Let’s Whist Again: Idlewild Interviewed

Roddy Woomble and Rod Jones talk to Dan Ross about getting old, getting annoyed and coming back with a new album

"Are you sending a text?" asks Rod Jones, mildly annoyed, as I fumble with my iPhone while setting the confounded screen lock to ‘never’ so the machine doesn’t fetter mid-recording. I assure him that I’m not. It’s funny, I’m exactly the sort of person that Idlewild probably wouldn’t like – one that loves their old songs, isn’t too fussed by their recent albums, and can only ever see them as 25-year-old arty snotrags jumping around the stage of mid-sized auditoriums. In my eyes, until very recently, maturity never quite suited them.

I sit with Jones, guitarist and founder, and singer Roddy Woomble, very earnest of eye-contact and warm of cardigan, in a Soho theatre bar the day after they announced live on Steve Lamacq’s 6Music show that they were releasing their first album in five years. Everything Ever Written was eked out on the Isle of Mull, recorded without any label deadline and first glimpsed by fans at a series of ridiculously inaccessible gigs across the Scottish Highlands and islands where Woomble’s recent career hop to folk singing has been perhaps the strongest musical influence.

It’s trite to say it, but Idlewild, veterans of a supposed indie music explosion that never really caught on, have matured quite nicely. Bands very much like them fell by the wayside but, somehow, Idlewild survived what could’ve been total erosion. It’s natural, then, to start by asking what’s changed since they last showed themselves to the public a few years ago, tiredly touring another album that didn’t match their first three. The answer is, seemingly, both everything and nothing.

In the press release announcing your new album, Roddy says, "Idlewild is a new band to me now." What was wrong with the old band?

Roddy Woomble: Nothing. Nothing was wrong with the old band. We took a bit of time off. The old band tired itself out. We played too many gigs and made records in a way that wasn’t really that interesting for me any more. Five of us in a practice space, amplifiers, trying to capture some sort of sound that we had ten years before. I think we just needed to stop and decide what we were going to do. There was never any doubt that we’d make another record together. I think we’ve made an interesting, eclectic record, which we wouldn’t have done if we’d just followed the treadmill.

What strikes me about the record is how comfortable it sounds. In the best way possible, it sounds like it was no effort to make. Almost easy.

Rod Jones: Not in a Chris Rea way.

RW: One of the demos did sound a lot like ‘Driving Home For Christmas’. We didn’t include it.

RJ: It was comfortable. Certainly the first album where we were comfortable enough to be in charge of the microphones. We were able to do it at our own pace and not feel like we were on a timetable where we had to go to the studio for a month; so we were able to redraft the songs. We could finish a song or think that we’d finished it and then come back to it. So much of it was done in that considered manner. No other reason to do it other than to enjoy it.

RW: Normally, when we were signed to record labels, we would demo songs and then they’d be scrutinised by the label. With this album we were demoing songs and then thinking the demo sounds great. There are songs on there that still have the spirit of the song being written in them. I think it’s comfortable because we’re comfortable. We’re not chasing any kind of dream.

Because they’ve already been smashed to pieces?

RJ: They’re lying on the floor in bits.

RW: We’re in our own little orbit because we’ve never been lumped in with any scene. To be honest, the people who like the band really like that about us. I guess we’re kind of a culty band. People either really like it or just don’t know about it. There’s not a lot of transient fans.

There are a couple of tracks on this album, ‘So Many Things To Decide’ and ‘Utopia’, where Roddy’s voice is pushed the front in a way that would’ve been inconceivable on your first couple of records. There’s obviously been a massive change over the years.

RW: Oh yeah. I’ve made solo records and that’s all been a learning experience. I’ve just got better at singing and more comfortable with who I am and my voice. I’m quite happy for my voice to be pushed up, whereas in the past I wanted it buried with the guitars, or part of the band, not like I was thinking of myself as ‘the singer’.

There’s a lyric on ‘Collect Yourself’ that goes, "Young, but only for a moment in time." To me – and I’m probably a terrible example – you’ll always be the young band that made 100 Broken Windows. Does that get on your nerves?

RW: No, I think you’re the same way as I am with a lot of bands. It’s the same for me and Jeff Tweedy, ever since he was doing Uncle Tupelo records when I was 15. They’re preserved in amber, a bit. Same with Stephen Malkmus, but I still buy the records. I think that’s the way people feel about Idlewild, even though for a lot of people we were a band of their teens or something. People have just followed us. There hasn’t been just one record where people have been like, "That was when I was 16, I’m not listening to them anymore." Well, obviously a few people have thought that…

No one’s coming up to you and saying, "How come you don’t jump around any more like you did in 1998?"

RW: There’s always a few idiots who say that. I don’t understand that psychology. It’s like not wanting people to grow up. I suppose if a band is like a gang, it is a moment in time. If you’re getting older you can’t jump around so much in case you hurt your knee.

Do the three of you at the core of the band [Roddy, Rod and drummer Colin Newton] still feel like a gang? How has that dynamic lasted?

RW: We’re not like a gang anymore; we’re more like a whist drive.

