Song, by Toad

Archive for the Rambling category


Kris Kristofferson – To Beat the Devil

I’ve been making mixtapes a lot recently. We have a tape player in the kitchen – basically just an act of nostalgia, because my parents always had one in the kitchen too – and I’ve really embraced the trend of small bands and labels doing a lot of tape releases these days. Hell, we do it ourselves too. It’s just nice. It’s nice to have ‘a thing’ to represent your release, even if it is small scale and even if it is only a run of 100.

This has meant, inevitably, that I’ve been digging out old mixtapes and making some new ones. I have to confess that I cheat, these days, however. I make a playlist on Spotify and just plug the computer into the input for the tape machine and do it that way. I know, I know, judge me all you like, that’s just my compromise with the 21st Century, and I’m not proud but I have decided to accept it.

I’ve been making a lot of new mixes of course, as you would, but given its ‘all the music that ever existed in the universe ever’ model, Spotify is actually really good for tracking down the fragments of half-remembered mixtapes from your past and attempting to cobble them back together.

When we lived in Singapore my parents’ vinyl collection warped and went mouldy in the heat and humidity. It was unrecoverable, tragically, but they managed to make some great mixtapes out of the remains before it was all chucked out. Early Americana Vol.1 is something of a legendary standout from that period. My Dad is Canadian so he was raised in a rather different musical environment to my Mum and certainly to myself. This tape was ninety minutes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young, Bob Seger (no sniggering, I love some of his tunes), Jackson Browne, The Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, The Eagles (oh fuck off, The Last Resort is a cracking song), and it was fucking ace.

There was also a far less heralded Early Americana Vol.2 of course, but it just didn’t quite click in that way that first one did – in the elusive way in which great mixtapes do – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some great songs on there, so I sat down on Spotify to try and compile a rough sort of Best Of from the two tapes.

Some of the individual tracks themselves have continued to play a huge role in all our lives, so they didn’t really need much lobbying to end up on the final mix. Walking Song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle still brings an actual, literal tear to my eye every time I hear it, and All the Tired Horses by Dylan became something of an alternative nursery rhyme in our house, if I am remembering things accurately, which at this sort of distance I might not be.

DYLAN: all the tired horses in the sun by mrjyn

It’s not all ‘the classics’ of course – in fact that’s pretty much the entire point of a good mixtape. In going back through these songs I happened across some forgotten gems. With some, like Bob Seger and James Taylor I found myself remembering how much I actually like some of their stuff, despite the unavoidable whiff of soft rock about them and the absolute gold medal levels of unfashionableness.

Slightly different was Kris Kristofferson. I’ve always fondly remembered Me and Bobby McGee from that tape. For a child I think the lyrics have something immediately appealing about them, and lines like “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” always stuck in my head. I had entirely forgotten that there was another Kris Kristofferson song on one of the tapes though, and it turns out that its relevance to my current line of work is absolutely uncanny. It’s called To Beat the Devil, and I’ve embedded it at the top of the page.

I know every generation thinks they are the first to face the weight of all the world’s problems, and there are no shortage of articles by old duffers lecturing modern musicians about the fact that trying to live off being a full-time musician has always been a losing proposition, but it’s sort of heartening to hear someone from an entirely different era and genre singing about the exact same nagging internal debates about futility, reward, and the sisyphean nature of full-time music.

There’s not much actual ‘song’ in the song, either. It’s more a rambling monologue, but there are two little glimpses, and it feels just like a combination of me at my most cynical, most resigned, and yet also most determined. With lines like “back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door” he even acknowledges that this is sung from the point of view of a relatively successful musician. And he’s still fucking broke. I heard it again after all these years and all I could think was ‘holy fuck, this is like an anthem for my whole fucking label’!

This is what the passenger seat of my car looks like these days.

This is what the passenger seat of my car looks like these days.


Micah P. Hinson vs. Phil Ochs

One of the absolute greatest things about being as close to the actual making of music as I now am is being able to actually witness new and awesome things as they come into existence, and to savour that ‘holy fucking shit, what is this, it’s awesome‘ moment when you realise that it is going to be excellent.

I am still amazed by what a mess music can actually sound like when you are in the room, listening to the actual act of recording. I remember some of the flat-out rock bands we recorded in our old living room, and it just sounded like someone throwing a load of old pots and pans down the stairs with some poor fucker trying desperately to scream over the top of the resulting cacophony. It sounded awful. And it turned out fantastically.

As you know I am currently in the middle of recording Song, by Toad Split 12″ Vol.6 (Vol.4 is out in July and Vol.5 in November) and we have three bands’ songs more or less down now. This project has embodied both ends of the ‘what the fuck is going on’ spectrum, from the Willard Grant Conspiracy, whose performance in the room itself was so obviously beautifully that my sole responsibility as a mixing engineer is not to fuck it up, through to the Tissø Lake songs, which were mostly individually tracked, so I didn’t really have much idea what I was hearing until we started to assemble everything together. It still surprises me when proper, grown-up music emerges from all those scraps, but it shouldn’t anymore.

