Arriving six years after their previous LP, 2009’s ‘Post Electric Blues’, next year’s ‘Everything Ever Written’ is about as good a return for Idlewild as any long-term fan could have hoped for. Which is to say: I like it, quite a lot.
Recorded in relative isolation on the Isle of Mull, produced by guitarist Rod Jones, the band’s seventh album proper finds the band – which reaches its 20th anniversary in 2015 – showcasing all the melodic strengths it’s had since the livewire energy of the early days gave way to a more studied, but no less affecting approach to songwriting.
Ahead of the release of ‘Everything Ever Written’, set as February 9th, we spoke to frontman and songwriter Roddy Woomble, who has released two solo LPs of folk-styled fare between Idlewild sets.
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‘Everything Ever Written’, trailer
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You all settled in there for a day of promo, Roddy?
Yeah, well, I’ve not had to do this for a few years, so it’s all a bit surreal.
Well, let’s jump right into ‘Everything Ever Written’. Why here and why now for album seven? The band had been apart a while, so what made this the time right for another record?
To be honest, I think that the band has always been on its own, a little bit. So it might not have mattered when we came out again with this, even if it was 10 years from now, as we’re not a band that’s ever really been in the spotlight. But at the same time we’ve managed to maintain a fanbase, and have an opportunity to sell our records directly to that (through Pledge Music). Our solo records have been pretty low-key, too. We’re not really a band for the limelight – none of us are drawn to it.
As for the break, between albums, I just think we all needed the space, and to do different things. But we always knew we were going to come back and make another record, because we’re friends and we come up with good things together. So I suppose this album, coming now, has been a very natural process. We didn’t think about what was the right time to come back as Idlewild, it just kind of happened when it happened. And it’s taken a long time – it took two years to write and record, as we’ve just been doing it ourselves. We’d meet up over time, and add things to it as we went. It’s like a scrapbook that we’ve been adding to.
You mention your fanbase is still there, and I saw the positive reaction on Twitter to the new album’s announcement. It must feel great to have this gap between releases and still attract all of this interest, what with the constant demand on us to listen to ‘new’ music.
Oh, it makes us really happy, and we never take these things for granted. It’s amazing that people are still keen to see us, and hear us. But I think right from the start we’ve always been putting out good music and putting on good concerts – although I suppose some of those early ones were a bit scrappy. But even those had a charm of their own. We’ve always been in our own orbit I suppose, and never part of any one scene, so people who liked us at the start tend to still like us today – we’re their own little band, y’know. People who know about us seem to really like us, and then everyone else simply doesn’t care. That’s the way with Idlewild: it’s either all or nothing.
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If we’d stayed the same as a band, making the same music with the same people who formed in 1997, it’d have got tired a long time ago…
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Would you say that this new album is identifiably you, in the sense that it focuses in on the strengths without pushing anywhere that might lead long-term admirers to feel a little uncomfortable?
I’d say the album is definitely a grower, as far as our albums go. We’ve had times in our career where we’ve tried to make really immediate things – like, on (2002 album) ‘The Remote Part’ we were sort of going for every song to be a single. The music was still really interesting – but, now, the music has to change, as Rod is the only guitar player in the band, and there are more keys now. There’s a lot more space now. Also, I’ve spent the past four or five years making acoustic music, and I wanted that to be reflected in this album. So perhaps some of the songs are a little more stepped back than people will be used to – but, others are quite chaotic, so I think there’s a good balance on there.
We’re old enough, and have worked together for so long, that we need to exert our own influences on an album. We have a real understanding to let each other do that, so there’s a collective mindset at play. I suppose we are something of a collective, anyway, as a few people have come through the band now. The core’s always been Colin (Newton, drums), Rod and me, so it’s interesting to have different people around us. (At the moment, that’s Andrew Mitchell on bass and Lucci Rossi on keys.)
I never really think of Idlewild as having a history of many members, coming and going. But I suppose that is the case, isn’t it? You’re now on your fifth bassist.
I think it’s the core that’s kept us progressing. The songs are primarily written by Rod and I, so there’s where the identity tends to be. And we’ve evolved as we’ve got older, and other people and influences have come in. Early on, when it was the four of us, we were pursuing this punky thing. Then we moved onto these pop melodies, and then onto more rootsy fare. We tried to widen our spectrum, and work in more atmospheric elements – and I think that’s more prominent on the new songs.
I think it’s a healthy way to do things though, as if we’d stayed the same as a band, making the same music with the same people who formed in 1997, it’d have got tired a long time ago. We’ve needed the new people coming in to keep this band going. It reenergises us every time.
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Idlewild, ‘American English’, from ‘The Remote Part’ (2002)
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We’ve just been through a pretty major event for Scottish people, with the independence referendum, and I’m wondering how the band sees itself. To me, Idlewild has always been Scottish first and British second, if that makes any sense – there’s a feeling of place about the music, and that was true when your influences were clearly American, early on.
