Errors‘ Stephen “Steev” Livingstone talks Glasgow, Mogwai and shit TV with thumped’s Siobhán “Siobhán” Kane.
This talented Glaswegian band have been making music since around 2004, where they caught the eye of Mogwai, who signed them to their Rock Action Records label. Since then, they have released three records It’s Not Something But It is Like Whatever (2008), Come Down With Me (2010) and this year’s Have Some Faith in Magic, and two EP’s How Clean is Your Acid House? (2006), and Celebrity Come Down With Me (2010).
Their sound has evolved somewhat since their first few releases, which were chaotic and attractive – dance infused post-rock. This year’s album is blessed with the kind of vocals that have become another instrument to be thrown in to their already heady musical cauldron (brilliantly evident in ‘Magna Encarta‘); which perhaps helps to provide an even fuller realisation of what they are capable of – exciting, enlivening music. Siobhán Kane talks to Stephen “Steev” Livingstone.
When you all formed the band, did you have a distinct idea of what kind of music you wanted to achieve? Were there any other bands in particular that you were drawn to as little beacons?
I think when Simon [Ward] and I first started talking about making music we were interested in things like Aphex Twin, DMX Crew and Autechre, and maybe some old stuff like Kraftwerk and a lot of 80s synth-pop music. Simon used to make me compilation CDs with bands he thought I’d like and for me that was an introduction to a lot of bands I had never heard of, and might not have got into if it wasn’t for that.
How would you describe your evolution as a band over the three records?
The first album we were like kids still, very naive to how things work if you were in a band- we didn’t really know what we were doing. On the second record I guess we understood a little more about what was going on, and what our place in the grand scheme of things was. On our third album I suddenly discovered all the music I didn’t even realise existed, and that probably helped to inform the record. I think I’m far more aware of what we are as a band now, though I couldn’t necessarily put that into words for you right now. I think we’ve missed out on an important part of our development as people by being in a band together since our late teens, I’m going to be one of those embarrassing Dad’s who sends joke emails to his friends and work-mates and still laughs at willy jokes.
You are on Mogwai’s Rock Action Records label, which seems like a good fit. Have the band been quite “hands on” in terms of support?
They’ve all been great. They are basically our friends so it’s pretty easy going. It’s good to be on a label where there isn’t any pressure to do a certain thing. They are really happy with the new record and that is very encouraging.
Do you think that around 2006 when James [Hamilton joined you for live performances, there was a seachange of sorts in your sound, because of the propulsive, percussive aspect?
I guess live perhaps it was a big change, but James had already performed on records of ours before that, so it didn’t really make a huge difference to the recorded element of what we do. Live I think it was a great decision, and one I’m glad we made early on. Suddenly we realised that people were able to connect a lot more with our music because it was made slightly more human and approachable.
Now Greg [Paterson] has left, which came as a surprise – how are you finding the transition from a four piece back to a three piece, it must feel so different again. Do you think you will draft in another guitarist at some point?
It’s weird, but I don’t think it’s really going to properly sink in until we are away on tour again. At the moment we are keen to continue as a three-piece, it was never our intention to replace Greg, I think getting someone new in at this stage would be a harder thing to get used to.
I remember once reading James and Greg describing the recording process as somewhat “antisocial” – can you expand on that a little?
I wonder if they were in fact describing being in our band in general. We have a “tour-song” about us being an “antisocial band” because sometime we can be quite awkward around people. I guess our recording is quite antisocial as a process because we tend to do it individually, then show each other what we’ve been doing at the end of each day. It seems to work best for us that way though, otherwise you are constantly arguing about how some snare part should sound, or whether the guitar is in tune or not- if you hand someone a big chunk of music they are less likely to identify the things they might have highlighted as problems in the past. Having said that, we did argue a lot about the snare drums on this record and whether or not my guitar was in tune!
Have Some Faith in Magic puts vocals in a more central role – was that a conscious decision, and how was the recording process this time around?
It was a conscious decision, yes. We discussed early on that we wanted to try out some vocals- it kind of got out of control and we ended up putting vocals on nine out of ten tracks. We talked early on about using vocals but treating them as another instrument rather than as a vehicle for words or poetry. I don’t really tend to listen to lyrics in songs but I do enjoy good melodies- so I think that’s why they’ve turned out the way they have. I much prefer the effect that vocals have rather than what is being said. Again, with this record we wanted to try new things out and new ways of doing things- I think it’s important in order to keep things fresh that we are constantly changing as a band, and not just relying on past successes. I think we would get bored very quickly if we were just covering old ground on each record.
The vocals add another magical kind of ingredient, and brings to mind Cocteau Twins. You also said the first Panda Bear record was quite inspiring – why?
I think the first Panda Bear record really affected me because he was using vocals on that record in a really interesting way. I’m really interested in the how the layer of vocals creating a huge sound just by looping and layer the human voice. Most of the time you can’t even really decipher the lyrics and I think there is something in that- the fact that you can be affected by something emotionally even though you don’t know what it is.
Live performances seem at the beating heart of what you do, and I was wondering if there are any live performances that particularly stand out for you, where things went either so wrong, or very “right”- I always think some of the beauty is to be found in the mistakes, it keeps things more alive somehow.
Yeah, I think I agree with that. It’s the mistakes and the nuances that keep things interesting, both in the recording and the live aspects. I think because we use all technology it would be easy for things to be quite cold and regimented, but I think it actually tends to be the reason why things go wrong. We played a Glasgow show recently where the laptop didn’t seem to be working just before the encore. I had to stand and do what seemed like ten minutes of improvised stand-up. In the end we didn’t end up playing a last song but everyone in the audience was laughing and I think they had got used to things like that going wrong. Simon later realised he had simply turned the volume down and that’s why we had no sound.
