DATE OF INTERVIEW:
17th June 2010
CHARLIE & CRAIG REID
With blurb on The Proclaimers' website stating that identical twin brothers Charlie and Craig Reid "have carved out a niche for themselves in the netherworld where pop, folk, new wave and punk collide", it is a pertinent description of the Scotsmen's music which has, over the years, eschewed trends of the eras in which they have been active. Forging a sound and style that defies generic labelling, love 'em or hate 'em, one can't deny they have achieved that rare feat within the realm of popular music - a sustained unique identity through their songwriting prowess which has been proven to speak to different generations of fan on many different levels. Commendation from the likes of David Tennant ("They write the most spectacular songs, big hearted, uncynical and passionate songs.") and Matt Lucas ("Sunshine on Leith says more to me about my life and the way I feel than anything Morrissey or Cobain ever wrote.") indubitably echoes the sentiments of how millions across the globe feel about The Proclaimers' music.
In Lincoln mid-June for their first ever gig in the historic cathedral city, I arrive at the venue just before my scheduled interview time to discover the brothers are still soundchecking. After half an hour, as I near the end of a pint of hot tea in a plastic cup (!?!) that was kindly made for me by one of the band's crew, Craig appears first from soundcheck, shortly followed by Charlie, and we settle down in a backstage room, with initial conversations about the World Cup and the hopelessness of England's chances to progress very far in the tournament after a lacklustre performance against the USA a few days previously. As down to earth and unpretentious as their music, Charlie and Craig have not even the faintest hint of celebrity ego, and over the course of half an hour I quiz them on a variety of subjects including the importance of regional identity, their cartoon guises during season four of 'Family Guy' and, of course, that song...
METAL DISCOVERY: Will tonight be your first ever show in Lincoln?
CHARLIE: It is, yes, surprisingly because it’s a major English town and we’ve never played here. We played Durham last night and we’ve played there a couple of times. We’ve played places liked St Austell and Shrewsbury…smallish towns, but we’ve never played here. The nearest was Cleethorpes, I think.
(Craig Reid on the relationship between art and politics)
"I think art can reflect the times and how much it changes it, I don’t know. You would say that if art is influenced by political events then politicians, somewhere down the line, in their conscious or subconscious must be influenced by artistic and creative things."
Charlie & Craig Reid backstage at The Engine Shed, Lincoln, 17th June 2010
Photograph copyright © 2010 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
CRAIG: We’ve done Leicester, Nottingham, Derby. They’re the closest ones. Norwich the other way, Hull the other way, Cleethorpes last time, so…
MD: …everywhere around Lincoln but never in Lincoln. Have you managed to get out and about in Lincoln at all?
CRAIG: Not yet but we’ll get to tomorrow. We’re staying right across from the cathedral so we’re gonna have a look there.
MD: Where are you staying?
CHARLIE: The Lincoln Hotel.
MD: Ah yeah, that’s a nice one.
CHARLIE: It looks like a sixties one that’s been done up and they’ve spent a bit of money on it. The rooms are really nice, there’s a lot of thought gone into it.
MD: How are your voices right now? [to Craig]…I read you had some problems with your voice recently…
CRAIG: We did three acoustic concerts in America about four weeks ago. The first one was in New York and that was fine but I had to go down to London twice to get fingerprints for visas and I think I caught something on the train coming back. It was something like laryngitis. Usually you’re okay…we played a show and hadn’t pushed my voice, and the next morning I woke up and was like…“fuck”! Something was just not there and we had to cancel the next two gigs….but, since then, it’s been okay. You get the normal rough thing but that was the last…
CHARLIE: The hay fever too…
MD: [To Craig]…Do you suffer from hay fever then?
CRAIG: Not badly, but enough if you’re a singer. I just get it a wee bit, in my eyes, and you can feel it with your throat. I think if you’re a singer, even if it’s not that bad, you do notice it.
CHARLIE: I think the number one thing is if you’re a singer, unless you’ve got a cold or something wrong, you just try to not use your voice and keep a hold of your talking. It's just like a muscle. If you run a couple of miles you don’t notice it but if you run thirty miles, then you’re gonna notice it.