I’ve always seen us as a Scottish band, and with a real, strong identity – and I think people will very quickly identify us that way, and not just because of the way I sing. But I did grow up with American records, so as a person raised in Scotland my musical influences are almost all American, like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. – that was the soundtrack to my teenage years, basically. And what you like then, it doesn’t really change much. If a new band comes out today that sounds like one of the bands I liked as a teenager, I’ll probably like them too.
But when I think back to the music I loved as a teenager, a lot of it wasn’t about being great at playing your instruments. It was more about an exchange of ideas, and that’s something that Idlewild took on board straight away – because we weren’t very good at playing! But we did have these ideas, and some of them were crap but they very much fitted our punk-rock thinking at the time. Sometimes things didn’t sound quite right, and… But back to your question: I don’t wholly know how the band sees itself. We’re influenced by America, but we’re definitely Scottish.
I suppose it’s like The Twilight Sad – before James has uttered a lyric in that band, I just sense Scotland in them.
That’s because they’re so gloomy! (Laughs) I don’t think our music is always like that, though it can be a bit gloomy. I think we’re more optimistic, especially these days.
I wanted to mention that, because ‘Everything Ever Written’ does feel pretty… upbeat, I guess, across its whole. Even a song with a title like ‘Nothing I Can Do About It’ has a real spring in its step. It’s far from a downer. It’s quite the juxtaposition, I guess.
Well, I’m really interested in vagueness. Like, I think lyrics are one of the few art forms that doesn’t have to mean anything, yet they can mean everything. I’m not so interested in themes or images, as I prefer surrealism and making patterns with words. And the music can feel quite happy-go-lucky, around those, giving the songs a positive sound. I think that’s a reflection of the people in the band, as we all enjoy being here. We all enjoy playing music, and I’m not going to pretend that we’re not very fortunate.
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Idlewild, ‘Roseability’, from ‘100 Broken Windows’ (2000)
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There are heavier songs on the new album, too – ‘On Another Planet’, ‘Collect Yourself’. But they’re not the angry songs that you might have written before, on the first two albums. They’re fast, lively, loud, but not aggressive as such.
There’s always been questioning in our songs, and when you’re younger you question things a lot more. And I could get angry about the way things would be – but as you get older, again, you sort of acknowledge there’s nothing you can do about some things. I don’t mean that in a defeatist sense, but what got you angry at 22 won’t be the same when you’re 38. There’s an acceptance that you have by that age, with who you are and your place in the world. You can focus on the positives – well, I do, anyway.
(Second album, released in 2000) ‘100 Broken Windows’ was full of questions. I was 22, 23, and I’d dropped out of university and I felt a real guilt about that, and a need to learn. There are references in there to postmodernism, and Gertrude Stein (in the song ‘Rosability’), and I was learning about myself, and putting things into songs as I went. Scottish history plays an important part in that record, so there’s a lot in there. It’s basically pop, indie rock, with all of these lyrics about farming in the 19th century!
Which people duly sang along to, which was a bit brilliant.
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Next year is a milestone for us – and to be touring, and putting records out, 20 years after you started is really nice…
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The closer on ‘Everything Ever Written’, ‘Utopia’, is this tonally different piece, a sparse piano affair. I guess that was always going to be the end track, even if it’d come first?
Well, we always record songs a couple of ways, and the demo of that song is quite different. But when we came to record it for real, we tried it with just the piano. We did quite a lot of that. So there’s actually a more upbeat version of that song, just as there are more stripped-back versions of others. When we heard the piano version of ‘Utopia’, we just knew it was the one, and Lucci is such a great player. He was just sort of improvising while I sang on top of that, so it was done really quickly. It has a really lovely feel to it. But the initial song was more akin to another song on the album called ‘So Many Things To Decide’.
So you think that any musician, any band, should try that – performing the same song a few different ways? As it’s bound to highlight strengths and faults, isn’t it, when the lead instruments are changed.
Well, that’s the way we’ve done it, for a long time. It does eat up time, but to have all these different versions is quite valuable. When we started the band we really only knew one way to write songs, but now we have lots of different ways. And we have lots of different instruments in play now, and everything adds up to… Well, I guess we’ll have plenty of material for a box set, later down the line. Y’never know!
Speaking of the future, next year is the 20th anniversary of the band. Any plans?
We’ve no plans yet. August 1995 is when we formed, but we didn’t put out a record until 1997, so we may do something then. I don’t know, but it’d be nice to have a celebration of some kind. Next year is a milestone for us – and to be touring, and putting records out, 20 years after you started is really nice.
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Words: Mike Diver
‘Everything Ever Written’ is released on February 9th. Idlewild play live dates in March 2015 – more information here.