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Maju - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 20 / 10 / 2009

Maju - Interview


Ex-Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross has recently collaborated with young Scottish indie group, the Low Miffs, on a new album, 'Malcolm Ross and the Low Miffs'. He and the group's singer Leo Condie speak to John Clarkson about the album

“I don’t see myself as a virtuoso musician at all,” says Malcolm Ross. “There was an article in a national newspaper recently which said I was one of the great Scottish guitarists. That sort of thing just makes me laugh. It is not exactly as if I have been really ever especially prolific.” It is two and a half hours before Malcolm Ross is due on stage to play a rare home town gig at the Cabaret Voltaire, a small 200 capacity club in the heart of the Old Town in his native Edinburgh. He is sitting upstairs in a dressing room above the venue and talking to Pennyblackmusic in an interview to promote his first studio album in eleven years, ‘Malcolm Ross and the Low Miffs’. It is true. Ross has never been prolific. There have been long gaps in his musical career and he has never risen beyond cult status. Yet he is perhaps being too harsh on himself. Ross was the guitarist in the seminal Josef K. Formed in 1979, the nerve-worn Josef K, which took their name from the protagonist in Frank Kafka’s gloomy and paranoiac fantasy ‘The Trial’, lasted barely two years and broke up less than a month after their only album, ‘The Only Fun in Town’, came out in July 1981 on Postcard Records. While they broke up in relative obscurity, the group’s brittle music - and both singer Paul Haig’s angst-fused vocals and Ross’ guitar work which fused a post punk sound with disco and funk rhythms - has since, however, proved massively influential, having an effect initially on acts as diverse as Echo and the Bunnymen, Wire and the Chameleons, and then more recently on the likes of Bloc Party, Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. “There was a while especially when acid house music and hip hop first came along that nobody was interested in Josef K,” Ross points out. “There was a period of over ten years between 1988 and right up until the end of the late nineties when nobody gave a damn about us. I remember when I released my second solo album in 1998 the ‘NME’ was sent a copy and the editor said to the record company, ‘We are not going to review this. This has no relevance to us now’. Since then, Franz Ferdinand have, however, cited us as a major influence and the ‘NME’ are interested in us. These guys now don’t think we’re out of touch at all.” A week after Josef K split up, Ross joined Orange Juice, the then only other band on Postcard Records’ roster. While coming from a similar place musically, in that they too married a post punk and funk sound, Orange Juice were always a much sunnier-in-tone and more commercial outfit than Josef K. Ross would stay with them until 1984, appearing on their second and third albums, ‘Rip It Up’ (1982) and ‘Texas Fever’ (1984), both of which touched the charts. After leaving Orange Juice, he worked as a session guitarist on Aztec Camera’s stately second album ‘Knife’ (1984), which also sold well commercially. The late eighties and early nineties saw him playing with a succession of short-lived acts, before establishing a career as a front man and solo artist, and releasing two critically acclaimed, but little heard albums on the German label Marina, ‘Low Shot’ (1995) and ‘Happy Boy’ (1998). It is Josef K, however, rather than anything which he has done since, that Malcolm Ross is primarily remembered for. Although Josef K broke up almost thirty years ago, and when Ross, who is now 49, was barely into his twenties, this is not something that especially bothers or worries him. “That is just the way that it goes,” he reflects sanguinely. “I saw this interview with one of the guys from Chic and he was saying that being a musician is like being a mathematician. They are usually remembered for the first thing that they did. People will usually consider your early work to be the best. I know that it is not true of everybody, but it is true of a lot of people. I don’t lose any sleep or get frustrated about it. I am really proud of the stuff that I did with Josef K.” “There have been times when I have wished that we had never split up, but if I think about that rationally then it is probably best that we did. We could have stayed together and I am sure have been as successful as Echo and the Bunnymen or some other group like that. I don’t know how good we would have been though and I also really like where I am now.” In more recent years, Ross, who moved back to Edinburgh some years ago after taking a music degree in London, has also worked as a consultant on the 1994 Beatles biopic ‘Backbeat’, contributed to the soundtrack for the Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche 2000 film ‘Chocolat’, and also toured and recorded with former Magazine and Bad Seeds bassist Barry Adamson. Music has, however, been very much a secondary concern for Ross, who has two children some years apart and has stayed at home as the primary carer while his wife has been the family’s main breadwinner. “I have been running a lot of baths, that kind of thing,” he quips, before adding more seriously. “That has been the main thing in my life. It’s what is important really.” The new album is a collaboration between Ross and the Low Miffs, a five piece group of recent Strathclyde University music graduates, which are centred around 23 year old singer-songwriter and guitarist Leo Condie. The Low Miffs, which also features Peter Webster (guitar), Thomas Brogan (guitar and saxophone), Ray Clark (drums) and Mike Fowler (bass), have released two previous vinyl only singles, ‘Sprach Shareholder/Where are Your Songs Now?’ (White Heat, 2006) and ‘Earl Grey/This Is the New’ (Art on Pop, 2006). Both Ross’s parents ’and Leo Condie’s parents live in the same street in Edinburgh. Ironically, however, Ross and Condie first met at an art exhibition in London, at which Condie’s then girlfriend was one of the exhibitors. “Malcolm came to a couple of our gigs and we went to one of his,” explains Condie, who has arrived a few minutes late and joined the conversation. “Foolishly he agreed to accompany us on a tour of the north of Scotland with the Horrors. We were down our guitarist, who was away in New York, and we thought that we would chance it with Malcolm and asked him.” ‘Malcolm Ross and the Low Miffs’, which was recorded with the aid of a Scottish Arts Council grant, followed a year afterwards. It came out in October on Re-Action Recordings, a small London-based label that is run by a Scottish-born former journalist, Innes Reekie, and which also put out ‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’, a compilation of Ross’s solo recordings, in 2006. Of the eight songs on the album, four were written by Condie and the Low Miffs, three were written by Ross, while the last track ‘As Good as It Gets’ was a co-write composed in the recording studi, between Ross and the Low Miffs. Ross and Condie take lead vocals on their own songs, and, while Ross lends his scratchy guitar sound to the Low Miffs’ tracks, they in turn serve as his backing band on his numbers and also the final song which finds Ross again on lead vocals. Ross’s songs on the album are reflective and understated and Condie’s in contrast are more confrontational and abrasive. Condie was aware of and a fan of Ross’s work prior to meeting him, but, while Ross is an acknowledged prime musical influence, Condie and the Low Miffs’ music is equally indebted to the theatricalism and cabaret of artists as diverse as Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill and Scott Walker. “I used to listen to a lot of both Josef K and Orange Juice,” admits Condie. “We are a sum though of a lot of our influences. I think that a lot of bands nowadays will choose one thing to be influenced by or to sound like. We have set out to be influenced by everything we have been influenced by.” “The Low Miffs have had various comparisons to Sparks now,” he adds. “When the first critic compared us with Sparks, I went out and listened to Sparks for the first time. I hadn’t heard them before. It is probably because I have a similarly high range to them,” he laughs. “That is maybe why people latched us together with them. We probably are though influenced by Sparks now.” For Condie working with Ross has been an educational experience: “We have learnt from Malcolm a calmer and I think better approach to song writing. What we used to do was cram as many chords as possible into a song and be somewhat muso. There is a real art to just putting three or four chords into a song and not necessarily in a punk way. It is something that Malcolm is very good at.” Ross has also found the collaboration fruitful: “I enjoy working with the Low Miffs because of their musicality. They have got that great energy which younger bands definitely do have,” he enthuses. “It has always been a great battle for me to find musicians to use and provide a backing for me to record my songs with, and that has got worse rather than better as I have got older. As so many musicians of my age have kids and other commitments, it has been a hard thing for us sometimes to find the time to work together. As you get into your forties as well you also get fairly set in your ways about what and how you can play. With these guys, when we have been recording, I have really felt that the songs could go any way. I have found that really exciting.” The Low Miffs and Ross have already played shows at small clubs and at in-stores in Glasgow and London, as well as Edinburgh, and also had support slots at two gigs with Ross’s former band mate in Orange Juice, Edwyn Collins. There will be more shows in the months ahead. Ross, however, sees the union with the Low Miffs as more temporary rather than permanent. “We do want to keep trying to promote the album for a while yet,” he says. “As Re-Ac tion is a small label, there is, however, no promotion budget whatsoever, and we are having to rely on word of mouth. I think that ultimately too the Low Miffs should try and do something without me, get enough songs together and record an album. I am sure that I will carry on and will probably do another record, and for my part if I am looking for people to record with then I’ll certainly look to these guys first.” “The Low Miffs don’t have a DIY ideal and we don’t want to do everything ourselves,” says Condie in conclusion, talking about his band’s own future. “It would be nice to have the financial clout behind us and to know that someone is going to promote your record and to promote it well, but there are less and less of those deals. That is just the reality of it. We’ll make another record, but whether it is for a big label or for another small label remains still to be seen. In the meantime we are just glad to be doing this and to have this opportunity to be working with Malcolm.” For now then, while each works out where they are going next, for both sides there is much to be enjoyed in this collaboration.

Maju - Interview

Visitor Comments:-
235 Posted By: PJ, Scotland on 16 Nov 2009
good reading not filled with the guff that some other journalists are guilty of.... like it well done JC

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