RJ: Or a coffee morning. In the five years we were apart, we were still in touch with each other on phone and email. We all lived in various places, Colin was in Canada for a while, Roddy up in the Highlands and me stuck in Edinburgh. When you meet up, you don’t feel like anything’s changed. It worked that way with the songwriting as well – it was like we hadn’t stopped.

It’s interesting you mention Pavement, actually. I know what you’re doing isn’t a ‘reunion’ as such, but with those big-budget comebacks like Pavement and Pixies, you do wonder about the motivation behind it.

RJ: A lot of bands have large tax bills to pay.

RW: A lot of bands do it for money because they’ve run out, but we never had any in the first place. It’s nothing to do with that for us. I’ve made a living out of music since I was 19, which is something I’m really happy about. Idlewild is obviously our occupation. But money wasn’t the motive to do another record. If it had been, we would’ve done it a lot quicker for a start.

Everything Ever Written is a big title for an album. It sounds final.

RW: Does it? To me it sounds so vague, that’s what I like about it.

What else is there left to write, if everything ever written is in this record?

RJ: That’s not what it means to me. Not at all.

RW: Obviously some people might read it like that. To me it just sounds so random. I’ve always been drawn to that in song lyrics and titles.

Idlewild are probably one of the few bands with lyrics where one genuinely could have an alternative interpretation of what they mean.

RW: I’m interested in that. I like patterns in words. I’m not really interested in meaning. If you want meaning, you read poetry or a novel or something, you don’t read song lyrics. You’re supposed to listen to them with music. Titles like Hope Is Important, Warnings/PromisesEverything Ever Written makes me feel that same way. I never ever considered it in terms of what people would think it meant.

Have you ever written a lyric with a very specific message or way of coming across?

RW: No. There’s no way of doing that. I never trust songwriters who talk about what their song is about. It’s selfish to do that, songs are freeform and open. And suddenly everyone has to pretend that that’s what it’s about.

It’ll be the 20th anniversary of the band meeting next year.

RW: August next year, yeah. It’s a long time.

The Rolling Stones have been writing songs together for 50 years, though, which obviously makes your back catalogue look tiny.

RW: Why would you stop? People like Neil Young, Patti Smith and Dylan, they’re all my favourites. I really love the fact they’re still out there playing, it’s really inspiring. Okay, some people don’t like their new material. I do though. How else are you going to hear the thoughts and ideas of a 68-year-old man? I think it’s brilliant, I always buy their records.

There’s always a danger of staleness, surely?

RW: Everyone’s got different definitions of stale.

You wrote a large chunk of this record on the Isle of Mull. What is it about the area that makes it a good place to write?

RW: Well, there’s no songs like ‘The Seagulls Of Glengorm’ or ‘The Tobermory Bakery’ or anything like that. But it’s calm, there’s a lot of space.

RJ: It’s as much about the isolation as it is about the scenery.

RW: It’s a good place to focus on things. A good place to find out who you are. There’s not a lot going on, a lot of emptiness in the sky and the landscape, and just you in between. You get to know yourself a bit better.

Did you come to any conclusions about that?

RW: No.

Being flippant, you’re a quintessentially Scottish band.

RW: That’s true. We’ve always had a sense of place. I’ve lived in London and New York, but Scotland’s where the band’s based.

What would’ve happened if Scotland had voted ‘Yes’?

RW: It would’ve been a better country. It would’ve been its own country, run well and in the interests of the people. Unfortunately that didn’t happen because of the bias and scare tactics. It’s really depressing. It’s a really depressing time for a lot of young Scots, because most young people voted ‘Yes’. If you were living in Scotland you would’ve voted ‘Yes’. But the bad side of the Scots, the puritan side, came out. The opposite of the ‘Yes’ campaign was ‘No thanks, it’s not worth the risk’, which is almost like a joke to me. We’ve taken a real beating. We’re trying to see the positives, but I can’t deny it still makes me annoyed.

What’s the impact on the arts?

RW: Massive. Pretty much every artist in Scotland – musician, writer, poet, actor – they’re all part of a thing called the National Collective, for the ‘Yes’ campaign. They can’t believe our country would reject independence in that way. It’s really sad. You’ve got to bear in mind that Scotland is seen as a region of the UK from Westminster. When you’re up there it’s a completely vibrant country on its own, it just doesn’t have enough power. It’s not important for the new album, but I could talk about this stuff forever…

I know we’ve talked quite a bit about the past, but I wanted to share with you this memory I have of seeing Idlewild playing on a late-night Channel 4 show called ‘The Barfly Sessions’, during which you were interviewed by a young Dermot O’Leary. Rod, you told him you couldn’t actually play guitar at the time.

RJ: Someone showed me this recently; it’s a really cringeworthy interview. I was sort-of learning to play the guitar, I was self-taught. When it came to playing live and being excited, half the time I was thinking, I just want to jump up and down, I don’t want to concentrate on what I’m playing. I used to get told off by the label boss quite a lot for it.

RW: That was quite a good gig, that one.

RJ: The only way to hide it was to throw the guitar at the ground and not worry about playing it. A lot of people liked our bass player Bob at the time for that. He’d spend more time making a dent in his bass than making a noise with it. It was fantastic to watch, I’m sure. A lot of people liked that.

Idlewild are on tour in the UK next March. Dates here

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