Finding Time: Glasgow, DIY & The Odd Tale Of RM Hubbert
, January 27th, 2012 08:35
Nicola Meighan speaks to Scottish musician RM Hubbert about the long road to his new album, Thirteen Lost & Found. With contributions and memories of acid and the Glasgow music scene from Alex Kapranos
"I sometimes feel a bit like the character in that Woody Allen film, Zelig. You know – this totally unimposing guy who just happens to be around all of these momentous events." So says Glasgow axe-seducer RM Hubbert – first name Robert, call him Hubby: DIY kingpin, nylon-string overlord, ex-El Hombre Trajeado activist; virtuosic high-commander of an album, Thirteen Lost and Found, that's produced by Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos and features Aidan Moffat, Emma Pollock, Alasdair Roberts, Hanna Tuulikki, Paul Savage and many more (thirteen in total). Also: modest.
Let us trace the roots of the album, via the DIY pop memoirs of RM Hubbert and Alex Kapranos…
Alex Kapranos: "Memories of Hubby? The compilation tape he made me that changed the way I listened to music. The way he played guitar like nobody else did. He always held it more like a shovel than an instrument, disguising what his fingers were really up to. God knows how long he spent learning that technique. Still, he has the good taste to not point it out to you. Only Hubby plays guitar like that, communicating things that could never be talked about.
"We met in Glasgow [in the early 90s] when I was 19, so Hubby would've been 17. He was a skater, I was a Divinity School dropout and our newly-formed bands shared a drummer called Thom Falls. His band was called Me, Hubby & Thom; mine was The Blisters. They were into Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr and The Minutemen; we were into Violent Femmes, The Cramps and Dead Kennedys.
"Hubby lived in a scummy flat on Argyll St that didn't have a bin in the kitchen – it had a rubbish corner. A heap. It was an amazing party flat. There seemed to be a lot of acid around at that time and it was cheap. Cheaper than drink. Hubby used to climb out of his window and walk along a thin stone ledge high above Argyll St to his absent flatmate's window, break in, borrow his Tascam 4-track recorder, spend all day making demos, then climb back along the ledge to return it before he got back. "At that time it was impossible to get a gig in Glasgow if you weren't playing covers or didn't sound like that mid-late 80s Glasgow blue-eyed soul pish. Then I saw an ad for a night called the Kazoo Club that a guy called Jim [Byrne, sometimes of swamp-rock livewires Primevals] was starting in the Bogle Stone."
RM Hubbert: "So The Blisters got this Kazoo Club gig at the Bogle Stone, which preceded the 13th Note, which has now become Stereo and Mono, and we went down to give them some support. It was brilliant, but there weren't many people there. At the end of the night Jim was like, 'right, I'm not doing this anymore', and we kind of said, 'well, this is the only gig we can get', so Alex [then going by the surname Huntley] volunteered to take over and run the night, and I volunteered to help out. I ended up doing the sound.
"Every Tuesday night in the early to mid-90s we'd do the Kazoo Club. It was free entry, and the only rule that we had for booking bands was that they weren't morally offensive to us. [Laughs]. We ended up quickly attracting this scene with loads of folk who couldn't get gigs anywhere else."
AK: "There were some moments that seem grand in retrospect – Stuart Murdoch with an acoustic guitar, Mogwai's first gig, John Peel coming down to see Urusei Yatsura – but in context they were the norm. It was names that didn't resonate far beyond those walls that resonated loudest at the time: Trout, The Savilles, Glen or Glenda, The Stanleys [feat Shane Connolly, now of Tattie Toes, who plays on Thirteen Lost and Found], Pink Kross, The Poison Sisters and Eska."
RMH: "Pretty much all of the Chemikal Underground bands played their first or early gigs at the Kazoo Club too. I remember having a drunken conversation with Emma [Pollock] one night, just after the first Delgados single came out, and she was going, 'we've just signed this band from Falkirk – it's these two guys, they sent us in a demo. They're mental. We really don't know if anyone's going to like it, but we love it.' That was Arab Strap. Bis did their first gigs there too – I remember when Chemikal put Bis out, and ['Kandy Pop'] did really well [25 in the pop charts, 1996], and we all sat round watching them on Top of the Pops.