Micah P. Hinson, on the other hand, has been a slightly different case. I am not sure he really enjoyed the recording process himself, primarily because he is from Texas and was playing in an unheated warehouse in Edinburgh in November, so he was absolutely fucking freezing. I am genuinely sorry for this – I blame the perennial postponement of our stove installation – but you honestly wouldn’t know it from the recordings. The sound as Micah generally does: unhurried, rich and sincere.

One of the nicest bits though, and the bit which prompted the opening sentence to this post, is a cover that Micah played. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s a Phil Ochs song and listening to it the other day as I tweaked the initial mixes, it struck me, hearing Ochs’ lyrics sung by Micah, how much lyrical common ground there is between the two. Phil Ochs is obviously more overtly political of course, but in other senses they have such a similar feel – the burst of humour (bitterly acerbic or otherwise), the flair for lighthearted musical styles to back poignant lyrics, that constant sense of self-doubt and nagging fear of futility, and of course the ability to write absolutely crushingly sad, beautiful songs as well as almost anyone I’ve heard.

There’s an intensity to the two of them too, sitting there beneath the surface of the music, and you never quite know what to do with it, which I think it probably what makes it brilliant.

Micah is fond of a cover, of course, and recorded a whole double album of them a few years ago, but this was just one of those moments where I thought ‘oh yeah, that’s perfect, and I never realised at all’.


Eilidh McMillan: Being a Woman in the Music Industry


[Eilidh McMillan, photo by Andy Catlin from this excellent set – thanks Andy!]

I have avoided writing about International Women’s Day, partly because I write enough ill-informed socio-political pish as it is, but mostly because yet another middle-class, middle-aged white male weighing in on the subject seemed to be very much not the point, so I kept quiet.

It’s a fact I readily acknowledge and am genuinely trying to address that our label doesn’t represent women anything like enough. Just one statistic would be that the ratio of bands without to those with a significant female presence on the Toad Sessions is something like 26:8 in favour of men. And that’s before you look at the bands we actually release, where I think it might be even worse. I can’t sign new people at the moment, but I can put on gigs and record sessions and so the best place to address our gender imbalance is there. 

Eilidh McMillan is someone who I’ve worked with a lot over the last year or so, sometimes by writing about stuff like Jealous Girlfriend, but mostly by putting her various bands on at gigs in Edinburgh, be it the now-defunct Froth, or the awesome Breakfast Muff.

She’s someone I really like, and have a great deal of professional respect for, and today Eilidh wrote this on Facebook about being a woman in the music industry. It’s off-the-cuff and not supposed to be academic or exhaustive, but I really liked it, and so with her permission I am reproducing it here, so people know.

As it’s International Women’s Day I would like to share some thoughts on being a woman in the music industry and what I have learned over the past couple of years. (Just to say before I start have mostly had a wonderful time and met the most wonderful people.)

1. Probably the most pressing issue is harassment, sexual assault and abuse that I have heard of happening to friends as well as anecdotally or online. The reason that women often do not speak out about it is because they fear of their storied not being taken seriously and being pushed out or alienated from their “scene” or group of friends, or because it will stunt their ability to progress as a musician. This is a problem that pervades at the very top of the industry, DIY scenes and everything inbetween. This is also a problem for female fans who face sexual harassment and assault at gigs.

Touring DIY means relying on the kindness of others letting you sleep at their house, which is great because it allows people to tour without losing much money, but also creates a potentially dangerous situation putting trust in people you don’t know.

2. Women playing music is often treated as a genre in itself. This means often female musicians are only put on line-ups supporting other female musicians and left out of bills supporting touring male musicians. This is not to say that I don’t want to support other women musicians, we have supported loads of awesome girls and I hope to keep doing so! Another issue associated with this is reviewers (as well as the public and other musicians) mostly compare the work of women musicians to other music made by women. This is totally lazy and can also feel pretty demoralising (and if i hear someone say “that’s so riot grrl” one more time…).

3. Women in music not being taken seriously or being seen as a “novelty”. This can take the form of patronising sound engineers and promoters at best, and at worst being completely ignored because people presume you are not performing or because a dude in your band must be the only one who knows what’s happening. I have also heard stories from women running labels who feel the need to “act like a guy” to survive and get taken seriously. Also women who like to dress “feminine” who worry that because they are not wearing a cool band t-shirt and jeans they will be looked down on.

4. Women are often judged more harshly and also pitted against eachother. I’ve had people say things like “Ooh X band got picked to play that gig instead of you, are you pissed off?”. Why would I be? My band and other bands with women in are not in direct competition with each other, you would never hear someone say that about all guy bands. If anything, other women playing high profile gigs is awesome and is good for all female musicians and diversity in the scene in general. This also relates to reviewers talking about women’s appearance, or in interviews asking questions they would never ask guys.

5. Women are generally very unrepresented on bills, most recently someone brought up that on the T in the Park line up this year so far there are something like 4 women performing. Aside from being completely unrepresentative and insane this creates a Catch 22 of women not seeing themselves represented, which makes them less likely to start playing music. A lot of people say when I bring this up “but there are just way less female musicians”, and although there maybe is a gap in numbers, women are still chronically unrepresented.

