Tracks recorded 12 October 1984 by P4 Radio Upland, Sweden. Many thanks to Ditte Andersson for supplying the recordings.
The Easy Club Reel (extract)
Employed as an opening sequence in the radio broadcast.
Miss Montgomery’s Hornpipe / The Flouers o Edinburgh
Donald MacLean of Lewis / John D Burgess
The Easy Club: at last – the story can be told …
George Orwell thought that some pretty nasty things would be happening in 1984. Luckily he was a bit off the mark – but he was right enough about it being an unusual year.
Because in 1984, an album was released by a Scottish band which was, to put it mildly, a bit strange. The band’s name was weird – not the normal Scots or Gaelic type of moniker. The album artwork looked like the menu from a 1950’s American diner. And as for the music on the album – well, I’m biased because I played on it, but it’s fair to say that the music sounded unlike anything else being done in Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK, at the time. In many ways, that’s still true to this day.
The Easy Club’s ‘Scottish Rhythm n’ Swing’ style of playing traditional music was not really very modern – it was actually quite a retro sound. It drew on many recent musical traditions, American as well as Scottish, forcing them together into a startling type of fusion. People who heard it were often initially a bit shocked, then intrigued – then they loved it. Some Scottish musicians (perhaps fearing that they might be expected to play in that style if it caught on) disliked it. But few could deny that The Easy Club’s music was the hottest thing in town.
The Easy Club appeared to have sprung from nowhere, but of course it wasn’t really like that. Years of earnest discussions in smoky pubs, downing pints without number, had to be endured first. But a key turning point in the gestation of The Easy Club had occurred a couple of years prior to that first album coming out.
In 1982, Jock Tamson’s Bairns had released their second album, The Lasses’ Fashion. Tony Engle put it out on Topic, which at the time was the most prestigious label in Britain (Greentrax had yet to be invented).
Though the Bairns were not a full-time band, their music was setting some new benchmarks for quality which the pros of the day were taking serious notice of. Among the many superb tracks on this album was a pair of tunes which I felt opened up a new area of exploration for bands playing Scots music. I asked the other Bairns what they thought about this track going last on the album – as a kind of signpost, pointing the way forward.
Donald Willie and his Dog/Peter McKinnon of Skeabost, with Rod Paterson’s brilliant guitar arrangement moving from languid and plangent to powerful, choppy cross-rhythms, duly became the last track.. This arrangement, to my ears anyway, seemed to be saying that the way forward for Scottish music was going to be through rhythm.
Jock Tamson’s Bairns’ reputation was at an all time high, but the demands of young families were making it difficult for some of the band to give it as much time as before. Those of us not burdened by sprogs found ourselves with time on our hands, and used up some of it by playing many excellent sessions around Edinburgh with newly arrived cittern player and bad boy of the bodhran world, Jim Sutherland.
Jim’s thunderous drumming infuriated those who thought that the tune was more important than the accompaniment. As we were keen to turn this widely held assumption on its head, we rather liked Jim’s crash-test punishment of Dave Gormlie’s superb tuneable bodhrans.
Rod Paterson, Norman Chalmers, Jim Sutherland, and myself played the odd gig under the classy name of The Bogey Brothers. We experimented with rhythmic ideas, tried to bring out the internal rhythms of the tunes, and generally made a decent enough noise – but it wasn’t that radically different from what you might have heard elsewhere at that time.
The Easy Club’s uniquely swingy take on Scottish music came about in a sudden, and slightly spooky, fashion. Jim Sutherland shared a seedy flat in Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh, with Gary Peterson, of Hom Bru – a high octane band from Shetland. This flat, where we used to practice quite regularly, boasted a mummified leg of reestit mutton hanging on the kitchen door, and the biggest collection of mouldy milk bottles in town.
One afternoon, Jim began playing a reel in A on the cittern, pushing the offbeat hard as he always did. Rod, who had learned some jazzy guitar moves from playing with the late Jimmy Elliot (a great old jazz player and frequenter of Sandy Bell’s), began backing up the tune with some swingy barre chords in that Jimmy Elliot/Peerie Willie kind of style. The combination of swung rhythm guitar with Jim’s powerful offbeat emphasis caused the tune to burst into life like a Roman candle. Norman and I joined in with a similar feel, and the music was suddenly rocking like we’d never heard it before.
