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Broken Records - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 9 / 8 / 2014

Broken Records - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to Jamie Sutherland, the singer with much acclaimed Edinburgh-based alternative rock seven-piece act Broken Records about their first album in four years, 'Weights and Pulleys', which they have released on their own label

Amidst the scaffolding that now fronts what was the former Edinburgh Picture House, and by the entrance where large metal plates have now been clamped over the front doors, there is in one of the cases which was once used for promoting future bills a large poster listing every act that headlined there. From pop acts such as Peter Andre and One Direction, to reformed rockers such as the New York Dolls and Thin Lizzy, to 70’s punks such as the Stranglers and the Rezillos, to indie acts such as White Lies and Editors, all of the three hundred or so artists that stepped onto its stage from when it first opened in September 2008 to it closure just over five years later on New Year’s Day this year are on it. Broken Records are on the poster too, three lines from the top of the forty-five line list which has been arranged randomly, neither alphabetically nor by the dates and years when the bands played the 1,500 capacity Art Deco venue and one-time cinema. “That is cool,” says Broken Records front-man Jamie Sutherland, slightly surprised that it has not been sorted by A-Z when Pennyblackmusic tells him about the poster. We are sitting two hundred metres up the hill from the Picture House, on the other side of Lothian Road in the bar of the Filmhouse, one of Edinburgh’s three last independent cinemas. “It is a massive shame that it has gone. And to become a Wetherspoon’s as well. Does the world need another Wetherspoon’s?” he reflects, talking about the chain pub syndicate that suddenly took it over at the end of last year and when they have finally finished converting it will reopen it as one of their bars. “But having said that the reason why venues such as the Picture House fail is because people don’t come out and support them and see the bands who are in there,” Sutherland muses “You have to wonder what the issue is with that. The Picture House has had some great bands appear there over the years.” Fortunately the same cannot be said about Broken Records, who, since forming in Edinburgh at the tail end of 2006 and playing over sixty gigs in their first year, have built up a fervent following in their native Scotland, moving from support slots in tiny venues to headlining and packing out larger theatres such as the Picture House. The group, a septet, quickly signed to 4AD, who released their debut album ‘Until the Earth Begins to Part’ in 2008. It showcased many of the band’s strengths – their gigantic, soaring sound, the agility to shift dynamics from quiet to loud in seconds, and a compelling use of instrumentation which saw them meld together Sutherland’s earthy vocals and multiple guitars with strings, brass and accordion. Their 2010 second album, ‘Let Me Come Home’, which again was released on 4AD, built on this and was equally titanic and spirited, but while the first album had an electro-folk sound had an Americana element. Their third and latest album, ‘Weights and Pulleys’, which came out in May, has been released in both a CD and vinyl edition as well as on download on their own J Sharp Records imprint, and, while Broken Records have lost on it none of their capacity for energy or the grand scale, has a strong pop sound. Its tracks include strident opening number ‘We Weren’t Ready’; the reflective, understated ‘Toska’ and the enigmatic title song. Pennyblackmusic spoke with Jamie Sutherland about ‘Weights and Pulleys’ and how Broken Records, in today’s fragmented music industry, have not just survived but continue to develop. PB: It has been four years since the last album. Why has there been such a long delay? You recorded the first two albums, ‘Until the Earth Begins to Part’ and ‘Let Me Come Home’, in quick succession in 2008 and 2010. JS: We left 4AD. That was an old-fashioned business decision. We were originally contracted for three records, and they were contractually compelled to give us a large advance for the third album. Whereas both the records had done well, we weren’t selling enough records to warrant that advance, so we left quite amicably. If you look at 4AD now, it has changed its angle anyway. We were signed by a guy called Roger Trust who had signed the National, and in his head we were in that linear edge of bands. If you look at what 4AD do now, it is mainly electro artists, Grimes and people like that. The music industry is struggling, and we were a seven-piece band and, therefore, expensive. It makes more sense for labels to go with one or two-piece electro acts, and that is why everyone has been signing them recently. They are a lot cheaper to keep. We have always kept working throughout the time the band has been together. You are always aware that if you are in a large group that you have to. It has never been a problem. The idea of doing music, as much as it would have been nice to do it as a full-time job, was never an option for us. We started out by playing clubs and then going back to our day jobs the next day. The venues got bigger, but we still had to go back to work. That has always been the ethos of the band. We had always planned to make a new record, right from when we left 4AD.We recorded it in 2012, and, although we talked to do different labels and attracted various