Why search for success is no idle task for Scots rockers
Things may not have taken off first time round for Idlewild but, as lead singer Roddy Woomble tells Chris Jones ahead of their Belfast gig, the newly-reinvigorated band aren't quite ready to close the door on their careers just yet.
When they emerged in the late 1990s, scowls on their faces and modernist literature in their back pockets, Edinburgh band Idlewild gave the UK indie scene the kick up the backside it desperately needed. The gig circuit was awash with pleasant but inoffensive balladeers like Turin Brakes and Athlete, and Britpop veterans like Oasis and Suede whose tabloid escapades had long started to eclipse their music. Idlewild were different - they were scruffy, noisy and exciting, famously described by the NME as sounding "like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs" - and for a while it looked like they were about to take over.
That never quite happened - of which more later - and now, after a break of nearly four years, they are back with their seventh studio album, Everything Ever Written, preparing to go out on tour yet again, including a date at Belfast's Limelight in March.
The new album is further evidence of how Idlewild have mellowed as the years have passed, their punk edges sanded down, but the music gaining in lushness and warmth. We find frontman Roddy Woomble in appropriately reflective form, fighting to be heard over the sound of his young son's cough, and fully ensconced in family life on the Isle Of Mull, with Uist (named after the Scottish island) and wife Ailidh Lennon, a former member of indie band Sons and Daughters.
"I've always been drawn to places like this," he says. "In my twenties it wasn't convenient to live remotely, but in my thirties it's been nice. A wee bit more travel to get to gigs and stuff, but ultimately the sense of space you get is really great."
Woomble has done more moving around than most. Born in Ayrshire, he formed the band after meeting core members Rod Jones and Colin Newton in Edinburgh at the age of 18, and he's also spent time living in France, London, New York and Glasgow. So life on a Scottish island must have been quite a change. "I've been here for quite a while now so I'm quite used to it," he says. "It's just my home, really. It can be a bit depressing in the winter, I must say! This is my sixth or seventh winter now, and it's starting to ... Seasonal Affective Disorder they call it. It's so dark all the time. Last year I got a lightbox and it makes a lot of difference. That's really what it is - the lack of daylight. It gets dark at three and during the day it's all gloomy anyway. But I'm not suffering from any sort of depression yet. Give me another couple of winters!"
While Uist is small, it sounds like an idyllic place to bring up a child. "Yeah, it is for that age, young kids," says Woomble (right). "It'd be boring if you were a teenager. I don't know how long we'll hang about but it's been really nice to do."
It's entirely fitting that Woomble should have spent most of his thirties in such a place. Idlewild were never a flag-waving, rabble rousing kind of band - they were arguably too intellectual, too bookish for that - but Scottish pride and an affinity with the wildness of the country has always coursed through their veins and seeped into their music.
"Oh, we've always been like that," he says. "I'm a bit of a die-hard. I'm not standing on soapboxes shouting about it, but we've always had a big element of that in our music and our identity, and certainly as people too. It was unavoidable in September with the referendum, everyone was wearing their Scottishness a wee bit. I never met anyone that wasn't into it. Why would you not be? Why would you reject your independence from Westminster? It's unbelievable to me, still. But such is the way of things."
Woomble says that the referendum result was "hugely disappointing", and he was hardly the only musical Scot to feel that way. From Eddi Reader and Amy McDonald to Franz Ferdinand and Mogwai, large sections of the community were courted and mobilised to support the cause.
"Alex Salmond obviously realised that the creative community of Scotland, which is quite a powerful community in terms of the writers and musicians and painters and stuff that Scotland produces, were all behind it," he says. "It was a real movement - just not one that was strong enough to make the change that we wanted to make. But I'm still optimistic."
Early in our conversation, Woomble makes reference to Idlewild as "a cult band". That undersells their success - cult bands don't tend to achieve a top 10 album, never mind two - but it's true they never quite achieved the success many felt they were destined for.
In 2002, they released their first major label album, The Remote Part. It was their most expansive, most accessible album yet and in American English and You Held The World In Your Arms it boasted two skyscraping singles. Parlophone sent them to tour the arenas of Britain in support of Coldplay, the label's great hopes who were then in the process of going stratospheric as they promoted their second album. And things went slightly awry.
