Broken Records Interview – Three Chords, A Lyric, A Cello And A Violin

Siobhán Kane interviews Jamie Sutherland of Broken Records who play Crawdaddy on Tuesday 1st February. We’ve some tickets for the gig to give away, so read on for details. 

The idea behind Broken Records was to evolve a ”big sound”, and over the past few years, they have achieved this through first, expanding to a seven-piece; producing two vibrant records on 4AD Until the Earth Begins to Part (2008) and Let Me Come Home (2010), and secondly through becoming a really exciting live proposition. Sometimes Sutherland’s vocal wavers between a falsetto and a gutteral baritone,which only adds to the furious energy of their sound, featuring an array of instruments (accordion, violin and cello), and musical touchstones such as indie and eastern European folk. There is an immensity to their sound, presenting often gloomy themes with a lightness of touch, which makes sense, considering they hail from the mysterious, gothic city of Edinburgh. The beauty at the moment is in their potential; it will be really interesting to see where next they take their sound and vision, Siobhán Kane talks to Jamie Sutherland of Broken Records.

You started off as a three piece, and then added the rest of the band later, did it become quickly apparent to you that the fuller sound or specific sound you wanted could really be achieved through seven people?
When we started the band, I was just bored of playing the guitar, so we started mucking about with ukuleles and mandolins, I really am not all that interested in folk music, though that sounds a bit extreme, but I liked how bands like REM often used what would be seen as more traditional folk instruments to make rock and pop songs. I remember a quote from Tom Waits in his mid-’70’s period where he was playing the piano a lot, he said that after a while his hands kept going to the same places, and he would hear a trombone with every song. I know that feeling, when you get to that stage, you need to make it different, composing on a mandolin is refreshing. So I started doing all of that, and then of course got tired of that and got excited by the guitar all over again on the last record, but I can’t even really play the guitar to be honest with you [laughs]. I have always liked the DIY punk rock ethic and often think of Lou Reed saying that all you need are three chords and a lyric and you turn it up. I see the purpose in musical theory, and evaluating the shit out of it, but musical theory is just algebra to me and I hate maths, so if it takes me half an hour to get to a G to a D to a C but someone else can tell me how to get there in seconds, it takes away a bit of the joy for me, but I think of that PJ Harvey record White Chalk, it is my favourite record of hers, and she had never really played the piano before and you can tell that in the playing, but all you need is the instrument to make a noise that you can sing with. That’s how it works with us, we have all these instruments, then I bash away until there is something pleasing to the ear, then the others make it more structured.

Part of the power of the band is in how you translate the multi-layered sound live, as you are all multi-instrumentalists, often swapping instruments on stage.
My favourite bands have always been able to translate that full sound live, I saw Spiritualized at Glastonbury and they had a forty piece gospel choir, and I thought it was amazing, and I wanted to do that, then Mercury Rev, Springsteen and the E Street Band – I like a big sound, not just for the sake of it, I find it exciting, that layered Phil Spector kind of thing, like that John Lennon record he did – it’s always appealed to me. At the other end of the spectrum, I am desperate to start a three piece, Nirvana are pretty much my favourite band, and it’s bass, drums, guitar and three chords really, I like the simplicity of that, but I find when I do stuff, and then take it to the practice room, that simplicity is unsatisfying to my ear.

I know you admire collectives like Fence and Saddle Creek – how influential have those collectives been to you?
Ian and I, and even though we didn’t know them at the time – Dave and Andy, all went up to study at St. Andrews University. One of the first people I met was Johnny Lynch who does a lot of the Fence Collective stuff, and Ian and I were in different bands and in different guises ended up playing some gigs with Kenny [Anderson] /King Creosote, I wouldn’t claim to know him very well, but we had been floating around the same kind of things for a while, and still do. I think what they do is fantastic, I think Kenny is a fantastic songwriter. And then there’s Saddle Creek – when we started out, I thought because I already had a means of recording, I would record other bands and put out their records, then hopefully get them to play on my records and then get a de facto band together, just as they did and do [laughs]. Ian was putting on these open mic nights, then Rory came down and we picked up other people along the way, and suddenly there was a seven piece band, it happened very naturally, it feels like a group of mates, which is good if you are going to do this, as you need to feel comfortable around the people you are in a band with and we have gone through enough together at this stage.

I remember reading that you were inspired for your second album through many films you had become obsessed with, such as Badlands, and East of Eden – can you explain a little as to what it is about those films that lit a spark within you?
Our music, in some ways has deliberately tried to be as cinematic as possible, I like the lyrics to be like stage notes, to put a picture in your head, so the visual side of it has always been the way of trying to write the music. I love my movies, and it was in February last year, my old flatmate used to have this Sky Box that just showed endless movies, and I was unemployed at the time, so I was just watching these films. There were lots of ’70’s grand,sweeping films, nuanced but kind of empty at the core, but subtle. Films like Badlands tied in to Springsteen, as I had been listening to Nebraska, and I started thinking about the Calexico record, and then Nick Cave and the Murder Ballads which is all very cinematic, like Stagger Lee, you can see that in your head, I like that aspect. In terms of East of Eden – I have a fascination with James Dean generally and actors like Marlon Brando, these iconic, highly stylised things play on my imagination a lot, it takes my head to places where I feel I want to make music about it. When I listen to White Chalk I want to pick up the guitar and play, as it clears out all the convoluted ideas. So all of those movies did that in different ways for me and it was refreshing and inspiring to me at that time.

