James Yorkston is from Fife in Scotland, where he still maintains a strong connection through the Fence Collective of musicians (HMS Ginafore, King Creosote, UNPOC, etc). He left for Edinburgh to follow the punk life in the band Huckleberry but thereafter returned to his more acoustic roots. His song ĎMoving Up Country, Roaring the Gospelí was picked up by John Peel and then issued as his debut single on Bad Jazz Records in January 2001.
The album ĎMoving Up Countryí on Domino Records (Rough Tradeís album of the year 2002) was an incredible word of mouth success. James has assembled a brilliant band of talented multi-instrumentalists, The Athletes, and together theyíve taken traditional folk influences and combined them with alt.country, world music, blues and krautrock to create something that transcends all artificial genre boundaries. On 20 September he releases his wonderful second album ĎJust Beyond The Riverí, the first issue of which comes packaged with a free EP, ĎFearsome Fairytale Loversí. James in conversation displays the same intelligence and dry wit that has left so many people beguiled and smitten by his songs. We interviewed him in August 2004 in London.
SXP: On the recent Domino sampler CD that came with the NME, the NME had said that youíd ďforsaken bagpipes for banjosĒ. Is this a typical Scottish stereotype or have we missed bagpipes on your records before?
James: Weíve used small pipes on three tracks: ĎThe Lang Touní, ĎRosemary Laneí and on the new album on ĎThe Snow It Melts The Soonestí. I donít know if they were just being rude or if itís a reference to ĎThe Lang Touní.
SXP: Did you grow up with traditional music?
James: Yeah, kind of. I get a lot of inspiration and influences from traditional and non-traditional folk music but I didnít really grow up with a folk background. Iím just an enthusiast! I donít really inhabit the folk world. I inhabit some murky in between territory I guess.
SXP: I donít particularly like jazz but listening to your first album, there were a lot of subtle jazz influences that sounded really good.
James: The jazz thing comes from the fact that weíve got a great stand up bass player and a great drummer. Faisal is pretty much a jazz drummer, though he plays ceilidhs and he does all sorts, but heís got a very light style. One thing Faisal canít stand is doing something obvious. The four on the floor song is very rare; thereís only maybe ĎI Spy Dogsí from the first album where thereís a full rock drumbeat. Most of the time he prefers playing lighter things, treating the drumkit as light percussion rather than as a thing to make as much noise as possible.
SXP: What about the punk influence? I was speculating whether joining a punk band was some sort of reaction.
James: Thatís exactly what it was. Iíve been playing punk music from the age of ten or something. Later on I started getting into different types of music. I listened to a lot of reggae, I went though a jazz period and especially listened to a lot of quiet acoustic music. So when I left the punk band it was a reaction to get away from the racket Iíd been making.
SXP: So you moved direction again, away from punk. Was that just a phase then or is there a punk hidden away deep inside you?
James: I think Iíve still got a lot of the punk ethos inside me. Iím still fairly uncompromising: itís just maybe the music isnít quite so loud now. The punk thing for me was about morals, and about independence and just being yourself.
I left the punk band and just decided Iíve got to do exactly the music Iím doing. Iíd rather do that and sell no copies than play for someone else and sell a thousand copies. It was 100% the right thing to do both from the creative point of view and from the happiness point of view.
SXP: Do you like playing live?
James: Yeah, itís great fun, presuming itís not a bad audience: weíve done some pretty unsuitable support slots in the past where the audience just doesnít want us to be there. I like playing JY gigs and hopefully people are there to hear us play. Last week I was up in Pittemween at the Fence Festival, and I played three nights in a row and it was really good fun.
SXP: This sounds a bit like NME typecasting but is there a folky scene?
James: Obviously thereís a huge traditional folk scene but weíre not referring to that. I donít know why but there does seem to be quite a few people playing acoustic music at the moment. And a lot of it seems to be quite interesting Ė not just straight singer-songwriter stuff. Perhaps itís people growing up with the same influences and reacting against the same things. Youíve got to remember that all those loud guitar bands, Nirvana, Oasis and now bands like Busted are kind of ďTop of the PopsĒ at the moment, itís quite prevalent. Iím guessing a lot of people are reacting against that and they just want something simpler to listen to.
SXP: At the moment there are lots of folk-influenced musicians about, like Joanna Newsom.
James: I think the album of hers is amazing. Itís very rare that you get something that different, and good, light and refreshing. I donít mean light as in Ďnot deepí, I mean light as in Ďniceí. Itís a lovely album.
