“It’s a very similar relationship that you might have with a therapist. Except that therapists generally don’t film your session on their phone…” – Siobhan Kane talks with RM Hubbert who plays The Grand Social next week.
RM Hubbert describes himself simply, as, “a guitarist from Scotland”, but over the last two decades he has helped, in his own modest way, to create an interesting musical landscape, both through his own musical projects such as El Hombre Trajeado, and facilitating others’ creativity through being a huge part of the DIY, supportive musical community in Glasgow.
His solo work has been marked through an impulse for honesty, with First and Last (2009) detailing a tormented period of his life, and deeply searing struggles that involved depression, heartbreak and grief. Yet even within this stress, Hubbert created a work of true beauty, that came as a limited edition of 105 books, with each song accompanied by a corresponding chapter, contributions from some of the people that have inspired him over the last two decades, and work by Glasgow based artists including Sarah Lowndes, Toby Patterson and Luke Fowler. Re-released a little later by Chemikal Underground Records, it found its way to a larger audience, swelling the heart.
The “little bit cheerier” (as Hubbert calls it) Thirteen Lost and Found, released this year, in part follows on from the spirit of his earlier work, in that it is deeply personal, emotionally intimate, and very inspiring. It features collaborations with musicians such as Alasdair Roberts, and sees him reunited with his old bandmate Stevie Jones for the song ‘Sandwalks‘. What proceeds is an intricate, arresting piece of work, perhaps because it is a document of hope amidst pain, told against a backdrop of flamenco guitar, and idiosyncratic collaborations, particularly ‘Car Song‘ with Aidan Moffat, that is a nuanced narrative about a drive to the seaside – much like a conversation with the wonderful RM Hubbert, who talks to Siobhán Kane.
Your reach is a long one, yet you are someone that has always been very modest, not only helping others and facilitating creativity, but literally, running a small label years ago, and working as a promoter. How enjoyable were those experiences?
Same as any work, I suppose – good times and bad! I’m actually releasing other people’s music again with a label called Ubisano that I run with an old friend of mine by the name of John Williamson. We both have a long history working in the music industry. Ubisano gives us a chance to experiment with more cost and environmentally effective ways of releasing music.
Didn’t you put on one of Mogwai’s first live concerts? And definitely Arab Strap’s first concert…you have known Aidan [Moffat] and a number of musicians in Glasgow for many years – it must be very satisfying to come full circle once more, through for example, supporting Aidan and Bill [Wells] as you have done – or through continuing to release music. Could you ever have predicted this path from your early days as a promoter and working within music to now?
I am not sure I promoted Mogwai’s first show, I possibly did the sound at it though. I did do Arab Strap’s first and a load of other Glasgow bands. I was involved with putting on shows at the old 13th Note in Glasgow with Alex Kapranos – we put on a lot of shows.
It’s not such a dissimilar path than my old contemporaries and friends, it’s just taken me a little longer! To be serious though, nothing has really changed. I was doing shows with these people 15 years ago, and I dare say I still will be in another 15.
A very personal journey culminated in your record Thirteen Lost and Found, because having been so instrumental within the music community, there seemed to be an acknowledgment that, for a time, you lost touch with good friends – and that this record was a way, through the conduit of the studio and music, of reconnecting with them. Sometimes personal struggles can create a kind of prison – I keep thinking of Aidan and Bill’s song ‘Cages’ in this regard.
I did lose track of a lot of people for a long time – not always for bad reasons though. I got married in 2000 which coincided with me stopping promoting. As a lot of those people are musicians, we would naturally meet up at gigs, but I also took a long break from going to shows around then – working in the music industry has a way of killing your love for it – then my next round of depression kicked in after my father’s death in 2005.
Reconnecting with these people was actually the primary reason for making Thirteen Lost and Found. The music itself was almost secondary.
It can seem like the widest chasm to bridge, once you have felt so isolated, and Thirteen Lost and Found is a vulnerable and brave document, and hopeful, because there is something beautiful about finding those friendships again, something very innocent – what does it feel like for you?
It’s a strange one for me as the purpose of making the record was actually fulfilled before we even recorded it. I think it works well as a document of those friendships being renewed and/or improved. Our focus was on trying to capture that moment.
In some ways did that present problems? One thing I can imagine being problematic is the initial stages of awkwardness – just opening up to that intimacy again, that shorthand.
That awkwardness was the exciting part! I deliberately didn’t write anything in advance of meeting up for the first time, and asked each collaborator to do likewise. I wanted the music we wrote to try and capture that awkwardness. To that end, what we had at the end of the first practice was generally what we ended up recording.
Alex [Kapranos, who produced] and I decided early on that we should record everything live, and in the same room, to try and best capture the relationships alongside the songs. That was a lot of fun.
