Idlewild are one of those bands so far as the core DiS staff goes: we were there, fresh of face and wet behind the ears, when the Scottish then-four-piece rolled and rollicked their way around the nation’s stages, often as a blow-them-away support act. That was back before indie became pop, before the top ten was at least part-owned to the tune of a good fifty per cent by allegedly ‘alternative’ acts. We were inspired. They may not have been, compositionally, but their energy nevertheless rubbed off on each and every attendee that witnessed their live show. They were a band that you couldn’t forget, from the first seconds of each and every set.
Roddy Woomble would, circa 1997, spend a good part of his band’s set laying on the floor, on his back, screaming; his bandmates – initially Rod Jones (guitar), Colin Newton (drums) and Phil Scanlon (bass) – would pick up the pieces he’d scatter about the place, churning out a rock that was reminiscent of a dozen or so American college rock bands. Both the band’s Captain EP and Hope Is Important album of 1998 served, in Woomble’s words, as “just flyers for our gigs, really”.
Woomble and current guitarist Allan Stewart, who joined the band in 2001 in time for heavy touring to promote album number three, The Remote Part, are sat with DiS in their new label’s offices. After a lengthy spell on Food, which later was absorbed by Parlophone, the quintet – currently completed by bassist Gareth Russell – have settled at Sequel, part of Sanctuary, for their fifth LP Make Another World. A neat mixture of echoes and influences from albums three and four – four being Warnings/Promises – the album’s likely to stoke fires within long-term fans who may have been left cold by the band’s fourth long-player, a record that didn’t exactly meet with widespread critical approval.
But, again, more on that juncture of the band’s career later. The best place to begin any ReDiScover article is at the beginning of the story. Woomble picks up the tale at its genesis.
“January 1996 was our first gig, at the Subway Club in Edinburgh,” says the singer, his fingers combing his long hair. “I don’t think we could have had any idea we’d last, because the way we’ve always approached things is without any careerist attitude whatsoever. We’ve always liked talking about records and going to gigs and swapping records. That’s basically what we were doing, Rod, me and Colin, when we met – Rod had a guitar and Colin played drums in a pub band, so we formed this band, but just to really emulate the bands we liked. But we never did covers, though – we always wrote our own stuff, even though our early attempts were so derivative of dEUS, Superchunk and Sonic Youth, basically the records we were listening to at the time.
“That was definitely still the case when we did Captain – I mean, I was singing in an American accent, y’know! Of course it’s how we found our feet – I was deeply into Tom Barman (dEUS singer), and even though he’s Belgian he sang in an American accent, and I thought if he could do it so could I. But after the first album I found another voice, my own voice. But going back to the question, I don’t think any of us thought we’d last more than a couple of years.”
Captain wasn’t the band’s on-wax beginning, though: the six-tracker’s release was preceded by a debut single proper, ‘Queen Of The Troubled Teens’, which now fetches silly money on internet auction sites. Says Roddy of the band’s buzz-generating single: “I’ve got one copy of ‘Queen Of The Troubled Teens’, but the thing is that it’s rubbish. I mean, for what it is – when I look back, like I do with fondness at copies of a favourite book or something – musically it’s just a bunch of 19-year-olds. Of course it’s part of the band’s history, but I think things have moved on.”
'When I Argue I See Shapes' video...
That they did, swiftly – the release of Hope Is Important in ’98 propelled the band’s profile upwards, sharply; singles like ‘A Film For The Future’ and ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’ were adored by fans and critics alike. Soon, the band was playing with the likes of Ash (this writer witnessed Roddy screaming blue murder at Portsmouth’s Guildhall on said tour), Placebo and the Manic Street Preachers. Time on the road with established acts proved to be an essential part of the band’s learning experience, yet in hindsight they can’t hear their first few forays into the world of recorded music as anything but the scrappy and messy fits of youngsters trying to find their feet.
“We’re one of the last of those sort of groups, I suppose, that weren’t totally judged on their first album,” says Woomble. “Which is just as well, as that record is messy and it’s noisy… yeah, I mean Hope Is Important. It’s a band trying to discover what they want to sound like, and if that record came out now it’d either be massive or totally ignored. Thankfully there were bits in the songs that had people thinking we could be better, and that we could evolve. 100 Broken Windows, I think, was such a step for us, in terms of songwriting and how we saw ourselves as a group of people and a band, and we gained a lot of confidence after that record.”