Okay, i think that’s it for now, sorry it’s so long but as I was writing I kept thinking of more and more things. I also know it’s not amazingly written but whatever, I’m not an academic writer (also I wrote this on my phone).  I would also like to mention that I know that people who are LGBTQA+, not white or differently abled, means being treated differently in music and probably worse than what I’ve mentioned here and even more underrepresented. This status was just written from my perspective. I would like to hear other folks stories and opinons, not necessarily right now but when I see yall out and about, I wanna start talking about this stuff!

Also it’s International Women’s day! Have solidarity for women all over the world who face subjugation, abuse and discrimination every day because of their gender.

Eilidh out


Music Industry Misogyny and Sexual Harrassment


I didn’t really want to touch this particular topic, I have to confess. It makes me uneasy for many reasons. I’ve never experienced anything like this myself, never really seen it that I am aware of, and I entirely accept that I am a long way from being an expert on this stuff. I am also very much aware that the predominance of white, male, middle class voices like myself in this sector is a significant part of the problem.

However, since the revelations about the assaults suffered by various prominent female musicians at the hands of a well known PR agent recently, and the subsequent chatter about it being such a constant, pervasive and unchallenged thing in the music industry, I am starting to think that even if I don’t quite get this right, it is still important to try and say it.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, women need to be encouraged to come forward about sexual harassment and assault, and to feel that they will be taken seriously and supported if they do. I want to make it clear that I would take this kind of shit seriously, and there would be none of this ‘oh did he really‘ nonsense going on.

Secondly, one of the best ways to combat this sort of shit is simply to try and make sure there are more female voices in this sphere. It’s not enough to encourage them to take a more prominent role; as the incumbents, we white, middle class men have to actively surrender ours more often. I work with a lot of women in music and I really do want them to know that I am happy to be told. I know I can’t really understand this problem on their level, and if anyone wants to tell me how it is, particularly in the communities I operate in, I am happy to be talked to, lectured to, ranted at or basically whatever. I know this isn’t my conversation to lead, but I do want to at least say that I want it to happen and will try and do what is needed to help that.

Thirdly, I am amazed that it has to be said, but I think it does. Even if it’s just something which I force myself to live up to: sexual assault, foisting unwanted sexual attention, creepy remarks, all that sort of shite is not welcome here. Not in my company, not in our house and not as a part of our label. I am not claiming I have always been perfect in this sort of area myself, and I have said some dumb shit in my time, but I don’t like it, I am not happy with it and I want to improve. Read the rest of this entry »


Campaign For the Living Wage

Charles Latham – The Living Wage (Toad Session) from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

The Scottish Living Wage Project has a new and unlikely ally in the form of Toad pal Charles Latham. He recorded a Toad Session with us a little over three years ago, which is where the acoustic version of his song The Living Wage above is from, but now there is a full band version being released to raise money for the aforementioned campaign, and this I would be nice if you felt like chipping in.


I’ve lived on the minimum wage before. Not the living wage, and certainly not Iain Duncan Smith’s laughable interpretation of it, but the actual national minimum wage. It wasn’t for long, and I had family around to help out here and there, but Jesus Christ it was heavy going. The idea of having to do more than barely manage to support one person, never mind raise a family, on that little money is just ludicrous, which make the living wage such an important concept.

And in this era of increasingly virulent hatred of poor people simply for being poor, campaigns like this are probably the most effective way of actually making your political voice heard, because mainstream politics sure as fuck seems like a futile way to try. So to hear the full version of the song, buy a copy, and in doing so support a really important political campaign follow this link and make a donation, and please pass on the link to your pals after you’ve done so.


When the Toad Came Home…!

(Skip to 2:31 for one of the greatest moments in musical history.)

Hello there folks. Yes I am, contrary to rumour and vast, vast quantities of gin and wine consumed, still alive. And back from Red Hook, sitting at my desk like a grown-up trying to figure out exactly where I go from here.

Honestly, if I had the choice I would still be in Red Hook. Up until recently my whole life has been spent changing city, and often country, every few years. I’ve spent the last ten years in Edinburgh however, and I had genuinely forgotten the thrill of wandering a new city for the first time. It’s a great experience, and the sense of infinite possibility is pretty much impossible to replicate with a holiday. Still, there are a million reasons I won’t bore you with that Mrs. Toad and I can’t just up sticks and fuck off, so I am stuck in Leith building my own studio (working title: The Happiness Hotel – what do you think!) and wondering what to do with my record label for the next year. Such a hard life.

It may appear from the internet that I didn’t really do any work while I was over in the States and that is arguably true – I certainly just dossed around having an amazing time more than I rather naïvely thought I would, and in retrospect I don’t regret it in the slightest.

