Withered Hand’s (aka Dan Willson) Good News album of five years ago now really struck a chord with me. It wasn’t just his aching falsetto or the ragged backdrop that was laced with self doubt, home, questioning of his place in the universe, or his way with a gorgeous tune; it was the lyrical complexity that bustled within each tortured couplet, the lyrical duality, an ability to underscore each line with a knowing melancholia and wistfulness. To poignantly get to the heart of it all (see the likes of ‘Cornflake’, ‘No Cigarettes’ and ‘Love In The Time of Ecstasy’) above a lo-fi acoustic/banjo led setting, that whilst it was appreciative of folk, country and alternative tradition didn’t slavishly sound in awe to it. It’s this quality that through various re-records and releases led it to gain wider acclaim with everyone from Rolling Stone Magazine to Jarvis Cocker. Whilst his tone was compared with the raw bittersweet melancholia of Neil Young, his clever darkly inter-textual wordplay was with the likes of Daniel Johnston.
Now he’s back with a new band, bolder, more hi-fi pop sound, the songs are still just as strong, if not more so, but now they are framed in a more guitar pop setting. New Gods is a brave album; he’s still tackling the big themes of mortality, love, loss, hope and the battle between heart, mind and desire but writing them in even bigger more anthemic letters. So previous single ‘Heart Heart’ (originally out on Fence Collective singles club) gets a huge rework its personal/cultural commentary offers itself on repeated listens, whilst its trembling quiet/ loud bombast is almost redolent of REM’s ‘It’s the End of the World As I Know it (and I Feel Fine)’. While lead track ‘Black Tambourine’ West Coast chiming arpeggios that spiral across the sunlight, possess the indie pop glory of fellow Scots Teenage Fanclub and The Byrds it’s autobiographical lyrical content deals with emotion (“you light me up with your smile”) and with trying to break free from musical boxes and scenes (“some people stand in a line just stand in a line”). Next single ‘Horseshoe’ has hints of Evan Dando about its constant juxtapositions; Dan as lightweight in the fight, pretending that love could ward off the the spectre of death draws closer to home. For epic closer ‘Not Alone’, Dan returns to the theme of spirituality as he wistfully sings about family in the midst of a self affirmation despite the relentless creep of mortality; that someone is always there with you, its gloriously grand gospel like chorus is laced with swaying horns, touching organs and uplifting crescendos. Elsewhere friendship and travelogue are the theme on ‘King of Hollywood’ while the title track scales things back a bit with a gorgeously confessional paean. In short New Gods should rightfully see Withered Hand aka Dan Willson and his collaborators gain wider attention in 2014. To celebrate the records release next week on Fortuna Pop we caught up with Dan for a chat….
Hi Dan how are you?
What was the first gig you went too?
Someone else asked me this recently and I couldn’t remember. I still can’t. I was about 15 and we used to sneak into a club in the next town and see bands like The Belltower, Carter USM, The Senseless Things, Snuff, Pram etc but I can’t recall the first gig. I remember seeing PJ Harvey on her Dry tour and it really blew my mind.
What was the first record you bought?
Adam and the Ants. Kings of the Wild Frontier. At that time, the most beautiful man on earth, surely.
What was the first gig you played and how did it go?
Well I suppose that would have been in my youth when I just played guitar with some pals in a band and we got a gig in a local club. I was 18. It was probably forgettable. I couldn’t even turn round I was so shy.
It’s been five years since your last album, a good chunk of time, what have you been up to in that time? Touring? Gathering more songs? Spending time at home?
All of those things. I have been touring when possible, sometimes solo and sometimes with the band. We went to Europe a couple of times and then I toured Finland on my own. Booking shows, managing myself and dealing with that side of things take up a fair bit of my time. I try to be home with my family as much as I can, writing songs when they come. I don’t force it. I was also trying to figure out how to make a second album without asking fans for money upfront, which is difficult these days. Aside from my own music, I have been involved in a few unexpected things since the last album, including a theatre project and a mentoring project. Somehow I released two EPs in that time too, one on my own label. So yes, I kept pretty busy.
You were given a grant from arts body Creative Scotland what did that allow you to do and did it free your hand a little?
The Creative Scotland grant I was awarded part-funded the recording of the new album. It meant I could be a little more ambitious with this record than I had ever dared. It meant I didn’t have to scale anything down really.
The wonderful ‘Good News’ seemed to have several lives in a way, seeping into people’s consciousness, and eventually gaining you the attention of everyone from Jarvis to Rolling Stone. Were you surprised at how well it did at the time? Are you proud of the songs on that record and that people could see the quality of the songwriting even on the slightly rawer original recording?
Very surprised. I still am. I suppose I am proud of that record, despite it’s many flaws. I had no idea it would launch me into some kind of career in music. That record has literally had several lives. Being re-released in the US two years after the original DIY release here is a good example of that. Those songs for the most part are still relevant to my life and worldview, i’ll still play them for as long as I feel that way and people want to hear them.
‘Cornflake’ seems at least on the face of it to be partly inspired by John Harvey Kellogg’s theories on sunshine with a bit of The Vaselines ‘Jesus Don’t Want me for A Sunbeam’ thrown in?
Haha. If you swap ‘Sunshine’ for ‘Masturbation’ you are getting close. Yep.
Religion has been a big theme in your work since Good News,
My favourite song on that album was the glorious ‘Love in the Time of Esctacy’ seems to be inspired by a meditation between, love, mortality, hometown and heaven…Does the idea of the duality of a song or hymn that has something to say about a higher power whilst rooted in reality appeal to you?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s how I experience all music and art.
