And I wonder what it’s like to look at Scotland from the other side, what it’s like to wander as a stranger down Argyle Street on a Friday night. In essence, I wonder what ‘Scotland’ really is. And as it turns out, a relevant answer is found in the band that awaits me at the end of my journey.
Entering the 13th Note by its claustrophobic corner doorway an hour later, I’m greeted at the bar by Dumb Instrument’s ever-cheerful pianist/keyboard player Mikey Grant, and rather more taciturn, yet very nice bassist Kieron Campbell. A couple of minutes later we’re joined by windswept vocalist Tom Murray, and proceed to secure a more comfortable spot in the restaurant section, where the Canadian waitress is clearly quite peeved by the fact that Mikey is the only person interested in ‘soup of the day’.
As a quintessentially patriotic group of chaps, Dumb Instrument strongly assert themselves as an Ayrshire (not Glasgow!) band who formed off the back of Tom’s final stage solo T-Break entry two years ago.
“The main problem was, I didn’t have a band and I’d just written all the songs myself,” he explains. “It just so happened I was in the studio the next day trying to mix some stuff, and I told the owner Matt about the competition, and that I couldn’t do it without a band.”
Insisting that the competition was a good opportunity, Matt suggested Mikey as a pianist, and things just spawned from there. Having released their first physical collection of songs this year, in the form of ‘Songs Ya Bass Vol. 1’, Mikey elaborates a little bit about how the band’s record deal with Hackpen Records initially came about:
“It’s a label that’s run in Andover by a guy called Steve Crabtree, but they actually specialise in Scottish Music. I was listening to Jim Gellatly’s show on XFM and I heard a band on it at like five to one in the morning called Mouse Eat Mouse, who were signed to this label called Hackpen Records. And they were this really different, really weird, folky, punky, Scottish-sounding band, so I thought the label might be interested in what we were doing. We sent a recording away, and Steve got in contact with us and signed us up for six years.”
The band’s music itself is an odd combination of Arab Strap-ish melodies and slightly more humorous, but nonetheless Scots-inflected lyricism and phrasing. Thinking back to that over crowded train, I wonder how Dumb Instrument’s localised brand of piano-folk would be translated by foreign ears.
“I’m just trying to be honest, really,” asserts Tom. “Like that’s who I am, I am Scottish. I grew up in Ayr. Why try to be American? Why try to be Russian?”
And it’s an approach that seems to be working. Despite the rather nationalised elements of both their sound and their subject matter, they’ve nonetheless found themselves accepted by a wide range of different audiences.
“Having done a few gigs in England and played quite a lot of gigs in Scotland, we’ve had a pretty good reaction from the English crowds, which to me was a big shock because I was kind of worried about how we’d be received,” says Mikey.
“But the language does travel, it does,” interrupts Tom.
“Yeah, like when we played the Royal Concert Hall during the last Celtic Connections,” Mikey continues. “There was that Spanish sound guy who was really into it. I’d just like as many people to hear us as possible, and that way they can make up their own minds.”
Possessing such a niche sound as the band does, I wonder what musical influences have inspired them along the way.
“I don’t think I could name my favourite album. I tend to like songs, but then I still don’t have a favourite one because I like thousands of them. I mean, songs are just like wee books, wee things that happen to you,” Tom explains.
“Can you remember a particular point in time when you realised you wanted to write music?” I ask.
“Who really knows… there wasn’t a particular point in time because music has just always been there. I mean I never thought I could do it till punk rock came along. For me, that’s when the barriers came down and people were actually doing it for themselves. Before that there was a kind of system. And Mikey’s trying to re-establish that system by playing, y’know, Deep Purple,” he laughs.
“Yeah, of course,” Mikey cuts in. “But I was saying to Kieron earlier that normality, in a way, bores me. And that’s probably what happened with musicians in the past, they really wanted to develop things, like with jazz. I’m really into exploring different things now… I’m continually going through a musical evolution. I mean, I’m a piano player and really enjoy writing piano music, obviously. I got into piano through a guy called Scott Joplin who wrote ragtime,” he explains animatedly as the waitress sets down a roasting hot bowl of soup in front of him.
“I got his album when I was about 10, and that’s actually my favourite album. It’s just 25 ragtime pieces, and I really wanted to learn to play them. My granddad was actually a jazz pianist and had a good piano in his house, so I got inspiration from there because I used to just sit and press the keys to see what would happen.”
So, far from being a band that’s formulaic or afraid to experiment, I assume that the guys are up for a bit of rock’n’roll antics as well. As it turns out, I’m entirely wrong.
“We kinda stay behind close doors actually,” says Mikey.
“Aye, he cannae hold his drink,” interjects Tom with a grin on his face.
“Yeah, I really can’t. If I have any more than three pints I can’t play, and that’s the truth. And any more than four and I cannae walk!”
The waitress returns to take Mikey’s soup bowl away, and I’m immediately aware again of my surroundings, having been taken in completely by the conversation. Sitting round a table in the 13th Note, I ask the guys just how far they’d be willing to take the project.
“I think what we’re doing probably has a limited appeal. I got an email off a guy in Germany yesterday, I meant to tell you,” says Tom, glancing at Mikey. “He was over in Scotland and his brother in law told him to listen to us. And he’s written us this email saying that he really loves our stuff but doesn’t really get the sense of humour in the lyrics. And that’s why I think it won’t really travel. It’s not like rock music, there’s a lot of subtlety in what we’re doing lyrically, and it’s probably quite compartmentalised in Scotland, so it won’t really travel that far. Having said that, there are American people who get some of the stuff.
“Yeah, absolutely,” agrees Mikey.
“Would you ever tour in the States?” I ask.
“Well, it’d be quite the logistical undertaking, and I don’t know if the Dumb Instrument account can stretch to that right now. But Aberdeen, maybe,” Mikey laughs, as he offers me the last bit of his bread. I decline and, realising the time, we all get ready to leave.
Having spent the last half an hour with three very friendly, intelligent guys, I’m even more enamoured with their music than I was to start with. Heading out the door, I notice the waitress gives me a dirty glance. Maybe next time I’ll get some soup, but for now I’m heading back up towards Argyle Street. I wonder where all those fresh-eyed foreigners are?