”Is it true that we come alive Not once but many times?” (The Second Life - Edwin Morgan)
”At home he feels like a tourist He fills his head with culture He gives himself an ulcer.” (At Home He’s A Tourist - Gang of Four)
”You’ll find What you find When you find there’s nothing.” (American English - Idlewild)
This a story about four young men who move around a lot, and what they do on the way to wherever it is they’re going. The four comprise a rock’n’roll group from Scotland called Idlewild. Some of you will have heard of them, some of you may not. Some others among you will most likely think they know all there is to know about Idlewild. Without wishing to get too vehement so early on, those residing in the latter camp must prepare to be confounded.
I speak from personal experience, having mentally waved adieu to Idlewild following their debut mini-album ‘Captain’. Not that Idlewild were in any way a bad band. In fact they were great, in the same way that fold-out street maps are great: convenient and colourful, but no work of art. This was back at the beginning of 1998 and I rather doubted whether another group of urchin-faced punkers for whom year zero was Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ and whose live gigs were a cross between self-immolatory thrashfests and a trampolinists’ convention was really what the world really needed. Built For Speed And Not To Last. There’d be another along in a minute.
Two-and-a-half years later, I heard a song called ‘Roseability’, a single from the second full Idlewild album ‘100 Broken Windows’. It was barely recognisable as the same people responsible for scrawny blasts of teen vitriol like ‘Annihilate Now’. These boys had been stretching themselves, getting around a bit. They’d been to record with Bob Weston in Chicago and Dave Eringa at Rockfield. And they’d also stopped sounding like ersatz Americans, and begun to sound like something far more interesting. Like real people.
Anyhow, back to the story. It’s the beginning of 2001. Idlewild are beginning to record what ended up as their new album, the one you’re probably listening to now. They were working with producer Stephen Street (the man renowned for his work with The Smiths and Blur) and things were not going well. The songs felt like mere extensions of what they’d done in the past, which wasn’t surprising seeing as a lot were leftovers from the ‘100 Broken Windows ‘sessions, or else were written just after that record came out.
Then, quite fortuitously as things turned out, they were summoned to tour the US in March. After receiving rave reviews on import, ‘100 Broken Windows’ was to be given a proper Stateside release by Capitol. The tour sold out - much to the band’s surprise. Quickly, they went back, playing bigger venues - again, more sell-outs, more excitement. They appeared on the USA’s key prime-time entertainment vessels, David Letterman and Conan O¹Brien. Plans were made for a third US tour at the end of July and the band’s collective mood - gloomy and uncertain while working with Street - was gradually but very significantly altered.
”I think we’ve always had an anti-confidence about certain things, and I think that’s actually quite healthy. When you’ve grown up listening to a lot of American bands and seen them come over … well, they just piss all over a lot of British groups. They’re bands already, they’re not developing. When we go over to America now we seem like a properly formed band, but journalists and music fans over here had seen us when we were 19 and rolling around on stages. We re-evaluated what we were wanting to do with the group and with the records, especially having recorded seven songs in January and February, and realising that wasn’t going to achieve any more than we’d previously done.”
The words of Roddy Woomble, Idlewild’s singer and lyricist. He’s here with guitarist Rod Jones to help us on our way, suggest some routes to take and maybe keep an eye out for any potholes. The clarity of which he speaks came from what many would regard as an unlikely source. It turns out that Lenny Kaye - sage of the US new wave thanks to his membership of the Patti Smith Group (plus his compilation of the seminal Nuggets album of hitherto lost or obscure classics from the garage-psych era) - was an Idlewild fan. Someone at Capitol, no doubt pleasantly surprised they had finally bothered to release Idlewild records in the States and mindful that work on the next record had stalled, suggested that they spent six days in the studio with Kaye in New York.
”Regardless of whether anything came of it, they thought it would be a really good idea to spend some time with him,” says Roddy “which it was - he is one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever hung out with. He’s just hotwired to music. Y’know, Calvinism never died out in Scotland, secretly we're embarrassed about everything, but Lenny isn't, and although it’s resorting to a cliche, he did in a sense open our minds and our attitudes to the songs we were writing. Essentially, the music we grew up listening to was verse-chorus-verse-chorus, and obviously it’s completely overdone, but because of that it can regenerate itself really quickly. Lenny said if the people are interesting then the music will be interesting. And if you’ve nothing to say then what’s the point in saying it? It’s just so simple when you think about it. Especially with lyrics - I’ve always been quite evasive at certain points. And this time he looked at all the lyrics I’d written, which no-one’s ever really done before in a producer context, and he just said, Look, what are they supposed to be about? What does that mean? He sat us down and made me reconsider how to go about writing words. Try and phrase things so they actually make sense! Again, hardly a radical concept, but when someone like Lenny Kaye’s presenting it to you, it suddenly made a lot of sense.”