A bit shaken by this experience, we partook of some weak tea, and discussed what had happened. We had all heard jazz guitar accompaniments to tunes many times before, but never felt that it really worked – mainly because the tune was still being played in a ‘straight’ manner. Start swinging the tune too, though, as Jim was doing, and the combination really gelled. We knew straight away that this was going to be the signature style of The Easy Club.
Soon after that particular epiphany on Buccleuch Street, I went back to the flat to find Jim where he could often be found – sitting in front of a music stand, cittern in hand, pencil at the ready, writing tunes.
‘Listen to this,’ he said. “I’ve written a tune for the band, with syncopations and all that.’
I sat down to listen while Jim played the just-finished tune. It was The Easy Club Reel.
The Easy Club Reel, written with our new style in mind, quickly became our signature tune, and our set was soon filling up with swingy instrumentals. Songs were still a problem though, as most couldn’t take the swing treatment. We knew that we needed a wider range of rhythms to suit different songs.
For fast numbers, Jim’s bodhran beater of choice was a hammer handle, but he had already invented the brush stick – a pair of drum brushes spliced on to a bodhran beater, which allowed him to play swingy bodhran with slower numbers and songs. With yet more grooves and rhythms demanding new skills and sounds, we went off to Gordon Simpson’s music shop and bought what must have been the first ever set of congas to be used in Scottish music.
The band urgently needed a demo to help us get some gigs, so we recorded six tracks at the newly opened Pier House studio in Granton. This cassette had some great stuff on it and got us a lot of attention, but it was still only a prototype of the full-blown swing style that we developed later – after some fairly drastic changes to our instrumentation.
Before that would happen, though, the first incarnation of The Easy Club folded. Insufficient gigs, plus outside commitments and pressures, caused us to cease operating as a band. It seemed that The Easy Club was not going to survive the economic tribulations of the time. But in the months that followed, Jim Sutherland and I continued to play sessions, developing ideas, and learning new tunes. Joining us in this was a new fiddler in town – John Martin, ex of Ossian.
Jim and I both owned citterns made by Stefan Sobell, and we loved his instruments. One evening at a Bairns gig in Newcastle, Stefan appeared with two guitars he’d made. Based on the design of an old 1930’s Martin, these instruments had carved tops like a jazz guitar, but round soundholes like a folk guitar.
As The Easy Club’s music started to come together, I realised my old flat top guitar wasn’t cutting the mustard, and that Stefan’s new guitar could be just what I needed. I asked him if he could make one with a very loud treble side, even at the expense of some bass. He explained that most factory guitars were made too bassy anyway so they’d sound good in the shop, and that he had a piece of spruce with grain so close that it would be perfect for the guitar I was after. It was.
We ended up getting a guitar and a new spruce-top cittern from Stefan, whose mattress now bulged with Scottish tenners. I bought every chord book I could find, and sat down to change my playing style from the bass-heavy jugband stomp that I’d used with the Bairns, into something a bit more sophisticated – and swingy.
The style I was working on was dictated to some degree by the sound that the Sobell guitar made, and differed from what’s sometimes referred to as the Shetland style of rhythm guitar, which has a very mobile bass line. I was happy to keep the bass simple, often just pedalling on the open A or E string, while the treble voicings of the chords moved up and down, adding melodic phrases to the accompaniment. This melodic chording style was similar to the way electric guitarists played, with riffy chords and shapes that you can slide around, high up the neck..
I was able to test out these new sequences during the sessions we played in various pubs around Edinburgh (Sandy Bell’s having deteriorated badly during this time after the death of its manager Jimmy Cairney, nobody really played there any more). The combination of cittern and fiddle with the new-style guitar was working better than anything we’d done hitherto, coming closer to that earthy Venuti/Lang sound we loved so much. It convinced us that we should re-open the files on The Easy Club.
I’ve often been asked how it was that The Easy Club mark 2 emerged with a changed line-up – John Martin in place of Norman Chalmers. This was mainly down to the way that the music had continued to develop during the band’s period of non-existence, to which John’s fiddle playing had contributed. Also, Norman was (and indeed remains) a dedicated free spirit and creature of the night. Formal commitments or obligations were against his religion.
