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SuperstarIn the summer of '98 at air studios I sat with Superstar's Joe McAlinden during a break from recording what was to become Phat Dat, the band's third full-length album. What follows is the chat we had back then and an update from May of this year.
an interview with Joe McAlinden by Matt Dornan / pictures by Paul Heartfield
We're on a search for George Martin, saw him eating his soup over there, explains Joe over drinks in the canteen
. No we've just started recording our next album while we've got some time. It's not going to be out until probably April ['99]. What we're doing is recording the album in two stages. We're doing this week and then a week in November to finish. Songs that were recorded in this half could possibly be the singles. It's going well. We had an orchestra in yesterday which was pretty good fun.
Are you arranging the parts yourself?
I'm working with a classical arranger. Pretty interesting.
You're classically trained. I'd assume that helps.
I think a lot of people use strings and stuff to fill out their sound. But I'm a classically trained violinist and saxophonist as well and I know what woodwind and brass and strings can do and how they can sound and how you can use different textures. The arrangement that we have done is very classical and it was classical players we got in - not the pop section with the turtlenecks! So, yeah, I was brought up learning classical music and [long pause] I can't shake it!
Superstar, the song, has turned up on two of your albums, a single and Rod Stewart has covered it. Do you consider it to be your signature song?
I think it's a song the record company are more proud of than me [laughs]. I think the reason it was a single was that it was getting more radio play than if it was on the A-list. At that point we had record companies ringing us up saying 'We'll put this out as a single for you, it's gonna be a number one.' And there's a good chance it would have been, you know. But it would have been one-hit-wonder time, you know, because there was no fan-base or anything. So we decided, 'no'. I said we should just put it on our first album. We've had five 'singles-of-the-week' in the last nine months and we've only released three singles. Work that one out!
You've had to overcome some pigeonholing, being on Creation, pals with Teenage Fanclub etc.
I think we sound like Superstar. I do think we have a very distinctive sound. And I also think that the press wasn't ready for what we did with Palm Tree. The emotional aspect of it and I think they shied away from it and a lot of them didn't understand it so they kinda dismissed it. It's a natural human instinct. The great thing is people are discovering [Palm Tree] all the time.
How do you react to the Queen comparison?
There's a big gap in the market there, Freddie's gone! They did do some really good stuff around Night Of The Opera. I'm not saying I'm a Queen fan. I mean Crazy Little Thing Called Love, it's a killer ... is it fuck!
And the Fanclub connection?
"I hate it, I hate it. Me, Norman and Gerry grew up together. We were friends before bands. I was in a band with Norman before the Fanclub called The Boy Hairdressers. We grew up listening to a lot of the same types of music. I think it's just really lazy journalism. I let Norman hear Palm Tree when it was finished and he said to me 'that is such a distinctive sound. It doesn't sound like anybody else.' I'm just trying my best to sound like me.
Is your fan-base geographically defined?
We've deliberately shied away from Glasgow 'cause they're a cynical lot. A lot of gigs we were playing to friends all the time and - no disrespect, they've been fantastic - you get fed up playing to your pals. They give us a real honest reaction. I want to stand on stage and see a face I've never seen before.
The Japanese have a soft-spot for you.
The last time I was in Japan there was a display in this really big record shop and it had my name on it with 'The Godfather of Scottish Pop'! And there was all the records that I'd played on. It was pretty impressive! I'm quite popular over there, everyone thinks I sing like an angel. We went over with Eugenius around the time of Greatest Hits Volume One and played three sold out nights in Tokyo. Apparently we were the first band to be asked to Japan without a full album. Fifteen hours to the other side of the world and a room full of people who look cooler than you! I remember spending ages packing my case and then walking on stage looking like a fucking tramp!
After Creation, you signed an ill-fated deal with EMI America.
The worst record company in the world. I sat down with the band and said 'Look, I really think if we stay with [EMI] we're going to be in big trouble, we'll probably die a death. So, it would mean giving up our wages and that.' [Mimics disgruntled musician] 'What, no money?' I was completely shattered. That night I got pissed on Vodka and wrote Superstar. It's not a love song. Did I sound like Johnny Rotten then? So, me and Jim were left stuck in that contract for a year and a half. If you take that time out of the equation I've only been doing this for about three years and in that time I've put out two mini-albums, two full albums and we're doing a third one. Pretty good going I think. I'm proud of everything I've done.
Are you ready to work with Brian Wilson now?
I don't want him riding on the crest of my wave, no chance! Ha, ha, ha! I dunno, he needs someone to show him the way.
And your thoughts on Rod Stewart's version of Superstar?
There are a few good things on [his album]. Superstar does sound like Rod Stewart singing Superstar. My take on it is that probably one of the top five best known singers in the world heard one of my songs and covered it. It's a compliment if someone's wedding band did it.
The Update : May 2000.
I recently e-mailed Joe to get his reactions now that Phat Dat is finally complete. First I asked him about the frustrations of being made to wait so long and the changes the record went through as a result of the delays.
The session at Air Studios was for an interim single and not for Phat Dat. I only ever go in to record when I've written an albums worth of material. Phat Dat started late December 1998 and was mixed in January 1999. I was very happy with the results. Then came the delay. Bastards! During this time, I realised that although most of the songs were a step forward, some of them were in the same area as Palm Tree. I ditched those ones and wrote some more. I also made the conscious decision to keep the album short. All classic albums are 10 trackers. According to Frank Sinatra you do two fast numbers, one slow number, then you can do whatever you want. Initially, I was very strong. 'I won't let those bastards drag me down' were my daily words of wisdom. After a year of doing nothing, I began to lose all focus. Even today I'm a little unsure. What is it I do again? I climbed Munro last weekend. Me and Jim. 4000 feet. That sums up last year for me. But you know what? I'm still here. Like a rash I won't go away."
There's a marked juxtaposition of the traditional (brass and strings) and the contemporary (samples and drum loops) on Phat Dat. Was this planned?
When I write a song, whether I'm playing guitar or sitting at a piano, I usually hear how it should sound in my head. I've definitely been blessed with a gift. It also helps if you don't care about sounding cool or worry about whether people will like it or not. I do what I want when I want. I love so many genres of music that my influences are bound to surface all muddled up. That's how new things are created. I hope this answer is not to much of a cop out. You know, it's very hard trying to explain genius. Bahoo!!
CWAS #5 - Summer 2000