> Upturned Boats on Starting Anew - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Upturned Boats on Starting Anew

Measuring the success of a band isn’t always straightforward. Even in a time when streaming numbers offer a stark (and unlucrative) breakdown of how many people listen to an act or song, it says nothing of the love and affection shown to a band or felt by listeners.

Everyone has their favourite act that should have been bigger, and in Glasgow, there is no shortage of worthy names. The State Broadcasters are one such act, a mesmerising and highly fluid combo with a slight touch of merry chaos regarding live shows. For now, that band is quiet, but the principal songwriter is back with a few familiar faces, in the form of Upturned Boats.

SNACK caught up with frontman Bill G Black to discuss a new start, songwriting, Glasgow venues and a whole lot more.

Who are Upturned Boats?

We are a five-piece indie rock band from Glasgow, playing sad indie rock. 

When I started making music again, there was talk of whether I should do it as a solo thing. I like collaboration, so while it’s my songs and my ideas in terms of the music, it’s not quite as collaborative as the old band. However, I like the nuanced position where the other members of the band have a creative element. That’s where, as a band, the unique thing of the combination of however many people it is, comes out. Even if you had one person playing the same notes as another person, it comes out differently because of the way they play it.

I spent a lot of time thinking about who to involve, I like other people having agency in how it sounds, and the creativity of other people is important to me. For a solo project, you have a situation where someone says, ‘Here’s the chords, here’s what I want you to play.’ There’s merit in that, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I really enjoy the collaborative process as well, it’s important, but it only works if it’s people you trust.

The process in general is I’ve written a song and I’ll give it to Pete [MacDonald, keyboards] or Fergus [MacDonald, guitar] and we’ll come up with some ideas together, and then we take it to the rest of them. Sometimes we’re just in a practice room and Joe [Smillie, drummer] comes up with something that I’d never have thought would fit right in it, and it’s those magic moments that are hard to create unless you’re extremely confident in your abilities. And on that, who am I to say to someone who is an amazing musician to play it a certain way?

There must be times when you need to take control of how a song pans out?

A wee bit. In all honesty, it would amaze you how little that happens. I think partly because we’ve worked together for so long, it frightens me how easily it comes together. The last song we worked on, honestly, Pete and I worked it up, we sent out what we did, we went to the rehearsal room, played it through twice and that was us done. It’s really weird, maybe we’ve just been lucky so far. There are a few times and for me, it’s usually simplifying it.

Having been in one band for so long, how does it feel to be in a new one?

This feels like we’re getting started. I was wary, and weighing up the benefits of going down this route, it’s essentially the same people apart from Joe, but the benefits have outweighed any potential conflict, in the things we’ve talked about in songs coming together. We never fell out, and I knew it would be the easiest option, which is why initially I wasn’t sure if it was what I should be doing. 

In terms of The State Broadcasters, it never officially ended.

The whole new band thing was just a plot to get Gill Fleetwood [harpist and vocalist] out of the band, wasn’t it?

[Amidst much laughter and the note for the reader is this wasn’t a serious question!] I think Gill’s doing alright, I don’t think she needs us anymore anyway. She has an amazing project coming soon, which might be quite niche but also mind-blowingly good, and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

But yeah, we just had to get rid of her! [Again, said while laughing].

The State Broadcasters alumni is doing well, as you’ve said, are you proud of the band’s legacy?

I am, a wee bit, I am. When you look at Gill in particular, she came from a totally trad and folky background, didn’t have much connection with indie music, and she has worked with De Rosa, she still works with Martin [Henry], and that stuff may well have happened anyway, but who knows? 

In terms of Fergus, when we first played, he probably had his guitar amp so low you couldn’t hear what he did live, and now he is fronting his own project. We always knew that was there, and what he contributed to us in a recording sense, he always had that. When I first saw him play with Hank Tree, I thought, this is great, this is what we knew was in him all the time. 

It’s really cool. The only thing I’d like to see was some more conventional success, if you want to use that term, but that’s not exclusive to us. It’s cool, the main thing is everyone involved in what we did is passionate about it, and loved it, and still is about whatever project they’re doing. That says a lot about us and them, and part of the legacy.

I think everyone looks back on it as a fond time, and it was a lot of fun.

How are you feeling about the upcoming live show?

