Jim Sutherland

Jim Sutherland

Composer, bodhran and cittern.

See below for an extended article on Jim from 1989. See also The Easy Club.

Tracks recorded 1984 by Ditte Andersson.

Hopeless No. 1

These tracks also feature Derek Hoy and Rod Paterson:

Unidentified Jig

Helen Black / Alec C MacGregor

Drums in the Cowgate: A Musician’s Progress – Jim Gilchrist

Eclecticism in Scottish music is nothing new, of course. Jim Sutherland’s musical voyages of exploration and exotic gleanings put one in mind of Shetland sailors faring hame with violins and mandolins from balmy Mediterranean ports-of-call … jazz 78s from the States…

Probably most widely known as the dexterous and inventive percussionist, cittern-player and prolific tune-makar with the ‘Scotsswing’ band, The Easy Club, Sutherland has also become a fairly ubiquitous name playing on or producing records which may or may not fit comfortably under the ‘folk’ label. His music will soon reach a considerable new public as the soundtrack for Play Me Something, a film of a new John Berger short story to be premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, having already attracted interest at some European festivals. His musical development provides some interesting insight into the way the young musicians of the folk revival are responding to native and more eclectic influences, and includes some memorable encounters – including, indeed, a night when African and Indian drums resounded with pipes and fiddles in a seething Cowgate howff in Edinburgh.

Jim Sutherland grew up in Thurso, Caithness, where he was born in 1959 – a product, he says of the Dounreay baby-boom. Like his mother and father, indeed, like most of the folk in his street, he went to work in the Dounreay nuclear power station (‘I didn’t have then the strong feelings about nuclear power I have today’), serving three years of an electronics apprenticeship before music, which was where his mind was most of the time, finally got the upper hand and ‘it was agreed that I should leave…’

One could devote an article to the assorted influences of his early years. His parents indulged a youthful appetite for stringed instruments, including guitars, banjos and double bass (which, learned at school, gave him the ability to read and write music and took him to workshops with the Scottish Youth Orchestra). He went through the inevitable phase of wanting to be a rock guitar hero, but his future direction was hinted at when, in his mid-teens, he got hold of a second-hand bouzouki. As neither teachers nor printed tutors for the bouzouki were common currency in Thurso, he had to teach himself and invent his own music for it; one of these early compositions was later developed to become a jig variously titled ‘The Referendum’ or ‘The 40 Percent Rule’, which he played with The Easy Club, habitually introducing it as ‘a Mickey Mouse tune for a Mickey Mouse event’.

Two events he regards as being very important for him were, firstly, meeting Ian Sinclair who with his wife Margie had founded the widely regarded folk group Mirk and who introduced Sutherland and his double bass to The Thurso Strathspey and Reel Society, with whom he played; secondly, hearing the seminal mid-Seventies folk band, Alba, with its fiddle and Highland pipes playing against sophisticated, Planxtyesque accompaniments on guitar and bouzouki. Hitherto, Sutherland’s acquaintanceship with traditional music had been more or less limited to Scottish country dance music which had ‘seeped in’ from the radio, ‘but I could understand, listening to Alba, that the tunes were being played in a very different way from anything I’d heard in dance bands.’

Alba sometimes used the bodhran: the Irish goat-skinned hand drum much seized upon by enthusiastic revivalists and as often as not battered with a determined fistiness that could make them the curse of many an otherwise lichtsome session. Sutherland’s handling of the bodhran would, ultimately, transcend all that. Around this time another vital and formative development was his falling into the agreeable company of a group of much older musicians (they were nearer his father’s age) who went by ‘a Gaelic name that I can’t really spell now’ and who played at ceilidhs and dances. They included an exiled Orcadian, Andy Corsie, who played Highland pipes and goose and who showed the young Sutherland how to play the bodhran. Corsie, says Sutherland, had developed a method of tuning the bodhran which was to be adopted by Jim and by some other leading players such as Ireland’s Ringo MacDonagh. ‘That band was straight from the tradition: I owe a lot to those days, to them, and some of the older musicians in the strathspey and reel society.’ Mirk, with whom he also began to contribute double bass at this time, were more of a revival band, consciously researching material, and through them, Sutherland was introduced to the folk scene. It was also through Mirk, whose Ray Crompton played the cittern, that he came across the other instrument which he was to make very much his own.

The cittern may take its name from a Renaissance group of mandolin-like instruments, but in its present form it is very much a product of the folk revival, having been developed largely by the Hexhamshire-based instrument-maker Stefan Sobel. Its ringing, percussive tone combines with its ability to suggest a drone, making it particularly effective in playing pipe tunes. Later Sobel would build for Sutherland the ‘Sobel Semi’, an electro-acoustic instrument, to meet the demands of playing with The Easy Club.