"Oh yeah!" Woomble exclaims, slightly amused at the memory. "God, that was weird. We were universally hated by the audience. We had a bit of a hard time on that (tour). That put me off supporting bands and I just realised that we weren't ever going to be like that. That tour was a real wake-up call for us. We were really not cut out for it.
"Our first gig was in the SECC in Glasgow and I walked on stage and before I'd sung anything I'd got a full pint thrown at me. That was an omen for the tour - people in the front row with their fingers in their ears, that sort of stuff. You realise when you get to that level, you're playing to a lot of people who aren't really that bothered about music. If they come to a big gig it's a night out, a social thing. And there's a real element of that at arena gigs"
The Remote Part was a success by most metrics - it got to number three in the album chart and sold 150,000 copies - but not compared to Coldplay, and Idlewild got dropped and soon returned to mid-level indie status, where they remain.
"I think about it sometimes, what you could have done (differently), but it was what it was," says Woomble. "We were offered it and the public didn't buy it. We were a bit weird or they didn't understand it or whatever."
So is it a case of what might have been? "Certain things would have been easier if it had worked," he says. "We would have been able to work on touring outside the UK, because we were just getting to that point where we were starting to get somewhere and then when we left Parlophone we found ourselves on independent labels that just didn't have the money to help us with tour support and stuff. It meant we couldn't really go anywhere else other than the UK and Ireland. We couldn't go to Europe or America. So it stopped that ambition of getting the band popular in other places.
"But I'm very philosophical about the whole thing. It's not like I lie awake at night thinking, 'If only!'. I just moved on. Musically we got a lot more interesting, I made some solo records and everyone's pretty happy as individuals, with families and whatever, and that's worth more than having a hit in America or something, isn't it?"
Woomble admits that the band's last album in 2009, Post-Electric Blues, was "a slightly tired-sounding record", and it's hardly surprising. By that point, Idlewild had been going, and rarely stopping, for 14 years before they decided to take a break, and it seems to have done them good.
Certainly, Everything Ever Written sounds like the work of a happy, reinvigorated band. It's diverse, energetic and comfortable in its skin. "We always knew we were going to do another record," says Woomble. "We'd come too far to think about closing the door - there was no point closing the door unless it needed to be closed."
Woomble made a couple of solo records and had his son, Rod Jones launched a side project and kept busy with a music project in a Glasgow college, a couple of members left and were replaced, and then the core trio of Woomble, Newton and Jones reconvened. "We got back to a point where we thought, let's start working on some songs, and that was a couple of years ago," he says.
Songs were written, new members added and plans hatched.
And almost 20 years after the three men met as students and snotty punk rockers, their bond is still at the heart of Idlewild as they head gracefully towards middle age.
"It feels really good," says Woomble. "I've always kept in contact with them both, it's not like we didn't speak or anything like that. There's a shared history there that goes back quite a number of years, so it falls back in place pretty quickly.
"There's a nice camaraderie between everyone and we have a lot of fun."
- Idlewild play the Limelight, Belfast, on March 20. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com
Musical gems from Auld Reekie ...
As far as rock 'n' roll is concerned, Edinburgh tends to pale in comparison to big, brash Glasgow just down the road. But it's made its mark too ...
- Shirley Manson - though Garbage can hardly be called an Edinburgh band, their one non-American, non-male member does hail from the city. Which may explain their ironically dour, Jesus and Mary Chain-referencing song Only Happy When It Rains
- The Waterboys - it's easy to forget that Mike Scott is not Irish, but is, in fact, a Scot. His studies at the University Of Edinburgh fired his passion for poetry - a major theme in his music
- The Exploited - the band have flown the flag for Scottish punk rock since the days of the Sex Pistols and The Clash and they're still going, led as they have been since 1979 by frontman Wattie Buchan
- Boards Of Canada - elusive brothers Michael and Eoin Sandison make their labelmate and contemporary Aphex Twin look positively flamboyant by comparison. Much of their beautiful but unsettling electronica is inspired by the hills just outside Edinburgh, where they live