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Blue Eyed Black - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 6 / 10 / 2010

Blue Eyed Black - Interview


Former Fire Engines drummer Russell Burn and journalist and ex Re-Action Recordings owner Innes Reekie talk to John Clarkson about their new label Mayakovsky Produkts and its first album, the self-titled debut CD of Burn's new band Spectorbullets

“There were 5,000 people there and I got glassed,” says Russell Burn with a loud rattle of laughter. “I was drumming away and I was watching this Glaswegian guy in the audience out of the corner of my eye and he had this pint and he threw it at me. I saw it coming through the air and I just watched it smash all over me. It was a strange thing. It played out in slow motion and though I saw it coming I couldn’t have stopped it.” Russell Burn is a tall man in his late 40s, grey-bearded and balding. A born raconteur and affable-natured and funny, he is instantly very likeable. Burn was the drummer in the Fire Engines, a short-lived Edinburgh-based post-punk band of the early 1980s which lasted barely eighteen months and recorded just three singles and a mostly instrumental mini album, ‘Lubricate Your Living Room’, before burning out in late 1981 after playing a spate of fifteen minute sets. While little heard of in their original lifetime, the Fire Engines have since gone on to be a strong influence on a wave of other Scottish “indie” groups such as the Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, the Pastels and Franz Ferdinand. Burn is telling the story of the Fire Engines’ brief reformation in late 2004 which saw them play two support dates for their own heroes,the Magic Band; a headline gig in Edinburgh and the show he is talking about, a Christmas gig at Scotland’s largest venue, the SECC in Glasgow, as special guests to Franz Ferdinand. While they had in common with Franz Ferdinand a similarly clipped strutting sound, the Fire Engines were a much more discordant proposition. Their songs were short and jagged and, although never without melody, featured harsh guitar hooks, breakneck drumbeats and demented, yelping vocals from singer Davy Henderson. They did not go down well with Franz Ferdinand’s then predominantly teenage pop audience. “The Kaiser Chiefs were on first,” continues Burn. “That guy with the half mast trousers. ‘I Predict a Riot’. They are a big, huge, famous band now, but at the time they were the next big thing. The kids just loved them. The posters outside said ‘Franz Ferdinand plus Very Special Guests’ and they didn’t actually say ‘The Fire Engines’. They probably thought that the Kaiser Chiefs were the ‘Very Special Guests'. Then the lights went down again and they all started cheering because they were expecting Franz Ferdinand, and then Davy walks on in a dress and goes “Good evening, Teenage Glasgow” and we start playing and the whole place starts booing. They didn’t like us at all. We did have our old school people, who did like us, at the back, maybe a couple of hundred of them. You could hear over in the distance this low cheer, but it was a long, long way away.” Russell Burn is sitting in a bar in his native Edinburgh with his best friend Innes Reekie. The two have known each other for over thirty years and since the then seventeen year old Reekie moved the forty miles from his hometown of Glenrothes through to Edinburgh to do an English course at its university in 1977. Burn has played drums on and off in various projects since the initial demise of the Fire Engines. He and Henderson were both in the more pop-oriented WIN who put out two albums in the late 80’s, ‘Uh! Tears Baby’ (1987) and ‘Freaky Trigger’ (1989) and had a near hit when their anthemic dance track, ‘You’ve Got the Power’, was used in a McEwan’s Lager television advert. While Burn was never officially a member, he also helped out Henderson occasionally in his next band the Nectarine No. 9 and released under the moniker of Pie Finger a solo album, ‘A Dali Surprise’, which came out on Creation Records in 1992. Reekie has been involved in music too throughout the last three decades, but has come at it from a different angle. Initially a photographer, he made the switch to journalism in 1987, starting out by writing for Scottish music monthly ‘Cut’ and then moving on to work for other magazines such as ‘Loaded’ and ‘GQ’. He has also written for ‘The Scotsman'and 'The Sunday Times Ecosse' too. An obviously capable organiser, he has sidelined in PR work, done some band management and for five years co-ran Re-Action Recordings which between 2004 and 2009 released sixteen records including albums by Junkbox, the Primary 5, the Low Miffs and former Josef K and Aztec Camera guitarist Malcolm Ross. Reekie is the quieter one of the pair and, wryly smirking at Burn, is occasionally drowned out by his ebullient friend. He is a thoughtful thinker and, however, passionate about what he sees as a decline of both values and charisma in rock music. The two are talking to Pennyblackmusic about their new label, Mayakvosky Produkts, which they formed when Reekie returned to Scotland at the end of last year, moving to Glasgow after ten years of living in London. Its first CD release in November will be the self-titled debut album of Burn’s new outfit, Spectorbullets. “The label”, as its press release describes it, “came about through late night, marathon discourses on Popular Culture, 20th Century Art & Design, Punk Rock ethics, Post Punk’s prevailing influence, and ultimately the majority of today’s music and its myriad feelings to stir even the merest interest.” “It is the same thing that we said thirty years ago when we formed the Fire Engines,” says Burn. “Everything is really bland and there is not enough originality and things that stand out. Occasionally something will come out and you’ll go, ‘That is quite good’, but the majority of it is just really ordinary and dull. A lot of that is to do with the media and things like ‘The X Factor’. To get through to the masses you’ve got to go through this school of learning which is killing any ideas because the kids who are doing it end up in tears because they are put through this whole hardship