After leaving Dounreay, there followed a couple of years of joblessness in Thurso – ‘a hellish place to be unemployed.’ Joblessness didn’t mean idleness, however. Putting himself on the kind of intensive training scheme which grants or YTS schemes don’t countenance, he simply ‘played and played and played’ and wrote music. He also dieted, losing six stones in a year, for in his late teens he weighed 21 stone, a problem he reckons was brought about by steroids he was given to combat asthma. He’s philosophical about it all: ‘In the end it was all leading towards the kind of life I lead now.’

Eventually he moved to Edinburgh, where he shared a flat (‘a real garret’) with the Shetland musician Gary Peterson, whose formidable banjo technique could produce triplets like machine gun bursts, and from whom Sutherland picked up a great deal. Once again the scenario was one of little remunerative employment, but of days spent playing and writing difficult tunes which would push further his technique, and evenings amidst the city’s vigorous pub session scheme of that time, in which Peterson’s Shetland group, Hom Bru, often formed a potent catalyst. And it was through these sessions, in places like Sandy Bell’s and The Vincent, that he got to know guitarist Jack Evans, concertina player Norman Chalmers and singer-guitarist Rod Paterson with whom, ultimately, he formed The Easy Club.

Paterson, Chalmers and Evans all played in the highly respected Jock Tamson’s Bairns, whose second LP The Lassies’ Fashion, contained one tune which particularly caught Sutherland’s imagination: ‘In the reel “Peter Mackinnon of Skeabost”, Rod played some jazz chords – but without the piano-style vamping. I loved it, and you could really say that that was the cross-over that The Easy Club came from.’

Not that the concept of introducing jazz elements to Scottish music was anything new. ‘Peerie’ Willie Johnston had already influenced accompanists in Shetland and beyond with his swing jazz guitar chording, the late Jimmy Elliott had snapped out similar chord patterns from his corner in Bells; both these musicians had left their mark on some young guitarists such as Jack Evans. ‘I already played with a swing’ recalls Sutherland, ‘because of playing with people like Peerie Willie and (Hom Bru’s) Peter Miller. I started playing more into the accompaniment and into the off-beat, jazzing up the tunes, and because I was playing traditional tunes that way, I could hear other suggested chords and harmonies and ways in which the tunes could take off at a tangent.’

The Easy Club – named after one of 18th century Edinburgh’s High Street drinking clubs, much frequented by Allan Ramsay – went professional and soon became widely known as the ‘Scots swing’ band. Norman Chalmers left early on and they were joined by fiddler John Martin, who managed to juggle two hats, playing with The Easy Club and the internationally-established Ossian. And the new band soon found themselves on the international tour circuit in Europe and North America. Their music was highly individualistic – a striking blend of traditional material, much of it pipe tunes which had inbuilt syncopation in the first place, and Jim Sutherland’s often idiosyncratic tunes, which as often as not gave opportunities for what one enthusiastic critic described as his ‘wonderfully loopy’ cittern playing. As Jack Evans put it in one interview, they were playing what was essentially Scottish music, but with as much emphasis on the accompaniment as on the melody line; unlike the mellifluous rolling nature of Irish music, the snap of Scots music seemed to lend itself to this skittering swing-jazz treatment. And they had an additional bonus in Rod Paterson, with one of the finest voices in the Scottish folk revival, capable of great delicacy, and whose repertoire ranged from Burns songs and Border ballads to Cole Porter and some distinctive material of his own.

One would have thought that with their combination of inspired musicality and eclecticism, The Easy Club would have reached a wide enough audience to have made them a living, but that, apparently was not the case. After three LPs (the first two excellent, the third enjoyable but at times suggesting that as a unit they were running out of creative steam), and much arduous touring abroad, the band packed it in, although they still occasionally re-assemble for a concert. ‘It’s a sad fact of life’, agreed Sutherland, ‘that a band like that couldn’t make a living.’ The folk scene, however, can be a notoriously unrewarding area in which to make a living. I recall going
to see the band, at the peak of their reputation, during the Edinburgh Fringe. They were playing the Platform One bar of the Caledonian Hotel and half the audience, who had paid a couple of pounds to get in, were busily chatting to each other; the band may as well have been a supermarket muzak cassette. Even the usually affable Sutherland was becoming visibly riled. Not all audiences were as churlish, of course, but shortly afterwards the band decided to double their fees, thus automatically giving themselves half the work, but in better venues, for the same returns.

