Having released over 40 albums and run the Fence Collective from a small village in Fife, Scottish folk artist King Creosote is finally getting the acclaim he deserves. He talks to Jake Newby about his apprehension over travelling to China and how Jon Hopkins made him cry
You've released over 40 albums during your career. Are you constantly writing and recording?
I try to carry a notebook around with me when I'm travelling, that's when I find it easiest to write lyrics. I never sit down with a blank piece of paper and a pen. I have books upon books of scribblings, most of it utter dross alas. If I'm at home with a guitar, or sitting in front of a piano with no one around, I'll tinker about with chords, la-la-la a melody or two, record it onto a dictaphone if it's half decent ... at least until my gran knocks through the wall for me to shut up seeing as it's gone 1am.
Sometime in the future a set of chords might match a lyric. If not I'll struggle on regardless to find a lyric and then write the finished song into my song book, but this type of song always sounds a little forced to my ears. This is when I switch on my eight track and press record. If months go by and there's no songs appearing in my song book, I'll borrow a new instrument and see what comes out of it, add lyrics, or not, later.
Once I have two or three such songs underway, I'm on a mission to complete an album's worth, and I'll become totally absorbed for up to a week, a lot of it spent doodling artwork and album titles though. The busier I get doing live shows, the less time I have to record, and it's often the case that being asked to do a cover version or a remix is the impetus for the next KC project. Finished songs from my eight track often end up buried inside the recordings I make for Domino.
What makes you so productive?
I use the writing of songs as an extension of my diary writing - all the good/bad stuff, the imaginary stuff, the exaggerated and embarrassing will end up in lyrics, coded or not. A lyric of utter nonsense can still transport me back to the day and the mood in which it was penned, sometimes this can be a more accurate memory of a day than my actual diary entry. That's my thing. The singing of songs is usually my means of coping with stresses and hurt, more often an escape from any woes I might have. I rarely sing my songs when feeling upbeat, but I might drag out the accordion. Upbeat days are for being outside or for Xbox.
With such a large back catalogue to choose from, how do you put together a set list when you play live?
The opening song is usually the simplest one, then the next two are to clear the singing pipes. I try to put together a live set much the same way as I would an album, but it depends on the gig itself. An outdoor festival set will usually contain a lot more of "the hits", or in my case, those songs I know get a good reaction live. An indoor show I can read the crowd and will sing more introspective songs, take risks with new songs. A recently penned tune or the songs from a recent album or EP usually end up in a live set, but I get bored quickly and so my band has more than 40 songs we'll play on rotation.
Many songs I've penned and made it onto record have never been played live. If playing with a loud band and thus relying on monitors to hear, the accordion driven songs are the first to go from the set due to feedback problems, as are those sung in falsetto. Recorded songs that relied on a complicated guitar, piano part, or even a lot of equipment to make them work usually stay where they are, as do the songs that make me upset. I'm always planning small shows where I'll tackle an entire album at a time, but these are usually on my home turf and amongst friends.
Which of your earlier songs are still your favourites to play live?
Very few - I've outgrown them all. The earliest songs I'll play live hail from about 1995 or 1996, these being early King Creosote years. I'm quite fond of 'Russian Sailor Shirts', 'Mantra Rap', 'Homeboy', 'Turps', all from the end of the last millenium. I'm equally fond of 'Dial C for Cradle' and 'Third Swan' that were written in 2012.
Having released so many albums, how did you feel about the critical praise heaped upon Diamond Mine and it being nominated for the Mercury Prize? Did you feel the recognition of your work was overdue?
I'm still perplexed as to what it is folks hear now in 2012 that they couldn't hear in the 20 or so years running up to its release. I am delighted they're hearing something worthy though, I just hope it entices them to check out my other records past and future, otherwise it'll be like hopping onto the Aberdeen to Edinburgh train at Markinch only to hop off again at Inverkeithing.
A lot was made about the album’s sense of place and of it being an album very much focused on Fife. Do you see it that way?
I hear all my albums routed in Fife, but not the songs themselves. I tackle a few diverse subjects, but I suppose my Fife background colours them all. Before DM many reviewers and fans of my records would say that the combination of accordion and my accent conjured up a vision of a coastal village in Scotland, so to add a healthy mix of Fife sounds to a record amplifies this effect.
Which of Jon Hopkins’ arrangements did you hear first and what was your reaction when your first heard it?
The first song Jon did of mine was to remix 'Circle my Demise' I think, a song I'd guested on by a band called Magnetophone. Every treatment of my voice since has pretty much reduced me to tears - one occasion being at the Greenman Festival in Wales when he let me hear his mix of a song called 'And the Racket They Made' by HMS Ginafore. I was so moved that a pissed up random walked by asking me to play at his wedding, and as I'm so against weddings in general, I promptly agreed.
How has his take on your music influenced your subsequent song writing?
It hasn't at all. I write the songs I write, he picks the ones he likes, although I'm getting a little better in guessing which songs those will be.
What are you currently working on?
Plenty! I just finished an album of pop songs, I have a half completed album lying in Toronto with my friend Michael Johnston from the Burns Unit, and an EP of four songs with Jo Shivers needing mixed. I'm also working with a collaborative band called The Dewarists comprising Raghu Dixit and Suhail Khan from India, Johnny Pictish, Ziggy Campbell and James Yorkston from the Fence collective, and Slow Club from Sheffield. We're at the mixing stage with this, the first completed song I heard earlier today and it is EPIC.
What led you to start Fence Records?
Disillusionment and depression.
What were your expectations for Fence when you first started?
I had zero expectations for Fence, that was the beauty of it. I wanted records to find their own audience without the need for business models, press campaigns and touring. I wanted a no fuss approach, a quick turnaround, and to move on. Quirky artwork and imaginative live shows. Hassle free. Like the music? Come to Fife to hear it! These are still my expectations for Fence.
Has there ever been a point where you wanted to sign on fully to someone else’s label and let them do all the work?
I pretty much reached that point with Domino for certain records, but it usually results in even more work than had I just put the dashed thing out myself. It's cool though. I'm quite happy for KC albums I've made for Fence to sit mouldering away in boxes for a decade, not so Domino.
What can we expect from the other Fence artists coming to China?
Well, I've no idea what an audience can expect as the individuals involved continually surprise me. Our drummer OnTheFly is working on some samples and loops, Pictish Trail has a box of tricks I'm sure he'll bust out, and I hope to bring a small accordion and play quiet songs with Ziggy Campbell on banjo. I hope we can keep it simple, but pretty sure we'll make a four course meal of it.
Do you know much about the places you’re going to be visiting in China?
So far I know we're visiting Shanghai and Beijing, quite famous places, and since we agreed to come to China the few friends that have already been are telling me their own stories, but I prefer to block those out. My pictures of China all come from text books I looked at in the '70s. I'm slightly fearful of making a social gaff, or worse, and I'm also worried about what I'll eat. I am a very fussy vegetarian, and without Weetabix, white bread and peanut butter I'll starve.
I can't imagine who will come to see these shows. I can travel 70 miles from my home in Scotland to a show that no one comes out to, so to travel seven time zones is beyond comprehension.