Not every band has a good story to tell, but not every band is fronted by a story-teller. Or backed up by a few journalists and broadcasters to boot.
Following a stint fronting Glasgow rockers Single Point of Light, things took a more cerebral turn for Rodge Glass. He wrote ‘No Fireworks’, ‘Hope for Newborns’ and the award-winning ‘Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography’. And then, a move back towards music, contributing a lyric for Vashti Bunyan’s ‘The Fire’, to Roddy Woomble’s Ballads Of The Book project, which paved the way for Burnt Island.
Very much a band, their downbeat sound still draws from that alt.singer-songwriter tradition, whether from the Scottish or American genre, while musically, they fit very neatly into Scotland’s burngeoning nu-folk scene.
With a band that also includes BBC Alba presenter Niall O’Gallagher, and well-kent journo Malcolm Jack, they’ve just released a single, ‘The Moments Before’. Rodge told us more…
itm?: Burnt Island are quite far removed both from Rodge’s past in Single Point of Light and indeed the other members’ former bands. Are the more ‘cultured’ members some sort of steadying influence on the ship?
RG: Cheers – it’s nice to be told I’m mixing with cultured types these days, but no, I don’t think the type of music is influenced by all the smart arses in the band! After all, Malc and Andy are also in Gdansk (www.myspace.com/gdanskmusic), who make a hell of a noise. For me, it’s more that in the past I was only able to sing really (unless you count E, G and D chords), otherwise I was too busy shaking my hips and making an idiot of myself. Lots of fun, for a long time, but now I’ve learned to play guitar a bit more confidently. And this is how the songs come out. Quiet, picky, moody wee buggers who demand a lot of space.
This (the single and following flurry of releases) has been quite a long time coming – dayjobs, writers’ block, cash? – what’s been holding you up?
Yeah, sorry about that. Personally, I took a few years away from the music. After SPoL died and I got my first book published I tried to convince myself that this was proof that I was not very good at being a musician, and that publication must mean I was a writer, and smarter to just stick to that. Also, I didn’t really have the confidence to keep on by myself, and I didn’t know what kind of music to make. In the meantime I wrote another novel and a biography. It took the Ballads of the Book project, writing a song with Vashti Bunyan and being encouraged by Paul Savage at Chemikal to make me think I could give it another go. Since then, it’s taken quite a while to build up a coherant bank of songs, a settled line up, and a bit of direction. Lots of bands have several false starts so I’m not too depressed by it. I’m just pleased we’re ready to have some fun with it now, and I’m proud of the songs. I hope we can spread the gospel a bit, and this time I’m determined to ENJOY being in a band more than I used to. One good thing about having gone away and made a life as a writer first is that I’m no longer quite so desperate to succeed. When I was very young, I was too desperate. You could smell it on me! Now I’m more at ease, some of the time anyway. And more good things tend to arrive when you’re not looking too hard for them. There’s been more interest in BI in the last few months than there was in SPoL in seven years.
With literary blue blood running in the veins instead of buckfast (and I charge you too, as musicians that can write their own name are often at a premium) how are tasks divvied up – set the writers to do the lyrics and let the musicians get on with the tunes, or is it more of a democratic process?
RG: Ha! I think we should try that. Nah, it’s not quite so organised. Generally I come up with a basic structure and melody on the acoustic and the others arrange the songs, suggesting bits to chop out, repeat, avoid, put in the bin. In that sense it’s a bit like editing I suppose. But overall I think that whenever new songs appear each person is free to add an idea or write a part or suggest something to go around the song skeleton. Some parts for older songs were written by previous members who have passed bits on, so that’s a bit more structured. I may just be imagining this because I suppose I’m the Burnt Island Hitler, but I think rehearsals are pretty informal and relaxed, and anyone with a view can order anyone else around at any time. Though we’ve not had many fights yet: I did get sulky when I was given a luke warm coffee once, but one day I hope to get over that particular trauma…as you can see, all very rock n’roll!
So let’s get predictable – nu-folk, which may or not be the genre you’ve got plonked into – what are the big favourites or influences in the band, and do these have much bearing on the overall sound?
I’d be interested to know what the others think, but my main influences are lyricists who tell stories, musicians who leave plenty to the imagination, leave plenty ambigious to think about, while being pretty catchy at the same time. I’m thinking particularly of Bill Callahan of Smog, or Matt Berninger of The National. I like voices that can’t be confused with anyone else, people who have their own vocabulary in their lyrics. Like Mark Lanegan, Regina Spektor or especially Nick Cave. There’s a real artist unashamed of having a brain! Others will disagree. People in a band rarely agree on who they want to sound like…but in answer to your question, I think those kinds of artists have taught me how much freedom you can have in making music. That it’s okay to take your time to tell the story, and it’s okay to do less sometimes. Also, artists like Callahan and Cave don’t have any fat on their tunes. Everything serves a purpose. I think you can learn about song writing like you can learn about anything else. As long as you don’t just copy of course…
Any more famous names lined up for collaborations following previous work done?
What, apart from Timbaland? Everyone uses that guy. Not sure about other collaborations right now. Just happy to have a settled line up and to be existing as a band. Who knows, if the budget for the second record expands from a couple of thousand to a couple of million I think we’ll try and rope most of Glasgow into the studio for cameos – Malky had to play the bag o’ forks and I rustled a plastic bag for this one, so maybe we could get Timbaland to do that. Or Will.i.Am. I hear that guy’s pretty cheap…
Burnt Island’s single The Moments Before is out now. Expect an EP in the new year and an album, Yes, I’ve Been Gone A Long Time, at some point after that.