their music is less original now if you ask me. The chaotic sound is gone. They lost character and that’s a shame. So most of the fans from the early days lost interest. They were an influence on my early days. I still sometimes play dEUS songs!
TSP: Your last show in Scotland at the Wee Red Bar was pretty memorable and had a lovely atmosphere. Will you be back playing on our shores anytime soon?
CA: That was a very special moment for me. I loved that place. I have this project with the previous guitarist of dEUS: True Bypass and we are trying to play the UK in september together with V.O. Sleepingdog will be back when the album is out.
TSP: How do you find the UK both as a place to play and a culture in general? Is there a big difference between doing shows in Europe, the USA and the UK? If so, what? And where would you say is your favourite place to play in the world to date?
CA: There is a huge difference! In Europe you get spoiled most of the time: well payed gigs, good venues, food and drinks for free. That’s all normal so most European bands I know don’t really feel like playing in the UK where they get less luxury. For me it’s the opposite but that’s maybe also because of Gizeh Records who always found me such nice places to play! I love playing in the UK. Especially the cities in the north and scotland. The USA is nice but i have a problem with the way of communication and the hippies in the part I was. Horrible. I really prefer Leeds United hooligans. The culture is a funny one in the UK. I like the extremes. During the day people are so polite and during the evening they can get sooo drunk. I like the girls with too short skirts and so do my band members.
TSP: Where would you say you have had most success as an artist?
CA: In my studio. Succes is for me writing a good song. To have that feeling that you dissapear. Having no clue what time it is. Not even knowing that you are actually making music. That’s my goal.
TSP: What are the plans for the rest of 2010? Is there a new record on the horizon? If so, what can we expect from this record?
CA: Sleepingdog will be out in 2010 and before that the True Bypass album. Also I am making a cd with the music I write with dutch poetry.
TSP: Name one album that you could not live without?
CA: That changes the whole time. I think I could live without every album I have in my house. I like silence, i like the footsteps of a horse. These are the things that make me feel good.
TSP: What/Who inspires you as a musician? (both musically and non-musically)
CA: Silence, horses, being outside and musically Adam has been a huge inspiration for showing me this other approach of making music. An approach that makes me feel the same as walking alone in the fields.
TSP: Turning to Scottish artists, do you have any particular favourite acts from our shores?
CA: I always loved Mogwai. I love it that everytime you think they cant go any louder, they still do and you hear these wonderful melodies underneath.
TSP: Finally, piano or guitar? Which one would you take to a desert island if you had to?
CA: Definitly a piano!