Scottish indie legends Idlewild are currently touring in support of their excellent new studio album, Everything Ever Written. Self-produced by the band's guitarist and co-founder Rod Jones, the album recently became the band's highest charting album in a decade, reaching number twenty on the UK Albums Chart. We checked in on Rod, moments before the band's first UK gig in almost five years, to discuss the band's return to the stage, its fresh incarnation, and its future.
Hi Rod! After almost two years of work, how does it feel now that Everything Ever Written is finally out and in the hands of fans?
RJ: Really good, to be honest! We've had a great reaction so far, and people seem to be really getting into the record and actually listening to it as an album, which doesn't happen so much these days. Maybe the nature of how we did it, with the pre-order, has gotten people to actually sit and listen to it all the way, rather than just sticking it on their iPod.
There's been a really positive reaction from most fans, and we're kind of bowled over, actually. We didn't take it for granted that people were still going to be around and want to hear from us again. There was a really strident reaction during the run-up to [its release], with the support of radio and press. We're quite surprised that people still cared! It's a record we worked really hard on, and I think it's one of the best records we've ever made. It's good that it's getting some air-time and that people are listening to it.
Is it strange to be back in the charts?
RJ: It is, but we're not exactly bothering with the charts too much; it's something we didn't really think about. We didn't have a label saying, 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that'. We just put it out. I think we've got a very loyal fan base, that are going to buy things in the first week [of release], and obviously that helps. It was a nice surprise, certainly. To do it yourself, without a label, and for that to happen - that was down to the fans, really.
The PledgeMusic campaign was a huge success, and the band has experimented with crowd-funding in the past with Post Electric Blues. Do you see Idlewild continuing to operate this way?
RJ: I think so. I don't have a problem with labels. I'm not adverse to them, and, to be honest, major labels are why we got to where we are. I think a lot of bands are very quick to downplay them, but most of those bands have probably got where they are by having a load of money spent on them. We're very aware of that, and I'm grateful for that opportunity, but I think it's good that we can now take control of our own destiny a little bit, and that we know who we're selling our records to. Maybe some other people will get involved as well, but we're kind of like a self-sustaining cottage industry, which is great to do.
I noticed the name, Empty Words, on the back of the album. Is this a label that the band has set up to distribute the release?
RJ: Yeah. We had this distribution deal, and we needed a label name. Empty Words was a name that nobody argued with, so we went with it. There were plenty of silly names, but that was the only one that nobody hated.
Tonight marks your first gig in Glasgow in almost four and a half years. Are you excited?
RJ: Yeah! It's been quite a while, and we're all looking forward to it. Hogmany was the last gig we did, about five years ago, which was the end of a chapter of the band. It was a good way to do it, by playing 100 Broken Windows [in full]; an album that, kind of, defined us at that point. Coming back now, and having had space, having reinventing ourselves, and having new members and new ways of doing things, it's nice to be back here on the first UK date. I mean, we've played in Glasgow so many times that I've lost count! We're an Edinburgh band, to some extent, but Glasgow is where, certainly live, the band has a stronghold. It's really nice to be back here at the start of these UK dates tonight.
You kick-started the tour in Germany and Amsterdam. How have the gigs been so far?
RJ: Suprisingly good, to be honest! I don't mean that [in a negative way]. We had rehearsed, but those were the first gigs we had done as a full band together; and the first that Roddy [Woomble] and Colin [Newton] and I have played together in a long time, and with [new members] Lucci [Rossi] and Andrew [Mitchell] as well, we didn't really know what it would be like. Obviously, you can rehearse and rehearse, but when you get infront of a crowd at the venue, you can't really control the sound yourself - you don't know what it's going to be like. It was actually pleasantly surprising, and we came out of it thinking, 'That was actually really good!' We're quite keen to toil a bit more in Europe this time, as well. It was nice to start there, and I suppose the pressure's off, a little bit. They weren't quite as large venues as they are over here. It was a good way to warm up, and make sure that everything is working, and surprisingly it was.
Are there any new songs that you're particularly enjoying playing live?
RJ: "Use It (If You Can Use It)" has gone down really well every night. Especially with its extended 'wig-out' section at the end. We swap Andrew onto a guitar on that one, so we can do a bit of dueling. That's good fun, and seems to have gone down well in Germany. Whether that will go down as well in Scotland, who knows! The Germans love a bit of a guitar solo. That's not a criticism! That one is really good fun to play, it takes a lot of concentration, but it's a lot of fun when you get near the end. "Come On Ghost" has also been really fun - it has a sort of bounce to it.
Have you rediscovered any older tracks through Andrew and Lucci's contributions?
RJ: We have rediscovered some. To be honest, with the time that we had, and with everyone living all over the place, we put together a list of songs that we wanted to learn, or wanted them to learn, and reinvented them once that happened. We prepared a setlist of what we thought were the best ones to do from each record, and I think that's worked out really well. There's a couple of surprises in the way that some songs are put across now, and even some of the ones from the new record, we've worked [them] out differently. It's been really good. [Andrew and Lucci] are such talented musicians. They can swap so quickly between different instruments, and you just feel instantly comfortable that [the band] can do stuff like that.
That's certainly a new thing for Idlewild.
