For Folk’s Sake Interview: Roddy Woomble

Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble teamed up with Scottish folk artists John McCusker and Kris Drever last year to make the album Before the Ruin, which – in FFS’s humble opinion – was one of the best records released in 2008. A couple of months ago we had the pleasure of interviewing the trio before their gig at London’s Union Chapel and tried our hardest not to turn into fawning fangirls. Here’s what Roddy had to say.

Tell us how Drever McCusker Woomble came to be

I was just friends with John and Kris and we wanted to write some stuff together, it was nothing more complicated than that. John has produced my album and written songs with me, and I’d sang on Kris’s record and we all knew each other as pals and we wanted to work together. I think a lot of people don’t know what to expect live because they hear the record and they wonder if its a one-off project and they realise when they hear it live it’s just good music.

Does the live sound differ much from the recorded one?
Well there’s not as many people in it. The record was done in stages, it wasn’t just done in two weeks in a studio it was done over a course of time so we added lots of different bits to it. A lot of the drums were done after. So yeah, it’s different live, it’s kind of slowed down and has more space.

I’ve heard it said that you were getting folk out of your system with your solo album and DMW, do you feel like that?
I’m sure they didn’t say that. It’s not like that.

But the Idlewild stuff does sound slightly heavier now.
Maybe on the last record but that’s more to do with the time, we didn’t have an awful lot of time to record it and we recorded it in a practice space because we didn’t want to bother going into a studio. that was an economic decision as well because studios are expensive, for what they are really, they’re just rooms. We have a good room that we practice in so we turned it into a studio. So it took on that naturally more raw sound. It wasn’t so much that we were trying to be heavier. with Idlewild it’s always been whatever feels natural at the time is what we do. There’s nothing predetermined about the band we’re not trying to be “what’s popular now, let’s do that.” I think that’s why the band has had an enduring appeal, we’ve never been part of a trend we’ve just done our own thing, we’re pretty unfashionable in fact. But at the same time I think people who like us like that. They like the fact that they’re going to see a band that they feel like they know and they know the songs and there’s a real history there.

I like having two things in tandem. You wouldn’t eat the same thing every day – it’s nice to have a bit of variety. It’s not getting something out of your system. I like folk music and acoustic music as much as I like rock music and I like being able to do both. I found out that while I was working with John on My Secret Is My Silence that it’s much better to separate it. Most of the guys in Idlewild really just want to play in a rock band. It’s only me and Rod who are really into folk and it’s unfair to force them to play like this because they’ll say ‘we don’t want to do that’. I’d hate it for people to think that something’s the main thing and something’s the side project.  For me it’s all the main thing. I just do different things, you know, I don’t prefer one to the other.

You’re doing a nice spread of different genres.
Well I think so, but i don’t analyse it, I just do it. It’s the job of other people to think ‘oh what’s he doing’. I don’t think about it too much I just go on instinct.

You write as well, how do you fit it all in?
I’m not hugely disciplined but I do seem to get it all done. I like to be busy. I think it’s something that’s been instilled in me from when I was a youngster. I don’t know if it’s a Scottish thing, it’s the guilt of like, I feel that to justify being a musician and writing songs for a living you have to constantly be doing something. I’ve got friends in bands who just don’t do anything, they just sit around you know and I’ve never been like that. I suppose I’ve got quite a good work ethic. And John and Kris have as well. I don’t feel like I push myself too much, but If I get up in the morning and I don’t have anything to do then I feel like there’s something wrong. So whether it’s writing a column or working on lyrics or going to a practice or going on a tour, I feel like I’m justifying my life to myself.

You’ve been writing for the Sunday Herald and hillwalking magazine TGO, is that something you plan to keep doing?
Actually I’m late handing it in this week because I’ve been on tour. I do it every week for the Sunday Herald and I do it every month for the magazine, which is a an outdoor magazine because I’m a keen walker in Scotland. I have vague ideas for a book about travelling, it’s a big undertaking something that’s going to happen next year and it’s something I’ll work on for quite a while.  That’s what my columns are about – they’re really about wandering around. They’re very nice the paper, they let me write about what I want so this week it’s about food on tour. I think when they started it they thought it was a bit of a risk getting a guy in a band to write but straight away they started getting good reaction from the people who read it, they gave me topics to begin with, saying could you write about fashion or could you write about TV and after a while they said, just write about what you want there was an element of trust then and I had a style that appeals to the readers.

