FOREWORD: Scotland’s Idlewild may’ve only registered with underground rock pundits here in the US, but overseas, their sweeping melodic symphonies continue to reach the charts. Initially a more punk-rooted combo, Idlewild grew into one of the finest symphonic exhibitors.
The following interview promoted ‘02s The Remote Part and Idlewild’s upcoming appearance at Coney Island’s Siren Music Festival (headlined by the increasingly popular Modest Mouse). They opened for Pearl Jam when I caught ‘em live at the Garden soon after. Since then, Idlewild put out ‘05s fairly solid Warnings/ Promises and ‘07s Make Another World (which I’ve yet to hear). I spoke to singer Roddy Woomble, whose ’07 solo folk changeup, My Secret Is My Silence, subsequently reaffirmed his versatility. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Just thirty miles outside Glasgow, Scotland, lies rustic volcanic haven, Edinburgh, sleepy hometown to current Brit-rock faves, Idlewild (and, offhandedly, former ‘70s bubblegum idols, Bay City Rollers). Formed by college art students Roddy Woomble (vocals-lyrics), Rod Jones (guitar), Bob Fairfoull (replaced on bass by Gavin Fox), and Colin Newton (drums), the feisty foursome enthralled local adolescent audiences with wildly energetic live shows, leading to ‘95s independently released “Chandelier” EP and ‘98s Captain mini-LP.
Promptly thereafter, ‘98s fascinating American debut, Hope Is Important, exhibited similar youthful indiscretion and rough hewn hardcore punk agility, rumbling through the urgently discordant “You’ve Lost Your Way” and the ballistic “Everyone Says You’re So Fragile,” yet countering the visceral paranoiac edginess with tranquil fragility. ‘01s better produced, melodically streamlined 100 Broken Windows blanketed the gauzy “Let Me Sleep” and the vulnerable piano-acoustic closer, “Mistake Pageant,” with extremely compelling lyrics. Indubitably, the rubbery, hook-infested “Little Discourage” and the raspy divergence “Idea Track” recalled the arousing mischievous clamor of earlier recordings.
Despite comparisons to introspective Radiohead tailgaters Travis and Coldplay, Idlewild’s ambitious The Remote Part reveals greater assuredness, matured sophistication, tighter arrangements, and more importantly, humble restraint. Terse cinematic epics such as the moody, string-ensconced opener, “You Held The World In Your Arms,” the poignant affectation, “American English,” and the yearning ballad “I Never Wanted” snuggle alongside the blistering anthem, “A Modern Way Of Letting Go,” and the unsettled exhortation, “Out Of Routine.”
What bands did you enjoy as a kid?
RODDY: At age 13, you fall in love with bands’ records, the songs they write, and record covers. That’s when I had an epiphany discovering REM, Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Nirvana, Pavement. They blew me away. Then, when you actually go to the clubs and bands make these noises in front of you, you’re revelation is complete.
Did these influences inform Hope Is Important?
We were just a local Scottish band that’d been to London. Collectively we changed as people and as a band since half the songs from Hope Is Important were written during that period. That’s why that album sounds like a band just realizing who they are. I don’t think it’s a brilliant album, though it has its moments. At the time, we were more comfortable as a live band instead of a studio band. So the album suffers because we didn’t have the proper attitude. Then again, we didn’t know. Eventually, all the pieces fit and it all came together by 100 Broken Windows.
100 Broken Windows had better production and traded the previous albums’ caustic vindictiveness for sensitive melodicism.
There’s different ways to be powerful and get a message across. It doesn’t necessarily mean stepping on the distortion pedal and screaming – which was what we originally thought. 100 Broken Windows was a fully formed breakthrough album with good melodies. People took us more seriously as a band. In England, we were originally seen as a teenage indie rockers’ wet dream, but not very substantial. Now, people who have Windows figure we’ve past that stage and we’re a proper band.
You reach for deep introspection, allowing strings to punctuate the dramatic significance.
We’ve improved as songwriters. That occurs naturally after five years hanging with each other and listening to records. It was an evolution. Also, we have low tolerance for each other’s mistakes. There’s lots of groans before we decide what we like. That’s why the songs sound well arranged. We did many different arrangements before deciding on one we liked.
Rumor is Idlewild has 50 to 60 leftover songs from Remote Parts.