John Martin was a much more experienced gigging musician than any of us. He had already been everywhere twice, thrived on touring, played fantastically, could handle Jim’s most tortuous tunes, turned up on time, and didn’t bump into the furniture. We quickly realised how lucky we were to have a musician of his quality committed to the band. Plus John owned a Guild acoustic bass. And a phono-fiddle.
After a lot more work getting songs together, improving our trademark swing, learning how to play the Guild bass and numerous other tasks, we felt ready to record an album. A first album often puts bands under fierce new pressures, and we were no exception. At one point we found it impossible to carry on, and recording ground to a halt. Jim, whose only prior recording experience was with Thurso band Mirk, wanted to beef up tracks with busy bodhran overdubs, which would have obliterated my carefully honed guitar parts utterly. Mixing, too, had turned into a nightmare.
During this impasse, Rod and I sat in Mather’s Bar one afternoon and seriously discussed sacking Jim from The Easy Club. We can laugh about it now, but at the time the only alternative appeared to be the end of the band. Eventually everything got resolved though, due in no small part to Pier House engineer Peter Haigh kicking us out of the control room while he mixed tracks, then letting us back in to hear what he’d done – which always sounded much better than the mess we were making.
We released the album on our own label (Abbeyhill Music – named after the area of Edinburgh where most of us lived at the time). Reactions to it were mixed at first.
We expected the older folkies to be shocked, but actually many of them liked it.. Danny Kyle was an early convert, and Scotsman scribbler Alastair Clark was keen. They recognised the references to a time when folk, jazz, and blues were part of the same alternative music scene – a time which had been good for folk music, and raised its profile with the public. Since then, traditional music (as it now preferred to be called) had attempted to kid on that it was somehow free from the pollution of modern influences.
The ones who took against The Easy Club’s stuff, strangely, were those few Scottish musicians who believed that only Irish music was worth listening to. This was in marked contrast, it should be noted, to actual Irish musicians, who loved the swing, and the unusual tunes. The Easy Club Reel, in a slightly less syncopated form, eventually entered the Irish repertoire. It also, in a revised version, become a very popular tune with Scottish pipers.
Gradually, The Easy Club’s music got through to more and more people. Many approved of the fact that this was new Scottish music, and a new take on traditional material, and that it crackled with life and energy. While within Scotland puzzlement at the band could still be found, outwith Scotland we met with very receptive audiences for what we were up to.
What people really liked was that The Easy Club played with a kind of anarchic daring and chuzpah. Between Jim playing tunes on the bodhran, the hot, flashy guitars and ranting cittern, the peerless vocals of Rod, and the smooth yet fiery fiddle of John, The Easy Club on form was positively dangerous.
These qualities of chuzpah and joie de vivre proved to be fugitive ones though, hard to maintain intact during the constant touring, the numerous breakdowns (we once attempted to drive our van, Sick Transit Gloria, to Italy with failing brakes), the static fees, and the spiralling costs.
With three albums under our belts and over three years of touring behind us, we decided that it might be nice to earn a living, and reluctantly drew a line under the loss-making Easy Club.
The music scene in Scotland has changed a lot since 1984, with greater participation, the growth of popularity of Gaelic music, the development of dance, increases in funding, and the emergence of the Celtic music market. A lot more music, for sure – but much of it seems (to me) rather conservative sounding, as people have learned to play the funding game, feed the market for predictably arranged Gaelic music, sound more and more Irish, more and more like everybody else.
Audaciousness seems noticeably absent, but then maybe that’s not really what people want to hear. The music of The Easy Club is perhaps now just an amusing backwater, warranting no more than a footnote in the history of Scotland’s recent musical life. Certainly, the things that we got up to – using new rhythms. new harmonies, producing new kinds of tunes, introducing new instruments, developing new ways of playing instruments – all this seems a world away from today’s preset Celtic moods.
The Easy Club was the product of the unusual group of characters who were involved with it, all of whom (with the notable exception of John Martin, always the most sensible and pragmatic of the lot of us) have carried on doing leftfield things ever since. I became a member of The Cauld Blast Orchestra (with Norman Chalmers) and ended up playing some of the scariest music I’ve ever heard. Jim has gone on to wilder and wilder things, always with the knobs turned up to eleven. Rod has carried on being Rod, which is of itself a strange and wondrous thing.
