Revision Ballads is the outstanding debut from Savage Mansion. Melodic and abrasive, it’s out now on Lost Map. We caught up with lead singer, Craig Angus, to talk about Neil Young, the dangers of possessing the power of precognition, drummers, spooky VCRs, and staying up all night writing songs with a gang of friends who’d die for each other, man. There’s also the small matter of some live sessions they recorded at the Glue Factory in Glasgow …
GiitTV: How’s things in London this week? I understand you’re working on a load of new songs.
Craig: It’s been a really amazing time, thanks for asking!
Revision Ballads was tracked over two weekends – November 2017 and January 2018, so while it was only released in March it’s quite old to me. There are a few songs from it that were written in 2015, you know? And I’m a big fan of long-form content. I like documenting periods of my life with music in the album format. The trend seems to be towards singles, it doesn’t get me going, it doesn’t excite me.
I quit my job as a full-time journalist last summer. I had this real sense that it was now or never. Not in a this-is-your-shot-at-making-it way, more like I’m not spending enough time doing this. I was sick of writing songs in really rushed periods after horrendous commutes, using all my annual leave to do gigs and record. It just became exhausting. So now I freelance and do what I need to do to get by.
I’m answering this question in such a long way! The upshot is, I wrote a lot of songs and Andrew‘s been coming round to my house once a week to work through them. We went away in January for a weekend and learned them all as a band, and now we’ve just tracked another eighteen. And you really feel like this is a better band, playing better songs. It’s great. I think whatever happens I’ll look back on this week really fondly. We’re just sleeping on the floor, working all through the night, working but having a gas as well.
What’s the story with Savage Mansion?
My old band, Poor Things, split up in October 2015 – a long, slow death – and after dwelling on it for a week I was like just like, I need to keep doing this, one hundred percent. I was lucky to have friends who were actively asking me to start another project. Savage Mansion is pretty much a vehicle for my songs, a collective of great musicians that – at its core – is a gang of friends who’d die for each other, baby
How would you describe the new album? I’ve been enjoying it a lot. It seems to get better with each listen.
I was always geared to doing an album, so when I was writing songs over that two year period between Savage Mansion starting and beginning Revision Ballads I had that in the back of my mind. A few of them (‘Elwood‘, ‘Bring Down the City Hall‘, ‘Do You Say Hello To Your Neighbours?‘) were written really early on and one or two (‘Big Cats‘, ‘Dog O Tears‘) came pretty late on. I did my best to choose tracks that felt like they made sense together.
‘Bring Down The City Hall‘ is an old one, right from the early days, and there’s a video for the version we put out on our first tape with Cool Your Jets. It was a show we played in Leeds and for some reason, I took a notion to play it a lot faster, and it just felt a bit better from that moment on. Until then it was a little ponderous and for the can. In the end, it was the paranoid, anxious opening to the album.
Thematically it’s hard, I didn’t want to hammer the themes too much. It’s very personal – not in a difficult subject matter sense – just the songs are very much related to situations and characters I encountered. Ultimately, it’s a record about returning to your hometown and reflecting on the intervening decade. People you knew, your own personal changes – I left for Glasgow at seventeen, so young, too young – and the political climate.
I’m glad you think it reveals more on each listen, I’d hoped it would. I mean in many ways it’s just a dumb rock record clearly indebted to Neil Young and The Replacements, but it’s a journey. There’s an odd transport theme. When Poor Things split up I was living in Perth during the week so there was a lot of driving back and forth. I’ve always loved Neil Young but on those drives his music really became a close companion. I listened to a few of those albums relentlessly. Great driving music.
Can you tell us about these live films you’re sharing with us?
Given that the whole vibe of the record is that it was very much recorded live – it was efficient, and again I was obsessed with Neil Young – I thought it would be fun to make some videos to that effect. What I didn’t anticipate was that we’d swap our drummer the week before and I’d wake up on the day with what felt like razor blades in my throat.
The show, of course, must always go on. It’s a bit gnarlier and more raw-sounding than the album recordings. Luigi Pasquini, who works out of a studio in central Glasgow, is a brilliant engineer for getting that sound. He’s been working on a few records that Iím excited to hear. I think he’s perfect for the Kaputt record he’s doing. And Marc Johansen, who did the visuals, is one of my oldest friends. He did the album cover. He’s brilliant. There’s a cool element of trust going on where I’m almost always happy to hand something over to him and just enjoy the result. He did a few videos for my old band and his own stuff is brilliant. He goes by the name Sothko and has an amazing voice and ear. Everything he does is wonderful.
How did you find the process of recording the live session?
Horrible. I wasn’t well at all. It was fucking freezing.
What’s with the retro computer windows?
Again I have no idea! I handed Marc the reins and just waited to see what happens. For this Poor Things track he did 30 minutes of green screen dancing and we just let him go nuts with it. I watched it again recently and it’s very funny.
It seems like words are important to you. Does a Savage Mansion song start off with words or music?
They’re important, for sure. I mean it doesn’t always need to be that way. There’s a great bit in the Jeff Tweedy autobiography, which I’d heartily recommend, where he talks about melody doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Sometimes words come first. Quite often they come at the same time. The stuff I write is musically pretty rudimentary, or certainly to the extent that I can almost always sing along quite easily. You get a good idea of what fits together that way and your subconscious comes into play a bit.
‘Infinite Factory’ is an exploration of work. And why work gives us meaning. And what happens when that work is taken away from us by machines who never turn up hungover, late or have to go to weddings or funerals.
A couple of the songs on Revision Ballads are inspired by the works of Philip K Dick. Would you rather have the power of precognition or find out that reality is an alien conspiracy, and why?
