Wednesday, November 14, 2007
It’s good to know that sometimes even rock musicians are troubled by the minutiae of everyday life that bother the rest of us. When I arrive at Riley Briggs’ home in Edinburgh, the singer is in the middle of dealing with someone in a call centre. He apologises for keeping me waiting when he finishes, but it’s given me time to look at the very nice place he lives in, and to consider once again what I want to talk about. He emerges and makes me a very nice cup of coffee and we sit down to talk in the kitchen.
Aberfeldy emerged in 2004 on the Rough Trade label. Then, as now, they sounded beautiful, complete and very different to the majority of what was going on in the music scene -and all the better for it. Named after the Scottish town where Riley spent much of his holidays, the band’ second single ‘Heliopolis By Night’ gained single in the week in the NME, and debut album Young Forever got great reviews too. Their manager is Bruce Findlay, who managed Simple Minds, arguably the biggest Scottish band of the eighties. The band gigged in earnest and over subsequent years supported Edwyn Collins, James Blunt, Paolo Nutini and played at Edinburgh’s annual Hogmanay (December 31) supporting Blondie and the Scissor Sisters. In 2006, their second album Do Whatever Turns You On was released, again on Rough Trade. (In the inaugural 17 Seconds Festive Fifty end-of-year poll (!), Aberfeldy had two tracks.) Despite some positive reviews, the band parted company with Rough Trade at the end of last year and are still looking for a deal.
They are not the only great band to get dropped over the years. Riley cites Clor, who were tipped to be massive in 2005, as being the best live band he ever saw (‘apart from Devo’ -a big influence on him) but who were dropped after one album. The challenge to any band is to keep going, even if the record company is not being supportive, and this seems to be battle that so many bands face,.
There have been personnel changes over the three years too. Bassist Ken McIntosh is the only remaining other member of the band. Ian Stoddart, who was the drummer on Young Forever left after the first album, and was replaced by Riley’s brother Murray. Then this year in May keyboardist Ruth Barrie and violinist Sarah MacFadyen also left. Their MySpace page , in the section for band members says ‘Not telling. You might stalk us.’ So who is in the band now? ‘Ruth and Sarah left at the end of the last tour, and we had a bunch of gigs over the summer, and we were gonna cancel, but we thought “It’s not good to let down the kids and the promoters as well, so we got in Chris, who’s a very talented singer-songwriter. He came and filled in, and that was nice because it felt very natural. We also got Chris’ mate, Vicky Gray, who’s a fiddler and she’s fitting in really well. We hummed and hawed about whether to still keep calling it Aberfeldy but well…anyway, I don’t have to tell you who’s in my band if I don’t want to!’ he says, with a friendly chuckle. No, no, absolutely not! ‘It seems to have settled.’ Chris is on board and is a paid-up member.
As well as producing two great albums, Aberfeldy produced some excellent singles, which should hopefully continue. ‘Heliopolis By Night’ not only made the indie charts but also reached no.64 in the national charts. They made two excellent videos, though the video for ‘Love Is an Arrow,’ which reached no. 60 in the national charts, is a sore point. It should have been a lot higher. The animated video, with its‘ cute Inuits should have helped, and it was played on Lorraine Kelly’s Kelly Plays Pop slot on GMTV. ‘It’s quite annoying when the record company rings you up to ask if you’ve got any more copies of the single!’ Riley says, shaking his head with disbelief. The b-side ‘Tom Weir’ about the Scottish TV man became a bit of a millstone too, when people started turning up to the gigs dressed like him.
Do Whatever Turns You On, their second album, had a video for ‘Hypnotised’ filmed at Riley’s dad’s house in Kansas (apparently Riley‘s Dad is one of the wrestlers in the video). I tell Riley I ended up seeing the video in strange places -on a screen in the back of a taxi in Edinburgh, and another time in TopShop. It was, however, the only single released off the album, which should have produced other singles, if they’d been given the chance. Riley says he’s disappointed that ‘Uptight’ wasn’t a single, but concedes that it would probably have needed to have been edited.
They also ended up soundtracking a diet coke ad in America and Canada with their song ‘Summer‘s Gone. Bands are often slated for selling out when they let their music be used for advertising, but ‘In this day and age, it’s so difficult to get a record deal and keep your head above water, getting played on adverts is the best way to get your music heard.’ He says that they got a few comments on their MySpace ‘ “Oh No! How could you do this?! First Jack White and now Aberfeldy!” We’re going to have to sell out here, it’s quite heavy!’ he chuckles wryly. He was contacted by a Scottish newspaper who clearly angling for a ‘Aberfeldy singer bites the hand that feeds story’ and felt he should have been sound tracking an Irn-Bru ad. ‘Bloody journalists, totally trying to get you to say the wrong thing, which of course I did,’ he says wearily.
Does he feel that they’ve had positive coverage from the press in Scotland? ‘Yeah, it’s been pretty good.’ We discuss the NME’s coverage of the band, which started off positive and then seemed to tail off. ‘I remember the guy from the record company ringing up and saying “You’ve got single of the week in NME” and it was quite amazing, and then we read the review, and it was like they were doing it to make some arsey statement about all the other records released that week. I do remember reading a review of another band and they said they were like a ‘death metal Aberfeldy’ but that was probably the last time we were mentioned.“ There was also a spate of lazy journalism in Scotland, comparing them to Belle and Sebastian. ‘The less said about that the better!’ says Riley, darkly.