Bands starting out today may feel that it’s wiser to play safe, stick to decent traditional music, don’t try to be different, make a reasonable living, and have a van with working brakes. I agree.
But remember that the world is awash with music these days, and most of it is pretty ordinary. Do try to invest your music with some special qualities, ones that can’t be found among the presets of a Kurzweil synth, or by becoming a pallid clone of your personal musical heroes. Don’t end up as a nett contributor to the tide of mediocrity that’s already engulfing us. That’s the only message of The Easy Club.
Copyright ©2001 Jack Evans
The Easy Club in August 1990
Taking their name from Allan Ramsay’s 19th [sic] century Edinburgh drinking society, the Easy Club, on their emergence in the mid-80s, did much to animate the stagnant folk scene. Marrying swing rhythms to Scottish tunes and songs, and writing plenty of new ones, the group evolved over a few albums and gained many admirers, like Richard Thomson, without ever becoming a big draw at the box office.
But Easy Club guitarist Jack Evans thinks that ‘1990 has been really good to us. Over the last five years a lot has happened in music and I think that people now feel our music makes a lot more sense to them. Previously, in terms of the audience, a couple of drinks were necessary, and then it all became clear! But we don’t seem so revolutionary now. We’ve become part of the furniture of Scottish music.’
After a long lay off, the group had a successful German tour in the early summer with various festival dates up and down Britain, and are enjoying playing again.
‘We’d been brutalised by touring, playing so much we got stale and lost sight of the spirit and humour in the music. Now that we don’t have to go out on the road, we have fun when we do and the audiences are enjoying it too. Now we just enjoy playing certain rhythms, our own style, although everyone is careful not to slip over the line from technical proficiency to being clinical. We’ve got enough new ideas to make another album, but for the moment we’ll play anywhere they’ll pay us our exorbitant fee!’
The List 27 August 1990 p. 59.
The Easy Club – an interview with the band from October 1985
Lynn Cooper (LC): Why and how did you choose your name?
Jack Evans (JE): We did a programme for BBC Radio Scotland which as all about Allan Ramsay, who was the poet who started the Scots language revival in the 18th Century, and his work influenced Robert Burns later on. Ramsay himself, when he was a young man, was a member of one of the many drinking clubs that they had up and down Edinburgh’s High Street and this particular club was called the Easy Club, because, I think, they were all intended to be ‘easy’ fellows which meant they drank a lot and probably told dirty jokes as well. So, for that particular programme, we called ourselves The Easy Club Band and afterwards when we started the original group, we though that The Easy Club might be a nice name.
LC: The isn’t your first musical collaboration is it? Can you tell us a bit about what came before The Easy Club?
Jim Sutherland (JS): Jack and Rod both played in a band called Jock Tamsons’s Bairns which was very well known in Scotland and we understand, it was well known with certain people in England, although they didn’t actually get down to play in there very often. John Martin was and is a member of Ossian and I, Jim, was a member of a band called Mirk. We came together in sessions in pubs, notably Sandy Bell’s which is a kind of notorious session pub in Edinburgh. When I first moved down from Thurso, I came across Jack and Rod in the sessions and we all had a great time playing together and decided that we’d like to do something more and formed a band called The Easy Club with, as Jack said, Derek Hoy (ex Jock Tamsons’ Bairns) to do a programme on Allan Ramsay. Derek Hoy was never a permanent member of the Easy Club and Norman Chalmers, the concertina player, became a member of the Easy Club. Then the band disbanded and we stopped playing. Eventually we decided to re-form with John Martin, the fiddle player that we have now and we’ve gone from strength to strength.
Simon Cooper (SC): Can I ask you how you would describe the type of music that you play?
John Martin (JM): I actually have great difficulty describing the type of music that we play because it is based on traditional music but there’s a big influence from jazz. That side of it comes mainly from Rod and Jack who’ve always been into swing music more than avant-garde or modern jazz. We call it ‘Scottish Rhythm and Swing’ because there’s a lot of rhythm and a lot of syncopation in the music that we play; so it’s a very unique sound, so far.
