They’ve become one of the biggest breakthrough stories of 2008, thanks to a killer debut album and refreshingly down-to-earth, no-nonsense Scots attitude.
It’s been quite a year for James Allan, frontman and songwriter for Glasvegas, who were named The Best New Band in Britain by the NME in August. This time 12 months ago they had just released 1,000 copies of their 7-inch single Daddy’s Gone on the tiny Sane Man label. Hardly anyone heard it but almost everyone who did began to spread the word about this unknown bunch of Glasgow eastenders with rockabilly quaffs and black leather jackets who had made one of the best records of the last five years.
“The music I wrote — it was never just supposed to be for me and a couple of other people. It was supposed to travel into other people’s lives, taking my own little universe into towns across the world,” says James. “It might sound arrogant but I’ve always been oblivious to my own limitations. I think it was always supposed to be like this for me.”
Daddy’s Gone was a fierce, incendiary, and probably autobiographical song about a young boy coming to terms with the abandonment of his father, inspired equally by the distorted noise of compatriots The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the sweet melodies and layered production of the Phil Spector girl groups.
Within a few months of its release people like legendary American producer Rick Rubin, industry guru Alan McGee, pop star Tim Burgess and superstar offspring Lisa Marie Presley were queueing up to sing Glasvegas’ praises and they were beginning to collect magazine covers like Russell Brand collects bedpost notches.
I first met the band back in January 2008, before they had tasted any real success, and I was intrigued by frontman James Allan’s oxymoronic combination of self-belief and fretful introspection. He was clearly an unusually interesting kind of pop star in the making — he thought deeply about the questions before he answered them, actively resisting any kind of cliché, and his replies suggested a mind constantly on the move, weighing up his own responses to a changing world.
His oft-queried insistence on singing in his own tough brogue felt right for a man who evidently valued honesty in presentation. He worried a lot — about how he had treated his mother, whether his songs might upset his family, the media’s depiction of the people he grew up with in a deprived part of Glasgow — but he was sure of one thing; Glasvegas were making music worth believing in and that was helping him sleep at night.
Since that interview Allan and guitarist Rab Allan, bass player Paul Donoghue and drummer Caroline McKay have signed to Columbia records, seen their eponymous album debut at No 2, and toured Europe and America relentlessly.
They have made numerous TV appearances, from Later with Jools Holland to Never Mind the Buzzcocks and are rarely mentioned in the Press without words like ‘profound’, ‘astounding’, ‘peerless’ and ‘thrilling’ next to their name. Allan is delighted that his work is being heard, but it doesn’t seem to surprise him or shake him up too much.
“They’re not really my songs any more,” he tells me on the phone from tour rehearsals in London. “I used to own them, but not now. As an artist I’m quite proud of that. It’s like the kids have flown the nest. When your kids leave home, they still have a connection with you, but they’re moving on and growing and travelling. I’m so honoured that that’s happened, it makes me the happiest guy in the world.”
Allan still frets about the plight of the people around him — new song Cruel Moon is a deeply moving first-hand account of homelessness — but what the rest of the band often jokingly call his ‘over-sensitivity’ appears to provide him with endless inspiration.
Three months after the release of Glasvegas, the band are about to re-release the album with six brand new tracks, collectively entitled A Snowflake Fell (And It Felt Like a Kiss).
Allan is a wildly prolific writer at the moment, but what’s most extraordinary is the sustained quality of the new tunes. The debut album showed that Daddy’s Gone wasn’t just a wild card one-off; the Christmas mini-album proves that songs of great beauty and weight are still pouring out of James Allan, something that he claims to have little control over.
“Songs just come to me in the middle of the night and I can’t get rid of them until I write them down,” he explains. “Sometimes I see a colour before I get melody or words, I get wee colours or pictures in my imagination and they develop into the words or the tune. You can’t know where the songs come from ’cause if you did it would be dead easy — you could just go back to that place and get more. I don’t consider myself as having a gift, I don’t know how it happens. It’s a pretty far-out thing.”
Are there any particular environments which stimulate this enigmatic muse?
“I like walking at night time, listening to music, on my own,” says Allan. “When I stayed in Glasgow writing I went days without seeing anyone or speaking to anybody. I need to let my imagination drift off and I can only do that when I’m on my own. And when you do that you can come up with some quite extreme and scary thoughts. That’s part of being an artist, that’s what you do for your art.
“I never wanted to just dip my toe into being an artist, I wanted to completely give myself away to it.”
Allan is particularly pleased to be releasing new music at Christmas time, which he admits he sees in “quite a romantic light”. He still remembers his mother covering the house in cotton wool “for snow” and the excitement of waiting for that new football (he was a semi-pro footballer before Glasvegas).
Christmas, he says, “is a time of extremes, when people stop to think about the past and the future,” as well as a stimulus for “kids’ imaginations to go mad”, which makes it the perfect time to be playing big music like Glasvegas’.
“Our songs are pretty physical,” he says. “I have to open my lungs and let some fire out. And I like that — it’s like a primal scream. Being in a rock’n’roll band, you plug into an amplifier, it makes you feel good. After I sing the songs I feel quite worn out, but I feel quite spiritual too, if that’s the right word.”
He may be wary of the connotations, but there is certainly a spirituality about Glasvegas’ Christmas album, particularly the final track, a version of Silent Night recorded in Transylvania with the Consentus choir singing along in Romanian. Allan’s description of the band’s first meeting with the choir does make one wonder if the whole record isn’t tinged with something quite magical.
“We walked into this school where they were rehearsing and we could hear them singing,” he tells me, still awestruck. “The sound got bigger and bigger and when the door opened for us to walk into the classroom and it was like the bit in Pulp Fiction when they open the suitcase and the light comes shining out. It was beyond beautiful, the way those voices moved together. It will stay with me for a long time. The colours that are in Silent Night fit the colours on that whole album. The song closes that little book in a very fitting way.”
Glasvegas play Belfast’s Spring and Airbrake on Monday. The show has sold out.