Circle Of Fife: A Tall Tale With King Creosote & Gummi Bako

Ahead of Record Store Day, Nicola Meighan speaks to King Creosote and Gummi Bako about Fence, shop label and collective, and all sorts of unusual musical goings-on. Photo by Stephanie Gibson

King Creosote has just embarked on a UK tour as a one-legged man. He is propped up by a djembe crusader known as Captain Geeko the Dead Aviator, and supported by a crazed-pop champion going by the name of Gummi Bako. A miscreant posse of DIY-pop superheroes, you will agree. This is their tale.

It begins in St Andrews, somewhere in the mid-90s, it stretches to the present day, and it embraces Scalextric, Iron Maiden, Loop, Barbara Dickson and a puppet in Billy Corgan’s arse. It’s the yarn of a hirsute squeezebox bard with a bluegrass band, a student band and a ceilidh band; a record shop / collective / label (all called Fence); a Diamond Mine (ergo, a Mercury Prize white-knuckler) and an imperial nom de plume. He is known and loved as King Creosote, a busking Don Juan with a knack for a shanty, and he nearly lost it all because Prince William came to town.

Like all coastal monarchs worth their salt, KC has a fragrant consort in psycho-billy jester Gummi Bako: a dude whose way with an amplified couplet is rivalled only by his paranormal beard. While they cruise the British landscape together in a vehicle christened the Grey Invisible, Domino Records have compiled KC’s vinyl-only EPs from last year (I Learned From The Gaels; To Deal With Things; It Turned Out For The Best), which include two GB masterworks alongside KC’s myriad tours de force. Said delights have been assembled for a Record Store Day CD album (and EP punch-line), also for sale on the KC live dates. It is entitled That Might Well Be It, Darling. (I doubt it).

You join us in King Creosote’s seaside kitchen, in the former Fife Royal Burgh of Crail, and a rare winter sun is splitting the March sky. We’re sat round the table, having afternoon tea, with glasses of Tokaji (wine of kings!) on the side. KC’s right ankle is propped aloft and clad in plaster – he’s one leg down for half the year after an accident building a fishing boat, in which he almost lost a foot. Beside us is hair-rock romancer Gummi Bako and he and KC are recalling some typical mid-late 90s Wednesday nights at Aikman’s, the St Andrew’s bar that spawned the Fence Collective. (Its number has variously included KC, GB, Lone Pigeon, James Yorkston, KT Tunstall, HMS Ginafore and The Pictish Trail.)

King Creosote: It was all about the spectacle. I had this thing that it couldn’t be the same twice. It was a real exercise in seeing how far you could push something and still get paid. There were so many characters, like The 69 Girl – we used to get the audience to score our songs; she’d always 69 them. We had an eight-track that played opera backwards. One gig was just us playing Scalextric. Another time we had this guy, The Dark Lord, and he was in the Dingley Dell. He made this cardboard wall with a tree painted on it, and Billy Corgan out of the Smashing Pumpkins was mooning in the tree. Every so often this puppet came out of his bumhole. We had The Bosnians, Weary Waters, there was a girl who came onstage and cut the backs out of our jeans while we played, there was Alan, the other Alan, trumpet-playing Alan, bone-daddy Alan – oh! And there were The Four Davies – that’s when we dressed up as our dads and sang folk songs. And then there were The Four Mavis. That’s when we dressed up as our dad’s girlfriends and sang Madonna. (Later in the evening, to his considerable mirth, KC will recall an idea that never came to fruition: The Four Boris, their Russian cousins…)

KC: Gummi Bako was one of the Four Mavis. He looked amazing. He was quite churchy – he had these beads and he looked very proper, all twinset and pearls. I think you played the washboard, Alan?

Gummi Bako: Have you ever tried to play the washboard? It’s really hard. I’m trying to remember when we first met, Kenny. I guess I just started going to Aikman’s after Uni [at St Andrews]? Or maybe I came into the record shop? [Fence, which KC co-helmed in St Andrews around the turn of the millennium] Actually, I think we gatecrashed a gig you were playing once.

KC: Yeah, I was in that student band, Gnat’s Chuff – remember? With Adam from the health food shop? Well, it changed its name every gig. One time we were Sex Giraffe. That was a proper big funk-driven band. I would go round improvising singing, wearing a top hat. At some point we got a tape of Gummi Bako’s song ‘Mantra K’, and we thought it was great, so we invited him to play it at Aikman’s.

GB: Kenny said, ‘You should come and play it at Aikman’s, but you have to stay onstage for the whole show’. I only had that one song. But I stayed onstage. And that’s how I became the Fence Collective’s Bez.

Although they didn’t meet until the mid-late 90s, Mr Bako had been displaying extreme proto-Fence tendencies (shanties, theatrics, accordion simulations) since his 80s childhood in Ayr. His debut public performance was in a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (you imagine he’d have been more Quireboy than choirboy) and the first-ever song he wrote was based around piano discords (not so far removed from squeezebox drones). It was about being a fisherman’s wife.