Rod Paterson (RP): I think that the phrase, rhythm and swing sums up all the various elements that we require of it. To all of us I think, it’s important that it’s unmistakably Scottish. The rhythm and swing are in Scottish music anyway and I think we just bring it out more. People have been playing Scottish music for years now with the rhythm and swing implied but not so much made a feature of as we do.
JE: We found a really good quote a few years back which apparently had come out with years and years ago, saying that there were only two types of music which possess swing and one was jazz and the other was Scottish music. I haven’t actually found this quote again since reading it several years ago but as Rod says, a lot of people have played Scottish music with a fair amount of swing over the years and if you listen to the recent batch of Scottish dance bands you’ll find that the second box players are throwing in all kinds of syncopated funny chords – diminisheds and augmenteds and all kinds of strange stuff so it’s not something particularly new. To us living in Edinburgh where the jazz guitarists have always mingled in the sessions with the traditional musicians this is something that we’ve become very used to, certainly since the beginning of the 70’s.
RP: To a great extent it’s a pop music rather than a folk music in the sense that, as Jack says, the likes of dance bands have been using jazz influences from the days when the same bands would play on the stages of the old theatres, along with Will Fyfe and those people. And they would be using the latest American influences quite wholeheartedly, so it’s not new in the respect – like Bob Smith’s Ideal Band, the Glasgow band that played around 50 years ago. He wasn’t playing what we play but he was using what was then the current American pop music of the day.
JS: It’s not an artificial creation as everyone seems to be saying anyway. It actually happened from playing in the sessions. We just started to play that way and it seemed like a good idea. We didn’t think ‘aha boys we can make some money out of this’ or ‘here’s a great commercial idea’ or anything like that, but we did realise that people liked it and we did realised that it was a thing that we might like to bring to a wider audience. That’s why we’re playing full time.
LC: How do the Jazz/Swing type audiences react to it?
JE: Well we haven’t really played to a purely jazz audience. We played in a jazz venue in Edinburgh recently but to a very mixed audience. We have found that different age groups seem to really like it, not just people who have been into the traditional folk scene for the past 15 years. There’s a bit of resistance by some people there, but older people, particularly everybody’s parents in the band, seem to go bananas over it. I don’t quite know why. I think it’s because they enjoy the kind of snappy rhythms which were a feature of the music which was on the go when they were young.
JM: The reaction that I’ve had from people who are used to listening to the jazz bands is that the biggest difference is that we don’t improvise as freely as normal jazz bands would. What we play is actually very strict. It’s very tight and more or less the same each time, whereas a jazz band would improvise and play more solos.
JE: What we play isn’t jazz in any sense because the essence of jazz is to improvise which we don’t do except for a certain amount of rhythmic improvisation. But melodically, we play around with the tune and I think that the reason why we particularly like to do that is that jazz, in the past few decades anyway, has suffered from lack of melody. This is possibly the reason why jazz slipped in popularity. Whereas the tunes we play are really good tunes and so we like to keep a strong melodic line while messing about underneath with the rhythm and the chord changes as much as possible. So the improvisation thing is more implied than stated. That’s the point.
SC: Your tunes not only have a very interesting melodic structure, they also have a very strong rhythmic structure, particular the ones you write Jim. Is there any reason why is comes out like that or is it just you?
JS: Yeah …. I think that’s a bit like how long is a piece of string? I think that my kinds of influences tended to be people like Shakti, a well-known Indian jazz band, and like Dysart and Dundonald, a fairly well known Scottish pipe band. Everyone’s been an influence on me at some stage or another. I’ve played classical music, I’ve played free-form jazz, very badly (if you can play free-form jazz badly, that is). I’ve played all sorts of things and I think it’s just that my music comes out like that. It’s not a conscious thing. I don’t sit down an say ‘I must write a tune.’ Sometimes I have an idea, sometimes an emotion, sometimes I’m pissed out of my head. It’s just the way that I write.
SC: You don’t think that perhaps because you’re also a rhythm player, playing the bodhran, that this has had an influence on what you write?
JS: Oh yes certainly. Sometimes I play the rhythm and put a tune to it – that’s one way I’ll do it. I’ll be rattling away and anything could come out. We can be sitting in a session and playing the biggest load of rubbish you’ve ever heard and all of a sudden I’ll put three notes together and that’ll be the start of a tune. It’s really getting three or four notes that go together and the rest of it just fills in. It’s really difficult to answer.
