Dr Samuel Johnson, the Godfather of the English language, was particularly disparaging of Scotland. “Your country consists of two things: stone and water,” he said. When a Scottish man ventured that God made his country and therefore it is good, Dr Johnson retorted, “but God made hell”. Though this vitriol was recorded more than 200 years ago, such attitudes in modern day England are not unheard of. Especially when considering the arts. Some music fans have a tendency to assume that gold only glitters if it’s from London where, ipso facto, the streets are paved with gold. That bands often have any geographical roots as a prefix – Welsh rockers, Liverpudlian indie band, Geordie electro-folk duo – shows that where the music hails from is often as important as the genre they play. And we all know how much music fans love genres.
As such, the success of Scottish musicians (or indeed regional musicians anywhere) is often seen as novel or gimmicky. “Who’d have thought such a successful artist could come from x?” Perhaps this is true more so for Scotland because of its distance from London, the supposed hub of all that is good and true. Well, from down here, it looks like Scottish music is experiencing a renaissance.
There are more quality alternative Scottish bands about at the moment than you can shake a stick at. Strangers stop on southern streets to remark how The Twilight Sad’s recent electronic shift was a huge success, or how Frightened Rabbit’s delve into the dark side of song-writing excites them. But this is no renaissance, this is how it’s always been in Scotland. We just haven’t been paying attention.
Franz Ferdinand in 2005 was the last time so many English heads turned north. We are now seeing (hearing) a backlash of sorts to that flash-in-the-pan, aesthetic indie nonsense – which is great, because Scottish music is best as the antithesis of Franz Ferdinand. “I think everyone was just sick of that scene,” muses Scott Hutchison, lead singer of Selkirk’s Frightened Rabbit. “There was a lot of it going about and I think a reaction to that was to get back to something a lot more meaningful and honest.” If you consider the best Scottish music at the moment, one common attribute is a certain musical honesty. “There seems to be a resurgence in using the Scottish accent – maybe that come from the basis of honest music,” says Hutchison, whose band release their third album early next year. “To write emotionally-honest music then to sing it in someone else’s accent seems a bit strange.”
He reckons the appreciation of Scottish music comes in waves and right now we are on the crest of a rising wave – the backlash to the Franz Ferdinand indie scene, which was experienced across the UK, nay, world, is a bleak, dark sound that entombs the listener. “Perhaps it’s a case of a more tangible Scottish identity.” Pick out some of the best Scottish bands around at the moment – Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Unwinding Hours – they all share a very Scottish sound, both in vocals and instrumentals. A sound darker than some of the country’s former stalwarts – Belle & Sebastian, say – but is more accessible than the likes of Mogwai and Arab Strap.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a common sound but there’s a common mentality,” says James Graham, lead singer of The Twilight Sad, who do sound as miserable and dark as their name suggests. “Natural, kinda’ honest, where no one’s trying to be anything other than themselves. We don’t write music to become mega stars, we just write music because we want to.” Graham notes the rise of the accent but is unsure whether it’s a positive or not. “I write for myself and I can only deliver it the way I know how. I know people might not understand what I’m saying but I would never try and clean it up.” For those who don’t know, the sense of words in Graham’s songs are not derived from the words – as they’re inaudible – but from the way he sings them. It is this brutal soul-bearing which draws audiences to the songs. Though The Twilight Sad might have one of the more agonising appeals, all the bands share a similar honesty. Is there a sense of community among Scottish artists? “Aye, if you’re not shite.” Brutal.
Aidan Moffat, whose album ‘Everything’s Getting Older’ with Bill Wells won the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year last year, agrees Scottish music is enjoying what has risen from Franz Ferdinand’s ashes. “Sometimes the spotlight will shine a little brighter on us but there’s always something going on,” he says. He is also proud owner of some of the most matter-of-fact gloom in the music industry. His album explores familiar themes of death, meaningless sex, drink and drugs. The spoken word approach lends the music a texture that could grate concrete. “I don’t know what it is about Scotland that causes a lot of us to write about darker things – but there’s a lot of humour in it too,” he explains, just before leaving for Disneyland, Paris. “We’re a can’t win, don’t try, very self-deprecating sort of people but also very reflective and introspective as well.” As the proud Scottish identity among alternative bands grows – no doubt, there’s a backlash waiting around the corner – Moffat notes that Scotland makes pop stars too, but they tend to play down their Scottishness. “They’re looking to the global stage – but so are the rest of us. There’s nothing parochial about Scottish music. It’s just that the best Scottish bands retain their identity.”
As much as it is a post-aesthetic backlash, there is also an element of post-emo. The emo scene teetered on the edge of a cliff in the late noughties, then collapsed under the weight of heavy sleeves and black fringes. But what we find in Scottish music is the raw emotion of early emo minus the melodrama. When Hutchison sings “Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone” on ‘Poke’, his voice falters ever so slightly but the over-riding emotion is of passivity. He’s poking (sorry) fun at love: “We can mourn its passing and then bury it in snow.” It’s this sombre mood that pervades the music which bands of other nationalities might fail to manage in such a dry manner. While the English might feel like we are outside looking in on a geographical genre, the unassuming nature of the bands and their music extends a welcoming hand. With a smile of pride, Hutchison says “There’s a lot of misery seeped into culture, landscape and atmosphere of Scotland – but there’s a lot of beauty and grandeur too. There’s harshness and beauty in equal measure. Harsh music with a sense of grandeur.” He pauses. “And sometimes things are a bit fucked up. But it’s fine.”
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