Kenny’s Loggin’ The Past: King Creosote’s Scots’ History Soundtrack

As part of the cultural programme around the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, King Creosote has soundtracked archive footage of Scottish people at work and play. He discusses the project, resulting new album From Scotland With Love, life, death and identity with Nicola Meighan

We should have listened to the shipping forecast.

That way, we’d have known that there was nary a chance of us setting sail on the boat that King Creosote built. All those glamorous dreams of riding the high seas – of reanimating Duran Duran’s cocktail-yacht ‘Rio’ video, Fife-style – washed up on a dreich afternoon. And all of my literary conceits – my plans for allying King Creosote’s DIY ethos with his seafaring idiom and hand-restored trawler; not to mention those inevitable ‘rocking the boat’ puns – all righteously pissed on.

And so we just stand there, by Anstruther harbour, in the hammering rain until it blinds us. In lieu of a nautical-pop excursion, King Creosote steers us into the nearest pub.

We talk and meander our way round the coast – from our port in a storm, through farmland to St Andrews (where KC, aka Kenny Anderson, grew up), via his turreted home in the fishing town of Crail (his washing drying in the kitchen; his outhouse full of DIY pop artefacts), and across the Silvery Tay to Dundee, the area’s industrial capital. All the while, we discuss From Scotland With Love, Anderson’s exquisite new album. It soundtracks and narrates a same-titled film of Scottish archive footage, directed by Virginia Heath: a 20th Century people’s story, and celebration of our collective memory, that explores love and loss, emigration and war, work and play, life and death, and landscapes both real and imagined. It’s part of Glasgow’s 2014 Cultural Programme.

A few myths to kiss-off before we begin: From Scotland With Love is not the follow-up to Diamond Mine, King Creosote’s 2011 Mercury-nominated collaboration with Jon Hopkins. KC has released at least two long-players (Sure And Steadfast; 3 On This Island), one collaborative album (Experimental Batch #26), a 10-inch (Analogue Catalogue) and a seven-inch EP (JOKES) since its release, and he has several more LPs in the bag. (Rumours of his LP back-catalogue numbering 60 fall short of the mark.) Nor is this the spiritual sequel to Diamond Mine. The former was a meticulous seven-plus year endeavour; From Scotland With Love, by contrast, was written and recorded in a matter of weeks, in the autumn of 2013.

And yet. From Scotland With Love opens with a sublime, abstract eulogy (‘Something To Believe In’), which echoes Diamond Mine, and the new album’s stunning arrangements (in cahoots with music designer David McAuley, producer Paul Savage and The Leg’s Pete Harvey) are similarly magical – as are the film’s visual and musical narratives, thanks to the symbiotic collaboration between Anderson and Heath. And although From Scotland With Love largely features brand new material, the album, like Diamond Mine, goes back in time; excavates the King Creosote songbook; breathes new life into forgotten songs (‘One Floor Down’ was part-written in 1988; ‘Something To Believe In’ was originally 2001’s ‘A Prairie Tale’).

Last time we spoke for The Quietus, Anderson was one leg down thanks to a boat-building accident, and struggling to uphold fence, the DIY label and collective he has loosely corralled for 20 years. Everything is mended now and looking lively: still standing, well-loved and weathering storms. Creosote is as Creosote does.

King Creosote is shaking the rain off, nursing a pint, paraphrasing Sam Cooke.

King Creosote: I don’t know that much about history. I don’t know that much about humanity. A lot of people have asked me if I felt a weight of responsibility to give the people in this film a voice, but I never wanted that. I can’t be responsible for them – I don’t even have any responsibility for myself. [Laughs]

And yet, I am their voice. And I’ll tell you what, I got a handle on something pretty fast: these people aren’t in the past – they’re in the present. We’re in their future. If you believe in this film, I’m sort of the voice from the future, or maybe the one in the middle. Imagine us now, with someone in 100 years looking back on this scene, on us sitting here, and trying to work out what was all going on.

They would see a man and woman in a bar, drinking in the afternoon, her with a wedding ring, him with a photo of his newborn baby on his phone. Between them are 12" records, a bag-full, no less – Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, Big Country, Pet Shop Boys and more. If they could read the jukebox, they would see that it is playing ‘King Of The Road’.

KC: I think it would be a bit of a presumption to think that they could tell everything about us from that snapshot, because that suggests the snapshot somehow takes away your inner thoughts.

A bit like that idea of photographs stealing your soul?