MD: You’ve written music in three different decades but you’ve always avoided musical trends of those eras to do your own thing. Is it always your aim to consciously write songs that are timeless as such, or would you say that’s just a natural consequence of your style?
CHARLIE: It’s natural. We just write the songs that we write and what your imagination comes up with. If it sounds like something that’s around at the time, a type of sound that’s around at the time, that’s one thing and if it doesn’t that’s another thing. You don’t really think - “I’m gonna write a classic song”. You just write a song and that’s the way we’ve always done it.
CRAIG: We try to write honestly. The initial records, they were acoustic, the initial album, and always build from that kind of thing. You then bring in other people and that gives it colour and light and shade I think. We’re always in the aim of writing as clearly and as honestly as we can and then not worry too much about what’s gonna chart or what’s not gonna chart. I try to be influenced by everything to some degree. You just listen to it, and soak it, and not try to be…of course you’ve got favourite things you like, but even artists I don’t identify with I try to listen to hear what it is because I think it’s important. And if you’re influenced by a lot of things then hopefully when you put something out and you just write it from the heart, then not only will it be good but you’ve got a range of things that influence it rather than just one or two artists.
MD: And over time becomes timeless.
CHARLIE: I hope so.
MD: Definitely…as has been proven over the years. Would you say writing music as twins enhances creativity in that gives you an innate musical chemistry between the two of you, or do you ever encounter many differences of opinion?
CHARLIE: If we have a difference of opinion for a song we don’t do it. It’s as simple as that. When we first started we lived in the same flat so we wrote mainly together but after the first record we were living apart so we wrote, as we do now, we wrote pretty much the whole song and then we’d come together and just start playing it over, and then you change what you don’t like about it. Then you get the key and the tempo, and you work it from there. That’s how we do it and that’s how we demo songs - it’s always just acoustic with two voices.
MD: Do your vocal harmonies take much arranging or do they come quite naturally?
CHARLIE: Again, we try to keep it simple and then when we’re in the studio, particularly the last two albums we’ve worked with a guy called Steve Evans - he really broke it down a lot. Some things we didn’t change an awful lot really but…he really analysed it. You do that and then it’s a mixture between the instinctive thing and a little bit of disassembly and reassembly. It’s not a technical thing for us, it’s how it feels.
MD: A very organic kind of process.
CHARLIE: It’s got to be.
MD: You both grew up as teenagers in the classic punk era during the seventies and I’ve read that genre had some influence on your early musical development. Would you say that punk influence still manifests in your music today?
CHARLIE: Yeah, I think it does.
CRAIG: I think when we started making music together about 1975/1976, it was just before that happened so when it came out it was the kind of stuff…we were trying to play old Stones stuff, and The Kinks stuff, and The Animals and stuff like that, so when the punk thing came out, it was fast and aggressive and you didn’t have to play well. It was going to suit us completely. We loved it and it was like our generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. I loved music before but when punk happened it was ours…we felt it was ours, and we wanted to play it, so I think that always influences you. I think the stuff you hear when you first start playing is probably always gonna be an influence.
MD: You have the folk thing going on in your music as well and he said that punk and folk are the same genre for him because he said they’re both “music of the people” and “naïve musical forms”. Do you see a connection between the two?
CHARLIE: I think they are and I’ll sit and listen to a reggae record, or a King Tubby record, or Muddy Waters, or a country record, or a folk music record, and I don’t think they’re that different.
MD: So what do you think of genres and labelling of music then?
CHARLIE: You know what, I think the best is when you invent your own. I think someone like a Van Morrison - he basically transcended everything that was going on around him and he has such a distinctive voice that he does his own thing. I think the truly great people can do that. There’s no musical form that I would say I really don’t like so, again, that’s just the thing of trying to be influenced by everything; just try and listen to everything. You’re naturally gonna filter out the things that don’t appeal to you as much. The more you hear, the more you should grow as a writer.
MD: I’ve always said this, that there should only be two genres of music - music you like and music you don’t because, at the end of the day, it’s all music. Why does there have to be so many labels?
