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INTERVIEW: Neu! Reekie! Talk Edinburgh International Festival
Patrick Clarke , August 2nd, 2021 15:42

As his avant garde arts collective Neu! Reekie! prepares for a huge show at Edinburgh International Festival this month, with Edwyn Collins in tow, poet Michael Pedersen talks returning to the live stage

Photo by Hollie McNish

As live performances begin to return, the sheer amount of them is a little crushing. Take the lineup for the Edinburgh International Festival for example, a month of programming across the city that takes in major headliners like Damon Albarn and Caribou, symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles, traditional folk collectives, operas, theatre debuts, contemporary dance, installation art and spoken word. There are, of course, worse problems to have, but sometimes the impulse to make the most of one's time and budget can be somewhat overwhelming.

You could go worse, then, than witnessing the return of Neu! Reekie!, the cross-disciplinary collective run by the writers Kevin Williamson and Michael Pedersen, on August 12 at Edinburgh Park. Their nights have always been culturally maximalist. Founded as an avant-garde literary, music and animation collective in 2010, the past decade has seen the project expand to encompass a DIY record label and publishing house, as well as diverse shows across the globe, enlisting performers from Irvine Welsh to Charlotte Church; Linton Kwesi Johnson to Lydia Lunch.

Over lockdown, like everyone else, Neu! Reekie! were forced to pivot to online streams. Though they turned it to their advantage, their programming more international than ever before, their return to the physical realm is hugely exciting. Their Edinburgh International Festival show will be only their second since the start of the pandemic, and is a return in more ways than one; the project was founded in Edinburgh and initially focussed mostly on artists from the Scottish capital. It also features a bill worthy of a twofold homecoming. Orange Juice hero Edwyn Collins will headline. "I feel good about it," he tells tQ over email. "It's the first show since January 2020. But that's not unusual for me, I like a long hiatus." Asked what can be expected from his set, he's deadpan as ever. "I expect it to be a gig, with a stage and an audience and songs and applause."

Also on the bill is political writer and activist Darren McGarvey, who performs hip hop under the name Loki. He will present a unique set with the singer-songwriter Becci Wallace, and rising spoken word star Victoria McNulty. To find out more about Neu! Reekie!'s return to the stage, tQ caught up with Pedersen, who will also co-host the gig along with his co-founder Williamson, via email.

Hi Michael, how are you feeling about the return to live performances with Neu! Reekie!?

Michael Pedersen: A tad trepidatious, then pure giddy. A whole gallimaufry of ripe emotions. It'll be thrilling for us aw. I'm hefty looking forward to encountering enlivened audiences that have been craving the enrichment of the arts. Myself included.

What were the biggest challenges of the pandemic when it came to Neu! Reekie!?

MP: The loss of physical spaces, and the cancellation of projects that had an abundance of work and love behind them. Foremost, letting down artists who were full of vim and verve to hit the road with us. But nothing is really lost in the arena of the arts right? Each epoch has a set of high-top swings within its carnival.

How about outside of Neu! Reekie!? How did you manage creatively?

MP: I'll focus on the positive here, I've a tendency to do that. I juggle writing alongside Neu! Reekie!'s live events and productions. I was two years into sculpting my first prose book for Faber, and in the juvenile stages of writing my third poetry collection. I gorged upon a profusion of books that had been piling up by my bedside and wrote with a brio and tenacity that I've never been able to fully capture outside of residency experiences. The books are finished and readying themselves to exist.

The more prolific our Neu! Reekie! cabal are as individual artists, the more we bring to the show tables, the brighter the collective coruscates.

You had to pivot to online events pretty sharply with the show marking the poet Edwin Morgan's centenary in April 2020. How was it trying to do everything online so early on?

MP: First entering the realms of digital events was a tricky one to call for sure. Coming into the game in late April, we actually felt like one of the last troupes to throw our hat in the ring. There was a deluge of content within the first few weeks from artists of every ilk. We observed ferociously and worked out what would fit best for us and our sexy audiences.

We very much sculpt shows around the spaces we inhabit, being unable to do so was problematic for us, so attaching ourselves to a theme, and creating a narrative this way, was an ideal solution. And what better theme to bask in than the 100th birthday of Scotland's first contemporary Makar. Of course, we implored Scotland's then sitting Makar Jackie Kay into the fold. As well as the likes of Idlewild's Roddy Woomble (a former collaborator with Edwin Morgan), and such literary beacons as Sabrina Mahfouz and Caroline Bird. It was the first of many digital rockets launched.

