Edinburgh’s Euan Robinson, going by his Stars Of Sunday League moniker, gives one of the most modest and self-deprecating interviews in the history of folk.
FFS: We meet a jealousy inducing number of people whose dads have been teaching them to play guitar since they were babies and whose mums wandered round the house playing violins – is folk something that’s come through as an influence from your parents, would you say?
SOSL: I know the kind of thing you mean, when you read about… I don’t know about you but I used to play football manager, and I’ve kind of graduated from that now, but you’d play it and you’d have this amazing teenage striker and they were 16, and that was fine when you were 15, but now I’m at that age where someone scores a goal for Scotland and they were first year when you were sixth year, and you read an interview with them and their mum or dad took them to football when they were four. Or someone like Andy Murray, who was playing tennis in his nappies. My mum was quite musical, she played cello and things, but me and my brother played brass when we were kids. My dad got a guitar for his 40th birthday, and I guess when you’re getting into music at 14 and you want to be the next Beatles then having a guitar around the place, it being in the hallway where you can pick it up and have a go, is really useful. I never had lessons or anything, it’s just that bloody mindedness will get you a long way. Guitars are funny things – show me a man under the age of 30 who hasn’t wanted to play the guitar and I’ll give you £10. But it wasn’t like I was born and raised with this aim in mind.
If we put that online you’re going to get a lot of people trying to leave you out of pocket.
Well I suppose £10 these days is worth nothing at all, and by the time it goes online it’ll only be worth about 2p so I reckon I’ll be all right.
So what’s been the progression between that 14-year-old and what you’re doing now?
I played with friends, and for fun and things at school, and then a little bit at university. I used to do the occasional open mic night and things, I’ve kind of always been writing songs, although not very good songs, I think before you write your first OK song you’ve got to write about 100 absolutely crap ones to get it out of your system – that’s just the way you learn, you know, you fall off your bike 10 times before you can actually ride the damn thing, and you have to serve that rubbish apprenticeship. I moved to London about three years ago and didn’t do anything really for a couple of years, just played in my room and stuff. I remember writing down in my diary the date of an open mic night, and writing “If you don’t play this you should never pick up the guitar again”, like an ultimatum really. I went along and played that, it seemed to go all right, and the guy who ran it asked me back to play a proper gig, and another guy who liked it went away and asked Emma (Emmy the Great) to come and have a look, and I ended up singing with her every now and again. It was great and it showed me a different level I guess of what it could be like. It’s all kind of come from there really, people have always asked me to play so I’ve just kept playing, and it’s really only now that I’m starting to be pro-active, which is very lazy, but until this point it’s always been because people have just kept asking me to play since that first gig. I don’t want to make it sound like something I don’t want to do, it’s always been kind of the pipe dream, but it’s just happened quite gradually. A year ago I wrote a date in that diary and said to myself “You’ve got to play this or I’m never speaking to you again”, so I suppose if you actually give a shit and you actually care then you’ve got to try your hardest. But then if you try your hardest and you don’t succeed then that’s pretty hard.
If it takes 100 songs, or however many, before you write your first good one, what was the first good song you write?
Ah, I don’t know – I’m not sure if there was a first one that was good but there would be bits of songs that you’d think ah, that seems different form all the other bits I’ve been playing, that’s actually all right. I still don’t know if I’ve written a good song yet, but you start to notice things – it’s a good sign if I can play a song trying to figure something out and it gets into my girlfriend’s head and she’s humming it. I think this time last year I started writing songs which I felt were worth playing, and I think if you’re playing songs to other people, subjecting other people to your music you must at least think that half of them are worth hearing. I’m not sure if I could give you a song though – it’s much more of a gradual thing, it’s not like a “Eureka!” moment.
Have you got a particular favourite of the songs that you play?
I think your favourtite song is always the one you’ve just done, because to get to the stage where you’re finishing it you have to have got quite excited about it and thought “this is really good”. In the cold hard light of day and with a bit of criticism you might think otherwise, but it’s usally the last thing you’ve done – it’s the old adage where you’re only ever as good as the last match you’ve played or whatever. When you play live you know there are songs that you aren’t going to make any mistakes in, and I’m really bad at practising so if the gig’s big and I’m feeling pretty nervous then I’ll play something which I know I can get through without really thinking about it too much and it’ll go down all right. It doesn’t mean it’s a good song, but it’s a safe bet. But there are certain songs where you can still recognise what you were trying to say when you wrote it, and the ones where you can feel what you were talking about when you sing it, rather than just singing a wee song.
You mentioned Emmy – we know you’ve done some stuff with her and Euan Hinshelwood (from Younghusband) – what do you make of the progression she’s made, getting played on the radio etc., and why do you think it’s taken so long for her to get properly picked up?
