G’day Gerry! Hope you’re keeping alright with everything going on. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy in lockdown?
“Feeling sorry for myself and doing a bit of gardening for the first time in my life. I’ve been social distancing for years anyway, so nothing much has changed to be honest.”
Are there any records you’re listening to in particular to help you keep sane?
“There’s a few tunes I’ve had on repeat. First, there’s ‘It’s Nothing to Me’ by Sanford Clark. It’s a cover of an older song, and there’s a few versions, but there’s something about his that blows you away. It’s a murder ballad written from the perspective of a barman warning a drunk guy not to go over and annoy another guy’s missus. The drunk guy doesn’t listen and the story develops from there. His dictation is different from the original, even the band hold on certain notes longer than they should, it completely changes the tone of the song and gives it a darker edge. The original is more like an old-timey song. Clark’s version feels like you’re sitting at the bar, witnessing it go down.
“There’s also ‘Yesterday Man’ by Chris Andrews, which is one of the happiest songs ever. It could be released nowadays. Even the video looks like it was shot today to look as if it was shot in the ’60s. If you’re in a shit mood, stick that one on full pelt.
“I’ve also been listening to a lot of John Prine. You’d think it’d make you feel sad, cause he’s not long passed, but it doesn’t. He’s a genius. Also, ‘Some Mutts Can’t Be Muzzled’ by Amyl and the Sniffers. Absolute banger of a tune.”
You’ve just released your second full-length studio album The Bonny. There’s a pretty poignant lyric on it that says ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one / With a six-string gun’ – did you feel an obligation to let your fans enjoy the music instead of delaying it like so many other releases?
“There was never any question about delaying it. I was aware of the supposed downsides of releasing during a worldwide pandemic, especially when the majority of my record sales are CDs and viny,l but a lot of people had pre-ordered it, and I didn’t want to let them down. Folk are up against it the wall now, so I’m not going to add to it by fucking with release dates. I’ve had loads of messages from people saying it’s been a great comfort to them so for me that proves it was the right decision. That’s what it’s all about.”
There’s a few songs on the record that you wrote at a pretty dark period in your life. Is it difficult to write when you’re surrounded by doom and gloom? Do you have any strategies to keep your creativity flowing?
“I don’t sleep very well and whenever things get a bit fucked up I can go days without a kip. Sometimes it can bring out a load of songs when you’re in that headspace. I used to stay up for days then start writing but it’s a dark art and a dangerous practice; and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it.
“When I write I don’t write thinking ‘this is a song for the next album’, or ‘the radio will like this’. I just write what comes out. If it becomes contrived I just bin it. If I keep hearing it in my head or play the same thing every time I pick up the guitar then I know there’s something in it. It’s always a wee game of compromises between dictation and storyline. When I’m writing I never commit to the one idea. I try and juggle a few lines in my head and settle on the one that fits the story best or has the smoothest dictation. Sometimes I imagine the crowd singing it or jumping to it but other than that I try to make it write itself. Everyone’s different but that’s what works for me.
Tell us a bit about the recording of the album. Who was involved in the studio, and how did you find this particular creative experience compared to the recording of your last album?
“It was pretty much the same, to be honest. The first album I recorded most of it in my cellar, two in my mate’s studio and one on my phone. When I started the first one nobody showed me how to do it I just bought an iMac and some cheap mics and tried to figure it all out. Nearly sent me to the loony bin.
“The Bonny wasn’t much different other than the recording gear, all tracked and mixed in my back garden. I built a studio from scratch then went on tour. Came back tracked everything, went on tour again, came back mixed everything, then went on tour again. Managed to get it mastered and out on time with my mind and body semi-intact, so that’s a bit of progress from the first album.”
One thing that really stuck out to me on The Bonny was your acoustic playing – you use it incredibly well as a percussive instrument as opposed to being a melodic instrument. Was there anyone in particular who inspired the way you play guitar?
