Confirming the rumours, mystery duo SILVER COLUMNS (interviewed here back in December) came clean as Adem and Johnny (the Pictish Trail) earlier this year. Which was good because then we could focus on their super brilliant Pop/Dance debut album ‘Yes And Dance’, which came out on Moshi Moshi a couple of weeks ago. (Download Astronomer’s remix of Cavalier on the right.) I caught up with Johnny on the phone on Monday night for a quick-ish chat before he ran off to do a radio show.
We last spoke over the internet last year, when you were in disguise…
Oh we did the accents thing. Sorry about that, that was my idea. It was December so it was probably a little bit panto. You read so many interviews where people are quite dour and po-faced, so I tried to make it a bit more juicy with a few Northern dialects but I probably offended more people than I turned on to be honest.
Are you both much happier now it’s not anonymous?
Yeah. The anonymity thing became a bit of an issue for a lot of people and it was all they were writing about for a while, which is weird I thought. The reason for it was that so people wouldn’t have any preconceptions about the music.
Makes complete sense…
But then it was it all ‘who is this?’ Then we thought maybe it wasn’t good, that it was hyping people up for a big fall. And to an extent I think that happened a bit, not that it bothered us. But we were glad when we were, ‘hands up, this is us’ and we were glad no-one had used the term folktronica. But then afterwards, every single review said folktronic, which was interesting. The album doesn’t have one guitar on it, there’s some sampled guitar on Brow Beaten but the rest of it is all keyboards. So when you get that folktronica thing thrown at you, you think ‘where’s that come from?’.
I love the album. Brow Beaten was the first thing I heard but I’m also really loving the softer stuff like Heart Murmers.
Oh good, good. That’s one of my favourites. I think it shows a different side to the band. I think if that had been the first one out people would have been, ‘oh look it’s Pictish Trail and Adem’.
Brow Beaten and some of the tougher dancefloor tracks are different to anything you’ve done previously…what prompted the transition?
For me, I don’t really see much of a departure musically, in terms of song format as much is being made out. I’d just always had really shite equipment. When I’ve been doing my own music at home as Pictish Trail, I’ve had to do it really lo-fi as that’s literally the budget I’ve had to spend on my own recordings. But with this project, the thing that turned me on immediately was…Adem approached me about it and said he’d love to do some recording with me and I knew that his set up was a lot more hi-fi than mine and I knew I’d be able to get across a lot more ideas electronically that were going to sound a bit more polished. That was about a year and a half ago now. He’s got this wicked little warehouse place in Stoke Newington. I went down there and we spent three days together just writing songs, and we got three written and recorded from scratch and they all appear on the album – Cavalier, Yes And Dance and Warm Welcome.
Yeah, it was the sort of project where we made sure we were always in the same room at the same time. I live in Fife so we recorded up there a bit too. We didn’t spend more than about three or four days at a time recording stuff. We’d go away and have a listen and change little bits but mostly it was just kind of instincts. The album was done and dusted at the end of last year. We played it to a bunch of people and it slowly got out there, and now it’s properly out there in the shops, about two weeks ago.
A lot of collaborations seem to be done over the internet these days so it’s interesting to hear you always made sure you were in the room together.
I’ve never done anything by email before but I’ve spoken to other people who have. I’m friends with a guy called Sam Willis who’s in a band called Walls.
*We love Walls – get their Dummy Mix here.*
Amazing guy. That’s a wicked record. He did that with a guy called Alessio who is Banjo Or Freakout. They did that record by email. Our record is more song based and I think it needed us to be both in the same room. I don’t think I could work by email and Adem’s quite impulsive. I’d have one thing recorded and then he’d have a bassline that would come to mind with whatever instruments were to hand. So it was good, it was a bit of a learning process for both of us. Programming drums and spending hours and hours trying to get the right bassline sound so it would sound good in a club. It’s the kind of thing I’ve never done before but believe me, I’ve done it now. [Laughs.]
Your album feels very timely, in the way we’re re-discovering music that was underappreciated for a while. I’m talking about the comparisons to Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat and Erasure – and the male diva sort of electronic pop music that fell out of favour for a while. We seem to be ready for that kind of powerful male pop music again…
Well, the 80s threw up so much naff stuff that a lot of bands got grouped into being terrible. Because Rick Astley’s backing band was kind of the same as Erasure’s, in terms of keyboard set-up or whatever, a lot of these bands got thrown away. Erasure, particularly – their first four albums are incredible. Proper indestructible pop. I think Vince Clarke is a proper genius. Our record is very much inspired by that. A lot of the music of that time, to me growing up, kind of felt like musicians were getting to grips with new hardware, new keyboards and new ways of recording. And trying to fit traditional songwriting around new equipment. Some of it is really sterile – a bit style over substance – but the stuff that’s really got heart is just really good songs using that technology. I hope that our record has a bit of that as well. We didn’t really know what we were doing with a lot of the stuff, it was a lot of experimentation but within a pop format. It’s that struggle with trying to get to grips with something you’re not used to using, and trying to make a pop song with it.
I guess that’s definitely what a lot of bands at that time were doing: coaxing warmth out of cables and equipment…making it sound human…
Yes, certainly the stuff that Vince Clarke did – Depeche Mode, Erasure and even Yazoo. Proving that dance music – or what constituted dance music at that point – could have a heart, that it was as relevant as any guitar band, I guess.
We do seem to go in circles with music, from guitars to synthesisers and round again…
Yeah. With our thing, it’s certainly got a strong influence from a lot of these 80s bands and that style of songwriting. But having grown up in the 90s, on a track like Warm Welcome, there’s a definite 2-step vibe about it, inspired by MJ Cole and that sort of style of thing. I’m a sucker for a big cheesy pop song too. I’d love to do a cover of The Real Thing by Toni Di Bart.
I really want to do that. It’s such a mid-90s terrible production but actually an amazing song.
So you’ve got a lot of festivals coming up. How is the summer looking?
It’s looking busy at the moment. We’re playing Glastonbury this weekend, the weather forecast looks amazing. I hate mud.
How does your live set translate to a festival?
We try and bring a lot of live percussion into the set, we try and make it as visual as possible. Adem does a lot of jumping around. We try to wear matching socks, making an effort with my appearance, do my hair a wee bit. [Laughs.] Just try and keep everything as loud as possible.
What else have you got coming up?
I’m going to put another Pictish Trail album out later this year and I’m doing a tour with a comedian called Josie Long. We’ve been pals for a few years and I wanted to try and do it to see if it could work. And I’m doing an album of songs that all 30 seconds long. I’ve got 50 so far. Adem’s working on his next solo record too, he’s writing at the moment but I don’t think it will be out this year. All his records have been so elegantly crafted so when it does come out it will be incredible. I think it’s going to be really epic, and quite different to Silver Columns as you can imagine.
I really like that, always striving for something different.
Nowadays everyone’s tastes are so different. Musical snobbery exists on a different plane now. You can enjoy listening to pop as well as avant garde electronica. It’s the same for musicians, people just want to create something a bit different. I want to create a full on rock record next year, so I’m putting together a band for that too.