In spite both of us adhering to irregular schedules, I was able to catch up with iconoclastic Glasgow songsmith John Gilmour Smith. As one of Scotland’s most thought-provoking musicians, the man had plenty to say. Big Peter listened intently.
PM: Would you recommend that people question everything in front of them nowadays?
JGS: I think it’s been the case for a long, long time – a lot longer than most people would admit. If you take, for example, what people are starting to question now, you can look back through history and see that a lot of what has happened, historically, has been manipulated – like the Second and First World War. Some points have been manipulated. The question as to why, though, I don’t hold the answer. Also, there will be incidents like-
At this point, we stopped to consider a well-known longhaired comedian who was- indeed, is - married to an anatomically-correct pop star. Can you guess who?
-the incident where the guy was on the radio with Jonathan Ross, and they said something about him having sex with the guy from Fawlty Towers’ granddaughter. What amazed me about that was the number of people who were so offended by that, yet nobody really heard it at the time – they all went and listened to it to see if they were offended! We have a situation with the Blair government – everybody knows that they lied about the reasons for going to Iraq, which has been the death of not only our soldiers but innocent Iraqi people, too, yet that doesn’t seem to really offend anybody. We’re offended because some guy said he shagged some guy’s granddaughter! Know what I mean?
At this point I agree enthusiastically.
PM: It seems as well that sentences for crimes against companies or big corporations are more severe than sentences for crimes against people.
JGS: You can get longer for screwing up your income tax than you can for murdering someone nowadays. I believe that it’s a bigger problem for them if somebody’s nicking money from them than if somebody’s murdering someone they don’t know. Have you seen “The Dark Knight?” There’s a great line it in where The Joker is dressed as a nurse, and he’s talking to Harvey Dent in the bed. He says, “As long as everything goes to plan, it doesn’t matter if a bunch of soldiers get killed, that’s all right, because it’s part of the plan.” The minute you step out of that plan, it’s utter chaos, and that’s true. Provided that everything goes along in a line that people expect to see, nobody bats an eyelid. I mean, it’s a terrible story about what happened to Madeleine McCann, but that one girl became worldwide news. In Africa, thousands of kids are dying every single day. But we’re used to that, right? Not that I’m taking anything away from that a young girl was kidnapped (or whatever happened, I don’t know), but it’s the shock! horror! reaction that gets to me.
What about the music? Isn’t this guy a musician?
PM: When did you realise that you wanted to start making music?
JGS: I was probably about nine when I got really into it, and bought “Message in a Bottle” by The Police; that was the first single that I think I ever used my pocket money to buy! That probably piqued my interest. When I got to about 14 or 15, I got a bass guitar from a friend. I got into rock music like KISS – all the standard stuff – and I also got really into bands like Rush. My first instrument was bass, but I quickly wanted to get into songwriting. From that age until about my early 20s, I probably wanted to be a rockstar like everybody else – hanging out with your mates, playing in a band, getting some birds, take some drugs – so I had the same start as everyone else. I have a terrible habit of becoming bored really, really quickly, and I got bored with rock music. I wanted to do something different, and a lot of my pals didn’t. In the end, a mate of mine, Paul, and I wound up trying to do our own thing, but we kept getting told what we should sound like. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I was making good money in a job and the question was always “do I want to leave a job that I’m earning good money in?”
JGS: No, not so much even security. I’m not going to sleep in the back of some old van just to play a gig in front of 30 people – I’d rather have cash!
PM: Here we have the distinction between the perceived notion of the rockstar and the reality.
JGS: A total difference! There’s a tiny number of people in the music industry – fewer now than ever – that are actually making cash. Everyone else is driving about in an old Volkswagen van that stinks of piss. I’m not doing that!
PM: Could you elaborate on your current musical influences, if any?
JGS: They’re probably not that different from what they were. When I was 15, it was stuff like KISS - anything bright and theatrical. I was hugely into Bowie at the time, and still am. I really like Prince as well. The Blue Mile became perhaps my favourite band, them and Depeche Mode, for very different reasons. I’m finding it harder and harder to get into modern bands, though. It’s just as if I feel that I’ve heard a lot of it done before. What I’m interested in now is music that is honest and sincere. The vast majority of what I hear now is someone (or some people) acting, whereas KISS – 60 year-old guys wearing make-up – don’t pretend to be anything other than entertainment. They put on make-up and make shit explode! You know what you’re getting. Nowadays, it seems you need to pretend that you watch Belgian art films. Nobody does that, really! By contrast, with my album, I tried to make it as close to a conversation with me as it could be, and I didn’t want to fill it with egotistical musicianship. That’s what I like about electronic music: it keeps away from the ego. I guess I want to avoid the singer-songwriter tag - in the traditional sense, anyway.
PM: What influences your everyday songwriting?
JGS: Everything. People have said that the album is downbeat. I’m not really sure what that means. It doesn’t necessarily mean depressing. Generally speaking, though, I’ve never found the happier things that happen in life to be as influential. I guess the general story of this album is that I’m pissed off with what’s going on in the world. If I’ve got a question in mind, I guess that does come out in the songs. Real life is what inspires me to write, though it may inspire me to write some negative things.
We then exchanged thoughts on the state of the music industry today, with the point being agreed that the X-Factor circus should be regarded as “light entertainment” at best. Is it entertaining, though?
PM: What do you want to achieve with the album?
JGS: When we did the album, I never thought about the ramifications. I just wanted to make and album that would be as honest as I could make it. If no one else in the world was to like it, that’s fine. Francis (Dunnery, producer) and I both really liked it. I’ve never really thought about how many records I would sell, but it would have to be a lot before I’d think about not working. The whole idea for putting out a record was to put out something that I really like. The reaction to the album has been really good. I don’t have the money to compete with the big acts, so what do you do?
JOHN GILMOUR SMITH is playing at The Roxy 171 (formerly The Liquid Ship) on Friday 25 November 2011. His album, “The Story We’ve Been Sold,” is available from Aquarian Nation and many reputable online stores.