Thursday, April 16, 2009
Coachella 2009: Glasvegas interview
COACHELLA 2009 PREVIEW
performing Saturday 4/18, Mojave Tent
For Glasvegas mastermind James Allan, music is all about authenticity. He sings in a natural Scottish accent, writes about working class concerns and reveres old time rock ‘n’ roll. The Glasgow group’s self-titled debut on Columbia Records has been all the rage in Europe and Rodney on the Roq (KROQ-FM/Los Angeles) has been playing it on air for months. “Something good happens to this band every day,” admits lead guitarist (and James’ cousin) Rab Allan. I talked with Rab (pictured, far right) earlier this month after a sound check at a Chicago nightclub.
The current tour has been going for a couple weeks now. How have things been going with the American crowds?
It’s been pretty bizarre. We go to venues in America and you don’t expect much and every night you’re surprised because of 7 or 800 people singing all the words back. It’s been incredible. There’s not one city that we’ve been to that hasn’t been good.
The crowds are mad for it.
Unbelievable. So much more than what we expected.
What are your thoughts on playing Coachella?
When we were doing the festivals last year, Coachella was the one that I wanted to do, but it just never happened for whatever reason. So this year, when we were thinking about it, I said ‘this is the one that I want to do.’ In Britain, Coachella is known as one of the best festivals in the world. They always get the best bands back together. It seems really exciting. That’s the one for me this year that I’m most excited about.
Are you going to make a point to check out particular bands while you’re there?
We just had a girl on tour with us from Norway – Ida Maria. Friendly Fires as well (on Day 3). We toured with them too. I like Brandon Flowers [of The Killers]. He’s always well dressed. I touched his tiger last time I saw him. He had a tiger on his jacket and I was rubbing it [while meeting backstage at a show]. I think he thought I wanted to have a romance with him [laughs]. I like The Killers. I would probably see them. I think I’m hanging about with some people from the record company for a couple days and see some bands. Think everyone else is leaving, but some other people I’m staying with.
Do you find Glasvegas’ sound works equally well in the large outdoor gigs as it does in small clubs?
I think last year we were really unprepared and terrible. That was purely lack of experience and we didn’t know what to expect. I think this time around, we’re probably more experienced as a band and we know what we’re going into. To be honest [at some festivals it’s a bit like a] cattle market. Every band gets thrown onstage then dragged back off. It’s so quick; you don’t get any saturation or anything. I think if you go into it looking at it like that, you won’t be too disappointed. The most important thing is that everyone at the front enjoys it.
Now that the album has been out for awhile, are you satisfied with how it turned out overall?
Of course. It was one of those things – we had the sound and all the ideas, but there was no thing that was definitely going to come out of it. To be honest, I think it was luck because we were pretty inexperienced in doing that kind of thing. We’d never done an album before. On the next album, we’ll know a lot more and that will be exciting. But with the first thing, it’s as good as it could’ve been and I’m damn proud of it.
Was it a goal from the start to have that dense, orchestrated sound or did the songs just evolve that way?
That was definite. It was probably one of the only things we actually did want. We did say from the start that we wanted it to be orchestral. We wanted it so [it seemed like] I was playing 100 guitars instead of one. And because Caroline’s uses two drums, we wanted it to be like a timpani. And Paul’s bass to be the bottom end. That’s one of the things we did set out for. I hope it comes across like that. I really do.
In recent years, more bands have turned up the reverb. Is that a good thing?
Probably. The reason we use reverb is because we’re terrible musicians and it covers up all the mistakes [laughs]. I think if you’re honest about it, maybe shyness was a part of it as well. We definitely didn’t set out to sound they way we do specifically. It was one of those things that just worked out like that. Now we love all those sounds. We love the reverb and delay. Even when we go into radio sessions, we need to have reverb. If I’m setting in someone’s house, gotta have reverb. You can’t just play guitar unless you have it.
Almost like an addiction or something.
I told James it’s an addition. You’re absolutely right.
Do you share James’ affinity for 1950s and 60s girl group pop, rockabilly and Elvis?
Do you know what? It’s quite strange. The four of us, before we were in a band, we used to hang out at Caroline’s house and listen to that kind of music because no one in Glasgow played it. She had an old record player and we used to put on old vinyl and listen to it. We were all friends and James started writing songs. So that’s kind of how the band started.
Moving forward a few decades, you’ve been compared to fellow countrymen JAMC a lot. But you guys weren’t really familiar with their music before Glasvegas, correct?
That’s right, yeah. One of our first gigs, Alan McGee came to see us and we became friends with him. He said, ‘you remind me of the Jesus and Mary Chain.’ I’d heard of the band but hadn’t heard them. By the point Alan saw us, we’d developed a sound a little bit and getting close to where we are now. But people can’t believe we hadn’t heard them before, but it’s just one of those things. It’s a funny thing – in Glasgow people are always proud of certain bands and cultural things. Some cities like Manchester are really proud of Oasis and Happy Mondays. Glasgow’s not really like that, so it’s not in your face as much.
Glasvegas comes from the rough side of town. Why do you think other bands from there haven’t had much success?