pieces of interest, we soon decided to self-release it. We weren’t disappointed with 4AD, but we felt that they could have done more with us and there was no reason why we couldn’t do what they did ourselves. We are lucky enough to have a lot of skills in the band and a lot of very professional people, and, coming from this background in which we had always worked anyway, we had a headstart there. Mogwai and their label Rock Action was the blueprint for anything that we wanted to do. Obviously they are doing it in a slightly more elevated position than we are, but like them we wanted to be completely self-sustaining and so far the records have been a real success. PB: You used Pledgemusic. How easy did you find it getting the money to make the album? JS: We had actually made the album through Creative Scotland, so the thing with Pledgemusic was basically to get some start-up money. We had courted some outside investments and we had got some money through Creative Scotland, so to grease the wheels and to get things moving fairly quickly Pledgemusic seemed the better way of releasing the album than throwing it out there ourselves. We made our target in two, two and a half weeks, and that gave us the start-up to put together all the different parts of the label and also to put the manufacture of the album in place. Now we are in a position where everything is in profit, so in that respect it has been absolutely brilliant for us. PB: Where did you record ‘Weights and Pulleys’? JS: Our bass player Craig Ross co-owns and runs the Depot Studios in Granton in North West Edinburgh with Gary Boyle, who is an engineer there. Craig did some of the engineering on ‘Weights and Pulleys’, and Gary did the majority of it. We were able to use the studio for about six weeks, just tracking there, which is far longer than we have ever had before. We made our two previous records in three and a half/four weeks. It had always been in the past an exercise in ploughing through it. We had to have an idea of what we are going to do and then we just recorded it, so we bought ourselves more time. We had another two or three weeks mixing the record after that with Tony Doogan, who has also worked with Mogwai and Belle and Sebastian, and so this whole record was far more of a considered way of recording. We really took our time. There was no hurry or pressure. We were the label. We had the clarity of thought this time which was missing a little from the first two records because we had to record them so fast. PB: ‘Weights and Pulleys’ is more pop-oriented than your previous two records. Was that your intention? JS: Definitely. I wanted to write essentially a pop record. I wanted to write songs like Roy Orbison, these big cathartic numbers with sad centres. That is the sort of music that I love. PB: You writing also seems to have changed. If you look at your early songs, a lot of them like ‘If the News Makes You Sad, Don’t Watch It’ were fairly political , while others such as ’Thoughts on a Picture’ and ‘If Eilert Loevborg Wrote a Song, It Would Sound Like This’ were art and literature-influenced. Your lyrics have become much more personal. How much of that was a confidence thing? JS: I think that it was mainly down to a change of circumstances. Life caught up with us a little on this album. We had various highs and lows, ups and downs during the recording. A couple of guys got married. A friend of mine was in a really bad car accident. My niece was very touch and go for a while just after she was born. Ian’s mum (Ian Turnbull, guitar - Ed) died. I think that is all reflected on ‘Weights and Pulleys’. Much as I love those early songs there was a little bit of British stiff upper lip reserve which said that you shouldn’t really be writing about yourself. As the recording progressed, it, however, became apparent though that these were the songs that were coming out, and we, therefore, went with it. PB: Some of the songs such as ‘Toska’, for example, seem to be about relationships ending. JS: I think that sometimes previously we tended to focus on the over-melodramatic. ‘Toska’ was just meant to be a simple little thing. Occasionally things just die. There is no drama in it whatsoever. That last line in it – “And if you stay and if you stay/I will stay, I will stay” – reflects that. It either works or it doesn’t, and often it doesn’t work and is doomed. PB: What inspired ‘We Weren’t Ready’? Is that another song about a break-up? JS: There weren’t actually any break ups during the recording (Laughs). It is just about the idea of separation really. At another point in your life it could have been great. At that time, however, the relationship or whatever it was neither party was ready for it. I see ‘We Weren’t Ready’ as much as anything as being about the music industry. I had always in the past believed that if you worked hard enough at anything you could pull it off, but now I have come around to thinking that certainly with the music industry timing is everything and there are windows for things. You have probably never heard the greatest bands in the world. They are probably still playing in a pub somewhere, but if they had come along another five months later they could have gone off and been the next Who or Arcade Fire. A lot of my song-writing is more snippets and sentences rather than specifics. PB: What is ‘Weights and Pulleys’ about then? JS: ‘Weights and Pulleys’ is a really curious song. That happened at the time that my niece was really sick. I had written about fifteen different versions of that lyric in various forms previously, and I got drunk one night