Sutherland recalls a tour of the United States which involved some periods of driving over immense distances. ‘That was one of the worst times I ever spent,’ he recalls, with feeling. ‘Everyone was low, we were bickering, and it was like driving from here to Africa.’ The tour wasn’t without its positive moments, however; in Greenwich Village, Sutherland was taken along to play at the famous Blue Note club, a fairly glorious tale best told in his own words:

I walked in with my bodhran case. There was this amazing band playing on stage. I didn’t really appreciate at the time that this place was a Mecca for jazz enthusiasts, and of course almost everyone in the place was black, apart from an Irish double-bass player. You had to sit an audition before you were allowed to sit in on the session, and there was a whole line of musicians waiting to get in. This big burly black trumpet player auditioned me … and he was impressed with the bodhran, he thought it was great … he was slightly patronising as well, I suppose. But they gave me a solo … I remember there was a drummer there who wanted to saw his bass drum in half to make one …

I like to think that they remember the time that this guy came in with this strange drum, because you tend to think of jazz as being very free and easy, but it can be very closed in its attitudes sometimes. I think that my coming in off the street like that and playing there would be quite exotic for them … rather like what we’d think if some Tanzanian musicians came into the Green Tree in the Cowgate and started playing. 

The comparison sounds fanciful, if apt, but it happened. During both the Commonwealth Arts Festivals to be held in Edinburgh in recent years (the first as an adjunct to the ill-starred Commonwealth Games of 1986), Sutherland and other members of The Easy Club were asked to organise sessions, workshops and general exchanges between the visiting and local musicians. During the second event (smaller, but unmarred by African boycotts prompted by the London Government’s policy on South Africa), a vividly memorable scenario developed when a party of Tanzanian musicians, in full fig, plus some visiting Rajasthani musicians were taken into one of the regular Scottish/Irish sessions in the Green Tree. The result, with batteries of Afro-Indian percussion melding with fiddles and Highland pipes, turned in the kind of cross-cultural clanjamphrie which would have delighted the late Robert Garioch and surely merited a stanza in Embro to the Ploy – ‘jist like my luck! I wasna there / it’s no the thing ava, / tut-tut’.

The Cougait cantraips have had a lingering effect; Sutherland has been approached by the Tanzanian High Commission, through the British Council, to organise a party of Scottish singers and musicians to visit the African country next year and give concerts and workshops. Also, The Easy Club will re-assemble this September to tour Sierra Leone, again through the auspices of the British Council. As a percussionist, Sutherland relishes the prospect, although he makes the point that, so far as his renowned bodhran technique is concerned, some major influences come from further east – from the eloquent tabla-playing of Indian masters such as Zakir Hussain. He names Shakti – the sublime Indo-jazz fusion band in which Hussain played along with violinist Shankar and guitarist John McLaughlin – as an influence on his playing, although African styles have affected his handling of other items in his now-considerable collection of percussion, and he has attended workshops with the Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.

On a more familiar level, pipe band drumming has also left its mark, the process being by no means one-way. Many of Sutherland’s compositions now passing into general circulation have been composed within the Scottish pipe chanter scale; vigorously convoluted tunes such as ‘The Ostrich’, ‘The Back Man’, ‘The Radical Road’, and, of course, the eponymous ‘Easy Club Reel’ are being taken up enthusiastically by both solo pipers and by bands, and can be heard on album by ‘cauld-wind’ piper Hamish Moore, and in particular on the album Grace Notes, by Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Major Robert Mathieson, which features several Sutherland tunes, as well as the man himself on percussion.

According to Sutherland, it was his growing collection of exotic percussion which made him increasingly in demand for session work in recording studios, and he found himself taking to the record production which constitutes a sizeable aspect of his work these days.

To date he has been involved in more than 30 recordings. ‘There’s a different way of being in a studio that’s different from performing or anything else. There’s a certain pressure, even although you know you can always stop and start again. It’s more tense, but I somehow overcame that and became – I hope – a good studio musician and found I was also able to help other people to get the best out of themselves in the studio.’

The work involves more than being a sort of musical team coach; he has recently finished producing a rather extraordinary ‘folk opera’ or song cycle, written to traditional Gaelic tunes by an English musician better known on the folk scene as a comedian, Les Barker. Sutherland describes it as ‘a bit Celtic twilight for my taste, to be honest … but musically it’s quite glorious.’