SXP: Your new album is a bit of a departure after the ĎSomething Simpleí EP which was wonderful but really sparse.
James: Looking back on that EP, itís really good and I really like it but it is a sparse sounding record. This albumís got a bit more depth to it. Itís a lot warmer sounding.
SXP: ĎThe Snow It Melts The Soonestí is a traditional song but youíve arranged it to sound more like the Velvet Underground or Spiritualised.
James: Iíve always wanted to do a version of that song but how do you get past Anne Briggsí version of it? Or Dick Gaughanís version? Or Eliza Carthyís version? Theyíre amazing versions - how are you going to do something new? Iíve always been into Can and Faust, so thatís my effort. The Athletes were on fire that day. The playing on that track is brilliant: Faisalís drumming, Reubenís accordion playing, Dougieís bass playing and Holly on the pipes. Itís played live and you can really tell weíre just going for it.
SXP: Are there any other tracks on the album that youíre particularly pleased with?
James: Iím particularly pleased with almost all of it! I shouldnít say this to an interviewer but I wouldnít change nine of the 11 songs. And the things I would have changed are very small things, like I would have put a banjo there, added percussion there or I should have tried lap steel. Iím pretty happy with the album. I realise itís quite an uncompromising album and that itís not a particularly commercial album and thatís not a huge concern.
SXP: Your first album wasnít that well promoted but people seemed to pick up on it.
James: I think it was pretty well promoted for what it was, which was a first album by an unheard of guy doing uncommercial music. But, yeah, it has been a word of mouth thing and thatís incredibly satisfying. A lot of promotion is about money. And it was very satisfying with the last album that it wasnít about money.
SXP: Do you have different audiences: for example, being played on Radio 3 as well as XfM?
James: We get played on Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 bizarrely enough, and Radio Scotland. Thatís great. But we donít get played a lot on any of them. We sneak in here and there. So itís like an oddity thatís picked up on by some odd people, rather than a big commercial thing that is so good that everyone loves it and everyone wants to play it. On Radio 1, the only person who plays it is John Peel, whoís obviously brilliant, heís been there ever since ĎJ Wright Presentsí days. Itís very good in Scotland because it gets played on all the different radio shows there, on the Celtic shows, and the folk shows and the singer-songwriter shows and the country shows and the indie shows. They all play it, which is really, really flattering.
SXP: Youíve got an EP coming out on a Spanish label [Houston Party Records].
James: NoÖYeah. Well, itís actually coming out with the album in the UK. Iím going to have to go and record a new one for the Spanish people, who are very, very friendly and very nice people. Iím quite happy to do that. My aim is to get it done by the end of September before we go on the road again. Four weeks to do an EP Ė I should be able to do that. I havenít written any of it yet but thereís a couple of songs Iím aiming to do, traditional tunes. The EP is really good: itís called ĎFearsome Fairytale Loversí.
SXP: It says in your press release that it took two weeks to record your album, which isnít bad going.
James: I think it was a little more than two weeks. We did it in one block and, looking back on it, for ease of mind and for the sake of sleep, it would have been easier if weíd had a few days off in the middle. But then it would have been a different album and Iím happy with the way the album is so I canít really complain. Except I would have liked a comfier bed!
SXP: Even though youíve got this separate life with the Athletes, you keep pretty active with the Fence Collective. How important is it to you?
James: It still is very important because they allow me to do very off the wall stuff. Iíve released one Picket Fence with them and Iíve just recorded a second one Ė actually Iíve done three but the first one was so odd I took it off the market! I can go back to Fife and can play in front of a friendly audience and I can do new songs, old songs, whatever I like. Itís just an audience of friends who arenít expecting me to do anything other than get up and play and have fun. There are so many brilliant musicians coming out of that scene: King Creosote, Lone Pigeon, HMS Ginafore, UNPOC, Pip Dylan. Itís a collective of friends and most of them happen to play music. Some of them are artists, photographers or just friends. Itís a really nice scene based around music.
SXP: Do you consider any of your work to be educational, drawing peopleís attention to folk music?
James: If people discover Fence Collective through me then Iím absolutely delighted because Iím a big fan. So if, as a by-product of me doing interviews, more people get to hear King Creosote - whoís one of the finest songwriters Iíve ever heard - or HMS Ginafore or any of those people, then thatís great. And itís the same with folk music. But Iím not really blazing a trail. If something does happen thatís great but there are a lot more famous and more worthy musicians than I am.