I played a gig with Euan the other night in Watford acutally – he’s really good, I really like him and his songs. I sing with Emma occasionally and that’s been really good, it’s been great fun. I think people are really obsessed now with “Oh, people are talking about you”, and for some people that’s great, but sometimes you want a bit of time to work out what the record you want to do is, the songs you want to write. In the case of Emma she’s good enough not to release an album for another four or five years and people would still wait and want to hear it, and the record that she puts out now I’m sure will be infinitely better than anything she would have done a year, two years, three years ago – i think it’s a really good examnple of how to do it. She’s worked really hard – hang on, I’m trying to think of a word to describe her that’s not ‘Great’. She deserves it, she really deserves it.
Where does the name Stars Of Sunday League come from?
Well, I’ve got a song called that, and I played in London a few times without a MySpace or a name or anything, and people would ask “What’s your MySpace” and not having one you felt like a right twat. I liked the song, and sunday league makes me think of really trying, of making up for a skill deficit with character and effort and I liked that idea. It felt fine, I chose it and I’ve never really thought about it since then I suppose. I don’t have an interesting enough name to go on without it I think.
So what can we expect from you in the next few months or so regarding records, gigs – what are your plans?
In the next couple of weeks I’ll be going into the studio with Euan from Younghusband, whose got a nice little studio set up and he’s good, he knows his stuff. So I’m going to do a bunch of tracks with Sarah who plays with me as well, and maybe some other people coming in and helping out if they’re free, and try to get enough tracks together for an EP. There’s a few different people who’ve expressed interest of one sort or another, but I think when you’ve got a hard thing done and recorded that you’re happy with it’s easier to say to people “have a wee listen to this, do you like it, maybe we could do something together”. I think it’s going to be OK – as a first release you really want it ot be something that will represent the kind of music that you want to make. That’ll be the next month and then hopefully around Christmas time maybe there’ll be something sorted out to promote, and then I can go for the next stage. I’m much more interested… I don’t really like recording, I’d much rather be writing songs. I don’t know enough about recording to really enjoy it yet, so that’s something I need to learn, but the next stage is very much getting something down I’m happy with and show it to people and say “that’s the best that I can do, and if you don’t like it then, well, I’m sorry”.
What about gigs, would you say you’re a frenetic gig player?
I don’t know, I don’t know what the benchmark is – I probably play once or twice a week. I’ve started to play a few outside of London recently, and it’s been really nice to get out and enjoy a new experience. You support different people and you play to different crowds and you learn a lot by putting yourself in front of different audiences. I used to think watching different bands “go on, you’re a good band, you’ve got good songs, just play them and it’ll be amazing” but it’s not as simple as that at all.
It’s a two way process – it’s not just the band stands up and plays and people react to that, the band react to the crowd as well and you know when you’ve been to a great gig because you’ve watched a band and it’s felt, I don’t know, that you’ve got a bit of a buzz off one another and that’s what’s made it good.
How does Edinburgh compare to London, music wise?
There’s very few venues in Edinburgh – there’s quite a good acoustic scene and there’s a couple of good bands, Ballboy are a good Edinburgh band. Its just… OK, the Union Chapel, that’s such a good venue here in London and there are so many churches like that in Edinburgh where you could do things like that but it’s just not there at the moment. So that’s kind of stifling it a bit I think, but I don’t know much about the quality of the bands at the moment. I’m sure there are, there’s enough people there and enough bands with enough things to write about so… Glasgow’s been really good for ages at pumping bands out, and Edinburgh’s kind of struggled as a result to keep up I guess. Edinburgh’s always had good folk bars and you get a lot of really good folk people playing there, but it’s definitely been in the shadow of Glasgow recently. I’m playing a show in Edinburgh in January which will be weird, it’ll be the first time I’ve played in Edinburgh.
Are you going to be welcomed back do you think, with open arms?
I don’t know – I don’t know if any of my friends know i’m playing music, so I’ll have to tell them I suppose.
Let’s talk about influences then – who did you listen to when you were growing up, and how has that influenced the sort of music you produce now?
I used to listen to loads of Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and all that usual folky whispers stuff.
And how did you get into that?
My dad had some good CDs actually, my best friend would come round and we’d pick CDs to listen to. I got into local bands as well – Ballboy I’ve already mentioned – and I was really fussed about the songs. I wasn’t so bothered about amazing solos or orchestras and things like that, I really liked the songs. I got into Belle and Sebastian, Hefner, and it’s just like everyone else, you find bands you like and you find other bands through them – some of it you like, some of it you don’t. But pretty much all the bands I like, I like because of the songs, I’m not that fussed about the rest. It’s great if someone can sing really well, but to be honest.. well you know, you watch The X-Factor and there are loads of girls brilliant voices but they can’t write songs, and there are loads of brilliant guitarists out there too – you go to Denmark Street and you’ll find amazing(italics) guitarists, so that’s not what I’m interested in, there’s loads of that. It’s not that often you hear someone write a song and it catches you, that doesn’t rhyme dove and love or whatever.
