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by Martin Williams
If you're unfamiliar with the innumerable musical musings of Richard Youngs, either under his own name or with myriad collaborators, don't expect this introductory ramble to provide anything approaching a succinct distillation. Multi-instrumentalist, minimalist, folkie, improviser, experimenter: the elements give a few clues, but the dots don't really connect and the picture stays hazy, contradicting as much as it clarifies. His latest album for Indiana-based Jagjaguwar records, 'May', consists of six relatively concise and conventional songs for solo acoustic guitar and voice, but to call Richard Youngs a 'songwriter' would be to downplay the carefree incongruity of his musical enquiries thus far. There's no short cut to typifying his mode or milieu. Collections of extended austere songs tapping into a folk tradition slot next to electronic experiments, psychedelic drones, and musique concrete-like constructions. Which might suggest an irritating dilettante, but, as with the impulse to provoke that led him to begin a performance with a ten-minute reading of train timetables, craft and category have been thrown out the window in favour of something more impulsive and inspired, and the thread that ties it all together is a willingness to explore his limits, to challenge and surprise.When asked why he wrote, WG Sebald replied, "One doesn't know why one does it. You have no idea. If someone asks, you have to own up and say that you have no idea what your motives are. It could be a compulsive habit with neurotic dimensions. Or it could be vanity." He goes on to add exhibitionism and mercenary considerations as possibilities. Why do you make music?
When I was six or seven my Dad went to Australia to work for a couple of months. I found myself elbowing the bass notes of the piano and chanting, "Australia, my Daddy's going there". I couldn't help myself - it was how I responded. That was probably my first song or piece or whatever. From then I just found myself drawn to music. It grips me. If I don't make music I don't feel right. Does it follow that if I make music I feel right? I don't know. It is a mystery... I get musical ideas and I want to see them through. Even if I've no ideas, noodling around with music strikes me as a great way to spend time. It's also a very social thing - I make music with friends. Some people go play pool, we'll play music.And is it a logical extension of this to release records?
When I put out 'Advent' on No Fans Records, I guess it was vanity publishing... But, also with some things I don't feel it's complete until it's out there in a nice package. I make far more music than I release. Some of it feels right to release, some of it doesn't. Since 'Advent' I guess I've got a fanbase. No Fans was a statement of fact. These days I don't have to do it myself, but I still like certain things to be out there. And VHF and Jagjaguwar, who release my stuff, both seem to feel the same. And I really like it when they produce these great looking objects with my music on it. Maybe it is exhibitionism. I'm an only child, perhaps I need the attention!In the review of 'May', I made mention of Martin Carthy and John Cage as possible touchstones. British folk and experimental music: is this a fair approximation of where you're coming from?
I love British traditional music. I went to see Waterson:Carthy play earlier this year and they were amazing. Martin Carthy is one of my favourite guitarists. Norma and Eliza are such great singers. I went through a phase of reading a lot of John Cage, more so than listening to his music. Some of his stuff does it for me, some less so. I like Morton Feldman and Steve Reich whenever I hear them, but I don't listen to them much these days. Really, I enjoy all sorts of music. One of my favourite bands is Pink Floyd - not just the Syd Barrett stuff, but up to and including 'Meddle', which is an album I adore. Some music sticks with me; 'Metal Box' by Public Image Ltd. still sounds amazing - I think that had a big influence on a lot of friends who make music too. We'd've been teenagers when it came out and it was so bold... But, yeah, I listen to a lot of traditional music - I just discovered Nic Jones; he was great.For some reason I assumed it would be the other way around. I suppose based on the observation that while much of your music conforms to some kind of folk tradition, it's more distinctive and stylised than that.
My Dad's into early recorder music, among other things. That'd include a lot of folk melodies. I heard this before experimental music. At junior school we sang songs like the Boar's Head Carol, which is very traditional. But, I'm not sure how deep these went with me at the time. Perhaps it was a subtle subconscious thing that took years to resurface! I do remember, though, how excited I was when I heard the guitar break in See Emily Play age nine or whatever. This connected with me in a whole new way. I like John Cage's definition of experimental music: music the outcome of which cannot be foreseen. 'May', though kind of traditional, fits with this. I hadn't a clue how it'd turn out. I like it when this happens. What I release is perhaps the stuff that puzzles me the most. If I can work it out, it doesn't interest me.I read a comment by Nic Jones the other day where he was aghast at the idea of overdubbing and multi-tracking. Do you share any sense of this purism?
