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Interview
Robert Scott

Robert Scott

date
Wednesday 22nd September, 2010 8:25AM

You could make the case that Robert Scott is New Zealand’s greatest ever musician (well, perhaps alongside Lilburn and Galbraith). A key member of two of New Zealand’s greatest groups, the Clean and the Bats, Scott has done a considerable amount to make New Zealand music heard and influence overseas. Despite his long career in these two bands, he has also found time to record and release solo music. His latest charming solo album Ends Run Together, takes Scott back to his roots – it’s released on Flying Nun, the label through which Scott built his reputation. But there are some things which are always constant with Scott’s output – the chiming guitars, the restless experimentation, and the fact it’s good.

Why music?

I grew up with it around me a lot, my Dad played piano and sang old Scottish folk songs, and Mum played the organ in church. We were always singing quite a lot around the house, and sang in church and sang at school a lot. My sister was playing guitar and I started playing trumpet at eight, and piano a bit before that. There was always a lot of music around for us to get into, and when I was about sixteen, seventeen, it started being more rock n roll oriented I suppose. It started with a local outfit that was me and my brother and few of the other guys down the road, and that was called Electric Blood and that was our first attempt. Pretty soon after that, I bumped into David [Kilgour] and it was the Clean.

Did you ever imagine thirty years on you'd be still making music?

No, not really. I never really thought that far ahead. I think when you're young, you don't think ahead much. I don't think I ever thought 'oh I wonder if I'll still be doing this in x years amount of time'.

Has it been tiring?

No, all that happens is you work on it a lot, you put a lot of effort into it, and the album has come out, and then someone'll say I saw you when you were promoting that album and you work out it was twenty years ago. I guess because you're working on it quite hard, time goes by pretty quickly. You're constantly organising the next recording process, writing songs and a few months go by, and get the band organised and another few months have gone by, record it, and another few months have gone, then you're working on the artwork and the organisation of it and another few months have gone by, and before you know it, a year or two years have disappeared on working hard on something.

How do you differentiate between what will end up being solo work, or end up being the Bats, or another side project?

That's a very good question, there's definitely quite a bit of crossover in terms of solo stuff and Bats stuff. Quite a lot of this stuff could have ended up on a Bats album if I wasn't doing a solo album. Quite a lot of the Bats’ songs I could obviously do as a solo thing. It's just a case of having different people play and colouring it in a certain way, and also who you record it with. [Producer] Dale Cotton had a huge input in the sound and the making of the album with his suggestions and the way we shaped it together and fleshing out ideas. That's got a big input, in terms of the way it could be. In terms of the Clean stuff, we write together at the time of the Clean album’s phase. It's not often that I will bring something that I have written as such, or a finished piece. There are one or two songs like that. On a whole it's much more of a collaborative thing.

Can you hear much of a difference in hindsight between your solo work and your album work?

Yes and no. I could look back and there are definitely tracks which could work solo and obviously with the band. Maybe it's a slightly subconscious thing in terms of looking ahead when you're doing those things to put them into either box that it's going to be a solo thing or a Bats thing.

Could you have written Ends Run Together early in your career?

Probably not actually. I think it's a summation of a lot of stuff that I've learnt. I've crossed quite a few bridges to get to a certain lake, or plateau in my work. I think I've learnt with each successive recording and each batch of songs - hopefully you've learnt something from that and hopefully taken something new into the new process. With this new one, it's a distillation of a lot of ideas and themes I've carried through earlier works and I've refined it a bit more.

How did the album come about – was it a long writing process?

Fairly. Quite a few songs I had written over the previous year. In '08 and '09 I had written a bunch, maybe 15 or so. Once the album was underway I wrote as it was going along, I wrote another four or five and some of those made it on. I found the process of doing the whole and getting into the studio with Dale quite invigorating and that inspired me to write more as we were going along. It was over a reasonably short period of time.

Given it seemed to be written in three batches, it wasn't hard for the album to come together?

Because they were given similar treatment because of sound, they do sound like a collective whole.

Was it recorded quickly?

It was recorded quickly when we were working but we had long periods of not working (laughs) because we were doing it at Dale's house and worked around other things. It was a couple of evenings a week and a weekend session. There were other things, family things, other gigs with different bands which Dale was doing as well, it was condensed down. It was probably two weeks' worth of recording.

How did you end up working with Dale?

I had always intended working with him for a while, and he had a studio at home and it was close to where I lived. We talked about it off and on for a while.

Have you got used to working with producers given your early roots?

I enjoy working with someone who has a good technical nous to help ideas off, and get them to put them into practice, as opposed to labouring over a home setup. It's cool to have a range of possibilities at your fingertips.

It sounds great, particularly on headphones

Someone else mentioned that – I'm not quite sure how! It's because it's got quite a bit of detail to it, so you can pick up quite a lot on headphones, and the interesting noises in the background.

There are some interesting sounds on the album, like on 'Days Run Together'...