I did, however, spend time hanging out with my brother and recording the Toad Flake Paint Split 12″, which will be out later this year. I also caught up on something like three years of out-of-date accounting, meaning I now have a precise idea of how much every release we have on the label has ‘made’ (call my accountant, I am buying a yacht in the Bahamas right now). So it wasn’t like I was idle exactly, and the things I did get done are excellent things to have in the bag, so the time was far from squandered.

Most importantly, however, I also got a bit of distance from Edinburgh and from the label itself and had the chance to sit down and really think about what I am trying to achieve with Song, by Toad and how best to go about it. A bit of a think is an important thing for any artistic (and indeed commercial) project, but it can be very hard to actually achieve when the day to day running of the thing pretty much overwhelms you, so the presence of the Atlantic Ocean and some time in a neighbourhood where I knew more or less no-one was a welcome chance to just draw breath and take stock.

Despite this, I feel like I didn’t really solve anything, unfortunately. So why not lay out the dilemma here, so you can see the cogs in my head spinning with near-total futility.

When we first started the label we had no real intention of becoming a ‘proper’ record label. The plan was to help small bands and pals get a bit of traction and a bit more of a push for their stuff, in the hopes that they would then have the opportunity to move on to something bigger and better in the future. We weren’t supposed to be anything more than a starter label, really.

The problem with that approach was that a/ our first release sold over a thousand records, which makes you legit pretty much immediately, whether you like it or not; and b/ there are so few decent labels out there and so many bands that you will get pushed into professionalism (or as close an impression as you can manage) pretty quickly, because no band wants to be on a ‘just for fun’ label when they have a debut album to release that they’ve slaved away on for years.

So I find myself trapped between two identities at the moment and I have no idea how to resolve the situation. On one hand we have a loose collective of established artists which in my opinion makes us easily one of the best record labels in the country (feel free to disagree, I know this business is all about opinions, and you are welcome to be wrong if you want). This year we have new albums coming up by David Thomas Broughton and Adam Stafford, for example, and whilst neither of them are huge they are both well established and both need a well thought-out release strategy and proper attention to do them justice. If we based the whole label around a small core of artists like that and a limited number of releases I think we’d have one really good solution to what Song, by Toad could be.

Alternatively, between David Cameron’s Eton Mess, and a plethora of new tape and Split 12″ releases on the horizon, we are perfectly placed to become what I believe would be a really excellent ‘project’ label; not really signing artists per se, but just working on low-key things as and when they turn up, focussing more on strange and interesting projects, and giving exciting new bands their first formal releases, rather than trying to become a junior version of Domino or Bella Union. The warehouse studio that we are in the process of building would seem to lend itself to that, giving us the opportunity to make things happen whenever we have a good idea, and the chance to arrange more interesting collaborations like Bastard Mountain.

Either of those two models would work very well for me, but of course Song, by Toad Records is currently a bit of both, and I am not sure it works that well, to be honest.

At the moment I get the impression we’ve sort of managed to throttle both models by dallying with the other, if you know what I mean. We have too many bands formally signed to the label to really have the time and space to do the weird and interesting projects that I want to do, and at the same time we have too many weird projects going on to devote the proper care and attention to the bands who are on the roster at the moment, meaning we aren’t really doing them justice. And I honestly have no idea how to resolve this as I really get the impression that either approach pretty much entails a full-time job in itself.

It’s a classic case of having eyes bigger than your stomach of course. I would run about four or five record labels if I could: one traditional one and one weird projecty one as detailed above, of course, as well as one specialising in retrospective re-releases of previously self-released stuff from the last five years or so, one based around bringing non-anglophone records from around the world to the UK, and probably a modern-classical/experimental noise label as well. I could imagine an entirely Scottish-focussed label, one based around giving small US/Canadian bands their first UK release and getting them over here touring, one based entirely around collaborative projects with musicians mostly known for their other bands, recorded entirely in our warehouse – fuck it, I could probably have about ten labels if I had infinite cash and infinite time.

The problem I have is of course the obvious one; in the words of Jonnie Common “I’m only making one trip and I’ve only got one pair of hands”.

I have to pick one, and at the moment I am sort of trying to do two things at once. I don’t want to get rid of artists on the label because we signed each and every one of them for very good reasons: we really like them as people and we fucking love the music they make. And with the warehouse nearly ready I am really far too excited about getting in there to work to start worrying about restricting it already.

So what’s the solution? Well personally I think it is going to have to be twofold.

Firstly, we have tape releases now. We can release stuff on tape cheaply and easily, with a relatively stripped down PR process, and I think we should look to explore that avenue for stuff this year as a way of continuing to take risks with new stuff without necessarily breaking the bank or over-burdening me with extra work I can’t keep up with.

Secondly, we don’t have to commercialise everything. We haven’t done a Toad Session in a while, and the warehouse is perfect for Toad Sessions. We could even start doing collaborative Toad Sessions too – get a couple of musicians in with the idea that they work together on a couple of songs each, a bit like our second ever session with Mariee Sioux and Alela Diane. Or we could just record stuff for people but them give them the masters for release elsewhere.

