I must confess to having been slightly nervous about the thought of interviewing Paul Haig. Not because I think he’s going to be a terrifying interviewee, like some artists have a reputation for being, but more because I’m quite in awe of the man.
Formerly lead singer of the legendary Josef K, and one of the prime movers on the Scottish independent scene, he has made some seminal records. But on meeting him at Southern X Cafe on Edinburgh’s Cockburn St, he immediately puts me at my ease, and gives me a copy of his latest album, Relive. Not for him the stuffy musician who demands than reviewers listen to the album in painstaking detail before they’ll grant an interview.
First of all, let’s start with the new album. This has actually come out about eighteen months after your last album. How long has it been in the making?
It was quite quick. I managed to get it together in about three months. Pretty intensive recording and writing, but I had quite a few songs from the past. I was going through my old archives, and I thought ‘there are some songs that have never been properly released,’ so that kind of inspired me to make a ten track, in-your-face album. I wanted to stick to that, I wanted to work with the discipline, not getting carried away with any long mixes.
This is a step away from a lot of the stuff you’ve done under the Rhythm Of Life umbrella since you went solo. Would you say it was the most ‘rock-orientated’ of your solo stuff?
Yeah, definitely. I think the last three albums I’ve started to warble again, to use my voice. It’s been a progression; from the first one electronic, the second one a mish-mash and this one…yeah, you could call it a rock album, I grimace to say, but it is.
Is there something about the term ‘rock’? You say you’re grimacing…
It’s just the term ‘rock’!
…Can I just ask: Have you read the book Rip It Up And Start Again, which mentions both Josef K and your solo career? Is that an era you look back on nostalgically?
Yeah, I do now.
There was a sense at the time…One of the terms, I think it was coined by Pete Wylie of Wah!, the term of the idea ‘rockist’ – I wondered if there was something about that…
It’s not about the term, it’s just me saying it. In the early eighties, when we were all branching into shiny electronic pop, there was a kind of anti-rockist thing. We didn’t want anything to be like fusty, old rock, even punk rock. Whereas rock now…it’s indie-rock, so it’s okay.I never thought I’d be doing it again, but it’s good fun. I just get inspired by guitars.
You’re still actually based in Edinburgh. Did you ever move to the big smoke?
I stayed in London many times. The record companies would put me in service flats, on and off, I lived in Brussels at one point, but I love Edinburgh. You don’t have to be in the big smoke, meet the right people…
From where I’m standing, I’ve been in Edinburgh for eight years, there seems to be a lot more confidence in actually staying in Scotland to do stuff. There seems to be a lot of people who are really pleased that Franz Ferdinand still haven’t moved to London three albums in. Even singing in their own accents… I realise that taking the piss out of the Proclaimers is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but twenty years ago, it was unusual to hear anyone singing in their own accent. Stuart Adamson didn’t seem to want to… there’s a new level of confidence.
Before that you had people like Alex Harvey, which were definitely pretty broad accents, but there weren’t many, no. The whole thing about being independent…It’s easier to make music now, you don’t have to have a huge budgets or record companies.
We briefly discuss how things have changed with the advent of the internet and how this has freed things up, acknowledging that the freedom that the internet gives us may not be with us forever.
I think it’s great, it’s a very good thing. When I started making solo stuff in Josef K, I started making cassettes, cassettes to cassettes, and then releasing an independent cassette! Whereas now, there’s downloading.. I’m impatient, I like things to feel available now.
The DIY thing has come around again. When the Desperate Bicycles put out ‘Smokescreen’ back in 1977, they put on the back ‘It was simple, it was cheap, now go and do it.’
It’s punk rock with technology, isn’t it? It’s the attitude. You don’t have to be technically too talented to do it, which I think is good as well.
When you did the album, playing guitars, did you play the entire thing yourself?
It all started with the first singing album again, I got more interested in playing again. I find myself playing new riffs that I could have written when I was eighteen. It was finished a few months ago, but if you’re going to give it three months, you have to give it time for the press to work it.
On the album there’s a track called ‘Round and Round’ written with Malcolm Ross. Have you written recently with Malcolm Ross?
No, that goes back to about seventeen years ago. He’s used it on his solo album. This time, I thought I should try and go for my most coherent album, which I think we got, because my albums are usually all over the place.
In the early eighties, there was a pub called The Tap in Lauriston, in Edinburgh, long since disappeared…
Yeah, it was raised to the ground a few years ago. Everyone and every band that you could think of, The Fire Engines, The Scars and the Associates, anyone who was doing anything…It’s about time [that there was an equivalent] because that was a hell of a long time ago.
I show him some of the Paul Haig vinyl of the last thirty years that I’ve brought along to the interview.
That’s like another person, it’s so old, it’s kind of surreal!
Do you miss being on a major record label?
Not really, no! If you’re able to do exactly what you want to do, that’s great. Even with budgets you’d get quite a bit of interference from A&R departments wanting to listen to things. You’d have that afternoon when someone was coming along, even one would be a bit nervous and they’d be saying ‘Maybe you should mix it like that’ not because they were being any help but because it was their money.
Is artistic freedom more important than a big budget?
Yeah, it really is. I think it’s really important after you’ve been doing it for so long. For me, now, there’s a certain amount of people that buy my stuff, and like it, and that’s just brilliant. It’s great to know that people are waiting for the next thing.
There’s been a revival of interest in bands from the same era as Josef K, which has seen long unavailable stuff re-issued. I’m thinking of people like Scritti Politti, the Scars, the Prats, the Fire Engines…there is a theory that bands like Franz Ferdinand, particularly in Scotland, have reignited a of interest. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, I do. I don’t think Domino would have approached us to do Entymology, if it hadn’t been for Franz Ferdinand. Obviously there were some people that were interested. In the early days when Franz Ferdinand were just breaking through, I had people that were quite annoyed, saying ‘Oh, they’ve just ripped you off completely.’ We’ve all had our influences, and if you track back, you see what they were interested in.
After Josef K folded, one notable cover was Propaganda’s cover of ‘Sorry For Laughing.’
Yeah, I think Paul Morley had a lot to do with that, but it was interesting.
Interesting rather than flattering?!
Oh, very flattering! An interesting version, so far removed [from our version], but interesting to see what they did. There’s been a couple of versions of ‘Sorry for Laughing’ and a band from Bristol did ‘It’s Kinda Funny.’
A few weeks later, the album is now out. It’s been getting some great reviews and deservedly so. We chatted for an hour about the state of music, and his friendship with Billy MacKenzie, who he clearly still misses very much. Whilst there have been occasional live dates, he doesn’t play live much – and there are no live dates on his myspace page. Paul Haig is clearly a treasure, and Scotland’s current healthy music scene owes much to his work over the last thirty years.