The World Is Yours: A Bizarre And Fishy Interview With Glasvegas
, March 14th, 2011 06:55
Glasvegas frontman James Allan talks fishy business, overdoses in front of Zane Lowe and new album EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\
Nothing screams symbolic transformation quite like James Allan's decision to ditch his all-black garb for solely white clothing; today, in Sony's offices, he strolls in around 20 minutes late in a dazzling jeans, jacket and shirt combo with his dark sunglasses the only remaining remnant of his former wardrobe. And although he'll downplay the significance of this change later, claiming he just "likes the colour", it's hard not to see it as a rebirth of sorts; in April of 2009, the band had to cancel an appearance at Coachella festival because Allan overdosed (although at the time, the official reason given was "exhaustion and dehydration"). Later that year, they had to pull out of another performance at the Mercury Music Prize awards because the singer had gone missing, eventually getting back in touch with the band after a five day absence. And, of course, there's the by now infamous story of him serenading two fish to the tender strains of The Carpenters in a Chicago hotel suite in December last year.
Given these tumultuous two and a half years since the release of their self-titled debut, it's a near-miracle that we have a new Glasvegas album at all. But EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\ - the slashes, according to Allan, included to represent "the ascent, the crest of a wave, and then the crash" - is a remarkable record even when divorced from all of the extra-curricular brouhaha. Expanding beyond the social commentary that permeated Glasvegas, with its tales of heroic social workers ('Geraldine'), sectarian football murders ('Flowers & Football Tops') and absentee fathers ('Daddy's Gone'), it boasts the kind of motif's you're more likely to find in a Hollywood blockbuster than your average guitar-rock album. 'Whatever Hurts You Through The Night' is the story of two women who, finding themselves trapped in similar situations, escape together Thelma and Louise-style; 'Lots Sometimes' and the melodramatic 'The World Is Yours' are the big emotional centrepieces, in which Allan is finally able to find the words to win over a loved one. Yet despite the overwhelming message of hope and triumph, there's a sense of unease lurking beneath the surface, too; on the curiously-titled 'I Feel Wrong [Homosexuality Pt. 1]', we're confronted with other characters who, despite their longing, can't force the moment to its crisis. Despite Flood's bombastic production - which, along with Cold Cave's forthcoming second album, is a clear marker to White Lies and their ilk in how to produce brooding and atmospheric stadium-rock - there's an undoubted brittleness underneath the more optimistic exterior.
A mixture of vulnerability and bravura is a fitting way to describe Allan, too. New drummer Jonna Löfgren sits in on the interview, but shies away from answering any questions herself; instead, she's seemingly there to keep Allan company, and he admits that his habit of "dragging people into the band" means that after she first joined, he felt like a lost child in a supermarket "hugging his mother's legs" whenever she wasn't around. Any traces of earnestness are brushed away, though, when he deadpans a question about his ambitions for the new album. "I wanted to make songs with different song titles to the first album," he says, with only a faint twitch of a smile. "That was the start. I don’t think the label or management or the band would have gone for it if I came in with the same song titles and melodies and lyrics."
There's a sense of optimism there, though; an idea that 'triumph overcomes adversity', to some extent...
James Allan: Yeah. I'm quite romantic, believe it or not. [Motions at Jonna] She won't agree with that. She just winked at me, so I'll take that as a yes. I don't know what she meant by it; I just see and hear what I want to. But probably [with the album]... if I wasn't physically or mentally in the exact same place I was singing about, if I said it enough times... it was aspirational.
What place were you in?
JA: Well, I had an overdose about a year and a half ago at Coachella. I got woken up by a paramedic with a needle hanging out of my arm, because that's what they need to do to get the adrenaline in. I think the next day I wrote the first song for the album; one of my friends had written a piece of music, and I thought about all these words. It was funny, we were sitting in his back garden and Depeche Mode were playing across the street at some sort of outdoor thing. I was thinking, 'Shut the fuck up, I'm trying to concentrate here... Turn it down, it's too loud'. The things that I'm saying in it - I couldn't say I was I in that place, but the more you talk, I think it reduces you to being a 10-year-old again. It's just the same way I used to ask for things from Santa Claus, but as you get older, the things that you ask for are just a little bit different.
