erasing clouds

A Green World: Interview with the Green Peppers’ Jim McCulloch

by anna battista

Green is the colour of grass; green is the colour of leaves in spring; green is the colour of balance and harmony, or at least people who believe in colour therapy say so. Green is also the colour that characterises Jim McCulloch’s solo project, the Green Peppers. McCulloch’s name is not new to fans of Scottish bands: he was in the Soup Dragons, had a spell in BMX Bandits, and later was in Superstar with Joe McAlinden, Alan Hutchison and Quentin McAfee. “All the bands I was in were different,” Jim says, while we’re sitting in a café just a few steps away from Byres Road, in Glasgow’s West End. “In the Soup Dragons, we were all very young and we all learnt as we went along. In BMX Bandits we started sharing record collections and passing albums around and exchanged all the information we had. At the time I hadn’t really heard the Velvet Underground and they hadn’t heard the Beach Boys, so I would let them listen to records, and they would let me listen to other records. It was very organic and it was good. Superstar was a bit more expressive, there was more room in this band to express yourself. I think that all these past experiences helped me working on the Green Peppers’ debut album. It was while being in other bands that I learnt how to build songs and create atmospheres.”

The recently released Green Peppers’ album Joni’s Garden (Neon Tetra) is a mish-mash of genres: there is a bit of pop (“Time Machine”), a bit of pastoralism (“The Sun and Moon and Stars”), a bit of bossa nova (“The Dreamer”), a bit of acoustic guitar music (“If I Gave It All Away”). Jim, who debuted with his band this summer when the Green Peppers’ track “I Get It!” came out on the compilation Ave Marina (Marina Records, 2004), wrote the album over a period of 18 months.

“When Superstar split, I decided that I wanted to take a break for a while,“ Jim recounts. “Joe McAlinden started writing his own album after the band finished, and for a while I worked on that and played the guitar for him. But then I asked myself ‘What do I want to do: do I want to just play or do I actually want to write music?’ It was then that I decided I wanted to go for it myself and see what happened. I started playing the guitar again in the house and singing songs. I set myself challenges like trying to write two or three songs and see how they sounded like. All of a sudden I had quite a few songs, so I decided to do an album. I hadn’t really written many lyrics before, but I think you have to try to give folk something more rather than just words. I don’t think many people give lyrics enough thought. I listen to Joni’s Garden all the time and I still can’t believe I managed to do it. I think my favourite song on the album is ‘Green’ because it’s just a wee story, it’s about me and a Harley Davidson who cut me up while I was cycling to work one morning. ‘Green’ is the song that gave me the idea to call the band the Green Peppers. I love the feeling of that song, I love playing the clarinet on it. It’s almost a bizarre song.”

Joni’s Garden is the first release by Neon Tetra, a small Glasgow-based record company. “A friend of mine used to sing in the Cosmic Rough Riders and runs this label,” Jim explains. “He always said to me ‘If I get enough money, I’d love to put your album out’ and he actually did, so fair play to him.”

The cover for the Green Peppers’ album features a spot of land with a caravan in the distance. The colours blue and green highlight the drawing, courtesy of Alan Hutchison. “Alan and I went through lots of ideas for the cover,“ Jim remembers, while we look at the album sleeve. “I definitely wanted to have a caravan on it, but at the beginning we thought we were going to have a photograph on the cover. We then realised it was going to be too expensive because of the copyright. So we thought we would design the sleeve ourselves. The caravan gives me a wee sense of going home to a bit of warmth, it looks kind of cosy, you feel the sun is going down, you’re sitting there, playing and being creative.”

Up to now, Jim received pretty good reviews; among those that reviewed Joni's Garden positively there are music magazine Uncut and newspaper The Independent. “I think I’m quite happy with the response the album got,” Jim claims, “Mark Radcliffe has been playing it on Radio 2, so I can’t complain. I have a very small budget to promote it, so I have to grab with both hands anything that comes.”

Singer and songwriter Isobel Campbell contributed to Joni’s Garden by backing vocals on a few tracks and singing two songs penned by Jim, “The Dreamer” and “Blink of an Eye.” The latter has recently been picked by producer Youth to appear on his forthcoming compilation album. “After I wrote the song ‘Blink of an Eye’ I let Sushil K Dade hear a demo version of it,” Jim says, “He thought the song would have sounded great with a female singer and I agreed, but I didn’t know anybody who could do it. He knows Isobel quite well, so he said he would ask her for me. He did and Isobel and I ended up working together: She sang on my album and I recorded the guitar on her album. It was a good exchange of talents.”

