He’s a bit of a hometown hero, that King Creosote.
Practically synonymous with the Kingdom of Fife, his instantly timeless songs are often anchored to a particular time and place – chronicling the lives, loves and histories of this ancient Pictish peninsula.
Responsible for an astonishing 60 albums, his creativity remains seemingly limitless, with a back catalogue spanning two decades and a handful of (deeply experimental) side projects bubbling away on the back burner.
But following two of his most beloved records, ‘Diamond Mine’ and ‘From Scotland with Love’, he’s taken his latest, ‘Astronaut Meet Appleman’, on something of a cosmic voyage.
With a renewed sense of adventure and a full band in tow, he’s travelled to some of the country’s most rugged landscapes – looking beyond the stories and heritage of the East Neuk to craft his most euphoric, free-wheeling album in years. He met with Clash to discuss travel, touring and how, with age, it’s possible to ad lib an argument about the car radio into one of the most memorable lines on an album.
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Firstly, congratulations on the record – the album sounds a lot like someone falling back in love with music again. How did you find the recording process?
Last summer, I took James Yorkston up on some advice. He maintains that when you take a recording on some sort of voyage, something of the experience weaves into the end result.
We travelled with this record, kind of like a mini-holiday. I have all these memories of making the record with incredible views of Tobermory and Ireland, looking over the misty Mountains of Mourne. Hopelessly romantic stuff.
It felt like the right thing to take the record to Ireland, to Mull, to record it using analogue tape. And not to get all hippie, but it felt like what came out of the end of it will always have happy memories, because every step was a positive one.
We chucked bagpipes on the record. And the piper brought an almost Hendrix-esque solo into the middle of ‘Surface’. I like to think she was partially inspired by the fact she was in Tobermory. When I listen to it now, I hear a lot of air and sea. If that makes sense.
On the tech side, and the semantics of putting it together, it was a difficult record because none of it sounded alike. It was a lot of work for Paul (Savage, long-time producer and owner of Chem 19 studio) to make it sound like the same album.
That really threw the gauntlet down to him. He admitted he’s never been presented with that problem, of being the one who’s given all of these sourced sounds that he didn’t direct. He really enjoyed it. It was a new thing to fix other people’s mistakes.
Of course, it could have all fallen on its face. Every record could. I’m sure loads of bands have that feeling. I had this instinct that if it was fun at every step of the way, then what came out of it would be good.
It’s the first record you’ve made in a while that hasn’t been tied to a specific ‘theme’ or location. Did you find that freeing?
Well, the last couple of records that are ‘known’, anyway. I felt like ‘Diamond Mine’ was a collection - Jon Hopkins really cherry-picked those songs.
‘From Scotland With Love’ was very much about songs written with purpose. And then there were some songs picked from the back catalogue for that.
There were five or six years of middle-aged angst sitting there that I hadn’t really documented. This time around, I penned a clutch of songs. I didn’t bow to pressure, and I only dragged one song out of the past.
Almost all of the songs you hear on ‘Astronaut’ were brand new at the time of recording. And actually, three or four of them weren’t finished. They were just ideas.
That alone was quite brave, and unusual for me. Particularly when it’s a record we were spending money on. There were a few conscious decisions made to push this record somewhere that the last two hadn’t really gone.
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I’m able to write with in-built hindsight. To write in the present, and about the present...
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It’s a lot more vulnerable and direct, lyrically. Was that a conscious decision too?
There are always things that you think when you’re making a record. One, what are people going to make of these stories? You don’t often know, when you go into record them, if they’re any good or not. You do have this in-built safety valve, of at least a year, before you actually have to face up to what you were going through at the time.
Because I know that, I’m able to write with in-built hindsight. To write in the present, and about the present, with a cynicism that’s already there, looking over my shoulder.
I’ve gotten that from keeping diaries. I’ve kept diaries since I was 18, and I’m aware that when you write a diary, there’s a chance that someone might read a page before they get chucked on the bonfire. Writing with your own critic constantly there.
So yeah, the songs are really honest. I’ve countered that by putting in fake, third-person ideas. In most of the songs, I think there are a couple of wrong lines that really throw the sense of what’s happening – but hopefully they’re funny.
Yeah, like that line about “Scarlett Johansen was never in my house”…
I really got into the Under The Skin soundtrack when we were recording. We were playing that album on the way into Mull, and the drummer Andy just said ‘Kenny, you have to switch this off. It is making me sick.’ Car sick.
That Scarlett Johansen line was off the cuff. The tape was rolling, and that was completely ad-libbed. It was just a small, nice, dig at Andy. Even within the record, I’m trying to exact my revenge on the people who are actually making it!
I’ve gotten to the point where these little ideas fire into your brain. It’s almost a Tourette’s, and it seems to happen a lot more as you get older.
When I’m recording my own lyrics, often I’m just looking a line ahead and decide I’m going to change the lyric. It’s the busking thing, really… I feel like this is a record that was busked in a studio.