RP: A lot of Scottish tunes have these rhythms anyway, especially the bagpipe tunes, like those ones that have been latterly written – the G. S. McLennan tunes and such like.
JE: Yes it’s really just a kind of approach where you take a cross rhythm idea and put a melody to the cross rhythm so that the melody cuts across the basic beat of the tune. We do that in the Easy Club Reel.
JS: I think it comes from the pipe band thing as well. The bagpipe tunes themselves are fairly strict in their rhythm. They’re subtle; there’s a lot of subtleties but they’re very strict. They’re always played the same way, you know, but the drum sections in the pipe bands tend to be much more jazzy in their rhythms now, particularly since the 50s. And since then, the bagpipe players have started to be influenced by the way that drummers have accompanied them and I’m influenced by the way that drummers accompany bagpipe players. My first tunes were all written for the bagpipes. Only since the band really, and just before it, did I start writing in chromatic scales.
LC: Did you write tunes before you started laying the bodhran – which came first?
JS: Well, I played the double bass first and then messed around with melody and things like that. I don’t write tunes as such. I don’t know when I first wrote a tune, I think it was only about fie or six years ago and I’d been played for quite a time.
LC: How do you see the bodhran? Do you see it as basically a backing instruments or do you see it as something more than that?
JS: It depends on what the context is. I see it as a musical instrument – I’m glad you said instrument. I don’t see it in the way that a lot of people do of thrashing at it in sessions. I’m going to be controversial here – I don’t like the way that people just decide to get a bodhran because they want to be a part of the music or something like that. If they want to be a part of the music, they can tap their feet as far as I’m concerned unless they actually want to do something with it. I think it is an instrument. I think it’s grossly underrated and I think a lot of people just don’t make the effort to find things that you can do with it. There are some great players – Ringo McDonagh, Tommy Hayes – there are some great players.
LC: Have you modelled yourself on any of these? I’m particularly interested because I gather you have a somewhat idiosyncratic style which is, again, not to everybody’s taste. Can you tell me something about that?
JS: It’s true, yes. I mentioned Shakti and pipe bands and things before. Shakti are a very heavily rhythmic Indian band. They play tabla and they play all sorts of bits and pieces. I’ve not modelled myself on an image drummer or a bodhran player because they style of Irish bodhran played is purely to accompany the music. I can’t play Irish music. I’m not an Irishman and I don’t consider the bodhran to be purely an Irish drum. It’s a single skin frame drum that exists all over the world and I just rattle away on it the way I choose to rattle away on it.
SC: I’d like to ask how you came to choose the songs that are on your record and the songs that you sing in your sets?
RP: There’s no way that we have said let’s apply this process and it’ll lead us to a song. We chose “Dirty Old Town” just because I took a notion to it. I didn’t know it was hackneyed. I must say that by a process of elimination we seem to have ended up more with urban and universal love songs. Obviously, the Midlothian pit song’s not one like that but it is a semi-urban thing that’s not easily reduced to a small area although it’s set in a small area. The things it expresses are universal, I think and the same applies to all the songs. Basically what I’m after in a song is some way of speaking to everybody – all classes, all age groups, all nationalities too and virtually anything would do if it slots in there. Now we play a couple of newish songs, like one called I Do If For Your Love which is something like ten years old. But again, it’s an urban love song. It’s also the kind of song that virtually everyone will recognise an experience in of one sort or another.
SC: The evocative song on your record is probably the Auld Toon Shuffle but it means perhaps more to people in Edinburgh.
RP: Well that was a calculated risk you know.
SC: Can you explain what lies behind the Auld Toon Shuffle as a song?
RP: It’s based on the legendary split that people, especially Glaswegians, claim exists in Edinburgh. The old poverty and pride bit, the ‘fur coats and nae knickers’, you know, that kind of idea. It’s just playing around the the ideas really. It’s a very playful song. In fact, I’ve been a bit embarrassed at how much people are reading into it. It really is just playing around with these ideas and I don’t think it approximates to anything that actually exists. There’s an element of that in all cities, the haves and the have-nots, everywhere you go. It’s just that Edinburgh has always had this legend attached to it that the Auld Toon is the place where people who ‘have not’ live and the New town is the place where the ‘haves’ live, which is to some extent true, of course. But everywhere has those areas.SC Do you think you’re likely to change the balance much in the future between the amount of singing you do and the amount of instrumental stuff?