KC: Well I certainly think it would be really patronising to discount what’s going on in their heads; to say that it’s only now that we have these urges; it’s only now that work is in essence tedious; it’s only now we have the imagination to think these things. That’s bullshit. So I don’t know what was going on in that footage – how can I? And yet, in a way, that was kind of my brief: to bring these people back to life.

And then you have to think of that going forward: who are our voices? At one point, From Scotland With Love won’t only be seen as archive footage – this film, this record, will be historical too, and we’ll all be dead. What will people make of us? What will they make of this? It’s a bit like having a kid – you realise it’s not all about you any more. Suddenly, you’re the middle generation and your parents are going off the end. Then the next stage is really being a grandparent, and you’re the one at the end.

“Ding dong goes the castle bell, so fare thee well my mother. Bury me in the old church yard beside my only brother. The coffin shall be black, six white angels at my back – two to sing, two to pray, two to carry my soul away" (‘Bluebell, Cockleshell, 123’)

I guess death is a part of the natural landscape in a film of archive footage like this…

KC: Yeah, and the reason I chose the coffin and brought death into a child’s thing for ‘Bluebell, Cockleshell’ was because the kids in the footage will probably be dead by now, or not far off it. So then I’m almost one of the angels – not that I think I’m godly in any way, I don’t mean that at all – but I am one of their voices.

“I hear the songs my father sang. I have but half the voice he had" (‘Leaf Piece’)

KC: My dad’s in this album a lot. There are a lot of songs on it that have little jokes in them for me, or for my dad. It’s a gift to get to say that shit, and not be embarrassed by it – like to get the ‘haud your wheesht’ thing in [hold your tongue] – ‘my wheesht is haud’. And ‘leaf piece’, that comes from my mum, that’s what she always called it – ‘don’t forget your leaf piece!’ It’s a bag of crisps, or an apple, or a cheese piece [sandwich]. It was a big thing, it was the first break in the day when you were doing the tatties [schoolchildren in Fife and Dundee were traditionally sent out to harvest the potato fields]. You couldn’t wait to get your leaf piece. I think it’s maybe meant to be ‘leave piece’ originally – I wonder if it got Anderson-ised.

Other than having done the tatties, I don’t really know anything about farming, so I had to write a farming song, ‘Leaf Piece’, from that perspective. You only ever have what you’ve experienced. And I know how I got through back-breaking tattie work – you just look forward to your piece time, then lunchtime; it’s what girl you’ve had your eye on, it’s who you’re going to throw tatties at. So it’s back to having that blind faith that the people in the footage had to have been thinking about something else too, just for sanity’s sake, and writing from there.

I also wondered if ‘Leaf Piece’ resonated with the name of your boat, the Rose Leaf – that idea of working all your life for something; saving up for a boat, or a bit of a boat, or a cruise – as a means of escapism.

KC: I’d actually never thought about that. But yeah, of course, the Leaf. Also, at the time the film footage was shot, we know that the son’s life pretty much matched the dad’s, and the dad’s life matched the granddad’s. So the wee boys in that footage are looking at the dads, thinking, ‘that’s my life’, as their own dads did. It’s that acceptance, that sense of making the most of it. We don’t really have that now. You’re not going to leave school and do what your dad did.

You did though. In pubs round here, people refer to you as Billy Anderson’s son. He’s their ceilidh showman, he’s the celebrity; you’re his boy. You’ve showed me his records, told me about your memories of him touring in America when you were growing up. You did kind of follow in his footsteps.

KC: That’s true, but it wasn’t a given. He didn’t go, ‘here’s the family business’. But yeah, it does have that. And the other thing is, I was born in 1967, just when colour TV was coming in – I could be a kid in some of that footage – and now I am my dad, or what I remember my dad being when I needed him in that dad role. I even do the same things, and say the same things. It’s almost like something inside makes you that way.

You’ve been restoring the Rose Leaf with the local boats club for a few years now – are you a fisherman at heart?

KC: Well I have to say, in my head, I had this romantic notion of doing some quite safe man-skills on sunny windswept days on a pier, maybe with a tin of varnish. [Laughs] But yeah, it’s also that I’m part of that fishing tradition, I’m a direct descendent of these people, that was their lives. It didn’t seem right to live right here, by the sea, in Crail, and not to have any connection to that. And I love hearing stories from the old guys in the boats club. It’s that thing of realising a sense of who you are.

For all the footage of hard graft in the film – farmers, fisher-wives, factory-workers – there’s also a good deal of smiling, laughter, affection and what looks like fun. The seaside holiday capers that accompany the skiffle-pop of ‘Largs’ are a joy, and there’s a shift toward decadence in the clip for motorik-folk chant ‘For One Night Only’.