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The fabric that this musical endeavour has rested on has almost been swept away, and nothing has replaced it.
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There’s so much musical freedom on this, so much experimentation. Was it quite a fun record to make?
Hugely fun. I hope you can hear the joy. I enjoy the recording process immensely and I’ve enjoyed every record. ‘Diamond Mine’ comes over all heart-rending and chest-beating, but Hopkins and I had such a laugh making that record. Every record I’ve done with Paul has had sessions were we’re both doubled up on the floor, crying with laughter.
On ‘Astronaut’, it’s really just due to the stellar quality of that band. What you’re hearing is often a first take, and sometimes by people who haven’t heard the songs before. I was writing the second verse of certain songs right down to the wire.
The album, down to the title, seems to be caught halfway between digital and ‘real-world’ concerns. Is that something you think about a lot?
I don’t take part in Facebook and Twitter and all that, but I do publish a kind of analogue zine. It’s called the Alter Ego Trading Company. To get it, people have to send me a stamped addressed envelope. It’s free. Most of it’s nonsense. Every three months, I get to say what I would have said on Twitter or whatever.
But yeah. It’s a constant feature in our musical lives - battling against another digital innovation. We’re no longer just getting shot in the foot. We’re getting shot in the stomach and the shoulders now! It’s a constant thing, even when playing live. Before we’ve even got our instruments back in their cases and spoken to each other about how we thought the set went, some people have gone online and there’s already an Instagram video of something we did.
That’s hugely damaging. Because you’re getting reviews and criticism so early on. It’s not just instant feedback – it’s feedback that’s away ahead of your thought process. Then you’ve got the people who are looking at the gig through their phones. And the fact that album sales are already plummeting.
We’re making records that hopefully sound bigger, brighter and more epic for less and less money, but in studios that are shutting down around us at a great rate of knots. And there are no record shops anymore.
The fabric that this musical endeavour has rested on has almost been swept away, and nothing has replaced it. It’s a constant thing.
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Do you think it’s a destructive thing?
We’re always trying to think of ways to circumvent this disaster. People constantly say ‘no gigs happen in Dundee any more’ and I have to go, why do you think that is?
Or, why does your band never come to Ireland? And on and on and on. The cost of doing these things has always far outweighed the returns, but there used to be record labels that would take that cost on. Once you take money and sales out of the equation, bands can’t tour anymore. They just can’t.
The only people playing music are local bands, and they’ll keep it local and that’s just how it’s going to end up. Full circle. If you look at the bands that are touring, they all had real, proper, physical hits in the 90s.
They’re bands who realised that they have real sales, real audiences, and now they can come back. But if you’re in a new band you have no chance of achieving that. None at all.
Isn’t it just revivalism?
That’s when music had real value. It was way more valuable in people’s lives, because there was less of it. When we were growing up, you couldn’t just go onto some portal and dial up any song by any band ever, and be able to hear it whenever you want.
It’s too much. Where people can actually hear everything, but they’re not listening to anything. Individual songs don’t mean as much anymore, because there’s just so much. It’s getting harder and harder for record labels who have spent money on making a quality product. It’s harder for them to shout louder amongst this calamitous noise.
But in a positive sense, there are an increasing number of us who are rejecting it. I’m spending a lot of time now writing and recording music because I don’t spend any time sitting commenting on it.
So many people ask, how do you get all the time to make so many albums and all of that. And I say, go and look at King Creosote’s Twitter and how many tweets I’ve done. Zero!
Now, think about how many tweets you’ve made, and how long you spent thinking about them. And yet, so few people are actually grasping this.
Headlines like ‘The productivity in the UK is down’. Of course it’s down! Everyone’s sitting commenting on what they’re not doing! Just live in the moment and do something. With your two hands and your brain.
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Go and look at King Creosote’s Twitter and how many tweets I’ve done. Zero!
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You’ve mentioned you’re working on new material already – do you have any ideas or plans?
I’m wearing two different heads at the minute. I’ve just re-signed with Domino to do another record, and in theory, I have an avenue for a new project.
‘Astro’ was one of those records that felt so far in the future. There were months of that being a stepping stone to something. We haven’t quite found what that thing is yet, but we’ll find it soon, I’m sure.
It’s exciting, and it feels like people are bringing a lot of things to the band. I’m going to let them off the leash for the next record. One of my ideas is to give them a budget, and ask to be presented with six sonic landscapes…and then I can write lyrics to an interesting piece of music.
For me, stringing the same old four chords together – of course I fall into patterns. I think I’m doing new things with every album, but I’m sure someone on the outside doesn’t. It’ll be a real step. And I’m pretty sure that it’ll be exciting, whatever it is.
Where do you foresee it going?
It wasn’t intended that ‘Astronaut’ would be ‘From Scotland With Love: Part Two’, or anything like that. But, once I’d done it, I felt like I was reconnecting with an earlier kind of busking, ‘Skuobhie Dubh’ type band.