RP: Well I think that’s going to depend completely on the quality of the material. If the tunes we’re playing are better than the songs then we’ll play the tunes and that’s that. And if we run into a spate of cracking songs that just appear to fit the bill then we’ll play them, because I think everyone enjoys playing the songs too.
LC: You have a reputation on stage for being laid back as a group. Do you know that? You’re very quiet and I was going to ask you without being offensive whether it was shyness or arrogance?
JE: We honestly don’t know what we look like. We discussed long and hard with very professional acts and singers and players about how you should present music and its a big debate. It’s an ongoing subject of how you should present yourself when you’re playing this or similar types of music. Quite honestly I don’t think it’s to any of our taste that we put on some kind of show in that respect. We prefer to be as natural and as quietly confident as we can manage and whether or not we can do this depends very much on the night and on the audience and how we feel about the music generally. We hope that the music comes over as confident and good-time but the only way that we can really communicate that is if we’re having a good time playing it. We don’t try to present our personalities between numbers by cracking jokes or anything like that. We simply try to let that side of things grow without having some kind of a particular regime now. So we really don’t know what we look like, we just hope that people think we look vaguely human.
LC: Do you see yourselves, then, as entertainers?
JS: Oh yes, of course. I think, though, we have a specific idea of how we entertain. We’re not a bunch of comedians, we’re not magicians, we’re not patter merchants, we’re musicians. That’s all we actually know and the other side of the entertainment thing is a trade that we don’t know. We do that as well as we actually can do it an we are basically trying to be natural; letting our own personalities come through rather than getting an act together and doing a lot of things between the numbers.
JE: Really, though, the music should be the thing that entertains, although if it doesn’t then it’s possible that you can try and make up for it in other ways.
JM: I think all of us have been involved in bands for a lot of years. We’re all been in bands with people who were very good at entertaining audiences but there’s a limit to how far you can take that. I think the idea for the Easy Club was really to concentrate on the music side of it and if the audience wants jokes, then that’s too bad, you know. None of us are really into that side of the thing.
JE: That kind of thing does come out on the night. If the atmosphere and the relationship between the audience and the band is relaxed then that kind if thing tends to build. It’s a question of letting it happen naturally rather than to have any idea that this is the entertainment industry that we’re in now.
RP: Except in the respect that we are musical entertainers and if we’re not doing that it would be as well to give up now.
SC: Do you think you have suffered from the fact that folk audiences these days expect to be talked to all the time?
JS: We do talk. I’m actually going to dispel this myth. We’re not quiet, we do talk to audiences and we’re entertaining them when we talk to them. We don’t all do it. We do have roles to play in the band musically and we also have roles when trying to communicate with the audience. None of us are entertainers in that way. Jack’s used to talking to people – he used to announce trains at Waverley Station. Rod and I aren’t used to talking to people in that way but we feel that its very important to engage the audience.
JM: There should be a happy medium and I think that in folk clubs, probably over the last ten years or something like that, I think that it’s got a bit of out of hand. The introductions are quite often longer than the songs.
RP: Without attempting to generalise across the board, I think it’s been a function of a certain lack in the music that it seems to have been required of a musician or a guy who’s ostensibly up there to present music or song that he tells jokes too. If you want a guy who tells jokes then you hire a comedian but that’s not the same as saying that you want to be arrogant. Obviously a rapport has got to be established between anybody that’s playing music and a person who’s listening otherwise the person’s not going to hear.
SC: Can I ask you a question, John, you’re still with Ossian, do you find any musical conflict between the two bands and any date clashes?
JM: There’s no musical conflict because we’ve all come through the traditional apprenticeship and switching back to Ossian is really easy because I’m just playing straight traditional music. There are few dates that have clashed but Ossian are not playing as often as they have been in the past for mainly family reasons. But I enjoy playing with both bands. I’d be playing every night of the week if I could.
SC: Can we talk about your instruments, the guitars and the cittern are all made by Stefan Sobell?