Sometimes. There are things you cannot do without overdubbing, especially if there's only one of you. But I can't imagine anything more boring than submitting to the production process - you know, where vocals are comped from several takes, where guitar parts are built up phrase by phrase if not note by note... All in the cause of getting a recording with what? It seems you run the risk of taking out much of what makes a lot of music special. I'm not convinced it adds. In any way. So, I'm not a purist, but then again how much more life many things would have if they weren't multi-tracked to within an inch of their life...Your style is quite distinctive, quite recognisable-lots of silence, repeated figures with subtle, incremental progressions. Did this evolve over time? Was it a deliberate evolution?
In the '80s I used to play folk clubs in St. Albans. They were the only place where you could go along, get up and do whatever you wanted - no audition, no demo, none of that nonsense. I remember one show where I was strumming two chords over and over while screaming out a list of fairly arbitrary objects. I kept on going until I was physically ejected from the stage - this'd be after about 15 minutes. There was no thought for any progression. I just wanted to see how far I could push it. Forgive me, I was young, intense and angry! These days I still do the repetition, but I think I do it differently. 'Advent' was the first thing with which I'm pleased that's in the style you describe. So, I guess style evolves... Deliberately? I don't think so, though I always like to try new things rather than repeat myself.The tone and dynamics of your music don't naturally suggest that kind of confrontation at all. But is there not an element of bloody-mindedness still? A song like Only Haligonian, for instance. It's hypnotic definitely, so I don't doubt your total immersion in it, but is there not a part of you that is detached from that and is curious to see how far you can push the song and the listeners?
It's not just the song and the listeners, I want to push myself too. I like being uncertain if something works or if it doesn't, if perhaps I've taken it too far. Maybe if you don't give the listener what they're used to it can be confrontational. I'm not sure this is bloody-mindedness, but I dare say I've got that streak in me and it surfaces from time to time.Do your long songs indicate impatience with, or disinterest in, the narrow attention span implied by more customary song form and length?
I'm told I'm an impatient person and part of this would be that I have a short attention span myself. I get bored quickly. Yet, I do like long songs - perhaps in spite of my personality. There's also the thing that I love playing. If I'm really getting into something I like to keep on with it until I'm ready to stop, which maybe more than three or four minutes... if things turn out twenty minutes, so be it.Do you play live?
Yes, I play live. I don't tour and I don't go out of my way to arrange concerts... Usually I get asked by friends to do shows. The last gig I did was just before Easter supporting the Acid Mothers Temple. Makoto Kawabata and I duetted - we swapped banjo and twelve-string guitar, I did a bit of singing. We both enjoyed ourselves. Before that I played the Bloomingtonfest in Bloomington, home of Jagjaguwar. That was great fun - hanging out with all these wonderful people. I got to do my sort-of singer-songwriter set. And every year the Vibra Cathedral Orchestra, Sunroof! and I try to do a show here in Glasgow. This'd be less mainstream; I get out the ring modulator and plug in... Where else recently? I played festivals in Belgium and Holland. The hospitality you get on the continent is amazing! It puts Britain to shame. I also got to do my songs supporting Damon and Naomi when they were in Glasgow. So, I get out. And, I'm open to offers!Do you have a particular reason for not touring?
I haven't put it to the test, I'm not sure I want to, but I genuinely believe that touring would kill my interest in making music. It seems a bit of a treadmill. I don't think I could hack doing the same thing night after night. As it is, I play live what I want when I want. Each show can be special... There are people who love touring, I sense it's not for me.What dictates the length of your songs? I'm assuming that they're at least partially improvised. Is it fair to assume that, given that their duration is reliant on your relationship to them each time you play them, the songs on 'Sapphie', say, could have turned out half their length if recorded on a different day? With this indeterminacy of sorts in mind, do you find it difficult to decide upon a version of each song to release, given that each time you play/record it the song could be markedly different?
With 'Sapphie' I had a load of lyrics written out. I'd kept a journal where I wrote one line every day for a year. Near the close of the year I chose my favourite lines, and it was a matter of fitting them all in. So, yes, on other days I could've sung faster and it'd've worked out much shorter. Or slower and it'd've been longer. I've done live versions of those songs, which are much shorter because I didn't use the same words as on the studio version, through choice or from being forgetful. With 'Making Paper' I'd the challenge from Chris at Jagjaguwar to make a piano and voice album. I had no lyrics written down, they were all off the top of my head, as was the music, and I wanted to create forty minutes or so of music. So things stretched... And it happened that I liked the end result. 'May'? It slowly evolved and I stopped when I felt it all hung together. Neon Winter could last a minute, it could go on for an hour, easily. In the recorded version I hit a bum note and just stopped. Listening back, it worked for me... As regards choosing which version of a song to go with... there usually is only one version. If something doesn't sound good the first time, I tend to want to move onto something else.I thought Sapphie was about your dog. Was that just press release-speak?