But in future I want the warehouse to be the engine room of the label. It’s a brilliant space – informal, relaxed, and it sounds great – and so that is inevitably going to lead to changes in how the label operates. We’re currently in the process of redesigning our entire web presence, and once that’s done the blog will be less about my opinions on this album or that album, and more about stuff we are actually doing. Pictures from recording sessions, discussion of the mixing process, all sorts, but focussed mostly around actually doing creative work.

It will still be ‘Hello this is me and here are my wonderful opinions about music’ of course, but with much more focus on helping that music to happen, rather than just pontificating about it. Which I think we can all agree would be a good thing.


I Stand With Sandi Thom (Sort Of)!


Is there anything which holds a mirror to modern society more than the gleeful cackling which accompanies any sort of public meltdown from any sort of celebrity, however minor?

Sandi Thom just posted a tearful, angry rant about Radio 2 not playlisting her new song, and the internet is having a bit of a field day. And for the first time in my life I find myself rather siding with Sandi Thom, actually – words I never thought I would utter.

Now, a bit like bands who post embarrassingly ranty ripostes to bad reviews and then are widely derided for their deluded sense of entitlement, I am not entirely sure I have all that much sympathy with people who put this sort of thing in the public realm. And of course the hundreds and thousands of bands who have only achieved half of what Sandi Thom has will be singularly unimpressed – you put something out there for the public to approve of or otherwise, and you have to face their verdict, that’s just the bargain you make.

But actually, as mockable as it was, what you saw from Sandi in her much-derided ‘Radio 2 didn’t playlist my brilliant song, the bastards’ meltdown is happening inside the little black, bitter, battered souls of every single one of your favourite musicians pretty much all the time.

A friend of mine called Euan Davidson wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian recently about mental illness and how much it impedes creative work, contrary to the popular stereotype of the tortured genius. Alanna McArdle, formerly of Joanna Gruesome, who Euan interviewed extensively for that article, was the subject of another article in the Guardian about the ruinous impact of touring on the wellbeing of people suffering from mental illness.

But one of the things that hasn’t come up too much is the absolute fucking emotional onslaught of actually releasing music at all – of just making any kind of music for public consumption – which must be one of the absolute hardest possible positions for a person with existing difficulties to be in.

I say this as someone lucky enough to have no such problems. In fact, I think I have a stronger sense of emotional equilibrium than almost anyone I have ever met, to the point that I worry from time to time that I might be a bit of a sociopath.

And I tell you what, even for someone like me, with a great upbringing, a happy family, a strong sense of myself, a loving wife and plenty of emotional reserves, this industry is fucking tough.

I am going to repeat that: seriously, it is really, really fucking tough.

And Sandi’s post shows pretty much why: death by the endless cuts of widespread public indifference.

She’s had a few slaggings in the past, based around allegations that her organic, internet-fuelled rise was not in fact innocent, but a well-executed campaign orchestrated by her management or label.

A public slagging, for whatever reason, is pretty tough to take, but much more common and still horrendously hurtful is the fact that most people just don’t give a fuck about something you’ve put your heart and soul into.

We aren’t famous enough to get a slagging from anyone, really, but we still have to face the indifference. Every time you excitedly put a song on the internet and pretty much no-one seems to notice, every time you book a gig you’re thrilled about and hardly anyone comes, every time you send out PR emails and wait forever for responses which aren’t coming, every time you scan the BBC playlists only to realise that basically no-one has played your latest release.

I get so wound up about this that whenever I sit down at my desk to do PR I am pre-emptively angry about the responses I already reckon aren’t coming. I get pissed off about people who listen to broadly the same music as we release basically just ignoring my emails or throwing the CD onto some infinite pile they are never going to actually dig through. It drives me insane, and I get intensely, spitefully angry before it’s even happened.

And I’m not even in a fucking band.

Imagine what it’s like standing up there on stage playing to hardly anyone, particularly in a venue you might have filled in the past. Imagine releasing your new creation, one you’ve slaved away on for months, maybe even years, and the world just collectively shrugs. And if you can’t imagine that, then imagine if you told your friends about it excitedly and they just went ‘oh right, sure’ and carried on with whatever they were doing as if you hadn’t said a word.

They can’t even be bothered insulting you, that’s how fucking worthless all that effort is.

And it’s constant, too. Bandmates not bothering to turn up for practice, labels not answering your emails promptly (one of which I am guilty), promoters not getting back to you, people not coming to the few gigs you do manage to book, no-one liking or sharing your song on social media, gazing forlornly at a dismally low play count on Soundcloud or YouTube… being a musician is just a constant, bruising assault on your sense of self-worth and I am fucking amazed anyone has the courage to stick to it.

Some people are hobbyists, I suppose, and don’t invest as much in it emotionally, and I suppose that might insulate them quite a bit. Maybe.

And some people just can’t really do anything else. A lot of artists are compelled to create. The myth of the tortured artist comes not, I think, from the fact that mental illness or emotional turmoil makes art better, but from the fact that a lot of people struggle to express complex emotions and are often driven to art as their best hope of getting something across about how they are feeling. And sometimes just the simple act of creation itself is enough.