We’re really looking forward to it. We had a false start last year when we played and we probably weren’t ready to play, and one of the guys didn’t make the gig with Covid, so with hindsight, we maybe shouldn’t have done that one. We’ve had a few gigs fall through at the tail end of last year, and the beginning of this one. It feels like a long time, and it’s really hard to get support slots. It seems like a lot of bands want solo artists as support acts, so we’re playing this one in an old stomping ground of mine that I really love.

We’re apprehensive that no one has heard of us, we have no music out, will anyone come? Isn’t that always the worry? It’s quite a small venue and only a fiver.

In that regard, if you stay in the house, you’ll spend more on heating than you’d pay to get into the gig.

Yes, even at the end of April. 

Your demos have some great moments where the band cuts loose, for example, the guitar work on ‘Flightless Bird’ – are you writing with live shows in mind, or was that just what you felt the song needed?

We don’t really write with anything particular in mind, but we always felt this was going to be a live-sounding band, in terms of recording as well. That’s a bit different from The Broadcasters. The idea is to have more of a live feel. We did recordings last week, and we tracked it live, which we’d never done before because we hadn’t been in a studio which allowed us to do that, and we really liked how it came out. There’s an element of risk to this, but it worked out, so that was good. 

You mentioned the 13th Note as one of your old stomping grounds, what are your favourite Glasgow venues to play in? To watch a gig in?

It’s been so long since I played anywhere! I really like The Hug & Pint, although I’ve never played in it as The Hug & Pint, only before then. We’ve been trying to get a gig in there, but it’s so hard. For watching bands and solo acts, I really like The Hug & Pint, it has a nice feel to it, I like The Barrowlands, I’ve always liked The [13th] Note to play in. There’s just something about it, I can’t explain it, but I’ve always liked it in there.

I don’t think I’ve had a bad night in there, it’s a venue that people make the most of.

Yeah, that’s it, it’s that way because of the limitations with the size, shape and type of building, as a performer, you get on with it almost, but I really like playing there. I really like The Glad Café as well. I’m not one for sound and all that stuff, I like the atmosphere. The Note is scuzzy, while The Glad has a supportive environment, people are willing you on to do a good job, and it has that community feel.

You’ve probably mentioned archaeology in your songs more than 98% of all other songwriters, is that an interest for you?

That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought about that, but no, I have no particular interest in archaeology. I like the way the word sounds. There’s no magic, it just fitted. I don’t really think about lyrics now, they come out. I used to – particularly in the midpoint of The Broadcasters – pore over the lyrics, editing them and changing them. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but for me now, I feel that lyrics come out as I write them, but if I’m editing them, it’s usually taking lines out if I had too many. I’ve simplified my lyrics a bit, apart from archaeology.

I never used to be able to spell that word and then we had the song ‘Archaeological Dig’, and now I have to use it all the time.

One thing I like about your songs, and many songs in general, is the balance between cheery music and let’s say less-than-cheery lyrics at times – how do you go about balancing those two ideals?

Is the music that cheery?

For one song, I stopped to make sure the player hadn’t skipped over to a different band!

There is one song on our demos that is up-tempo, and it’s lyrically quite dark. It just happens. You get into dangerous territory if you start to deliberately do that. It becomes contrived if you sit down to write a song that is chipper and poppy with dark lyrics. I’ve tried to do things like that before, like ‘Today I’m going to write a political song’, and it comes out terrible. Mainly now, I just write, and whatever comes out, comes out.

How long have we had rock n roll music? Especially with guitars, it’s hard to do something original. It’s not something I’d deliberately do, it’s just whatever comes out.

There are different schools of thought for songwriting – some people graft, others pluck them from the air, what are your views on that?

I was reading something by Julien Baker relating to the Boygenius stuff, and she gets really offended by these people who say it’s magic and it comes out of the air. She says there’s a lot of graft involved, there are 20 voice memos to edit it down before you get to the song, and I get what she means, but there is also a thing that happens at times that a song comes really quickly, and it’s there. That’s kind of magical, and it doesn’t happen all the time and I don’t necessarily think it means you’re a genius or anything.

To me, it’s a bit of both, and you can definitely spend too much time on a song. I write more now than before, and faster, and a lot of that for me came from Jeff Tweedy’s [from Wilco] book on songwriting [How to Write One Song]. He’s incredibly productive with his material, it’s partly graft, pick up the guitar every day and stuff come, while occasionally, within that, a song comes together very fast.

If you’ve got a natural ability to do it, and you’re willing to put the work in, you’ll come up with stuff that is better than many people. I’ve never been on a songwriting course and I’d worry that would give me too much understanding of what you’re meant to do and then that would affect me. What I liked about Tweedy’s book was it gave you techniques to spark something, like doing a crossword.