They weren’t necessarily completed things. They were parts, bits, chord progressions, and melodic ideas. Very few were completed songs. It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle on the floor.
Literary influences get scattered across your songs. Gertrude Stein gets mentioned on Windows’ “Roseability.” Walt Whitman gets his due on “American English” and Scot laureate Edwin Morgan recites “Scottish Fiction.”
I think written word is incredibly important. My mother was a big reader. Me and my sister always read books growing up. Through the band, I started writing lyrics. As Idlewild, a lot of our songs don’t deny the influence. You can inject riff heavy music with a lot of thought. The problem is when you namedrop poets, people think you’re some pseudo-poet pretentious geek. Maybe I am. I tried to shy away from that before, but I can’t deny what I am. That’s just my personality. I’m a big Walt Whitman fan. My interpretation of that song is to understand yourself in the context of the world. But many songs are misunderstood, so that’s a celebration of that.
That dichotomy tempers “(I Am) What I Am Not,” which may question God’s existence or, perhaps, sideswipe passive-aggressive personality.
It suggests different situations since everyone has so many different elements and characters. A lot of these songs stem from the environment I grew up in Scotland, where you do have to fit in a certain way since it’s a small town people live in their whole life. Even if you’re not like the people from your own town, you have to become them sometimes.
Some songs remind me of the spirited pathos Morrissey offered with the Smiths.
The thing I always related to with Morrissey was that his songs were quite hopeful. He was just recognizing what was around him without offering answers. That’s what we try to do. It’s not about being too negative or positive, like “come on, let’s smile.” Good songwriters don’t finger point or preach. I actually listened to Hope Is Important for the first time in ages and I couldn’t believe how much I screamed. I never did that live. There seemed to be this pure catharsis because I was very uncomfortable with my singing voice. I basically tried to sound like Superchunk’s singer. They were my favorite band at the time. But it didn’t sound like me. It’s like when you look at a photograph of yourself when you’re 18. You’re like, “God, did I look like that?” But I could see why truckloads of English teenagers accepted us as their band. We were the same age rolling on the floor screaming. Now, these people have grown up with us and we’re reflecting their lives in a different way with our music.
Are some hardcore fans disappointed with Idlewild’s pensive ballads? Early live performances were brazenly shambolic.
I don’t tend to that. There are plenty of new bands coming around every year doing that. Now there’s the Libertines. It’s not a genre in danger of dying out. As we get older and try to prove something to ourselves, the songs get better and individually we play better. Our audience is younger in Europe because in America we play small clubs for only 21 and over. So we appeal to college kids, whereas in Europe, we have young teens listening. Our songs are now played on Radio 2, which is the adult Easy Listening station. There’s a broader fan base in Europe. I hope with the exposure of our record in America we’ll develop a connection with the normal public – not just indie rockers. It’s straightforward in England. If the song’s good, it’ll get airplay. Everything in America is so political and you have to fit in formats. Our songs weren’t played much on British radio before this album, but we definitely had d.j.’s who were fans and spun the records. With “You Held The World In Your Arms,” people who’d never heard of us accepted it and we followed up with “American English,” which I think is a better song. It was played to death and the LP went straight to #3. It wasn’t rocket science, just a good song. Our songs aren’t obscure. They’re designed for everyone to relate to, make a connection, and sing along to. It’d be sad if our album was unnoticed by people that would otherwise like it.
The world is depressing, so you have to celebrate small victories when something good happens. Mc Donald’s is the most popular restaurant in the world making the shittiest food in unethical manner. That’s sad as well. When a brilliant band actually fills up a club with people who really like them, it’s a minor triumph. But the general public will only accept one or two new bands each year. All the rest of the great unsung bands end up working at coffeeshops. That’s depressing. I thought the White Stripes acceptance was great. They’re essentially a real weird li’l indie blues band making perfect pop songs on analog tape and there’s just two of ‘em. Now they’re massive.
What’re you listening to lately?
I like Neko Case and just picked up her album with the New Pornographers. Cat Power’s record is my favorite so far this year. My favorite rock band is Queens Of the Stone Age. I’m a huge Bright Eyes fan as well. I’m anticipating the release of Mars Volta, ‘cause I was a big At the Drive-In fan.