And it was another recent production job – that of Carlos Arredondo’s Debo Cantar Bonito – which in effect got him the prestigious Play Me Something film score. Hamish Henderson, who contributed some sleeve notes to the cassette, was so impressed with the production, and in particular with some of the atmospheric use of percussion, that he immediately recommended Sutherland to Tim Neat, who was looking for a composer to take on the score of the film he was making of the Berger story, playing him snatches of the cassette over the telephone. ‘I had, of course, known Jim a long time’, recounts Henderson, ‘but it just leaped off the tape that here was a wonderful musical mind at work, and I acted on it immediately.’

Play Me Something gave Sutherland a tremendous opportunity to explore studio possibilities. He contributed much of the musical sound himself, with contributions from Easy Club colleagues Jack Evans and John Martin, and others – including some vocals from his wife, Mae Shaw, who herself is known on the folk scene, both as an activist with the Left Turns organisation and as a singer in her own right. Some of the score, however, involved building up a ‘library’ of sampled sound to create background for sequences in which naturalistic sound wasn’t wanted … editing John Berger’s recorded words to create part of a collage of boat sounds, for instance. The ‘music-music’ sections are very far from the kind of material with which he is popularly associated and deliberately have few identifiable cultural references – a pounding, elephantine sequence of dance music, a lingering trombone solo. An extraordinary coincidence helped seal the close working relationship he developed with Berger. At an early rough screening in Glasgow, the author asked Sutherland what he had in mind for an important section of the film – a sequence of black and white stills of the lovers around whom the story revolves: ‘I sat down on the stairs of the cinema, got out my cittern, and played him what I’d been working on. He then played me a cassette of the kind of thing he’d been thinking about. It was an etude by a Spanish guitarist that was so close in atmosphere, pace and sound to what I’d been working on … it was unbelievable.’

Apart from stretching his own capabilities, Sutherland in recent years has been assisting others to widen their own horizons. He first became involved in community work on a voluntary basis, giving some percussion workshops to children in Edinburgh’s Pilton area. ‘There’s quite a lot of naivety in attitudes to community art, but I got a lot of coaching from my wife Mae, who is an experienced community worker, and from Barbara Orton at Pilton, and we discussed it a lot, so I got off to a good start.’ Later he was employed by the Muirhouse Festival Association to work with people with learning difficulties. He thoroughly enjoyed it, and became increasingly involved in that kind of work, including an initially taxing but ultimately fruitful scheme devising ‘rap’ music with unemployed youths in Leith.

In May, the 369 Gallery (back to the Cowgate!) was the location for a vivid installation created by special needs adults working with The Slide Workshop in conjunction with Artlink. Sutherland was involved in helping them create the soundtrack for this ‘total environment’ – waves of ambient sound, spliced snatches of song and conversation and delicate interludes of piano music. He finds it a rich area of experience – ‘a lot more than the image of working with yoghurt cartons and egg boxes’ – and believes strongly that making music can help people ‘gain access to areas of themselves they may not have explored before.’ He can relate it to his record production work, in that it involves assessing what each individual is capable of, and then perhaps pushing them slightly. ‘But it’s important for ‘handicapped’ people to make their own decisions and not for me to foist things on them.’

He is often conscious of holding himself back from influencing the creative process too much and articulates the dilemma of ‘who are you doing it for? For the group? For the people who will view or hear it (whose reactions may influence future funding)? For me? For the people who have employed me?

‘In this field you find an awful lot of people in stripey jumpers with blue saxophones or melodeons, whose groups end up as a sort of  backing for them. It should be your aim, as a community artist, to make yourself redundant.’

Those with whom Sutherland works in this way are unlikely to bother whether he plays with a ‘folk group’ or if he writes film scores. This, he agrees, is appropriate: ‘I suppose I’m not easily pigeonholed.’ He adds, with the wry insight of anyone with a mortgage and a young family to support, ‘I sometimes think that if you can be pigeonholed you can earn a lot more money.’

As the demands on his music have changed, so has his music changed. Away from the heady musical environment of The Easy Club, he agrees, he no longer writes the quantity and type of tunes that he did then. ‘I still write tunes; it’s just that they’re not so easily placed as they used to be.’ And in the meantime, having published a sizeable collection of his own tunes (The Flow Country; Vol. 1 of the Sutherland Collection; pub. Grian Music), he is now working on, and seeking sponsorship for, a major collection of contemporary Scottish dance music being composed by the many prolific musicians writing at the moment.

It remains a source of vast satisfaction to him that pipe bands, strathspey and reel societies, dance bands and individual musicians have taken to his tunes. ‘They’ve entered the tradition and they’re being played, whether I’m about or not. If I walk into a place where there’s a session and they’re playing one of my tunes, I get an incredible buzz from that … I suppose it makes me feel quite awkward too.’

Published in Cencrastus : Summer 1989