JE: There was a reason for that. When we started playing this particular style of music three years ago, we didn’t play these particular instruments. Jim played a Sobell cittern and Jim’s quite a powerful player, probably the most powerful I’ve ever heard and we really needed instruments, quite apart from the style of the music, which demands a kind of punchy effect, that brought the acoustic volume up a bit. Jim’s own cittern he felt, was not really able to take the kind of punishments that he was meting out to it. So, we went to Stefan and had a long talk with him and he reckoned that he could make a cittern and a guitar that were compatible with each other and would take the kind of playing that we intended to give them. He went away with our orders and we were extremely pleased with the result because the instruments are really bright sounding. The guitar actually has a very clean open sound when you chord it. It doesn’t sound like a folk guitar at all. It’s closer to a jazz guitar and sometimes it sounds like an electric guitar. We’re really pleased with these instruments. They have helped in the development of the chord side of the band (especially in my case).
After this, Rod ordered a guitar himself, a slightly different style with a cedar (as opposed to spruce) top – a softer sound and very nice for fingerpicking and flat picking. So we have a broad range of Sobell’s wares. We’re a kind of display case for Sobell’s instruments.
JS: I think he’s great. He’s the kind of guy who’s easy to talk to and his after sales side is very good you know. He comes up every now and then and has a look at the instruments.
RP: That’s right, we all have to clean our instruments.
JE: We get on well with him personally, as most people do I think, and this has been great because he like to talk to you before he makes an instrument and get some sense of who you are by listening to you playing. He’s a real artist in that way. He puts the thing together in his head first.
RP: His guitars stand apart from the normal folkie guitars, the flat top Martin type which have a big bass and a weaker treble. That’s perfectly alright if you’re playing finger picking accompaniments to a song, but when you’re playing jazz chords half the notes are lost. That’s where Stefan has stepped in and plugged the gap.
JE: Yes, a lot of those chords voice best at the top so they need to be clear right across the treble strings.
JS: A similar kind of thing is true of the cittern he built for me. Most citterns I’ve come across have been excellent chording instruments. I know a lot of people play tunes on the cittern as well but really I don’t know that the instrument works well for that. Stefan spent a lot of time making mine heavier and more solid, with a spruce top for brightness and it’s a great instrument for playing tunes on.
LC: How do you think your music will develop and how will you develop as a group?
JE: We don’t exactly know how it’s going to develop but it is moving all the time. Having established the particular sound that we now have, we don’t see ourselves just carrying on bashing away at it. Even in the past year since putting together the material for the album we have noticed a lot of changes. In some ways things have some more sophisticated than we envisaged but we have tried to avoid oversophistocation as a line of development because, in fact we want to keep the music raunchy and quite raw. It’s a tricky balance to try and develop new musical ideas but keep them fresh and raw. So we just have to keep our minds open and not get too rigid in our attitude to playing professionally. Once you get a bit jaded and bored you can start become a bit blasé and that is something we want to avoid.
SC: Are you likely to try and develop a more jazz orientated approach with solos and so on?
JE: I don’t know. I don’t actually see that personally. I think that what we are more likely to do is to introduce different rhythms into the music, not necessarily from jazz but from other forms of 20th century music. Most things we do will always have a kind of swing feel to them though, because that seems to be the vibe that we most enjoy playing to. We call our music ‘rhythm and swing’ rather than just ‘swing’ because there are things from other types of music – ethnic music and different kinds of early pop – that we use. If anything I think we will develop in those directions rather than towards jazz.
JS: The music that we play is derived from dance music. Up till now we’ve made the rhythms fairly complicated and intricate but we’re looking to simplify them and make them more accessible. I know that when we play in a club or concert it will take the audience the whole of the first half to get into what we’re doing. The all of a sudden in the second half people will start to react and tap their feet. It takes a while to get into it at the moment.
JE: Yes, we’ll probably go more for the feel of the music. Less ideas and more feel.
LC: How far do you think you can go with that kind of development and still consider it to be Scottish folk music?
JE: We don’t know what Scottish traditional music is, in a way, except that it’s music that somebody made up once and has been played ever since. Perhaps what everybody’s doing now will be seen as traditional music in the future. Perhaps not. It rather depends on whether it has any lasting value. We don’t care too much about that so long as what we’re doing is for now and it works. Perhaps in the future people will remember it fondly.
Folk’s on Vol 2 No 9 October 1985