Interview #17: Rodge Glass

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.

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