Have you seen The Dead Zone? I’d be wary of precognition. I’m not actually a massive science-fiction reader but I went through a phase of reading a lot of PKD a couple of years back. Ubik is probably my favourite. I’m mostly just in awe of how much he did. The ideas are almost always fascinating in themselves. And at the root of it, I think he really pushes my buttons, asking what it means to be human. The changing pace of our wild times makes it an essential subject. Big fan of Ursula Le Guin as well. I just finished Zadie Smith‘s White Teeth for the first time and I absolutely loved it.
The Dead Zone is a great film. Amazing book too.
I need to read the book. I need to read more Stephen King in general. I admire his work ethic A LOT. And as I’ve got older I’ve got really into horror films in a big way. I was the sort of child who’d be terrified to be in the same house as a spooky VCR, like it would come to life. I grew up two doors along from my friend Rachel who had The Silence of the Lambs on video and it scared the shit out of me when I was a wee guy. Like Hannibal Lecter would come to life while I was at her house. Really strange. Going back further I hated the Goosebumps books for the same reason. I’m totally into all of this now.
I also love Christopher Walken. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him giving a fuck like he does in that film. He’s a one of a kind.
Savage Mansion is clearly a cool live band. What do you like best about playing live?
Well, thank you. It’s not something I’ve always enjoyed, to be honest, but I think ninety percent of the shows we’ve done have been fun. Not sure if there’s an aspect of it I particularly enjoy? Maybe the feeling of playing a new song for the first time. That’s always good. We’re playing on Saturday and we’re going to debut three or four new ones and that’s really exciting to me.
I gather the line-up of the band changes around now and again. Do you find that different personnel bring different qualities to the experience?
Oh absolutely. I’m very conscious of it. I’ve played with a lot of musicians now and they’ve all brought something unique to the Savage Mansion experience. I think drummers in particular you notice. We’ve gigged with four drummers and each have had particular strengths. The same songs sound really different played through their arms. This is the first time we’ve recorded with Lewis and you can really see his strengths coming out here. He’s got a lot of flair, but allied to that plays a pretty consistent tempo. There’s a track we did that’s close to six minutes and really, really mellow and he’s able to sit back on it, but he also plays some really meaty fills at times too. It’s great. Always liked watching him play drums and first suggested him as a Martha Ffion drummer even though neither Claire* or I really knew him that well. This is another thing I love about these projects! I didn’t really know Taylor when we first met up to jam. I just liked the way he played and thought he was funny. Now he’s one of my best friends. That’s a really sweet thing.
But this is the only way it can be, really. Jamie and Andrew are touring with Catholic Action this summer with Dead Kennedys and We Were Promised Jetpacks. I can either turn down festival dates or just make adjustments and fortunately enough thereís always been a good cast of mates able to step in. Long may that continue.
I like it that you think about the album as a format, perhaps even bit conceptually. I’m interested in the idea of the long player as a complete expression of something. What do you think are the qualities of albumness (if you will) that you’ve captured with Revision Ballads?
Specifically, I think itís a coming of age record. It’s my musical bildungsroman, for better or worse. A reflection on your late teens and early twenties and formulating the opinions and character that’ll hopefully carry you through life.
I’m not huge on the concept album thing though! I mean we’re doing another one right now and there’s one day to go. Mostly it’s just juggling the themes and the sonic stuff and making something that’s both coherent but has character and personality. A lot of my favourite records of the last few years are like that. Not strictly conceptual but very much records with a distinctive vibe. Whatever the vibe is.
‘Three and a Half Thousand Cheetahs (Big Cats)’ is based on a recurring dream I had about pollution – the Caribbean crisp packet island was a regular feature – and is a challenge to myself about whether I’d ever have kids. And I would love to, but with reservations, certainly at present, for sure.
Last few questions, please answer as fully as you feel you would like to. Motown, or Stacks?
Stax. The Big Star connection edges it. Although whether Stax were good for Big Star or not … It’s late, sorry!
Game of Thrones, or Fleabag?
I’ve never seen Game of Thrones but I have a friend who worked on the set design. Has a plaque in his gaff from the Emmys. Obviously, it’s not the same thing but I rewatched Lord of the Rings recently. Hadn’t seen it since the original cinema screens. It’s a good laugh. Claire and I were turning the volume low and dubbing the dialogue ourselves. The bit where Bilbo gets mad when he asks Frodo for the ring. She also kept calling Boromir ‘Mr Bean’ which I thought was excellent.
Saying all that, we watched the first episode of Fleabag the other night and it was very funny. Sharp. I’m going to need to go and watch the whole thing now. I’m a big Jamie Demetriou fan too. Great actor and comedian. So Fleabag it is.
Tonight’s the Night, or Trans?
Tonight’s The Night! One of my favourite albums ever. It’s a big influence. Nils Lofgren‘s solo on ‘Speakin’ Out’, man. Incredible. And the Danny Whitten track. It’s heartbreaking, but the camaraderie is everything.
All things great, or small?
Lastly, it sounds like you’re working hard at the moment. What tunes keep you in the zone these days?
Right now I’m really loving the new Aldous Harding record. She’s a phenomenal artist and I find everything she does fascinating. Music you can spend hours with and find new things to love. We’ve been listening to ‘The Barrel‘ a lot in the studio this week.
The other big love in my life right now is Tim Heidecker – The Office Hours podcast and the On Cinema/Decker universe. If I’m feeling like shit I stick it on and get lost in the madness of that world they’ve cultivated. We’ve been watching a lot of it in between takes.
*Martha Ffion’s first name is actually Claire, not Martha, and she’s Craig’s partner in life and housemate, which I think we can all agree is terribly sweet. Martha is her middle name. (CB)
Photo credit Beth Chalmers