Listening is really important as well, to your material, and others’ material. That’s how I learned as a kid. I had no musical training; I’d listen to songs I liked and try to work out how to do it. I’m still trying to do that!

If you stop being a music fan, that impacts your writing.

Yeah, who are you going to rip off if you don’t keep listening to music!

On that point, what are you listening to right now?

I seem to be in a very deep rabbit hole, and not just for weeks, for years, listening to female, sad indie artists like Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Tomberlin, all that kind of stuff. I wonder if it’s all the years of sad guys doing singer-songwriter stuff, and I found most it really dull, and when I heard Phoebe Bridgers’ first record and I thought this is way better than any songwriter record than I heard in years. That took me into the connection with so many people.

One I think that’s the best out of that, even though no one wants to be lumped together, even if they have done that themselves, is an English singer called Fenne Lily. She is outstanding, and I think she’s got a new album out soon that I’m really looking forward to. Her previous album BREACH is really, really excellent.

I’m looking forward to the new Daughter album, I quite like them. I seem to be drawn to women’s voices, all the time, I don’t know why. I don’t find that many male singers that interesting, but then again, there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t put a Wilco album on. That’s in me, that’s like having breakfast.

What I am really looking forward to, and this might be a sign of my age, but Everything but the Girl’s new material. When I first got into music, I really liked them and some people were sniffy when they made more dance-orientated music. What I liked about them when they did that was, with that sort of music, I find it hard to connect on an emotional level, but perhaps because of her voice, it was still emotive, and the three songs from the new album are really good. With a band like that, you wonder if they’ll get a new audience. 

Also, I’m going to see (at the time of the interview) Big Thief tomorrow, they are peerless. The standards they’ve reached over a consistent period, it never ceases to amaze me that the standard of their music is so high in everything they do. We saw them in the Barrowland last year, and it seems like no matter what they do, it turns to gold. That doesn’t last forever, but for now, I think they’re magic. Also, she [Adrianne Lenker] is so talented, such a great songwriter and musician.

The world for musicians and artists has changed so much since you started. Is there anything in the present day you like or are optimistic about?

I don’t think about this very much. People say to me you should apply for funding to get this record made, and I’ve never applied for funding in my life, it’s not in my nature, it’s maybe the way I was brought up. Then again, the reality is, I’ll probably have to, there is no other option. The whole thing with streaming, it’s difficult. It’s good that anyone can put anything up, you don’t need to be signed to anyone to potentially get a global audience. But you can’t make real money that way, I just don’t know if it’s any better or worse. I’ve no real experience of making it in the music industry, but I imagine the benefits are anyone can make music, and make it available to anyone quickly.

Of course, unless you’re a global superstar, you’re unlikely to make money from your recorded music, and that’s a big change. I thought when I was growing up, you could look at bands playing and touring at even a King Tuts level who could make enough money to survive and then make their next record.

Streaming isn’t going to disappear, so there has to be a way to pay artists properly for their recorded music. Live music is resurgent but again, that feels like that’s for the superstars, and the smaller bands are struggling. I saw Sophie Jamieson last month, her album, Choosing, is on Bella Union, the album got great reviews and I really like it. It was a Friday night in The Hug & Pint and honestly, if you took away the friends of the support artist, there would have been about five of us who paid in.

You read the reviews before you go and you think, this is going to be busy or sold out, The Hug & Pint isn’t massive, and then you have that crowd. How can that be sustainable for any length of time?

What’s the aim or ambition for Upturned Boats, short-term and long-term?

In terms of recording, I decided to book us into a studio for a day’s worth of recording. We did two songs, but they were so good and the day went so well, I thought ‘Imagine if we had a week in here’. We need to think about that but I’d imagine we’ll self-release one of those to get something out there, show our name and all that.

I’ve found it challenging to get gigs, maybe it’s age, maybe folk think we’re crap, so the idea is to release something from that, and try and do more recording and get an album. We have enough songs for that.

We have another gig in June with Modern Studies and Hank Tree. There are members of those bands in our band, so we’re going to do a gig together. That’s going to be in The Old Hairdressers on Thursday 15th June. Modern Studies will be the headliners, and to me, it’s a good bill that should work quite well. There’s nothing else planned but we hope to do more gigs, get some support slots, and more recording, try and build an audience, that’s our plan.
Upturned Boats play The 13th Note on Friday 21st April and The Old Hairdressers on Thursday 15th June.

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