and came up with those words. In a linear way they don’t make huge amounts of sense even to me, but by the shape of the words and the sound of them they meant a lot more to me than a specific linear form of song-writing would have done. I read an interview with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco in which he said that with a lot of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ he was singing syllables and was trying to make words out of the syllables later on. It was just that idea of letting your subconscious take over and trying to say what you were really meaning to say in the first place. ‘Weights and Pulleys’ is one of my favourite lyrics on the record and it means a huge amount to me, but I couldn’t tell you what it is about. I could tell you various things about what I hope it is about and what it means to me now, but the actual lyric and the second verse in particular are just bonkers. When I was singing it that night and I had sketched out the lyrics, it felt right, like what I was trying to sing about even if I didn’t have a full idea what it was. As I was thinking about my niece at the time, I was really conscious that I didn’t want to use this thing that was happening in real life, and to cheapen it by trying to write some stupid pop lyric about it. Pop music deals in cliché, and how can you write being in intensive care for two weeks? I just wanted to capture that feeling without cheapening it, I guess. PB: You have an instrumental in the middle of the record. Why did you decide to put that on? Did you want to separate the record into two sides? JS: That was part of it. It was more than that though. We got the record mixed, and we were all aware that there was this run of tracks –‘So Long So Late’, ‘Weights and Pulleys’ and ‘Betrayal’ – that was quite full on, and we really felt that we needed something to break it up. I had been working on this little three-note thing and Rory (Sutherland, violin and Sutherland’s brother - Ed) put on this Philip Glass thing behind it. It felt from the record’s point of view that it just needed a little stop to breathe, and so that is where that idea came from. We were thinking of the record as a whole at that point, and it worked really nicely in there. I think a really good record has to have some tracks that are almost sacrificial lambs. You have to create natural pauses for the other songs to breathe. The instrumental didn’t have to be a definite number on the record. It just had to be something that gave people a rest. PB: You have got one member, your piano and trumpet player Dave Smith, who lives in New York. How easy it to rehearse now? JS: Nobody really leaves the band, but Dave doesn’t really figure in the record. It is such a long way and he doesn’t really play with us at the moment, but the door is always open. It was an entirely amicable as it was with Arnau Kolb, who used to be our cello player. Arnau moved to Newark with his partner, whereas David Fothergill has come back in with us after having left us for a while. He is back playing guitar with us. He was our bassist, and now he is our guitar player. The door is open to everybody. It is a big family. It always has been and it always will be. In terms of rehearsing, we rehearse a couple of times a week. We normally have one rehearsal session where we deal with the business side of things as well, and then another where we focus on the music. A couple of the guys have kids and we all have work, but we make time. PB: What are your immediate plans for the future? JS: We have got a show in London in September and we will probably try and do several shows around then, so will be announcing some dates soon. After that we are building towards next summer, and hope to have another album out then. PB: What direction do you see the next album going in? Every album has been slightly different. Do you see it as being different again? JS: I think so. I talked to Rory about this, and we would like to do something a little bit quieter and more stripped back. One of my favourite albums of all time is Bob Dylan’s ‘Oh Mercy’. He recorded it with Daniel Lanois in New Orleans and it is a really beautiful, shimmering record. It is an incredible record. I would like to maybe do something like that, and to make a really clean record with no overdrives and very little compression on it, but it is too early to say. Certainly the songs that I have been writing are a little quieter. We have enough big pop and rock songs to fill out a two hour long set list. I think there are several different parts now to this band. PB: Do you hope to eventually tour Europe and America as well? JS: We would like to try for some European gigs initially. The States are so expensive that to get to them we really have to have a solid reason for getting there. We want to go eventually further afield. We have played both Europe and America previously, but right now we want to take one step at a time and to do something that is in a way more built to last. That is the general plan - sustainability. After all these years, we are still getting to do this and the seven of us are still able to get on stage together, and that is enough for me. PB: Thank you.

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Broken Records - Interview

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Until the Earth Begins to Part (2009)
Dynamically tense and magnificent debut album from imaginative Edinburgh-based indie electric folk seven-piece, Broken Records
If the News Makes You Sad, Don't Watch It (2008)

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