"We also did a live twelve-inch Kazoo Club album [1994's Kazoo Collection LP] which had The Blisters, Urusei Yatsura, loads of folk on it. It was my first-ever release and Alex's first-ever release, and both of us do our very best to make sure nobody ever hears it. [Laughs]. I think Alex destroyed what copies he had."
The 13th Note also spawned a brilliant mid-late 90s seven-inch series called Club Beatroot, which included split singles from Mogwai (b/w PH Family), Hubbert's post-rock firebrands El Hombre Trajeado (b/w Lungleg) and Kaprano's art-punk rabble The Yummy Fur (b/w Olympia). Each seven-inch came with a vegan beetroot recipe. Club Beatroot was issued via Flotsam and Jetsam, a label Hubbert operated with The Poison Sisters' Sandy Black and Gordon Davidson from ska-punks the Amphetameanies (The Stanleys were Davidson's "indie-pop band").
RMH: "When I was 18 there was a government dole scheme called New Deal for Musicians. Sometimes you could get another tenner on your Giro if you went on these courses, and one of them was absolutely brilliant. It was called Beatbox, and it was basically a recording studio and you could go and learn how to be a sound engineer.
"When Beatbox opened up, all the musicians I knew went along – actually, Belle and Sebastian formed there, come to think of it. Stuart [Murdoch] went to Beatbox. They recorded the Tigermilk demos there, and the original line-up of Belle and Sebastian was people who were on that course. And Alex was there. The Blisters turned into The Karelia, and we did a load of demos for the Karelia album. I recorded and produced loads of stuff in there. [Garage-pop thrillers] Lungleg. Loads of early Yummy Fur [Kapranos' better-documented pre-Franz band with FF colleague Paul Thomson and 1990s' John / Jackie McKeown] – their 'Policeman' single, I produced that. Oh, and Gilded Lil. That was the most mental session I've ever done."
Gilded Lil were a blues-punk dervish: beloved of Peel and frenzied of performance. Kapranos would later produce their debut (only) LP, Corpus Delicti (Bosque, 2001). It was his first official album production job.
AK: "At some point Me Hubby and Thom broke up and Hubby joined The Blisters for a while with his then-girlfriend, the glamorous Tracy Van-Daal. We'd occasionally leave the 13th Note to play other places like Edinburgh or even Aberdeen. There was a guy called Jeeves who used to put on illegal festivals up the East Coast. He'd send you a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the location of a farmer's field near Stonehaven through the post. We'd turn up and they'd have squatted the field, set up generators, a stage and dogs. Lots of loose dogs. Hubby had a dog called Django at the time, a chocolate brown foxy mongrel.
"Django fell off that stone ledge above Argyll St and lost a leg. He never quite accepted he'd lost it. Hubby would take him for a walk. He'd lift his remaining leg to piss and land in a terrible state."
Do not underestimate the magnitude of canines in Scotland's indie lineage. Hubbert styled his debut solo album, First and Last, as an instrumental record about "death, mental illness, love and a dog by the name of D Bone," and it opened with an eloquent flamenco-tap raga called, 'Hey There Mr Bone'. The aforesaid Bone also starred in a recent newspaper photo-shoot, which prompted Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite to issue the following plea via Twitter: "Anyone fancy putting up the photo of @rmhubbert's dog D Bone from today's Herald? He's my dog Rambo's brother and Princess's son." Hubbert spent much of the last Mogwai tour – he supported them in the UK and Europe – posting photos of himself on Skype with his beloved hound.
AK: "Then Hubby joined Gus McPhee's punk band, Glue. They were hardcore. Hubby became the singer and guitarist. He went on long, long tours. He'd come back and tell us how he'd celebrated his birthday in a car park in Warsaw where they were camped for a week with nothing to eat apart from a carrier bag full of tangerines someone had given them, because the Belsen gig had fallen through. We were so fucking jealous."
The next decade or so is well-documented. Kapranos "formed another band [Franz Ferdinand], disappeared for a few years and didn't see a lot of my friends – including Hubby – for a long time". El Hombre Trajeado called it a day in 2006 and Hubbert taught himself flamenco guitar as a coping mechanism when his father became ill. He set up an ethical DIY label, Ubisano, with another indie stalwart, John Williamson (who manages Belle and Sebastian). He began performing in people's homes, in exchange for a meal, under the banner Will Play for Food.