Was that scary?
JA: No, I didn't care.
JA: I was too gone. I was speaking to my sister about it the other day - she was there, she manages the band - and I was too distant from myself. It was almost like a dream... you don't notice how a lot of people are worried. I think they said the most worrying thing was that when they had to get me into a shower, and my sister looked in and there was a hair dryer floating in the bath. And she was just like, 'For fucks sake man. This day can't get any worse'. It's like the cartoon thing, isn't it? With the toaster in the water.
I think I saw Zane Lowe. I think Florence and the Machine were there - because [at first] nobody could get into the dressing room - and I till think I've got the little letter she wrote for us. And I think Zane was there: every time I bumped into him, poor guy, it was always an unfortunate time for me. Rab said that as they were carrying me out, I said to Zane 'Oh, it's not how it looks'. I think I'm meeting him tomorrow, so it would be quite nice if I'm able to put a sentence together.
Do you think making the album helped you?
JA: I guess it helped and it didn't help. It is what it is. It's like anything in life: it's the worst things that happen to you and you wish hadn't happened, but if they hadn't happened, I wouldn't be sitting here in this seat right now. [Looks at seat] It's quite a comfortable seat and my bum quite likes it, so I feel quite happy. If it wasn't for all these things I wouldn't be in exactly this place.
You say the word overdose to people and they just think death, which it's not. But it's not a very good word. It's funny - because a lot of people are so close to you, they'll avoid that word at all costs. They'll say things like, 'Remember that time you fell asleep at Coachella and didn't wake up again?'. Because it sounds better than saying the dreaded cry 'overdose'. But fuck it, I'd rather just get it out of the way. I actually need to tell my mother as well; I'm not looking forward to that. The last time, she walked into the house with a cat underneath her arm - my cat, it was looking petrified - and she was going mental because in NME they'd said what I did for Christmas. I wasn't talking to them, I was talking to Ian McCulloch and said 'I've got 30 grams of coke', but someone heard it and they put it in.
If I thought about what I'd say to her now, and I had more time to think - because she kind of phased me with the cat thing - I'd say, 'Mum, it said 30 grams, but these days you're not really getting 30 grams of pure coke. That was probably more like three and a half. So let's just forget that'. But I was just freaking out and saying 'Why the hell have you a cat underneath your arm'? She said 'I walked into the house and the cat was in front of me and I wanted to speak to you, so I just picked it up and kept walking'. I was like, 'It doesn't matter what I do for the rest of my life: please never walk into my room and wake me up with a cat underneath your arm'.
How bad did things get before? Obviously, there was the whole fish incident...
JA: I'm quite idiotic, to be honest. It was just funny. I think with being in a band and stuff, one of the things I hold onto quite well is being childish. The thing with the fish was bad timing because of everything else that was happening. If I'd been taking care of myself and just not being that mad, and was in my house singing The Carpenters' 'Close To You' to these two fish, it probably wouldn't have been that big a deal. But when you're 30 floors up in a hotel in Chicago and all the other things have happened, it's like, 'Oh for fucks sake'.
I've still got a brilliant video of it. The band and the people who were working with us at the time, they though they were fucking Scorsese or something - getting their camera angles right and moaning at each other because they were stepping in the way. But I wanted to make a little video of me spending the night with the two fish and basically saying there's a big world out there with lots of mad things happening, but whatever's out there is out there, and right now I'm just spending a moment with my two fish. But obviously, it's not the most usual thing to do.
Did you ever get to the point where you thought there might not be another Glasvegas album?
