James Yorkston is attempting to drag folk music kicking and screaming into the 21st century and the next step in the process is to call in Kieran 'Four Tet' Hebden, to add his special brand of organic futurism to the sternly purist sound of James' gifted band, The Athletes. DiS was able to grab a moment of James' time to fire across a few queries about the resulting new album, 'Just Beyond The River', previous LP 'Moving Up Country', religion, DEATH, Bob Dylan and his first celebrity crush. He didn't answer the last one.
What did you hope to gain by working with Kieran Hebden? Were you bored of traditional production methods?
By working with Kieran, I'd hoped to have a producer who'd let me record the music in the most basic possible way, with no reverb, compression, chorus, or any fancy jiggery pokery. I'm not bored of traditional production methods at all – what I am bored of is all this fancy shiny shit I'm hearing, with all the life of a skinned donkey. I'm not interested in banjos sounding like guitars and guitars sounding like synths. I prefer the instruments to have their own sound, funnily enough.
Kieran has succeeded in this venture. The instrumentation on 'Just Beyond The River' sounds immaculate; incredibly clear, clean and pure. Violins glide, basses pulse steadily, shakers and banjos underpin one of the most powerful songs I've heard this year, 'Banjo #1', which a roots-loving mate of mine has down as the second best recording of a banjo he's ever heard. Acoustic guitars resonate with determination. Power does not necessarily equate to bluster.
How well did you know Kieran before embarking on this project?
Not very well at all. Still don't. He's certainly a hard worker though and he's not scared to leave music raw.
What are your current lyrical preoccupations? 'Moving Up Country' was very much tangled relationships. I felt that there was a lot of emotional investment in the songs.
Aye, well that's life. I just write what comes out. I don't make too much effort thinking up situations and then writing musical critiques – I'll leave that to other people. What you hear is what you get. Maybe though I should do a Gnome Opera, with dragons and brave knights. Think how rich I could be then.
When recording 'Rosemary Lane' for 'Someplace Simple' (James' exceptional lo-fi folk record, released between the two LPs), were you at all intimidated by Bert Jansch's take on it, or did you simply see the song as part of the common stock of traditional ballads?
I hadn't heard Bert Jansch's version of 'Rosemary Lane', strange as that may seem. When I did hear it, I was a bit freaked out as vocally & melodically they're pretty similar. My version is twice the tempo and has small pipes in it though, which helps. I just wanted to do 'Rosemary Lane' as I love Anne Briggs' version. Since then, I have attempted to hear other folks' versions of tunes – just to make sure I'm not going over old ground too much. I tracked down Nic Jones' version of 'Edward', for example, before we recorded it for 'Just Beyond The River'.
Do you intend to attempt any further traditional folk records, or do you have other fish to fry now?
I imagine I'll be doing plenty more folk tunes. We'll see.
To me, 'I Spy Dogs' from 'Moving Up Country' has the ring of autobiography to it. Is it based in truth and if so, tell me a little more about the trip that inspired the song?
It is based on truth, of course. Why would anyone make something as mundane as that up?! Basically – a friend and I went to Paris, we saw a band, they were shit. That song took about half an hour to write. I can't really expand upon it – it's all there in the song. A live favourite, which was tremendous fun to record.
Are you religious at all?
I am religious. I believe in something that I have no comprehension or understanding of whatsoever – but I believe in it.
If you were to challenge DEATH at one game to win your path out of Purgatory, what would that game be? And would you take a path to Heaven, or your life back?
If I could play one game with DEATH it'd be something so long and drawn out that hopefully he'd get bored and go after somebody else. Though to be honest, I'd rather not play a game with DEATH. I'm no chess player but I'd take a path to heaven, thank you.
Favourite Bob Dylan song?
I don't know his stuff very well. I had a bad introduction – somebody played me 'Rainy Day Women' when I was 14 or so, and it put me off him, probably for life. We'll see. I have friends who respect him hugely, so I have nothing against him, except that one song.