One of the latest gigs by the Green Peppers was at Glasgow’s Brel Bar, at the beginning of December. Though sometimes Jim is joined on stage by Alan Hutchison during gigs, he mostly plays alone. “I don’t like to play with other musicians without being able to afford to pay them,” he explains. “So right now I keep it down, but I do want to go out with a band like a drummer and a piano player. I’ve only been playing gigs for a year and a half, I only did around 20 gigs up to now. It’s kind of scary playing live alone, because you can’t turn around and blame the drummer because there’s no drummer there, so if something goes wrong it’s all my fault! Playing gigs has been very liberating, because I’ve always been playing for somebody else, now this is my turn under the spotlight and I’m really enjoying it, I think it’s great!” he exclaims. “I still haven’t played that much outside Glasgow, but it would be nice to do it more often and get a real reaction now and again, since here you always bump into your cousins and sisters at gigs! I definitely want to do more gigs to promote this album. I’d like to get more contacts in places like Japan and America, stuff like that, and it will hopefully happen, perhaps by word of mouth.”

Having talked for a while about Jim’s present career, we take a step back to his previous experiences with Superstar. The band was formed in 1991, signed to Creation in 1992, and released a mini album ironically titled Greatest Hits Vol.1 (Creation, 1992), followed by the album Superstar (Creation, 1994). In 1997 the band resurfaced after a break of a few years with a new mini album, 18 Carat (Camp Fabulous, 1997). It was around that time that Superstar turned down the opportunity to work with Brian Wilson. “It was a decision taken by a band, by four people,” Jim remembers. “I think we were keen to get away from all those Beach Boys references and stuff like that. We were trying to get away from the Glasgow scene. Rod Stewart did a cover of one of our songs, and it was bizarre enough to get over that. We thought we were too tied up with Teenage Fanclub; we wanted to be separated in people’s minds, we wanted to be a distinct band.”

Superstar released some beautiful albums and singles' the band is indeed considered by many people as one of the most underrated on the planet. I wonder if Jim agrees with those who think so. “Aye, I do,” he vigorously nods. “The two last albums, Palm Tree and Phat Dat, were wonderful and I just don’t think they got heard enough. I don’t want to be thought of like a cult hero, but those records became exactly cult stuff.”

Since Quentin McAfee, Superstar’s drummer, went to live and work in London and he’s not into the music business anymore, Jim mainly keeps in touch with Joe McAlinden and Alan Hutchison; the latter, apart from occasionally playing with Jim during live gigs, is also helping him with the Green Peppers’ website. “Joe and Alan are both involved in my project in one way or another,” Jim says. “I think they wanted me to do it a long time ago, but I wasn’t ready to do it before, I didn’t have the confidence. I was writing in the house, but I wasn’t singing because I had no idea and no intention to sing.”

Ex-Superstar members are not the only ones who supported Jim while he reinvented his career: the local Glasgow scene proved to be a source of inspiration and encouragement. “In Glasgow there’s a very healthy scene, but I was out of it for a while, so I didn’t really know who was doing what,“ Jim states. “It was very exciting to get back into it, because folk have been very encouraging with me and tried to make sure I did well. For example, Joni’s Garden was partially recorded at David Scott’s East Kilbride recording studio, and I found working with David very good. I worked with him on and off before, we did for example a Beach Boys tribute gig in East Kilbride a while back. So I phoned him at the studio and talked to him about the album. I had most of the ideas done on 4-track demo format, but he had the enthusiasm for me to translate it all to a record. It was very appropriate to work with him because he was very helpful and gave me a lot of confidence.”

Among Jim’s new projects there is a new album. “I’ve actually got half of it done in demo format,” he announces, “but the other half is in my head. I know exactly what it’s going to sound like, it’s just hard to find the time to actually do it, because my wife and I just had a wee baby boy and he’s only six months old. In the meantime, I’m planning new gigs: the next one will be on 9th January at Glasgow’s Barfly and then I’ll do a gig in London on 9th February at 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street, Soho.”

Just before saying goodbye to Jim, I ask him if something has changed in the way he makes music now compared to when he was in a band. He answers saying that no, nothing has really changed: he was excited about music then and he’s still excited about music now. After all, I silently add in my head, a special album such as Joni’s Garden could have only been written by somebody genuinely and really excited about making good music.

{Pictures taken from the Green Peppers’ web site:}

Issue 29, December 2004

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