From Scotland… With King Creosote

On films, independence and Fence…

Kenny Anderson is in a talkative mood.

The Fife-based, Fence-founding folk musician, known better as his musical alter-ego King Creosote, has a fire in his belly that he wants to let out. For an artist known for going somewhat against the grain, shunning record deals and commercial exposure, he feels part of something. And he likes it.

The thing he’s part of, right now, is a film about Scotland, From Scotland With Love, created using archive footage and brought out to mark Glasgow hosting the Commonwealth Games. As Kylie and Lulu brought the Games to a close this week, Kenny can feel safe in the knowledge that he’s part of Scotland’s Commonwealth legacy.

His role in the film is more than a soundtrack – it’s a collaboration. Filmmaker Virginia Heath wanted to instil a sense of pride in Scotland and document its rich, sociable history. It’s nothing to do with the impending vote for independence, although the timing seems ridiculously convenient. Instead, it’s a celebration of all things Scottish. The Games’ opening ceremony may have had dancing Tunnock’s Teacakes and tower blocks of shortbread fingers, but From Scotland With Love has real characters – the people that made Scotland what it is today.

It’s nice to hear that Kenny feels so much pride in his side of the project, collected as the album ‘From Scotland With Love’ (out now on Domino, review). It almost didn’t happen. There was a new baby girl in his life, a broken ankle, a spat about his record label and the fear of committing to something that he didn’t have control over.

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The Making Of From Scotland With Love

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Even when Jon Hopkins and I went to the Mercury thing, we didn’t put our jackets in the cloakroom because we thought it must be some kind of mistake…

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Reluctance Versus Productivity

He’s also not one for the attention. He admits that he hasn’t had a birthday party since he was six because he found it so “excruciating”. He even admits that he thought he might not be good enough for this project.

With 40, 50 maybe even 60 records under his built, including a Mercury Prize nomination with pal Jon Hopkins back in 2011 for ‘Diamond Mine’, you’d think he’d get the message that he’s doing something right. But no. He’s a supporter of the underdog and, in a way, still sees himself as one.

“I’m somebody who feels pressure and expectation and that winning is just luck,” he says, having come inside from a potter about his garden. “Even when Hopkins and I went to the Mercury thing, we didn’t put our jackets in the cloakroom because we thought it must be some kind of mistake, that someone would say, ‘Sorry, it wasn’t you two after all.’”

It took a lot of persuasion for Heath to get Kenny on board the film project, helped by its producer Grant Keir, and music producers David McAulay and Paul Savage. The fact he wasn’t first choice doesn’t seem to bother him – but he won’t be swayed into saying who was.

Knowing he turned his back on anything that could cage his creativity, Heath kept it secret that the film was partially funded by the Commonwealth Games and the BBC, among others. Kenny’s secretly quite proud of this reputation.

It was the focus on collaboration that lured him in. This was not a Scottish musician simply penning some music to fit a film about Scotland. It was also a different approach to the BBC- and Arts Council-funded film From The Sea To The Land Beyond, released in 2012 with a soundtrack by British Sea Power. It’s a film that Kenny didn’t watch at the time and still hasn’t seen, in case it impacted on his own ideas. If he had seen it, he says he would have wanted to go in completely the opposite direction – maybe some kind of minimalist electronica or accordion-based musical theatre. As it is, if similarities are drawn between the projects, it’s simply “great minds think alike, and that’s a good thing”.

And yes, there are similarities – it would be stupid to say there wasn’t – but it doesn’t matter. From Scotland With Love is a beautiful collection of archive footage about workers, family, factories, pubs, tea breaks, peat bogs and children.

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There were no mobile phones, no email, no health and safety, no fatties, no commenting…

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Feeling Scottish

He says of first hearing about the project: “It was a time to question what it meant to be Scottish and what it meant to leap into the unknown,” referring to September 2014’s vote for independence. “I didn’t want to be part of it at first and said they could just use my back catalogue, but that’s not what they wanted. It was the collaboration that sold it to me. When I started looking into it and seeing some of the archive films they’d already found, I realised it was about the people.

“Things were more fun back then, so I ended up on a nostalgia tip. I thought about shipbuilders on the Clyde and kids playing in the street. Virginia also wanted to explore different themes, like fire and water.

“I had to take a leap of faith that the way I thought now, today, was the same as these characters in these films – these characters from the last century. I wanted to bring them to life because, when they were being filmed, they were alive and they weren’t really that different to us.

“Some were on holiday when they didn’t want to be on holiday, like me – I’m not a holiday person. I stuck myself into those characters and saw that the backdrop was the same.”

As a self-confessed small-town technophobe with a huge sense of community and belonging, it might have been easier for Kenny to slip into this mindset than the rest of us. We’re all too busy posting pictures of mates on Instagram than actually spending quality time with them, it seems. In Kenny’s eyes, it’s this that’s hammering the nails into the coffin of community and being content with your lot.

“Scotland was bigger back then. You didn’t have cameras and smart phones and Twitter. You could literally move from the east coast to the west and totally reinvent yourself and word would never get back.”

If not a happier way of life, it appears to be at least a simpler one. From Scotland With Love documents groups of happy, smiling people, working their fingers to the bone in factories or on peat bogs, stopping for a tea or a pint or holidaying on the freezing, windswept coast. Your colleagues and friends were one and the same. A good dinner and a night in the pub were the best of treats.

It was this that Kenny wanted to get across in his new collection of songs and scores that marry the film. Known as a musician who writes about people, it seemed to be a perfect fit.