Oh, the dog bit was a red herring. Sapphie was an Alsatian that belonged to a friend, Alison. I'd never got on with dogs until I met Sapphie. I really loved that dog - he was so laid back, such a great personality. When he died I was sad. Whenever I go through Lancaster on the train, I think of Sapphie, because that's where he lived. Anyway, I had these great pawprints, which is the cover, and I wanted to commemorate him in some way, so I named the album after him. The songs don't relate to him at all.You mentioned your 'singer-songwriter set'. Is your work necessarily compartmentalised in that way?
Oh, definitely my solo music is different from the collaborations. I can hear no link whatsoever between, say, 'Sapphie' and some of the stuff I did with Brian Lavelle. So, there's probably not that many people who like it all.Seen from a certain angle, your music could be taken as exercises in austerity or discipline, from the melodic and lyrical repetitions to the instrumentation and the means of recording. Do you find some liberation in these 'limitations'?
Choice can be a terrible thing. When I recorded 'Sapphie' the only instrument I had was a classical guitar. So, that's what I played. Had I more instruments to choose from I may've deliberated and lost focus. I mean I'm not a fan of overproduction, I like things a little undercooked if anything. Also, I'm pretty sure my mind can only focus on just so much and no more musically, so I do what I can to make music I enjoy.What informs you recording on DAT & minidisc? Is the process of recording an integral part of the finished thing for you?
Often it's a case of what's available. I've always tried to avoid recording studios - the atmosphere is way nicer elsewhere, and way cheaper! Performing live to DAT, minidisc or analogue tape, and not overdubbing unless absolutely necessary, I believe, gives a better feel. Not even allowing for a remix puts you on the spot and, maybe, you get better performances. Having said this, the track I've sent you for Comes with a Smile has overdubs... So, this is by no means written in stone. Most of my adolescence was spent mucking around with tape recorders... In fact, I love mucking around with sound, and a lot of my collaborations involve using recording equipment as instruments. So, I guess, sometimes I just do what feels right.On Like Tigers Now it sounds as if you've played the same thing in each channel, starting at the same point but deviating in time and tempo along the way.
I played a repeated banjo figure twice over - my sense of rhythm is pretty out, I'd never cut it as a session musician because of this, so without trying it does a kind of round with itself. Then I did the singing - with overdubs! There's a Tibetan proverb about how it's better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep. That's where the title comes from.Your lyrics are occasionally difficult to decipher. Does it matter to you that people might not know what you're singing, and that the words end up being taken on a solely musical level?
I read somewhere that Tim Buckley, I think, said he felt it a pity that words actually meant something. I understand that. When I listen to even the most narrative traditional song, I don't take in the words, more their sounds. In fact recently I've recorded a few songs with made up words - you know, nonsense words. So, I myself probably take most singing on a solely musical level. In fact, I have problems remembering words for live shows.Both your current labels-Jagjaguwar and VHF-are American (as are Table of the Elements, who reissued 'Advent'). Do you draw any conclusions from that?
Not really, it's the way things panned out. VHF was putting music out by Skullflower, I'm friends with Matthew Bower who was in the group and one thing led to another - I think how it happened was I recorded a duet LP with Matthew and it wound up on VHF. We went on from there... Jagjaguwar, if I remember correctly, wrote to me after hearing 'Sapphie' when it was on Oblique, funnily enough another American label. I'm not sure how it happened but 'Sapphie' turned out to be the first thing they put out by me, when they re-released it. Again, we've gone on from there. They're both great labels run by great people, people who are friends and who I totally trust. So, I hope we stick together.You've been quite prolific over a decade, yet remain a relatively well-kept secret. What's your view of the Glasgow and UK music scenes and your place within them?
Well, I'm not a scene player, for sure. So, I'm not really up on what exactly represents the Glasgow and UK scenes. As for my place within them? Probably somewhere outside of them. Which, I've no problem with whatsoever. I'm very happy to quietly potter on in my own way.Are your collaborators generally friends first? Is making music an extension of your friendships with these people?
Yes, I think making music is an extension of friendship. Simon Wickham-Smith, with whom I've collaborated longest, was a friend for at least a couple of years before we made any music together. Music is also a great way to make friends. I wouldn't know Makoto were it not that he was touring with Toho Sara and I was asked to join them for their Glasgow show. And then every time he played Glasgow after that I was usually on the bill. At some point we decided it'd be fun to record something together. Doing things that are fun is what works best, I believe. I don't see the point of collaboration if it isn't fun.What's on the horizon for Richard Youngs?
Aside from going to my day job in an hour's time... Much of the same. I've several collaborations on the go with friends: Simon Wickham-Smith, Paz, Matthew Bower, Makoto Kawabata... and I'm always pottering around with solo stuff. It'd be nice to do the annual Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and Sunroof! Glasgow gig, but that's yet to be sorted out - the usual venue, the 13th Note has shut and relocated. We'll see.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002