GB: I just imagined what it would be like, I suppose. It went [drone, drone] – ‘I am a fisherman’s wife’ – [drone, drone] – ‘life is all trouble and strife’. It was basically those two lines.

All of Gummi Bako’s wild-folk trademarks are right there: killer rhyming couplets, generous doses of tragedy, drama, comedy and brine, plus a healthy disregard for traditional song structures and lyrical repetition. All of this can be evinced on his brand-new record, Acoustic… But Plugged!

GB: I hate wasted words. I hate wasted verses. I really hate verse two in a lot of songs. It’s like – ‘we’ve come up with the verse and the chorus, so now let’s do a padder verse’. I’m just not into that. I can’t sing a padder verse with any conviction. I don’t know how anyone can.

Kenny – thinking on your past albums, and right up to current songs like ‘Ankle Shackles’ from That Might Well Be It, Darling, or ‘How I Won My Stripes’ from Fence’s JOKES EP – you’re not really a big fan of straight-up verses or choruses either, are you?

KC: Well, I am if there’s stuff to be said, but if an idea runs out after however many lines then that’s it. I always think my songs are dead simple but someone said to me recently, ‘No they’re not, all the verses are different lengths, and there’s an extra bit, or there’s not a chorus,’ but I was like, ‘well, it’s kind of simple if you follow the lyric…’

GB: For me, that’s really important – not to have a formula.

This song-writing aesthetic is shared by many Fence artists, past and present – James Yorkston, HMS Ginafore, eagleowl among them – and can be traced back to the earliest Fence Collective CDRs which, as with so many counter-cultural releases, owed a debt to the Rough Trade shop.

KC: We started making these Fence samplers by hand, and we sent a few out. The Rough Trade shop was the first to go, ‘Oh, this is amazing – can you send us some CDRs?’ And we were like, ‘Really? Why? ‘ But we made them more, one-by-one – it took ages – and then they were right back in touch: ‘Right, we need more!’ I thought people were buying them purely because they looked such a mess. Still, it gave us a glimmer of hope." (They’d later craft CDRs exclusive to particular record shops – Norman, Missing, Monorail, Rough Trade, Avalanche…)

"But this was around 2001, and the Prince of Wales was coming to study in St Andrews. Our shop rent and rates took a 30 per cent hike overnight. We were like, ‘What? No way. That’s it.’ We were struggling as it was, so I thought, ‘Well, I can either totally run myself into the ground with this, and that’ll be the end of it. Or I can get out of the shop and concentrate on my ceilidh band and the Fence label’, which is what I did. I’d already been paid off by St Andrews Woollen Mill [where KC also worked part-time], I’d just taken on this place, I had a baby – the timing was amazing ."

GB: We kept on doing the CDRs. We did Let’s Get This Ship on the Road [2002] – we put it together here at Kenny’s – and that seemed quite monumental. You had Pip Dylan covering James Yorkston [‘Peace in our Time’], James Yorkston and the Lone Pigeon doing a Lone Pigeon song [‘Maheema’], King Creosote and his dad playing ‘Small Town Mistake’ by Vic Galloway [aka the Deaf Mutes], I did an Immigrant song [‘You’re One of a Kind’] and HMS Ginafore’s ‘As Summer Stirred’ was covered by Pinkie and John.

(John is John Wills – ex-Loop and The Hair and Skin Trading Company – who is also one half of tech-folk enchanters Pumajaw, with Pinkie Maclure. In the early 2000s, they lived in the Fife fishing village of Cellardyke and offered KC office space above their stained-glass workshop. The building became Fence HQ)

KC: Everyone had to provide a vocal, or a part, and then we put Ship On The Road together. We tried to make things that sounded more like albums than just collections or compilations, and one way of doing that was to make sure that everything got tarred by the same shitty brush. [Laughs] It gave everything a sort of homogenised sound, and it meant that the person with the best recording equipment didn’t always come off better than anyone else. It was a great leveller.

[KC pushes a Ship on the Road CD across the table]

KC: "Look, we put a fake barcode on the back – see if you can read it."

Um, it looks like it says "bawbags"?

KC: Yup, the barcode says "BAWBAGS R US".

[Cue hilarity]

If this suggests that barcodes (and the corporate implications thereof) had yet to establish any real credibility within King Creosote’s jurisdiction at the turn of the millennium, then plus ça change. This month, KC quietly issued a glorious vinyl-only barcode-free 10" , Analogue Catalogue (in tribute to the Manchester vintage studio of the same name) via his enigmatic new BOER imprint. Note its acronymic visual insignia: Beech, Oak, Elm and Rowan leaves – the shoots that grow from the wood that makes the Fence, perhaps, thus relating the twain? BOER002 is also available on KC’s current tour dates – it’s a sublime fundraising CD for the local boats club, courtesy of King Creosote, HMS Ginafore and Sean Dooley.