I wanted to push that idea further on this record. I wanted to take it in more of a Scottish, folky direction. We’ve got a tour in January. And although we’ve toured already, it still feels like we’re a new band.
This next time around, I’ll try to do more that I really enjoy. Because hopefully that’ll make the people that I work with enjoy it, and bring something out of nothing using good will and a joyous, celebratory sense.
In some ways, turning 50 and still playing with the band is amazing. I remember having a traumatic time aged 29, and then again at 39. Even then, the race was to be something. To have something ‘happen’ before you were 30. It was almost like, if you haven’t done it by 30 then you’re over.
Never did I ever think, that when I was 50, I would have Domino Records willing to release or listen to another one of my albums. I’m conscious of the voice of doubt. The voice that says, “Oh Kenny, what if you upset your fan base?” Often, your fan base just wants you to record their favourite song.
I’m aware of that. Sometimes, I fall into the trap and I re-record things. Like ‘Admiral’, off ‘Bombshell’. A little bit of me often goes, I should give that to the fans – shouldn’t I?
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We were actually recording two albums at the same time...
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So that’s why you dip into the back catalogue sometimes?
I think so, yeah. It’s a security blanket. For 'Astronaut...', there was the idea of a rebirth. Trying to get back to basics, whilst grappling with modern life. I felt like it’d be nice to revisit a younger me.
Vocally, I did try to sing in the way that I used to sing back in the day, when I played on the street as part of a busking band with The Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra. No falsetto. I just strained to get those notes. Your voice is different when you really push.
There are a few squawks on 'Melin Wynt', for example. It’s like my voice is becoming a bit less controllable. There was a point where the engineer asked, do you want to do that again? And I was like, no – it’ll end up being my favourite bit!
We left a lot of things imperfect in 'Astronaut'. A lot of that was down to the fact that the band is absolutely top-flight. The mistakes are mine. I prefer that. Now I’m in a position where the band are REALLY good, I’ve started doing this thing where I play them a brand new song and I ask them to join in.
I did that at a recent gig. It was an unfinished one, and there’s a rogue chord that would catch them. I told the audience that this was going to happen. And I could feel the heat, them all looking at me. After only one turn of the chords, the bass player was in. Everyone was playing really cautiously until they had a handle on it. And it was honestly one of the highlights of this gig. It’s just what the songs needs, and that’s what they bring. That ‘accidental’ success thing, where all the factors conspire and align…
That’s what I took into the album. Unfinished songs and that sort of ‘let’s see where we get to’ mentality. But there was another safety blanket. We were actually recording two albums at the same time, and 'Astronaut' itself didn’t resolve until I poached ‘The Rules Of Engagement’ from the other album.
On reflection, what are your feelings on how the album fits into your body of work so far?
It was hard to follow up ‘Diamond Mine’. A lot of people said, “Oh well, that’s you peaked.” And I think I have to be honest. Definitely, we’re on the down escalator now. But I feel really lucky to have a chance to do other things, that people have listened to. This record is the one that’s had press from all around the world on the phone. I think it’s the bagpipes. It’s almost a gift to put bagpipes on a Scottish album. It’s an authentic, automatic reference.
Did the emotional way people respond to ‘From Scotland With Love’ surprise you at all?
We did a signing at the Barbican. This woman came up to me and said, ‘I’m really pissed off with you. See that guy over there’ she said (pointing to a man whose shoulders were shaking so intensely I thought he was laughing) – ‘I’ve never seen him cry before in 17 years of marriage and he’s burst into tears a good couple of times tonight because of you.’
And I just thought, wow. It’s taken this little beardy, big-nosed guy to do it.
You’re famously prolific. Do you just go straight onto the next project without looking back?
I think I’ve actually recorded three or four records since we finished ‘Astronaut’. I’m working on something today, I’ve got six new songs in my songbook. So I’ve got the bit between my teeth. That’s the thing, no-one talks about [Astronaut] in the band. It’s out there, it’s getting good reviews and all that.
But it’s done. I want to have a year of only doing the things that I find interesting. I’m calling it my year out. I’m taking the year out of budgeting, all that stuff that is not conducive to writing or recording. I’m about to hit 50, and my aim is to do 50 shows locally. Ideally, in the pub up the road, and get back to that feeling of just being a guy, in a bar, dealing with the flak.
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Words: Marianne Gallagher
Catch King Creosote at the following shows:
12 Inverness Bogbain
13 Dunkeld Birnam Arts Centre
14 Banchory Woodend Barn
16 Manchester RNCM Concert Hall
17 Norwich Open
18 Cambridge Corn Exchange
20 Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
21 Birmingham Town Hall
22 London Barbican
23 Bristol Colston Hall
24 Cardiff Tramshed
25 Gateshead Sage
27 Glasgow Old Fruitmarket (Celtic Connections)