Yeah, that's a hammer dulcimer, which is a North American instrument which Alan Starrett plays. He's from Louisiana. I can't remember where he got his one from. It's Appalachian mountain music, that's where its roots are. It's almost like if you chop a piano up and use a section of the strings and tune it a certain way and then it's played with a little felt hammer. It's a very cool sound.

Was it an accidental inclusion?

That was on purpose – we wanted to get that on a song, and we went through what we had, and said 'this one would work well' and Alan very quickly made up a part and played through the whole song and we edited it a little bit and picked and chose parts.

Or I was also thinking of the fuzz of 'Daylight' which had some pretty interesting production on it and interesting structure to it…

Yeah 'Daylight' was a funny one. It sort of started off as one idea and it was going to have a bit more guitar and singing and more of a song structure, but the way it went down, it was very complex, the chord patterns move around a lot. I kinda had to leave it as it was, and I couldn't add too much to it. It was kept at a basic level. The outro lent itself more to a bit of singing.

Do you ever get sick of being seen as a jangly guitar proponent?

Yeah kind of, I've obviously done a lot more than that. Having said that, with the Bats, we've obviously put out a lot of albums in that predominant theme and it's a basis for a lot of the early Bats albums. I can see why people see me in that vein.

Because this is quite a dense album, it doesn't sound jangly…

Yeah there's quite a lot going on. A lot of it is not built up from a band level, it has a different feel to it. Often with a lot of band stuff you play it live as a band, or you record it live as a band, and it starts to head in a certain direction. Often with a solo thing you're not necessarily creating it for it to be played live. You have quite a bit more freedom.

Is it going to be difficult to play live?

Some of the songs are fine, and some of them will be very very different. I played in Melbourne for the launch of it over there, and I had a band of three Australian guys backing me, and I sent them some tracks for them to learn. Together we did 'Too Early', 'Born in a Tent' and ‘The Moon Upstairs’ and they were pretty easy to do in a band. And I also did 'Days Run Together' and 'Greenwood Trees' solo which is kinda half the album which is pretty good.

And Lesley Paris [Look Blue, Go Purple] as well?

Yeah she drummed on 'Daylight' and 'The Moon Upstairs'. I definitely wanted to get her on board as well.

You continue to diversify your sound with this, and with the last Bats album [The Guilty Office]. I guess it shows you're not interested in coasting…

Yeah I don't like to be accused of sitting on the same sound at all. If that comes through in the reviews then I kinda think 'it'll be good to try different things and show what you're capable of and explore new areas'. We're definitely aware of that with the Bats, and with the solo album I've definitely made a point of trying different things and different areas to work in.

You're back with Flying Nun, is it strange being back with the label you helped make a name for?

Yeah it's quite interesting. I guess it’s like putting on an old pair of shoes, but a lot of time has gone by in the interim in terms of dealing with Roger [Shepherd] and general stuff. It's a lot quicker in getting stuff done, being able to email videos or art files or versions of songs. The whole process is speeded up a lot. Previously, the artwork would be in an envelope or mailed up, or a song or video would be on tape and that'd have to be mailed up as well. There are a lot of corners that can be cut these days with the computer.

Giving you set up the label's legacy, what's it like releasing music alongside these younger artists?

It's cool, it's really good that Roger has got the opportunity to get it all happening again and it's really good to see these new acts. Nothing stays the same and everything is changing, so it's great.

Given the amount of indie artists around the world that would namedrop you or Flying Nun, have you found going back easier in terms of publicity?

I guess bands like Pavement mention us a lot, and we went and played with them in London, and England at the ATP Festival, and there's definitely a lot more going on online with information being shared. I guess a lot of kids read a lot about bands they like, and if our names are mentioned with those bands, we naturally get interest or audiences generated through that. The more information that goes around the better. Sometimes, with some bands in the past, we've been able to use that to our advantage in a way.

Do you almost wish you're starting off now?

(laughs) no, there's no point wishing for something that can't happen.

What are the plans for the album?

I've got to work out whether I can play around the country and promote it. I'm possibly playing up in Auckland and Wellington in November. I'm obviously going to play down in Dunedin because it's easy. Once the tremors have subsided in Christchurch I'll go and play there. So probably just play around New Zealand and promote it. I've got a video which will go online and possibly on TV. Other than that, it's just seeing how it goes through word of mouth and reviews and stuff.

In terms of your next recorded material, any idea of what direction that's going to go?

We're working on the next Bats album at the moment. It's pretty much written, and we're getting the songs together, working out which ones we're going to do live out of the new batch, because obviously we're playing Dunedin, Auckland, and Wellington, so we're trying to introduce new stuff for that. That's going to be with Dale as well. It's worked really well working with him, and the others are keen as well. With the Bats’ one, it'll be different from the last one, we don't want to tread the same ground. Obviously with Dale, he's got interesting ideas and strong ideas about how things can work. I think it'll be more distilled, refined, more raw, probably a little less lush. It'll be a bit more different.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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