“Now it’s the weekend, we’re spending our money, Wayne is appearing for one night only" (For One Night Only)

KC: I sometimes forget it’s called ‘For One Night Only’ – it was originally called ‘Fighting and Shagging’. I found that one really hard to write. I knew we needed this upbeat, going-out song, but I can’t do that. You know that I don’t do fun, Nicola. [Laughs] I can’t write from that. And any time I’ve tried it in the past, it sounds really false. So I was totally struggling. Until I hit on the drunk Ziggy character.

[Journalistic discretion prevents further speculation as to whether FOUND’s Scottish art-pop genius Ziggy ‘Lomond’ Campbell does or does not have a prodigiously drunken alter-ego, known and loved as ‘Wayne’.]

KC: I’m sure people go out a lot more now than they used to. Even my gran’s generation, they’d have a sherry at New Year and that would be it. So I was thinking, big nights out must have been few and far between, and when you did go out, there would be no holding back. If your drunk character – because everyone’s got one – could only come out once a year, it would be hugely exaggerated. And you’ve got dangerous jobs. Pressures at home. Passions kept at bay. If you’ve skimped and saved all year, the pressure on having a good night but must have been huge. What a release. Absolute carnage. So then I was looking at the footage going, where are the Waynes? Because they are in there. It was just a case of trying to identify them; coming up with their stories.

The film has some lovely internal narratives, with the ‘For One Night Only’ scene being a case in point: it shows men and (notably) women working – making stockings, whisky bottles, light-bulbs – and then reaping the pleasures of their toil: pulling on their nylons, drinking, flirting under neon-signs…

KC: Yeah, with ‘For One Night Only’, Virginia brings in the work element upfront, to remind you that the night out has been earned, by men and by women. There’s a few places where she’s really surprised me in her take on what to use. She’s somehow shuffled the footage up like a deck of cards, and then dealt aces all the way – and it’s like, fucking hell. Full house.

“You’ve got to rise above the gutter you are inside" – Pauper’s Dough.

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Some of Virginia’s film footage has also re-contextualised fairly canonical King Creosote songs, maybe even changed their meanings. ‘Favourite Girl’ is a song for your first daughter that all of us now make our own; ‘678’ has a new life in the reprise of ‘Miserable Strangers’; and the chorus from ‘Pauper’s Dough’, which evolved from 2000’s ‘Harper’s Dough’, has become a protest song. That’s something you’ve not really written before.

KC: Yeah, the original sentiment I had for ‘Harper’s Dough’ was really personal – it was just, you know, can you not pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It was never a protest song, but now it is. It’s one of the most powerful bits in the film. And of course, you can make these big sweeping sentiments – Bono does it all the time – but I don’t. That’s one sentiment that’s gone right through the binoculars in the film. Before it was about how I felt like the worst person ever and had to do something about myself; now it’s about changing the world. Wow. And I can’t take credit for that, that’s down to Virginia – the footage she used and gave me to write from.

“We’ll fight for what is right, and we’ll strike for what is rightfully ours. And I want better for my boy; to bury my father in dry, consecrated ground" (‘Pauper’s Dough’)

There’s something timeless – and maybe even placeless – about the film. It’s all about, and focused on, people. Its themes of love, loss, work and protest are as familiar now as they ever were. ‘Pauper’s Dough’ is still as resonant. The landscape’s still the same, in many ways.

KC: This is a key thing for me. I know that whole film is people in Scotland, that it’s all Scottish archive footage, and that the backdrop is Scotland – but I worry about that a bit, because I think we’ve got as much right in Scotland to comment on art, and life, from everywhere else. And in many ways, the film and music’s not about Scotland – it’s about any industrialised nation. None of the details, none of the social fabric, is inherently Scottish at all. In my small life, I’ve travelled everywhere, and it’s the same wherever you go.

We drink up and head for home. In 100 years, perhaps they’ll watch us, captured on old CCTV footage, as we say goodbye at the high-rise car park they built on the ghost(s) of a Dundee promenade. Maybe they’ll recognise the man as his father’s son, or his daughters’ dad, or the DIY time-traveller who brought their ancestors back to life. Maybe they will sing his songs. I hope they can still hear his voice.

From Scotland with Love is out now via Domino on CD, LP, 2xLP, digital and DVD. King Creosote plays live with the film at Glasgow Green (July 31) and London Barbican (September 27). You can watch the film on BBC iPlayer now. Head over to the Fence website while you’re at it

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