So imagine being in that open or vulnerable state and finally putting something out and then no-one fucking cares. I am honestly amazed there aren’t more breakdowns. Or maybe we just don’t see them.

Now this sounds bleak as fuck doesn’t it, and there are a million tiny triumphs involved in this business too, and that’s what makes it worth doing. Every last bit of praise, exceptional mention on the radio from a presenter you respect, every busy gig surrounded by people who love the music, even just the strength of the friendships you forge from facing this together with your allies – loads of things make it not just worth it, but euphorically, joyously brilliant.

But that dark side is always there. The grim spectre of indifference, that little voice that stands on a musician’s shoulder nagging them that they might be fucking shit after all and should just give this all up and get a job in Asda.

I am one step removed from all this of course, as it’s not actually my own music the press and general public consistently show what I feel to be too little interest in, but all the tiny instances of disinterest still cut.

And when I see somebody, even somebody like Sandi Thom with whom I really have very little in common, crack like she did I have to confess my first thought is just ‘christ, love, I’m really fucking sorry and I think I kinda know how you feel’.

Despite the fact that I would kill for Radio 2 playlisting to be amongst the problems I have to tackle on a daily basis.


Toad Flake Paint Records Split 12″


As you may know, Song by Toad Records is a super-cool Brooklyn record label these days – well, for the next month or two anyway. We’ll be back to rather-less-cool Edinburgh in the new year. But anyway, for now: HIPSTERS!

Anyhow, I reckoned that one of the best possible ways to commemorate our trip was to record a Split 12″ with local bands while we were out here. My brother works in a recording studio and it seemed like a really good way to get involved with local music.

I have a couple of friends who are really into a lot of bands from around this part of the world. James from Passion Pusher and Tom from Gold Flake Paint have pointed me in the direction of a lot of great bands so I nudged them for a couple of recommendations and we soon came up with far too many bands to fit on one record because, well, whatever anyone tells you, there really is an awful lot of very good music out there.

Tom has his own label called Gold Flake Tapes actually, and we’ve talked in the past of doing jointly-promoted shows under an amalgamated Toad Flake Paint banner so… well, you can see where I’m going with this can’t you. This Split 12″ will be a one-off release on the newly minted Toad Flake Paint Records imprint, one sure to take the world by storm and become the great kingmaker label the world has been waiting for for so long.

Or maybe we’ll just make a record we both really, really like. Maybe just that, actually.

I went to see most of the bands in question during CMJ, which by sheer coincidence happened to take place the very week Mrs. Toad and I first moved over here, and it was a bit nerve-wracking to actually meet them in person.

I have a missing incisor at the moment, and a semi-inebriated, toothless Englishman lumbering up to a band after a show saying ‘hey, that was great, remember we talked about being on a record, well erm, want to be on this record we’re making?’ didn’t strike me as a great strategy for approaching people.

I never really make a good first impression on folk anyway though, and I have learned over the years that just not worrying about that and blundering on anyway in the hopes they’ll realise I’m sincere at some point tends to be the best approach. I’ve tried actually modifying my behaviour and trying to be a bit more subtle, but it tends to just come across as condescending and insincere, so I basically just went for it and hoped for the best.

It seemed to more or less work this time, I think. At least, everyone was really nice, if a bit baffled-looking at first, and a few members of the various bands had time for a bit of a chat and some basic planning.

One of the odder aspects of the process this time around is where it is actually going to be recorded.

See, the place my brother works over here is actually the National Opera Centre in Manhattan. It’s all entirely above board, but basically we are going to be faced with the somewhat bizarre scenario of waiting for all the nice grown up opera people to go home and then sneaking a bunch of pop bands in the back door to use the nice facilities after hours. It really is going to be an odd experience, but a fun one I think.

Because we are cheap bastards and refused to fly our normal photographer Nic Rue out for this one, my brother will do all the recording, I’ll do the photos and the video and then presumably we’ll mix the results between us.

Even though he’s a sound engineer who talked me through all my tentative early attempts at recording, my brother and I have never really worked together apart from an Inspector Tapehead Toad Session many years ago, so that too will be really nice.

Furnsss and Eskimeaux are on board already, and we’re just finalising the last couple of bands, but we’re nearly there and have recording dates down for late November and early December so far, so it’ll be a couple of months before it finally all comes together, but all being well we should leave New York at the end of the year with an amazing new record almost ready to go. Woo hoo!


Aberdeen Is Not As Shit As It Seems To Think It Is

union street from other end

I remember the first time I moved to Scotland and realising just how strong a taboo it was to actually say you were good at anything. That’s not something the English are especially comfortable with either of course, but it does seem that the further North you go the more likely some earth-shattering achievement is to be greeted with a noncommittal shrug and an inquiry as to whether or not you’d like another pint.

It was a bit off-putting at the start, learning to translate the full knowledge that, say, my German language skills were near fluent (which they were at the time) into ‘oh yes, I can speak a wee bit of German but it’s been a while’.