“It’s only three generations back. I’m not experienced in history, although I guess I live in the past a little, so for me, I needed to be the same as the characters in the film and think how they thought,” he says, recalling how he found the inspiration to write in a new way. Before, he’d have an idea, record it and it would be done.

“Their work was their life. They worked hard to escape for a couple of weeks a year, not to escape their whole working life, like we do now. They’d down tools and socialise. They’d finish work for the day and not think about it again. There were no mobile phones, no email, no health and safety, no fatties, no commenting.

“But I had the fear, especially when I did find out it was funded by the public purse. I didn’t want my name on something that was crud, which so often publicly funded art is. I had to get it right.”

With a pot of money at his disposal, Kenny, unsurprisingly, didn’t want to work with a bunch of new fancy musicians, instead choosing his old-time Fence crowd to join him on the record – Derek O’Neill (keyboards), Andy Robinson (drums), Pete Mcleod (bass) and Kevin Brolly (clarinet), along with strings and a choir. He also had to take on board that this would be a new way of working, often chopping songs or adding to them to fit the film. There was even an ‘emotion chart’, which had Kenny “laughing tit bags” to ensure the songs and film created a narrative. It was most definitely not the usual KC way to do things.

But, when he saw the final film, he was astounded, saying “I was moved by the footage and how much I instantly wanted to see it all over again”. There were scenes that left him with his heart in his mouth.

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Glasgow or Edinburgh can’t be a Scottish London. All independence will do is create another level of bureaucracy and that’s not going to change anything. It’s dangerous…

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Against The Vote

But it’s just a people thing, not a Scottish thing, he protests.

“Yes, the scenery is Scottish, but it’s not inherently Scottish. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone said, ‘That’s actually Manchester’! It could be about anywhere.

“A lot of people have thought that this film must be about Scottish independence and have assumed that I’m in the Yes camp, but I correct them. It’s just about people… it could be your grandparents.”

The Scottish Independence vote is due on September 18th and the pros and cons seem confusing, whether you’re a Scot or just have an interest in the future of the UK. Is it about building a new future, turning a back on a past or simply sticking two fingers up England, London and Westminster? As Kenny says, it’s been on the cards for 300 years, but still seems like a rash decision. For him, it’s a definite vote to stay in the UK.

“People shouldn’t be thinking about what it would be like to be apart from England. They should be thinking about what it means to be Scottish. I’m definitely in the no camp because I don’t think there’s an argument for independence.

“Glasgow or Edinburgh can’t be a Scottish London. London is a portal for the world, and Glasgow or Edinburgh isn’t. All it will do is create another level of bureaucracy and that’s not going to change anything. It’s dangerous.

“The Scots are pretty good at being the reserve team – all five million of us. And Scots don’t get behind our own. We don’t accept our failures. We need someone to blame and if that’s not Westminster, who is it? If Scotland is going to be an oasis in a UK hell, why can’t we share it?

“In an ocean of sharks, we don’t need to be a smaller shoal. I really despair at it. And anyway, do we really want to be in a country that seems further away from Jon Hopkins? I don’t!”

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'For One Night Only', from 'With Scotland With Love'

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Long Live Fence

It seems like steering clear of conflict or layers of bureaucracy is an ethos Kenny holds in his personal and professional life, as well as in his political views. Decisions, he thinks, should be made by those who are affected by them. It’s the reason he set up Fence Records in 1997 to support a group of musicians who became known as the Fence Collective – such names as James Yorkston, Lone Pigeon, Withered Hand, Eagleowl and even KT Tunstall. He wanted records and gigs to belong to the musicians. To this day, Fence doesn’t own the copyright of any of its artists.

The boat was rocked last year when friend and colleague Johnny Lynch (aka The Pictish Trail), who ran Fence with Kenny, set up a rival label, Lost Map. It divided some of the musicians and brought a long-standing friendship to an end.

Kenny admits it’s a friendship that will probably never be patched up, but still wishes his old mate success. There’s room for two labels with two different approaches in Scotland, he says.

“Fence was always supposed to be different than the labels in London. It was supposed to be a haven and a f*ck to the system. But I noticed more and more than it was becoming the very thing it tried not to be. We didn’t do press or Twitter. We even did a load of posters for a gig and forgot to put the date on! It was for the disillusioned, not the business minded.

“To watch it become homogenised and more like mainstream labels was hard, so it was me that slammed it into reverse. We [Johnny and Kenny] locked horns, but I needed to get it back on track.

“There has always been a Fence Records and that hasn’t changed. It’s me. King Creosote, Fence – it’s in my name! It was Fence Records Ltd – a company – that closed. I even hate the name. It was wrong to insinuate the original Fence had gone, too.

“But I wish Johnny all the best. There’s room for two labels and we have a different approach. He’s got some good acts and we’ve got some albums, gigs and a website coming soon.”

After the “spring clean” of Fence, as Kenny refers to it, there are already plans afoot for new releases, including a compilation of KC songs covered by female singers. Until then, there’s the For Scotland tour, already selling out a new Barbican venue and cropping up at Scottish events.

With a message of history, collaboration, friendship, pride and unity, Kenny, Fence and ‘From Scotland With Love’ epitomise what it means to be Scottish. It could be the independent Scotland campaign’s worst nightmare.

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Words: Gemma Hampson (Twitter)
Photos: Sean Dooley

King Creosote online. ‘From Scotland With Love’ is out now on Domino. See KC play live as follows:

15th – Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

27th – Barbican, London

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