A New International - Interview
published: 3 / 5 / 2014
John Clarkson chats to ex-Starlets front man and Glasgow-based musician and songwriter Biff Smith about his cinematic new band A New International and their forthcoming debut album, 'Come to the Fabulon!'
A New International was born in Glasgow last year out of the ashes of the cult group, the Starlets. First formed in 1996, the Starlets played dates with both Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but were more popular abroad than at home, and recorded three albums of sublime indie pop, ‘Surely Tomorrow You’ll Feel Blue’ (2001), ‘Further into the Night Forever’ (2003) and ‘Out into the Days From Here’ (2009). A New International come from a different direction to the Starlets, and the group self-describe their music as “being an evocative mixture of cinematic strings, circus lights, carnival and cabaret, music hall, gypsy, chanson, a little bit of folk, a little bit of flamenco too, yet with pop at its beating heart.” They have just recorded their debut album which is provisionally entitled ‘Come to the Fabulon!’ at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with its in-house producer Colin Elliot, who has worked with Richard Hawley. A New International will be playing a Pennyblackmusic Bands’ Night at The River in Glasgow on June 7th, Pennyblackmusic spoke to the group’s self-deprecating and hilarious front man Biff Smith about new beginnings PB: Your reference points with A New International on your website include Scott Walker, Calexico, Beirut and Morricone. It could also be argued that they might also incorporate Tindersticks, latter period Velvet Underground, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and nearer to home the Trashcan Sinatras and the Bathers. What else can be found in your current record collection beyond those acts you have already listed? BS: I like all the bands you listed. I’m attracted to melody, atmosphere and storytelling and I’ll go wherever that is found. ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ by the Triffids is a record that I love and listen to still, probably always will. I heard Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion’ for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was stunned by it, absolutely beautiful. ‘Saudade’ by the Galician folk band Luar Na Lubre is sad and lovely, like listening to the rain, Devotchka’s ‘A Mad and Faithful telling’ has been a big influence on me. I think they’re a great band. I’d say the idea of genre is important only for filing purposes. For me, there are only two types of music: the kind you like and the kind you don’t. PB: The Starlets were huge in Japan and also did really well in Europe. Why do you think that they went so well over there, while in Britain and Scotland, although attracting an enthusiastic but smaller local audience, they were lesser known? BS: Heh, heh, I wouldn’t say we were huge, only in comparison to our home shows, which wouldn’t be hard. We’ve found a freedom in playing abroad in that you tend to be judged more on the music and the performances. At home it can be clique-ridden, tribal, fashion-led and nepotistic. And that’s on a good night. Maybe it’s the same abroad for the local bands there but as we’re only passing through we don’t experience that. Also, when we go abroad maybe people see us as, coming from somewhere else, a wee bit exotic. All you have to do to become exotic is leave your home town. The further you go, the more exotic you become. PB: Your last gigs before the Starlets "spilt" were in support to cult star Nick Garrie at two shows at Henry's Cellar Bar in Edinburgh and the Old Hairdressers in Glasgow. He is really special on stage. Did those shows seem like the perfect shows to bow out on? BS: Not by design as we hadn’t consciously decided on the change then. That happened later during the album rehearsals when the shift in sound and scope had become more obvious to us all. By then we were simply giving a name to something which had already happened, almost without us noticing. Our final show as the Starlets was actually in a Snooker hall in Clydebank, about a month after the Nick Garrie shows. We announced it onstage to an audience that mostly hadn’t heard of the Starlets anyway so it all felt quite understated; a quiet, bloodless revolution. Our first show as A New International was in the Ladies Lounge of The Laurieston Bar. The audience that night consisted of pretty much friends and family only, so nothing had really changed for the band in that respect. PB: Your blog We Come to Break Your Heart on the New international website is really well written. It is both achingly poignant and screamingly funny. You describe this world of unscrupulous or indifferent promoters, audiences that might be either Passive or Pathologically Aggressive and playing to sometimes empty rooms in which the janitor is tidying up on the stage beside you. Obviously there is a certain amount of self-deprecation involved here, but what has kept you going with both the Starlets and now A New International for so long now. Is it just as you also imply sometimes coming across those audiences "that has long, long, long been aching to hear...something alive and real"? BS: Thank you. Yes, it’s partly that, and a mixture of other things. If it wasn’t for the music I may well have already drank myself to death by now so you could say that the band are performing a form of social work. The shows when all things seem to come together, in both band and audience, feel unforgettable and are a reminder to us of why we do this, that maybe we’re not just howling into the void. PB: A New International's debut album 'Come to the Fabulon!' was recorded at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield with producer Colin Elliot. How long were you in Sheffield for? What do you think he brought to the recording? BS: We were there, off and on, for around a month in total. I’d say Colin knew what we were about immediately. We could all hear the improvements made by his suggestions and input even after our first rehearsals together. The song structures, drum patterns and general sound all improved under his direction. The majority of the string arrangements were written by Colin. He made us a better band. and we couldn’t have made the record without him. PB: You write on We Come to Break Your Heart of receiving almost the same rejection note from Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and Jeff Barrett at Heavenly Records. Who will be releasing 'Come to the Fabulon' and when do you hope that it will come out? BS: There are still one or two record labels which haven’t quite got around to rejecting us so it may yet one day go out on in the time-honoured fashion and on a recognised label but, for the moment, unless I hear any different, we’re aiming to release it ourselves this year sometime. I know that there are people who’d like to hear the record, and I’d rather not wait on someone else’s say so for that to happen. PB: You said at the time that you started A New International that you "look at the Starlets albums with their mixture of sepia and black and white imagery and wonder if perhaps that these were our monochrome years and that now it’s time to go technicolor." Do you feel that you have achieved that sense of technicolor with 'Come to the Fabulon!"? BS: I do, yes. Now I know how Dorothy felt when she landed in Oz. PB: You have also recently started writing for the Dutch journalist Matthijs Van Der Ven's website Onder Invloed. How did that come about? BS: I first met Matthijs through Paul Tasker, who used to be in Doghouse Roses, and the solo artist Davie Lawson. Matthijs came to visit Glasgow a few years ago now and Paul brought him along to hear us play, once again in the Laurieston Bar. We got on well and have remained friends since. Matthijs liked the blog so he asked if I could rustle something up for him. By coincidence I had just finished writing one about a Dutch bachelor party. There is a flourishing music scene in the Netherlands and it’s a great place to play. For anyone unfamiliar with Dutch musicians I would recommend Anne Soldaat’s ‘Born to Perform’ and Bertolf’s ‘Patty Lane’, great songs. PB: You have also been working Paul Tasker on some songs for his solo album. What direction are those songs taking in comparison to A new International? BS: The songs begin with Paul’s guitar lines which are more in a folk/country vein and very different from anything that our band would do. Paul’s a very melodic guitarist and when I heard some of his instrumentals I could hear the potential for them to work as songs too. We have recorded two songs together and have a couple more written which may also be included on his album. PB: What can we expect to hear from A New International at the show at the River on the 7th June? BS: We played many times as the Starlets in the old 13th Note Club, as River used to be, so it’ll be a little like entering a time capsule. We shall make show. Then, let the people decide. PB: Thank you. The three lower photographs that accompany this article were taken by Bill Gray. A New International will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands' Night in Glasgow at The River on the 7th June with Grahame Skinner, the Aviators and the Wellgreen. More information can be found at http://www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk/MagSitePages/Article.aspx?id=7353 and tickets can be bought in advance at http://www.wegottickets.com/event/271467.
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