While Fence continues to thrive with acts like Kid Canaveral, eagleowl and Randolph’s Leap, largely under the guidance of long-term label boss and pop-sorcerer The Pictish Trail, KC has been honing BOER and helming intimate grassroots events under the Alter Ego Trading Company banner. He’s hand-sticking the cover collage for the third issue of AETC’s print fanzine as we chat. Its central image is a cartoon of characters wearing masks.

KC: Dan [Willson, aka Fence alumnus Withered Hand] drew that, it’s pretty amazing – he’s brilliant. It’s bizarre that you’d draw little characters, and you don’t know what their faces are like, and then you put another mask over them anyway. It’s oddly disturbing, but I think I know what he means. I had this thing where you feel like you’re too known, and you need to reset. But you’re actually not known at all, and I think that’s what he’s captured there. He’s saying, you know, ‘we’re all faceless people anyway, so let’s just give ourselves a new face.’

GB: Right through Fence’s history, everyone’s had a pseudonym – Lone Pigeon, Pip Dylan, James Yorkston’s a pseudonym [he is James Wright]. I don’t know what that is, if it’s a certain type of person, but I’ve always avoided putting my real true name – my power name [laughter] – on anything. I don’t want to see it. I’m quite happy being Mr Gummi ‘Gummi Bako’ Bako. Even Vic Galloway is a pseudonym."

(Real name: Michael. The harmonious BBC Radio Scotland presenter played in Miraclehead with JY, mid-90s bluegrass-punks Khartoum Heroes with KC, and later this year he’ll release a book entitled Songs in the Key of Fife: The Intertwining Stories of the Beta Band, King Creosote, KT Tunstall, James Yorkston and the Fence Collective).

KC: We always thought it was good to keep the same name whether you were playing solo, or as a band, or whatever – so he’s Gummi Bako, and I’m King Creosote, regardless of how many of us there are performing or not. There’s a freedom in having a pseudonym.

King Creosote’s recent World Tour of Crail starred such pseudonymic wonders as Anstruther singer-songwriter Lidh, who performs gorgeous psych-folk arias backed by her father (and former Eugenius drummer) Roy Lawrence. The tour’s unlikely cast included keyboard maharishi Rich Young, a former collaborator with Iron Maiden and Dire Straits who plays on KC’s Darling album. KC performed Diamond Mine (his Mercury-shortlisted work with Jon Hopkins) in a Crail pottery shop, Withered Hand raised the roof in a pub restaurant, and Gummi Bako reduced us to tears with a rendition of Barbara Dickson and Elaine Paige’s divine ‘I Know Him So Well’. (He sang both parts: he is master of call and response). Why Barbara Dickson? Was it the Fife resonance? Was it being within the very bosom of the "Beggar’s Mantle, Fringed with Gold"?

GB: Well, no, it was because I was in love with a girl, and the best thing to do is obviously not to tell her how you feel, and just sing her Barbara Dickson songs. I came from a Chess background – we didn’t have a lot of pop music in the house when I was growing up, but we did have Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love doing covers. I once did an evening of James Bond covers. One time I covered the entirety of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet . Another time, I did a whole set of songs about self-pleasure – ‘She Bop’, ‘Turning Japanese’, ‘Beat It’, ‘In the Air Tonight’ and whatnot." (Said Phil Collins emission was backed by uncanny percussionist Captain Geeko the Dead Aviator, a former member of KC’s early-90s bluegrass firebrands the Skuobhie Dubh Orchestra and another frequenter of Aikman’s bar back in the day. Geeko performs on the Darling CD and on djembe throughout KC’s current tour.)

Given your fondness for performing other people’s works, how many King Creosote songs have you covered, Alan?

GB: Um, actually, I don’t think I’ve ever covered a King Creosote song.

KC: Too many bad verse twos.

King Creosote, on the other hand, opens and closes That Might Well Be It, Darling with songs composed by Gummi Bako. The album kicks in with his rabble-rousing anthem ‘Little Man’ and signs off with enduring Fence favourite ‘Going Gone’, a campfire ballad that harks back to the earliest Fence CDR releases, and features myriad voices from throughout Fence’s history – KC, GB, Geeko, Vic Galloway and MC Quake among them.

GB: We didn’t know how to play Darling when we went into the studio – Kenny didn’t let us hear the songs until the night before, and everyone went home early because it was snowing. It’s really weird learning to play the songs live after you’ve recorded the album.

This strikes a chord with King Creosote, who is loading up the oven with Fisher and Donaldson macaroni pies. He straightens up on his good leg to make a point.

KC: My biggest thrill is getting through a song with a band top-to-tail, not knowing how it’s going to go, and you get through it in a way that you never even imagined. That’s the holy grail of playing live. I wanted Darling to sound like that – like we’d just barged in to the studio and faffed our way through it, which we kind of did, and nothing ended up the way we thought it would. Same with this tour – I’ve never been one for rehearsing, I find it contradicts the thing you’re trying to achieve, which is to give people something very unique, every night. Happy accidents, that’s what I want – that’s all I’ve ever really wanted.

"What’s the word for it? Oh yeah: serendipity." He rocks on his crutches.

King Creosote and Gummi Bako tour this month and next, full details here.

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