You wrote the lyrics for Before the Ruin, how did you decide who did what?
We were working on what were the strengths of people, John’s an arranger, Kris is a songwriter and singer, and I was the one who could write the words, really. Not that the others can’t, but because I don’t play anything that’s why I took on the lead vocals. The next record we do I think Kris will sing more. I think it was weighted towards me maybe too much. He’s such a marvellous singer, I think he’ll take some of the leads as well and I’ll sing with him. We’re both Scottish voices but Kris is from the Orkneys and I’m from Ayreshire.  They’re just totally different accents.

Kris takes the lead vocals in Poorest Company on this record, doesn’t he?
I was going to be singing that one because I wrote the words, but then in the studio I just couldn’t get it right, so I said ‘Kris you have a shot’ and within two takes he had it. I was like ‘well I’m not going to sing that because it was a beautiful version’. That’s exactly the way the words needed to be sung. He has a real instinct for songs like that and that’s what’s really interesting about working with him and John. It’s a totally different dynamic from the band where there is a total instinct for songs but of a certain kind and it’s mainly me and Rod that work together on them and try and flesh them out. Kris is very different in the way he approaches things. For me coming from a point of view where I don’t play an instrument I don’t have an opinion necessarily how to tackle something that way. I found it endlessly fascinating working with them.

Since you all write your own songs, when you were together you must have had a lot of ideas to work with?
We do have a lot of ideas so I think that’s why we knew it would work straight away. Because on the first afternoon that we met we came up with a couple of songs, I think Into The Blue was one of those. Straight away we thought, these are going to be really good songs. Those two had a lot of ideas, and I had a lot of melody ideas and I’d never sang over those kinds of chords and that’s why I think it started, we’re three people who have a lot of different interests within music.

Is there going to be another DMW record?

We’re thinking of doing a record next year. Kris is quite busy with Lau and he’s got a solo album and I’m doing an Idlewild album and we’ll be touring for that. And John’s got his various things so I think it’ll be the start of next year when we start it, we’ll probably put it out next year.

Tell me about the sea influence on the record.

The cover is painted by a painter called Charles Shearer. He does all of the covers for an author called George Mackay Brown who lived by the ocean and the influence in most of his work was the pull of the ocean. I really loved the idea and a lot of the songs are about things like that kind of looking towards the horizon, looking for answers – for something and not really ever finding that. But songs are great in that way, they don’t have to conclude and they don’t have a story that needs an end. Songs don’t need an end. That’s what we told Charles and he painted this brilliant – vaguely psychedelic – cover, with the boat and the seagulls but then these random shapes and colours. Everyone looks at the sea differently. When I look at the sea it’s different to what you see and I think that’s really fascinating. That’s what I tried to put into the lyrics, standing before the ruin – the ocean and what is the ruin to someone else. The thing that always interests me about writing songs is that they don’t have to make sense but they can still be about something, just by the way they make you feel when you listen to it. I think that’s why people go to concerts and people buy records. Because you don’t really understand why two chords put together a certain way make you feel a certain way, or why words that wouldn’t necessarily be that interesting written down are interesting when they’re sung. I think that’s why people dedicate their lives to records because there’s always something else to wonder about.

Do you think you’ll write the next album in a similar way, with a broad theme?
I don’t know yet, but I do think it’s good to deal with themes when you write songs, rather than say this is about Tuesday the 16th of June and the things that happened to me that day.  Some people write like that but I couldn’t do that. I kind of like to find ideas.

Interview: Lynn Roberts

Drever McCusker Woomble are touring and playing festivals in June and July. For details see our listings page.

The album Before the Ruin is available to buy from Amazon.