Do you think you can hear those influences in your songs?
Yeah, sometimes you write a song and it’s great, and then you realise it’s a Dylan song. Usually it’s not as obvious as that – I think if you listen to somebody a lot then maybe you end up writing a song like them – and maybe it’s not even like them, it’s just about what you think about when you listen to them. I think once you’ve written a few you can be influenced by people without copying them. I feel slightly curtailed because I’m not an amazing guitar player, so I might want to write a Neil Young like song but can’t play like that, and that forces you to do things and be creative in a slightly different way.
How would you describe yourself – there’s a difficult question to answer – or how would you describe what you do?
(Enormous pause) – I like to write songs that are… good songs, really. Even a really cheesy pop song, when you break it down and just look at it the popular ones are usually really amazing songs as well, and I’m really a believer in that – it doesn’t matter as much who’s singing it. Interpretation of songs is important, but there’s something else there which you can’t quite identify about them, and that’s what I’d like to be able to do really.
On that note, are there any covers that you play?
Not really actually, I don’t really play covers, mainly because i can’t play any songs – I’ve never really gone in for learning songs. If i really like a song I won’t learn it, I’ll just listen to it, so I can play about 20 songs and about 18 of them are mine – so I’m kind of restricted in the number of covers I can play. I can probably play a few Emmy the Great songs, but that’s about it.
If I was going to guess, and I am, I’d say you go for words first and fit the tune round later when you write songs, is that fair?
Yeah, these days – I suppose though you can have a piece of music kicking around for ages and then you write a lyric and feel aha, that kind of fits. Most of the songs that are perennially unfinished are where the music started first, and you try to fit the words around it. Both parts are important, but my vocabulary is better than the number of chords I know so that’s probably a better avenue for me.
What’s the most recent thing you’ve written, whether finished song or half-thought melody?
It’s a song about a boy I went to school with, who used to be a bully – I’ve kind of written a song about him. I’m not sure if I can play it, I’m not sure if it’s offensive – and it unashamedly rips of Summer Of 69 as well. That was really good actually, it was kind of when a tune and a lyric came at the same time. This whole dictaphone thing would be great for that actually, I could just walk down the street, pretending I’m serenading my girflriend or whatever.
What about bands around at the moment, what sorts of things are you listening to?
I played a gig last week with a guy called Chris Wood, whose a proper tradtional English folk singer. I think he’s quite big, he’s played with Billy Bragg and so on and he’s got some really beautiful songs which seem simple, but they’re not really, they’ve got really good sentiments in them. Also a band called esiotrot – they’re a bit like Hefner, and they’ve got a couple of really good tracks. I’m not very good with new music, I’m a bit slow off the mark and tend to get into things way after they actually cool. You’d think I’d get to see loads of bands, but it’s funny, you think you’ll be playing with loads of bands similar to yourself, but you often end up on some really random ones. No death metal yet, but really avant garde jazz – I don’t even know enough musical analogies to describe them. You’d think there would be folky nights but people just seem to book whoever, so you can be on a bill with anyone. I guess it’s a good time for folk – you say folk now and it doesn’t make people think of beards and jumpers and sandals.
I think it still does you know.
Ah, maybe it does – I’ve got a pair of sandals and a jumper and a beard, so I don’t know. I don’t really know what that means, folk music.
I like to think it’s music with a strong story-telling element. And probably a violin.
(Laughs). I’ve only got a viola, rubbish. Maybe I’m anti-folk then, because I’ve got a viola.
Last question then, who should we really go out and listen to because we’re idiots and we’ve missed them so far?
Erm – I’ve got a friend who very kindly sends me CDs, who sent me a Death Vessel record – it’s not the best thing ever but I really got into it. There’s a Scottish traditional folk singer called Dick Gaughan, who’s gigging in London twice in the next couple of months – he wrote what’s supposed to be the best folk album ever by, Folk Monthly, I don’t know, whatever magazine folk people buy, but he’s amazing. It’s a really amazing album, and he still plays all these old songs which are so good, so relevant so often. I really got into that Feist single, 1234 – I’ve got a really crap stereo though that only plays really crap CDs, and you have to spin it round, so if it doesn’t work after about five attempts you’ve got to scrap it even though it might be amazing. That Chris Wood guy as well, he’s always on my stereo – he’s got this love song about fish and chip shops which sounds like it would be dreadful, but it’s actually amazing.