Did some of this journey and process reach back to First and Last, and your learning of flamenco guitar? I know you were dealing with very serious and stressful things, and I wonder if applying yourself to something as rigorous and technical was a way of somehow stemming that stress. It is attached to grief and loss, but somehow helps you transcend it, or cope, through its rigour.
That is in fact the reason why I started playing that style of guitar. It was actually an arbitrary choice, in that I simply wanted something to take me mind off of my father’s illness and I had heard that flamenco guitar was very difficult to learn. It was.
First and Last owed a huge debt to flamenco structures, but adds in a rich sense of melody – how did that record come together – were the structures in place and then the melodies somehow arrived?
Most of the pieces from First and Last came from technical exercises that I developed whilst learning the techniques. A lot of the flamenco technique is in the right hand, so I figured that it would be easier to learn if I put my guitar into an open tuning and ignored the left hand. Doing technical exercises can be really boring so I started adding melodies after a while. Those in turn ended up as pieces of their own.
Going back to Glasgow, you have been so heavily involved in different guises in the DIY scene, it has always seemed so community-minded, somehow – do you think that is inherent in Glasgow’s atmosphere and landscape almost? What are your thoughts, and do you think the DIY scene in Glasgow has changed quite a lot since the early days?
Aye, there is a strong DIY culture in Scotland in general. Without politicising too much, I think it comes from a general feeling of isolation and disinterest from a largely London-based media centre. We decided many years ago to simply ignore it and do our own thing.
I don’t think the DIY scene has changed too much. Cultures like this rely on waves of new people coming along and reinventing the wheel to a certain extent. It’s the energy of believing that you have stumbled across a new and revolutionary way of making and presenting art that drives young people to do this. Unfortunately, it often leads to the same mistakes. It’s all part of the fun though.
How did you get into putting on concerts? Did it seem effortless to just try and risk things, having just passion and no money, and not much sense of what was ahead? I hope there is a swing back to that kind of mentality now.
My first band shared a drummer with Alex Kapranos’ first band. They got a show at a sparsely attended night called the Kazoo Club in the old 13th Note on Glassford Street in Glasgow. After the show, the guy that was running the night announced that he didn’t want to do it anymore so Alex offered to take it over. I would help out with doing the sound and a bit of booking. I was also involved in the Glasgow Music Collective which had been going on for a few years so I got the chance to learn a lot there.
Could you explain a little more about Will Play for Food project? How did that whole thing come about?For a modest man, you put yourself in at the deep end, sometimes.
I came up with the idea after one of my early shows in a venue that was too big and that had sold too few tickets. I figured that playing to those 20 people in a living room would have been a lot more fun. It also made sense to me, as talking about the pieces I play is an important part of the show for me. It’s much easier to hold people’s attention in that way when you are in an enclosed space.
Going back to the times of El Hombre Trajeado – it seemed such a shame that it finished up – but you gave the reasons that it had become too easy- where do things stand now? Do you think there might be more music to achieve together?
Well Stevie [Jones] and I did a song on Thirteen Lost and Found together [‘Sandwalks’] which was a lot of fun. We have been approached a few times to do shows but I can’t see it happening to be honest. We are all really busy with our own stuff, maybe in a couple more years. Although I do have an agreement with Luke Sutherland that if he reforms Long Fin Killie, I’ll do the same!
Some of the most affecting pieces on that record are the instrumentals – what went into those, and do you often find that words are either too hard to express your feelings, or simply do not go far enough? — they all seem to cover quite specific, momentous times in your life.
I struggle with words in general. I actually tried to write words for much of First & Last but it ended up sounding trite. The solo pieces on Thirteen Lost and Found all deal with various relationships so they are in keeping with the general them of the record.
Following on from that, how do you find the live experience, as much of your music feels so achingly intimate, is it cathartic performing to strangers? Sometimes it is easier to tell your deepest thoughts to someone who doesn’t know you, because sometimes you can be really struggling inside but not able to express that to someone who knows you, because you worry that they will not accept the frailty – which obviously reflects badly on the friendship/relationship, as people should be able to be themselves. It sounds very trite, but it can be very difficult.
It is usually a very cathartic experience. It’s a very similar relationship that you might have with a therapist. Except that therapists generally don’t film your session on their phone [laughs].
I do find it much easier to talk about my depression and the issues it helps to cause to a room full of strangers. As you say, having a genuinely open and frank conversation with a loved one can be the most difficult thing in the world.
What you are listening to at the moment? And are you working on anything at present? But most importantly – how are you feeling?
Listening-wise, the new records by The Twilight Sad, and The Grand Gestures, I Build Collapsible Mountains, Sycamore and, you can thank Aidan for this one – Nicola Roberts.
I go through long stretches of not writing music, then I tend to have bit of a frenzy. I’ve just recorded five new songs that were written over five or so days. I sing on two of them. I am sure when or in what format they’ll be released yet though.
Other than that, I am good. Thank you for asking.