erasing clouds

Sunflowers at Christmas: Interview with The Pearlfishers’ David Scott

by anna battista

Christmas lights wink from window shops at passers-by; people rush and run along the streets, their hands full of bags with the logos of local shops or of exotic designers; toddlers are dragged along, no matter how much they cry, with a stuffed toy in their hands, possibly a reindeer or a bear dressed like Santa; there are queues a bit everywhere, department stores, shops and cafés; getting a bus at rush hour implies fighting for a seat with nasty shoppers. This is Christmas in Glasgow, Scotland, where in this period you have more chances to be killed by an aggressive lady with a human-sized bag emblazoned with Winnie the Pooh trampling over you than by a car. This is Christmas in Glasgow’s city centre, but this morning we are a few miles away from it, sheltering in the quiet normality of Shawlands, in Glasgow’s Southside.

It’s mid-morning, light rain is falling and everything seems ordinarily calm. The only things we can hear in the café are the drone of the coffee machine and pop music, coming from speakers set somewhere above our heads. There’s not much here to remind us that Christmas is coming, except for the fact that I’m sitting with The Pearlfishers’ David Scott, having a chat about the just released mini-album A Sunflower at Christmas. I have many prejudices on Christmas records, yet Sunflower… strikes for being very cute and sweet, a breath of fresh air among the oppressive, cheap range of Christmas releases which are presently in the shops. So, how was this Christmas album conceived? “There was no big plan about doing that record,” David says, smiling, “what happened actually was that Stefan Kassel at Marina called me one day and said ‘I had a dream last night: we were doing a Christmas record. But of course this will never happen since we’d only lose money’. After he phoned, I said to myself, ‘He’s going to be back on the phone in a couple of days saying that we should do the record’ and that’s exactly what happened. He called again two or three days later and simply told me ‘We need to make this album!’ I’ve always - and this is one of the reasons why I’ve never done well on major labels although I’ve had lots of major deals – worked on purely artistic records. The idea to do something for a market is very alien to me, so I found the idea of doing a Christmas record a sort of interesting challenge. I decided that for this release I wanted to try and do something really sweet, something about Christmas that came from the heart. I know that talking about Christmas trees just doesn’t seem to be right in this day and age when people are getting bombed in Iraq. Yet, there is a connection with that as well in the album and that connection is the theme of childhood.”

A Sunflower at Christmas is released by the Hamburg-based label Marina, which also released most of The Pearfishers’ records and the Brian Wilson tribute compilation Caroline Now! (2000), which featured many Scottish bands covering Wilson’s tracks. “Marina’s Stefan Kassel and Frank Lähnemann don’t just love Glasgow bands,” David states, “in fact the only Scottish group they work with is The Pearlfishers. They put out records by other great artists, by American bands such as The Aluminum Group or Ashby. The latter are funnily enough based in Boston, but are originally Scottish. Stefan and Frank were both great fans of Postcard Records and of the sensibility that burst out of post-punk Glasgow, that burst of _expression that came out of Glasgow, between 1979 and 1983-84. That sensibility is embodied by the spirit of people like James Kirk, Edwyn Collins and Roddy Frame as well, though Roddy is more mainstream. Aside from that, I think Stefan and Frank’s main interests were Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson, but I think Postcard was their first exposure to contemporary pop music. Stefan and Frank take good care of all the Marina releases, here’s a good example about how crazy they are about the packaging: I told them that we should have done a really thick booklet for Caroline Now! and that I would have written notes for it with Douglas T. Stewart. We did and Stefan thought that they needed something special to go with the notes and with the interview also contained in the booklet. So, he and Frank hunted down Brian Wilson photographs which had never been published before. That’s what I love about Marina: it’s just a small label and there are just two guys behind it, but they always go the extra mile when they have to do something and I think that’s great.”

David Scott’s career started with the band Chewy Racoon, who released in 1985 the single “Don’t Touch Me” and was soon after dropped by the label they were signed to, Phonogram. After Chewy Racoon, Scott started with Jim Gash a new band, Hearts & Minds, a year later, featuring a line-up of Scott, Gash, Robert McGinlay, Chris Keenan and Jeanette Burns. The band signed to CBS in 1986, released a single and split. Hearts & Minds resurfaced later on with a new line-up featuring Scott, Gash, Mil Stricevic and Brian McAlpine, but the band changed its name when an identically named American group signed to A&M. Exit Hearts & Minds, enter The Pearlfishers. Scott’s new band first debuted in 1992 with the EP Sacred, followed by five albums, the latest in 2003. Since 1985, many things happened in the music world, the Internet in particular changed the way to create, release and sell music dramatically, but what has changed for David?