RJ: Ten years ago, we'd have been terrified of changing anything. We wouldn't have known how to do it. It's really good that if we feel like [attempting a certain song], we can say, 'Ok. Let's work this one out and do it tonight.' We can do that now. In the past, everyone would have been absolutely crapping themselves!
Going back to Everything Ever Written. How many songs overall did you guys work on during the recording process?
RJ: We kind of splurged like we always do. Certainly when we started writing, there were lots and lots of bits and ideas. We tend to write a verse and a chorus idea, move on, and then come back to them later. There were tens and tens of those. We whittled it down eventually and worked hard on about fifteen songs. We actually didn't finish a couple of them, because we felt like we knew what the record was going to be.
Do you think those unfinished tracks will see a release in the future?
RJ: They were half-recorded. They were good songs, but we knew they were weren't the right ones this time around. Time was coming to a point where we wanted to get [the album] out. We knew it was already a long record, at twelve songs and fifty-six minutes long - which was an unpleasant surprise when ordering the vinyl! It had to be a double vinyl.
[The album] felt like an album from quite a while back. Even before we finished recording, we knew at that point where it was going, and what the songs were going to be. I suppose producing it myself, I had a bit more of an idea of how it was going, and to say, 'Let's focus on this song, and not this one.'
What have you learned from [the band's once regular producer] Dave Eringa, or any previous producers you've worked with?
RJ: [Dave] has been a real mentor to me over the years. Mainly in showing me how to work with people. I mean, he's a great engineer, but, as a producer, it's really just about getting the best out of people. I think he's a real master at that. He hasn't necessarily always worked with the coolest bands all the time, and I think he maybe doesn't has the reputation he deserves because of that. He's a real wizard at getting things out of a band that other people can't, and we've found that [out] working with lots of people over the years. We would end up going back to Dave.
I've learned things from lots of people over the the years, like Lenny [Kaye] and Bob Weston. You take something from everything that's around you. Also, working with Kris Pohl, who engineered the record, and who I do a lot of work with now, he [knows] the proper way of doing things, and has been traditionally trained in the studio, in Germany. He's very efficient and knows what he's doing, and then I come in and act like an idiot, doing everything the wrong way. We kind of meet in the middle. I think one would would be too safe, and the other would be too all over the place. Put the two together and it just works really well.
How was it working with [regular Dinosaur Jr. and Kurt Vile producer] John Agnello while mixing the album?
RJ: Great. It was such a quick process. It was just a week of watching a guy mix really quickly. I've never seen anybody mix so quickly, actually! He didn't do anything that we wouldn't necessarily have done ourselves, but just having [his] confidence [meant we didn't have to] second-guess ourselves. He's quite an ingenious guy; a really lovely guy. He engineered some stuff we did with Lenny [Kaye] years ago, so I already knew him. He just has that confidence and ability to focus-in on something, read what it is we're trying to do, and essentially take what the monitor mixes were and make them sound better. It was quite an inspiration to seen him work, actually. We learned a lot of tricks and shortcuts!
What can you tell us about David Jack who performs bass on a number of the album's tracks. Was he helping with the recording before Andrew joined?
RJ: David plays with me in my solo project, The Birthday Suit. Before we really knew what we were doing, and before we knew how the band was going to be presented, [David] was around and I knew he was a fantastic bass player. We were quite keen to get a multi-instrumentalist in the band, who could sing as well, which is why Andrew is perfect. When we were deciding what to do, I said to David that we were looking for that kind of person, but asked if [he] wanted to be involved and play on some songs. He was really happy to do so, and does a fantastic job, I think.
Everything Ever Written is probably the band's most atmospheric album.
RJ: Yeah, I would say that. It's just relaxed, really. It's comfortable and confident; that's the main thing. We just feel like we know what we're doing.
What does the album artwork mean to you personally?
RJ: The guy Andrew [Wightman], who we knew, we said to him, 'This is what the feel of the album is, these are the themes, the places it was written in, and how it was put together.' He just came up with it, really. He came back with that, and we all instantly loved it. It looks great, and I think it sums up the record in a brilliant way: DIY and sort of psychedelic.
It was nice to see [former members] Allan Stewart and Gareth Russell thanked in the liner notes. Do you know if either of them have heard the album?
RJ: I don't know, actually. Gareth bowed out early on [in the process] because he just had other commitments. He had come along to couple of writing sessions, but was too busy doing other things. He's got a family and was thinking of moving to Australia. He couldn't really commit to it. Same for Allan, he was working with other bands and his own band, Holy Mountain. He wasn't really around when we wanted to do stuff, so we just had to get on with it. It just got to a point where we had finished the record and he hadn't been involved at that point. That's not to say that the door is closed, and that we won't see them again.
Do you foresee the band taking as long to record its next album?
RJ: Oh no. I think we'll be much quicker; as quick as anyone else. We're not going to take a break inbetween this time. I think we just needed that break. We needed some time away. Not from each other, but just from the entity of the band, and the pressure of that. It was becoming a kind of noose, to a certain extent, and was becoming a job, and we didn't want it to feel like that. It was too important to us, so we removed ourselves from it - so that it wasn't our living - and then did something else. Then we came back, and came at it with a fresh kind of enthusiasm.
Interview conducted on March 7th, 2015.