Monday, March 5, 2007

The Travails of Idlewild by Roddy Woomble OR "Scottish People Can't Look Cool in Shades"


As he prepares to have his picture taken, Roddy Woomble has a sunglasses moment. They are, it’s true, great glasses - bug-eyed affairs by Armani, big enough to live behind. They make Woomble look like a rock’n’roll star, which is precisely the problem. “Scottish people can’t look cool in shades,” he says, electing to meet the lens barefaced.
The singer of Idlewild will return to this thought when reflecting on his long-term plan to move to the island of Mull. He loves the Scottish highlands and islands, but had an awkward experience on Skye which made him wonder whether he will be able to find peace there.
“I’m not a famous person, but the only time I feel famous is in the highlands. I remember Rod (Idlewild guitarist Rod Jones) and I got followed round Tesco in Portree by a group of giggling girls. It felt like A Hard Day’s Night if it had been set entirely in a supermarket.
“I can’t stand people who think they’re cool. I’ve always been deeply suspicious of that. If I put sunglasses on, even though it’s bright, and I need to wear them, I think, ‘now you look like you think you’re cool. Who do you think you are?’” He resolves this little argument with himself by citing a piece of Calvinist wisdom learned at his grandmother’s knee. “You’re no better than you should be. That’s what my granny used to say.”
To be fair, the soft-spoken Woomble does not seem a tormented soul. If he is extreme, it is in his determination not to be outspoken. All of which would be less surprising were it not for the fact that the last time I saw the singer, he was onstage at the SECC in Glasgow, playing support to the Rolling Stones – an odd place to find a blushing violet.
Woomble’s 2006 solo album, My Secret Is My Story, reflects these shifting priorities, and not just because the cover shows him bearded, in a woolly hat, looking like a bog-dwelling hermit. While Idlewild captured the last echoes of the second wave of American punk – the dissonance of Husker Du, the fractured pop of the Replacements – Woomble’s solo album is a reflective, folky affair. He is accompanied by Rod Jones, so the choruses swell in the manner of Idlewild, but more traditional stylings are added by the producer, John McCusker (ex Battlefield Band, and husband of Kate Rusby, who also sings) and the band he assembled. David Gow and (Woomble’s wife) Ailidh Lennon from Sons and Daughters are joined by flautist Michael McGoldrick, guitarist Andy Cutting, and the Borders-based singer Karine Polwart. Woomble’s childhood friend Michael Angus (from Foxface) co-writes two songs, and folk singer Dave Burland lends his voice.
The album was a happy accident which occurred during a hiatus with Idlewild. After 11 years together, and five albums, the demands of the business had begun to grate. “The enthusiasm had gone – not out of the band, but out of the process of creating a record, then touring it for a year. It’s like you’re part of a machine.”
Idlewild certainly had their moments. In 1999, they played alongside Garbage at the concert to mark the opening of the Scottish Parliament. “We were very young and noisy. We met [the late First Minister] Donald Dewar. He had massive hands, really imposing, a brilliant man .That was the highlight, probably, of my life.”
Idlewild’s popularity in Scotland has frequently threatened to boil over into global success, as is evidenced by the roll-call of groups they have supported. As well as the Stones, they have done the honours for REM, Pearl Jam, Coldplay and U2 – something Woomble is in no hurry to repeat.
“I’d much rather play to people who are interested in what I’m singing about. If that’s a crowd of 200, then that’s a crowd of 200. And weirdly, opening for those bands; I never thought this is something I want. A gig for me should be more than a hot dog and a couple of songs I know.
“The Rolling Stones were great, though. I’m sounding like a hypocrite, but when you’ve done it for as long as they have – they’ve set the benchmark. And people say they’re old – well, none of us is getting any younger.”
Age is a preoccupation. Woomble is on the brink of his 30th birthday, but seems aware that in NME years, that can seem very old.
“I was 18 when we formed the band. I’m 30 next month. It’s quite an important decade in anyone’s life, so the shift from year to year is subtle, but a few years later you realise it’s quite significant. When I was 18 years old I was a photography student, a big fan of punk and indie rock from America. I had no idea about music and what I wanted to do with it. But all my friends were really into records – we’d go and see bands. We shared a house together and we’d knock about on instruments – the band came out of that.
“We weren’t talented enough to be careerist about it. That was never on the agenda until quite late on, and even then… I remember the first time a small record company agreed to finance one of our singles – it was amazing, mindblowing. And then 10 years later, you start accepting things.
“But I still worry. I constantly feel that gigs are like birthday parties when you’re younger. I always hated birthday parties – I used to hide in the cupboard. And I always just wanted everyone to be happy. I’m the wrong person to front a popular rock band, ’cause I realised it was 2000 people I’d never meet, but I wanted to make sure their plates were full and they were having a good time.”
The journey toward a folkier sound is less surprising than it might seem. Beneath their hardcore exterior, Idlewild always had tunes, and Woomble is a sensitive lyricist. One of the group’s best-known songs, American English, reflects on the dishonesty of the lyric-writing process, and was inspired (though he is slightly reluctant to admit it) by Woomble’s reading of Walt Whitman. “There’s a fine line if you’re in a rock band and you think you’re cool, and you talk about stuff like that. It’s like I’m sitting with my monocle on by the fire with my pipe and my thick William Blake compendium.
“But it’s quite an indulgent thing to do, writing songs, and people shouldn’t kid themselves - most of the songs they’re writing are basically about themselves.”
The new album has some fine writing on it, notably the title track, which was inspired by the time Woomble spent living in the Scottish highlands. “It’s something that I noticed with my grandparents; they sit in silence, but there’s company in that. You’re not on your own. As a lyricist that’s something I’m interested in – the way you can say something quite profound without having to use very many words.”
Another stand-out is the elegiac Waverley Steps, a song named, with a nod to Walter Scott, after the steep exit from the Edinburgh railway station to Princes Street. “I love the way Edinburgh looks; the old closes ands the old steps. But also it’s a metaphor for getting places slowly, because at the Waverley steps it takes ages to get to the top, and you’re out of breath when you get there. It ties in a lot of things – it’s about Scotland, moving away, but you’re actually becoming closer to where you’ve come from, where you started from, all your original thoughts.
“It’s like a cycle. When you’re 18, you have a certain cynicism about everything. And things slowly fade away. I’m still young - I’m talking like I’m 60 – but you realise that it is much more honest things that are important.”
Reinvigorated by his dalliance with folk, Woomble has also helped curate Ballads of the Book, an album on which Scottish musicans (Teenage Fanclub, Sons and Daughters, Idlewild) collaborate with Scottish writers such as Ian Rankin, AL Kennedy and Alasdair Gray, on Chemikal Undergound. The new Idlewild album, Make Another World, is also out, sounding - Woomble thinks - like the Allman Brothers and Crazy Horse. “That band feels like a family to me. They’re my best friends. I sound like a 70s idealist, but it is just the spirit of playing music.
“Maybe because we weren’t a massively successful band, that’s made us appreciate what we have even more.”
As Woomble heads for the soundcheck, I ask about his cowboy boots, which are held together with gaffer tape. He looks momentarily embarrassed, launching into an elaborate explanation. In short, he didn’t want to be photographed in his sandshoes. “Again I’m a hypocrite, saying I hate rock stars and then I’m worrying about what boots I’m going to wear for my photo. They’re really comfie though. That’s why I like them. I don’t wear these when I go shopping.”