Viva...Glasvegas! The quartet making a big noise
They are inspired by Elvis Presley, Suicide, and Sixties girl-pop, but they come from working-class Scotland. Gavin Cumine meets the band
Friday 01 February 2008
From the post-funk of Orange Juice and the intellectual pop of Belle and Sebastian to the contemporary art-punks Franz Ferdinand and the boisterous wall of sound of Mogwai, Glasgow has always provided a strong platform for independent music. The diverse music that has surfaced out of Glasgow has allowed it to avoid cliché, unlike many bands south of the border.
Glasvegas are four East End Glaswegians who look like they have walked off the set of a Fifties B-movie, who pay homage to Elvis Presley while blending art-punk sensibilities with the white noise of Suicide and the romance of Sixties girl vocal bands, all sung in a broad Glasgow drawl. What materialises amid their dense wall of arranged sound, deafening drums and lyrics – which fuse violent intensity with an underlying core of vulnerability – is a recipe for pop success.
But the lead singer, James Allan, says: "I never bought records when I was at school. I just played football. I had my guard up against a lot of music. Even with my sister I would always say, 'I hate music, I just like football'. I didn't know anybody at school who played any instruments, and if I saw someone with a guitar I just thought: 'What can that guy be getting out of life with that guitar? It must be boring and I'm so glad I'm into just my football'. It's funny how things turn out.
"The band came about gradually," he continues. "We were all pals and we never played music at first. Rab [Allan] is my cousin so we grew up together, Paul [Donoghue] and I were mates, and I met Caroline [McKay] when she was working at a clothes shop in the Merchant City area and we ended up getting really friendly and becoming good pals. At that point it was only me, Rab and Paul who were together and we were just messing about. When Caroline came in she had never played the drums before. I had written a few songs, so I told her to hit some drums and it all began from there."
Over a period of musical exploration and gradual progress, Glasvegas began to develop and produce their own songs in James's bedroom, leading to a sound that excited many music critics. Their debut single release, "Daddy's Gone", sold out its original pressings of 1,000 copies almost immediately and was voted NME's second-best single of 2007. "Daddy's Gone" was a coarse blend of Sixties avant-garde rock and Nineties UK shoe-gazing merged with dreamy melodies and heartbreakingly candid lyrics. What ensued was a whole load of hype, a record-label steeplechase for their signature, and a billing as a band far removed from anything else going on in the contemporary music scene.
View the video to 'Daddy's Gone'
"We must stand out," agrees James. "Every interview we do, that's all people say about us. The only thing I really can put that down to is that we don't really know about what is going on with the bands and scenes that people talk about. People would ask me about other bands and I wasn't able to say anything. The thing is, though, we are four people that have spent time together, had some good times and expressed ourselves and been quite unapologetic about that. I am now starting to see the differences between us and other bands, when before I didn't."
He continues: "Glasvegas right now are finding their feet. Back at the start we only knew two chords, whereas now we know maybe six. I think technical ability and soul must be on the opposite sides of the planet. I can't really measure technical ability, maybe that's why a lot of our sound is really basic. There is a real minimal approach to what we do and that approach often leaves room for something else and is a good backdrop to the lyrics."
Undeniably, one of the most beguiling aspects of Glasvegas are James's lyrics. Unafraid to confront subjects close to his heart, he conveys a raw honesty, as shown in the lyrics to "Daddy's Gone" – "I won't be the lonely one/ Sitting on my own and sad/ Forget your Dad, he's gone" – which expresses from a child's perspective the absence of a father, but also articulates the regret and guilt experienced by a father who has lost touch with his child. What he speaks of is a subject that affects many children across the country, and the way in which he wears his heart on his sleeve is not normally associated with the traditionally stoical, tough-man image of the average Glaswegian male.
The lyrics, James explains, have had effects far beyond his control. "What's hard for people to understand is that I wrote that song a year ago and I don't think you can ever estimate the value of the songs you write. I try to put as much soul in and give myself away as much as possible, but you're never sure if other people will like what you do. Such a big deal has been made of it and now my family are picking up papers saying that 'Daddy's Gone' is about my absent father, which is something I never saw coming and never really thought about."
He continues: "Some of my lyrics may upset some people who think they are about them, and I want to say to them that they aren't. I am a songwriter and that's what happens, but I don't write to hurt other people's feelings. I could moan about how things are perceived or I could just write about things that don't mean anything. A lot of kids' parents have split up and most of the time one parent will see the kid more often than the other, which leaves them with a lot of regret over the things they have missed out on. I noticed that because my parents split up when I was younger, but all my friends' parents broke. It was just normal. That's what I was trying to say, that for me all this was a normal thing, but I realised the regret that went with it and that I didn't want to feel like that at any point in my life."
Glasvegas expose the possibility and the power of music. They also celebrate their roots, something heard in the thick Scottish colloquialisms of Allan's vocals. "I don't think I could get away with singing those lyrics in another accent. I am not going to lie, I have heard other bands and been curious over why they are singing in an American accent. I don't think I could get to sleep if I was singing in a different way. For me when I sing it comes from within me and where we are from. As a band you are letting people into your world and the way you see things. Elvis didn't kid on that he was from Liverpool; Elvis was from Memphis, Tennessee; so I don't get it when bands sing in some vague way," says James.
The band's origins in Glasgow's working-class area of Dalmarnock are unusual in the city's music scene, which has almost always produced bands that were based in the trendy west. Dalmarnock is a place that has slowly decayed due to a lack of investment, resulting in increased unemployment and high crime rates. For a band to emerge out of this side of the city is a refreshing change, and offers a new take on an area that has so much potential, but is often perceived as no-go area.
This change is something Allan hopes to encourage further with the band's success as a possible source of inspiration to the kids growing up in the area. "I wonder what the possibilities are for the kids in the East End and the kind of music that they could make. I hope that a band like us coming out will help to encourage kids to express themselves more. If kids in the East End let their guard down and became more comfortable about picking up a musical instrument and forming bands, then their power and strength of character would come through their music.
"I think that would be really interesting to see, as it's something that has never been tapped into. Who knows if things will change? I have always wondered what the East End would be like if it had more pennies put into it. At one point, I couldn't play an instrument, and then I heard Oasis and all the options I had in life seemed wider and limitless. Oasis made me feel that I could play that massive gig even when I hadn't picked up a guitar."
Despite all their potential, Glasvegas remain an unsigned band, taking their time to ponder the various record deals that have been thrown at them.
"Record deals don't matter to us," says Allan. "How could we write the songs we have written with that in mind? We were never about that. It takes away from what really matters, which is when you are having self-doubt about what you are creating and thinking it's not working. It's when it comes together with the four of us and the colours that you want come together. Those are the happiest times I have had in this band. I would love it if people could keep faith in what they are doing and know eventually it is going to get to people, and if our band can help people do that then that's something beautiful."
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