thing in which they have to learn how to be so sweet and normal.” “If there was like this punk ‘X Factor’ type of thing, it might be a different thing,” he adds, laughing again. “Can you imagine that? It would be like ex-‘X Factor’. It would be the opposite of what there is. I think there is room for that kind of thing. That is where we come from. We have always both been involved in an underground way of doing music which a lot of people wouldn’t get anyway, but then again they don’t a chance to get it because they don’t ever get to see or hear it. There is that condition of the masses, of normal people just never getting the chance to hear the likes of our music.” “Even bands that are being championed as being alternative and edgy such as Crystal Castles aren’t really that alternative or edgy at all,“ continues Reekie. “When I read about them they sounded interesting in print, but, then when I listened to it, it was just some girl screaming over a synthesiser. It was just a barrage of noise. To me that is just unlistenable. People might say that of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as well, but I always thought that there was something more behind them. I think that a lot of current so-called alternative music stuff is just empty posturing and making a racket for the hell of it. I don’t think that there is much behind it.” Spectorbullets was first formed by Burn and New York-based, but Swedish-born singer-songwriter, Gustaf Heden, two years ago. Heden, who is 24, is the boyfriend of Reekie’s “best girl-friend”, actress and model Joanna Pickering. It was Reekie who provided the introductions, suggesting that Heden and Burn might like to get together when Burn was on holiday in New York. Heden and Burn, who are both smokers, met up in the Karma Lounge, one of the two remaining smoking bars on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Realising that they both shared a desire to do “something different”, they began an instant long distance musical and creative relationship, which started with late night calls on SKYPE and them swapping music and digital ideas by e-mail and then continued when Heden came to Scotland to work in Burn’s home studio in Edinburgh. He has since returned twice more to Edinburgh for extended intervals to work on the album and will return in the winter for three months to tour it and also to begin work on follow-up material. Gustaf Heden had met with brief posthumous success with his previous group, the Michelles, which had had a song, ‘Springtime’, appear on French actress Julie Delpy’s directorial debut, the 2007 film, ‘Two Days in Paris’. Since leaving the then London-based Michelles in which he had played bass and guitar and sung to move with Joanna Pickering at the end of 2006 to New York, he had, however, been struggling to get his next project, the Distractions, off the ground. “The Distractions were never really a band as such,” says Burn. “All he was doing was playing the acoustic guitar. It was his idea to get this band of all these really cool New York people into it, but it hadn’t happened.” “I think all he needed was someone to come along, put him in the studio and add something that was missing from his basic songwriting,” says Reekie. “The Distractions had become like this sub Babyshambles project in which he wasn’t very motivated and not a lot was going on. That is not an insult to Gustaf, but it is the way that it could have been conceived. Since he has got together with Russell, he has started experimenting with lots of different sounds and his songwriting has developed a totally new dynamic.” “It has been the same for both of us really,” confesses Burn. “Spectorbullets and Mayakovsky Produkts have both been a way of me getting back into doing things and motivating myself. I have been struggling to make a second Pie Finger album for years now and it has just gone on and on. It has been good for both of us.” “Gustaf and I actually got a lot of the songs together by busking outside Sainsbury’s,” he adds. “A lot of the songs were written outside Sainsbury’s in Edinburgh and also Sainsbury’s in London when we would go down to visit Innes when he was still there. We would go out busking for money and sit there for like four hours at a time doing the same songs over and over and trying to change them and work them out as we went along.” Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand once said in an interview with Innes Reekie about the Fire Engines that “Everything was precise with no waste, yet sounded unpredictable” and much could be said about Spectorbullets, although of the two bands Spectorbullets are the more diverse act. At barely half an hour in length, none of the twelve songs on the album last much more than three minutes and many of them are much shorter than that. Heden and Burn leap frog from one genre to another. Songs start off in one direction. Then they seemingly crash to a halt before suddenly starting up again or alternatively without warning take off in another direction entirely. One is never sure what is going to happen next, even a second away. Take the first track on the album, ‘He Needs It’, as a case in point. It starts off sounding like an odd cross between a Judy Garland and an old blues number. A twinkling piano and a stumbling, acoustic guitar both drift in and out of focus, before discordantly surging upwards together. The late Paul Reekie, a friend of both Burn and Reekie's and a local poet, musician and writer who tragically committed suicide in June, on what became his last recorded vocal makes a guest appearance on main vocals. Paul Reekie’s voice is weary and worn, but suddenly soars upwards as he becomes entwined with Heden in what sounds like a drunken duet. The whole song lasts less than a minute and a half. The second song, ‘Mars on Wednesday’, which again comes in at less than two minutes, is equally elliptical and off-kilter. An acoustic guitar and a jangled keyboard flutter frantically up and down chords, while Heben’s vocals, sometimes a chanted fury, at other times a pensive mumble as he claims that he has “lost my senses”, are joined briefly by a ghostly-toned female vocal. The third track, ‘Goldmine’, is as a 50’s-style