The Sunday Tribune spoke to contributor James Kerr about releasing that ‘difficult’ second album after a lifetime obsessed with pop culture. It’s a story of DIY success, rhythm guitar, organic electric ukelele and vintage toys.
TST: You’re the songwriter and lead vocalist of Snakeskin Shoe Review. But clearly there’s a great team vibe happening here with lots of contributions from your fellows. Who else is in the group and what are their contributions to the sound and the songs?
JK: The group has an unusual history. I ran a club which was a bit like a cross between a book group and an open night based around music. Since a good few people were playing songs at each meeting in-among the chat the thinking was we should do a little show. I asked who at this table wants to be in the music club band, some hands went up and that was the group formed. There have been a couple of substitutions along the way but the band is still drawn more or less from that same pool. On this album Rodger Moffet plays lead guitar and bass, Stevie Dunn plays rhythm guitar and makes a strange wheezing sound with his mouth, Louise Ware, Helen Morrison and Gemma Pepper all sing wonderful lead or backing, Peter Ware does the keyboards and production. I do play guitar and a bit of bass but only for writing purposes unless there is no alternative. When gigging we call on whoever is available from our extended collective to handle bass and drums, and very recently bought a saxophone player into the mix. In this band you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. For the most part I present the songs fully formed in terms of lyric, structure and feel, and the band improve these a hundredfold filling in the arrangements and solos by mutual consent, all being very intuitive and creative. Sometimes I ask for a specific sound using pop shorthand and other times the songs left most blank evolve into something beyond what I could have imagined – Rodger’s oceanic electric ukulele in Wide Sargasso Sea, say. Stevie and I also write together in the old fashioned Lennon/McCartney style face to face ihrowing out lines and melodies at each other. Stevie has one solo writing credit on both albums, he doubles as our George Harrison as well.
TST: These songs are romantic pop influenced by the Beatles, 1980s pop and a little jazz. What other influences would you claim for this album?
JK: There is a great line by Lawrence from the Denim song “The Osmonds” – “In the seventies I was just a kid/still knew what it was all about/I soaked it in and now it’s all dripping out” which pretty much about covers it. I love pop music and I have done since I was old enough to remember. Not just the seventies, all of it, everything.
TST: Looking back at the project how much would you say there’s an overarching element tying the songs together? What themes were on your mind? It seems like you’re looking back at your own life in pop culture. Do you think that’s fair?
JK: Yes, exactly. I started writing songs again after a twenty five year gap about ten years ago and deliberately set out to write songs of experience, by which I mean about everything and anything I had come into contact with and all the light and shade that contains. This was a reaction to a kind of ubiquitous style of misery songwriting that has become particularly prevalent in central Scotland. Yes, unrequited love is painful, yes, your life may be so bleak that all you can do is get drunk and lament your own disintegration, I suppose, but every situation, every emotion, every memory, has within it the capacity for farce, for humility, for perspective and that is what I wanted to introduce.
TST: Songs here are character studies, reminding me of Paul McCartney’s songwriting, Eleanor Rigby, She’s Leaving Home, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. But there’s an extra level of analyis. Clothes, books, art choices are read as telling details of the subject’s personality in Porn Shoes, which reminds me a little more of John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood. Do you think our lives are a sum of our possessions?
JK: Ah now, Porn Shoes is Stevie on his own. That was an older song of his that we were very keen to get a good recording of. It’s a bit of a masterpiece, he has a great eye for the minutiae of miscommunication between the sexes. It fits in with the others seamlessly. It’s murder trying to get him to write, and I wish he would do more but he’s so lazy he probably won’t even read this far in the interview. I think we are always more than the sum of our possessions, but some people invest more in their books, music and film than others, and use these as a code, a proxy, for a certain security.
TST: I know you yourself are a passionate collector of retro books and intriguing objects. Could you tell me about some of your particular treasures?
JK: I do have various large collections – falling exactly into the category described above. Certain comics from 1974, say, can transport me back to the beach I read them on at that time, and then by extrapolation back into the car that drove me back to the house I lived in with all the sights and smells and incomprehension that waited there. I’m not only interested in looking backwards, but it is difficult not to take something designed to be completely ephemeral – the beautifully illustrated and constructed packaging of an equally beautifully designed mass market Corgi James Bond Aston Martin toy from 1965, for example, an amusement for 8 year old boys manufactured with aesthetic qualities that now take the breath away – and not feel that we have gone substantially wrong somewhere in the interim. The album is called Futurists – is this really the future we were calling out for?
TST: Can I commend you on the lyrics for this album, the intriguing use of form and rhyme, which never feels false if at times it gets clunky. Clunky is not necessarily a bad attribute in my experience. It’s a little like reading a good short story to listen to one of your songs, but with extra enjoyment from the musical elements. What short story songs do you admire from pop culture?
JK: Thank you for that, I am very lucky in my lyric writing because of the way my brain works, it is almost like automatic writing most of the time, the songs suddenly appear fully formed, I don’t like to think about it too much in case I spoil it. Let me be very clear that in mentioning any influences in this chat I do not in any sense mean to suggest we are on any kind of level with them. Eleanor Rigby you have already identified. Ray Davies songs like Two Sisters, Big Black Smoke, the whole of the Face to Face album, one of the LPs I heard. Babies by Pulp. Paul McCartney’s 70s bubblegum version of cut up lyrics, Jet, Junior’s Farm. The Hold Steady throw in sudden bits of conversation into lyrics like Sequestered in Memphis or Killer Parties, that was interesting. In a wider sense Lloyd Cole, Momus, Joni Mitchell, Smog, had no qualms about using a literary forms in pop songwriting without any need to write down to their audience.
TST: What do you think the role is of pop DIY such as this? Is it for the maker or the audience, or somewhere in between? How does it get shared in the internet world we live in?
JK: The answer must be different for everyone making it. For us, it seems miraculous that we have got it together to come up with a load of spiky songs which sound as good as we can possibly make them. The tracks seem to stand up, they have some magic. We get the CDs duplicated, Rodger comes up with superb artwork, and we sold about 150 of the first one. I like bringing something physical into existence and admire anyone who does this. But you can’t ever lose sight of the fact that this is a load of pals with some microphones in front rooms and sheds. In terms of exposure or wider play/gigs we can’t get arrested. Blogs, BBC, all new pop media, do not want a band of mainly old men and I can’t blame them, everyone is in a band, there is not exactly a shortage. Spotify etc is very democratic, being able to put the music right on to those platforms is very enjoyable. Someone must be listening, we got paid for the streams of the first album.
TST: Finally what are your ambitions for this album now it’s out in the wild world?
JK: I would like it to be heard by people that I don’t know and people that I do know. Sometimes it can be as tricky to achieve the latter as the former. My ambition for many years was to make a CD before I was fifty, now I am on to the second one and I’m still 51. I’m happy.
THE FUTURISTS by Snakeskin Shoe Review on Spotify