In the end, Idlewild’s third US tour of the year had to be cancelled due to Rod Jones falling ill. But their brief summer sojourn in New York had served its purpose. They returned to Scotland, resolving to scrap the work they’d done with Stephen Street and start again. After waiting two weeks for Rod to recuperate, they set off on their travels once again. This time, their destination was closer to home, albeit hardly what these young citizens of Scotland’s metropolitan hot-spots were used to.
Even on the most detailed maps of the North-West Highlands, Inchnadamph is little more than a speck. Twenty five miles north of Ullapool at the heart of the desolate Assynt region of Sutherland, it comprises a few crofts, cottages, an outward bound centre and a hotel. It was here that Idlewild retreated for two weeks and where the bulk of the new album was written. Away from the distractions of their city stamping grounds - friends, pubs, the usual - and with the inspirational phrases of Lenny Kaye still burning through their heads, they wrote or part-wrote 20 songs. ”It was a great time, quite concentrated, often quite drunken, but we all had a real sense of purpose” says Roddy ”and it was just really fun. We got to know the locals. I mean, I’m not trying to paint a Brigadoon like image of Highland life. But at that time it was kind of perfect.”
Thus primed by Kaye and impelled by Inchnadamph, Idlewild then hunkered down with their pal Dave Eringa to make the final version of their new album. Roddy: ”It seemed very natural to record the album with Dave, he understands the band better than anyone, and he knew all our reasons before we started recording.” In the end it was done and dusted in six weeks, the sessions flitting between Rockfield and Sawmills, the UK’s premier rural recording outposts. And be aware, the results are special. One of the two songs they worked on with Lenny Kaye was edited down from its seven-minute epic status and became ‘American English’, which is, in Roddy’s estimation “Probably the best song we’ve ever written. Holding a narrative that you can actually follow, it doesn’t rely on dynamics, it relies on the fact that it’s a really strong song throughout - it just builds and builds.”
Ah, but not even that Calvinist inferiority complex can dent the justifiable sense of pride Idlewild feel for what they’ve achieved. Their new album is titled ‘The Remote Part’, and it is an auspicious piece of work, the work of young men who felt they had something to prove, and who via guile, instinct, a bit of luck and a lot of skill have succeeded, surely beyond anyone’s most optimistic expectations. Rife with the chaos and urgency of modern living - ironically, given the haven of tranquillity in which much of it was conceived - it barrels along, then pitches back on itself, pausing to ask questions, then is off again without waiting for answers. All the songs were written on acoustic guitars, even the rock songs (“It’s so much easier to write good melodies when you can hear what you’re doing!” says Rod). Consequently, there are tunes to dive for and some moments to cry for. It also features an appearance from no lesser Scottish literary titan than Edwin Morgan, Poet Laureate of Glasgow.
After entering into correspondence with Roddy - a huge Morgan fan – the 82 year old agreed to write and deliver the coda to the album’s closer ‘In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction’. It’s a typically concise and pointed consideration of Scottish identity; more particularly, the extent to which someone¹s birthplace defines that person. A beautiful way to end a beautiful record. ”It’s really affirming,” says Roddy, of the collaboration, “in the sense that it made me feel what we’re doing is actually quite legitimate.”
Consider ourselves confounded. Affirmation and legitimacy: by now, Idlewild are worthy of the weight of such words. The latest phase of their journey is at an end. But look, you’ll be seeing them soon enough, out on the road, searching for new ways to locate the remote part of people’s hearts. And once they do, maybe they’ll turn the heaters up, just a touch.
As Roddy concludes “The album’s purely populist. It's not necessarily this, or that, it's just available - to everyone. It's not negative, it's not positive, it just throws up doubts which exist in everything, and it's this balance of nothing and something that we've been striving towards for a long time; And with this record I think we've got to a point where we can see that divide, and embrace that divide.
Gillian Porter (July 2002)