“Not really. It’s more the movement of the crowd I was chasing. If I’m playing and the crowd aren’t jumping and singing, I see it as a major failure. With my style of playing, the off-beat up strum comes from necessity. I’ve seen enough folk with acoustic guitars getting drowned out by a crowd to know you have to put the graft in to win them over. Especially in the beginning if they don’t know the tunes and you don’t have a band.
“When you go to a gig it’s always a bit awkward. You work all week to spend a bit at the weekend and all you really want is a sing-song and a dance. If the song means something special to you – and the people around you all feel it too – then that’s where the magic happens. That’s all I’ve been chasing from day one. That mad feeling. Couldn’t care less about the rest of it. When you build it up and build it up and the crowd gets louder and louder till they hit the loudest they can go and they all move at the same time something happens. There’s few things in this world get anywhere near it.
“Before I had the stomp pedal I used to just use my knuckles on the guitar in between strums, but it wasn’t good for the guitar or my fingers. I’d come off stage with my hand like a balloon but it was worth it. In the studio, getting that energy onto a record is a tough one. I could’ve made all the records big and powerful and got loads of instrumentation and a full band to match the power of the live set, but it would’ve fucked the balance between the guitar and the vocal. But it’d never captured the crowd element anyway, so I went the other way and stripped them down so they’re almost unfinished.
“The idea is the songs gets finished on stage with the crowd singing it. The crowd are the band. They’re the most important part of the song and its only when you sing a long that it makes sense. That’s the idea anyway. That’s where the right hand style comes from.”
Considering you’re so well known for your live performances, is it a bit of a kick in the guts to not be able to tour behind The Bonny?
“It’s a bit gutting not being able to play the biggest gigs of your life, but shit happens. There’s a lot of people hurting right now. Scared for their family. Trying to keep food on the table. That upsets me more than getting time off and having to wash my hands every five minutes. Just now I’m supposed to be in America playing my first US headline shows and touring with the Dropkick Murphys. Next month I’m meant to be playing castles and stadiums. Whole world’s on pause but what can you do? Fuck it.”
Have you gone live on Instagram yet to give the fans a fix?
“The social media thing I try and keep at arms length. I could do a wee live set tomorrow, but to be honest, I’ve just been waiting for the attention from the album to die down a bit. Not a fan of the drama. See what happens.”
Currently, you’re slated to tour Australia this October for Splendour In The Grass. Can you explain the difference between your sets at festivals compared to traditional shows? Do you approach each show with a different mindset?
“The only difference at festivals is you can’t have all the production with the pyrotechnics and the fireworks, and it’s only when you headline that you get the sun going down half way through the set. But folk are there for the tunes anyway, not the pyro. One thing I like about festivals is you can tell the folk who’ve never been to one of my gigs before looking around wondering what’s happening. I love seeing that.”
You also visited Australia last year with Liam Gallagher, and this year you’ll be playing with him again before he takes the stage for a headlining Reading & Leeds set. Have you managed to forge much of a relationship with him after touring with him? Has he given you any pearls of wisdom about the music industry?
“In Cork Liam and Bonehead (Oasis guitarist) told me a few things that helped square a lot of stuff in my head. They said some very kind things about me as well that I’ll never forget and the feeling’s mutual. They came from nothing and did it all, and they’re still doing it. Living legends. Everyone’s got an opinion on them, but if you don’t respect what they’ve done over the years then I don’t know what to say to you.”
Finally – you’re known as a bit of a master of Scottish slang in your songwriting. Do you have a favourite bit of Australian slang?
“Aussies have all sorts of decent sayings! ‘Sweet as’ – I heard a load of folk saying that last time I was over. ‘She’ll be alright’, as well: there’s something genuine about it when you hear it in an Aussie accent.
“Lagger is good too. Growing up, Prisoner Cell Block H was primetime in our house. Mad Bea Smith was always throwing folk about for grassing calling them a “lagger’. Love Prisoner. One of the best theme tunes ever written as well. Iconic.
“I also like the way Australians say cunt. If you use that word in America look at you like you’re mental but in Scotland and Australia it’s got a different meaning. There’s only a few places in the world where getting called a ‘great cunt’ is one of highest compliments you can get.”