Once you get used to it, though, it’s really quite nice. And occasionally quite funny. If DaVinci were Aberdonian I am pretty sure the most you’d hear of it would be ‘yeh, ah fuck aboot wi paints sometimes when I can be ersed. Pint?’

Aberdeen is known as a bit of a shit-hole actually, but I am pretty sure that the main reason for that is not the town itself, but the fact that every time I go there all my friends apologise quite profusely for the fact that I felt the need to come up to Aberdeen at all.

It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s grey, because of the oil industry there is some of the greatest wealth inequality in the UK, the music scene is shit because no-one fucking bothers… you could paint it in a pretty crappy light I suppose.

The thing is, I first visited the place back in 1996 or so (I drove a friend up to start their new job and more or less the first thing we saw as we drove out to the complex was a field of sheep – hooray clichés!) Not all that frequently but nevertheless regularly I’ve been going up there for years now and on my latest trip, when once again my pals were apologising for me even having to be there at all, I had to stop them because it occurred to me that actually, I have never had a bad night in Aberdeen.

I mean, I keep going back, don’t I.

Contrary to that other great entirely bullshit Scottish cliché, they are some of the most generous people I know. Alright, there’s dicks everywhere, but Scottish people are generous as fuck and the further away you get from the fucking sphincter-clenchingly prissy middle classes of the Edinburgh New Town, the more people will go miles out of their way to help you out.

And this may seem like a bit of a tangent, but in fact, Rust2Rome has also been, erm, ‘enlightening’ when it comes to this particular part of the world. There are heroic exceptions of course, but the most legendary Rust2Romers seem to almost always be bloody Fifers or people from the North East of Scotland.

I suppose it makes sense. If you’re going to embark on a massive fuckwit escapade through Europe in a shitey car which may or may not start any given time you turn the key you are going to need a certain amount of stoic unflappability, and if that was an Olympic sport, every gold medal winner in history would come from the towns in and around Aberdeen.

They’re fucking mental of course. Just absolute blazing nut-jobs, the lot of them, but in the absolute best possible way. On the latest Rust2Rome one of the cars went on fire twice, and another didn’t start under its own steam for the entire trip and burned fifteen litres of oil. The drivers: Aberdonian (give or take a few miles). The response, a laugh, a shrug, a quick cigarette and get the fuck on with it.

This is a music blog of course, so I suppose I get to something like the point, inasmuch as I have one: what is the problem with the music scene up there? Well actually not all that much at the moment, which is sort of the point of this incredibly long and largely off-topic ramble. The classic criticism of the Aberdeen music scene was described thusly by a friend of mine a few years ago and I’ve run it past a few Aberdonians since, and they seem to generally agree.

Aberdeen is a very long way away from the rest of the country, especially the UK, but even most of the population of Scotland, so consequently no-one tours there. It’s expensive to get to and audiences are small. Because touring bands don’t really come through all that much, the local music audience tend to support their own, and look locally for the best music. The net result of this, however, is that the whole scene becomes very inward-facing so when touring bands do actually bother to visit Aberdeen, no-one goes, and of course that just makes them less likely to return, and the whole cycle become self-reinforcing.

But actually, if you look at what’s coming out of Aberdeen at the moment there is a really good collection of bands, so no matter how shit they keep telling you the place is, something is going very much right up there.

Take angry guitar music, for example. It won’t fill Wembley Stadium, but if you put Depeche Choad, Wendell Borton and Min Diesel together, that would be an excellent bill. Or alternatively, on the slightly more acoustic side, maybe Kitchen Cynics and Best Girl Athlete. Or the woozy electronic dreamscapes of Tryptamines. And that’s before you get into the ‘Aberdonian diaspora’ of the likes of Gerry Loves Records in Edinburgh, and bands like Lush Purr, The Yawns, DTHPDL and presumably countless more.

And to put the weirdness in perspective, Alan from the Kitchen Cynics just disappeared from our house when he came to play down here, wandered off into the haar over Leith Links, walked the town overnight and apparently got the first train back home.

Chemical Callum from Tryptamines is a concert pianist with an arm held together by half a dozen metal plates, who turned up in Edinburgh looking like the Levellers had turned to heroin, and then sat down and played the most beautiful piano to ever come from someone wearing a combat jacket.

Best Girl Athlete is a dad touring the world with his sixteen-year-old daughter during the school holidays.

I think Depeche Choad introduced themselves to me by telling me to fuck off, actually, although it’s all a little hazy. They really are all crazy, but somehow absolutely brilliant at the same time.

Glasgow is a magnet and tends to draw all the bands in Scotland into itself, but if you look at who is actually making the music, music in Scotland is not really all that dominated by the Central Belt at all.

I’d put on an all-dayer of this stuff of course, but the expense of driving six bands on a six-hour round trip would basically kill all hopes of not losing money, and therein lies the other problem: that distance makes it a serious challenge for bands in Aberdeen to get out and about and tour as much as they need to in order to get ‘out there’ to a wider audience.