“Between 1984 and 1988, I had two major record deals, one with Phonogram and one with CBS, and two major publishing deals with Virgin and EMI Music,” David remembers, “that was my first introduction to the music business. At the time it was still just about possible to do good music on major labels, and I was a major label kid, I held the hope then that I could maybe do my own kind of music but with great success. For me things have changed quite a lot: now I deem myself lucky that I can release records and have a bit of success, but I don’t kid myself for a minute that it is perfect. For example, the reviews for A Sunflower at Christmas have been fabulous so far and people seem to like it a lot, but I can’t get it in the shops, because Universal, Columbia, EMI, Virgin and so on, literally bought spaces and shelves in record shops for Christmas. Many people think that in many ways independents are more powerful nowadays, but that’s not true. What has changed and has become better is the communication network: usually when you have a major record deal you have money and the potential to sell to lots of people, but as soon as the label decides not to release your record or to drop you, then you are cut off from that. One of the great things of these days is that you can actually get feedback from people: if you look at the guest book on The Pearlfishers’ website, for example, you’ll see that there are fans in the Philippines, Canada, America, Germany, Austria, Sweden and Poland. That’s exciting and it’s a great thing for an artist, because it’s then that you know you’re finally reaching out to people.”

Apart from playing in The Pearlfishers, David’s main activity nowadays is working with other Scottish bands and producing records by different artists at the recording studio in the East Kilbride Arts Centre. David seems to be the right person to ask about Glasgow-based bands and the local music scene. “Probably around the mid or late ‘90s a lot of Glasgow bands were still very fringe,” he explains, “but now we can say that, what I would call, ‘the Pastels access’, that is a sort of gentle sensibility in music, has taken over. The instantly recognisable Glasgow-based bands now are Belle & Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand and, on a more fringe level, BMX Bandits or The Pearlfishers who are making music which is informed by the Beatles and Beach Boys, but has its own quirky sides. Glasgow music raises its head above the parapet because it is informed by classical music on one hand, and by Celtic warmth and by a kind of quirkiness on the other. This mixture is unique on the planet and has fired the enthusiasm of people all over the world. The Pearlfishers don’t sell massive amounts of records, but we do sell in almost every corner of the globe and that’s because Glasgow music in general has got a sort of oddness that people from different parts of the world like.”

David worked with many Scottish bands and there are a few local artists he particularly loves, one of them is Douglas T. Stewart from BMX Bandits. “Douglas and I are as close as brothers and we are also very close musically. We mentioned the Glasgow scene earlier on, and, well, to be honest, I was a bit outside it, but Douglas is the guy who brought me into it. All the artists I worked with are different: I love Stephen Pastel, he is a true artist. We worked together on a co-production capacity on the Maher Shalal Hash Baz album Blues du Jour. There was definitely a relationship built on that record between Stephen and I which I greatly enjoyed. Katrina Mitchell is also one of my favourite singers on the planet, she is among the artists I loved working with: I really enjoyed the moment when Stephen, Katrina and I were sitting back and listening while we were working on the Maher Shalal Hash Baz record. At the time, I thought ‘These are the golden days and nothing will ever be better than this’, it was a great feeling. Among the other local artists I like, there are Norman Blake, because he’s very talented, has got such a beautiful musicality and he’s always funny, and Bill Wells, who I think is fabulous. I have known him since 1985, when he was in Falkirk. I remember telling Bill, to get rid of the jazz people who were working with him at the time because they were too snobby and totally up themselves. I always felt his place was in the indie kind of world. That’s another great thing about the Scottish music scene: Bill is a guy who loves ‘70s singers and songwriters, yet, he still fits quite well with Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian and so on. I also worked with a lot of artists who aren’t necessarily part of the Glasgow bands axis: recently I worked for example with Tom Clelland, who is one of the greatest songwriters on the planet.”