The band are playing live and are a fantastic experience. I’ve seen them live no less than eight times over the last three years, both as a support and headliners. Earlier this year I saw them gig at the Leith festival, supported by Amplifico, and they also supported Runrig at a big gig in the Highlands, and experience Riley darkly compares to being Scotland’s Altamont. A few days previously he and the band supported the Hazey Janes in Glasgow and they are also playing four dates in Scotland in December.
I ask him if they are actively looking for a new record deal, or whether they are tempted to take the Radiohead route and release the album themselves via the internet. ‘We’ve had mixed experiences with the industry,’ he says. It’s clear that, understandably, he feels rather frustrated about what happened before, and that other people’s money problems got in the way. The Diet Coke advert money came in rather handy, coming in not long after the record company let them go (remember that, the next time you criticise a band for selling out). ‘Just because a record company’s got a great reputation and they’ve put out some great record doesn’t mean that they will do you any favours,’ he says. A lesson many bands may yet have to learn. What about the future? ‘ We were thinking about [putting out the record themselves] and that’s a great thing for a band like Radiohead to do, because they’re a huge name obviously, but they’re probably never going to sell as many records as this did with [OK Computer].’ Perhaps what they might do is to do their own gigs, as opposed to playing in more conventional venues. Riley enthuses about the idea of doing ‘sort of speakeasy gigs, where you hire some sort of barn somewhere, let everyone in for free, let everyone drink, smoke, take drugs, have sex with midgets…the whole thing would just be more rock ’n’ roll. The whole thing’s just become so sanitised. Maybe that’s the way forward, forget trying to make money, play for free, give [music] away for free… I think what we might do is to start doing our own label, because these days, it’s kind of easy for people to get stuff on iTunes, and maybe press up some copies for people who want a physical copy.’
Plans for the band beyond Christmas are a little hazy at the moment. They have applied for SXSW, which they’ve played a couple of times before. All being well, 2008 will see them release their third album, which Riley has written many songs for already. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. ’Young Forever was recorded over the space of a year, in Uncle Jim’s studio, we didn’t even have a name for the band at that point.’ It was one of the charms of the record that it was indeed recorded using only one mike, much in the spirit of the first two Cowboy Junkies’ albums Whites Off Earth Now! and The Trinity Sessions. The second album felt slicker, and some people missed the charm, though had they delivered Young Forever 2 they would probably have been slated for that.
Young Forever was produced by Jim Sutherland, which Riley describes as being ‘like working with your exciting, dangerous uncle’ while Do Whatever Turns You On was produced by Calum Malcolm, who is ‘a Dad producer.’ Riley sees a producer as being a sixth pair of ears and says he would work with either of them again. A lot of the songs are five or six minutes long, ‘which means we need less for an album.’ Maybe it will have a rougher edge -’I quite like it [on demos] when you hear Ken asking if he can go to the toilet!’
Riley played me five of the new Aberfeldy songs which he has demoed with the band:
‘Claire.’ This song, which sounds to these ears like it has ’single’ written all over it, is not dissimilar to Elvis Costello lyrically. Think ‘I Want You’ or ’Pills And Soap.’ Inspired by a neighbour who complained about the noise of the band rehearsing, it’s quite dark underneath its’ sweet-sounding exterior. As Costello himself once sang ’The sugar-coated pill is getting bitterer still.’
‘Wendy When I’m Wasted.’ Riley tells me they were wasted when they recorded this. It’s about not being in control of your sexual urges. It has a great vocal effect, think Cher’s ‘Believe’ or the vocoder stylings of some Daft Punk’s work. The Wendy in question is a gag about the American burger chain. Riley says this is another potential single. He’s right.
‘Malcolm.’ This is the longest thing Riley has ever written, or co-written. His co-writer was a girl called Dorey, daughter of Van Der Graaf Generator’s saxophone player, who Riley met when he went on a song writing weekend in Italy, hosted by Chris Difford (of Squeeze fame). The song references Graham Nash, and much fun can be had spotting the different song title that ends each chorus.
‘I’ll Be In Denial’ - a personal song about his last break-up. I liked the song, but didn’t want to question him too much about this. It’s all on there…
‘Very Rock ’n’ Roll’ - Riley sees this as being their ‘Band On The Run,’ the 1974 Paul McCartney and Wings single that saw them change tempos and set out their stall as a band in their own right. This is an apt comparison.
He also played me a new instrumental track -with a guide vocal that is a nice, slow track, that’s reminiscent of ‘Young Folks’ by Peter Bjorn and John, if that track didn’t have whistling.
I can’t wait!
Aberfeldy are playing The Tunnels, Aberdeen on December 6, The Classic Grand, Glasgow on December 14, and The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh on December 19 and 20.
Aberfeldy’s Myspace is here
From Young Forever
Aberfeldy -'Heliopolis By Night.' mp3
Aberfeldy -'Love Is An Arrow.' mp3
From Do Whatever Turns You On
Aberfeldy -'Hypnotised.' mp3
Aberfeldy -'Uptight.' mp3
Aberfeldy -'Whatever Turns You On.' mp3
If you like what you hear, support Aberfeldy by buying the records and going to their gigs. They really deserve it.