Your new album ‘New Gods’ sounds like a real sonic progression, everything sounds BIGGER and bolder, was that your intention when you went into the studio?
I waited until I could make the second album I wanted to make, with a revamped WH band and with Tony Doogan. I wanted to make an album with Tony, in a studio. You never know, I might not make another one so I needed this to be something beyond what I dared to think I could achieve.
Were there any records you listened too for inspiration, whilst writing or recording the new record?
Not really, I try to avoid too much inspiration from fellow musicians. It can be unsettling. If anything I almost stopped listening to music around the time of the album being recorded.
You worked with Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, Teenage Fanclub) on this record, what did he bring to the recording/production?
I chose Tony very carefully and we met up a couple of times prior to the recording. He felt it was a strong suite of songs. Tony is very perceptive, he knows how to get the best out of everybody and I loved that he was excited about recording live onto tape, which we did a fair bit of. It was a good decision.
‘Heart Heart’ already came out as a single a few years back what was the thought when it came to rerecord it? It came out on the Fence collective singles club, can you explain the idea behind Fence?
I knew ‘Heart Heart’ was a song that would end up on the next album as it was the first in a sequence of songs which seem to me to concern love and death but I recorded that lo-fi version of it for a limited edition vinyl because it had already become a a live favourite in the set. I don’t want to say anything about Fence Collective other than to say it is alive and well and as beautiful as ever.
“What is the first day of your life/What is this mindless mediocity that we celebrate/Heart Heart Heart/I Listen to my heart and all I can hear is my body dying’.
I am intrigued by the inspiration behind Heart Heart? It seems to veer from the intensely personal to quite observational ‘it’s this ability to switch lyrically that I think will impress many people on repeated listens.
Thankyou. Death, Narcissism and Indiepop is the unholy trinity behind Heart Heart.
Vocally some critics have compared your tone to Neil Young and lyrical dexterity to Daniel Johnston, do you have any vocal inspirations or did your ‘voice’ emerge over the years?
My voice emerged around age 30. When I bought a capo, basically. That’s a simple device which means you can play chords in different keys on a guitar really easily and it made me wonder if I played some different chords maybe I could find some that even I could sing over. I have a pretty high voice, see. Used to stop me singing anything, ever. Naturally I love Neil Young and Daniel Johnston. High voiced guys gotta stick together.
‘Horseshoe’ touches on loss, and our own mortality, is it your aim to deal with big themes whilst producing songs that people want to sing along too?
Broadly speaking, yes. I just write about what’s chewing me up. I am 40 this year. I see my wife and kids growing old before my eyes. I look in the mirror and see the lines around my eyes getting deeper. Some of my friends move away and some of them die. I think about it, like everyone does. That’s how stuff like Horseshoe comes along, really.
Why did you chose the awesome Black Tambourine as the lead track? It has almost a Teenage Fanclub bittersweet pop vibe to it which may surprise some who have put you in the ‘country/folk’ bracket in the past?
I hope it did surprise someone. It’s almost a song about ignoring those sort of brackets so it was ideal.
What’s your favourite song on the album?
Love over Desire seems to be about the struggle between head, heart and well (sex) drive how close am I?
I believe some of the songs are inspired by your travel in recent years in the US? You worked with King Creosote on the track King of LA, how was that and what does he bring out you when you work together?
Yes there are three songs born from experiences I had in USA in 2011. They form a sequence on the first side of the album. King Of Hollywood is really a nod to KC, who was in LA with me briefly at that time. Seemed perfect to invite him to sing on it. When we work together he brings alot of experience obviously and he has a very similar sense of humour which makes for alot of fun.
Collaborations wise, who else features on the album?
The core WH band I have at the moment: Alun Thomas (drums), Malcolm Benzie (guitar), Fraser Hughes (bass) were really superb on this record. As well as the core band, ‘New Gods’ also features guest appearances from Pam Berry (black tambourine), Eugene Kelly (vaselines), Scott Hutchison (frightened rabbit), Stevie Jackson, Chris Beans Geddes (Belle and Sebastian), Rob St John and Peter Liddle (Second hand marching band)!
If you could work with/tour with anyone who would you chose?
John Vanderslice. I find him an interesting musician and producer. I thought his White Wilderness album a couple of years ago was one of the best things ever.
What’s Edinburgh’s music scene like at the moment, from down south it seems like an eclectic and endlessly interesting place?!
Edinburgh is a good city for music but scenes obviously come and go for as long as a group of people can be motivated to make things happen. There is a healthy artistic community and people seem engaged with it. There are people still writing fanzines and blogs and putting on shows, providing alternatives.
I saw a story about your struggle to get to SXSW a few years back, tell us more?
Ugh, it was a problem with my visa. It got really out of hand. In a way it was actually more publicity than I have ever had for anything before or since but I can’t revisit it without getting the fear. I swore I would never ever go back, and here I am three years later doing exactly that!
What are your views on Scottish independence?
I am not happy with how things are but I want Scotland to remain in the UK.
New music wise, what have you been listening to recently? What Scottish bands should people look out for?
I have been enjoying Vic Chestnutt’s last couple of albums and the new Mark Kozalek album and the new Second Hand Marching Band album and Scottish fuzz rockers PAWS are one of the best live bands I have seen in years.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Do you have any festivals lined up as yet?
I have Deer Shed and one or two other festivals yet to be announced and I just booked a couple of UK band dates for April. This year looks open ended, depends on what sort of journey this new record takes us on.
New Gods by Withered Hand is out on Fortuna pop! on the 10th of March.