David is fond of his studio in East Kilbride. “When I’m doing album projects or album productions, I tend to take the artists to the recording studio at the East Kilbride Arts Centre because it’s so comfortable and it’s a lovely place to work. Sometimes as a producer, your job is just to make a cup of tea and create a nice atmosphere, it’s not about saying, ‘you do this and you do that’. My favourite pieces of equipment in the East Kilbride studio are microphones, I have a big variety of them. As a producer, the great tools are definitely microphones and amps. I always spent on microphones any money I had. I think the best recording studio in Scotland is Castlesound in Edinburgh, I think it has the best sound and that’s the place I would choose to record anything if budget wasn’t a problem. Lots of artists used it, from REM, to the Blue Nile to Orange Juice. The equipment there is great, the rooms are properly designed and the atmosphere is very good.” There’s another thing David works on at the East Kilbride Arts Centre and that’s composition workshops with primary school kids, “I just love that,” he says, “Kids are amazing: they teach you so many things. I was doing a little workshop with a group of kids the other day, and this kid asked me, ‘Davy, is music love?’ and I told her, ‘yes, darling, it is love!’”

David is at present thinking about his many future projects, one of them is a proper new album by The Pearlfishers. “I’ve done five Pearlfishers records in six or seven years plus Caroline Now!, plus I produced around thirty albums. So, yes, I’m going to do another record, but now I don’t have much time for it,” he reveals. “Maybe next year. At the moment I’m writing the lyrics for a special project: the cello player Wendy Weatherby is doing, a sort of musical interpretation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s book Cloud Howe, for Glasgow’s Celtic Connections. I already worked with her on Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song last year. The show is due at the end of January, but I’m still working on the lyrics for the piece. Besides, Douglas and I have got a couple of projects on the pipeline which we’re not 100% sure about just now. Another thing I’m working on is a Radio CD for Radio Scotland: I already did a CD of classic Scottish albums which featured among the others Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do a second series as well so that I can include bands such as Belle & Sebastian. I’ve also just recorded the script for a BBC Christmas programme on musicals, which will be broadcast on Christmas Day.”

I ask David if among his future plans there is also completing the ‘writings’ section on his website which contains the first part of his account of his childhood musical influences and inspirations. “I was actually going to take that off, because I put it online on a whim,” he claims, “I worry about websites, because some of them are just an ego trip. There are sites by bands and artists where there are diaries and people tell you what they have been reading or which film they went to see. I just don’t care about this sort of things. That piece was the unedited version of the beginning of a book about music. Indeed, one day I’d like to write a book about such topic, I’ve already written some children’s poems and turned some of them into songs. On the 2003 Pearlfishers’ album Sky Meadows, the title track and the song called ‘Swan Dreams’ actually started out as part of a book of poems for children I’ve been working on.”

David says he doesn’t feel confident in writing prose or poems as much as he feels confident in doing music, but one of his greatest inspiration is actually a writer, rather than a musician, Italo Calvino, “I like a lot of Calvino: Difficult Loves and The Baron in the Trees are fabulous books, but the Italian Folk Tales are my favourite book, I just love the way he tells them,” he says. “I think there is a series of albums in that and I have recorded a couple of songs myself inspired by some stories in that book. I also recorded three songs with primary school kids in East Kilbride, we did “The Chicken Laundress”, “The Seven Lambs Heads” and “Shining Fish” with the children narrating them, singing and playing instruments, they are really fantastic recordings. I honestly think somebody should release them because they are amazing, you could do a series of them. On ‘A Sunflower at Christmas’ there is a track called ‘The Snow Lamb’, and the backing for it was originally the backing for a narration of “Dauntless Little John,” which is the opening story in Calvino’s Italian Folk Tales. The story in the track ‘The Snow Lamb’ is very Calvino-like. Calvino is somebody who inspires me in more ways than one, it’s not just that I love his books, I actually find them greatly inspiring and having a direct influence on my work. In my opinion Calvino builds up a world that is real and imagined at the same time, and that to me is also what songs can do better than any other art form.”

In Marcovaldo or the Season in the City, Italo Calvino writes, “There is no time of the year kinder and nicer for the world of industry and trade than Christmas and the weeks before Christmas,” and he’s, of course, right. Yet, perhaps, with such sweet music as The Pearlfishers’ A Sunflower at Christmas, the festive season might turn into a nicer period, made of memories, sweet moments and happiness.


Issue 29, December 2004

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Photos of David Scott by Stefan Kassel