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Idlewild interview: you got on the stage and you knew you were getting bottled
Scottish indie rockers Idlewild are returning to their spiritual home of the Highlands to headline the Brew at the Bog festival - guitarist Rod Jones tells Jamie Bowman about how they've survived 20 years of gigging
Last updated: 6th Apr 2016. Originally published: 5th Apr 2016
If you frequented the UK's gig circuit at the turn of the millennium, there's a good chance you would have caught a glimpse of Idlewild's front man Roddy Woomble flailing away at his guitar as he brought the sound of American underground rock to a post-Britpop world.
Since the commercial heyday of albums like 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part, Idlewild have taken a quieter path, embracing their Scottish routes with a succession of folkier more pastoral records, epitomised by the band's comeback set 2015's Everything Ever Written.
Hugely influenced by the band's relationship with the Highlands of Scotland (Woomble now calls the Isle of Mull home), it's pretty apt that Idlewild have been announced as headliners at this year's Brew at the Bog festival taking place at Bogbain Farm in Inverness between Friday 3rd June and Saturday 4th June.
2016 sees the band release their first live album and working on a new collection of songs which will be recorded in California in May. We settled down for a chat with guitarist and founder member Rod Jones about a band whose loyal fan base and fearsome live reputation have seen them survive and prosper for over 20 years.
It's always felt like it's live where Idlewild have really come into their own so why's it taken so long to capture that on record?
We've essentially put together a new band with two members and there's a different way now of presenting the old songs. The recent gigs have been really well received and I'm pretty sure this is the best the band has ever been live so we wanted to try and document that. It was really the first time we've felt that confident - we've always had a reputation for energetic, sometimes frantic and even chaotic live shows but that doesn't necessarily transfer that well onto recordings.
How did you go about picking the material?
We recorded ten shows and then sifted through them to find the best versions. It was fairly painful at times because gigs you thought were really good ended up being full of mistakes made in then heat of the moment. I'm not sure I want to spend so much time listening to my own band again. We learned a lot from it though and the finished product is really good. There are some interesting arrangements of older songs and it captures the band. This version of the band is the best we've ever been live. (watch 2015's 'Every Little Means Trust' below)
How have Idlewild changed as a live band over the years? Both yourself and Roddy have released solo records and played more acoustic music so has that had an influence on the band's sound?
Myself and Roddy have both played solo shows and it was a great experience and something we'll probably do again. I did wonder what it would be like getting in front of that crowd again but almost instantaneously you almost lose control of yourself which is maybe not great for someone who is touching 40 like me. There is a bit more control now from when were 19 or 20 in front of a big noisy crowd but you do embrace the chaos a bit.
At the end of the day we were a punk band and we were much more reliant on noise and energy than we were on technical ability. That separated the records and the live shows in a very positive way - now we record quickly and it's all about a very finite time in our lives.
When you go back and play those songs you've just finished in front of people you think maybe we should try it this way or that way and you end up with a more refined version of the song. You almost end up improving it as you go and it takes on a new life - that was certainly the case with a lot of the new songs which I think have improved. They always had an energy and life about them but what we try and do now is take the songs we're going to play and make them relevant to our lives now.
I'm a big fan of a lot bands from the sixties and seventies like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Grateful Dead who put out live albums and though I don't think we'll be a band who will become reliant on live albums it's something we're capable of.
With the changes in the record industry a band like Idlewild who've always been perceived as a live band have still been able to have a career. You must be pretty thankful you put in so much legwork on the road?
We always had a live ethos and we did things the old fashioned way which was to build our fan base which is something a lot of bands didn't do at the time. Back then if you could get on Jools Holland or Top of the Pops that was what counted far more than radio play or playing live. We weren't really a band who were right for that at the time so we'd just go and play in the same city again and again and tour relentlessly. Americans bands always had that perception of being a lot tighter than UK bands because of how much they played and I think we got to that level by touring relentlessly.
It built our fan base and built a different type of fan base. If you build it like that people grow up with the band and they feel connected to it and it sticks in the memory. Record sales came and went with the rise of the internet and sharing but it never really affected us because we were on a major label and never really saw any money anyway because they always keep the band on debt. If you're a new band now you need to really think about how you're going to make a living from music and playing live is where you're going to make your money.
In a way though you were part of that last generation of bands to enjoy the good times when a guitar band could sell records and be supported by a major labels. Things changed pretty quickly didn't they?
It was an experience that a lot of bands don't get these days and I'm grateful we had it. People are quick to criticise major labels and think they can do it themselves but there were a lot of positives to it too - we wouldn't have got where we did without that support.
I agree we were almost the last generation of bands that got all that. Because of that fan base we can still go over to America and play and not lose money. You have to streamline now and think about where your fans are and a be very internet savvy. You're online every day and there's a lot more involvement in being a band but the positive is that you are actually more involved - your message is stronger and more cohesive because you're doing it yourself.
It's easy to forget that as a band you did have hits though - 2002's The Remote Part and 2005's Warning / Promises both got into the top ten and 'You Held The World In Your Arms' was all over the radio. And then your last album Everything Ever Written went top 20 in 2015.
Getting in the top ten doesn't mean as much to us any more but it's something that happened and it's still an achievement. It was a nice pat on the back but the important thing is our live fan base. We never really thought about being on the radio but we were influenced by bands like The Smiths and how they thought about writing pop songs. We've tried lots of approaches to writing songs and that was one of them.
We've been a band that have wanted to be known as an albums band and make that cohesive piece of work and certainly in the last five years an album is a less relevant thing for young people. What's great now though is that there are a smaller group of fans that are more engaged by an album and you can see that in the rise again of vinyl. You have to listen to a vinyl record because you're not just going to get up every three minutes and change the song. It's a better way to listen to music and you get a bigger picture of the band.
The downside is you don't get crossover bands because you're preaching to the converted - you know when you've made an album that's for 6Music not Radio One so you're playing it to people who will listen to it anyway. (watch Idlewild play 'American English' live in 2016 below)
Tell us about headlining the Brew at the Bog festival. The Highlands seems to be somewhere that means a lot
We've spent a lot of time writing in the Highlands and we've got a really good relationship with the area. It's a place that holds a fair bit of significance for our music as early on we decided to do a Highlands and Islands tour which I don't think had been done since Echo and Bunnymen did it in the '80s. Ever since we did that we've had a loyal fan base up there.
It's a very different crowd - at the time you were just the entertainment and it didn't matter if you were the Rolling Stones or some local guy with a guitar. There was no swaggering around or airs and graces - you basically got on the stage and you knew you were going to get bottled. There's a genuine appreciation and it's a really gratifying place to play.