RMH: "The whole album is about relationships – about trying to reconnect with people, or make connections with people. I was really ill with chronic depression through the 2000s, and then my marriage broke up [he also lost both of his parents within a few years of each other], and so I hadn't really seen anyone at all. But through making First and Last [self-released in 2009, re-released by Chemikal in 2011] I realised that writing and playing music was really helping my mental health, and really helping me to communicate better with people. So I thought that it would be much easier to reconnect with some old friends if I just went in and wrote music with them, rather than sitting with the, 'so, what have you been up to for the last ten years?' thing.
"I started putting a list together. The only rules I had were that we'd never written music together before – except for Stevie [Jones, who also played in El Hombre Trajeado], and even then we hadn't done anything for over five years – and that I loved their music, obviously. There are a few people on the album that I'd only known for a really short period of time but that I really liked, and I thought that doing music might be a nice way to get to know them better – like Hanna [Tuulikki, of Nalle, Scatter and Two Wings] and Marion [Kenny]. And then there were people like Aidan, Emma, Ali and Alex, who I'd known for years.
"I hadn't really spent any time with Alex since Franz Ferdinand, and we kind of re-connected via Twitter of all the weird places. He started tweeting about how much he liked First and Last and we got chatting, and he said, you know, 'come down to the house if you get the chance', so I went down to Dumfries and it was brilliant, it was one of those nice things where after five minutes it seemed like we'd never been away.
"Alex was saying he wanted to get into producing more records and I thought it might make sense for this album, because I wanted it to be a cohesive piece of work. I didn't want it to be like a compilation. I didn't want it to be 'RM Hubbert plus guests'. Everything was written together, totally from scratch. It was totally collaborative, and every single one of the songs was a total joy to write. Nothing was prepared in advance, so basically all the songs on this album are the songs we wrote on that first day. It was trying to recapture that moment when you click with someone."
AK: "There was a huge range of personalities on the record and the sessions all had very different moods. The album is about relationships, and it was the way the musicians related to each other that really made the record what it is. There was very little overdubbing, not for luddite purist reasons, but because we all react to each other and no-one performs the same on their own as they do when they're responding to another musician in the same room. It's like a good conversation – you find yourself saying things that are funny or insightful because you're with someone you trust whose company you enjoy and you're responding to the things they're saying. We were trying to get a musical version of that."
RMH: "With some of the songs, like 'Sunbeam Melts the Hour' [with Tuulikki and Kenny], there's a whole improvised passage at the end of that song, so that one's different every time we play it. And with others, we never played the whole song until the actual recording, like Aidan's one ['The Car Song']. The first time we actually played the whole thing together was in the recording studio. Aidan had never done harmonies in a recording –I think that basically Alex talked him into that. [Laughs] I was actually quite taken aback with Aidan's song – I mean I was with all of them but with Aidan especially – just how [lyrically] relevant it was to everything, you know? It was actually almost disturbing. Same for Emma's ['Half Light']…"
Thirteen Lost and Found includes three solo instrumentals by Hubbert.
RMH: "I didn't realise at the time but the three solo pieces I chose for the record sort of span the beginning, middle and end of a relationship. 'For Joe' is for my [late] ex father-in-law, 'Switches Part 2' was written when my ex-wife and I had split up but were still trying to have some kind of a relationship. And 'V' [inspired by his current partner] was written before we started dating. We met on a tour I did. I met her in Berlin, and we spent a few days together, she showed me round the city. Then I went straight to All Tomorrow's Parties, and spent the majority of ATP in my chalet, writing that song, because although we weren't romantically involved at that point, it had a really, really big impact on me.
"It only dawned on me when I was driving in to meet you today that the three solo pieces cover the life of a relationship. That was a total fluke."
It is an unlikely, capricious word – "fluke" – with regard to such a hard-won album, and one which is embedded in two decades of sub-culture, history and people. Yet Hubbert is a master of force by understatement and on reflection, he is right: our lives are precarious; our ties are fickle. We are lucky indeed to have this record. The past can be a fertile country. Thirteen can be a fortuitous number. Sometimes it is better to have loved, and lost, and found again.
Thirteen Lost and Found is out on January 30 through Chemikal Underground.
RM Hubbert live:
Friday 27th January - Stereo, Glasgow
Wednesday 1st February – Bishops Castle Town Hall, Shropshire
Thursday 2nd February – Cube, Bristol
Friday 3rd February - Kings Place London