100 Broken Windows, the band’s second album, was released in 2000. By this point the band’s make-up had changed slightly: Scanlon had left the band and was replaced by fan-favourite Bob Fairfoull. With the new bassist on board Idlewild set out to build upon their previous recordings, sonically, and wound up in a session with Shellac’s Bob Weston. Says Woomble:
“At the time I was listening to loads of records by Slint and June Of 44 and all these really geeky indie-rock records… you know what I mean… that music has a place in my life, and at the time I was really into that stuff. I just loved it and was kind of obsessed with it. So we contacted Bob Weston and sent him some demos, which he really liked, and he said he’d like to work with us. He came to London and we worked on some songs, but they were just so weird, and we weren’t ready for that. We needed some direction in the studio, and Bob and people like Steve Albini, they’re not producers. They’re just really great engineers. They can make an album sound massive, but they give you much feedback as to whether or not you’re playing well, or maybe suggest anything. Those songs didn’t turn out too brilliantly, and Food didn’t like them.”
The band’s label’s dislike of these early sessions was reported at the time; subsequently, the band began working with Dave Eringa, and produced songs like ‘A Little Discourage’ and ‘Roseability’. With these key tracks in place, an album began to take shape.
“The relationship we formed with Dave Eringa on 100 Broken Windows was important, I think,” comments Woomble. “We really wanted to not be known just as a rowdy night out for teenagers. I mean, our records at that point were just flyers for our gigs, really – they weren’t really taken seriously.
“When Dave Eringa came on board and we got ‘A Little Discourage’ and ‘Roseability’ and a few tunes together and the band found a new confidence, so we went back to Bob, and went to Steve Albini’s studio in Chicago, and finished off some material. Then Dave went to the original Bob Weston session and we re-sang some parts – ‘The Bronze Medal’ is from that session. So actually it wasn’t a disaster, because it adds a cold sound to the whole record; 100 Broken Windows has four Bob Weston songs on it. It has that sort of roomy feel, that black-and-white feel. It’s wintry, Scottish… it always reminds me of rain. I don’t think the music’s negative, but when I put that record on, which is not very often, I always associate it with a sort of austere Scottishness.”
Of course, Food finally saw fit to release 100 Broken Windows unto the world, and Idlewild’s star ascended that bit higher. A more confident band, they set about conquering mainstream radio with hits like ‘Actually It’s Darkness’ and toured more intensely than ever before, although their jaunts of 2000 would pale in comparison to those they’d undertake a little later in their career. Now taking themselves thoroughly seriously, Idlewild began to step further and further away from the scratchy punk sound that coursed through their earliest offerings. They were becoming respectable; their audience was altering. They were in danger of peaking.
To some 100 Broken Windows is the peak of Idlewild’s career – personally, it remains the album of theirs that’ll always be closest to my heart because of the time in my life that was so absolutely sound-tracked by it. Yet despite their second album’s success, its follow-up would be a bigger seller. The Remote Part, released in 2002, was the product of a different band with a different perspective on songwriting. Explains Woomble:
“I think that was the first time we’d felt like a collective of songwriters with ideas. Up until then we’d struggled to find what we actually were – we weren’t taking the band seriously, basically, because we never thought we could make anything from it. 100 Broken Windows was the turning point, and with The Remote Part we wondered what we could do next. So we went up to the Highlands with some friends and sort of mucked around and wrote songs. That was the first time we started writing on acoustic guitars.
“On The Remote Part we began to build the songs up with strings and loads of harmonies. I think that record was when Rod really started to take steps forward in terms of his guitar playing, and also his harmonies. I think he pulled the record in a more poppy way, as that’s the sort of musician he is – he loves bands like Teenage Fanclub and Yes and ELO and the Police. I mean I like some of that stuff, but most of it isn’t my cup of tea. We’ve always had that kind of struggle in the band, which I think is a good thing – it’s like sparring or something. I think Warnings/Promises had more of my influence on it, bringing it into roots and folksy territories. I was listening to a lot of stuff like that, and still do.”
Woomble’s fondness for folk music was made absolutely apparent on his debut solo album of 2006, My Secret Is My Silence. Says Woomble of his sole solo venture: “The barriers were down so I could do whatever I wanted. I don’t look at it as a solo record – I mean, my name is on it, but it’s more of a collaborative effort. There are ten people on it!” But prior to the release of My Secret… Woomble was already, by his own admission, pulling his band further and further away from the boisterous waters of their youth. Recorded without Fairfoull, who left the band during 2002, 2005’s Warnings/Promises remains the opinion-splitter in Idlewild’s canon of work. It split fans like no record before it, and was the final chapter in the group’s relationship with Parlophone. A final single from the album, ‘As If I Hadn’t Slept’, was never released following their parting of company. Although no longer on the label’s books, Parlophone has plans for an Idlewild singles compilation later this year, which may feature the aforementioned track.