Glasgow is a really wonderful city, it seems to radiate music, how would you describe your relationship to it, and do you think it has quite a supportive music community?
Although we maybe don’t play shows as a local band any more – we tend to limit Glasgow shows to one or two a year, we are still involved in a lot of other ways. Simon has recently recorded two local bands, I’ve promoted shows for locals bands in the venue I work in, I play in a few other side-projects and I go to a lot of gigs whenever I can. At the moment things seem great here. I think it’s partly down to the fact that the focus has shifted from Glasgow to elsewhere so people here aren’t as career-minded or financially motivated as might have been a few years ago. People are really supportive of each other. There’s a great Facebook group here that people post if they are selling equipment, looking to borrow stuff or need advice on anything equipment-wise, people are very helpful here in that way.
Because you are well-placed to answer this question, which venues, cafes, record shops and such do you like there?
Simon and I are both lucky because we both work in bars that are also venues so we see great bands all the time. The main places we go to are The Captain’s Rest, Mono, Stereo, The Old Hairdressers, Nice ‘N’ Sleazys. The 78 in the west end has also become one of my favourites recently- it has a nice log fire in it and sells really nice ales. There is only really one record shop I ever go to now and that’s Monorail- they are great because they don’t have an online shop, they believe in the traditional record shop thing, and I think that’s amazing that they survive like that. They are also really supportive and proud of local stuff and they get big bands to come and do free instores all the time because of that relationship they have.
I think of Ivor Cutler, almost every time I think about Glasgow, I miss him. Would he be an influence on you at all? I wonder if in some way, he is a strange influence on many Glaswegians? I was particularly warmed years ago, when I read the story that he was dismissed from the army for being “too dreamy and absent-minded”.
I was actually lucky enough to see Ivor Cutler at his last performance in Glasgow- I was still at school at the time but I think his understated, subtle humour stuck with me ever since then. It is a very Glaswegian sense of humour. He does that whole bathos thing very well, and to me that seems really Glaswegian. I think he influences a lot of people here, I even see similarities in the artwork of David Shrigley, it’s got that whole daft yet painfully dark and sinister thing going on.
I wonder if in some way other Scottish bands loom large in your collective memory like Jesus and Mary Chain? I was only thinking about them the other day, and their effect on music.
Yeah, I’d agree with that. You don’t even really need to have any of their records and you know the whole story about them and you get what they are all about. There’s something harsh, grim and desperate but really beautifully romantic about their music, and I think that’s true of a lot of Glasgow bands. It helps to know the area – East Kilbride – that Jesus and Mary Chain come from, and just how desolate a place like that must have been in the 1980s- it’s a place I used to visit when I was very young and when I heard them a few years later it totally made sense.
You did an interview [Dear Scotland] in 2010, where you recalled going to see bands in local church and scout halls, and there was that lovely story about going to see Idium, whose singer had scrawled “Kill Your Parents” on his chest, then you got picked up by your Dad who was very wry about the whole thing and said “yeah, that’s right, kill your parents who probably paid for all your instruments, and who pick you up after gigs.”
Yeah I think that early experience with Idium had a big effect on me, I think it revealed the illusion of the whole thing a little bit. He didn’t actually expect us to kill our parents but it seemed so shocking to me. I still quite like the spectacle of live shows- you can build your own stories about the members of the band and fantasise. I project these crazy ideas onto people in other bands, it seems likely that people will do that with us- then I guess it’s ruined when you meet us and we are pretty normal and a bit stupid.
Does traditional music play a part in your process at all? Like Ireland, Scotland has a such a huge and vivid tradition, and I wonder if it seeps in at all?
Yeah, I think that can’t really be helped. I don’t listen to a lot of Scottish traditional music but it is everywhere really. I’m a keen hillwalker and I think a lot of this record might be inspired by the landscape- perhaps there are certain notes that the landscape in Scotland beams out and that’s why Scottish music has a specific identity compared to stuff that is made even fifty miles away across the border.
You all do other bits and bobs as well – what other projects are you working on?
I’ve just finished a project with a Glasgow artist called Alex Frost. He built a machine that interprets the patterns on a shirt I own, and I’ve made a piece of music based on the output of the machine. We’re releasing a flexi-disc together that is to be given away with a publication as part of an art festival here in April. Simon recorded some local bands last summer – Copy Haho and Pro Life. James wrote a musical last year, and I went to see it performed just before Christmas, he also tutors kids on drums. I’ve been putting on shows in the venue I work in and doing some other music side projects with my friends, mostly for fun, though we are planning on releasing a cassette with a few of the people we played shows with last year.
I do like your play on words with some of your titles Come Down With Me and How Clean is Your Acid House – do you have television programmes that are guilty pleasures?
I like a lot of shite telly. I don’t really buy into Big Brother or X Factor or anything that requires me to be in the house on a certain night, glued to the telly. I prefer dipping in and out of things like Snog, Marry, Avoid…Toddlers and Tiaras, Don’t Tell The Bride, Ice Road Truckers…. Catchphrase was a big influence on this record- we took breaks and watched a lot of that this time round. I think we’ve finished with the comedy TV puns now, it was in danger of defining us as a band.
Errors play The Grand Social on Saturday 18th February with Thread Pulls & Remember, Remember.