JA: No, I never thought that. I was saying the other day - on a much less serious level - if someone says 'For a while, I was thinking about killing myself, but I'm not really thinking about it the other day'... I think if you're thinking about that, you'll probably give it a bash at some point. I think if I'd have thought about not wanting to be in a band, I'd just leave. There's every chance that will happen. I say it to them [the band] - 'Don't think tomorrow morning that I'm going to feel the same way'. That's important in life, that people recognise that it's something you want or don't want. It's the same with marriages, or whatever. If you're not feeling the way that you think you should, then just leave, because life's too short.
No, I never thought that. I was saying the other day - on a much less serious level - if someone says ‘for a while, I was thinking about killing myself, but I’m not really thinking about it anymore’. I think if you’re thinking about that you’ll probably give it a bash at some point. I think - on a much less serious level - if I’d have thought about not wanting to be in a band - even if I thought about it, I’d just leave. There’s every chance that will happen - I say it to them. Don’t think tomorrow morning that I’m going to feel the same way. That’s important in life, that people an recognise that it’s something you want or don’t want. It’s the same with marriages or whatever; if you’re not feeling the way that you think you should, then just leave, because life’s too short.
There seems there's less emphasis on social commentary with the new album, even though there's still narratives and stories...
JA: Well, I didn't grow up writing songs. They [the songs on Glasvegas] were the first songs I'd ever written. A more normal situation would be that people learn to play guitar and write a lot of songs and then make an album, but they were a lot of my first efforts. So maybe it was always going to evolve into something else. I know for a lot of bands that doesn't always happen, but that's probably because they were quite good when they made their first album. I'm not saying we were rubbish, but there was probably a lot more room for different styles or whatever.
Looking at it, two years for anybody... everybody's really impressionable, even in two years. Human beings are so impressionable that they'll change or notice little things. Even the way you speak to people changes within two years. Do you ever notice that? Two years on and you feel more like Yoda.
Yeah. Well, not the Yoda bit, maybe.
JA: Well, maybe like Luke Skywalker. In the first one, he's a bit daft, but before you know it he's dressed in black and telling people that if they don't do what he wants them to do, they're going to die. He's not got that personality in the first one.
Is your all-white attire influenced by Skywalker?
JA: I'm going to start saying that. I need to start carrying a lightsabre about. I just like the colour, to be honest with you. I'm thinking of something really profound to say - really, really mysterious - but I just like it. Is your beard influenced by Obi-Wan Kenobi?
JA: I thought so. How good are the names in Star Wars? I was thinking about this the other day. Obi-Wan Kenobi is a great name. Luke Skywalker is a fucking amazing name.
He was going to be called Luke Starkiller originally, but they changed it.
JA: Aye, it's better. Darth Vader... Han Solo... Jabba The Hut is fucking brilliant.
It does what it says on the tin, doesn't it?
JA: Aye; he looks like a Jabba The Hut. Who else is there? Chewbacca.
I'm not as big on that one.
JA: Chewbacca? But what else could you call him? He couldn't be called anything else.
With EUPHORIC /// HEARTBREAK \\, despite the sense of optimism, there's also this sense of awkwardness, and not knowing how to deal with it...
JA: Maybe it's not Return Of The Jedi - maybe it's The Empire Strikes Back, because it's not as triumphant.
Is that feeling of unease, like on 'The World Is Yours', something you feel personally?
JA: Yeah, I think on 'The World Is Yours'... it's like the feelings you have as a kid at the disco. I remember my sister's friends trying to pull me on the disco and I was too shy. It was a Christmas disco and the jumper my Mother had got us was stretched as far from me to you with them trying to get me on the dancefloor. I hate dancing and stuff. A lot of the things about being a child - the shyness, when it comes to girls - it's funny, it can be so difficult to find your way about. And that what I was singing about. If I were to overcome the shyness and execute some kind of romantic gesture to somebody, what in an ideal world would it be? It probably wouldn't be what I say in 'The World Is Yours', because that's maybe a bit too clever for me to think of at a disco.
It's a fantasy, I guess.
