Broken Records - 'We're not expecting to make a living out of this'
It's about time that these modest Scots learnt to take the plaudits, says Elisa Bray
Friday 29 May 2009
The seven members of Edinburgh band Broken Records are in a jovial mood. They have every reason to be happy: ever since they put out three independently released singles last year they have been showered with praise hailing them one of the most hotly tipped bands, and by some, as Scotland's answer to Arcade Fire. Not that they have yet mastered the art of receiving praise.
"We regress to seven giggly schoolgirls whenever anyone says something nice," their frontman Jamie Sutherland says shyly, when we meet near their label to discuss their debut album, Until the Earth Begins to Part. "The last couple of months has been about trying to get a thick skin in case it goes wrong. What if everybody pans it?"
Self-effacing they may be, but Broken Records are an ambitious bunch. There is much use of the word ambitious, and you can hear it in the album's brave opening. "Nearly Home" begins with a dramatic instrumental, building up emotive swirling strings and trumpet; it's nearly two minutes before the vocals join in. Ambition is the premise behind the band's music.
It was at St Andrews University that Sutherland met guitarist Ian Turnbull in 2003 and started the post-rock outfit Mood Swing Whisky ("a Dirty Three thing going on with scratchy guitars"). Broken Records followed when Sutherland's younger brother Rory joined on violin. From the very start, they wanted to stand out from the standard guitar-based indie band, so they recruited bass, violin, accordion, mandolin, pianos, trumpet, glockenspiel, ukulele, drums, and a full-time celloist."The idea is to not be a four-piece guitar, bass and drums kind of band, but to be more ambitious with it," says Turnbull.
It explains their keenness to avoid being tagged alongside their more traditional Scottish indie folk peers Frightened Rabbit and the Twilight Sad.
"I had somebody say, 'why doesn't he sing in a Scottish accent?'" says Sutherland, somewhat baffled, in a slight Scottish lilt. "Why would you? I'm proud to be Scottish, but I don't want to be closeted with being a Scottish band. We've always been ambitious and I want this music to be heard by everybody."
It's their record label that they wear more proudly on their sleeves. Signed to 4AD in January, they join a rosta loaded with acts on the more exciting, avant-garde end of rock and pop, from Brooklyn's hip rock band TV on the Radio and the National to New Mexico's Balkan folk-pop act Beirut. All of whom, they are delighted to point out, do something a bit different.
"It's a case of bands that are trying to do something different but are still trying to exist in the pop and rock'n' roll three-minute format. That's where I like to see us," says Sutherland. "I like the idea of being able to write pop songs with different instrumentation and to push it so it's accessible. The last thing you ever want to be is exclusive, us sitting scratching our beards."
It took two years of playing the pub circuit before they were signed. For record labels fighting to keep afloat in an ailing market, stumping up the cash for a seven-person band hardly seemed a lucrative business plan. "I think maybe people were slightly daunted," Turnbull says. "It's quite a big proposition to take on."
At the same time, it was their size and the big, epic sound they create, that found them noticed in the first place. Record labels needn't have worried: they tell me use the same size van as the four-piece the Twilight Sad and take the same number of Travelodge rooms (they just cram four into a room). That must be a squeeze. "Our van's like Tetris," Turnbull quips. "It's less comfortable, but the payoff is you get to make a massive racket every night on stage. And the good thing about a large touring party is you never get sick of the same faces. It's an extended family," adds Sutherland. But what about their own finances? "None of us are expecting to make living out of this , we've all kept our jobs. We haven't got delusions of grandeur."
Not only are they prepared to sacrifice comfort to save cash, but their tour manager was astonished when they insited on doing their own catering. Celloist Arne Kolb is the resident bartender with his signature mojitos, while one of the band is a trained chef. "If we weren't in a band we would start a restaurant," says Sutherland. "There are always a couple of people in the kitchen making a mean soup."
Sutherland and his brother were brought up on Mahler and Bob Dylan (their father listened to both "to death", obsessively collecting Dylan bootlegs). Impartingtheir discerning music tastes and buying Sutherland his first electric guitar, would be a decision their parents would regret. Sutherland was the first to drop his degree in English and philosophy, while Rory quit architecture at Dundee. Their parents, both doctors, were less than impressed.
"They hated it," says Sutherland. "They worked very hard to put us through school and university and I guess it must've seemed like we were throwing it back in their faces by dropping out." Now their mother is their number-one fan.
"It's all my mum talks about these days. She's probably our biggest fan. She comes along to our shows and brings her group of ladies along. And my dad's on board now. When you tell families you want to play music they never take it seriously. But I don't think you can have a 17-year fad. I'll still be doing this when I'm an old man."
Broken Records might just have to get accustomed to the praise and prepare to give up those day jobs.
'Until the Earth Begins to Part' is out on Monday
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