This is deeply unfortunate, as the track 'Banjo #1' from the new album simply cooks, reminding this suitably impressed scribe of a supercharged 'Desire'-era Dylan band.
(James - if you're reading this, go pick up 'Desire' from one of those mates of yours. Then 'Blood On The Tracks' and then note that he recorded both albums in the same year. From there, you've no option but to get really into Bob Dylan.)
Read anything decent recently?
Anton Chekov's short stories. They accompanied me on holiday to Andalucia. What else? 'Austerlitz' by W.G. Sebald is pretty good, best book I've read in a while. I just finished a book by John Williams called 'Cardiff Dead'. He's a pal of mine, so maybe I should give it a plug.
Of course. The inlay shots for 'Moving Up Country' remind us a lot of our front room. Do you still live in that joint?
The inlay shots were taken in the cottage where we recorded the album – in the Scottish borders – so we only lived there for a month. It was fun though and I do intend to go back there one day for a proper holiday.
Do you do a lot of home recording?
I do a lot of home recording, yes. 'The Fearsome Fairytale Lovers' EP, which is going out with initial copies of 'Just Beyond the River', was recorded in my living room, and I'm really proud of it. It was really satisfying to do, especially as we'd just spent a huge amount of money in a plush studio recording the album, whereas this one was all for free.
Any new artists that you'd like to recommend to the discerning public?
If you don't know the Fence Collective, then I'd recommend them all, especially, HMS Ginafore - 'L'argent de la Mer', Lone Pigeon – '28 Secret Tracks', King Creosote – 'Buy the Bouzouki Hair Oil', UNPOC – 'Fifth Column' and The Pictish Trail – 'Awa' hame doon the wata'. There's a lot of other tremendous stuff on the Fence label, but to mention them all would take a while. – www.fencerecords.com
How hard was it to get The Athletes together? Were any of them old friends of yours?
It was pretty hard. When I first started, I didn't have the confidence to ask anyone else to get involved, but slowly I got the odd favour here and there – playing drums on a track, etc. Eventually, Reuben (keyboards) got more involved – he'd played in a band with me previously and instantly the sound quality of the demos improved ten-fold. I'd just been using an old 4-track, whereas Reuben had Cubase VST. Plus, he can play accordion and such, pretty well.
Then the drummer we were using moved to London, but fortunately he recommended Faisal, who's been with us ever since. At first I was a bit freaked out by Faisal, as he has a very odd drumming style indeed but now I see his playing as amazing and 9 times out of 10 when I see other bands, I cringe at their drummer! I've seen a few decent singer/songwriters ruined by unimaginative plodding rhythm sections. I think Doogie was our 4th bass player. The others all left due to deafness/neuroses/madness, but not in that order. We ended up with Doogie, which is obviously for the best, and he's been with us for 3 years or so. He and Faisal work wonderfully together. Holly (small pipes) is Reuben's sister and Wendy (violin) an old friend of Faisaland Reuben's. I'd like to take them all on the road but it'd cost a fortune, so we mostly just go with myself, Fais, Doog & Reub.
Where would you like to most play, and who with (in your band and on the bill)?
In the band, Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebezeit (the peerless rhythm section of the majestic Can), Barthelemy Attiso (self-taught guitarist from Orchestra Baobab, hailing from Togo), Liam O'Flynn (Irish master piper) & (Chicago trumpeter) Kenny Anderson.
On the bill, Oumou Sangare, Michael Hurley, Nomeansno, Charlotte Greig, Ivor Cutler, D'Gary, Cantrip, Jean Ritchie, Luke Daniels, Squarepusher, Faust, 4tet, Planxty, Diamh, Dick Gaughan, Mystery Juice, Papa M, Jean Emilien, Morgan Van Lebus, The Harry & Sarah Wright Band, LKJ, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy & Nancy Kerr, Ali Farka Toure, The Damned, and finally, The Fence Collective.
Any cheeky downloaders amongst us have plenty of new material to dig into there, then. Thank you James, see you at the Night and Day, Manchester, in October.
Ok. And thank you.