James Yorkston talks to Incendiary Magazine

"I don't consider what I do to be traditional folk music at all. However, we do get people coming to our shows, expecting traditional folk. They can be disappointed, there can be friction. "

This month our very own Mr Christopher Dawson asked a few questions of Mr James Yorkston, of James Yorkston and the Athletes. Mr Yorkston was kind enough to reply. We felt it incumbent upon ourselves to print it for your edification.


IN: Your last record was consciously more pared back

than its predecessor - was there any particular reason for this?


JY: Yes. I wanted to make a more natural sounding record – one that we could reproduce live - one that was James Yorkston and the Athletes, not James Yorkston and the overdubs. Also, Faisal told me that his favourite version of Moving Up Country was the half finished version, where the songs were bare and raw. We'd been doing a lot of touring as a duo, and I was really getting into the space in the music. Space in music is very important to me – a few of my favourite artists,

D'Gary, Anne Briggs etc, use it very well. I just thought – what's all the commotion? Let's just keep it simple.



IN: Kieren Hebden's music has been labelled (a bit mystifyingly) as folktronica and he remixed the wonderful "Lang Toun" for you - but apart from this he might seem an odd choice as producer given that he makes all his music at home, on his computer and using samples. How did it work out?


JY: Yes, at first glance he may seem like an odd choice, and indeed, when his name was mentioned, I was a bit wary. But, I went to his house, and we played each

other tunes that represented the way I wanted the album to sound, and his idea and my idea were almost exactly the same – a stripped down, honest record, with no few overdubs, reverbs, fancy studio tricks.

The last thing he wanted to do was make a 4tet record!



IN: On stage and in interviews you seem a very personable sort of chap but there is certainly a dark side to some of the lyrics. Do you write character studies or are there personal elements to what you write (or a bit of both)?


JY: Thank you, I try to be friendly. For a long time I worked in hotels, or bookshops, or signed on the dole, or whatever, so I really appreciate the opportunity to play live. Interviews can get a bit taxing, but the level I'm at, I mostly only get folk who know their stuff to a certain extent, so I'm not swamped by unprepared/uninterested/uninteresting journalists too much, though it has happened...

The lyrics thus far have all been from direct personal experience. Make of that

what you will.



IN: On tour you seemed very pally with Adem and it was good to see you playing

along together and enjoying it. I'm guessing this spirit goes back to the days spent playing in pubs - can you tell us a bit about this period and how the band eventually 'formed'?



JY: Well, as I said earlier, I enjoy playing. I didn't enjoy not playing. I don't enjoy long journeys between gigs, staying sober before playing, etc, so when we're

onstage, I'm happy. I can drink and we're not on a motorway. The pub thing I guess you're referring to is the Fence Collective. When I left my previous band, I stopped playing altogether, and it was through the Fence Collective that I began enjoying playing live again – though at the time it wasn't called the Fence Collective, it was just an offshoot of the Fence Records shop. With my previous band, we had to rehearse & rehearse & rehearse. It was like being in a 60's tribute band or something – there was no life left in the songs, as we'd played them to death in the

rehearsal room.


So, I started playing in St.Andrews, and the difference in attitude was extraordinary. For a start, nobody rehearsed, at all. I'd be allowed to turn up, mandolin in hand, and sit at the side of the "stage" and play along, with a mixture of songs I'd

never heard and songs I'd heard the previous week. I really began to enjoy playing music live again. The band, The Athletes were formed by chance and necessity. I always needed a drummer on my home recordings, so I asked a pal to help, etc etc. The line up now -  Doogie, Faisal, Reuben – has been constant for the last 4 years, and I'm very happy with them.



IN: Languages and dialects are dying out all the time - do you worry for the

future of folk music or do you think it might flourish in an age when regional identities fight back against homogenising forces? (Apologies for the rather apocolyptic tone to the question...but there certainly seems to be an increasing interest taken in artists such as Shirley Collins at the moment...)


JY: Although I think it's sad 'n' bad that languages and dialects are dying out, I don't think there's a great deal one can do. Gaelic schools only teach one dialect – it's just a modern, homogenised version. Or at least, that's what I understand from my experience. I think folk music has changed so completely in the last 100 years, that there's no going back now, anyway.


"Folk music" at one time had unique regional bias, but that started to erode with the invention of the radio, or previous to that, with the invention of the bicycle. What we call "folk" music now, is just another genre of popular music – like jazz, blues, rock, kraut-techno or whatever, whereas at one point "folk" was a lot more – a whole cultural identity.

I think this "new" folk music will flourish as a popular music form, for sure. Of course, there is a great difference between what I do, which is mostly called

"folk music" by critics and such, and traditional folk music, which I guess is what you're referring to.



 IN: Concepts such as tradition and authenticity are mentioned a lot when it comes to folk music, the blues etc. Are such concepts liberating or constraining or is it not about that at all - is it just about getting up there and belting out a good tune?


JY: I don't consider what I do to be traditional folk music at all. However, we do get people coming to our shows, expecting traditional folk. They can be disappointed, there can be friction. We've had people walking out, shouting abuse, nasty messages on the message board, etc. the thing is, I love Can and Faust. I love the idea that we can make a racket, have a jam, whatever. Ok, we're using accordions, banjos, double bass, etc, but so what?! Not everyone agrees, however, especially if we take a traditional folk song and turn it into Mother Sky. So, I personally consider such concepts constraining. So I personally ignore them.



IN: Will downloading and all that stuff make it harder for musicians to earn a good honest bob, or might the 'internet revolution' actually grant musicians more freedom, a closer relationship with their audience and, who knows, might it actually let them take home a few extra coppers in their pockets rather than less?


JY: Who knows? We'll have to see where it all goes. At the moment, I get a little worried when people email me asking for lyrics to their favourite song – I normally

ask them politely to go and buy the album, as they're printed inside. I hope the internet revolution brings prosperity to the working musician, but I'm not sure.

In the UK, working musicians aren't valued particularly highly, but that's the UK for you.

Neither are nurses, firefighters, lifeboatmen, etc.



IN: Can you tell us a bit about Fence records (for those not in the know). It's home to some great artists (inc. yourself, of course) that I'm sure your fans would appreciate...(and is this record label an example, perhaps, of the above point about being closer to your audience and being more free etc...)


JY: Brief potted history. Kenny anderson aka King Creosote starts "Skhoubie Dubh Orchestra", signs to tartan record label. Gets kicked off, releases an album

"Armistice" on his own "Fence" label. Years of gigging/ceilidhs later, he gets a job in a record shop, ends up buying it from the owner, and restarts Fence Records – selling chart pap, alongside burnt CDR's by the likes of myself, KC, Lone Pigeon, etc.

During this last time, KC had been playing odd acoustic shows in St.Andrews. Very odd. Attracted oddball musicians. Word spreads, other oddball CDR's appear in the shop. Shop bankrupts, Fence moves to an old Fisherman's room in Anstruther, and becomes even more hardcore. Word spreads, the world loves Fence.


Who are the great artists on Fence? Well, it's actually at the stage that I only really know a few of them now, but I could recommend – UNPOC, King Creosote, Lone Pigeon, HMS Ginafore, Down The Tiny Steps, On The Fly, Pip Dylan, Pictish Drool.


IN: What's your favourite type of buscuit?


JY: That brown chocolate vegan one you get in hotels. Bonbons.



Check out further James Yorkston stuff on his website; www.jamesyorkston.co.uk



Words: Chris Dawson