CHARLIE: When people go to you - “do you like this music, do you like that?”, I go “well, there isn’t anything that I wouldn’t listen to”. There are certain artists that I would favour and identify with more.
MD: You’ve obviously always sung your lyrics with a pronounced Scottish dialect which I think instantly gives the music a very sincere feeling and a lot of integrity. Has your regional identity and cultural heritage always been an important part of your music?
CRAIG: It’s just part of who we are. I think the fact that we sing with a Scottish accent is because we speak with a Scottish accent. It’s not really here nor there. If you want to write stuff that is authentic, you’re singing about your own experiences, we felt it would be stupid to do it in anything other than our own accents. And that’s it. It’s part of your identity and you try to be as straightforward and as open as you can.
MD: It seems to be more accepted in the mainstream now with more bands doing that than when you started. You seemed to pre-empt everybody doing that, now you have the likes of Snow Patrol and so forth.
CHARLIE: If you think back, someone like Ian Dury who was very, very distinctive with his East London type voice. There have been people over the years, but there weren’t many. I’ve got to say, there weren’t many. I can’t think of any Scottish ones who did it in the popular music genre. You would say Alex Harvey got towards it but it wasn’t quite…
MD: I think you hit the mid-90s though and you get a plethora of bands starting to do that.
CHARLIE: That’s right, it’s definitely a more recent thing. I would say we were one among the other ones that were doing it.
MD: Do you think you paved the way for that kind of thing?
CRAIG: Not consciously but we were always surprised and very gratified when more people started doing it, and I’m really glad that we did.
MD: Your lyrics sometimes express political views - would you say those are just observational commentaries or do you hope that people might be encouraged to think a little more profoundly about the subjects you sing?
CHARLIE: I don’t know if you can change people’s minds but you just put over your own opinions. When we put something out that’s political, I don’t think “I hope that changes people’s minds”. I hope they listen to it and they understand it, and that’s it. It’s our song and it’s our opinion but it’s definitely not a conscious thing to try and change people’s minds. We write it because we’re moved to write it. There’s been a good few down the years and it’s when we’ve been moved to do it but, nah, you’re not writing to change anybody’s mind.
MD: Do you think art can influence politics or do you believe only the contrary is possible?
CRAIG: I think art can reflect the times and how much it changes it, I don’t know. You would say that if art is influenced by political events then politicians, somewhere down the line, in their conscious or subconscious must be influenced by artistic and creative things. Yeah, it reflects it, but how much it changes it…
CHARLIE: I think maybe it changes it more for the next generation of politicians. Maybe it doesn’t and then reality catches up and politics wins every time. But it goes in and people listen to…fucking David Cameron said he was a great Smiths fan and, you know, if you listen to stuff you assume it will go in and then maybe it does have some effect but I think it’s probably quite minimal.
MD: Is Cameron a Proclaimers fan, do you know?
CHARLIE: I wouldn’t have though so! I don’t think we’ll get an invite to No.10!
MD: Would you go?
CHARLIE: I don’t know; I think probably not. I think musicians inevitably become disenchanted by politicians. A musician sees himself as a pure thing and the politician, by definition, cannot be pure because he has to deal with the grimy and the dirty…
MD: Exactly. And politics centres around ideology which is all about hiding the truth so, yeah, far from pure. How’s your fan base in 2010? Do you find you’re still able to attract a younger generation of fans as well as the established fans?
CRAIG: Yeah, we do. We have an incredible fan base. We did a date in Crawley, in London, last week and it was amazing. An even split between male and female, and basically from 5 or 6 year olds up to 60s. You know, really amazing. I think broader than we did in the first place.
CHARLIE: It was always evenly split between male and female but I think the age range now is incredible.
MD: And that’s testament to your song writing abilities in that it can appeal to different generations.
CHARLIE: Even if it only reaches them on a level of a few songs…well, at least you’ve done something.
MD: I did an interview with Ade Edmondson last year…have you heard of The Bad Shepherds?
CRAIG & CHARLIE: Oh yeah, yeah.