It’s like something like Rumblefish and the Mickey Rourke character, I watch it and am in awe of him, and it made me think of all that I wanted to be when I was eighteen or nineteen and it started coming back to me. It is a bad idea to think full stop, but I started thinking, ‘could I still be all those things I wanted to be when I was that age now, could I be those things later, at thirty-eight? Could I be someone who could support someone else? Feasibly have kids? Or all this other stuff, outside of music, another life?’ So much thinking led up to the gestation of the records; too much thinking, not enough action.

How far do you think your records and lyrics are about obsessiveness, the little facts you fall in love with about things, and so on?
I really struggle to write lyrics, I don’t feel I am any good at it. I could never do a Frightened Rabbit, I don’t feel as if I could ever be that open on a record, I struggle with it, as I think that is what people want, I wouldn’t write an album dedicated to losing my girlfriend, probably because my Mum and Dad are quite stoical, but I don’t feel I could be able to do that on record, but maybe at some point, who knows?

In some ways do you think creating work gives a sense of security? Is that something you really strive for, or felt you were striving for throughout the process of making this record?
I remember going to see Beirut at the Picture House at the Edinburgh Festival last year, it was a great gig and I remember watching it and thinking about how much fun it looks; to be able to do it every night, take yourself even out of the century you are living in, he can do that every night on stage, from 1930’s Romania or 1870’s Zagreb or whatever, it has that transporting effect, how nice to forget about everything for a night. To a certain extent with a record you can also do that, then shape it and when it comes to live performances – do it all over again, so a lot of this record was dedicated to overthinking things, but it acts as a catharsis, and a little reminder that you have to get on with it, it’s good to be able to do that on stage, to man up [laughs].

4AD seems like a really good fit for you, how did that relationship come about?
Roger [Trust], our A & R man had come to see us a couple of years back, and we were in talks with a lot of labels and were dithering because you want to try and sort out the best possible deal for yourself, but the best deal monetarily might not be the best deal for the band. 4AD seemed eminently sensible in their decision-making, it is a smaller label, I love them, and I suppose there is a reflected credibility for the band – we prefer the label’s slightly leftfield leanings, meaning when we want to produce something a little different again – a twenty minute piece dedicated on triangle or something [laughs], we can do it.

Vaughan Oliver has done some really interesting artwork for bands such as This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins, you must have been delighted with his artwork for your record, did you work closely with him?
Roger is a great guy, we are very friendly with him and have a huge amount of affection for him, probably more than you should in a business relationship. When he was trying to sign us, he would drive up and see us in Manchester or wherever and drive back to London, to see us on a support slot – he really loves the band, and when you are a bit down, he is very enthusiastic and our experience of the music industry has been a good one, because 4AD are so good and have treated us very well, and they got us talking with Vaughan Oliver. Rory, my brother, is the more arty one, and did the cover this time around, and because we love the label, and all loved the Red House Painters and Pixies artwork – iconic 4AD stuff, we kind of thought that because this record could be our last, the way the industry works now, for posterity’s sake, it would be great to get something in the 4AD lineage – their history and tradition. Rory started speaking to Vaughan on a regular basis, and spent some time with him, and they got on like a house on fire, and we were all so delighted that it ended up as it did.

In terms of your voice you can go from a falsetto to a baritone in a heartbeat, did you always know that you could push your voice that way?
I am still going through an extended period of puberty [laughs]. The lads slag me off for it constantly. The more I keep singing, the more my voice keeps dropping, when you use it a lot, it changes. I hadn’t done an awful lot of singing, I was having some anxiety issues before we would do some shows as I kept losing my voice, and it was flitting around all over the place, but as I get a bit older I am enjoying singing a bit lower, the bottom end of my voice is a bit richer than it used to be. I have never really had any lessons with it, and I am trying to work out myself what it actually does, it is still settling, I have no idea where it is going to go yet, but it certainly feels like it is mellowing a bit.

Scotland is such an interesting country, from the grimy beauty of Glasgow to the swirling mystery of the highlands, and the gothic richness of Edinburgh, do you find it a muse of sorts? The voices, the history – that there is a sense of the tribal in Scotland?
I hate it most of the time [laughs], no I’m joking, I wear tartan every day [laughs]. Scotland is a funny old place, it will build you up to a certain extent, then look to kneecap you at the first opportunity, I find it a curious place. Edinburgh I love, I have lived here for most of my life, it is nice to walk around and look up and see something new every time, it’s stunning – but I personally feel I am ready for something new now, my Dad comes from Buckie in the north of Scotland, so we spend a lot of time up there, you have a big drive through the pass and then the landscape suddenly opens in front of you, and I am sure that manifests its way in music for me, it isn’t always a conscious thing. With Sigur Ros, you really hear the landscape in their music, but I am not sure what comes out of the music in terms of Edinburgh for me; it’s inspiring, but at the moment I am desperate to leave it. I am huge fan of Dublin actually, everyone is really friendly, the only drawback is the price of beer, no wonder the world economy is as it is with Guinness being so expensive [laughs]

What other bands have you been listening to?
In Edinburgh there are a lots of good bands like Eagleowl, and further afield I have been listening nonstop to the Titus Andronicus record, I avoid buying into the whole hyperbolic Pitchforky band thing, though I have been listening to No Age a lot recently, and I think they are interesting, I haven’t got around to listening to the new Kanye West record, and I must – it has got such across-the-board good reviews. He is like the new Michael Jackson.


Broken Records play Crawdaddy on Tuesday 1st February. If you’d like a pair of tickets just send an email to [email protected] with BROKENRECORDSTICSPLEASE as the subject & including both your thumped user name & your real name by midnight tonight.

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