JA: Yeah, that's what it is. But I guess it's about that shyness which can be quite crippling. With that song, I saw the title on Scarface with the globe thing, and if you explain that song to somebody... 'You're influenced by Scarface on your second album? And you've been taking coke every week? This doesn't sound like it's going to be very good'. But that was the only Scarface influence in the song; I saw 'The World Is Yours' and I thought of shyness. That's the funny thing when you see certain words or things. Why the fuck was I thinking about shyness when I saw that? It's funny that there are certain things that trigger that.
I find the Scarface influence interesting, because I think with both albums, there's a cinematic quality present; like the drama in 'Stabbed' from Glasvegas, for example.
JA: Yeah, totally. When I was unemployed I used to watch the commentaries on movies I loved, and I loved it when they had the people who did the scores on them - finding out why they decided to do certain things. It was fascinating. I remember Rich Costey [producer] on the first album - when we sat down, he said 'We should do 'Stabbed' like this and this', and I said 'I don't really think we should'. He said 'Well come on, you tell me the reason why we shouldn't, then. Everybody's listening'.
So I said, 'It's like the bit in Jaws when the shark broke, so nobody really saw the shark - people's imaginations are more powerful than the reality. That's why we should have it a lot quieter'. But I guess it all comes from movies: the less we put in, the more intense it was going to be.
'Dream Dream Dreaming' is about your Dad, and his brother who committed suicide; was that a way of making up for 'Daddy's Gone', and did that song create an uncomfortable situation?
JA: Aye. It created a lot of things; it created a lot of amazing fortune for the band. I think that was the song that made some kind of impression on people. It was only one little snapshot, and it's hard to put someone's existence in a three minute pop song. At the time, I never actually wanted to put it on the album.
JA: I just didn't want to hurt his feelings. I thought there was a chance he might find out about the song; I thought someone in the family might hear it and then he'd hear it, but I didn't think it would be in the fucking newspapers. So I guess that took on a life of its own. But the amount of people who've come up to me and said all these crazy things about how much it means to them and blah blah blah... So I'm not to decide if it's right or wrong, and I don't think my father is either, but that won't stop me from feeling about it, because he's had quite a mad time of it. I knew the song was sincere, but why do you want to go about hurting people's feelings like that? Life's too short.
So I thought, I don't know if I can make it up, but instead of me leaving it there, why don't I make something solid? I was fascinated with The Everly Brothers song 'All I Have To Do Is Dream', because I thought it was an amazing piece of genius art - that someone had recognised that when you long for something so bad, you'd take any relief you can get, even if that redemption is in a dream. They were saying they were so in love with this girl they can't have, and if they can't have her in real life, they'll have her only in dreams. And I thought that was quite romantic, and heartbreaking, and I thought about my father and his brother - he'd take anything he could get. In this lifetime, that's all he's got, so I'll write a song and see what happens.
What was the thought behind 'I Feel Wrong [Homosexuality Pt. 1]' and 'Stronger Than Dirt [Homosexuality Pt. 2']?
JA: I wrote 'I Feel Wrong' first, and that came through being at a friends house, at a party. Two of my friends I'd known for a long time... I didn't notice they had feelings for each other, and then I kind of noticed it. One of the guy's girlfriends was crying, but no-one seemed to notice. I thought I'd seen it all with these things, with romance, but I realised in a lot of ways I was pretty clueless, because I'd never seen anything like this before. I was struck by how vulnerable and fragile they were, and how tender the moment was between them; the longing between the two of them. I thought they were really romantic. I recognised something that was a beautiful thing, and it seemed a shame; like, for fucks sake, have we got nothing else to worry about in this day and age? The worst thing is people showing a bit of compassion to each other? And they are obviously were too worried to do anything about it, which in 2011 is utterly frightening.
Your mum is on 'Change'. What was it like having her in the studio?
JA: Ah, she was bossy as anything, telling me what to do. She was bossing Flood about and stuff, telling him 'Son, you're not doing that right'.
Did she boss you around too?
JA: Yeah, she was like, 'Swap this word with that word'. I said to her the other day, 'You'd better not be taking me to court or anything'. And she said, 'I've got the lyrics sheet to prove it...'