doo wop number, but one with tougher-sounding chords and vocals. Other highlights include recent download only single and askew rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘Mayakovasky It Ain’t (Chaos It is)’; ‘Deadest Room on the Bloc’ which bulldozes its way in three minutes from being a syrupy ballad to frantic pop anthem to acoustic lament to pop anthem again before finally petering out entirely, and ‘Miss Ground Zero’, a hectic , brazen Fire Engines-style number with shrieked vocals and revved-up motorbike sounds. ‘Spectorbullets’ is, of course, by no means a light listen. Burn’s drumming, however, provides a steady backdrop to Heden’s waywardness and, kaleidoscopic as well as mercurial in its vision and scope, it is when listened to in the right state of mind completely spellbinding. “Gustaf has got this thing about him which means that he can do these pretty weird, jazzy show time changes,” Burn explains, talking about some of the influences on the album. “A lot of that comes through his family because his family is really musical. One of his sisters in Sweden is a jazz singer and the other one is this famous opera singer. He’s been brought up in this really musical household. They have a piano in the house and they have a sing song every night in which they sing all these traditional Swedish before they have their dinner. He loves punk as well, but because he wasn’t alive at the time punk started and has all these influences he has been able to take his knowledge of it and all these other genres and mix it up more than perhaps other musicians. It is great because it means you are not just going to get the same bloody thing all the time. You don’t know what is going to happen next. It is like turning things on their head.” Burn’s original plan was to find another label to realise the Spectorbullets‘ album, but during a trip to London to tout the album around the indie labels there he had a change of mind and decided instead to branch out on his own. “It just got to a stage where I decided I would love to do the DIY thing,” he reflects about Mayakovsky Produkts, which he and Reekie have named in tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky, a notoriously workaholic and dynamically self-motivated Russian poet, playwright, graphic artist and Marxist political agitator who died in 1930. “I got to London and I thought,‘I can’t be bothered going around all these record companies. They’re just going to go who Gustaf Heden is and all of that crap. Fuck it. I’ll do it myself.’ Innes had just folded Re-Action and, while I was down there I thought that him and I could start this fresh new thing. With Innes’ contacts which he had got through Re-Action and his experience of running a record company and the fact is my best pal and knew how to look after bands, it just made perfect sense really.” “I’ve picked up worldwide contacts through Re-Action, know great digital and physical distribution people, manufacturing people, designers, photographers, pluggers and PRs and have experience of dealing with Arts Councils, which comes in handy,” says Reekie. “Plus I have always loved the stuff Russell did and we come from the same musical background. I just thought, ‘Why not?’ really.” It has been, however, a hard album to make and one that has been fraught with difficulties, some of them caused by the geographical distance between Heden and Burn and others by the already well-established friendships involved. Deadlines have not always been stuck to and there have been endless delays. A few days beforehand Reekie and Burn had had to be pushy with Heden when he had swithered and asked for changes beyond the cut-off date to the credits and the track listing. “This is the most stressful thing I have ever worked on,” admits Reekie. “There have been problems in the past, but Spectorbullets is the most stressful thing that I have worked on. We were all too close, all of us really. With bands in the past, it has been easier to be assertive and detach yourself. You are allowed a little bet of leeway, but there was more and more with this. It has been such a head fuck to do. It has been the worst thing that I have had to work on in nearly ten years of putting things out simply because we’re all so close knit. As you are friends, you can’t get too angry with each other.” Burn, Reekie and Heden are all, however, excited about the album, which will be released on CD and in a download version on November 8th. Burn and Reekie are also starting to think about Mayakovsky Produkts’ next release which ideally would be a split seven inch single between Spectorbullets and the Sexual Objects, the latest band of Davy Henderson, and upon which they would cover each other’s songs. “It’s funny,” Reekie enthuses in conclusion. “I have always shied away from seven inches because it costs the same as a thousand CDs to get five hundred seven inches done, but a lot of people who are collectors buy into that sort of thing and I'd really like to release that particular coupling. After Davy first heard 'Miss Ground Zero', he said that he loved it and wished that he had written it, so it would great to have the Sexual Objects covering that. Spectorbullets have already recorded a version of ‘Outta Place Again’, which was the last Sexual Objects single, plus Gustaf already sings on The Sexual Objects' original, so it's not out of the question” The split single would come out in March or April of next year, should all go to plan. Mayakovsky Produkts are also hoping to release a Sexual Objects album next year and possibly a solo album by Gareth Sager, the guitarist with the Pop Group, in collaboration with poet, Jock Scot. Mayakovsky Produkts will undoubtedly not be to everyone’s tastes, and nor is it meant to be. With it, and the release of the Spectorbullets album, Russell Burn and Innes Reekie have come up with something that is both challenging and refreshingly different. The photographs that accompany this article were each taken by Fifi Redlips and Joanna Pickering.

Visitor Comments:-
359 Posted By: Lisa, Chicago on 20 Oct 2010
Incredibly well-written with lots of fascinating insights. Spasiba. Lisa

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