It’s very working class, whereas the other side of town there’s an art school and universities. It’s more middle class than the area we come from. Everyone works in a factory or shop. Really basic. Everyone that lives in the area we come from, there’s generations [have lived there]. To be honest, I don’t know any other bands. The only one that comes from close to where we are is the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. He was just crazy. It’s quite strange for us to come from there and do what we do.
James had said he knew he wanted to be a musician after seeing Oasis on TV. Was there a similar turning point for you?
It’s funny; it was actually Oasis as well. I was watching “Top of the Pops” in 1996 or 97. They were doing “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” At that point I wasn’t really too into music but I heard that song and for some reason, I was playing the computer console and I stopped to watch the TV. I thought ‘wow. They look like they’re having fun.’ Maybe I was like 12-13 at the time. After that I got a guitar. My mom and James’ mom are twin sisters so we were always pretty close, like a brother. James found I was learning the guitar, I found out he was, so we learned it together. Me and James messed about quite a few years before starting to do anything serious.
When you first started hearing James’ song lyrics, were you amazed at well he captured the working class vibe of your neighborhood?
Totally. I think I was more surprised than he was. James isn’t the kind of person who writes a song and says, ‘I’ve just written an amazing song.’ He writes the song, plays it for the band and says, ‘what do you think?’ We’ll say, ‘that’s amazing’ and he’ll say, ‘are you sure?’ “Flowers and Football Tops” was one of the first songs he ever wrote. When he brought that to us, I was blown away. He didn’t even think it was good enough to play. And “Daddy’s Gone,” he wasn’t very sure about that and what happened was we did a radio session in Inverness and Alan McGee came along. He started crying because he’d never heard the song before. So we knew that was something quite special. When James wrote “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry,” that’s when I knew we’d get a record deal. The demo - James had recorded it in the house with other parts. Me and Paul sat in our car listening to it and we just knew. The hairs in the back of your neck stood up. James is confident at what he does but at that point he was still unsure at how good he actually was. There’s so many songs he’s written that no one’s heard. It’s just crazy.
The fact he sings in a natural accent adds to the band’s realism.
It’s funny. He always did that. I remember the first day he sang through a PA system with a microphone and it came out Scottish. We hired a rehearsal room with equipment and the person who owned it said, ‘why are you singing like that?’ We were in Glasgow and he thought, ‘why not sing in a Scottish accent. That’s natural.’
How has the band taken all the media attention and success back home?
I think if you believe all that stuff, you would go crazy. And that goes for the good and the bad. That’s not to say I don’t like hearing I’m in the best band from Scotland in 20 years. That’s nice, but it’s just one of those things. To be honest, something good happens to this band every day. So you don’t reflect on things too often. I remember before I was in the band I thought, ‘I wish I was on the cover of NME.’ Then the day I was on the cover of NME, I was more interested in getting a sausage. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, when good things happen, but you roll with it.
What is it like having your cousin as the singer and other cousin as manager?
Me and James fight the most out of everyone, but not over personal things…to be honest, I couldn’t imagine not being in a band with him now. Even with Denise managing, there’s just a total understanding and a respect there as well. Even Paul and Caroline are like family now as well. It’s like having another brother and sister.
Since Caroline used to work in a clothes shop, does she ever give you guys fashion advice?
You know the black biker jacket James has? He actually got that from the shop when she was still working there. That’s actually how we met Caroline. She used to try and dress James up. It didn’t work out too well. I think she should concentrate on how she dresses, but she dresses lovely! Very pretty.
In 2007, the band played four Scottish prisons. What was that experience like?
It was pretty real. By that point we had done a few gigs but those gigs are really gritty. You’d go in the gym hall and see prisoners dressed in overalls, drinking orange juice from plastic cups and eating packet of crisps. If they didn’t like you, you’d know it. They would make it obvious. At one of the prisons in Edinburgh, they were throwing pill bottles at us. And the guards were just standing there laughing. It was quite an experience and I’d definitely like to that again. A tour of Britain of a few different prisons. I think music can be good for people.
Last year, you recorded the Christmas EP in a Transylvanian cathedral. Whose idea was that?
It was James. I’ve asked him why and he doesn’t know. His mom used to dress him up as a vampire at Halloween and put a black bin bag over his head. I think that’s maybe one of the reasons why. It was such a surreal experience to actually be there. The place isn’t long out of Communism and is still trying to catch up with the rest of Europe. It was so basic, all the equipment we used to record. We basically build the studio on our own and spent maybe 4-5 days there. I think the full mini-album took 8 days. We had 10 songs – a full album to do – but couldn’t actually finish it because of all the touring. We only managed the six songs.
I really dig your Korgis cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” on the U.S. version of the debut.
That band was incredible. It’s funny, before we were in the band, James always used to play that one. It was a song we always used to mess about with, maybe while rehearsing. What happened was we were doing the album and needed some B-sides for the singles in Britain. So we spent a day in the studio. We actually [planned] to do Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared.” For some reason, James at the very last minute, said ‘no, we’re going to do this song.’ And we hadn’t learned it properly. It turned out incredible for being done in one day. It came out really qu9ckly and sounds incredible. I think we’re going to start playing it live. Beck did an acoustic cover of it once for a movie.