Says Woomble of Warnings/Promises’ mixed reception: “I think a lot of people that criticised that album were younger people, people who liked specific things in our past. The record actually sold well, and found a new fanbase amongst older people. Basically our audience changed and opened up, and I think a lot of younger people, who followed the band for a while, didn’t want to go to a gig with their mum and dad, yet suddenly there were people of their mum and dad’s age at our gigs. I think the culture we live in is obsessed with things that are young and fresh. It’s like music has a sell-by date or something, which is absurd: everyone knows sell-by dates were only invented so people don’t get sued.
“I don’t pay much attention to critics, though – if you did you’d never get out of bed, because you’d be so worried about what people thought of you. I think people that criticise need to get out more and go for a walk. I mean, what’s the point? If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. I think the good thing about the band now is that we’ve got a body of work – you don’t have to like all of it, it’s not a requirement. If you can take something from one or two records, that’s something.”
Although albums three and four did distance a select group of fans, Idlewild’s live profile grew significantly during the years between said records’ release dates. Now they were supporting acts as huge as Coldplay and Pearl Jam, but their touring schedule wasn’t entirely to the benefit of the band’s health.
“Around 2002, everything went a bit mental,” recalls Woomble. “We were never home. It was a case of us just wanting to do everything. We were on tour for four months, then home for two weeks and then off on tour for another four months.
“In hindsight, it was a real learning experience, and I am glad we did it – we had some crazy nights in some weird places – but I’d never do that again. We’ve had that experience, and we know it’s not the way that a band like Idlewild is going to become popular. I mean, you do just have to go with it, sometimes, and if it doesn’t work out you have to split your band up. It really is as simple as that.”
Didn’t the nature of the bands you were playing with – their amazing profiles – encourage you to strive towards a similar level of success?
“For us, as individuals, I think we’ve always believed that success is defined by yourself and you shouldn’t listen to other peoples’ notion of what success is,” replies Woomble. “In that way I think we’ve always been quite sobered – maybe it’s a Scottish attitude to it, but we’ve always got on and had a good time and we’ve never taken a thing for granted. I think if you have a huge, million-selling record, then a power struggle starts, both with the label and within the band, as there’s bound to be a guy who does more than the other members. I don’t even want to go into that world, y’know. I mean, I’d like to have some extra money, but the baggage that goes with it is no good.”
Which brings us to the present day and Make Another World, due for release on March 5 via Sequel/Sanctuary. While the record’s certainly not a bold step into uncharted territories for the band, it is nonetheless a satisfying blend of the band’s myriad angles over the last, say, six years. It crunches, at times, with all the ferocity of 100 Broken Windows, yet recedes from bombast silkily and skilfully, recalling the gentler arrangements of the group’s previous two long-players. So far as boxes go, many are ticked here.
“We wrote this record when we didn’t have a label, so there were no A&R people on the phone,” says Stewart. “We were on our own, we wrote the record and then when sanctuary came to us it was all but done. It was nice in that way that we had so much freedom. The new songs are getting a great reception when we play them live. I think people were expecting more acoustic stuff, so the fact that it’s more upbeat surprises some people. I think people like the loud songs live, but there is still a mix on it. It is balanced – it’s pretty heavy in places!”
It’s left to Woomble to conclude proceedings, as the band’s PR signals to DiS to wrap things up. “I don’t think we have any ambitions with this record,” he says, absolute truth in his eyes. “I’m a complete realist. I think it’s a really strong album, so I can’t see why it won’t be as popular as the records we’ve put out previously.”
Hand on heart, neither can we.
Idlewild’s Make Another World is released on Sequel/Sanctuary on March 5; a single, ‘No Emotion’, is released on February 26. The band is on tour in March, dates as follows:
12 Newcastle University
13 Manchester Academy
14 Norwich UEA
16 Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall
17 Oxford Brookes University
18 Aberdeen Music Hall
20 Perth Concert Hall
22 Northampton Roadmender
23 London Hammersmith Palais
24 Bristol Academy
Check out Idlewild on MySpace, HERE