There’s great stuff happening up there at the moment though, and I fucking love the place and the people. It’s a bit like London in the sense that you just have to develop a total blind-spot for the wankers, but if you do, then you too can develop that perfect tone of voice that lets you say ‘nah, it’s shite’, but secretly mean that a weird part of you loves the place for reasons that you can’t really be bothered to explain.


Willard Grant Conspiracy Mix Terror


(All photos by Nic Rue)

Alright, the word ‘terror’ might be somewhere in between a mild and a total exaggeration, but erm well, ‘moderate anxiety’ doesn’t seem to quite cut it as a headline in these ‘what happened next just broke my heart’ days.

I am not exactly what you would describe as an expert recording engineer. In fact, apart from the fact that I have actually recorded and mixed several things which have been released on a real record label (admittedly, just this one, but hey-ho), I am not really a recording engineer at all. When you’re recording bands who barely have more than a few demos that doesn’t seem to matter as much. That’s not meant to sound disrespectful, but they don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t know what I’m doing, and we all accept this and try and make music as good as we can as best we can. A fair deal.

Of course, in the last few years as I’ve become more experienced and more confident I’ve recorded some rather more established bands, and in almost every case mixed those recordings as well, which is a different kettle of fish altogether. You are expected to be a professional, at least to an extent. Initially it was just Toad Sessions, but recently it’s been for record releases with relatively well-established musicians that I know and admire. David Thomas Broughton was probably the first real example of that, on the third Split 12″. Jonnie Common and Sparrow & the Workshop were there or thereabouts too, albeit mitigated by the fact that we were already friends, which makes everything less scary.


Even more recently – i.e. last week – I invited the Willard Grant Conspiracy into our warehouse in Leith to record for our fifth Split 12″ (the fourth isn’t out yet, I know, but it is recorded and mixed so keep an eye out). Nothing is absolutely cast in stone just yet, but it looks like they will be joined on the record by Micah P. Hinson, the Kitchen Cynics and Tissø Lake, which is fantastic. Kitchen Cynics and Tissø Lake might be slightly more recent discoveries, but I’ve loved both Micah and the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s music for years, and I suppose that could be a terrifying thing for someone as inexperienced and inexpert as I am when it comes to audio engineering.

Fortunately, though, for some reason that sort of thing doesn’t really worry me. I don’t get flustered by meeting people whose stuff I really admire, which is something I am pretty grateful for, particularly given the industry I work in. There is definitely a worry about the basic mismatch in expertise with the Willard Grant Conspiracy particularly given that David, who played viola on these songs, actually recorded and mixed their (brilliant) last album himself, but well, why worry about that. It’ll be a learning experience, and they are really nice guys and I am pretty certain that they’ll be happy to extend me the patience to arrive at decent mixes in my own time.

In fact, sometimes it’s actually easier to mix for people who seriously know what they are doing. I remember doing Jonnie Common’s stuff for the last Split 12″ and thinking what a fastidious little fucker he is with his own recordings, and how painstakingly well-crafted his music is, and it made me very nervous. And in fact he did come back with all sorts of mixing notes. The difference, of course, was that precisely because he does know exactly what he’s doing, those notes were clear, precise, and once I had gone through them all they gave him exactly the mixes he wanted. So a lot of notes, fair enough, but only one iteration on the mixes was needed, which was brilliant.

So no, what gives me the anxiety is not actually any of this kind of stuff. I am relaxed about this sort of thing and the Willard Grant Conspiracy are decent guys, so no real stress there.


The worry is actually much more practical than that: it sounds so very good already, I get the feeling that 95% of the things I ‘might’ do whilst mixing it can only make it worse instead of better. The setup was Robert on vocals and acoustic guitar, with Jonah and Dave on cello and viola respectively. They play with a lot of empty space, and music that sparse gives me the jitters because it just feels more sensitive than a three piece rock band.

When all that’s happening in a song is a deep, sonorous bow of the cello then that sound has to be absolutely right or it will be really painfully obvious. And when the sound of everything is all basically spot on already it takes a very subtle and discreet touch to really make it ‘sing’ (sorry), and the risk of clumsily announcing your own amateurishness, particularly by overdoing it, is rather nerve-wracking.

When I first started to mix stuff I remember talking to my little brother about it, who is a professional sound engineer, albeit in a rather different field. I said that I had no idea what I was doing and would have no idea if I had done it right, and his response was pretty awesome. Basically he said that I listened to loads of music and therefore if I liked the results and thought they sounded good then they were right, end of conversation. You love this stuff, and if it sounds right to you, then that’s as right as it has to sound.

Obviously I go back and forth with the bands on any mixes I do, and will accept any and all feedback, but that bit of encouragement still sticks with me. Don’t worry, it’s music. If it sounds about right then by definition it is right.

So as long as I remember not to try and do too much and to let the actual playing and the sound of the room speak for themselves, I am hoping should be more or less okay. But it’s still really intimidating sitting there with these gorgeous, minimalist recordings, worried that every last tiny little thing you do to them will stand out like a sore thumb.

But, as I told myself when I started to learn to drive, there are plenty of way dumber people out there than me who can do this stuff, so fuck it, if they can do it so can I!