Were there any positives or silver linings to the whole thing?

MP: Learning to hone online shows and building a live studio set-up that went out on five platforms was a fantabulous edification. It took us one step closer to a Neu! Reekie! TV show. Also, it allowed us to pull in international contributions from the Scottish diaspora — Garbage's Shirley Manson, often based out of LA; Ewen Bremner, often based out of New York etc. Top of that list of silver linings was connecting more fulsomely with our international digital audiences — both those that had experienced Neu! Reekie!s in Scotland then moved away, and the umpteen newbies who'd witnessed the online fervour and were able to muck in for the first time.

You formed in Edinburgh over a decade ago. Do shows in the capital feel particularly different or special?

MP: Aw yeah. From a literary perspective, it's one of the most revered cities in the world — Edinburgh being the world's first ever UNESCO City of Literature. From Irvine Welsh and JK Rowling, to Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns — they've all called Edinburgh home at some point, and some still do. Plus our new breed of writers are near unrivalled the world over. So many of favourite musical artists bide here too — Young Fathers, Withered Hand, Rachel Sermanni. Sparks galore.

Edinburgh is where Neu! Reekie! was founded, it's where we call HQ, home, base camp. We love the way the city erupts with art in August, we love (even more so) the year-round panoply of artistic lushness Edina boasts.

Getting Edwyn Collins is quite the coup. What's your relationship like with his work?

MP: Edwyn will be making his debut appearance at Neu! Reekie!. We wanted to come back after such a bewildering time away from live shows with a new headliner that packed a cultural punch; and there's only a rare few on this spinning planet we'd be as excited about as Edwyn Collins.

We've had many of Edwyn's contemporaries perform for us — The Fire Engines, The Vaselines, The Pastels, Norman Blake/Teenage Fanclub, BMX Bandits, Malcolm Ross – but never the Orange Juice savant. Suffice to say, we've been lusting after an EC set for some time. The time is right and randy.

What are you anticipating from his show?

MP: Oh, just the usual stunning display of musical and song writing prowess Edwyn and his band are known for. I love so many of his songs: 'Felicity', 'What Presence', 'A Girl Like You', 'Rip It Up'… a profusion of others. I'll be purring for them but delighted by whatever comes crooning our way.

What can we expect from Darren McGarvey and Becci Wallace? Will there be a political aspect?

MP: Rather than pre-empt what Darren and Becci are going to deliver, I'll focus on the lustrous show they unfurled for us in the past. Darren and Becci performed together for us once before, at the National Museum of Scotland on a bill that included Charlotte Church and Liz Lochhead. Their slot was a fierce blend of spoken word, hip hop, pop-folk singing, and deft musical looping. The room quickly reached capacity and packed out, and left the audience chanting for more in a rapturous standing ovation. The content, of course, had political elements to it, alongside calls to social action, humour-loaded one-liners, witty retorts, phantasmagoria and more.

Darren is in in the midst of his next book (post-the Orwell Prize winning Poverty Safari) and recently presented a hugely revered show (Class Wars) on BBC Television. No doubt narratives and synergies to both these outputs will seep into new music. I hope so. I think we'll be hearing some music from Becci's new album too. She's a really fantastic artist too.

What else can you tell us about what's in store?

MP: We've just announced Victoria McNulty to open the show. A brilliant Scottish poet and working-class voice, that is as enthralling as she is powerful and thought-provoking. Having opened for the likes of Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish, we're in safe hands. Last time we billed Victoria at Neu! Reekie! she shared a bill with Irvine Welsh, Andrew Weatherall and Denise Johnson, a really special night, at which she was as mesmerising as any of them.

Do you hope to experience anything else of the EIF? If so, what are you looking forward to?

MP: Heaps, aye. I've already lassoed some tickets. The spoken word strand with the EIBF that sees Hollie McNish, Jay Bernard, Vanessa Kisuule and others take to the Old Quad looks splendiferous. I'm in for a few of those. Also, on the musical front, Kathryn Joseph is a bolt of beauty like few others. There's a passel more but those are my leading lights.

Neu! Reekie! with Edwyn Collins, Darren McGarvey and more takes place for Edinburgh International Festival on August 12 at Edinburgh Park